Tradition versus Scripture
The mark of a man in fellowship with God is his implicit belief in the sufficiency of God's Word. Human reason or thought are to him no substitute for what God has said. Thus it was that the cry of the reformers against Rome was “sola Scriptura” — Scripture only. Rome acknowledged the Scriptures of course, but only as a co–authority with the traditions of the Church. In practice, it is nonsensical to speak of two authorities, and so the inevitable result was that tradition invariably carried more weight than Scripture. If there is a choice, man always prefers his tradition to God’s Word: “and he said unto them, full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition” (Mark 7: 9).
So what is tradition? It is the introduction of man's ideas into the realm of things where only God’s Word should operate. Persons become accustomed to doing things in a certain way, (for example always having a particular night to meet for prayer), and any deviation from that is regarded unfavourably; or man legislates in the Church without Scriptural sanction, (for example only one particular translation of the Scriptures may be used in any meetings), and the instruction becomes binding. Both are examples of tradition. Of course, the injunction may have no Scripture against it, and may even agree with the general tenor of Scripture, but if it becomes a rule, (as tradition invariably does), then we have man’s rule where it never ought to be. Only one is allowed to instruct, only one is to give commandments, and that is God's Word. And if God's Word is not supreme, then we quite plainly cannot claim to be His servants!
Traditions began to multiply apace when the apostles passed away. As the NT is not in the form of a mere set of rules, there was a peculiar openness in Christendom to the influence of tradition. (By contrast in the Jewish system all was ordered by rule). Why is there this continual tendency in the heart of man to supplant God's Word by man's ideas? It is because tradition gives importance to man, and leaves room for superiority to self. Man is making the rules, indeed, it is man stepping into the place of God! (Granted that men wrote the Scriptures, but they were only pens for the divine author!)
The Lord Jesus consistently upheld the absolute sufficiency of God's Word, even when He could have spoken from Himself, (Matt.4:1–11). Thus when the Pharisees would bind tradition upon Him and His disciples (Mark 7:1–14), there was an immediate issue. “Then came together unto Him the Pharisees and certain of the scribes which came from Jerusalem.” They had the highest authority as far as the earth was concerned; they came from the holy city of ancient religion, clothed with the credit of divine law and authority. “And when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen hands, they found fault.” Now there was clearly nothing moral in this, nothing that could touch the soul or that affected a man's relationship with God; but it was contrary to their traditions, and so they found fault. It is easy to conceive that this tradition may have had a pious origin. There may have been in the minds of these leaders an idea of keeping up before the people the importance of personal purity; for washing the hands would be a very natural sign that God looks for holiness in the works of His people.
They may have pleaded indirectly that it was drawn from the word of God, because there were certain washings which God’s people always practised. Thus, the priests were to wash the sacrifices presented to God, as they had been themselves washed at the time of their consecration, and had always to wash hands and feet before entering the tabernacle. It seemed a reasonable inference that this rite, so simple and expressive, ought to be observed by every man among the people in his ordinary dealings day by day. Who could have the necessity of personal purity kept too much before his eyes? At any rate such was the custom expected from every professing Jew.
That was precisely where man was at fault. The great principle of the word is that, God being infinitely wise, where He does not lay down any positive injunction of His own, woe to him who infringes liberty. Man, on the contrary, takes advantage of the opening, and, where God has not laid down a law, he makes one of his own. But God has given no warrant thus to legislate; and half the disputes and divisions that have occurred in Christendom are due to this cause. The haste of man to solve a difficulty has recourse to such measures, and the desire of man to enforce his own will. (For example, some might say we have had this particular difficulty before and this is the way it was approached then and so we will do it this way again now). On the other hand, God, instead of laying down anything positive, has left things as a test for the heart, and therefore has purposely abstained from a command. It cannot be surprising that what is thus introduced is almost always evil; but even supposing the thing imposed might seem ever so desirable, the principle is still wrong.
I desire to press the immense importance of giving no authority to any rule except the Word now written. To hear men of God, to be helped by servants of God, to value an exposition of the truth, is all well— but is a very different thing from an authoritative rule which men impose as binding upon conscience. It is never right to accept thus what comes from man. God alone and His word bind the conscience. His servants may teach, but if they teach aright, it is the truth of God. One is a minister of the Word; one proclaims the Word— resting on the written Word— which is authority for all, and the warrant for all that a minister says, and imparting to his words the authority of God over the conscience of those to whom he speaks. Nobody that understands the place of God’s servant would wish to create a divided allegiance by imposing his own thoughts and words. His proper function as a servant is rather to maintain the undisguised supremacy of God's word.
It is remarkable how the Lord answers the Pharisees. It is not by discussing the source of the tradition or showing its futility. He deals at once with its broad character and its moral effect on the obedience that is due to God. He lays bare the moral fruit of these traditions: “well hath Esaias prophesied of you, hypocrites, as it is written, this people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men”, (Mark 7: 6).
The plain revelation of God's mind was “Honour thy father and thy mother”, (v6). Yet tradition dissolved so obvious a duty with “Ye say, if a man shall say to his father or mother, it is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; and ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother, making the Word of God of none effect through your tradition which ye have delivered.” Just consider what an issue this was. A man sees his parents in need; he has the financial means to relieve them, but the tradition-mongers have invented a plan to benefit so-called religion at the expense of family duty. If one said “Corban” the duty was totally changed; and that which would have been due to the parent must now be devoted to the priest.
The judge and Lord of all meets this at once. Who had given them authority to say, “It is Corban”? Where had God warranted such a practice? And who were they that dared to substitute their thoughts for the Word of God? It was a rebellious act against the express commandment of God.
May we all bear in mind how deeply we need to watch against the spirit of tradition! We want the word that comes from God to the Church, and not what the Church pretends to utter. Wherever we impose with absolute authority a thing that does not proceed from God Himself, it is a tradition. Nothing but the Word of God is entitled or ought to govern the conscience. When we let go this principle and allow a rule to come in and become binding, so that what is not done according to that rule is regarded as sin, (or at best unfavourably), we are gone from the authority of the Word of God to that of tradition, perhaps without knowing it ourselves. That, is the road to spiritual ruin.