The Role of Tradition
“The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches” (vv. 3–4).- Mark 7:1–4
Commentators believe that Mark wrote his gospel for a Gentile audience, with many scholars theorizing that he had Christians living in the city of Rome particularly in mind. There are many reasons why commentators make this suggestion, and it is passages such as Mark 7:1–4 that point to Mark’s intent to communicate with a Gentile audience. Verses 3–4 explain certain traditions the Pharisees and other first-century Jews followed with respect to the washing of hands. Since the practice was common to the Jews, a Jewish audience would need no explanation. If, however, Mark intended his gospel for a predominantly Gentile audience, the explanation makes perfect sense. Gentiles do not typically know Jewish customs and need them explained.
We will see in our study of verses 5–12 that the Jewish traditions were problematic because of the tendency to elevate them to the same status as God’s Word. The very existence of such traditions, however, gives us an opportunity at this point to reflect briefly on the idea of tradition itself. As Protestants, we sometimes see the word tradition and immediately throw up our guard because of the way we have seen traditions used to deny the Word of God and bind consciences with the straitjacket of legalism. Yet, it is important to realize that tradition in itself can be a neutral or even a good thing. The tradition that some churches have of meeting at 11 a.m. for worship on the Lord’s Day is neither good nor bad in itself. It usually reflects, in fact, the prudential judgment of the church’s leadership. Expressions of tradition such as the Apostles’ Creed or the Westminster Confession of Faith are good things, for these statements of faith can help us better understand the Word of God. All of us bring some tradition to our reading of Scripture, our hearing of the preached Word of God, and so forth. These traditions may be sound and biblically informed, or they may be unconscious assumptions or even false beliefs. But if we are not aware of our traditions, we will never be able to correct them by the Word of God.
Traditions can become legalistically binding and an enemy of orthodox biblical doctrine, but it is worth noting that they are rarely formulated with that intent. The Jewish traditions did not arise out of a desire to inflict spiritual harm on people, but out of a desire to help them not break the law of God. Yet, they came to view their traditions as on par with Scripture, and that led to spiritual disaster.
Human traditions, including the church’s reflection on the Word of God, can be helpful. However, they must never be elevated to the status of divine revelation. When that happens, we become ensnared in legalism and cannot be reformed by Scripture. Let us appreciate tradition where it is helpful, but let us never elevate it to the status of divine revelation.
Passages for Further Study