On the Merits of Mere Traditions

Note: This article was originally posted December 21, 2005.

Traditions get picked on occasionally by Bible-believing people. I have done some of that picking myself and don’t regret it. Traditions are, after all, things handed down and honored by time, repetition, and the sharing of them by groups of people, and they are not necessarily rooted in any authoritative expression of the will of God.

But attitudes toward tradition tend to be polarized in an unedifying way. We have our unabashed tradition defenders and our unabashed tradition bashers. Those in the former group have rarely met a tradition they didn’t love, and those in the latter group feel quite the opposite. But perhaps both groups are missing something. Maybe the best course is to side with the tradition defenders in presuming traditions innocent until proven guilty but also to side with the bashers in aggressively putting traditions on trial.

Good reasons exist for believing that a mere tradition that is understood to be just that, can be a powerful force for good. Equally evident is the fact that those who run madly in the opposite direction of anything that looks or sounds old are doing themselves a great disservice.

What Mere Traditions Are Good for

One of the first things God did when He was forming a people for His name was command them to establish traditions.

You shall seek the place where the LORD your God chooses, out of all your tribes, to put His name for His dwelling place; and there you shall go… . and there you shall eat before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice in all to which you have put your hand, you and your households … (Deut. 12:5-7, NKJV)

Observe the month of Abib, and keep the Passover … in the place where the LORD chooses to put His name. You shall eat no leavened bread with it … (for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste), that you may remember the day in which you came out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life. (Deut. 16:1-3)

Granted, these were not

mere

traditions. They were traditions handed down by God Himself and designed to convey particular meanings in powerful and beautiful ways. Nonetheless, what God chose to hand down were special places, special days, and special activities to be carried out the same way over and over again by generation after generation. In theory, God could have said “keep this feast this way, in this place, this year, but next year I’ll have you do something else, something fresh and new and exciting.” But that isn’t what God chose.

The fact that God, in His wisdom, chose to give His people traditions implies something of value in traditions in general, even many of the mere traditions He has not handed down.

Good for Gluing

People often speak of traditions in the possessive, as in “this is our tradition.” They are claiming that what they do and how they do it (and perhaps when and where) is unlike what many others do. The result is that those who share in the tradition have something distinctive in common that not only sets them apart from others, but also binds them more closely and more tightly together with one another. Surely this was one of God’s intentions for the traditions He gave to Israel.

I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore distinguish between clean animals and unclean … you shall not make yourselves abominable by beast or by bird, or by any kind of living thing that creeps on the ground, which I have separated from you as unclean. And you shall be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be Mine. (Lev. 20:24-26)

Since God later declares all foods to be clean (Acts 10:15, possibly Mk 7:19b), God cannot have meant, in the Law, that there was something inherently unholy (or unhealthy) about these foods. Rather, God was giving His people distinctive traditions that would bind them together and set them apart.

This is also evident in God’s emphasis on location.

But when you cross over the Jordan and dwell in the land which the LORD your God is giving you … then there will be the place where the LORD your God chooses to make His name abide. There you shall bring all that I command you … (Deut. 12:10-11)

Only the holy things which you have, and your vowed offerings, you shall take and go to the place which the LORD chooses. (Deut. 12:26)

The law also established regular repetition of this coming together.

Three times a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Tabernacles … (Deut. 16:16)

The traditions we establish on our own do not have the authority or illustrative power of those God directly ordained for Israel, but they are often powerful tools for binding a group of people together and distinguishing them from others.

Provided a tradition does not hinder our pursuit of the revealed will of God, “this is something we do, it’s our tradition, and we like it” is really not a weak defense. A time-honored custom does not necessarily require a biblical mandate. Consequently, tradition bashers who consider the job done after pointing out that a tradition is not biblically prescribed are being a bit hasty. And tradition lovers who distort Scripture in an effort “biblicize” their tradition are taking on an unnecessary burden (not to mention the affront to God’s Word).

There is really no shame in saying of some things, “We do it this way because it’s part of who we are, and it’s not what others do.”

Good for Elevating

The best of mere traditions not only create a horizontal distance from “what everybody else does” but also create a vertical distance, an elevation above “what we ourselves usually do.” Nothing creates a deep awareness that “today is not like other days” as powerfully as a good tradition.

When Ezra and Nehemiah were restoring covenant living in Jerusalem and celebrating the rebuilt walls, they planned a series of public new beginnings. For one of these Nehemiah organized a large thanksgiving choir.

I brought the leaders of Judah up on the wall, and appointed two large thanksgiving choirs. One went to the right hand on the wall toward the Refuse Gate… . The other thanksgiving choir went the opposite way, and I was behind them with half of the people on the wall … (Neh 12:31-38)

The choirs were dramatic and new but also part of a grand tradition. David had assembled special choirs centuries before for bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem (1 Chron. 15:15), and Solomon used choirs and instruments on the occasion of the Temple dedication (2 Chron. 5:12-13). A major reason for choirs on these occasions was to elevate the events above the level of the ordinary by linking them to special events of the past.

The music the people heard at these times was both traditional in that sense and also unusual in that it could not have been music they heard every day. Everyday music could not communicate “this is a special day.”

On a smaller scale, God’s people had used choirs to elevate worship at the Tabernacle for many years even before David’s Ark celebration or Solomon’s Temple dedication (1 Chron. 6:31-32). While the music of the Levitical choirs would have been heard at least weekly on the Sabbaths, it is unlikely that people heard the Levitical choirs roaming the streets at mealtimes or out in the fields while they worked or at ordinary social gatherings of friends and families. The Levitical sound would have been an elevating tradition, a sound people heard only at certain times and places and which told them at an emotional level, “This is not every day; this is something special.”

To the best of my knowledge, God didn’t command Israel to use choirs in this way. It was mere tradition.

Perhaps what this says about our times is that we do not need a biblical defense of a particular musical style (or a biblical case against all other styles) to justify using worship music that is noticeably unlike what we hear every day. If we simply say ,”We aim to use music you do not hear in the shopping malls or on television or even on your MP3 players every day of the week,” we’re saying plenty. To put it another way, there is no disgrace in simply admitting “We want to elevate the occasion above the every-day, and we think what is not trendy does this best.”

Good for Anchoring

In the constantly and rapidly changing landscape of our information age, there is a lot to be said for something that has been around longer than last week.

This anchoring purpose is also apparent in the traditions God gave to Israel and some they formed on their own. In many of the passages I’ve already cited, there is more than a hint of interest in linking people solidly with their own history.

Observe the month of Abib … that you may remember … all the days of your life. (Deut. 16:1-3)

When your son asks you in time to come, saying, “What is the meaning of the testimonies, the statutes, and the judgments … ?” then you shall say to your son: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand …” (Deut. 6:20-21)

Joshua seems to have had the same goal. The tradition he was creating was a casual one, but still a tradition. Whenever people passed a certain way, they were expected to see, remember, and connect with their history.

And those twelve stones which they took out of the Jordan Joshua set up in Gilgal. Then he spoke to the children of Israel, saying: “When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘What are these stones?’ then you shall let your children know, saying, ‘Israel crossed over this Jordan on dry land …’” (Josh 4:20-22)

There is nothing wrong with defending some of the things we do and the ways we do them on the grounds that they are old ways, time-honored ways, traditions that connect us with those who have gone before and remind us that neither the human race nor God’s people began the day we were born.

Not Good for Doctrine

In the interest of balance, it’s important to review, at least briefly, what mere traditions are not good for. In short, they are not good for doctrine. Jesus rebuked the religious authorities of the day for this error.

“And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men- the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do. (Mark 7:7-8)

It isn’t clear which came first, teaching mere human traditions as doctrines or laying aside the actual instructions of God. But the two went hand in hand. So those of us who love some traditions, and especially those among us who love traditions in general, must be warned. We are always in danger of canonizing the traditions we love, propping them up and encasing them in what we hope is an impenetrable biblical shield, when in reality they are merely traditions.

When we do this, we twist beautiful, time-honored things into hideous idols. Let’s let mere traditions be mere traditions and love them (or not) for what they are.

Aaron BlumerAaron Blumer, SI’s site publisher, is a native of lower Michigan and a graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He, his wife, and their two children live in a small town in western Wisconsin, where he has pastored Grace Baptist Church (Boyceville, WI) since 2000. Prior to serving as a pastor, Aaron taught school in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and served in customer service and technical support for Unisys Corporation (Eagan, MN). He enjoys science fiction, music, and dabbling in software development.
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There are 7 Comments

allenjs's picture

Great point about traditions informing doctrine. I am surprised to see the point about idolatry in tradition coming from an avowed fundamentalist (I guess I don't know what those labels mean, anyway). Great site.

It is possible to point out the problems with "progressive" mentality without needing to argue for some retrograde backwards-looking form of "traditionalism". The best example of this line of argument, IMO, is Chesterton's "What's Wrong With the World" (which is one of his few non-religious books). In it, he describes how "progressives" tend to view any sort of change as being positive, and ultimately equate "progress" with deviance from the norm.

Chesterton argues that our future should be directed toward "renewal", or "reformation", which is anchored to eternal core principles; rather than "progress", which has no anchor.

The book was written prior to WWI, but amazingly applicable to today -- they even were sufferering from economic duress at the hands of financial oligarchs, and he discusses that.

JohnMatzko's picture

My view is that the Bible does not emphasize tradition so much as it emphasizes history, sometimes in ways that do not strike us strongly enough when we read the Scripture. For instance, in Deuteronomy 26, when the offering of the first fruits was made, the priest took the basket, and the person making the offering gave a historical response, five verses long, describing the Lord's deliverance of his people from Egypt. As for the memorial stones in Joshua 4, there is no tradition being established but rather a historical monument.

In Judges 11, where Jephthah defeats the Ammonites, eleven verses are devoted to introducing Jephthah and having him put in charge of the territory, three verses are given to defeating the Ammonites, nine verses are given to Jephthah’s tragic vow, and seventeen verses are given to Israel’s historical relationship to the Ammonites and the use of history to argue justification for ownership of the territory in question. You don’t even have to believe the Bible is anything more than a Near Eastern tale to note that the author has emphasized history over everything else in the story.

And this Jewish emphasis on history extends to the New Testament as well. When Stephen is accused of blaspheming God and is asked by the high priest to explain himself, he starts out with Abraham and then goes on to Joseph, Moses, and David. In Acts 13, Paul does a similar thing in his sermon in Antioch, spending a considerable amount of time with Moses and David before reaching John the Baptist and Christ.

allenjs's picture

@JohnMatzko -- I think that is a brilliant insight. Think about what it must have felt like to be one of the Hebrew slaves who made it out of Egypt. The overwhelming feeling of deliverance would dwarf everything else. The observance of Passover wasn't intended to be a source or ritualistic pride; it was meant to bring back the memory of how that deliverance felt. To make it real again.

Renee Suzanne's picture

I believe there is something positive about the stability factor and gluing factor of traditions. In a world where everything is changing and nothing can be counted on, it is nice to have an "order of service" and other traditions such as "Harvest Sunday" for all the reasons that Mr. Blumer gave. Family traditions and even bedtime rituals are considered a good thing by just about everyone , so why not church traditions for the same reasons? If everything in life is topsy-turvy, it is nice to know the offering will be before the special music and the special music will be before the preaching. Smile Naturally, it isn't wrong to "change it up" occasionally, but no need to be fearful of continuity either.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

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JohnMatzko wrote:
My view is that the Bible does not emphasize tradition so much as it emphasizes history
I think you raise some interesting questions here about the relationship between history and tradition. In my view there are two general kinds of traditions: handed down beliefs and handed down practices. They tend to come in pairs but not necessarily. I think history relates to both of these forms of tradition.
In the case of the monuments, these are forms of communication and create a tradition of the what to believe sort. So I guess I'm suggesting that history and tradition are inseparable if the history is communicated at all. A monument hands down a story.

Where history and traditions of practice come together is more complex. History is often the reason for the traditional practice (a.k.a. ritual, though that word makes alot of folks bristle). So with the feasts, for example, a ritual became the means for passing down the history. But then, over time, the rituals themselves acquire a history. "We've been doing this for two thousand years." When that happens the ritual has the potential to become doubly rich. It has it's original value as a communicator of a historical event and then also has the value of it's own history shared by those who have beein observing it together for centuries or millennia.
Personally, I see alot of beauty in that... as long we don't start thinking these things are Holy Writ.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

JohnMatzko's picture

I enjoy traditions, whether family traditions, church traditions, or national traditions. But I note in my concordance that of the twelve uses of the word "paradosis" (tradition) in the New Testament, eleven are negative. (The only positive example is 2 Thessalonians 2: 15.)

Biblical support for tradition can only be inferred, but biblical emphasis on the value of history (at least biblical history) is unequivocal. For instance, I Corinthians 10 discusses the Israelites who fell in the wilderness and notes in verse 11: “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” Notice that Paul is using inspired history to warn the Corinthians not to follow in the tradition of their forebears.

allenjs's picture

@JohnMatzko -- Yes! This is a very deep well. Traditions are fine, but history is another thing entirely. I would love to read anything you may have written more deeply on this subject; as in blogs, articles, or whatever.

I will note that Chris Nunn's book, "De La Mettrie's Ghost" makes a very convincing argument that memory of a personal historical narrative is a requirement for any concept of free will. Just as with the Biblical accounts, individuals choose to monumentalize certain parts of their history, and choose to "cover up" and "forget" other parts (like Noah's drunkenness), and the narrative that they preserve is what creates their freedom of choice. Individuals do this, and so does the entire race. Another interesting and very recent book on this topic, which is secular like Nunn's, is "Comeuppance" from Harvard University Press. It makes the same argument -- that the historical narrative is the deciding factor. Both books provide stunning support for Christianity, IMO.

I also think that this historical perspective is a key to understanding the story of Samson. A piece of hair which is never cut becomes an unbroken line that records an individual's entire history. It is the only body part with this characteristic, and this characteristic of hair would have been obvious even to ancient people. When this personal "history", so to speak, was preserved unbroken in accordance with God's will and in submissive obedience, Samson's personal will was able to overwhelm all challengers (but was somewhat misguided). Figuratively, the story teaches us quite a bit about the power inherent in group histories. And literally, the life of the literal Samson as recorded preserves those figurative lessons for posterity.

I believe that the Samson story (literal as it was), was meant to show us something figurative about history. But I believe the Haggadah (also literal) was meant to teach us a very specific history; one which overwhelms us and to which we owe our existence, and which continues to reappear in our lives today.