The Role of Church Tradition and Organizational Interpretations of Scripture
What connection do you think there is in Paul’s admonitions to Timothy to maintain sound doctrine and the idea of consensus or church tradition?
I believe that the development of church consensus or tradition represents an attempt by Christians over the course of the history of the church to obey Paul’s admonitions to maintain sound doctrine. Consensus came to exist within the Christian community because of the reverence that existed during the patristic period for the precious spiritual truths that had been conveyed by the apostles to the church. Given that the apostles had personally interacted with the Lord, and that they themselves had written under inspiration from God, it made sense to hold their teaching as being authoritative. Later, the teachings of those men who had learned directly from the apostles also came to be regarded as authoritative, and more teachings were added to the consensus with every succeeding generation of the church. At every step, sincere, godly men labored to understand the scriptures, and as a consensus developed regarding each major doctrine, it became the tradition of the church to understand scripture in that way.
At the same time, with each generation, more distance was added from the original teachings of Jesus and His disciples, and in some cases, aberrant teachings (such as Arianism) developed. It became the task of godly men who respected the authority of scripture to refute such heresies, with full reliance on the Holy Spirit to guide the church in the right direction.
Unfortunately, as time passed, some gave more credence to the understandings that had developed over the years among Christians about the meaning of scripture than they did to the scripture itself. For such people, church tradition became the authority, rather than the Bible itself. Under such teaching, the authority of scripture is diluted. Eventually, errors that have crept into human tradition can eclipse the pure teaching of scripture. Such a situation had developed among the Jews in Jesus’ day. Jesus condemned the religious leaders who exalted tradition over scripture, calling them hypocrites (Matthew 15:1-9).
At times, cultic groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-day Saints and others, have set themselves up as authorized or infallible interpreters of Scripture. This is little different than what I have already described. In such groups, more authority is ultimately given to the interpretations of the leaders than to the text of Scripture itself. The first impulse of most of Jehovah’s Witnesses when confronted with a difficult passage of Scripture is to seek an answer from the publications of the Watchtower Society, rather than to examine the text itself with regard to its grammatical and historical context. This, of course, actually places “traditions of men” in the form of organizational interpretations above the text of Scripture as the final authority. Those who accept the interpretations of fallible men without personally investigating the text of Scripture actually become followers of men rather than of Jesus Christ. They have entrusted their souls to false teachers.
We must always bear in mind that scripture alone is the Word of God. Church tradition, however revered it may be, represents the best attempts of godly but fallible men to understand what God has inspired. The interpretations that have been advanced by faithful scholars may be helpful to us in understanding the meaning of scripture, but they must be read with a discerning eye. The text of scripture itself must always be the final authority.