Introduction: Christian Tradition
As I expressed in another blog post at the beginning of the year, traditions are incredibly important, or so God seems to indicate by the vast number of traditions He instituted in the Mosaic Law. In the Law, when instructing the Jewish people to follow certain traditions, He even explains why they are so important. For example, after instructing the Jews how to commemorate the Passover, the first solely Jewish tradition He introduced (see Footnote 1), He explained to the people through Moses, “And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ That you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, Who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when He smote the Egyptians, and delivered our families.’ […]” (Exodus 12:26-27) In other words, it was meant to remind them of God’s protection generally and in a historical event specifically. In many of the traditions God introduced, He gave specific explanations of why the Jews were to observe these traditions, and all of them are the same: to help them remember something really important God did, be it His rescue of them from slavery in Egypt or His providence in the desert, or any of dozens of other events He wished for them to commemorate.
Unfortunately, Evangelicals, by virtue of their very existence (that is, that they have always, for their existence of uncertain length thanks to the necessity of practicing in secret under the Catholic Church, thoroughly rejected anything Catholic), have rarely commemorated any Christian traditions other than those most important, oldest traditions based most closely on the Bible, such as Easter and Christmas. This means that many of the very rich traditions of the Christian faith have been lost to us. As I explained previously, this is why I have chosen to study Christian traditions, and I began doing so at the beginning of this year.
In my researching of Christian traditions, I have had some difficulty in weeding through those traditions so thoroughly Catholic that Evangelicals cannot take part. Mostly, my issues have been with events commemorating Mary, Catholic saints, relics, and events important only to the Catholic Church, such as the building of a famous Catholic cathedral. One of the biggest frustrations for me has been the plethora of events commemorating something not supported by or even rejected by the Bible. I found myself frequently writing explanations like, “Well, Evangelicals could never commemorate this aspect because it’s not supported by the Bible for this reason…” I found myself increasingly frustrated with this tendency of the Catholic Church, particularly in light of passages such as II Timothy 3:16-17, which teaches that Scripture (which, as I noted above, often does not support and sometimes even contradicts Catholic teachings and practices) is the infallible, God-breathed (or “inspired”) Word of God. The Greek word translated “inspired” or “God-breathed” is a word meaning “the breath of God” and references a strong, stormy wind which blows the ship along a certain path. The man must get on the ship to sail, as the apostle must pick up the pen to write, but it is the strong, stormy wind that moves the ship where the wind wills, and the irresistible breath of God that moves the apostle where God wills. Being, therefore, the very breath of God, God’s own words as transcribed by human hands like an edict was the actual word of the emperor transcribed by a scribe without error (for to do so with error or alteration would mean death), Scripture is and should be the absolute reference for every doctrine and any doctrine not in line with Scripture must be rejected.
Finally, I came across what was to me a new concept, something that finally explained to me why Catholics have so many beliefs not found in or therefore supported by Scripture: a theory called “sacred tradition.”
This theological concept essentially holds that there may have been theological concepts or historical facts not recorded in the Bible, but which were passed down through oral tradition over the years, centuries, and millennia of Christianity’s existence. This concept teaches that such oral traditions are just as God-breathed, God-inspired—in other words, infallibly true—as is Scripture.
On the one hand, I recognize that it’s possible there are some concepts or interpretations or events not recorded in Scripture which are true. However, it’s equally possible that they are false. We find extensive references throughout the Old and New Testaments warning us to be wary of false teachers (also called “false prophets”), who, among other things, will add new, false doctrine to that already in the Scriptures (see Romans 16:17-18; Galatians 5:7-12; Colossians 2:8; II Timothy 4:3-4; and II Peter 2:1-22 for examples of such references). Therefore, if anything—any concept, any doctrine, any event (see Footnote 2)—not found in the Bible is said to be true, it doesn’t matter how authoritative that person is, it must be put in the “possibly true” box. Only Scripture itself can be put in the “definitely true” box. Furthermore, anything not in line with Scripture must be put in the “definitely false” box.
This theological concept apparently also has a name: Sola Scriptura, from Latin meaning “only Scripture.” In essence, it teaches that, though there may be extra-Biblical authorities that govern Christian life and practice, Scripture is the ultimate authority, the only infallible authority, and that all other doctrine must be interpreted through the lens of Scripture. Or, like I described above, anything in Scripture falls into the “definitely true” box, anything that contradicts Scripture falls into the “definitely false” box, and anything not in Scripture but not contradicted by it falls into the “possibly true” (which implies possibly false) box.
The “definitely true” box might include, for example, the Virgin Birth of Jesus—that is, the doctrine that Jesus had no earthly father and was born to a virgin. This event is recorded in the Bible in Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38 and prophetically referenced in Isaiah 7:10-16. (See Footnote 3.) The “possibly true” box might include, for example, an apocryphal book that tells a tale of Daniel and a dragon, Bel and the Dragon. It is not referenced anywhere else in Scripture and so cannot be defended by Scripture alone, and had been rejected as true (considered instead to be an early example of a Jewish fairy tale) by Jews and Christians alike until, in reaction to the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church decided to call all apocryphal books Scripture in the 1500s. However, it also doesn’t directly contradict Scripture, so can be called neither “definitely true” nor “definitely false.” The “definitely false” box would include some other apocryphal books that contain false doctrine, such as Tobit, which includes both the command to use magic and the concept of forgiveness of sins obtained by giving to charity.
In short, I now understand why the Catholic Church has so many beliefs and practices that fall well outside of Scripture and why they defend these beliefs and practices as divinely inspired (a.k.a. “sacred tradition”). However, my belief is unchanged that anything not directly from Scripture might be a false teaching and therefore must be viewed in light of Scripture and rejected as false or, at most, considered to be possibly true but also possibly false and therefore not suitable to inform doctrine (a.k.a. “sola scriptura”).
Footnote 1. In the Bible, the first solely Jewish tradition God instituted was the Passover. He introduced the tradition of circumcision to Abraham, who had many other children besides Isaac, who also had one child other than Jacob, who was the father of the Jews, so there were many groups of people other than the Jews who traditionally practiced circumcision because of God’s command. As a side note, there were also other ancient peoples who practiced circumcision for various other reasons not related to God’s covenant with Abraham, but Abraham’s descendants seem to be the first who practiced it so extensively.
Footnote 2. Obviously, I’m not talking about secular or world history. I mean any miraculous or religious event you would expect to be in the Bible, such as a story about Mary the mother of Jesus performing a miracle, or being miraculously conceived herself, or being miraculously taken into heaven without first experiencing death, etc.
Footnote 3. Although some would argue that the Hebrew word translated “virgin” in Isaiah 7:10-16 is a vague word that may not necessarily mean “virgin,” the New Testament references are extremely explicit that Mary was a virgin.