By What Authority?

Reprinted with permission from As I See It. AISI is sent free to all who request it by writing to the editor at dkutilek@juno.com.

The question of “tradition” in the New Testament

The Bible declares its own Divine inspiration through the superintending work of the Holy Spirit over the authors:

Knowing this first that no prophetic utterance in Scripture comes from the [prophet’s] own motivation. For the prophetic utterance never came from human will, but while they were being carried along by the Holy Spirit, men spoke from God. (2 Pet. 1:20, 21; all translations are my own)

All Scripture is God-breathed. (2 Tim. 3:16a)

It likewise affirms its absolute truthfulness and freedom from factual error, Psalm 19:9b (among several places):

The fear of Yahweh is pure, standing for ever;

The judgments of Yahweh are true; they are completely just.

Furthermore, the Bible teaches its own all-sufficiency in matters of theological and spiritual truth, in short, its finality as the authoritative source of doctrinal beliefs and Christian practices. This is clearly the proper inference, the reasonable corollary of its Divine inspiration, as Paul plainly affirms:

All Scripture [literally, writing] is God-breathed, and [therefore] useful for doctrinal instruction, for conviction, for correction, for training in righteous conduct, so that the man of God may be completely equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16, 17)

Or, to restate it: the inspired Scriptures are an all-sufficient source for proper beliefs and conduct for every Christian. In short, they lack nothing necessary to becoming a Christian (“They are able to make you wise regarding salvation through faith in Messiah Jesus,” 2 Tim. 3:15) and growing to full Christian maturity. It might be said that they have “100% of the necessary daily requirements of all spiritual nutrients, vitamins and minerals.” They are, in a word, complete, and therefore the final and exclusive authoritative source of what Christians are supposed to believe and do. None other is necessary, or available.

And it is not by accident that Paul speaks of the “Scripture.” The Greek word here, graphe, means literally, “writing, thing written,” but in the NT it always has the technical, specialized meaning of Sacred Writing, that is Holy Scripture. No little emphasis is on the fact of its being written, rather than, say, spoken only. And being written, it exists in publicly consultable form, in definitive form, in essentially unalterable form and exists independent of any individual or religious entity. It is a defined, delineated, established, fixed and settled body of writings, not a wax-nosed, pliable, alterable and changing accretion of human traditions, opinions and perspectives, as is the case with oral Jewish traditions, ultimately reduced to writing in the Mishnah, Tosefta, the Talmuds and other related literature, or in the voluminous body of professing Christian literature of the late first and later centuries contained in the writings of the church “fathers,” the decrees of counsels, ancient creeds and such.

The belief in the written canonical Scriptures as the complete and final source of all Christian beliefs and practices is, in essence, the view popularized (but most assuredly not “fabricated”) at the time of the Reformation by the Latin phrase, sola scriptura. Paul himself frequently appealed to Scripture with the introductory phrase, “As it is written” (Rom. 1:17, and often) and urged upon the Corinthians “do not go beyond that which stands written,” (1 Cor. 4:6). These strongly support the claim that Paul viewed the teaching of the written, inspired Scriptures as authoritative and final.

Those of us today who in all sincerity profess our belief in the sola scriptura perspective on the Bible simultaneously deny that either oral or written extra-biblical traditions, whether Jewish or Christian, have any inherent authority for true doctrine or practice. Such traditions are of course of interest for historical and theological studies, and may be of value in the same way that the writings of later writers as Rashi and Maimonides, or Calvin, Luther, Wesley and Spurgeon may be—as attempts at analyzing or explaining the meaning or implications of Scripture. But these are only uninspired human writings, not infallible, God-breathed Scripture. At times, they may state or summarize very well the teaching of Scripture on some particular point or doctrine, but they will also at times be very much mistaken in their understanding and affirmations, and even in glaring contradiction to the plain teaching of the Bible. Such extra-biblical tradition, after all, comes from fallible, uninspired men, not from Holy Spirit-inspired prophets and apostles.

But some will counter that the very Bible we appeal to as our final, our sole authority, actually affirms the authority of oral teaching—“tradition”—in addition to the written Scripture, as in the following (and other) texts:

Now, brothers, I commend you for remembering all things about me, and that you are keeping the traditions just as I passed them on to you. (1 Cor. 11:2)

And therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold firmly the traditions which you were taught, whether by means of our oral instruction or written letter. (2 Thess. 2:15)

Now, we encourage you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly, and not in accordance with the tradition which you received from us. (2 Thess. 3:6)

That the NT does affirm the acceptance of “tradition” we do not deny. But a careful examination of the Biblical facts will cast the matter in a clear light, namely, that this “tradition” consisted in the oral teaching of the Apostles, not in addition to the written Scriptures, but in lieu of them, temporarily, until such time as they were written as inspired, canonical Scripture.

The word “tradition(s)” occurs about 10 times in the English translation of the NT. The corresponding Greek noun is paradosis (13 times in the Greek NT), literally, “something given over, handed over, or passed on from someone to someone else.”

The related and very common verb is paradidomi (121 times in the Greek NT), which means to “hand over, pass on, give over, deliver up, betray.” It is used both in a good sense (for example, Christ “handing over” His life for our salvation) and a bad sense (for example, Judas handing Jesus over to the authorities).

“Traditions” (or “things handed over”) is usually used in the NT in the negative sense of doctrines or practices of merely human origin which are very often in direct conflict with the teaching of the Bible. Such traditions are devoid of any authority or obligation.

Then those scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem come to Jesus and say, ‘Why do your followers violate the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands whenever they eat bread.’ But He answered and said to them, ‘Why do you violate the command of God because of your tradition?’ …. ‘You nullify the command of God because of your tradition.’ ” (Matt. 15:1-3, 6. See also Mark 7:3, 5, 8, 9)

Paul gives testimony of his own pre-conversion enslavement to tradition instead of Scripture, and warns his readers to beware of such:

And I was progressing in Judaism beyond many contemporaries in my own generation, being much more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. (Gal. 1:14)

Watch out lest someone take you captive through philosophy and empty deception, after the manner of human tradition, after the manner of the constituent elements of the word, and not after the manner of Christ. (Col. 2:8)

Acts 6:14 (“for we have heard him [Stephen] saying that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and he will change the customs which Moses passed on us”) is probably a reference to the rabbinic traditions, the so-called “oral law” (and not the written law of Moses), which the Jews pretend was also given to Moses at Sinai.

Moses received the Law from Sinai, and passed it on to Joshua, and Joshua [passed it on] to the elders, and the elders [passed it on] to the prophets, and the prophets passed it on to the men of the Great Synagogue. (The Mishnah, tractate Pirke Aboth [“The Sayings of the Fathers”] 1:1)

This is not a brief “chain of possession” and transmission for the written law or Torah, Genesis to Deuteronomy, but a fictional claim of the origin and transmission of extra-Biblical tradition, in hope of giving to the tradition an aura of antiquity and authority equal to Scripture.

Things “passed on” to us are authoritative and binding only if they come from God’s properly constituted authoritative teachers, namely, the apostles, either orally (at first), or in writing (as the NT was being composed), and now solely in the NT, our only source of genuinely apostolic teaching.

We also affirm, in this regard and based solely on Scripture, that the apostles had, and have, no successors in office. The apostolic requirements of being a follower of Jesus from the time of His immersion by John, and an eyewitness of the resurrected Christ (Acts 1:21, 22), necessarily left the world with no qualified candidates for apostleship by not later than the end of the first century. It was suitable to replace Judas, a false apostle, with a true one, Matthias (Acts 1:26); but when James son of Zebedee—the only other member of the Twelve whose death is recorded in the NT—was murdered by Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:1, 2; in AD 44), no apostolic council was convened and no successor was appointed. Those who claim to be the successors in office of the Apostles decidedly lack the necessary personal qualifications and are only usurpers and pretenders to office. And with no continuing office of Apostle, there can be no continuing stream of authoritative apostolic tradition. God’s revelation, God’s truth, is both complete and final in the written New Testament.

It is readily apparent that in every case in the NT where we are urged and commanded to obey “the traditions,” it has a clear, contextual reference to the teaching of the apostles, but never anyone else, and never to “Jewish” or “church” traditions:

Now, brothers, I commend you for remembering all things about me, and that you are keeping the traditions just as I passed them on to you. (1 Cor. 11:2)

For I received from the Lord that which I passed on to you (1 Cor. 11:23)

For I passed on to you as of first importance that which I also received (1 Cor. 15:3)

And therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold firmly the traditions which you were taught, whether by means of our oral instruction or written letter. (2 Thess. 2:15)

Now, we encourage you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly, and not in accordance with the tradition which you received from us. (2 Thess. 3:6)

To keep in mind the words that had been spoken before by the holy prophets, and the command of the Lord and Savior [spoken before] by your apostles. (2 Peter 3:2)

I had to write to you encouraging you to struggle vigorously for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints…. But you, dear ones, remember the words which had been spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Jude 3, 17)

Ever and always, it is only apostolic “traditions,” that is, doctrines and practices passed on to us by the apostles which we must receive, believe and do. And the only certainly apostolic teaching we have any access to today is that constituting the Holy Spirit-inspired writings of the New Testament.

We are to do as Paul exhorted Tim.: “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim. 2:2.)

The traditions of men count for relatively little; the contents of the Scripture count for everything.

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Ed Vasicek's picture

With the evangelical movement waltzing AWAY front the Bible and TOWARD religion and tradition ("silence" as a Christian discipline, for example), Douglas' article is much needed and well written.

Quote:
Those of us today who in all sincerity profess our belief in the sola scriptura perspective on the Bible simultaneously deny that either oral or written extra-biblical traditions, whether Jewish or Christian, have any inherent authority for true doctrine or practice. Such traditions are of course of interest for historical and theological studies, and may be of value in the same way that the writings of later writers as Rashi and Maimonides, or Calvin, Luther, Wesley and Spurgeon may be—as attempts at analyzing or explaining the meaning or implications of Scripture. But these are only uninspired human writings, not infallible, God-breathed Scripture.

Great point. Here is my extension of this thought.

Some Christians, it seems, put them at an "almost" authoritative viewpoint (kind of like, "who are you to disagree with such men; you must be arrogant"). This mentality, in effect, makes them nearly infallible authorities. Any Christian -- with many or NO credentials -- can challenge these Big Guns with the Word of God. We need to be careful not to make their teachings De Facto inspired doctrine. Even our doctrinal statements and creeds must be compared with the Word of God for accuracy.

"The Midrash Detective"

Brad Kelly's picture

Thoughtful article. Some questions I would have...

Quote:
Those of us today who in all sincerity profess our belief in the sola scriptura perspective on the Bible simultaneously deny that either oral or written extra-biblical traditions, whether Jewish or Christian, have any inherent authority for true doctrine or practice.

I wonder how valuable this statement is? How many "of us" have gone to a school or church that did/does not have extra-biblical rules or standards? Is this statement really workable in a real-life setting? You can say you believe the Bible is the only inherent authority for life and practice, but when you apply extra-biblical rules what are you doing?

Which leads to the much larger issue...that no one really believes and practices this proposition. It is well and good to say that tradition has no authority, or that Scripture is the only authority, but how can tradition and Scripture be so cleanly divided? Is there anyone who reads, interprets, and understands the Scripture outside of a tradition? Hence the statement that every heresy has its text. The great battles with Arianism were not over what the Bible said but what it meant. Can you speak of the Trinity in an orthodox manner without considering Augustine or the Cappadocians? The Bible isn't given fresh to every individual believer at conversion. Anyone seeking to make their theology new whole-cloth is more than likely going to end up being a rather poor tailor. Right?

Quote:
...the Biblical facts will cast the matter in a clear light, namely, that this “tradition” consisted in the oral teaching of the Apostles, not in addition to the written Scriptures, but in lieu of them, temporarily, until such time as they were written as inspired, canonical Scripture.

I am not really sure you can prove that from Scripture, and I think Scripture might even prove you wrong. 2 Thess. 2:15 certainly seems to equate the authority of written and spoken tradition as they are spoken of together. When Paul wrote, the church was in possession of at least two NT books, and he still appealed to oral tradition. You might say that the Thessalonian letters were early, but look again at 2 Timothy 2:2. Your choice of what to italicize is interesting. What prevents you from highlighting "heard"? In the last of Paul's letters he exhorts Timothy to pass down what he has "heard" not "read." Obviously this does not exclude Paul's written instruction, since this command itself was written. But I am not sure how you can be so dogmatic that it cuts off oral tradition. The appeal to the closing of the canon is necessary logically to your position, but is there a chapter and verse for it?

Quote:

It is readily apparent that in every case in the NT where we are urged and commanded to obey “the traditions,” it has a clear, contextual reference to the teaching of the apostles, but never anyone else, and never to “Jewish” or “church” traditions:

I am not sure what the point of this statement is. Aren't the apostles part of the church? In fact, isn't the church built on the apostles? So how can the apostles claim their own tradition apart from the church? Or how can the church claim its own tradition apart from the apostles? As for the assertion itself, what about 1 Corinthians 11:16- "If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God." (ESV) In this verse Paul does not use the word "tradition" but your own article quotes two verses in the context that do: 11:2 & 11:23. Clearly, 1 Cor. 11 is a "tradition" passage, and in verse 16 Paul appeals to a tradition of the churches...even if he does not use the word.

I guess I would like to know what you would want your reader to do because of your article. Sola scriptura. Okay. So what? Should I just clear out my book shelves? Stop buying commentaries? Stop reading the fathers? All this would probably give a certain joy to my wife. But is just me and my Bible and the Holy Spirit all I need? I don't have any reason to think you would believe any of those things, but what is the alternative? Can I rightly understand and apply the Scripture on my own apart from the church? If I can, what do I need the church for? If I can't, how does that fit into your paradigm?

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