I was studying the Bible the other day with a friend. We were using a booklet that asked some questions about the passage to help us think through the Bible, and, as sometimes happens, I ended up getting quite annoyed with the booklet.
This booklet was generally pretty good – it was Mark 1-8, by Tim Chester. I've used other booklets (Mark 9-16, 1 Peter) in the same series by him pretty effectively in homegroups. And yes, there have been a few things I've thought he missed, a few times I've thought the questions were too leading or whatever, but as those booklets go, they're among the best I've used.
But not this time. The passage we were studying was the start of Mark 7. The Pharisees and scribes challenge Jesus
"Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?"
Mark 7:5, ESV
Jesus replies with
"Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, "'This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'
You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men." And he said to them, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!
Mark 7:6-9, ESV
The book then used these verses to establish a dichotomy between “tradition” on one hand and God's Word / Jesus on the other hand, with tradition as bad and God's Word as good. It went on to ask questions assuming that tradition was always bad. For example:
4. Religious tradition leaves us far from God. What brings us close to God?
Read Mark 12v28-31. What is the heart of the law, according to Jesus? How do religious traditions contradict this, according to Jesus in Mark 7?
There are two huge problems with this, and both are hidden in the NIV.
The first is that it doesn't pay close enough attention to the passage. In the NIV, the end of verse 7 and v8 read:
'their teachings are just rules [ενταλματα] taught by men.'
You have let go of the commandments [εντολην] of God and are holding onto the traditions of men.
Mark 7:7-8, NIV
The tension in the passage isn't between God's commandments and the traditions of men. It's between God's commandments and the traditions of men. Jesus shows this by using a very similar root word (“commandments”) at the end of v7 to at the start of v8. The problem isn't that the things the Pharisees are doing are traditions. The problem is that they are holding onto something that is from men.
The second problem is the way that the word for tradition [παραδοσις] is used elsewhere in the New Testament. If the booklet's interpretation (that the problem was tradition) was right, then παραδοσις would always be used in a negative sense.
Most of the time it is, but not always. Here are the counter-examples.
Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.
1 Corinthians 11:2, ESV
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.
2 Thessalonians 2:15, ESV
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.
2 Thessalonians 3:6, ESV
In the NIV, these three are all translated “teaching” or “teachings” rather than “traditions” or “tradition”, though the alternative is mentioned in the footnote. (Many thanks to some of my less evangelical friends for pointing out this deficiency in the NIV). Once again, the point is that traditions are not bad per se, but only if their origin is human and people are holding onto them.
In fact, of all the New Testament uses of the word παραδοσις, every single negative use has “of men” or “of the elders” or “your” or “ancestral” or something like that attached. And every single good use has an attachment showing it's of apostolic origin. The problem isn't the tradition; it's where it comes from.
This misinterpretation also affects application. For example, if we say that it is tradition that is the problem, then we start wanting to do things like get rid of celebrating the Lord's Supper, which would be a very bad thing to do. Yes, it's a tradition, but it was started by Jesus, so it's a good tradition and we should keep doing it.
In fact, even then, traditions from men are only spoken of negatively either when they are opposed to God's word, when they become something we hold onto at the expense of God word or trust in instead of Jesus. There is a risk that we might ditch a lot of valuable and godly traditions, albeit from godly men, simply because they are traditions, without considering whether they are actually unhelpful. If a tradition, for example, saying the services in a language not understanded of the people ;o), has become unhelpful, then we should ditch it because it is then standing opposed to God's word which tells us to proclaim the gospel to everyone. We shouldn't hold onto traditions at the expense of God's word. But we shouldn't just ditch them because they are traditions.
So how would the passage apply? I think it applies to anything, whether tradition or not, that comes from men but that we hold onto instead of God's word in Jesus. So if we hold onto our untraditional way of doing services instead of onto God's word and Jesus, then that is just as much at fault as the Pharisees were. If we hold onto our man-made notion that God is against tradition, rather than just unhelpful tradition, and by doing so we reject God's commandment to remember his death by sharing bread and wine, that is just as much at fault as the Pharisees were.
Hold onto the things of God. Do not hold onto the things of man.