The place of tradition in Christianity is fraught with many complexities and excesses. For some, tradition is seen as a major problem, and great effort is expended in the attempt to undermine and upend tradition wherever it may be found. For others, tradition is the major good, and great effort is expended in the attempt to defend the tradition and uphold it no matter the cost or consequence. Meanwhile, those who seek to undermine one tradition most often end up creating another, and many who seek to defend a tradition end up creating something quite new and different in the process.
Tradition is both commended and critiqued in the pages of the New Testament. Jesus excoriates the Pharisees for having set aside the commandment of God for the sake of their traditions (Matthew 15:1-9, Mark 7:3-13). Paul warned the Christians of Colossae about those who would ensnare them through the traditions of men (Colossians 2:8). And yet Paul commends the Christians in Corinth for holding fast to the traditions which he delivered to them (1 Corinthians 11:2, 23-26), and warned the Christians in Thessalonica about those who did not walk after the tradition they had learned from him (2 Thessalonians 3:6).
A tradition is simply something handed down over time. Traditions are not inherently good or bad; they can be used to glorify God or they can be used in ways contrary to His purposes. Such is why Scripture commends and critiques tradition: they will, by necessity, exist, and so the question becomes how we will use them.
In Christianity especially tradition serves, in many respects, like an anchor. A boat’s anchor provides grounding: its weight makes sure that the boat will not move very far once the anchor is cast. For the past two thousand years, for better and for worse, tradition has served a similar purpose for Christianity. We do well to consider how tradition as an anchor can be beneficial and useful for us in our faith.
Above all things Christianity is the story of the life, death, resurrection, lordship, and imminent return of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Son of God. Christians believe Jesus was a real person who lived in the first century and whose life was witnessed by the Jews of that time and especially His followers the disciples. The twelve Apostles were given a very specific and unique calling to bear witness to what they saw, heard, and experienced regarding Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 1:1-11, 21-26, 4:20, 1 John 1:1-4). Their witness was written and preserved in what we now deem the New Testament so we can also hear it and believe that Jesus is the Christ (John 20:30-31). Over the intervening years no one else has been able to take on a similar role; what more could be revealed about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection than had already been revealed by those who saw it? In this way all that we can know about Jesus has been handed down to us from the original Apostolic witness; they are the traditions about who Jesus is and what Jesus did.
Christianity has existed ever since; many very intelligent and wise people have devoted their lives to the study of Jesus’ life and the practice of the faith in His name. There has been no lack of argument over many of the questions posed by Jesus’ life and claims. Christians have attempted to work through these arguments and difficulties, and while many of their answers may not be satisfying, the discussion overall provides an important frame of reference. If any kind of doctrine or practice is promoted which falls outside of these norms, such is a strong indicator that heresy is being advanced.
Granted, nothing is right or wrong merely because it adheres to the consensus view of many in Christendom over time. Nevertheless, we cannot imagine that we can come to an understanding of Jesus as revealed in the New Testament without any regard to these issues and questions that have pervaded Christianity ever since. At the very least we will have to apply the lessons and principles we learn from the New Testament to such issues so as to know how we can most faithfully follow Jesus.
Yet this tradition does provide important benefits; it means that we can look back over a wide range of people from different times and places and get a more holistic understanding of the range of interpretations of the Biblical text and its applications. This tradition also imposes an important set of boundaries on any given discussion; while it remains possible that we may have come across something which was missed by all those who have come before us, the odds of that are vanishingly remote. If we believe we have discovered something which was unknown to all who came before us, such should serve more as a warning than as an encouragement, especially when culture is a strong driver or opponent of such a view.
As Christians we must search the Scriptures to see what things are so; nothing should be accepted just because people in the past believed it to be true. On the other hand, everything we believe should have some antecedent and corollary somewhere in the Christian tradition, otherwise our belief proves to be a novelty, and how can it be argued that such a novelty really derives from authentic apostolic Christian faith and practice? Traditions can prove to be hindrances, and yet they also have their place. We do well to remain grounded in the faith in Christ delivered to us by the Apostles!
Ethan R. Longhenry