Rev. Kuiper is pastor of Immanuel Protestant Reformed Church in Lacombe, Alberta, Canada.
The word tradition is used five times by Jesus and four times by the apostle Paul. In addition, there is one occurrence where it is translated “ordinances” (I Cor. 11:2). It is not to be found in the Old Testament, although the idea of tradition is implied in such phrases as “sayings of old which our fathers have told us” (Ps. 78:2, 3); “the rock whence you are hewn” (Isaiah 51:1); and “the ancient landmarks” (Prov. 22:28). The Greek word is composed of a root with the meaning of “to give, to commit, to deliver,” and a prefix which slightly changes the meaning to “entrust, transmit, give over.”
Jesus never spoke of tradition except to condemn and warn against it (Matt. 15:2ff., Mark 7:3ff.). Paul also used it in a negative way (Gal. 1:14; Col. 2:8). In all these passages the Lord and His apostle speak of a body of doctrine and practice which men invented, foisted upon the people as grievous burdens, even though these traditions transgressed the Word of God and made His commandments of none effect. These precepts of men were made equal to the Bible; in fact, they possessed an authority greater than the Word of God in the minds of the elders and the Pharisees.
Paul also used the term in a positive, salutary sense. In II Thessalonians 2:15 he commands that the church stand fast, and “hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word or our epistle.” The context shows that tradition refers to a definite body of doctrine that God has ordained, revealed to Paul, and passed on by him to the church. In II Thessalonians 3:6, he enjoins the brotherhood to “withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.” Here the reference is to a definite way of life which God has laid down as acceptable in the church. We may safely say that this tradition of doctrine and walk is the Bible. It is the sole rule, the only authority, for faith and life.
The Roman Catholic Church makes much of tradition. Authority for Rome is the Bible, and developing tradition (the apocryphal books, writings of Greek and Latin church fathers, decisions of church councils, and papal decrees). And the church determines what the Bible teaches and what tradition means. All the dreadful distinctives of Rome are based on the traditions of men, all of them: purgatory, the priesthood, the mass, transubstantiation, prayers for the dead, indulgences, penance, worship of Mary, use of images in worship, holy water, rosary beads, celibacy, the papacy (and its claims. Not only do these doctrines lack biblical warrant, but, they are often in direct contradiction to Scripture. For example, Paul writes that there is one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ. Rome introduces a host of mediators such as Mary, priests, hundreds of saints, and thousands of angels. The Romish church has followed hard in the footsteps of the Pharisees, falls under the condemnation of Jesus, and is a false church (Belgic Confession, Art. 29). We cannot be thankful to God enough for Martin Luther, whose thrilling words before the Diet of Worms left that august assembly spellbound: “Since then your Majesty and lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant any thing, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” Sola Scriptura!
The devilish echo of Romish tradition is heard in many churches today, where we find a growing church hierarchy which rules from the top down (Synod, Classes over local councils), and where it is evident that the science of the world is elevated above Scripture, if ever we are to discover what the Bible means.
As churches we have our traditions; every church does. We preach the Heidelberg Catechism every Sunday, and we hold services on various, significant days throughout the year. So strong are these traditions that they are embodied in our Church Order. Our Three Forms of Unity belong to the Reformed tradition. Now we do not suggest that there are errors in our Creeds! We love them, believe them, and use them every day. But all traditions decided upon by men and councils must always be subjected to the biblical tradition, laid down by God Himself. And if anything in our tradition does not agree perfectly with Scripture, it must be let go of and changed in the proper way. In this way a Reformed church is always reforming.