History & Beliefs  »  What Lutherans believe about...  »  The role of tradition

The role of tradition

In our novelty addicted world, "tradition" is usually a synonym for that which is old hat, cliché, dull—the stuff of some poorly lit, musty museum. Pretend, however, that you are watching a crime show. There, a small time crook robs a bank or a convenience store. He wants money and demands "Hand it over!" This exciting, yet distressing scene is like tradition. Tradition simply means handing something over. What makes it boring or engaging, helpful or harmful depends on what is being handed over. The English word 'tradition' comes from the Latin verb trado "to hand over." We speak of "traditions" for example, when we hope family gatherings and activities will continue with the next generation. We speak of "betrayal" as we remember how Judas handed over Jesus to the authorities. We punish "traitors" because they work to undermine the security of their own country by handing over secrets to the enemy.

St. Paul, writing to the church of Corinth, made clear that the Christian faith was not a philosophy of life or behaviour the Corinthians or anyone else could shape according to their own experiences. It was a tradition to receive and pass along: "Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast—unless you believed in vain.

"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures..." (I Cor. 15:1-3).

Paul was handing over the Word of God to the Corinthians, delivering the good news he had received. This is tradition in action. The early Church would often refer to its tradition—passing on this central Good News, unsullied by "strange or new doctrines" that would twist people's hope in Jesus Christ. "In accordance with the scriptures" was the tradition of the Church. The church was handing over the Word of God revealing His rescue from sin and death in Jesus Christ.

So why do we say that our faith is sola scriptura or based on "Scripture alone?" Doesn't this mean we are suspicious of traditions in the church? Some in the "Protestant reformation" operated this way. But the Wittenberg reformation of Martin Luther was thoughtful and conservative. Luther understood that tradition was not the problem, only the hijacking of the church's tradition at the expense of the Scriptures.

The medieval Western church had developed a powerful hierarchy with the pope as its head. He had come to be seen as the final authority—his rules viewed as the mystical continuation of Christ's teaching through the apostles. A huge catalogue of papal judgments, called "canon law" laid (and still lays) burdens on the consciences of every member of the Roman church. Yet many laws made by popes through the centuries contradicted each other. In many places, these laws are even contrary to the words of Jesus and the apostles themselves.

Martin Luther's reformation was meant to ensure that what was handed down would be faithful to Holy Scripture's proclamation of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life in Jesus Christ alone. This is why there are so many outward similarities in practice to that of Rome. Luther removed only those traditions not in accordance with the scriptures. Luther knew that many faithful saints who had gone before had developed traditions to hand over the Good News of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. They used them to point to His gifts in His Word and the sacraments Jesus Himself instituted.

Throughout the writings that make up the Book of Concord, mention of Church rules or canons frequently pop up. Often the reformers make a distinction between those which the Church made according to the scriptures, and those which were innovations. One of the best ways to see this careful work in action is to look at the Catalogue of Testimonies included in the new readers' edition Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. Here, the canons and traditions of the Church Fathers are weighed against the scriptures and used to prove that the Lutherans were unfairly treated as heretics. They could prove from these that they had not introduced any "strange new doctrines" but only wished to teach that which was truly of the Church Catholic.

Printer Friendly Version

Return Home Contact Us