Genesis 37; Mark 7; Job 3; Romans 7

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.

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7 thoughts on “Genesis 37; Mark 7; Job 3; Romans 7”

  1. Jason says:

    Mr. Carson, would you give some examples of traditions that “effectively domesticate” the Word of God? I would like to understand better what you are addressing in the last paragraph. Thanks!

  2. Examples of traditions that, I think, “effectively domesticate” the Word of God:
    (1) infant baptism
    (2) altar calls
    (3) cessationism (the idea that supernatural spiritual gifts have ceased)

  3. eric larsen says:

    While I am not a fan of “infant baptism” I have heard compelling arguments for it as a dedication of sorts. As far as calling cessationism a domestication of the gospel I would be careful. I am not a cessationist to the point of saying, “God can’t,” however I think the spiritual gifts are as clearly defined as the Trinity is in scripture. What I mean is, we see evidence of an intentional use, the cannon of scripture. Like with the Trinity, we have no direct scriptural reference; just undeniable evidence. So to make my point: if, for instance, the gift of prophecy is open, consequently, so would the cannon of scripture also have to be open. Just something to chew on. God bless

    1. Hi Eric,

      (1) there are no “compelling arguments” for infant baptism and one person cannot “dedicate” another, not even a part.
      (2) I guess you agree. :)
      (3) Cessationism is no where taught in scripture and was not the position of the church until recently (statements taken out of context by the Reformers notwithstanding). It’s simply not true that the continuation of the gift of prophesy means the canon is open. (A “cannon” [sic] is an artillery piece!) In 1 Cor. 14, where that gift is dealt with extensively, never is there a suggestion that the prophesies, when affirmed, were to be added to the canon of scripture. Paul believed in the authority of scripture and the continuation of spiritual gifts, like prophesy.
      Further, to propose cessationism in order to defend the sufficiency of scripture is ironic to the point of self-contradiction. One cannot, on the one hand, claim to believe in the sufficiency of scripture and, on the other, defend it with a doctrine no where found in scripture.

      1. for #1, I meant parent not “part” (sic).

  4. eric larsen says:

    I agree to an extent, and I am thankful for the honest conversation, truly I am, most people get fired up about this and start the theological rhetoric. So again thank you because this is something I do wrestle with! I guess where my stance would come from is the discourse in 1 Cor. 13, and if I am to be honest it is from Edwards that I get my understanding of this. (See his sermon “Love More Excellent than Extraordinary Gifts of the Spirit.”) But it seems that Paul gives a season for the gifts, then once “the perfect comes, the partial will be done away” (1 Cor. 13:10). If you take into context the available NT scripture of the apostolic church, and the rapid spread of Christianity, and the difficulty of long range travel and communication, it becomes a compelling arguement. However I am not comfortable saying the gits have ceased, just that they would not be as necessary for a church that has the complete will of God, excluding the “secret things that belong to the Lord,” for all that is necessary in becoming and living as a Christian. And also the fulfillment of the great commission

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