Happy Friday, everyone. Do we need church traditions? And what are church traditions? Questions we must answer, and they come in today from a listener named Jerome, who lives in Singapore. “Hello, Pastor John. What specifically does Paul mean by ‘traditions’ in 2 Thessalonians 2:15? Does Paul have in mind the apostolic traditions, or broader historic church traditions, or some other type of tradition?”
Well, this is good. One of the reasons that I’m glad this question is being asked is because it gives us a chance to step back and, I think, address an issue that we haven’t really addressed, at least in a focused way — namely, What is tradition? How should we think about traditions as Christians? A good place to start is, yes, in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, and in Paul and the apostles, but also in Jesus. We’ll get there.
Hold to the Traditions
Let me just start with the word itself to get a definition clear in front of us. Tradition has two halves: tra-, “across” or “along”; and -dition, the Latin word for “give.” The two halves together, then, would mean “to give across” or “to give along” from one generation to the next.
Now, that’s relevant not just for English, because in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, the text that Jerome is asking about, Paul uses a Greek word, of course, for “tradition,” which also has two parts: paradosis. Para, also like the Latin tra, meaning “across” or “along”; and dosis, meaning “gift.” So, it’s the same meaning in the Greek word as in the English word. So we’re really tracking here with Paul when we ask the question, What does tradition, what does paradosis, actually mean? And why does he use the word?
In fact, I would say that’s a great place to start with probing into the New Testament understanding of traditions — namely, in 2 Thessalonians 2:15. Why did Paul use that word here? He says, “Stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us.” Why didn’t he say, “Stand firm and hold fast to the teachings” or “to the truth” or “to the commands that you were taught by us?” Why did he use the word traditions?
Servants of Revealed Truth
The answer seems to be that Paul wants to call attention to the fact that his teaching is in harmony with the teaching that has gone before — namely, from Jesus and from the other apostles. The effect of the word traditions here is to make us realize that Paul does not want to be seen as a maverick apostle, a rogue apostle, a cult leader off on his own establishing a new religion. Rather, he wants to be seen as a faithful part of a larger body of teachers with roots firmly in the ultimate authority of Jesus and his word.
So, the first signal that we get from this text is that there is great value in tradition in the sense that it protects us from novelties that come out of individuals’ own heads with no necessary correspondence to what Jude called “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
In other words, tradition, first and foremost, declares that there is such a thing as truth. There is such a thing that our statements ought to correspond to or agree with. Tradition requires us to be humble and to admit that we are not the originators of truth.
“Tradition, first and foremost, declares that there is such a thing as truth.”
Wisdom and right views of reality do not begin with us. We are servants of a reality outside ourselves. It originates in God. It becomes incarnate in Jesus. It is inspired in the mouth of the apostles. If anybody comes along — even an apostle, Paul says in Galatians 1:8 — who declares another truth, beside the one that coheres with Christ and his word and his apostles, “let him be accursed.”
Now, that’s the fundamental reason, I think, why Paul uses the word traditions in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 — namely, there is such a thing as truth, and it doesn’t originate with me. I am its servant, not its creator, not its lord. To believe in tradition in this sense, then, is a mark of humility and faithfulness to the way reality really is.
Now, let me give maybe just one example of what Paul calls tradition — namely, his preaching of the gospel. So in 1 Corinthians 15:1–3, he says, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you. . . . For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,” and then he finishes it.
Now, those two words are the way Paul talked about tradition: “I received something. I delivered it — I handed it on to you.” In other words, when it comes to the gospel, no apostle is called to be creative. He’s called to be faithful. The gospel is not a reality that he is making up. It is a reality outside himself. It has an objective reality. His job is to preserve it, to preach it, to pass it along to another generation. This is the great preciousness and the great necessity of tradition.
Now, that may remind some of our listeners, including Jerome, of a text that sounds almost like a contradiction — namely, Galatians 1:11–12, where Paul says this: “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” Now that sounds almost like the opposite of 1 Corinthians 15, but it’s not a contradiction.
What was at stake in Galatians 1 and 2 was the validity of Paul’s apostleship. Was he, in fact, commissioned by the risen Christ, and was he a direct recipient of divine revelation, or was he a pretender to that authority and, just like any other Christian teacher, totally dependent on human tradition? Like me, I’m dependent on tradition — namely, the New Testament, a divinely inspired tradition. Paul’s answer is this: “I’m not dependent on Peter and James and John, but I am in harmony with them on the gospel.”
Now, both of those are crucial: Paul’s non-dependence and Paul’s harmony with them. “I went to visit Peter, yes,” he says, “not because I had no revelation from Jesus, but to make clear to Peter and to everybody that Peter and I are on the same page. We preach the same gospel. There is one apostolic word, and we are in harmony on it” (see Galatians 1:11–2:10).
Dangers of Tradition
Let me make one other crucial observation about tradition. Just as there is good tradition that reflects reality and preserves truth, there’s bad tradition that distorts reality and preserves mere human opinion as though it were an authority — an opinion that often nullifies the very true tradition, the word of God.
“We measure merely human tradition by the tradition that we call the New Testament.”
We know that because Jesus said in Matthew 15:3 to the Pharisees, “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” And then he gives them an example of what he’s talking about. He says, “Many such things you do” (Mark 7:13).
And Paul himself, before his conversion, was totally committed to those very word-of-God-nullifying traditions. He said in Galatians 1:14, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” And with that zeal for tradition, he was imprisoning and killing Christians. So clearly, tradition in and of itself can be very destructive.
Here’s one more example of false tradition. Paul says in Colossians 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, . . . and not according to Christ.” So, all tradition is to be measured by whether it accords with Christ.
The sum of the matter is that we measure merely human tradition by the tradition that we call the New Testament, which is rooted in Jesus and his word and his apostles and their teaching. So the answer to Jerome’s question, then, is that 2 Thessalonians 2:15 is Paul’s referring to the truth that Jesus and the apostles had taught, and that he himself, under divine inspiration, was confirming by his own letter.