Tradition, Old and New

"Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?" (Matthew 15:3). Jesus had many negative things to say about the dangers of placing excessive emphasis on tradition; in the passage quoted above, he goes on to cite the prophet Isaiah, "In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" (Isaiah 29:13). Who said anything positive about tradition? The prophet Jeremiah, for one: "Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls" (Jeremiah 6:16). How do we reconcile the warning of Isaiah with the exhortation of Jeremiah?

As a starting point, we must distinguish between tradition as container and tradition as content. This is a difference between the positions of the two great confessional bodies which appear equally devoted to preserving their traditions. Generally speaking, the Eastern Orthodox think of tradition—paradosis—literally, the handing down or handing over, as the container that carries the Scripture as its central content. Roman Catholics—and this was the Protestants' casus belli—asserted (or seemed to assert) that tradition stands beside Scripture, presenting a content that supplements Scripture and is equally authoritative. For those who had discovered (or recovered) the principles of sola scriptura, a natural...

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