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In Praise of Tradition

Question: Protestants are not being totally honest when they say they don't have traditions that are not biblically based, like they accuse the Roman Catholic Church of having. Take for example some denominations that do not drink alcohol or dance. The bible is full of dancing (King David) and Christ's first miracle was turning water into wine at Cana. And it was wine he used, not grape juice, at the last supper. So those are just two man-made traditions of some Protestant churches.

Answer: You are right. Those Protestants who claim to have no traditions (biblical or not) are misguided. We have received from our forefathers the evangelical teachings and practices we cherish. That heritage forms our traditions!

Protestants often view tradition with a jaundiced eye, undoubtedly because they are aware of the disastrous effect of human tradition on the Gospel message. Yet the concept of “tradition” per se is perfectly acceptable. Tradition simply means teachings and practices transmitted by example, verbal and written means. That is the way we share our faith (through sermons, books, personal witness and other means) with one another, and with the next generation of Christians. Now of course, traditions may be true or false; traditions may have their origin in God or in the human mind. The Bible uses the word tradition to describe both false teachings (Mark 7:9; Colossians 2:8; 1 Peter 1:18) and true teaching (2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6). So, the issue is not whether we have traditions - we all have - but whether those traditions are in accordance to God’s Word or not.

Yes, we have traditions - most are biblical, while others have no real biblical support. We do not pretend that we have arrived yet. By God’s grace we believe the essential doctrines of Christianity and worship God with a clear conscience; yet we are conscious of our weaknesses and immaturity, and we strive to renew and reform ourselves in the light of the Word of God.

Here lies the fundamental difference between the Roman and the Protestant attitude to tradition. We do not consider a particular doctrine as divinely revealed simply because it was transmitted from antiquity. Error, as well as truth, is passed on from generation to the next. There must be a more reliable standard to evaluate and confirm the truthfulness of our beliefs.

Protestants follow the example of Christ and His apostles, who constantly appealed to the written Scriptures to prove their teaching. Moreover, Jesus also challenged the traditions of His day by appealing to Scripture. For example, in Mark 7, Jesus contrasted the Scriptures (“For Moses said”) with the Jewish teaching (“but ye say”) which they had received from their forefathers. And having shown that these traditions were contrary to the Scriptures, He rejected and dismissed them as “doctrines of men.”

You mentioned two traditions in some Protestant churches - complete abstinence from alcohol and dance. It’s worth assessing these two regulations by the infallible and ultimate rule. While the Bible warns about the abuse of excessive wine - who knows how many lives and families are ruined by alcohol? - yet, we should ask whether the Bible allows for a legitimate use of wine (Psalm 104:15, John 2:9). Similarly, dance and songs with filthy lyrics are used in clubs to promote lust and sexual immorality - and this is what Christian pastors are concerned about for young Christians - yet, again, does the Bible absolutely forbid dancing on every occasion? (Psalm 150:4; Ecclesiastes 3:4: Luke 15:25).

Evangelical churches should constantly examine their teaching and practices - i.e. their traditions - in the light of the Word, and we should be courageous enough to change where necessary.

Roman Catholic “Sacred Tradition” cannot be checked by the Scriptures, because it is considered to be of equal value to the written Word of God. “Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence” (Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 9). In the Roman religion, “Tradition” is uncorrectable and unaccountable. It is raised to the level of Holy Scripture, thus opening wide the door to all sorts of errors.

We place the Bible on top. We value tradition, but it is subordinate to the Bible. We believe and practice those traditions which are taught in God’s Word, and we pass them on to the next generation. But we reject those traditions which find their origin in human teaching rather than the Word of God.

© Dr Joseph Mizzi