In the modern debate of Sola Scriptura vs. Roman
Catholic Tradition, Christians are often confronted with the fact that
the New Testament, in a few places, speaks of tradition in a positive
way. How is a Christian to understand these passages and apply them to
his or her life?
The word translated tradition in the New Testament
refers to something handed down or handed over. It occurs
Ten of the thirteen references to tradition in the New
Testament refer to Jewish tradition. Eight of these are found in the
parallel accounts of a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees
(Matthew 15:2, 3, 6; Mark 7:3, 5, 8, 9, 13). There Jesus speaks
negatively of the Jewish use of tradition, accusing them of neglecting
the commandment of God to hold to the tradition of men (Mark 7:8), of
setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep their tradition
(Mark 7:9), and of invalidating the word of God by their tradition (Mark
The other two New Testament references to Jewish tradition are
Galatians 1:14 and Colossians 2:8. In the first, Paul refers to his life
before he became a Christian.
I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among
my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral
traditions. Galatians 1:14
Here Paul is speaking of his experience as a member of the
Pharisees (Philippians 3:5). The traditions to which he is referring are
the Jewish regulations handed down by the rabbis that ruled his
life. Through Christ he found liberation from these.
Paul instructed the Christians of Colossae:
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and
empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the
elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.
In this verse, Paul is speaking of deceptive doctrines that
false teachers were trying to introduce into the church in Colossae.
From the context we know that these "traditions of men" (Colossians 2:8)
were a mixture of Jewish legalism and Greek philosophy. Paul warns the
Colossians that the result of following the traditions of men is
The remaining three references to tradition in the New
Testament refer to the teaching of Paul. We find the first in 1
Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold
firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. 1
This verse introduces a passage on the topic of whether or not
it is proper to cover oneís head when praying or prophesying (1
Corinthians 11:2-16). Paul praises the Corinthians for continuing to
practice that which he had previously handed down by his oral
The other two uses of tradition with reference to Paulís
teaching are both in 2 Thessalonians.
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you
were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us. 2
From the context of 2 Thessalonians 2:15, we know that the
traditions of which Paul is speaking refer to aspects of the Lordís
second coming. Paul calls these "traditions" to stress that they were
truths that he had received by revelation from the Lord and then had
handed down to the church in Thessalonica. They did not originate
with him. Since they are from the Lord, Paul wants the Thessalonians to
hold fast to them.
The final reference is similar.
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and
not according to the tradition which you received from us. 2
The context of this verse explains that some of the
Thessalonians were confused concerning the return of Christ (2
Thessalonians 2:1-2). Some had stopped working for a living and had
become meddlesome busybodies. Paul tells them to discipline their lives
and follow his example of hard work. His personal example of a
disciplined lifestyle is what he had handed down to the
Thessalonians while he was with them.
These last three verses demonstrate that Paul handed
down the Christian faith to the early church not only by his
letters, but also by his oral teaching and example. To know the content
of Paulís oral teaching, we need not invent a second font of revelation
such as Roman Catholic Tradition. Paulís thirteen epistles provide an
inspired transcript of what God revealed to Paul and he passed on to the
early church. Moreover, to equate these three references to Paulís oral
teaching with the Roman Catholic Tradition is unjustified. The former
refers to direct apostolic teaching. The latter refers to beliefs and
practices allegedly residing in the spirit and heart of the Roman
Catholic Church today, having been transmitted by fallible means for
some 2,000 years. Clearly, these are not the same.
Adapted from The Gospel According to Rome (Harvest
House Publishers: Eugene, 1995).