Verbal Tradition can never be equal to Scriptures

The Roman Catholic Church holds "Sacred Tradition" to be co-equal with Scriptures. In fact, in practice, they have made Scriptures subservient to their traditions, by believing that Scriptures must be interpreted according to this "Sacred Tradition." In this view, Scriptures can never, of itself, speak with absolute authority. Once tradition has saddled it with a new or revised meaning, this interpretation is now authoritative, regardless of how much it may seem to contradict that which was clearly written in Scriptures.

This trend towards canonizing tradition does not belong only to the Roman Catholic Church. Many Protestant churches, all the while paying lip-service to the absolute authority of Scriptures, have elevated traditional practices to a place of honor that functionally obscures what the Bible actually teaches. Consider the church who teaches that all good believers need to be in church twice on Sunday and again on Wednesday. While extra fellowship is perhaps commendable and beneficial, this tradition of the last few centuries is still merely a tradition and does not make the participant any more or less spiritual than another. To teach that it does is to hold a tradition as being equivalent to Scriptures. Hosts of additional examples abound, some of which we have examined as separate topics, such as tithing and the use of alcoholic beverages. Regardless of the specific issue, the greater question remains. Is it right, or safe, to allow tradition to become equal to Scriptures?

I listened to a Roman Catholic priest argue that the apostle Paul taught that verbal tradition and written Scriptures were equally valid. The Bible passage he quoted, on the surface, even appeared to support this view (which we will examine later). If this is true, maybe the Protestant Reformation got it wrong? This is why it is so important to examine the totality of a matter, from all of Scripture, rather than isolated "proof texts". True, a proof text may accurately express what is taught in Scriptures, but only if it sums up all that is said on that subject throughout the whole. Unfortunately, this generation lives for the sound bite; if you can't summarize something in 30 seconds it's not worth saying. Bible study must never be reduced to such simplistic thinking.

It is important that we define tradition. The Greek word, so translated in the New Testament, is "Paradosis". While this word was commonly used to refer to Jewish Traditional Law, in distinction from God's Law as found in His Word, it is from a root word meaning "to deliver" or "to transmit." To try and give authority to their non-scriptural traditions and interpretations, the Pharisees and Jewish leaders taught that their traditions had been handed down from Moses in an unwritten form, namely verbally. In a strict sense, written Scriptures, verbal customs, and common practices are all by definition "traditions". The key question is whether or not they are all given equal authority. In the English language, the word "tradition" has a primary meaning of "the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation." But, showing how it has become more limited over time, most definitions continue on to say "especially by word of mouth or by practice: a story that has come down to us by popular tradition." Even though this "especially" reflects much of common usage, it does not negate the broader meaning, which includes all transmission of information from an earlier generation to a subsequent. This wider usage was the original meaning of the word when first brought into the English language (c. 1380) from the French "tradicion" which was derived from the Latin "traditionem (traditio)", each simply meaning "a handing down" or "a delivery".

Going back even farther, beginning with the Old Testament, the Hebrew word ("choq" or "chuqqah"), sometimes rendered as "tradition" in our English translations, also has a broader and even more common usage. It is likewise used to mean statute or decree, and is actually translated more times through Scriptures with one of these meanings. For this reason, the mere appearance of the word does not establish the level of authority.1 What remains in view throughout all usages in the Old Testament is where the statute, decree, or tradition, came from. If it was from God, given via a prophet, it was to be held absolutely.2 Why? Because it is the very word of God! Every prophet God used to proclaim His message and write His word was an authenticated prophet meeting the test God established for distinguishing true prophets from false.

In the New Testament, the apostles were equivalent, in authority, to the Old Testament prophets (see Luke 11:49; Ephesians 2:20; 2 Peter 3:2). They were likewise appointed (called/sent) by God (in the person of Jesus Christ) and authenticated as being His special messengers. When these men spoke, even as when the Old Testament prophets spoke, God's people were expected to listen and obey that which was handed down ("tradition" by definition). As such, the only time verbal tradition had absolute authority was when it was directly from an authenticated messenger of God. It goes without question that all that Jesus spoke verbally likewise commanded the same authority, as He is God!

There is no question that people who heard Jesus would have remember things he said and did that were not recorded in Scriptures, telling their friends, children, and even grandchildren of these things. These traditions, while potentially useful, were never to be considered authoritative for the long term. The very reason God had written Scriptures composed was to provide specifically for all generations following the apostles. In written form it could be accurately transmitted to all people, both in its original languages and in all subsequent languages of the world.

John 20:30-31 Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (NIV)

John 21:25 Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. (NIV)

Psalms 102:18 Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the Lord: (NIV)

Romans 15:4 For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (NIV)

1 Corinthians 10:11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. (NIV)

While it would be interesting to know some of the unrecorded events of Jesus' life, or even that of the apostles, what was recorded was with purpose. Everything necessary for salvation, and living a life of love toward God, is found in what is written; there is no need for anything else.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (NIV)

If the work of Scriptures is "thorough", why would we need any additional tradition? To say that anything else is necessary is to add an "almost" or "not quite" to 2 Timothy 3:17. Clearly, God's completion of the progressive revelation of His Scriptures showed that He had revealed all we needed to know until eternity. The foundation of the church is clearly defined in Scriptures...

Ephesians 2:19-20 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. (NIV)

The apostles and prophets laid the foundation for all who would come, as distinct and specially authenticated messengers of Jesus (God). All who would add verbal traditions, to that which has been assuredly communicated through Scriptures, try and build another foundation. Even though offered in the name of the prophets or apostles, the shaky and counterfeit nature of this new addition is clearly seen by comparison to the true.

Did the apostle Paul hold verbal tradition to be equal with written tradition? The answer is yes, but not in the way the Roman Catholic Church has distorted this. In complete harmony with the pattern found throughout the rest of Scriptures, Paul, as an apostle, demands obedience from his immediate audience to what he has both said and written. The focus, here, is not the mode of how he was teaching, but the authority by which he was doing so.

1 Corinthians 11:1-2 Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. 2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you. (NIV)

2 Thessalonians 2:13-15 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. (NIV)

2 Thessalonians 3:6 In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. (NIV)

For the record, the first of these passages, from Thessalonians, is the one the Roman Catholic priest was using to argue that the whole church is bound to follow their traditions. Of course, they hold themselves alone to be the repository of these professed "traditions of the apostles". Under this type of terminology they have modified Scriptural teachings, introduced new and fanciful doctrines nowhere taught in Scriptures, and even brought additional writings into their canon of Scriptures. Since they teach that written Scriptures has no higher authority than their traditions, they leave nowhere to appeal to correct their increasing doctrinal error.

There was no implication, whatsoever, in the Apostle Paul's statements that what he taught in person was any different from what he wrote. In fact you can find clear statement and example that his actions, words, and writings where all in agreement. It was only through the unity of these that God could show His apostles (and prophets before) to be the special messengers He intended them to be.

Take special note that the Bereans were commended for testing Paul's words against the written Scriptures.

Acts 17:11 Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (NIV)

Nothing Paul, or any Apostle taught, would be in opposition to that which God already had in His written word. If it was, it was to be rejected. This has not changed. God, in His wisdom, made sure that everything the church would need to know was recorded in written form, as Scriptures, to enable us to test all teachings, or even professed apostles, against it. Newly "discovered" or "revealed" tradition must be held to the same test. If it's found in, established by, and in harmony, with the written Word, it is valid, if not it must be rejected.4 This test leaves Roman Catholic verbal tradition wanting and by no means equal to written Scriptures.

Another presupposition, of especially the Roman Catholic system, is that the church hierarchy, or leadership, can guarantee that what is taught is true. These church leaders, and especially the Pope, claim that they are the repository of truth. Therefore the people are to simply accept their claim that the newly introduced verbal tradition is valid. This is in opposition to the pattern and word of Scripture, which shows us that the most dangerous of false teachings, manmade traditions, and unscriptural doctrines are most likely to arise in the church. Even the Old Testament church was predisposed to this problem...

Ezekiel 22:26-28 Her priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common; they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean; and they shut their eyes to the keeping of my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them. 27 Her officials within her are like wolves tearing their prey; they shed blood and kill people to make unjust gain. 28 Her prophets whitewash these deeds for them by false visions and lying divinations. They say, 'This is what the Sovereign Lord says'-when the Lord has not spoken. (NIV) [See also Zephaniah 3:3-4] 6

The symbol of false teachers, from within, being portrayed as ravenous wolves continues in the New Testament.

Matthew 7:15 "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves." (NIV)

Acts 20:28-31 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! (NIV)

When Jesus told us to look out for false prophets, His use of the word "prophets" carries a significant meaning. A prophet is one who professes to be speaking on behalf of God with authority. Could it be any clearer that this applies to our modern Popes? Including the one in Rome and the self-style Protestant Popes that lead many other churches? When the Roman Catholic Pope professes to be speaking God's word to the people, with infallible authority, Scripture demands that his words be tested to determine if he is a false prophet. The test cannot be a simple "trust me and trust my predecessors" it has to be based on an infallible, unchangeable, and truly trustworthy standard - God's written word.

Paul, likewise, warned that the savage wolves (false teachers) would arise from "your own number." To whom was he speaking? The overseers and shepherds of God's church. The need to test teaching does not diminish due to the preeminence or office of the teacher; in fact it increases due to this. Consider the law-bound listeners of Jesus' day. That very law of God required them to test the words of any who arose and taught with authority in God's name. It was God, himself, who required these people to test even Jesus' words against the Law, the prophets and the writings, which comprised the Old Testament canon. Of course, Jesus' words were in complete harmony with this earlier revelation.

Don't let any of these wolves in sheep's clothing make you feel guilty, for testing their words and holding them accountable against the absolute of Scriptures. If they deride you for doing so, test all the more. Whose words are more important? Theirs or that of God?

1 John 4:1 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (NIV)

If God himself, or a holy angel, was to speak directly to you, they would not condemn or question you for following the admonition of Scriptures to test their words. In fact, to be considered commendable as a "good and faithful" servant (i.e. Matthew 25:21, 23), it takes obedience to what God has required.

This final summary provides warning for all believers today. God's commands were transmitted faithfully by His prophets and apostles, either directly to their contemporary audience or in written form (as Scriptures) for posterity. Israel went astray when they elevated the commands of elders, teachers, or leaders, as if they were prophets.3 The church, too, goes astray when it elevates the commands of elders, teachers, or leaders, as if they are apostles.5

Colossians 2:8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. (NIV)

Test it all by the Word of God!

This chart helps to show how the message got from God to us.
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From God to Us: How we got the message.

End Notes

1. A rare example, of a loose Old Testament usage of the word tradition, more in keeping with the way it's commonly used these days, is found in 2nd Chronicles...

2 Chronicles 35:25 Jeremiah composed laments for Josiah, and to this day all the men and women singers commemorate Josiah in the laments. These became a tradition in Israel and are written in the Laments. (NIV)

In a similar fashion, in the New Testament, tradition is referred to in regards to the manner of Jesus' burial. Here the Greek word "ethos", typically translated as "custom", is used as a synonym to our general meaning of the word tradition. While Mosaic Law showed burial to be the accepted form and provided regulations concerning those coming in contact with the dead, it never prescribed specifics such as spices or strips of linen. These practices had developed over time and, while typical in their day, they were by no means authoritative for them or for us.

John 19:40 Taking Jesus' body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. (NIV)

When Stephen was on trial, in the book of Acts, the people appealed to the traditions of Moses, which the Pharisees claimed to have had transmitted to them verbally. This verbal tradition is more commonly referred to in Scriptures using the word directly translated "tradition", but here the word translated "customs" is employed, showing they too used them as synonymous.

2. Remembering that the same word, possibly translated "tradition," likewise can be rendered as "statute" or "decree, the following passages show how the message was considered mandatory when pronounced through the God-given authority of a prophet.

Deuteronomy 4:39-40 Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other. 40 Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the Lord your God gives you for all time. (NIV) [The authenticated prophet here was Moses. See also Deuteronomy 17:19]

In a chapter which speaks about God's word, David points to the authority of this written testimony given by the prophets...

Psalms 119:111-112 Your statutes are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart. 112 My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end. (NIV)

God holds his people accountable for not following His decrees. Again, the emphasis is that they are the authenticated decrees of a prophet as contained in Scripture or given directly to the people. Every proclamation that God wanted the people to follow on the long term He had written down in Scriptures. There was never any need for verbal traditions to try and command authority, or run the risk of distortion over time. Actually, it was when God's written words were modified by verbal traditions and customs (often influenced by the nations around them) that the people strayed. The authenticated prophet Ezekiel expressed this clearly...

Ezekiel 11:12 And you will know that I am the Lord, for you have not followed my decrees or kept my laws but have conformed to the standards of the nations around you." (NIV)

Though the prophets died, God's word was always accomplished. It was never dependant on the prophet, but solely on God. This was a primary reason why God had His revelation recorded, so that all could see that every detail of His word would come to pass - time not being a factor. While the words of the prophet could have been passed along as verbal tradition, claiming fulfillment of such verbal memories leaves the skeptic with an out of claiming the tradition changed over time. Skeptics still try to do so with the written word, but the evidence of accurate transmission (due to reverence as God's word) provides a faithful witness to God's statute and decrees.

Zechariah 1:4-6 Do not be like your forefathers, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says: 'Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.' But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the Lord. 5 Where are your forefathers now? And the prophets, do they live forever? 6 But did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your forefathers? (NIV)

Even if you call Scriptures written tradition, there is a big difference between that and verbal tradition. Verbal tradition is inherently unreliable because of its medium. Written tradition, from a true source (i.e. God and his authenticated prophets), has authority because of the One who gave it. Imagine for a moment that the government (an authority) issues a proclamation of a new law. What could have been a five page document is never written down, but is instead proclaimed to all existing police officers and government officials. Every new official and officer is to be taught it by those who first heard. It would not be a few years later, let alone generations, that disputes as to exactly what was said would arise. While all (or most) had good intent to uphold the verbal tradition, failure to do so rests in the very fact that it is verbal and not written. In contrast, the same law provided in a written form continues to be enforced, year after year (even generations). All are easily able to see what was demanded and its written existence, along with copies made of it (holding it in high esteem as an official document), continue to assure that it was what was intended.

3. Every time God's people followed after a tradition found in opposition to Scriptures it brought condemnation. Consider the traditions of the wicked kings, Omri and Ahab, which arose within the nation of Israel. They were not prophets and their tradition should never have been accepted as authoritative in regards to spiritual matters.

Micah 6:16 You have observed the statutes of Omri and all the practices of Ahab's house, and you have followed their traditions. Therefore I will give you over to ruin and your people to derision; you will bear the scorn of the nations." (NIV)

4. The Pharisees had elevated, or made authoritative, traditions of earlier rabbis, often in the name of Moses. Jesus showed that this so-called verbal tradition was not to be considered as it contracted God's written word. Again, the teachings of elders (even if they claim to have received the material from a prophet) should not have been taken as authoritative unless verifiable in Scriptures.

Matthew 15:1-9 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2 "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don't wash their hands before they eat!" 3 Jesus replied, "And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, 'Honor your father and mother' and 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' 5 But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,' 6 he is not to 'honor his father' with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: 8 "'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'" (NIV)

Mark 7:1-13 The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and 2 saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were "unclean," that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with 'unclean' hands?" 6 He replied, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: "'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.' 8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men." 9 And he said to them: "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' 11 But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban' (that is, a gift devoted to God), 12 then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that." (NIV)

The apostle Paul, prior to his conversion, had been zealous for these rabbinical traditions. Knowing the truth of Scriptures set Paul free. By God's standard, it didn't matter even if the high priest had taught it, when shown that it was false or in addition to God's word, the tradition was to be rejected.

Galatians 1:13-14 For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. (NIV)

5. Following customs, or traditions, established by lesser authorities than Scripture, is not automatically wrong. There are good traditions outside of Scriptures. The test has to be whether or not they contradict Scriptures, or attempt to add to Scriptures by being given equal authority. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah honored a legal custom of his day, pertaining to matters outside of those defined in Scriptures, without ascribing to it the authority of being an unchangeable edict of God. He followed the custom because it was common practice for his people and it in no way violated any statute of God's word.

Jeremiah 32:11 So I took the evidence of the purchase, both that which was sealed according to the law and custom, and that which was open: (KJV)

6. The Hebrew word sometimes translated "tradition", "decree" or "statute" - namely "chuqqah" - also is translated into English as a "custom". Again, this shows that the level of authority is not automatically established by mere usage of the word. Many English translators use the broader word "custom" when the passage referred practices of the pagan nations and peoples surrounding Israel. These "customs" are in fact "traditions" of those nations, traditions that led Israel into sin. Whether traditions, or customs, or decrees of a king or some other religious leader; they have no real authority. God continually warned against accepting any tradition not established in His word.

Leviticus 18:30 Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them. I am the Lord your God.'" (NIV)

Leviticus 20:23 You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them. (NIV)

Psalms 106:35-36, 40 but they mingled with the nations and adopted their customs. 36 They worshiped their idols, which became a snare to them. ... 40 Therefore the Lord was angry with his people and abhorred his inheritance. (NIV)

Notice this next passage as it emphasizes the cure for those would follow after traditions imported from the pagan world.

2 Kings 17:33-37 They worshiped the Lord, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought. 34 To this day they persist in their former practices. They neither worship the Lord nor adhere to the decrees and ordinances, the laws and commands that the Lord gave the descendants of Jacob, whom he named Israel. 35 When the Lord made a covenant with the Israelites, he commanded them: "Do not worship any other gods or bow down to them, serve them or sacrifice to them. 36 But the Lord, who brought you up out of Egypt with mighty power and outstretched arm, is the one you must worship. To him you shall bow down and to him offer sacrifices. 37 You must always be careful to keep the decrees and ordinances, the laws and commands he wrote for you. Do not worship other gods. (NIV)

The last word comes from God via the prophet Jeremiah... God's traditions, as given in His word, or traditions invented by man?

Jeremiah 10:3 For the customs of the peoples are worthless... (NIV)

(c) 2007 Brent MacDonald/LTM. Duplication is permitted as long as the source is cited.