Such an interesting word for Christians. It seems innocent enough, but as it turns out there are very many ways it can be used, few of which are entirely free of controversy. Take, for example, the following statements:
“You’re just follow human tradition instead of the Bible!”
“Tradition tells us that John died on the isle of Patmos under house arrest.”
“Our youth Christmas carolling is an important tradition in our church.”
“The traditional view of marriage is increasingly under fire in the popular media.”
These four statements all use “tradition” very differently, and each of these could be controversial, though not all to the same extent. But this just goes to show how not straightforward understanding the proper role of tradition in the Church can be.
What Do We Mean by “Tradition?”
First off, let’s break down a few basic kinds of tradition. These aren’t technical names, just convenient labels to explain my points. Here are the broad categories:
- There are local traditions, which are basically unique things that a congregation does and has done for some time. These may or may not come from the Bible in any meaningful sense. But someone started doing it in the past, and now people continue. This kind of tradition can be useful and pleasant, but since it is uniquely local and not tied to fundamental beliefs, they can be removed when necessary or desirable. They should not be debated to the point of remotely serious division.
- Next are confessional traditions. These are a step above local traditions that come from common denominational ties. They consist of a group of shared beliefs and practices more sharply refined, and are usually outlined in confessional documents (e.g. the Westminster Confession of Faith) or other large written statements (e.g. The Baptist Faith and Message). These traditions determine the differences between denominations, so if you want to change or challenge these traditions, you may find yourself seeking a new church.
- Historic traditions make up the next group. These are beliefs and practices that have always been common or dominant in the Church, but aren’t spelled out in most creeds or confessions, and were never very controversial in the past. The “traditional view of marriage” falls into this category, as does the belief in the future, physical new earth. When these are challenged, the waters are always a little more murky. Some are more important than others, and it takes serious debate to sort out how to handle what.
- Finally, there are orthodox traditions or creedal traditions. These are essential beliefs shared by all Christianity, and are mostly written down in some of the early creeds like the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athansian Creed, among some other documents. The Trinity, the relationship between Jesus’ two natures, and similar matters are examples. This kind of a tradition tends to define the boundaries of the Christian faith. Within these boundaries, we assume people to be true followers of Jesus. Outside these boundaries are heresy and false religion.
Now, we as Christians all agree that Scripture is in some way an authority over what we believe. But how does that relate to things in these kinds of traditions, especially the last group? There are three major approaches within Christianity. I want to lay these out simply with the analogy of streams of water.
Sola Scriptura: A Protestant View
One of the most divisive points in the Protestant Reformation, as well as the major wall separating Catholics and Protestants on many issues, is the doctrine of sola Scriptura, or “Scripture alone.” This doctrine states that God speaks His final authoritative word in Scripture and nowhere else. (Technically, this word appears first in God’s words and deeds in history, climaxing in Jesus, and from that point fills Scripture, but I digress.)
This does not mean that it’s impossible to find God’s truth outside of the Bible’s pages. If I read the Bible and then tell you what I read, you would still be getting God’s truth, only through my words. Of course, that’s only the case if I tell you accurately what I read. If I forgot, misinterpreted, or otherwise corrupted something I passed on to you you’d need to go back to Scripture yourself to fix it.
So for my first stream analogy, imagine there is a single stream running down a mountain. This stream is Scripture, and the water source in the mountain is God’s revelation of Himself. The water itself is truth. If you need some water, you can go to the stream and find it.
But suppose that I fill a bucket up with water from this stream and bring it back to my village. Now we all have access to the water from my bucket. This represents the role of tradition. Truth from Scripture is collected into small “buckets” of tradition so that we can get it it more easily.
This bucket, though, has limitations. It’s not at all impossible that it could get polluted or corrupted after some time. We might get some water out of it one day and realize that it’s contaminated. Or after a while it might simply not be as fresh and cool, making it less satisfying for the thirsty man. In either of these cases we’d need to go back to the stream to get fresh, pure water to replace the contaminated water in our bucket. Likewise, sometimes we might find that our traditions of different kinds have gone astray, or at least lost some of their original power due to familiarity and changing cultures or languages. In this case we need to dig back into Scripture to refresh our knowledge of God.
Dei Verbum: A Catholic View
The Catholic view of Scripture and tradition was laid out most clearly in a document entitled Dei Verbum (Latin for “Word of God”) during the Second Vatican Council. While it has existed for much, much longer than that, this is the most up-to-date and definitive explanation. According to Catholic theology, both Scripture and “sacred Tradition” come from God’s same self-revelation to the prophets and apostles. God gave His word to them as a large body of inspired truth, some of which came down to us in the Bible and some of which came down to us by teaching and preaching ministries of the Church.
To adapt the stream analogy for the Catholic view, imagine two streams, for Scripture and sacred Tradition, going down a mountain. Both of them have their head in the same water source, God’s revelation. But the streams take different paths and are different sizes. By the time they reach the bottom of the mountain, they flow into the same lake, the full teaching of the Church.
If anyone wants a drink of water, where should he go? He can go to either of the streams, or the lake they both flow into. Either way he will be getting the same water of God’s truth. But the stream of Tradition is larger, and the combined lake larger still. This is where it is simplest and preferred to get your water.
It’s important to note that in this view, Scripture and sacred Tradition aren’t two totally different things. They both flow from the same word from God and flow into the same body of Church teaching. Therefore to Catholics, if something isn’t in one stream, such as Scripture, but it is in the other, you are still completely justified in believing it and indeed should. This is very much the case with certain doctrines such as the Assumption of Mary (that Mary was taken body and soul to heaven either just before or just after death) or the practice of praying to the saints, both of which come out of the Tradition and not (despite people occasionally saying otherwise) from Scripture itself.
Regula Fidei: An Orthodox View
Technically, regula fidei, “rule of faith,” is not a phrase unique to the Eastern Orthodox Church. But it seems the easiest way to sum them up. For the Orthodox, Scripture is part of a larger Holy Tradition. This Holy Tradition includes Scripture along with the early creeds and ecumenical councils, the received liturgy, and to some degree the writings of the early church fathers.
In Orthodoxy, this makes Scripture and the other parts of Tradition in an interdependent relationship. They all work together and complement other to make of the whole teaching of the Apostles passed down within the Church. Whereas Protestants put Scripture above tradition, and Catholics tend to put Scripture beneath Tradition, Orthodoxy places Scripture within Tradition. Of course, there is a spectrum like with everything else. Some versions of sola Scriptura, those which are also called prima Scriptura, are basically the same as some looser versions of the Orthodox view.
For the streams analogy, imagine again God’s revelation as the water source on top of the mountain. In this case there is a large stream flowing out from it, which is the Holy Tradition. This stream has many smaller branches coming in and out, including Scripture as a major branch, but also branches for Eucharist liturgies, creeds, etc. Yet these all come together again and again as one stream full of the water of truth.