After years of creating very detailed Toys R Us Wish Lists, I can count on one hand the number of Christmas gifts that I remember getting as a child. I remember being really excited about opening and playing with them. I remember praying to God for patience when I couldn’t sleep on Christmas Eve—true story. But what I remember most about my childhood Christmases are the traditions that formed within our family along the way.
Putting up the tree together.
Going to the midnight church service on Christmas Eve.
Waking up mom and dad at 5 am on Christmas morning.
Reading the story of Christ’s birth before opening presents.
Some of our traditions were passed along from previous generations. Others we just picked up over time. Regardless of how they were introduced, they shaped my experience and understanding of Christmas in a way that gifts never could.
Every family has their traditions, and church families are no exception.
Over centuries of Christendom, countless and varied traditions have arisen within the church. When it comes to theology, a tradition is any kind of teaching that has been handed down from generation to generation. Some of these teachings are recorded in the Bible. Some are found in other historical or religious texts. Still others have been passed down orally.
Each of the three major branches of the Christian church—Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Protestantism—have different traditions and different views regarding the role of tradition in a person’s faith. Needless to say, there’s a lot of discussion surrounding this topic, which leads me to today’s question.
What is the relationship between tradition and scripture? How does it play out practically?
I’ll be honest, I’ve been sitting on this question for a while. As somebody who has been surrounded by Protestant theology and influences for most of my Christian walk, I realize that my experience of church tradition has been much different from that of my Orthodox or Catholic counterparts. Aware of the limitations of my own experience, I’ve wondered how to address this question in a way that gives ear to those sitting on other sides of the table.
After doing some research and talking to people with more holistic knowledge on the subject, here are some of my thoughts on it.
All churches have traditions
Protestant church services come in many shapes and sizes, but generally speaking, they are thought of as less traditional than Orthodox or Catholic services. Both Orthodoxy and Catholicism are marked by ritual, liturgy, tradition and the utmost reverence to God. They gather in ornate sanctuaries, kiss icons of Jesus and other saints, and sing beautiful hymns that have been passed down over generations.
When we think about tradition in our churches, our minds often go straight to these types of traditions. Candles. Incense. Recited prayers. Though these traditions don’t play as prominent of a role in Protestant churches, it’s important to note that tradition is not limited to Orthodoxy and Catholicism.
Gathering on a Sunday morning. Following an order of worship. Reading Scripture corporately. Celebrating Advent. Revering Christ as the risen Lord. Partaking in communion. Acknowledging the liturgical calendar.
These are all traditions that span across all of the three main branches of the Christian church. They are things that we do again and again to express our commitment to and affinity towards the one true God. Many of them are beautiful and sacred. They have a way of inviting us into a greater sense of reverence and awe towards our God.
Your view of tradition is shaped by your view of Scripture
Many of the church traditions that are absent in Protestant worship are ones that are not explicitly mentioned in the Bible. Often, they are historical stories that have been passed down for many centuries and have ultimately been incorporated into the life of the church. While those who have embraced these traditions believe that their historical nature gives them weight, many Protestants question their authority because they are not rooted in God’s Word.
Herein lies the tension of today’s question.
If I, like many Protestant Christians, hold firmly to the belief that the Holy Scriptures are God’s perfect and complete revelation of His Truth, then I’ll likely conclude that extra-biblical stories and traditions should not be put in a place of prominence in my faith. That doesn’t mean that I would reject tradition altogether, as I mentioned before that all churches have them. It simply means that when a certain tradition is in conflict with a truth that has been revealed in Scripture, I would hold Scripture in higher regard than the tradition in question. This is the view that I align with.
If I, like many Orthodox Christians, hold firmly to the belief that Holy Tradition is a means by which “to return to the true message of Scripture and to understand its divine meaning,” than I give tradition more authority in my personal theology (Zell par. 22). In other words, if I believe that Scripture needs the help of tradition in order to be rightly interpreted and experienced, then yielding to extra-biblical teachings and stories is not only permissible, but necessary within my theological framework. Catholics share this belief in the need for both Scripture and tradition in one’s experience of their faith.
The authority of tradition in your theology is largely contingent upon your beliefs regarding the authority of Scripture. If we’re not starting from the same view of Scripture, we can’t expect to land on the same view of tradition. There’s a clear link between the two.
We don't worship tradition. As important as it is, we don't worship Scripture. We worship Jesus.
Now that we’ve established what makes us different, let’s take a moment to remember what we have in common—namely, Jesus.
Whenever I’m wading through the many perspectives on deep theological questions like this, I have to step back and remind myself that Jesus is at the center of everything. He’s the reason why I even care enough to think about these questions. If I’m not careful, I might become so convinced of my own perspective that it becomes the cornerstone rather than a building block in my faith.
Doctrine is important, but it isn’t what binds us together. Jesus is.
Before He was arrested and ultimately crucified, Jesus prayed, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). At the very end of His earthly ministry, Jesus simply prays for His disciples to know Him, His Gospel, and His Father. He doesn’t pray that they would think all the right things at all the right times, but rather that they would be in right relationship with Him. Out of that relationship, their understanding of Him would remain righteous.
When we flip this upside down and let our doctrine dictate our knowledge of Him instead of the other way around, we run the risk of worshipping that doctrine instead of Jesus. In doing so, we end up with a very small view of God. One that we have created in our own image and that we somehow expect others to bow down to.
So now what?
Earlier this week, I did an interview with a Protestant pastor—more on that in my next post—who gave me this definition:
“To me, a God-fearing Christian is someone who is always willing to learn and always willing to adjust his beliefs based on his new understanding of Jesus and the Bible. Not being too rigid to think ‘Now I have the whole truth in my hand.’ The worst thing I can do is claim that God is in my hand. When I do this, He’s not God. I am.”
Regardless of where you stand on the question of tradition and Scripture, my prayer today is that each of us would explore our theological views with a posture of humility that implores us to keep Jesus on His throne of our hearts and minds.
Despite our differing views, there are people across all three branches of the church who know Jesus and worship Him as Lord. Truly knowing Him is the most important part of our theology.