Why We Need Church Tradition: Interpreting the Bible

Why We Need Church Tradition: Interpreting the Bible

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The Holy Spirit not only inspired the writing of the Bible, but he also inspires the reading and interpretation of the Bible, which is the basis for church tradition, which is better called the “Great Tradition” that is the shared lineage of all Christians.

Why We Need Church Tradition

Many Christians are uneasy about the idea of church tradition as an authoritative source for an accurate understanding of God and worship. If the Bible is the inspired Word of God and sufficient for salvation, why do we need church tradition and creeds? Does following church tradition not violate the Bible’s commands to not add to the Scriptures (Deut. 4:2 and Rev. 18–19)?

The answer to the objection to tradition is relatively simple: we need church tradition because the Bible—as a text—requires interpretation. Take, for example, the command to remember the Sabbath to keep it holy (Ex. 20:8–11). Can we wash dishes on the Sabbath? Go for a walk? Can we get out of bed? Go to the grocery store? Watch sports? Play with the kids? The point is that the command to rest on the Sabbath needs to be interpreted. Even further, it is only based on the church’s theological tradition that we understand why Sunday, rather than the Sabbath, became the Christian holy day. As one theologian once said, the Bible sometimes gives us all the ingredients but doesn’t always tell us how to bake the cake.

The role of tradition, then, is not to invent teaching or add to the Scriptures, but to preserve the integrity of the original meaning of Scripture with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Tradition results from moving beyond what a text says and arriving at what it means. Tradition is founded on the conviction that the Holy Spirit inspires both the writing and the reading of Scripture (Heb. 4:12; 2 Tim. 3:16). The Holy Spirit not only gives God’s people the Word of God but also helps us to understand what it means and apply it in our times. When the worshipping community arrives at an interpretation by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that interpretation becomes tradition. The role of tradition, then, is not to invent teaching or add to the Scriptures, but to preserve the integrity of the original meaning of Scripture with the help of the Holy Spirit. We are significantly aided in our efforts to understand the Holy Spirit by recognizing the Great Tradition of the church and entering into dialogue with those who came before us in the effort to live faithfully.

When we rely on tradition for clarity on the Holy Spirit, we must keep in mind that we are assuming that the Holy Spirit was faithful in guiding the formulation of doctrine. When we look to tradition for teaching on the Holy Spirit, we assume that the faithful community of Christians were under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in arriving at their interpretive conclusions. Relying on the church’s traditions as an authority on Christian teaching by no means replaces the Scriptures with teachings of men; instead, it believes and relies upon the faithfulness of the Holy Spirit to speak in and through the church in history. Embracing church tradition is an exercise in faith that God did not fail in guiding his people in truth in the face of false teaching through the centuries.

Scripture First (Prima Scriptura)

Even though the Holy Spirit still speaks in and through the church, the Scriptures alone are in a particular category of divine revelation. The Bible is the inspired, authoritative, infallible, sufficient, united Word of God. While in the category of divine revelation and affirming that the Holy Spirit still speaks to illuminate our understanding, tradition is not equivalent to the Bible in its authority. While Scripture and tradition complement one another and work together, Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the primary and final authority. Scripture is in a category all by itself as authoritative divine revelation. This means that tradition must be measured against Scripture and that tradition can never add to the canon of Scripture.

If you would like to learn more about the Holy Spirit, Matt Ayars’s new book The Holy Spirit: An Introduction. This readable systematic theology works through the person and work of the Spirit that offers a comprehensive overview not just of this doctrine but as a vision for the Spirit’s indispensable role in the victorious Christian life.

Readers will come away with the sound biblical and historic Christian basis for the divine personhood of the Holy Spirit and the optimism of living a Christian life that is free from the power of sin. This results from the graceful reality of the indwelling Spirit, who unites our lives with Christ. This book—The Holy Spirit: An Introduction—drives home our high privilege of having the Holy Spirit restore the image of God in individuals by uniting us to Jesus. It will serve as an indispensable resource for leaders, students, and anyone desiring to deepen their understanding of the Holy Spirit.



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