Church Tradition and Scripture

Sometimes church tradition and Scripture clash, and when they do which are we to choose?

The writings of Hippolytus (170-235 AD) attest to several early traditions associated with baptism not found in the New Testament. For example, those who wanted to be baptized had to first undergo a long series of rituals in the days preceding the baptism (usually baptisms were performed on Easter Sunday), such as examinations of good works, readings of Scripture, and special washings and fastings. The one to perform the baptism was to anoint the candidates with oil, pray over the water (that the Spirit would come upon the water), baptize the candidates three time while reciting a special formula, and then anoint them a second time before assembling to administer and observe the Lord’s Supper (Apostolic Tradition, 215 AD).

Another third century writer, Cyprian (210-258 AD), defended sprinkling and pouring in the case of someone who is expected to die soon; he also advocated infant baptism. An even earlier Christian writing called the Didache (a kind of early church manual, usually dated to the first century) briefly speaks of the mode of baptism, that it usually should be administered by immersion; but if there was not enough water it permitted pouring or sprinkling three times.

One might be tempted to think that because these traditions are so early they must have some connection to the apostles’ teaching in the early first century. But does the mere fact that something was believed or taught in the third, second, or even first century AD mean it is authoritative doctrine? My Bible includes many things practiced in the first century churches which were contrary to the teachings of Jesus and His apostles. 

While we may study tradition and the historical developments of doctrines and practices as interesting information, it comes down to this question: is it what the Bible teaches? A study of baptism in the Bible will reveal that the ritualistic practices cited above do not come from the Bible at all.

Man’s traditions never have the authority of Scripture in any discussion. Along this line, we must clearly distinguish between inspired traditions (to which we must submit—1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15) and uninspired traditions (have no binding authority at all—Col. 2:8). To confuse the two is to make a fatal mistake. This is one of the fundamental errors the Catholic church makes; it upholds “church tradition” and “church interpretation” as holding equal (sometimes even greater) weight as inspired Scripture.

In studies of instrumental music, we sometimes appeal to the impressively long-standing history of acapella worship. All the reformers (Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, etc.) spoke strongly against instrumental music in worship, for some of the very same reasons we do today. While that fact may be a strong argument supporting what the Bible teaches, it can never take the place of what the Bible itself says by virtue of the fact that it is nothing more than a tradition of men. In other words, that alone cannot stand alone to prove the point that instrumental music in worship is wrong; instead, we need “book, chapter, and verse.”

Perhaps we should make another application. Sometimes our beliefs and practice are actually in line with what the Scripture says, and if so that is wonderful! But do we know why it is the truth? Can we give a reasonable defense of what we do from the Scriptures we try to uphold so faithfully? Sometimes the teachings of Scripture can—by our ignorance or lack of honest effort—become mere “church traditions” if we are unable to explain the truth to people. Outsiders will see it that way; and our children will certainly grow up to think so. It is not enough to know what the truth is; we must be able to defend it. “Always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15).

When church tradition and Scripture clash, I choose to put my trust in God every time. Let us take care, that we do not fall for the error of the Pharisees whom Jesus so sternly rebuked. “In vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrine the precepts of men” (Matt. 15:9).