A Theology of Tradition

Study notes 1997
Tags: Tradition; Religious communication; Truth; Christian life; Ministry; Culture
Excerpted from Tradition: Theory & Application

The Concept of Tradition

The biblical concept of tradition is broad, including references to the following:

  • Religious customs (Mt 15.2; Mk 7.2-3; Acts 6.14; 1 Cor 11.2; Gal 1.13-14; 2 Thess 3.6-10)
  • Spiritual truth (Rom 6.17; 2 Thess 2.15; 2 Pet 2.21; Jude 3)
  • Oral history, especially pertaining to Christ’s life and ministry (Lk 1.1-2; 1 Cor 11.23-25)
  • Social customs and beliefs as a whole (Col 2.8; 1 Pet 1.18)
  • Official pronouncements (Acts 16.4)

An Assessment of Tradition

Obviously, the word tradition can be used to describe a number of social phenomena—some good, some bad. Tradition is not inherently a spiritual phenomenon, but a cultural one. According to a common dictionary, tradition denotes “cultural continuity in social attitudes and institutions.” Given the dynamic nature of culture, it follows that, over time, traditions will not remain equally effective at accomplishing their original intent. Hence, the preservation of a social form does not ensure continued accomplishment of primal purpose.

Traditions often emerge as pragmatic means to an end rather than as traditions per se. Over time, however, the social form becomes cemented with or without regard for its original purpose. Cultural change can then render the tradition trivial or obsolete. This process is no less true of religious traditions than of other cultural forms. Church history is replete with examples of cultural norms that were perpetuated far beyond the memory of their earliest meaning. Indeed, given the rapid rate at which cultures evolve, religious traditions can become counterproductive rather quickly.

Churches and Christians have two options: First, they can deny the relative, pragmatic nature of cultural forms and attempt to remain constant in the face of change. On the other hand, they can recognize the dynamic character of culture and attempt to adapt to it in a positive manner. It is my belief that the former leads to trivialization and loss of relevance and influence. However, the latter poses difficult challenges as well, most notably the danger of losing the uniqueness of the Christian identity in the face of excessive cultural contextualization.

So what are the bounds within which Christians may legitimately yield to culture? Actually, the Scriptures are quite clear on the issue. There are three essential principles that the Christian must observe. First, traditions should uphold the clear commands of the Word of God (Mt 15.3-6; Mk 7.9-13). Conversely, no tradition should be tolerated which hinders obedience to biblical commands. Second, traditions should exalt Christ (Col 2.8; 1 Pet 1.18-19). Accordingly, no tradition should be allowed which diminishes the Lord’s person or work. Third, traditions should aid the furtherance of the gospel (Gal 1.11-14; 2 Thess 2.13-15). Again, any form which obstructs the cause of evangelism should be rejected.

In conclusion, churches are under divine obligation to make honest assessment of their practices in the light of the biblical principles described above. It is not to be expected that every church will reach the same conclusions, for each one operates in a somewhat unique cultural medium. Where churches do differ in judgment, they will answer (as in all things) to the Lord. This prescription safeguards the essentials—the Scriptures, Christ, and the gospel—while protecting the autonomy of each local assembly to make choices in non-essential areas.