Too often scripture is contrasted with tradition on the basis that scripture is the word of God while tradition is of human origin. Not so.
In its biblical and theological usage tradition simply means “what is handed on.” In this sense our Christian scriptures are part of our Christian tradition. Paul tells the Corinthians, “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you” (1 Cor. 11:2). In 2 Thessalonians Paul, or someone writing in Paul’s name, says, “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). Paul is referring to the teachings and practices he passed on to the churches.
So tradition is not bad. Tradition is necessary. There would be no Christian community without Christian tradition. The biblical and theological meaning of tradition includes our sacred texts, our sacred practices, and the ways we have interpreted and made use of our texts and practices.
Is Christian tradition of human origin? Indeed. And this includes our Christian scriptures. Whatever biblical inspiration may or may not mean, our sacred texts emerged out of particular historical contexts and were the result of cultural and historical human processes.
It is extremely important to understand that the word of God is NOT limited or confined to sacred texts. The word of God is a dynamic reality, not static. As such the word of the Lord transcends scripture.
A scriptural document, a biblical text, whether it’s the book of Deuteronomy, the Gospel of Mark, or an epistle of Paul represents a particular stage in a faith community’s evolving faith. A biblical text is a developing tradition frozen in time. The word of God, however, is fluid and cannot be fixed forever at a point in time. The word of God is God acting in time, which for God is the eternal now.
The word of God is God speaking, revealing, convicting, judging, wooing, loving, and engaging our world and our personal lives right now in non-coercive, non-manipulative, and always in life-enhancing ways. The word of God is God continuously interacting with the creation.
This is why James says that we are given birth – we are regenerated, given new life – “by the word of truth” (1:18). James is talking about the regenerating activity of the spiritual presence and power of God in our lives. This is what the author of Hebrews is talking about when he says that “the word of God is living and active” (a written text is frozen and fixed) and “is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Both of the above texts are referencing a divine presence and activity that transcends scripture.
Is God’s regenerating activity mediated through scripture? Certainly. Is God’s regenerating power limited and restricted to scripture? Certainly not.
It’s important to keep in mind that the early Christians lived in an oral culture where there were few written texts (very few could read and write, and writing materials were expensive). Christian traditions were passed down orally. These traditions were interpreted and adapted to ever-changing circumstances. They were constantly evolving, taking on new forms and finding new expressions. The written texts reflect this oral tradition fixed in time. And while their evolving faith became fixed in time through a written text, their faith never stopped evolving. Nor should ours!
Unfortunately, the church-at-large has not done a very good job helping people understand this. In fact, some of our practices have muddied the waters and left false impressions. For example, a tradition in many churches is to say after the scripture is read: “This is the word of the Lord.” Is it the word of the Lord? Not literally, no. Hopefully it can be a medium through which the word of the Lord comes to the congregation, but that remains to be seen, doesn’t it? That will depend on how the scripture is presented to the congregation – how it is interpreted and proclaimed. And it will depend on the congregation’s readiness and willingness to receive and act on that word. The scripture is a medium for the word of God, but it is not literally the word of God. I cannot emphasize enough how important this distinction is. If a believer or faith community fails to make this distinction, then the likelihood that they will revere a written text over the living God increases. God can never be captured by or restricted to a text.
When Jesus charges the religious leaders with making void the word of God in Mark 7:13, he is not saying that they are nullifying scripture itself. Rather, he is charging them with making void or nullifying the will and purpose of God as it is understood and expressed through scripture. These religious leaders were interpreting and applying their faith traditions in ways that opposed God’s good will and purpose, thus revealing their hypocrisy and lack of authenticity.
The critical question is not: What is tradition and what is scripture? Scripture itself is part of our Christian tradition.
The critical question is: What is behind our interpretations and appropriations of our Christian traditions? What motivates, inspires, guides, and directs our use of our Christian traditions? Are we adapting and expressing them in healthy, transformative ways as part of our own dynamic, evolving faith? Do we emphasize those texts and traditions that take us three steps forward, or do we fixate on those that take us three steps back?
The religious leaders that Jesus confronts in Mark 7 were using their sacred traditions to actually subvert what was clearly God’s will. They used their traditions to justify their lack of compassion and greed. They tried to convince others, having already convinced themselves, that what they were actually doing demonstrated how holy and devoted they were. When in reality it showed just the opposite.
Jesus zeros in on where the real problem lies: “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come . . .” (Mark 7:21). In the heart is where good and evil originate and what is allowed to settle in our hearts greatly impacts how we use our sacred traditions. An unconverted person, and by that I mean someone who has not experienced significant heart change, will use their Christian traditions in unhealthy, destructive ways.
On the other hand, converted persons whose hearts are honest, humble, and open to change, will make use of the same Christian traditions in healthy, life-affirming ways. Persons being transformed by the word of the Lord can readily acknowledge the petty, punitive, and oppressive biblical texts that are part of their Christian tradition (texts like 1 Tim. 2:11-15), but such persons will not allow such texts to shape or influence their own evolving faith.
For example, one might argue that 1 Tim 2:11-15 reflects a post-Pauline backlash against the Apostle Paul’s more egalitarian theology and practice (Gal. 3:28; Rom. 16), or one might find other interpretations more convincing. But however such a text is interpreted, it is not allowed to trump a commitment to liberation and equality, which is grounded in other scriptures such as the Jesus traditions in the Gospels. The call to pursue liberation for the oppressed and equality for all is received as the living word of God.
I can’t imagine someone reading 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in the contemporary church and then saying after the reading, “This is the word of the Lord.” No it is not! Certainly not today. And I seriously doubt if it functioned as a word of the Lord in that day and time as well. Texts and practices that are healthy and unhealthy, true and false, liberating and enslaving are all part of our Christian tradition. We must discern the difference.
One whose heart is open to the unconditional love of God will be able to “test everything” and “hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). The converted person will be able to hear the word of the Lord through both the good and bad of the tradition.