“On Scripture and Tradition” by Edith Humphrey

“On Scripture and Tradition
by Edith Humphrey

Recently I began teaching a continuing education class and was bowled over by the number of folks asking about tradition! I had anticipated a small cadre of Christians wondering about the topic of my new book, just to be released as the class began. Instead, I have a full house, ranging from a PhD, to those with specializations other than theology (a physician, a lawyer, etc.), to laypersons who are just interested. And the denominational spread is wide: Baptist, Pentecostal, Catholic, Presbyterian, Orthodox, Methodist, Anglican! Clearly others besides me are recognizing that this is a key question, foundational to our inner and cross-communion debates in the Church.

In Scripture and Tradition: What the Bible Really Says, I am not aiming to say everything that can be said about tradition. Rather, I train my gaze on what the biblical writers both model and state explicitly regarding our topic. The idea came when my husband challenged me to do a close analysis of those biblical passages that treat tradition. I had dismissed the idea, until it came back to haunt me one night when (inexplicably) I was having trouble sleeping. In the wee hours of the morning, I made a startling discovery: several key English translations avoid translating the Greek noun and verb (“tradition” and “to pass on as a tradition”) in their most natural English sense, and instead use substitutes or circumlocutions (“teaching,” “custom,” etc.). Well, this doesn’t happen all the time. The translations avoid the word “tradition” when the biblical author is referring to it as a good thing, but when man-made traditions are in view, the word is used unapologetically! It seemed clear to me that those English readers whose formation has come through these (Protestant) translations of the Bible will naturally assume that tradition is a sub-Christian or even anti-Christian concept, found in rigid Jewish or confused pagan contexts but not to be embraced in the Christian community.

But my discovery that night was not really the beginning of my thinking. My own formation, as a child and young adult in the Salvation Army, was fertile ground as well. To the Salvation Army I owe a great deal: a love for the Bible, sense of discipline, warm approach to faith and worship, and concentration on the Lord Jesus, the holiness of the Father, and the energy of the Holy Spirit in the Church. And it was just there that I had to start asking hard questions about tradition—in the Army we had many of them, from flags and uniforms to altar calls to the Mercy Seat (penitent form) and Holiness Table. There was also written tradition concerning how we were to regard Scripture: “We believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by inspiration of God, and that they only constitute the divine rule of Christian faith and practice.” As a child, I memorized twelve doctrines (each doctrine memorized being rewarded with a quarter!) along with the names of the books of the Bible. We were catechized, in “Junior Soldiers’” class as children and in “Corps Cadets” as youth, by learning from the official Handbook of Doctrine, not just the Bible.

What worried me, as I grew older, was that the Salvation Army persisted in its tradition of not practicing the sacraments, despite the clear words of Jesus and St. Paul. I heard entire sermons on the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel that ignored the elephant in the room: here Jesus commands baptism. I was even more puzzled in Salvation Army meetings at the hearty singing of that gospel song, “I’ve been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb,” with its second verse: “And that’s not all, there’s more besides: I’ve been to the river and I’ve been baptized.” “No you haven’t!” I remember inwardly commenting. My young adulthood in the Salvation Army was a wonderful training ground not only for faithfulness, not only for creating a disciplined desire to serve others, but also for making me ask hard questions about the nature of the Church and the place of tradition in Protestant churches. Eventually I determined to look at the spectacles that were helping me to see, and I discovered that these were also in some ways blocking my vision.

So, then, it is not just that the vagaries of the English Bibles complicate our discussion about the relationship between Scripture and tradition. It is also that we come from distinct traditions, interpreting the Scriptures from particular contexts—even, ironically, the tradition of sola Scriptura! We read through hermeneutical spectacles of which we may or may not be aware. My aim in this book is to begin with what is, at least in part, our common denominator—a shared respect for the Scriptures—and to garner aspects of tradition that may surprise some and be a reminder to others. There are clues here regarding what should be taken as mutable “traditions” and what form part of an ongoing, holy Tradition for the entire household of God. We may be surprised to see that Tradition is disclosed as both oral and written, as capable of being personal rather than merely formal in character, and as typifying the vibrancy (not the ossification!) of the Church. We listen in on the apostle’s command that Thessalonians “heed everything that he has ‘traditioned’ to them, either by word or letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). We hear the elder’s desire to speak face-to-face with his readers rather than simply through the mediation of pen and ink (2 John 1:12). We remark that the words of Jesus at the Lord’s Supper, the witnesses to the resurrection, even the practical means of working hard while waiting for the Lord to return, all came to us through Tradition—as do the Scriptures themselves. More than that, we can contemplate that on the cross Jesus “traditioned” (gave over) his Spirit, as water and blood poured from his side.

The importance of holy person-to-person gifts (Greek: paradoseis, “traditions”) given over to us from Father to Son to apostles to Church becomes clear and may well fire our imaginations. What do we have that we did not receive (cf. 1 Cor. 4:7)? Where do we receive such riches? In the pages of the Scriptures, surely, but also in the modeled practices, in the hard decisions made by God’s people in council through the ages, in our worship life, in the Church’s formative call to a disciplined and other-directed life—in as many places as God’s people are enlivened by the Holy Spirit, the treasury of blessings and the giver of life. Could it be that the twenty-first century is the time when all who name Christ will look back to the Great Tradition (the Church’s life prior to schism), and recognize this has not misfired but is still alive and well?

Edith M. Humphrey (PhD, McGill University) is the William F. Orr Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is the author of several books, including Grand Entrance: Worship on Earth as in Heaven and Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit. She has also authored numerous articles on the literary and rhetorical study of the Bible.


  1. Brian E Page says:


    Can the rites of Baptism and Eucharist be administered by an SA officer who does not share in the Apostolic Succession through ordination by the laying on of hands? And, if per chance the Army changed its position would this not lead to the creation of a weak doctrine of the sacraments? How is the problem to be resolved?

    • Brian, that is a fascinating question. Of course, plenty of pastors in Protestant churches engage in the Lord’s Supper and Baptism without a concern for apostolic succession. Even Anglican priests/ pastors differ in their understanding as to whether imposition of hands is necessary to the nature of the Church,.

      It would seem that, from a Catholic or Orthodox point of view, baptism, if done with correct intent and in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, could be accepted, though it must be fulfilled or made operative through chrismation/confirmation. Indeed, in emergencies baptisms have sometimes been done by lay hands, and not always by clergy. This is complicated, but it is simply true that baptisms performed in schismatic (but not heterodox contexts) have been accepted by the apostolic and historic Church in the past when those who received this rite have desired to enter the historic Church. There is a canon in one of the ecumenical councils to this effect.

      The status of the Supper would be another matter–most Protestants view this as a memorial, at any rate, and not as a mystery, so it may be a moot point to wonder if communion in a non-apostolic Church fellowship is the same as the historic sacrament. These are difficult questions, and I think that it is not the business of those who are in the historic Church to interrogate or impugn what is going on elsewhere. As many Orthodox teachers put it, “it is not the way of the Orthodox Church to say where the Church is not, but to say where it is.”

      As for what might happen should the Army re-institute communion, I am actually not sure that you are right that the Army would adopt a low sacramental position were it to return to the historic practice. Though it has a real emphasis upon individual faith, it also has traditionally blessed material things (bibles, instruments) on the holiness table or altar, and it has a kind of sacramental theology in its understanding of the body. So what it might believe about the sacraments would remain to be seen, wouldn’t it? Of course, from my perspective, the Church can’t be defined or created by a group simply reverting to or re-adopting historic practices and beliefs: rather it is a living organism. But what God plans to do, the grafting that may happen in the future, and all this, remain mysteries: there is, I would say, a visible Church, but its eschatological contours have not yet been seen!


    When Christians are ask if they trust God; most would respond in the affirmative. Do Christians really believe God is trustworthy?

    How do Christian respond when asked, do they believe the Bible to be the inerrant word of God? For many, the trust in God starts to wane at this point. An all too common reply, is of course the Bible is God’s word, however, the Scriptures were recorded and translated into other languages my mere men. We know men make mistakes.

    What is mystifying to me is how believers in Christ can proclaim that they believe God created the heavens and the earth, but do not believe God has the power to direct men to record and translate His word without error. Would that be a God you could trust?

    Matthew 4:4 But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone , but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.'” (NASB)

    Jesus said men should live on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. How would that be possible if the Bible is not the infallible word of God?

    1 John 2:3 By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.(NASB)

    John said we know Jesus if we keep His commandments. If the Bible is not God’s incontrovertible truth, how can we know we are keeping the commandments of Jesus?


    There those who agree that the Bible is the inerrant word of God but then state that you have to be a Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic scholar to understand the meaning of Scripture.

    In order to understand the Bible you have to understand whatever langauge translation you are reading. If English is your first language then you should use an English translation, if German is your primary language then read a German translation, if you are Greek then read a Greek translation etc.

    It is not ironic that they do not believe you have be a Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic scholar to under Joshua 10:13, however, in order to understand Acts 2:38 you have be not only have to be a Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic scholar, but an English professor as well.

    Joshua 10:13 So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, Until the nation avenged themselves of their enemies.

    The “scholar police” accept Joshua 10:13 at face value; as well they should.

    The “scholar police” believe you have to be a Greek scholar and an English professor to understand Acts 2:38.
    The “scholar police” have an agenda. There goal is to convince the world that water baptism is not essential to have sins forgiven.

    Acts 2:38 Peter replied “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven. and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.(The Thompson Chain -Reference Bible NIV)

    You do not have to be a Greek scholar or an English professor to understand what “so that your sins may be forgiven” means.

    Acts 2:38 Peter told them, “you must repent and every one of you must be baptised in the name of Jesus , so that you may have your sins forgiven and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.(The New Testament in Modern English by J. B. Phillips)

    If you have a fifth grade reading level you are capable of understand the meaning of “so that you may have your sins forgiven.”

    Acts 2:38 Then Peter said unto them, Let each one of you repent and be immersed, in the name of Jesus Christ, in order to the remission of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (The Better Version of The New Testament by Chester Estes)

    “In order to the remission of sins” means the same thing whether you are a Greek scholar, a professor in English or a novice Christian.

    Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.(NASB)

    It does not matter if you are a Greek scholar, or an English professor; “for the forgiveness or your sins” means exactly what it says.



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    • Edith M. Humphrey says:

      Steve, I think that you have misunderstood the purpose of my book. I can see how the subtitle might sound a bit cocky, but I was surprised to discover how some of our popular English Bible avoid the word “tradition” whenever it is used positively in the New Testament, and that’s why I say, “what the Bible REALLY says about tradition. Because of prejudice and these twisted translations, many English speaking Protestants think that tradition is not a good thing: they never hear the verse, for example, where the apostle Paul commends the Corinthians for paying attention to what he has passed on to them, traditions given in his letters, but also from his mouth to their ears.
      Sometimes it is helpful to know what the original languages say, prior to their translation, because translators can make mistakes. However, I would never, ever say that you have to be a scholar to hear God and to obey him, or to hear the Bible, God’s authoritative written Word, and live by it, or to live authentically in God’s family, paying attention to the family ways (the traditions) that we have learned from each other—like daily devotions, grace before meals, praying for each other, and so on. There are many Christians who are “not educated” and who know God far better than I do, and I need their prayers! As one man of God who lived many hundreds of years ago put it, “to be a theologian is to pray truly, and to pray truly is to be a theologian.”
      My point in this book is to say that Scripture and Tradition are joined together, and have been from the beginning. For example, notice that you are quoting from the NASB –why this version? It is a particular “tradition,” isn’t it? You rely upon the work of those who copied manuscripts, translated them, and updated the translations, in order to read the word of God. God speaks his words to us through the original words that Jesus and the apostles spoke, and then through translation of these words—unless we happen to have the gift of tongues, or have learned Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Just as he was able to be God in the flesh, so he can indeed speak to us in various languages; if we are listening, we will hear his voice, as the Holy Spirit opens our ears! But notice that I said WE. As 2 Peter 3:16 puts it, “the unstable twist” the words of Scripture and since we know God spoke through ‘human beings’ (Plural!—4 gospels, for example), we should not expect that individually we can always get it right (2 Peter 1:20). We need each other.
      I agree with you, by the way, that Acts 2:38 commands water baptism, that is, immersion. Baptism is part of the gracious act of God (through his Church) by which we are forgiven. Absolutely! On the other hand, please note that the repentant thief on the cross must have been forgiven: “today you will be with me in paradise.” And he had not been baptized, except by the blood that he shed next to our Lord. I guess that our all-powerful omnipotent God is bigger than even baptism, where there is an unusual circumstance. Could a native American/Canadian living in the far north without heat be saved without going into freezing water, for example? How about a baby who dies before being baptized? What about someone who comes to faith and is martyred before being baptized; or someone who repents on their death bed, and there is no time for immersion? But as for the normative value of baptism, you are absolutely right—it is God’s usual way of incorporating us into Christ. We NEED physical things, because we are physical beings, and our bodies matter as much as our spirits.
      From what I have read of your comments, it seems you have not read my book? It seems to me that you are using this blog in order to further your own concerns (which is okay), but it is really meant for a conversation, not as a soap-box. You are implying that I am an elitist scholar, and seem to imply that I don’t think God calls for repentance or for baptism. Instead, I want to say that I consider you my brother in Christ, and hope that we could talk together with each other. God’s blessing, and please let me know what you think if you read my book.

      With my prayers,

  3. Just so there is no confusion on inerrancy and the office position of The Salvation Army,
    “The Salvation Army Handbook of Doctrine”, 2010, pg. 11, “3. The inspiration of the Bible…It is uniquely inspired in a way that is different from other writings or works of art. However, this does not mean that the Bible is infallible or inerrant, so that it is incapable of misleading and contains no human error.”

    “Salvation Story, Salvationist Handbook of Doctrine”, 1998, pg. 13, Appendix 2, “Infallibility and inerrancy”…”The Salvation Army’s statement of faith does not include any reference to the infallibility or inerrancy of Scripture.”

    • Meant “official position”. Auto correct mistake. Also, this does not imply just translation mistakes. It implies human authors of the original texts, who sometimes interject their own biases.