What is the Value of Tradition?


Your article on criticism and higher criticism in the September 1994 issue of the Megiddo Message is very interesting and informative. On page 18 you state (rightly): “The Roman Catholic Church decreed in its early statements that the traditions of the Church were on a par with Scripture. Such a position is wholly without Biblical support.” With this in mind will you please address the following questions:

  1. Explain Paul’s statement, “Hold fast the traditions…”
  2. Give a Biblical defense of “sola Scriptura”.

Thank you for taking the time to answer my inquiries.


When we think of traditions, probably our first thought is of a mode of thought or behavior followed by a people as a custom, and handed down from generation to generation. The traditions of the established Church during the Middle Ages were a body of unwritten religious precepts, time-honored practices, which were accepted as law.

The value of a tradition is totally dependent upon its source and its integrity; i.e., where did it originate (was it from God, or from men), and was it kept in its pure original form?

The Jews originally received their law from Moses; but as it was handed down century after century, the purity of the original was lost in a maze of human interpretations which were added to the law until by the time of Christ the tradition bore little or no resemblance to the original. That is why Jesus said, “You hold the tradition of men” and “Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition” (Mark 7:8; Matt. 15:6). Again, “This people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me: In vain do they [the Pharisees and scribes] worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human traditions.” Jesus was quoting the words of Isaiah when He said, “You have a way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” (Mark 7:6-9, NRSV).

Paul’s Statement of “Hold fast the traditions”

The tradition which Paul was handing on to his brethren, and which they were handing from one to the other, was of a very different sort. Paul commended his brethren in Thessalonica, saying, “We should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the spirit and faith in the Truth. And it was for this he called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 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 Thess. 2:13-15, NASB). They had been called “through our gospel,” and Paul admonished them to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which [they had been] taught.” What was the source of these traditions? He refers specifically to what they had learned from the apostles–”Whether by word of mouth, or by letter from us.” He was not commending just any tradition that might have been handed down to them, but the Gospel which had been taught by Paul himself, and Paul was very diligent to teach only one Gospel, for he said, “even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8).

Paul also referred to his Jewish heritage (outside Christ) as a tradition, “the traditions of my fathers.” He told how he himself had been “more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of [his] fathers” (Gal. 1:14). And speaking of a similar tradition, he warned the Colossians, “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” (Col. 2:8, NASB). Guarding against human traditions was a serious issue, especially in that pre-apostasy age, when, as Paul had predicted, false brethren were already coming in among the true and seeking to lead away believers (Acts 20:29-30).

In the same context, Paul spoke of being redeemed “from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your father” (1 Pet. 1:18); or as translated in a newer version, “your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers” (NASB). Any tradition not originating with Christ was a fruitless, futile tradition.

Sola Scriptura

Your second question asks for a “defense of sola Scriptura.” This term is often associated with Martin Luther and the time of the Reformation when the reformers were attempting to break down the authority of the Roman Church. He took the position that the Scriptures (and not the teachings or dictates of the Church) were the authority for any doctrine. Luther said, “No doctrine in the church can come from anywhere but the Holy Scripture; it is our only source of doctrine.” This was the position which later came to be called “sola Scriptura,” or literally, “Scripture only.” In other words, he was not willing to accept philosophy, or experience, or a pope, or a church council or any other human source as an authority to be believed, but only Scripture. “Nor,” he wrote, “might any of these be allowed to interpret Scripture in a way that is contrary to its plain and clear meaning. If Scripture is not the authority alone, it is not the authority at all.” Luther’s taking this position was an important step preparing the way for freedom of religion and breaking the grip of papal authority.

The Bible is our only source of information about God and future life, therefore we take the same position, that no doctrine can be of God except it be the teaching of Scripture. That is why a serious study of Scripture is important: “By which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4). Scripture is the final authority, and we are not to add to or take from its words (Prov. 30:5-6). The apostle Paul said also, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

There are groups today who believe that they have received special revelations from God, but the teaching of Scripture does not support this. When the apostle John penned Amen to Revelation, all knowledge by Divine revelation came to an end, and only “faith, hope, love, these three” remain (1 Cor. 13:13).

(For more information on the Holy Spirit and its cessation, see our booklet, Treatise on the Holy Spirit.)