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Topic: Faith

The Good and Bad Sides of Tradition

by Darrel Cline

The Bible is the only present verbal expression of the Word of God. Religious organizations (churches, para-church organizations, etc.) that do not found their teachings upon the Bible are faulty representations of God's true Church.

However, most churches depend heavily upon the traditional understanding of the Bible for their doctrinal content. Is this a healthy practice?

The answer to that depends upon the nature of this heavy dependence. If churches use tradition to reject the teaching of Scripture, or to distort the teaching of Scripture by adding foreign concepts to it, they have made tradition an authority for life. It was never intended to be that.

What is tradition? At its root, it is an opinion of men about the meaning of Scripture that gained a consensus among men and managed to maintain that consensus until enough time had passed to have made the opinion hard to unseat or even challenge.

Does God have any use for tradition? Let me give you an unambiguous answer: yes and no. Some people believe that God wouldn't let the universal church be led astray, so He guided the development of a consensus and promoted it in history so that the church could be kept from error. In this respect, God has no use for tradition for three very good reasons.

First, His own Word says that people are kept from error by recourse to His own Word--not to traditional opinions of men about that Word. So, it is a subtle form of heresy and idolatry to replace the study of His Word with a lazy acceptance of historical orthodoxy.

Second, His own Word says that tradition has the profound tendency to be exalted by men over His own Word with the result that the teaching of the Word is denied by tradition. So, it is a subtle elimination of truth to depend upon tradition.

And third, His own Word says that the Church will always be exposed to the danger of error in doctrine and/or practice. This means that God is not primarily concerned to build a hedge about His Church to protect it from such exposure. Exposure to heresy is good for the Church because it forces her to return to the Word of God and come to grips with what it teaches.

On the other hand, God does have a valid and good use for tradition. It serves Him as a cautionary guard to the student of the Bible. It is only an arrogant man who easily dismisses the traditionally established teachings of the Church. God's Word says there is safety in a multitude of counselors. But, it is also an arrogant man who refuses to submit to the Word of God just because traditional understanding denies what he has found that Word to say.

This points out the godly function of tradition: it serves as a caution to the student of the Bible to keep him from easily moving into territory that the Church has not yet recognized as legitimate. But, it was never intended by God to be an authority to keep the teaching of the Bible smothered. Men like tradition because it allows them to live in their comfort zones and not have to study for themselves. How comfortable are you?

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This is article #072.
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