As part of the one catholic church, we hold to the creeds formulated by the early church and confessed through the ages. And as a Reformed church, we subscribe to the confessions developed by our Reformed fathers in the faith. But why do we bother with these man-made documents? Isn’t this just adhering to vain tradition? Why not join the “no creed but the Bible” crowd?
First, regarding the use of tradition, it is true that Jesus condemned the Pharisees when their man-made traditions and laws burdened the people. In Mark 7, the Pharisees observed the disciples eating without ceremonially washing their hands—a “tradition of the elders“—and not part of the Mosaic law. Jesus condemns the Pharisees for this, stating that they exchanged God’s commands for the tradition of men. This is a good scriptural example of tradition gone bad. The issue here wasn’t even necessarily the ceremonially hand washing that had developed. There are many things that we do, both in formal worship and in our daily lives, that has more to do with tradition than explicit command in Scripture. But these things must not contradict Scripture, and they must not be done hypocritically. The sin of hypocrisy was at the heart of Jesus’ rebuke, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me…’” (Mk. 7:6, Isa. 29:13).
In other passages of Scripture, we find tradition spoken of well. St Paul commends the church in Corinth for remembering him in everything and maintaining the traditions he delivered to them (1 Cor. 11:2). In 2 Thessalonians, Paul calls the brothers to “stand firm and hold to the tradition that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or letter” (2 Thess. 2:15, see also 2 Thess. 3:6). And Paul writes to his disciple Timothy, telling him to “follow the pattern of sounds words that you have heard from me…” (2 Tim. 1:13). So as we can see, there is true and false tradition, there is tradition that honors and dishonors God.
But one might respond, “All of the tradition we need is found in Scripture, so why bother with the creeds?” On one hand, this impulse is good and indeed Reformational. We must not hold tradition to be above Scripture. Scripture alone is the sole arbiter of truth, and everything must be tested against it. This is exactly what Martin Luther did with the terrible traditions of Rome. But holding steadfast to the Word, there is still a need for Scripture to be interpreted and there is still a need for the faith to be confessed.
The need to interpret and confess the teachings of Scripture is unavoidable. It is not a matter of if we will have tradition, but which tradition we will have. So we can either say, “just me and my Bible,” believing that we have all the wisdom and insight needed to understand the Word, or we can humble ourselves and hear what the Spirit has taught our fathers in the faith. A positive way to look at tradition, whether it be creeds, confessions, or even the personal writings of men throughout time, is to believe them to be, when faithful to Scripture, what the late J.I. Packer taught: the “fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people sought understanding of Scripture. It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it.” By turning to tradition, we honor our fathers in the faith and we honor the work of God among his people.
Find other posts in this series here.
 J.I. Packer, “Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 25 (1982), 414.
Pingback: Creeds | Glad Tidings of Great Joy