Regardless of denomination, all Christians, conscious of it or not, adhere to certain traditions. These can take the form of more formal, well-known traditions such as reciting the Lord’s Payer during service, or they can be less obvious traditions such as attending a Sunday morning service at 11:00 a.m. Some congregations use a particular translation of the Bible, host a pot-luck meal the second Sunday of each month, or even conduct small-groups on Tuesday evenings.
It may not be customary to consider these “traditions,” but they are. Consider them from the angle of a question addressed to your child: “What was your upbringing like?” These common practices are created to fulfill a certain congregation’s mission. For example, if the church wants to reach a younger crowd, they may construct a more contemporary service for Sunday mornings, or start a service on Saturday evening. Similarly, if a church wants its congregants to become more familiar with the creeds of the early church, they may begin reciting them together during their service and establish a new class on church history.
As it relates to the Scriptures, how, for example, is a believer to minister to the orphan and widow (cf. James 1:27)? There is very little practical direction to this command. This is where Tradition plays its role. A congregation may create a ministry of some kind specially geared to house orphans. Within this ministry, certain things will be put in place in order to facilitate the fulfilling of this commandment. Over time, these practical applications of God’s instructions may need to be adjusted in order to continue to meet the needs of the orphans and the ultimate purpose of the ministry. The adjustment of the original tradition is needed, while at the same time the principle to take care of the orphans and widows continues to be maintained.
Even those who maintain anti-tradition stances are in reality only establishing new traditions to replace those they have discarded.
It must be remembered that Tradition is a tool that exists to serve the principle to maintain obedience to our Father, God. Whenever we begin to keep traditions for tradition’s sake, we have allowed that which exists to serve to become that which we serve, and a sense of bondage inevitably results—a new law is created. This is how Tradition has acquired negative connotations. Tradition is good; Tradition is needed. But, when Tradition becomes Law, danger is close at hand—discernment, community, and the Spirit of God keep the balance—which is another way of expressing the application of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition.
“Nobody can claim to be detached from traditions. In fact, one sure way to be swallowed up by traditionalism is to think that one is immune to it. . . . The question, then, is not whether we have traditions, but whether our traditions conflict with the only absolute standard in these matters: Holy Scripture.”
– J.I. Packer, “The Comfort of Conservatism” in Power Religion, ed. Michael Horton (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), p.p. 286-87
* hat-tip to Joel Usina for his work on this post.
Joshua A. Berman, “Introduction,” The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch, Umberto Cassuto (Jerusalem: Shalem Press, 2006), XX.