(1 Cor. 11:2) Should we follow traditions or not?

CLAIM: Paul writes, “Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2).

RESPONSE: The Bible isn’t explicitly against human traditions—only those traditions which contradict the Word of God. Jesus said, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? … by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Mt. 15:3, 6). Here Jesus judges their accepted human tradition by the superior authority of Scripture. Likewise, Paul writes, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men” (Col. 2:8). As we noted above, this does not mean that all tradition is ungodly, anymore than all philosophy is ungodly. However, this does teach that human tradition is not equal to or more authoritative than Scripture. If tradition ever disagrees with Scripture, then this tradition is always wrong.

Catholic apologist Jim Blackburn writes, “Jesus rightfully condemned [false tradition], but his condemnation was not meant to be applied to every tradition.”[1] However, we feel that Blackburn has missed the point. The Pharisees were placing tradition above the Bible, and Jesus was using the Bible as a higher standard for correcting their false view. We do not believe that all traditions are ungodly. However, we do hold that traditions should be subservient to Scripture.

By contrast, Paul’s apostolic “tradition” here was the word of God. This is why NIV translates this word paradosis as “teachings.” Later in 1 Corinthians 15:3, Paul uses this same language (“I delivered… what I received”) to refer to the basic teaching of the “gospel” (1 Cor. 15:1); that is, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. He is referring to the core gospel message. Furthermore, Paul uses this same language (“I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you”) to refer to the biblical teaching of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23). Paul isn’t referring to a “tradition” (i.e. teaching) which is alien to the Bible.

While the first-century church had the privilege of living apostles teaching the word of God verbally (Acts 2:42), we do not have this luxury today. This is where we differ with Roman Catholicism: the office of apostleship only existed in the first-century—not today. We have apostolic succession only insofar as each believer teachs what the apostles wrote in Scripture. For more on this topic, see our earlier article “Sola Scriptura.”

[1] Blackburn, Jim. “Not By Scripture Alone.” This Rock. Volume 18. Number 4. 2007.