The Book: Traditions of man

Being a lover of history, I always read the introductions preceding each book of the Bible.

As a child, I discovered each book had its own story: Who scholars thought wrote it, when, and its historical context.  I had visions of ancient people, moved by God to scratch out hymns, histories, and letters to inspire and guide countless future generations on the path to salvation. This added to the richness of the texts, the human story behind each word.

In reading these introductions, I first began to wonder what Bible-believing Christians did before there was a New Testament. However, I was not troubled so much that I would question the Protestant concept of Sola Scriptura, a belief that the Bible is the sole guide to Christian belief and practice. After all, we were blessed to have the Bible today thanks to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the question did not seem that relevant to Christians today.

In my Evangelical years, many of those I worshipped with believed the Catholic Church embraced traditions of men, and therefore salvation by works rather than faith. Where did that phrase “traditions of men” come from? Straight from the lips of Jesus as recorded in Mark 7:1-8.

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” *

As an Evangelical, I equated the Pharisees of Jesus time directly to the Catholic Church of today; what some identified as Revelation’s “Whore of Babylon.” It was clear to me that Jesus taught that Catholics, like the Pharisees, had “abandoned the commandment of God and held to human tradition.”

When I began attending St. Elizabeth church, the relevance of the question, “Is the New Testament a tradition of man,” became much more prominent in my mind. While Catholic life and worship were infused much more with scripture than I had expected, it was evident to me that many Catholic traditions were not specifically outlined in the Bible. I found no Eucharistic Prayer II in the Pauline epistles, nor did I find seven sacraments in a single bulleted list in the Acts of the Apostles. And, I was confident I’d never seen the word “Pope” anywhere in the scriptures.

As I began a serious encounter with Catholicism, my challenge was to understand what exactly Sola Scriptura meant to Protestants, and how I could define traditions of men. The truth is, I’d never seen a clear definition of Sola Scriptura with any degree of Protestant consensus. But, I had been given a handy test to root out traditions of men: Simply ask, “Where’s that in the Bible?” If the practice wasn’t in the Bible, then it wasn’t scriptural. And, if it wasn’t scriptural, it simply must be a tradition of man. That’s the filter through which I approached my first encounters with the Catholic church.

One of the first books I received from St. Elizabeth’s Father Luerman was Oscar Lukefahr’s, “We Believe…”: A Survey of the Catholic Faith. In this book, I discovered what should be obvious: The gospels of the New Testament did not drop fully formed, like manna from Heaven, on the day of Christ’s resurrection. Lukefahr notes three stages in the development of the gospels: “The first stage was the life and teaching of Jesus. The second was the oral preaching of Jesus’ followers and the earliest writings about him. The third stage was the work of the gospel writers, the evangelists, which consisted in the collecting of materials about Jesus and adapting them to meet the needs of specific audiences.”

Lukefahr’s little book took me back to the now troubling question of history and how the New Testament was written. And, later how it was decided – if even under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – what books should be included. In all the time I’d spent with Evangelicals, we’d all agreed the Catholic Church was based on “traditions of man,” implying that we Bible-believing Christians based our activities on divinely inspired words in the scriptures. We used the Bible as our yardstick from which to indict Catholic traditions. Yet, it was beginning to dawn on me that the agreement on what constitutes the canon of the Holy Scripture was in itself a tradition, albeit one that we Protestants would agree was divinely inspired. What’s more, I learned that the canon of the Bible was widely established before there was any such thing as a Protestant church, during a time when Catholic simply meant Universal.

That left me with a huge stumbling block: Just as the seven sacraments do not appear in a Biblical bullet list, the canon of the New and Old Testaments did not appear within the scriptures. Therefore, I was forced to rely on tradition – the inspired teaching of Spirit-guided church leaders – to accept the canon of the New Testament. I could not be Bible-believing and reject tradition.

If I were to reject the Bible because it came to us via traditions of men, then I would be forced to question the Bible’s credibility to serve as a guide to my life and the life of the church.

Look at many churches today, and you’ll see the results of rejecting Christian tradition, including scriptures. Morality becomes relative. We let our modern consciences – not the Bible or Church tradition – be our guide.

By rejecting tradition, we are forced to let society’s evolving concepts of morality drive church teachings, rather than allowing Christian traditions to guide our concepts of morality. And yet, hundreds of Bible-believing churches – often rejecting labels such as Protestant or Evangelical – endlessly fracture over disagreements on what the Bible says.  Formal and informal communities made up of multiple churches affiliate over a common set of beliefs and traditions regarding what the Bible really means.

It became apparent that, as an Evangelical, I had fully embraced the tradition of the Bible while rejecting the source of that tradition. I also failed to recognize the Protestant embracing of traditions that firmly guided the religious practices and affiliations of the churches I attended.

I always had taken for granted the complete corruption of the Catholic Church that resulted in the Bible-based Reformation. Few today would argue that the universal church of the 1500s – let alone that of the 2000s – faced challenges and, at times, urgently needed reformation. Yet, I was left wondering if just one Catholic tradition was accepted by the reformers – the New Testament – what were the criteria for rejecting the others?

In Lukefahr’s book, I’d seen numerous Biblical references supporting church traditions, such as the seven sacraments. Was there any chance that the Reformation had thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater? Was it a reformation alone, or was it a schism?

A small quietly ignored crack in my assumptions about the Catholic Church became a growing breach. If the Catholics had gotten it right – or even mostly right – about the canon of the Bible, I felt compelled as a Bible-believing Christian to examine other Catholic teachings. I no longer trusted what my fellow Evangelicals had taught me in books, sermons, radio broadcasts and television shows. I needed to know – in the Catholic Church’s own words – what it was teaching and doing.

It wasn’t that I felt my Evangelical brethren had ill intent. Instead, I worried that these Protestants were merely sharing erroneous, but sincerely held, traditions of man that had been passed along to them for 500 years since the days of Luther and Calvin.


New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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