Church tradition and scripture: which has the authority?
So many Christians believe in the authority of church traditions handed down through the ages to us. Others believe that it is only scripture that have the ultimate authority (Sola Scriptura). The debate can go on forever. But the truth is simpler. All authority is from one person and one person only; Jesus Christ. All our life in the church should be based on Christ alone; He is the Cornerstone of our faith (what is called The rule of faith or regula fidei). This faith was transferred to us by His Apostles as the first eyewitnesses. They were the living example of faith in Christ. Through their example we should have a healthy relationship and direct relationship with Christ. Their faith represents the true tradition of the church.
Before they die, the apostles wanted to pass on the tradition containing this same faith but codified in writing. The New Testament was born. So, the New Testament represented the true tradition that describes all what is needed and necessary for salvation. Therefore, when we speak of church tradition it should be the same as when we speak of the New Testament; they are equals. The New Testament books were and are the tradition written. No other oral tradition survived outside the New Testament: this is what history tells us.
After the apostles time came the church fathers. Church fathers, to maintain the true faith handed in the tradition, worked really hard for about three centuries, guided by the Holy Spirit, to select the right books of the New Testament (the Canon). Their effort to maintain the tradition was mainly their effort to decide which of the early epistles, revelations, acts and gospels were of apostolic origin. The only measure they used to test any book was its apostolic origin. This is how they maintained the faith, by keeping the tradition of the apostles in its purest written form.
The church fathers, however, did not just keep the written tradition of the apostles in the New Testament Canon, but also built on it by their commentaries, explanations and meditations. Building on the apostles tradition of faith moved in two directions through church history (see figure). One direction was to build tradition upward in the spiritual sense. As Paul said : “So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.” (1Co_14:12 ). Tradition in this sense was measured and confined to the New Testament theology which is the true witness to Jesus Christ. This healthy tradition helped to build, and edify the church as the body of Christ. “[To] equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph_4:12).
The other direction was to build tradition outward by adopting human concepts and material luxury. For example, as early as the second century, some church fathers were inventing new theologies, venerating dead bodies of saints (martyrs), building hierarchies of church offices, thinking of the church as a building, and raising barriers of human traditions between Jesus and His followers. Being fallible humans, the church fathers’ theology should be measured only by the standard of the New Testament as the container of the regula fidei handed down from the apostles as witnesses to Christ by their faith and their martyrdom.
Healthy upward tradition based on the New Testament tradition will get us united to Jesus to become His true body, while unhealthy outward tradition will add more burden and barriers trying to separate us from Him, Jesus Christ, Who is our only Savior.
“Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple“. (1Co 3:13-17)