Posts Tagged With: tradition

Scripture and Tradition

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” (2 Timothy 3:16; all Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated).

Photograph from Max Pixel, under a Creative Commons Zero – CC0 license.

Last week’s post began with the title, “The Authority of Scripture,” yet also touched strongly on the role of church tradition. This can be a complicated discussion. It is so complicated that I think many Christians simply avoid it by seeking simple answers. For many, that simple answer is to simply call oneself a “Bible-believing Christian” and reject tradition entirely. The other simple answer is to accept the teachings of one’s church without examining the Scriptures to see if these things are so (Acts 17:11). I think a more moderate stance—accepting the truth of God’s Word, but looking to see how the Holy Spirit has spoken through it in previous eras—is a wiser choice. It may not be feasible to address all that this entails in a simple blog post, but I will do my best in the following paragraphs. (I realize I am treading some controversial waters here: please read this entire post and the previous one before jumping to conclusions.)

Martin Luther. Portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), via Wikipedia.

There are many conflicting beliefs about the proper interpretation of Scripture. Who do I trust? Do I follow Joel Osteen, Charles Stanley, or some other prominent modern preacher or best-selling Christian author? Do I accept the wisdom of a reputable contemporary theologian like J. I. Packer, or a respected Bible scholar or preacher from previous decades? What about the Reformers like Martin Luther or John Calvin, or later founders of Christian movements like John Wesley? In each of these cases, I am looking to the interpretation or opinion of somebody who lived over 1400 years after Jesus and His disciples. Some of these people had political or other ideological agendas mixed with their theology.

So, if I am going to allow a man of God to guide my interpretation of Scripture, is it better to look to one of these people, or to trust the opinion of Irenaeus or Polycarp? Who is this, you ask? Is Polycarp Greek for “a lot of fish” or is it actually a person’s name? Polycarp was an early Christian leader, ordained by none other than St. John, the apostle. He learned the Christian faith from John. He, in turn, taught Irenaeus. Thus, in the writings of these two men, we learn from people who were only one or two steps removed from Jesus Himself! Polycarp did not merely know the Gospel of John; he knew its author. He knew things St. John taught both in spoken and written Word!

Furthermore, the canon—the list of books accepted by the Church as the Word of God—is itself a product of tradition. Why do we read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, while ignoring the Gospel of Thomas? Jesus is quoted saying some great things in Thomas, but we ignore it. While many say, “Thomas was not really written by the disciple” (I agree with that statement), many scholars question whether the four Gospels we read were actually written by those authors (Matthew’s Gospel gives no direct clues who its author is). We simply accept by faith that those first four Gospels are the Word of God, and the Gospel according to Thomas and similar non-biblical “gospels&rdquo are the words of men. Likewise, we accept Revelation as the Word of God, but have never read the Shepherd of Hermas (although many early Christians preferred that book). Finally, Martin Luther wished he could take the letter of James out of the New Testament. However, the historic early church has spoken: We recognize these books as the Word of God. Other books may be great devotional literature or completely heretical. We accept the early church’s witness without really thinking about it.

Yes, errors have emerged at times in Church history. However, errors and heresies continue to pop up today. Many are merely repackaged versions of false teachings we think we have rejected (the similarities between medieval Catholicism’s sale of indulgences and the modern charismatic teaching about “seed-faith offerings to claim a blessing” are really two heads of the same monster). We can benefit by seeing how the Holy Spirit has guided the Church throughout the ages, rather than jumping on new revelations or radical reinterpretations of the Bible. We have no authority to reshape the meaning of Scripture! Yes, we can reapply its principles to new situations; over the last 20 years or so, Christians have had to learn how to apply biblical principles to social media, blogging, and other aspects of the Internet, even though none of these are mentioned in Scripture. Modern Christians have to learn how to live biblical truth—written in societies usually governed by kings, emperors, and tyrants—in democratic and republican societies. However, the meaning of Scripture has not changed—what has changed is the culture in which we have to apply it.

Unfortunately, some Christians try to modify the Bible’s meaning to adapt it to a changed society. About 15 or 20 years ago, while teaching a Bible study at my church, I said that within a few years even so-called Bible-believing Christians would find themselves considering homosexual marriage “normal.” Most in the congregation doubted at that time, but look what has happened since then. It was legalized in Massachusetts; then in a few other states; and now, by Supreme Court ruling, it is legal in all 50 states. In response, some evangelical Christians have tried to redefine the meaning of biblical words about homosexuality, in an attempt to force the Bible into meaning what they want it to mean. Sorry, folks, you can convince yourself that your sophistry and rhetoric works, but God Himself is not moved: When Scripture lists “homosexuality” as a sin in 1 Corinthians 6:9, the Greek term is a compound word which literally means “a man who goes to bed with another man”; it simply does not and cannot mean “pedophile” or “child molester.”

Christians have become afraid to call sin by its biblical name, so many of us try to find ways to reinterpret Scripture to accept lifestyles that the Old Testament calls “abominations,” or to remove the Bible’s clear teaching about hell. I can only wonder how long it is until so-called Bible-believing churches accept transgenderism or polygamy. When we reject the wisdom of past decades of Spirit-led men of God and trust in our own understanding, anything goes. So, if a preacher is bringing a “new revelation” or “deeper truth” that was not taught in previous generations, be suspicious. Every time we ignore the Holy Spirit’s guidance of previous generations and assume He is correcting Himself, we are one step closer to apostasy.

Traditions have failed the Church in the past, but they still serve a valuable purpose. They give us a foundation upon which to interpret the hard questions of Scripture. They keep us connected with the universal Body of Christ throughout the ages. They keep a check on our pride and egotism, which may seek to distort Scripture to suit our own desires.

In my next post, we will take a look at how this relates to the purpose of Scripture and how God can use it to speak to us.

Copyright © 2019 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Revelation and Scripture | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

The Authority of Scripture

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” (2 Timothy 3:16; all Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated).

Photograph from Max Pixel, under a Creative Commons Zero – CC0 license.

Our recent study about special revelation (here, here, here, and here) addressed the nature of how God reveals Himself to us and what that tells us about the nature of Scripture. Since the Bible is the record of God’s self-revelation to mankind, it is the authority to which all mankind, and especially all Christians and the Church, must yield.

The Bible is not a man-made record of God’s self-revelation. It is a God-breathed record. The Greek word used here, “theopneustos,” is translated in different English Bibles as “inspired,” “God breathed,” or “breathed out by God.” The Word of God was breathed out by the Spirit of God into the hearts and minds of those who recorded it for future generations. The Holy Spirit inspired the writers of Scripture and directed them as they wrote. He guided the apostles to understand truths they were not ready to receive during Jesus’ earthly ministry (John 16:12–13), and these now appear in the pages of Scripture. This is not an ordinary book. Sadly, many Christians treat the Bible like an intellectual Lego set, trying to piece it together to suit their desires:

“And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:19–21).

This divine inspiration is the source of the Bible’s authority. Since the Bible bears God’s authority, we have an obligation to yield to it: the Bible does not yield to us. This should be self-evident to Christians, but a growing number of believers prefers to exercise their own authority over God’s Word. We have no right to force God’s Word to line up with our convictions. We need to know what it says and means, not what we wish it said and meant. Unfortunately, non-Christians are not alone in their rejections of Scriptural authority. At times, even those who claim to be “Bible-believing Christians” can try to place themselves outside its authority, even while seeking to reject “tradition.” To avoid the errors (or perceived errors) in Roman Catholicism, many choose to read the Bible for themselves and make up their own minds about what it means. While we should seek to know the truth (and avoid falling into the errors others have made), we must not use this as an opportunity to redefine biblical truth.

While Jesus was critical of “the traditions of men,” the concept of tradition is not always rejected in the New Testament:

“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

“Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6).

Note that Paul told the Thessalonians to hold onto the traditions that they learned either via spoken word or letter. The “letter” here could refer to 1 Thessalonians, which shares a place in the Bible with this letter. What about the spoken words, though? It seems that these traditions could be traced directly back through the apostles to Jesus Himself. Until the New Testament was canonized about 300 years later, the Church’s official source of authority was “apostolic teaching.” If a tradition did not come from the apostles, it was not considered authoritative Christian doctrine. That apostolic tradition found its crystallized final form in the New Testament books we read today.

I am not advocating adherence to every tradition that was ever passed down. Some traditions contradict each other, and others that have emerged in church history clearly contradict the Bible. Roman Catholics believe Mary was bodily assumed into heaven, while Eastern Orthodoxy maintains that she was buried in Ephesus (where St. John, the beloved disciple, is also believed to be buried). One of these traditions is not true. However, many other historic traditional teachings remain trustworthy.

I realize I have entered some controversial territory here, but I do not think my stance is unique. Martin Luther (famed for the slogan, “sola scriptura”) did not stray too far from historic Church teaching on many subjects (e.g., the sacraments), and John Wesley balanced his devotion to Scripture with a desire to interpret it in light of tradition, reason, and experience. In a following post, I will add some more thoughts to show why it is important to connect our understanding of Scripture with some level of tradition.

A few final disclaimers: (1) My beliefs about the relationship and role of Scripture and tradition have evolved in recent years. I am still learning and studying, and my thoughts on this subject could change in recent years. (2) I do not guarantee that my thoughts on this subject, in this and the following post, exactly match the teachings of my church or any other denomination. (3) While I welcome comments and discussion, I may not respond to all comments directed to specific doctrines affected by this discussion.

Copyright © 2019 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Revelation and Scripture | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

In Preparation for Lent

NHL's Stanley Cup.

Hockey players do not seem to complain about dead rituals when receiving the Stanley Cup. Why do Christians when we seek spiritual rewards? (Image via Wikipedia)

“One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.  For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:5-8, ESV).

Ten days until Ash Wednesday. This is not exactly a season of the church year that excites a lot of people. Advent excites people, mainly because it has been secularized along with Christmas. While Advent should be a time of spiritual preparation (we await the celebration of Christ’s birth, and at the same time reflect on how we await His Second Coming), it has become for most Americans the “Christmas season,” when we invade department stores like hordes of barbarian raiders, go to Christmas parties, and rock out to songs about flying reindeer, talking snowmen, Santa Clause, etc.

Lent, however, has developed a bit of a gloomy reputation. After all, this is a season of self-sacrifice. For some, it is about eating meat on Fridays and giving up a favorite food and/or activity for 40 days: a joyless emphasis on sin and sacrifice. For others, it is a ritual without foundation in Scripture: a dead ritual.

I will address that second perspective first, before responding to the other one. Anybody who cares to observe life will notice that we humans are creatures of habit who gravitate towards rituals. This is true in all areas of life. Gravitating toward ritual is not the same as being ritualistic (if, by that term, one thinks of a person engaging in rituals mindlessly). The following is an example from the world of sports that illustrates this.

Hockey’s Stanley Cup Final is a classic example of ritual in action. We may not think of it as a religious ceremony, but it has many features of one. At the end of any Stanley Cup Finals series, when one team has won their fourth game, the two teams line up at center ice to shake hands. They skate down a line and shake hands with each of their opponents. Sometimes they embrace in a “man hug”; two guys who pummeled each other with their sticks and fists one period ago may suddenly look like the best friends in the world.

Next, a red carpet is rolled out onto the ice, and a pair of caretakers carry the Stanley Cup out for the award ceremony. The NHL’s Commissioner then presents the trophy to the winning team’s captain. He raises the Cup over his head, skates a lap around the ice, and usually kisses the side of the cup. Next, he hands it off to another player. The selection of “player #2” is usually quite significant: it may be a veteran leader who has finally won the Cup after many years in the NHL, or a player who made significant contributions to his team’s success in the series. He repeats the lap around the ice routine. This continues until every player on the team has had a chance to hoist the Cup, kiss it, and skate a lap around the ice.

My point in sharing this is twofold. First, it definitely shows all the marks of a ritual. You know what is about to happen. Second, I have never seen any NHL player complain about having to take part in this ritual. Not a single player who hoists the cup skates around nonchalantly, looking like he would rather go back to his hotel room before Leno comes on the air. Every player–no matter how bruised, beaten, and exhausted he may be–goes through this ritual with joy and enthusiasm. He has worked and waited for years to reach this moment, and he will relish it for a lifetime. They do not view it as an “obligation,” but as a dream come true.

The issue with any ritual is not whether it is a ritual or not. The problem is when we approach it with a negative attitude. Hockey players do not think of it as a ritual when they hoist the Cup. Newlyweds do not usually think of their honeymoon as a “dead ritual with no biblical foundation”; OK, I am sure somebody somewhere must have thought that, and I would be curious about how the marriage turned out.

We should apply this perspective to any ritual in the church. All churches have post-biblical rituals, even those who claim that they follow only the Bible. No matter what church you attend, I am sure you have an order of worship; most likely, that order is found nowhere in Scripture (you cannot find a passage that tells you the exact point in a service when the offering should be collected). Yet, if someone decides to revamp the order of worship, there is usually an outcry: “What is wrong with the way we did it before?”

The rituals are not bad in themselves, but they can become a problem when we focus on them instead of their meaning or purpose. NHL players do not mind the Cup ritual because they are not focused on the routine of carrying a 35-pound piece of metal around on the ice; they are focused on celebrating their achievement. Likewise, Lent can become a boring, tedious ritual of torture if our hearts are not in it.

So, in preparation for Lent, I offer the following suggestions to bring the joy of the Lord into the observance:

  • First, observe it as unto the Lord, not as a mere tradition or ritual. Observe Ash Wednesday, and every other day, as a day for the Lord. Abstain as a means of drawing closer to the Lord.
  • Recognize the purpose of Lent. This is a time when we reflect on our weakness and our need for a Savior. At the same time, it is an opportunity for us to rejoice that God has already given us a Savior, Jesus Christ. Those who have come to believe in Him are already forgiven.
  • Remember that Lent is not a matter of salvation. I have come to view it as a great way for the body of Christ to unite in fasting. Jesus did precede His teaching on fasting by saying “When you fast,” not if (see Matt. 6:16). However, He did not give specific dates that we must fast. Lent is a great, ready-made guideline. However, if you can find another meaningful way of working Lent into your walk with God, that is fine too.
  • Consider the purpose of fasting. Christians tend to fast for different reasons. While I try to schedule regular fasts, I often need a certain focus; “because it’s Friday” is the sort of reason-for-fasting that can easily become boring. One focus for me is based on 1 Corinthians 9:26-27: “So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control,lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Although it is not the only reason for fasting, I find that it is helpful as a means of learning and practicing self-discipline.
  • Likewise, we should approach Lent from a perspective of spiritual liberty.
  • This is not an area for judging others. I am not a “better Christian” because I give something up for Lent. On the other hand, those who choose not to observe Lent are not “better Christians” because they forego it. Lent, properly practiced, can be a great means of growing spiritually. However, it is not the only means.

In 10 days, we will receive ashes on our foreheads and begin our Lenten fasts. What will you give up for 40 days? Which spiritual disciplines will you take up or increase for those 40 days? Most importantly, what changes do you hope to see in your relationship with Christ as a result of this 40-day journey?

Categories: Bible meditations | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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