The Standard Bearer: Holding the Traditions (1)*

* In the fall of 1989, I gave the address to the annual meeting of the Reformed Free Publishing Association, publisher of the Standard Bearer. This was my first address to the parent body as editor of the magazine—my “inaugural address.” The group instructed me to publish the speech in the SB. Belatedly, I now obey the order. I have, however, taken the liberty to revise the speech, significantly so in places, as those who heard the speech will discover when they read especially the last two installments. There will be four installments in this series of editorials. We will do our utmost to run them successively. I have purposely refrained from obliterating all evidences that the original mode of this message was that of speaking. The speaking-style has its own force. -DJE


It is an honor to address the annual meeting of the honorable Reformed Free Publishing Association (RFPA).

I am deeply conscious of the tradition of the RFPA and of its publication, the Standard Bearer. As I was making this speech, I looked up more than once at the 64 imposing volumes of the SB, bristling with Reformed doctrine, uncompromising in their defense of creedal orthodoxy, eloquent in their testimony to the cause of God and truth in the Protestant Reformed Churches. I confess that this tradition can be frightening. I had to say to myself, “David, God does not require the men of this generation to attain the lofty heights of the heroes who have gone before, but only that they be faithful.”

We men (and women, I am bound to add, although I see none of the female sex in attendance at this meeting, and cannot understand why not)—we men and women who support and read The SB stand in a certain tradition. I am convinced that this is a glorious tradition. It is the tradition of the Reformed faith as it has come out of the 16th century Reformation of the church; as it is systematically expressed in the Reformed creeds; as it is worked with and witnessed to by the writings of a multitude of Reformed theologians; as it has been lived by Reformed churches worldwide for nearly 500 years; and as it has been held and shaped in the PRC for the past 65 years.

The RFPA has played an important part in the maintenance of this tradition over the past 65 years, largely through the publication of its periodical, theSB. It is this function and responsibility of the RFPA that I intend to explore with you, as I speak on “The SB: Holding the Traditions.”

I have chosen this topic with some deliberation. It is, of course, a biblical topic. In II Thessalonians 215, the apostle charges the saints, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” But my choice of the topic, particularly the use of the word tradition, takes into account that the present time is characterized by the abandonment of tradition, both in the churches and in the world. I do not think it an exaggeration to say that “tradition” is a dirty word—an obscene word—both in the ecclesiastical sphere and in all of Western society.

“Tradition” has to do with the past, with what is old. It refers to a valuing, even a prizing, of those old things. Therefore, it concerns working to make those old things your own, preserving them, and allowing them to direct your life. This last is very definitely an aspect of holding the traditions as I intend it.

There is also a certain prizing and preserving of old things for the sake of their financial worth, or their aesthetic value, or just because one has a highly developed historical sense. People collect antiques. They have old dishes on the shelf. They visit museums to gaze on old documents. The churches that abandon tradition today have this kind of cultured regard for the past and its relics. They have an old copy of the Westminster Confession of Faith in their archives or an original edition of Calvin’s Institutes in their library. On occasion, they bring the artifacts to the attention of the public with fanfare. But of the influencing of their lives by the old things, they must have nothing. Much less will they allow the things from the past to rule their “modern” lives.

Our age, I repeat, is virulently anti-tradition. It is madly in love with novelty.

There are reasons for this, to which I can only allude. There is the influence of evolution, which judges history to be meaningless chance and accident. There is the pervasive influence of existential philosophy, which contends that only the present moment is real. There is the breakdown of the family, which is always the means by which tradition is passed on to the following generation. There is the stupid arrogance of “modern man,” who sincerely supposes that wisdom was born with him. At bottom, there is the rejection of the triune God revealed in the Scriptures, without whom there is nothing of ultimate value, nothing worthy of being prized, preserved, and passed on.

My particular concern is Protestantism, and then chiefly Reformed Protestantism. Here is seen the same disregard and even contempt for tradition. There is deliberate, systematic rejection of the tradition of Reformed doctrine; of the tradition of Reformed worship; of the tradition of Reformed church government; and of the tradition of Reformed life. They call this rejection “liberation.”

In this hostile environment, I make bold to remind us of the duty and privilege that have come down to us: “Hold the traditions!” And if anything of the attitude of our rootless generation has rubbed off on us, I want to do my part to rehabilitate tradition among us.


My thesis is this: We must hold the traditions, because they are precious.

The thesis suffers from the outset by being burdened with an inherent Reformed suspicion of any advocacy of tradition. This is due, first, to the Reformed rejection of the Roman Catholic position on tradition and on the place of tradition in the church. According to Rome, there is in the Roman Catholic Church, altogether apart from the Scriptures and even in contradiction of the Scriptures, a body of truth which the pope can teach and which the people must believe and obey for the salvation of their souls. This body of truth, which is of equal value and authority with the Bible, Rome calls tradition. An example of tradition in the Roman Church is the belief and practice concerning Mary. The Roman Catholic council, Vatican II (1962-1965), maintained this critically important position on tradition:

Consequently, it is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of devotion and reverence (“Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” in The Documents of Vatican II, Walter M. Abbott, S.J., General Editor).

To tradition in this sense, the Reformed believer says “no.” The Scriptures alone are the rule of faith and life, as the sufficient Word of God. The Reformed believer is the sworn foe of extra-biblical tradition as held by Rome. Nor is the threat only from Rome. Always it is a danger to be guarded against that churchmen impose their private theological speculations and their list of “do’s and don’ts” upon the consciences of the saints. Although in the time of the Thessalonians the traditions were taught the congregation both by word and by writing, today, after the completion of the New Testament canon, the traditions are the content of the Scriptures, and nothing besides.

The Reformed suspicion of tradition is due, in the second place, to the condemnation of a certain “tradition,” and a certain “holding” of tradition, by the Scriptures themselves. There is this sharp criticism of tradition in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ controversy with tradition is highlighted in Mark 7 and the parallel Matthew 15. The occasion is the Pharisees’ criticism of Jesus’ disciples for not walking according to “the tradition of the elders” inasmuch as the disciples were eating bread without ceremonially washing, or baptizing, their hands. The sect of the Nazarene broke with the tradition of the covenant community!

There was a strong tradition within the covenant community of that day that consisted of man-made commandments by which the people were to serve God. There was a holding of the traditions that esteemed these laws with the most intense, religious zeal. The Jews were fanatical about tradition, This enthusiasm for tradition was rooted in a passion for ritual and for external obedience to trivial rules. It was fostered by an extremism that desired to out-do the holiness of God, which, of course, is fully revealed in the Ten Commandments.

Jesus pitilessly condemned this holding of traditions as hypocrisy. It is externalism in the stead of heartfelt love for God and the neighbor. It is a putting of the premium on human commandments to the neglect of, and even opposition to, God’s commandments. At the heart of this tradition is the intent to merit salvation by one’s own superior righteousness and scrupulous behavior.

Two things must be noted about this controversy of Jesus with tradition. First, it was the basic controversy of His ministry. At stake was the gospel. Second, the error is a constant threat to the church. As Paul teaches in Colossians 2, it has the appearance of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body (v. 23). The threat is raised in the church, not by the weak and liberal, but by the strong and ultraconservative—the majestic, exemplary Pharisee.

—DJE