I grew up Roman Catholic. We practiced many unbiblical traditions. For example, I prayed to St. Joseph. He was the patron saint that helped people find things that were lost. We said the rosary as a family around the dinner table every evening during lent. My father had a statue of Mary in our backyard—we venerated her. We even believed that she was a co-mediatrix with Christ. We believed in Purgatory—in effect, a temporary hell—a place where people go after death to propitiate God’s wrath by suffering for their own sin so that they can eventually go to heaven.
None of these are mentioned in the Bible. Even worse, they actually contradict the Bible. For example, the Bible forbids praying to the dead. It makes no mention of purgatory; just the opposite—Christ’s work on the cross totally propitiated God’s wrath. Therefore, purgatory is a tacit rejection of Christ’s finished work. And the Bible specifically repudiates Mary as a co-mediatrix.
“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
In addition, based on tradition, and in direct contradiction to the Bible, Catholics teach that we are justified by “infused righteousness”. In other words, we get right with God through good works. For Catholics this means obedience to Catholic church hierarchy and the frequent reception of the sacraments. The Bible teaches otherwise:
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe…For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:21-22, 28).
If you are Protestant, and you consider the Bible the final authority in doctrine and discernment, you will find all the above abhorrent. Where do ideas like this come from? They occur when we place tradition on the same level with Scripture. Pope Benedict, who died on December 31, 2022, had a high view of Scripture, but it was his definition of Scripture that was the problem:
“We must understand [Benedict’s] true position. In his 2010 Exhortation Verbum Domini, he claimed that the Word of God “precedes and exceeds sacred Scripture; nonetheless Scripture, as inspired by God, contains the divine word.” According to him, the Bible is the Word of God in the sense that it contains the Word.”[i]
In other words, “Scripture” is bigger than the Bible. It includes church tradition. In fact, for Catholics, church tradition is a form of Scripture. Therefore, in many cases it cancels or changes clear biblical teaching.
This position, and all the doctrinal shipwrecks that followed, were the primary motivation for the 16th century Protestant Reformation. “Sola Scriptura”, the belief that the Bible is the final authority in all matter of faith and practice, was the rallying cry of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the other Magisterial Reformers.
Pope Benedict believed the Bible “contains the Word.” What did he mean? He meant that not all of the Bible is the word of God, but you can find God’s Word in the Bible. Only some parts of the Bible are the “Word of God”. Of course, this terminates in the rule of human reason, not divine revelation. It is just a restatement of Karl Barth’s neo-orthodoxy. To further explain, here is the Roman Catholic catechism on this important subject.
“The [Roman] Church…to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, ‘does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.’”[ii]
What about Protestants? What is our relation to tradition? Because of these errors, do we reject all tradition? Are we also enslaved by unbiblical traditions? If so, are there traditions without specific biblical warrant that are helpful? If so, how?
First, we need to be reminded that Protestants also follow many traditions. Although many are not in the Bible, they do not oppose the Bible or change its teachings. For example, the Bible does not tell us to meet on Sunday mornings at 10 AM, sing three songs, and then listen to 40 minutes of teaching. It commands us to meet regularly, and it commands preaching and singing, but how and when we do that is mostly a matter of church tradition. Wedding rings, altar calls, the “sinner’s prayer”, and the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” are not in the Bible either. But these traditions are acceptable because they don’t contradict the Bible.
Do Protestants, like Catholics, have traditions that contradict Scripture? How about the prohibition of alcoholic beverages? Yes, drunkenness is wrong, but alcohol is not inherently evil. At the wedding feast in Cana, Jesus turned enough water into wine to fill 180 gallons (900 fifths of alcohol).
Tradition and Biblical Interpretation
Should Protestants allow tradition to help us interpret the Bible? Yes, we should. None of us are islands unto ourselves. We stand on the shoulders of a millennia of great Christian thinkers. Humility compels us to consult them. It motivates us to check our doctrinal conclusions against the traditional teaching of the Church—a body of doctrine that has accumulated over the centuries, and which our best creeds summarize. The 17th century Westminster Confession of Faith is a good example. But even the WCF needs to be constantly checked against scripture.
The guiding principle is simple and basic: unlike Roman Catholics, we don’t view tradition as Scripture. It is subordinate to, and under the heel of Scripture. Where there is a conflict, Scripture trumps the teaching of our forefathers. Make it your habit to test every doctrine by a clear appeal to Scripture.
Protestants do not place tradition on the same level as Scripture—just the opposite. Scripture is lord over tradition; it governs and rules it. With this principle in mind, we can safely use and enjoy liturgical traditions that do not contradict Scripture. We can also safely appropriate the vast corpus of good biblical interpretation handed down to us by our forefathers. Sola Scriptura!
- [i]“Pope Benedict XVI (1927-2022): His Life and Legacy,” Leonardo De Chirico, Dec. 21, 2022, The Gospel Coalition, italics mine.
- [ii] Quoted from Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, Second Edition (p. 154). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.
William P. Farley is a retired pastor and church planter. He has been married to his best friend, Judy, since 1971. They have five children and 22 grandchildren. Bill is the author of seven books, including Gospel-Powered Humility (P&R), Gospel-Powered Parenting (P&R), and Marriage in Paradise (Pinnacle), Secret to Spiritual Joy (Cruciform), Outrageous Mercy (P&R), and Hidden In the Gospel (P&R). He blogs regularly at www.Williampfarley.com.