Text Or Tradition?

I recently heard a sermon given by a senior figure in a church tradition different to my own that began something like this:

“The story of _____, well, the legend of _____, says that [they] did [this and that], and, so, we should aim to do [this and that] too: it’s the Christian thing to do.”

I was waiting for the story to stop and the Scripture to start, but sadly it did not. I heard all about the legend of this figure (a decent person, by all accounts) and I heard a reasonable conclusion: ‘so go likewise and do the same‘ (cf. Luke 10.37). There was a cursory nod towards the Bible as conclusions were drawn, but on the whole, it was a sermon from tradition not text. The finish was there but the foundation was not.

So, what’s the problem with teaching and preaching from tradition and not the text?

There are many ways to teach and preach God’s Word; exegetically, expositorily, expositionally, thematically, topically, liturgically, etc. All add value to a church community and all have their place in the church’s annual calendar. Quick side point: I do think that the healthiest regular offering for a church family is continuous exposition, but, at the core, all of the aforementioned teaching and preaching styles share the same foundation, Scripture, and have a place.

Christian teaching and preaching that finds a foundation in anything other than the canon of Scripture is, honestly, idolatry. It is holding, as the teacher, my own conclusions and convictions up as the most important thing people leave the service with. It puts what we think in equal importance with what God says. Let’s say, for example, that I want to make a point from the pulpit that we need to show humility and serve one another more in our church. I’m going to start with that conclusion, work backwards, and design a motivational speech that exhorts people to do so. I’m going to end up cherry picking verses, passages, and sections of Scripture that back me up and using them to say, ‘See, God wants this for you too!‘.

But what if my conclusions and convictions are rooted in my own experience of life? I’m reminded of the practicing homosexual minister who vehemently avoids any topic, theme, or passage in Scripture that condemns the lifestyle they are choosing to live: Leviticus 18.22, 20.13, or Romans 1.18-32, for example. Teaching from tradition means that our churches will, inevitably, never hear certain parts of their Bibles taught and preached because we don’t feel there is anything there worthy of public declaration. Contrast that with how Paul references Scripture in 2 Timothy 3.16-17 and draw your own conclusion…

For real-world examples we could look at Paul, personally sent out by the Lord Jesus Christ to preach and teach about the Good News (Acts 13.2, 22.21, Philippians 1.17). We could look very closely at Acts 18.11 and see that Paul taught ‘ Logos Theos’, the Word of God, among the people. We could go even deeper and see that 

The definition of ‘​Logos’​ never includes part truths, or a portion of what is said or conveyed, rather, the whole counsel, the full truth. Neither is anything added, subtracted, or changed.

But, for perhaps the ultimate Scriptural example of simply teaching the text, we need look no further than Jesus. In Luke 24 we read of Jesus Himself teaching Scripture,

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, ​he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures​ the things concerning himself.”

“They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, ​while he opened to us the Scriptures​?”’

“Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures​, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

(vv.27, 32, 44-47, ESV, emphasis added)

If there was ever anyone who could stand and deliver a sermon from tradition that would be worth listening to and then actioning, it would be Jesus, the Divine image of God. Instead, He taught Scripture. Surely there need be no further endorsement of teaching the text over tradition than that: God Himself, Jesus Christ, teaching in this way.

For a deeper dive into teaching and preaching, try these resources:

The Whole Counsel of God: Expositional Preaching and Teaching

Published by James Travis

Pastor of Saar Fellowship in the Kingdom of Bahrain. Married to Robyn and Dad to our two boys.

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