There has been a great deal of talk lately about the so-called “Great Tradition.” In fact, I am currently reading a book entitled Interpreting Scripture With the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis, a book which seeks to hold up a somewhat nebulously defined “Great Tradition” to which it calls Christians to return. I plan to offer some thoughts on the book by next week, Lord willing, in either written or video form here on the blog. For now, however, I just wanted to point out one initial reaction to the book. That reaction is simply that Scripture itself is the Great Tradition to which all Christians must always look as their ultimate and sufficient authority. We should, therefore, be more than a little wary when we hear of a “Great Tradition” that is other than Scripture, even if said tradition is thought to be firmly grounded upon Scripture. This is especially true when that tradition is essentially touted as the lens through which we must properly interpret Scripture. We would do well to remember in this regard the Apostle Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonian believers:
NKJ 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions [Pl. > παράδοσις, parádosis] which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.
When Paul said to “hold the traditions which you were taught,” he was referring to the content of the teaching that they had received from him. He used the Greek noun parádosis, which is derived from the verb paradídōmi. The verb means in such contexts to hand down or to pass on some oral or written teaching, and the noun thus refers to the content of what is handed down or passed on. The traditions that Paul had in mind here are the apostolic teachings that he had previously handed down to them from our Lord Jesus. In the preceding context these teachings include such things as the Gospel message, the return of our Lord Jesus, and the doctrines of election, sanctification, and glorification. What he was referring to, then, is the body of teaching that was eventually included in the New Testament Scriptures, to which nothing could be added once the Apostles themselves had passed away.
This contradicts the view of so many Roman Catholic apologists, by the way, who try to argue from this passage that Paul affirms their position that authoritative tradition is ongoing apart from and in addition to Scripture. There is simply no way that Paul’s use of the term can be taken as referring to anything other than the apostolic teaching itself, and this coincides with his use of the terminology elsewhere when referring to this teaching. Consider, for example, Paul’s statements to the Corinthian believers:
NKJ 1 Corinthians 11:2 Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions [παράδοσις, parádosis] just as I delivered [Aor. Act. Ind. > παραδίδωμι, paradídōmi] them to you.
Notice that he said that they should keep the traditions just as he had passed them on to them. He did not anticipate the possibility of anyone adding to or taking away from this tradition in his own day, let alone some council of bishops or a pope in the coming centuries.
NKJ 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered [Aor. Act. Ind. > παραδίδωμι, paradídōmi] to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; 24 and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” 25 In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
NKJ 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 For I delivered [Aor. Act. Ind. > παραδίδωμι, paradídōmi] to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve.
Such usage of the terminology with respect to Christian doctrine always refers to the apostolic teaching that must be believed and faithfully preserved without any alteration. To be sure, there have been many traditions in the Church since that time, and we should have a healthy respect for such traditions when they reflect scriptural teaching. But none of these later Church traditions should ever be elevated to a place in which there is even the possibility that they will be seen as being on a par with Scripture, that is, as being on a par with the traditions we have received from our Lord Jesus and His Apostles. And, if Church history teaches us anything, it teaches us the danger about which Jesus warned the Pharisees and scribes when He said, “So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God” (Matt. 15:6 ESV).
Getting back to 2 Thessalonians 2:15, however, notice also that Paul didn’t simply say that we need to know or remember the traditions we have been taught, but that we must hold onto them. This presupposes that we know and remember them, but it says more than this. The idea is that there will temptations to let them go or that there are forces that will try to steal them away and that we, therefore, must hold on to them tightly and refuse to let them go. This involves also the idea of defending the tradition we have received, as our departed brother Jude would say:
NKJ Jude 1:3 Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered [Aor. Pass. Part. > παραδίδωμι, paradídōmi] to the saints.
This “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” has been recorded for us in Scripture, which was still being written when Paul wrote his epistle to the Thessalonians. This is why he had to stress that they should hold to what they were taught, “whether by word or our epistle” – the epistle referred to in this case, of course, being what we know as 1 Thessalonians.
In stressing these two ways in which they had received the apostolic teaching, Paul also intended to contrast what he was commanding here with what he had said earlier in the passage, when he warned them “not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come” (vs. 2, italics mine). They had rightly received the apostolic teaching as the Word of God, for which Paul had commended them in his previous epistle:
NKJ 1 Thessalonians 2:13 For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe.
The point here is that they should not now receive as the Word of God any teaching that adds to or takes away from what they had already received as such. This would include, of course, any other Christian tradition that would develop in his own lifetime or in the centuries to come, no matter how well intended, even a tradition we might be tempted to call a “Great Tradition.”
I hope the reader can see my concern. I am not saying that those who are talking about “the Great Tradition” are necessarily rejecting the authority of Scripture or purposely intending to elevate said tradition such that it will compete with scriptural authority. But I am warning the reader about the danger of this happening whenever we start to refer to any tradition, other than Scripture, as “the Great Tradition.” I say again, Scripture itself is the Great Tradition.