New Testament Tradition
James McCarthy

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 thirteen times.

Jewish Tradition

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 7:13).

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. Colossians 2:8

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 spiritual slavery.

Paulís Teachings

The remaining three references to tradition in the New Testament refer to the teaching of Paul. We find the first in 1 Corinthians.

Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. 1 Corinthians 11:2

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 teaching.

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 Thessalonians 2:15

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 Thessalonians 3:6

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).


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