The Bible, Tradition and Your Worship
Should the Bible be your sole guide? Is there a place for tradition in your worship?
TRADITIONS are as many and varied as people and places. It can truly be said that traditions in dress, eating habits, architecture, social customs and suchlike things have enriched our lives with variety and color. Moreover, some traditions preserve in them respect for basic moral values, though many of these have gone by the board in the moral decline of this twentieth century. Other traditions are obviously harmful, and certainly the idolizing of tradition has been a great stumbling block to enlightenment and beneficial progress.
Much tradition is also to be found in religions of all kinds, including those called “Christian.” Many, indeed, feel that tradition enriches and adds beauty to their religion. So it is not inappropriate to ask: Is there room for tradition in true Christianity? What does the Bible say about man-made traditions? Can we go so far as to say that there are traditions outside the Bible that are of equal force to it and are just as essential to the Christian’s understanding of God and of His purposes for mankind? To this last question one prominent religion has answered with a decided Yes! At the Council of Trent (A.D. 1545-1564) the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church stated that “according to the belief of the universal Church this supernatural revelation is contained in the written books and unwritten traditions which have come down to us.” Then, at the opening sessions of the Second Vatican Council, almost two weeks were absorbed in debating this proposition. Some argued for the established position of the Catholic church, that there are these two distinct sources of revelation—the Scriptures and tradition. Others wished to view tradition only as an exposition or interpretation of Scripture. Thus the questions present themselves: Are both the Bible and tradition sources of divine revelation? Is tradition an indispensable supplement to true worship?
Tradition may be defined as information, opinion, belief or custom handed down by word of mouth or by example. Viewed from this standpoint, it is certainly possible for some traditions to be present in religion to which no objection could be taken. For example, it may be the custom or tradition to hold meetings for worship and Bible study at certain times and on certain days. Following such “traditions” makes for good order and for the convenience of others, allowing them to develop regular habits as to their worship. But this does not make these traditions indispensable to true worship. The times of such meetings can be changed without detracting from one’s worship of God.
As to a traditional “custom,” it is interesting to note that Jesus, “according to his custom,” preached in the synagogue at Nazareth on the sabbath day. The apostle Paul, no doubt with this example in mind, had the same “custom.” (Luke 4:16; Acts 17:2) Also, viewing tradition in the basic sense of “information handed down by word of mouth or by example,” the information that Paul had received directly from the Lord Jesus Christ could be handed on to the congregations as “tradition.” Note these expressions of the apostle: “You are holding fast the traditions just as I handed them on to you.” “For I received from the Lord that which I also handed on to you,” relative to celebrating the memorial of Christ’s death. “For I handed on to you, among the first things, that which I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” “Maintain your hold on the traditions that you were taught, whether it was through a verbal message or through a letter of ours.”—1 Cor. 11:2, 23; 15:3; 2 Thess. 2:15.
Besides handing on the inspired teachings of Christ Jesus, Paul was himself inspired to transmit many precepts for the upbuilding of the Christian congregation, which, as beneficial traditions, were later committed to writing by him, to become part of the inspired Scriptures. So Paul could write to the congregation at Thessalonica: “Now we are giving you orders, brothers, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to withdraw from every brother walking disorderly and not according to the tradition you received from us.”—2 Thess. 3:6.
In this passage, and in other occurrences in the Christian Greek Scriptures, the Greek word translated “tradition” is parádosis. It carries the thought of something transmitted and is used to speak of traditions good or bad. Above we have noted references to beneficial traditions. On what basis, then, can we determine when a tradition is not beneficial and should be discarded?
To establish the proper perspective as to traditions in relation to the Bible, consider what the same apostle, Paul, wrote at 2 Timothy 3:15-17: “From infancy you have known the holy writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through the faith in connection with Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness, that the man of God may be fully competent, completely equipped for every good work.” No mention here of oral tradition in addition to Scripture as being indispensable for salvation and faith and for one’s being fully competent and completely equipped as a Christian. What, then, are we to conclude when we see human tradition being given an equal rating with God’s inspired Word, and when, even though contrary to the Bible, tradition is accepted and followed instead of the Bible? Could such a situation be compatible with true worship?
Just such a situation did arise in the days of Jesus. Between the last writings of the Hebrew Scriptures in the fifth century B.C. and the coming of Jesus to the earth, the religious leaders of the Jews had added to the written Word a large quantity of verbal human traditions that they claimed were indispensable to the worship of God and that, in many instances, were in conflict with the Scriptures.
In two parallel accounts the Gospel writers Matthew and Mark tell of a discussion that Jesus had with the scribes and Pharisees on this very question. Turning to Matthew’s account, we read: “Then there came to Jesus from Jerusalem Pharisees and scribes, saying: ‘Why is it your disciples overstep the tradition of the men of former times? For example, they do not wash their hands when about to eat a meal.’ In reply he said to them: ‘Why is it you also overstep the commandment of God because of your tradition? For example, God said, “Honor your father and your mother”; and, “Let him that reviles father or mother end up in death.” But you say, “Whoever says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever I have by which you might get benefit from me is a gift dedicated to God,’ he must not honor his father at all.” And so you have made the word of God invalid because of your tradition.’”—Matt. 15:1-6; Mark 7:1-13.
As you can see, the scribes and Pharisees had the greatest respect for a tradition involving the washing of hands in connection with meals. This was no ordinary hand-washing for hygienic purposes. Jesus would not have objected to that. What the Pharisees were referring to was a ceremonious ritual of hand-washing with special water before, during and after a meal. In fact, this was such a serious matter that the Talmud, which incorporated this tradition, said: “He who lightly esteems hand-washing will perish from the earth.”a
Did Jesus, however, regard this tradition as something indispensable to true worship? To the contrary, he went on to illustrate how such a viewpoint could be most harmful, giving an example of where tradition actually made invalid the Word of God. The honor due father and mother included material support when necessary, but the tradition of the scribes and Pharisees nullified this by allowing individuals to evade this responsibility by giving to the temple instead. As they were interested in this kind of “gift” and stood to benefit by such an interpretation, it is not hard to see their motive in this connection. So, as Jesus forcefully emphasized, tradition had produced in these people a hypocritical form of worship that came from the lips but not from the heart.—Matt. 15:7-9.
Never once did Jesus in his ministry quote from oral traditions to support his teachings, but always his appeal was to the written Word of God with expressions such as, “It is written,” “Did you never read this scripture?” and, “What is written in the Law?” (Matt. 4:4-10; Mark 12:10; Luke 10:26) Jesus’ apostle John does tell us that there were things that Jesus did that are not recorded, but indicates that the things vital to everlasting life have been written down. (John 20:30, 31) No, Jehovah God did not leave the preservation of the “word of life” in the insecure hands of oral tradition, but, by inspiration of holy spirit, he caused it to be “written for our instruction,” that “through the comfort from the Scriptures we might have hope.”—Phil. 2:16; Rom. 15:4.
SUPERIORITY OF WRITTEN TRANSMISSION
The traditions or precepts that were transmitted orally at first by Jesus and the apostles and that were to be considered part of God’s revelation of truth for following generations were committed to writing under the direction of the holy spirit, so that before the death of John, the last of the twelve apostles, the canon of the Scriptures was completed. Appropriately John wrote shortly before his death: “If anyone makes an addition to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this scroll.”—Rev. 22:18.
The Creator wisely arranged for the truth to be committed to writing to safeguard us against error and the mistakes of imperfect human memory. Even details of actual happenings are quickly forgotten and get distorted by the passage of time if left to oral transmission. While traditions of a global flood are to be found in all ancient civilizations, the details of such traditions are contradictory and often fantastic. But the Bible has preserved an actual eyewitness account in the “history of Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth.” (Gen. 10:1) If the danger of inaccuracy exists in the oral transmission of actual, physical, visible happenings, how much more so when it comes to the transmission of ideas that are purely spiritual and pertain to things invisible to man. It is in this field particularly that there are to be found many traditions in Christendom’s religions that are not only contrary to God’s written Word, but, yes, actually of pagan origin. May it be that ideas and beliefs that you have long accepted as Bible truth are not actually to be found in the Bible? What about the trinity doctrine of three gods in one, the immortality of the human soul, purgatory, a hell of torment for the wicked? Are these Bible teachings or human traditions?
You owe it to yourself and your family to be in position to answer these questions confidently and correctly. God’s Word sounds a timely warning: “Look out: perhaps there may be someone who will carry you off as his prey through the philosophy and empty deception according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary things of the world and not according to Christ.” (Col. 2:8) To avoid this happening to you, check with your Bible, God’s written inspired guide for true worship. It will quickly help you to determine whether any traditional ideas or practices out of harmony with the truth are associated with your worship. And be assured that any one of Jehovah’s witnesses will be happy to help you make this search of the Bible in the interests of true worship.
What a blessing it is that Jehovah God has provided us with accurate knowledge in written form! In the light of the evidence considered above it is clear that the Bible is the only safe guide. It is complete and needs no additions. Take in its invaluable knowledge by regularly studying its pages. It means life!
a The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. I. pages 68, 69; Code of Jewish Law, 1927, Rabbi S. Ganzfried, pages 125-129.