MANY PROTESTANTS ARE suspicious of “traditions.” In popular polemic, Protestants have often portrayed Roman Catholics as embracing the Bible plus traditions, while we ourselves simply hold to the Bible. There are several matters that need clarification before we can hear aright what Mark 7 says about traditions.
The first is a historical observation. There is very good evidence that until the Reformation of Roman Catholic Church had not yet formulated the clear-cut distinction that prevailed after the Reformation. Even when the Catholic Church was propounding fairly innovative doctrine, it tried hard to tie that doctrine to Scripture in some way, perhaps through a series of inferences. But confronted by the Reformation’s sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”), the Catholic Church argued for a view of revelation that insisted that truth was given as a deposit to the church itself, and part of this was the deposit found in holy Scripture and part lay in other traditions that the church guarded and passed on. In this kind of formulation, then, tradition is set over against Scripture as something additional to it.
That brings us to the second observation, one that touches on the text of the New Testament. Here, one can find the word tradition or traditions used in either a positive or a negative way. The word tradition simply refers to what is handed on. If what is handed on is apostolic teaching, then traditions are a very good thing (e.g., 1 Cor. 11:2); if what is handed on conflicts with what God says, then traditions are unhelpful and dangerous (as here in Mark 7).
This distinction between different kinds of tradition is not the same as one that we commonly draw today. We distinguish traditions that are intrinsically neutral but nevertheless helpful in building families or communities – family traditions, or interesting cultural or ecclesiastical traditions – and those that are repressive, restrictive, or stifling. In short, we make distinctions on the basis of the social effect of traditions, not on the basis of whether or not they are true. But in the New Testament, traditions are praised or criticized not on the basis of their social function but in the light of their conformity to or departure from the Word of God. Here in Mark 7:1-13, the traditions that Jesus condemns are those that allow people to sidestep what the Scripture clearly says.
In the third place, we must recognize that confessing evangelicals who nominally eschew tradition sometimes embrace traditions that effectively domesticate the Word of God. These may be traditional interpretations of Scripture, or traditional ecclesiastical practices, or traditional forms of conduct that are “allowed” in our circles but that are a long way from holy Scripture. In every case, fidelity to Christ mandates reformation by the Word of God.