“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”1 This statement by Jaroslav Pelikan Jnr. is often quoted, and with good reason. Pelikan makes three pleasing but provocative contrasts: a contrast between “tradition” and “traditionalism”, between people in the past who are dead and those in the present who are living, and between a “living faith” and a “dead faith”. Yet the irony is that those who are dead may have a faith that is still living whereas those who are living might have a faith that is dead!
Jesus had an encounter with the Pharisees and so-called experts in the Scriptures that illustrates these contrasts.
“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matt 15:2–3 NIV)
The Pharisees accused Jesus of allowing his disciples to “break the tradition of the elders”. Jesus rebuked them for upholding their traditions in a way that broke the commands of God. Jesus ends his argument by saying: “you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” (Matt 15:6)
Quite clearly, Jesus says that some traditions need not be upheld. Some traditions, even if they are “the tradition of the elders” (respected leaders in our history), should be laid aside, lest “you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.”
But the Bible also tells us to hold on firmly to some traditions. For example, the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:2 writes: “I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you.”
In 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Paul commands his readers to hold on to the “traditions” he had passed on to them. (The NIV translation of “teaching” represents the same Greek word translated “tradition” in all the other verses cited above.) “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teaching (tradition) we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.”
So the Bible teaches clearly that some teaching or “traditions” should be upheld whilst others should not, at least not in an absolute, rigid and legalistic form. To do so would be to descend, albeit unintentionally, from good tradition to harmful traditionalism.
May the Lord help us discern, and uphold, the living faith of those in the past without getting stuck in a slavish retention of traditions that render faith dead for us who live in the present.
1Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition: 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), 65.
The Rev Dr Gordon Wong was re-elected President of Trinity Annual Conference (TRAC) in 2016 for a second quadrennial term, but is primarily grateful to God for the gift of his wife Lai Foon and two children Deborah and Jeremy.
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