Why do we use church tradition as a source for our beliefs and practices and not the Bible alone as many Protestants claim is proper?

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Because the Bible commands us to be faithful to the tradition of the Apostles; and the Bible cannot be (nor does it claim to be) a self-sufficient source of Christian belief and practice. Furthermore all Christians rely on church tradition to some degree, whether they are aware of it or not. The real question, then, is not whether or not to rely on tradition of men or the Holy Tradition of the Apostles, which has been preserved and kept by the Church.

I. The Bible commands us to be faithful to the tradition of the Apostles.

  • 1 Corinthians 11:2-“Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.”
  • 1 Corinthians 15:3-“For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received.”
  • 2 Thessalonians 2:15-“Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.”
  • 2 Timothy 2:2-“And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
  • The Greek word for tradition is paradoses. It means literally something handed down or delivered over. In the New Testament texts quoted above it refers to the body of truth (including both beliefs and practices) that Jesus Christ delivered to the Apostles (both by His preaching and by His example), which they in turn delivered to the churches made up of those who believed in Jesus Christ through their teaching. This body of truth was at first solely oral tradition and only began to be written down twenty to sixty years later in the Gospels of the New Testament.

II. The Bible cannot be (nor does it claim to be) a self-sufficient source of Christian belief and practice.

  • The Bible does not contain all that Christ said and did. St. John the Evangelist wrote: “And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
  • The early Christians had nothing like the Bible as we know it today, yet it would be foolish to imagine that they were lacking in either beliefs or practices. Their faith was founded on the tradition which they had received from the Apostles and which they had faithfully preserved and kept just as St. Paul had directed.
  • The Bible can be understood differently by different people. If it were meant to have been self-sufficient, this would not be the case.
  • 2 Peter 1:20-“But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation”
  • 2 Peter 3:15, 16-“…our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.”
  • One of the most important roles of church tradition is to guide the interpretation of the Bible. St. Paul spoke of the Church itself as the “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

Conclusion: The Bible should be seen not as something outside of the Church’s tradition, but as part of it. It is the infallible Word of God, to be sure, and it gives us the very words of Christ and the Apostles. As such, it has a pre-eminent and chief place within the Church’s tradition and no other part of tradition can be isolated from the Church and its tradition, but rather must be contained within it and completed by it.

III. All Christians are dependent on church tradition to tell them which books make up the New Testament and which do not.

  • The Bible did not just float down out of heaven one day in a gold-edged, leather-bound, cross-referenced edition, all arranged and ready to go.
  • The canon of the New Testament, that is, the official list of books that make up its very contents, was determined by the tradition of the early Church.
  • Athanasius (around A.D. 350) was the first church leader to list as approved, “canonical” Scriptures the exact twenty-seven books we know today as the New Testament.
  • In some regions, the divine inspiration of the Book of Revelation, the Book of Hebrews, and a few of the other, shorter epistles was not fully accepted for several hundred years. In addition, a few churches considered some books as Scripture which later were rejected.
  • It was not until the Third Council of Carthage in A.D. 397 that this same list we know today was first officially adopted and began the process of being firmly accepted by all Christians.

a. All Christians are indebted to church tradition for many things which cannot be found in the Bible, but which they readily accept and would feel short-changed without.

  • Church tradition, for example, not the Bible, has established Sunday as the day of Christian worship, and this is accepted by virtually all Christians (except for the Seventh Day Adventists and a small number of other groups).
  • Christ commanded the Apostles to baptize, but the service for baptism is not described in the Bible. It is, however, found in the Church’s tradition. (The same thing can be said about the service of worship centering around the Lord’s Supper.)
  • Even such an accepted thing as a “traditional” Protestant wedding (“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today in the sight of God and these witnesses to join…”) is part of some church tradition. This service in not outlined in the Bible, and yet many Protestant Christians have a deep religious affection for it.

IV. The real question is not tradition or no tradition, but rather which tradition-the tradition of men or the Holy Tradition of the Apostles, which has been preserved and kept by the Church.

  • Jesus Christ strictly warned His disciples about the unholy tradition of men when He condemned the Pharisees, saying, “For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men-the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things…making the word of God of no effect” (Mark 7:8,13).
  • St. Paul warned likewise: “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).
  • The Holy Tradition of the Church, which in the earliest centuries was preserved by oral transmission, took written form in chiefly five ways:

The Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament.

The creeds and canons of the Ecumenical Councils.

The service books of the Church.

The writings of the Church Fathers.

The biographies of the saints.

In summary, it must be understood that tradition, like Scripture, cannot be something “dusty,” but must be alive. This is well phrased by one contemporary Orthodox monk in a booklet entitled Tradition in the Church:

“Holy tradition is the sum and substance, the fundamental and essential coherence and unity of the sacred books of the Bible. It is not a deposit of doctrine learned by heart, but a way of life, the way of holiness (Isaiah 35:8). It is not the sum of past experience, but a living experience of God’s action today. It is not a dead dependence on the past, but a living and total dependence on the Holy Spirit.”

Holy tradition is the footprint of the Holy Spirit in the history of the Church. It is the fulfilment of Christ’s promise to His disciples: “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26).

Father Marc Dunaway

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