“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.