Traditionalism is the practice of adhering to tradition as authoritative. Traditionalism can further be defined as the belief that moral and religious truth comes from divine revelation that is passed down by tradition, rather than attained by human reasoning. Traditionalism seeks to uphold these traditions and is resistant to change.
In one respect, religious and moral truth does come from divine revelation—the Bible is full of moral and religious truth. However, human tradition is fallible. Divine revelation is the ultimate authority, not the human tradition that has developed around it.
Often, debates over traditionalism crop up in comparisons between Protestantism and Catholicism. Protestantism adheres to sola scriptura; that is, Protestants hold to the authority of Scripture alone in matters of faith and practice. Catholicism, on the other hand, gives equal weight to church tradition. When we look at what the Bible actually says, including Jesus’ rebuke of the traditionalists of His day (see Luke 11:37– 52), it is clear that the Bible is to be our authority. This is not to say that tradition is without merit, but that tradition is only authoritative insofar as it is based on biblical truth.
Second Timothy 3:16–17 says Scripture is God-breathed. It also claims that Scripture “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Nothing needs to be added to Scripture; we are thoroughly equipped for serving God through God’s Word.
Jesus Himself affirmed the importance of Scripture. When He was tempted in the wilderness by Satan, He responded three times with “It is written” (Matthew 4:1–11). Jesus did not respond with “The patriarchs of old” or “According to tradition.” He told the Sadducees that they were in error regarding the resurrection because they didn’t “know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matthew 22:29). Jesus often called out the religious leaders for adhering to traditionalism over the true commands of God. When some Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus about His disciples’ breaking the tradition of the elders in a certain matter, Jesus asked them why they broke God’s law for the sake of their traditions (Matthew 15:1–20). Clearly, it is God’s Word, not tradition, that holds authority in our lives.
The day Jesus rose from the dead, He met with two disciples walking to Emmaus. They did not recognize Him at first and were discussing the events of the past few days (i.e., His crucifixion). “He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:25–27). Jesus did not refer them to tradition but to the Scriptures.
In Acts 17:11 the Jews in Berea are commended for testing the teachings of Paul and Silas against Scripture. Timothy is encouraged to “preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:2–5). Timothy is not told to observe human tradition but to stay strong in the Word of God.
Hebrews 4:12 and Ephesians 6:17 refer to God’s Word as a sword. In the power of the Holy Spirit, it is God’s Word that is our weapon against Satan and the deceptions of this world.
Humans are fallible, and, thus, so is human tradition. That is the weakness of traditionalism. We must not keep tradition simply for the sake of tradition. Rather, we must carefully examine our traditions and measure them against God’s Word.
That being said, there can be much value in tradition. Some traditions are commanded in Scripture. The Jews were to keep the Feasts of the Lord to help them remember God’s faithfulness and rejoice in His blessings. Other traditions are not expressly commanded in Scripture, yet they can honor the Lord. The Jewish feasts of Purim and Hanukkah are examples. Neither is one of the biblical feasts, but there is nothing contrary to Scripture in their respective emphasis on the book of Esther and deliverance from the Seleucids. In fact, some scholars believe Jesus observed Purim (see John 5:1). Many traditions surround Christmas, observed by Christians around the world, and such celebrations are not wrong.
Traditions can be instructive to us on many levels, and there is nothing inherently wrong with observing tradition. Traditions can give a sense of identity, unite us as the unique family of Christ, provide teaching opportunities, and help us remember important truths. But we must always maintain a distinction between divine commands and human traditions. God’s commands are binding; manmade tradition is not. Traditions, no matter how ancient they may be, only have value if they are grounded in God’s truth and point us to Him. Tradition must be under the authority of God and His Word; any tradition that contradicts God’s Word or distracts us from it should be discarded. Tradition may be a way we practice our faith, but our faith is founded in God’s truth, not fallible human tradition.