Sunday, August 23, 2009

Is Tradition a Bad Thing?

In response to this post about bad clerical vestments ("Tradition is always, always, always better"), FH reader and frequent commenter Theophilus responded:
"Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition."(Matthew 15:6) This judgment applies today as well. This is always a present danger when tradition overshadows Jesus' covenant-gospel proclamation.
And I'm glad he raised this issue. For our Blessed Lord comes down very hard against tradition several times.

In fact, one could certainly conclude that Jesus is against tradition! Many Protestant Christians, in response to medieval abuses and excesses by the Church, abolished a good number of traditions of the medieval and ancient church, such as the traditional liturgy, music, vestments, lectionary, calendar, etc. while some reforming groups went even further, abolishing sacramental absolution, the office of the ministry, instrumental music, infant baptism, and other ancient traditions of the church.

The Lutheran Reformation got rid of some traditions, such as the prayers to the saints, the withholding of the cup to the laity, indulgences, and the liturgical language of the canon of the Mass that refers to a propitious (sin-forgiving) sacrifice, offered ex opera operato (by the work itself apart from faith) for the living and the dead.

But the Lutherans kept a whole lot more than they got rid of. "We keep traditional liturgical forms, such as the order of the lessons, prayers, vestments, etc." (Ap 24:1)

So, is tradition a bad thing? And is Jesus is somehow condemning tradition that "overshadows Jesus' covenant-gospel proclamation" in Matthew 5:6?

In fact, in that part of Matthew 15, Jesus is not preaching the Gospel at all, but rather the Law. He lays into the Pharisees not because they are obscuring the Gospel, but rather because they are obscuring the Law. In verse 4, our Lord quotes the Fourth Commandment: "Honor your father and your mother" and then demonstrates how the Pharisees weaseled out of the demands of God's Law and the need to repent of their sins by inventing a new tradition designed to circumvent the law. He calls them "hypocrites" (v.7) and cites Isaiah 29:13, applying it against their "teachings as doctrines the commandments of men." In this passage, Jesus never mentions the Gospel at all.

The preaching of Jesus is certainly more than the Gospel, the good news of forgiveness. Jesus's first sermon recorded in Mark's Gospel is a call to "repent" (Mark 1:15). A good bit of the Sermon on the Mount is Law, rather than Gospel. And Jesus doesn't shy away from warning His hearers hell and the wrath of God. There is a tendency among many in our culture toward a "gospel reductionism" by which the Lord's call to repentance and the truly Good News that "by His stripes we are healed," are allowed to be overshadowed by the misunderstanding that Jesus's primary mission is to be a Gandhi or Oprah or Mister Rogers telling us all to be nice.

Jesus is not merely excoriating the Pharisees for allowing tradition to trump the "covenant-gospel proclamation," but rather the "Word of God" - which includes the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27), the Law as well as the Gospel. The faux-traditionalism of the Pharisees was more often a way to circumvent the Law that they purported to uphold than anything concerning the Gospel.

St. Paul himself actually refers to the Christian faith that he preached and taught as "tradition":

"Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you." (1 Cor 11:2)

"Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle." (2 Thess 2:15)

"But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us." (2 Thess 3:6)

Note that in the 1 Corinthians passage, St. Paul refers to the traditions being "delivered." This same theme comes across in the 2 Thessalonians passages, as the traditions are both "taught" and "received."

The Greek word is "paradosis" - which means literally a "handing over" of something from one person to another, like a relay runner's baton. It can also mean to "hand over" in the sense of arresting someone - such as when our Lord was "handed over" (betrayed) by Judas. The Latin version of the word is "tradidi" - from where we get both of the words "tradition" and "traduce." St. Paul uses this same word in a bit of wordplay when he writes about the Lord's Supper "For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread;" (1 Cor 11:23). In other words, just as Jesus was "handed over" - so too does Paul receive that which was "handed over" to him, and he "handed it over" to the Corinthian Christians. This "handing over" (Greek: paradidomi, Latin: tradidi) is the very essence of Christian teaching. Our Lord taught the apostles, who in turn "hand over" this teaching. We, in turn, receive this apostolic teaching that is "handed over" (tradition!) to us, preserve it, and hand it over to those who come after us. This is why we confess the church to be " one holy, catholic, and apostolic."

This is a very different thing indeed than what our Lord is criticizing.

For the Pharisaic tradition is rooted in trying to distort God's Word, rather than uphold it. And this is why the traditional liturgy of the Church is so important. The liturgy is a repetition of the Word of God, spoken, chanted, and sung between pastor and people, for the sake of the Word of God, encompassing the Law and the Gospel, "handing over" the Word of God from one generation to the next - even among those who cannot read, the very old, the very young, and the illiterate. This same Word of God was handed over by our Lord, the apostles, the Church throughout the ages, and to us today. God's Word is thus preserved in tradition - which is why St. Paul commends tradition and exhorts is to keep the biblical, apostolic tradition.

Tradition that "nullifies" the Word of God is a bad thing, and must go. Tradition that upholds the Word of God is a good thing that ought to be retained. This was a very important principle guiding the Lutheran reformers, and it continues to guide Traditionalist Lutherans today.

Those who cut themselves off from the apostolic tradition cut themselves off from the Lord Jesus Christ and the Word of God, and are left with nothing more than their own imaginings and the sorts of "traditions" of the Pharisees that our Lord condemns.


Rev. Thomas C. Messer said...


Excellent commentary on this passage which is so often misapplied. Being on vacation and out of town for the weekend, I attended an LCMS congregation yesterday and this was the Gospel of the day upon which the sermon was based. I was a little dismayed to hear the pastor use this passage to suggest that it matters not what "style" of worship we employ, and that those "traditionalists" who argue so vehemently in favor of the traditional, historic liturgy are just as guilty as the Pharisees for "teaching as doctrines the commandments of men."

He went on to say that using the historic liturgy was fine, highlighting the fact that we were using Divine Service 1 from LSB at that very Service, but that we must remain open to other "styles," like that of their new, Saturday evening "contemporary" Service. The sin of the Pharisees comes into play when we pit one "style" above all others. We must not cling to our traditions like the Pharisees did, but be open to new ideas and new traditions to develop among us, etc.

All I could think is that I could have just stayed by the pool and had a Bloody Mary or two! :)

Anonymous said...

it matters not what "style" of worship we employ, and that those "traditionalists" who argue so vehemently in favor of the traditional, historic liturgy are just as guilty as the Pharisees for "teaching as doctrines the commandments of men."

Ugggh. Looks like even some pastors could use a little catechesis on what it means to be evangelical catholics. It's not a "style" it's a worldview in which we live out the liturgy through Word and Sacrament.