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Episode 21 - How Does the Bible View Tradition?


Date: October 31, 2018
Run Time: 13:18
Host: Dr. Gregory R. Perry
Guest: Prof. Justin Holcomb
From the Series: The Trip Wire of Tradition

Program Notes

Tradition: On the one hand, it's like an alarm that protects valuables in the household of faith. On the other hand, it can really trip us up. In this episode, Dr. Justin Holcomb helps us navigate:

  • The mixed relationship of Scripture and tradition
  • Magisterial and ministerial authority
  • The trip wire of tradition

This week we recommend: Thirdmill’s series on The Apostles' Creed and Dr. Justin Holcomb's books, Know the Creeds and Councils and Know the Heretics, published by Zondervan.

This month, we have the pleasure of conversing with Dr. Justin Holcomb, the Canon for Vocations in the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida and the author of two volumes in the Know Series published by Zondervan — Know the Heretics and Know the Creeds and Councils. Justin and his wife, Lindsey, speak regularly to offer hope and healing to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence and have co-authored Rid of My Disgrace and Is it My Fault? as well as the children's book, God Made All of Me. For more information about Dr. Holcomb, visit justinholcomb.com.

Related Materials

Podcast Transcript

EPISODE 21: How Does the Bible View Tradition?
Guest: Dr. Justin Holcomb

4 the World is a production of Third Millennium Ministries where we believe every Christian deserves a well-trained pastor. To study Scripture deeply or to learn more about how you can partner with us to provide Biblical Education. For the World. For Free. download our App to your phone or visit our online classroom at Thirdmill.org. And now, your host 4 the World, Dr. Greg Perry.


Justin, welcome to 4 the World.

Justin: Thank you for having me and for the opportunity to talk about some of these fun topics.

It’s great to have you here. So, your title is Canon for Vocations. Does that cover ministry training? What do you do day in and day out?

Justin: I focus on the ordination process. For those who feel called to serve as presbyters in our denomination, I work with them and their church. So I work for the diocese, and the diocese is led by the bishop who is the chief pastor of the other pastors. So I work for that bishop and work with the church leaders on those feeling called to ordained ministry. And the calling is a pretty radical calling of laying down your life to feed the sheep and be an undershepherd. Now, in vocation, what I also get to do as Canon for Vocations is work with lay leaders because “calling” too often gets understood as the spiritualized calling for the clergy, but the rest, they’re doing secular jobs. And working with the lay leaders on what is their call, as non-ordained leaders in the church, but also in the community, to making sure we don’t have a dualistic world that’s separated of the secular workers and the sacred ministers.

Yeah, that’s a spiritual calling as well.

Justin: Thanks to the Reformation and Luther, the cobbler, the nurse and the schoolteacher are sacred callings also.


Yeah. We really appreciate you taking time to talk with us. I’ve been looking forward to talking about this series together. I’ve entitled our conversations “The Trip Wire of Tradition” because Protestants have a tricky relationship with tradition. Some of us grew up hearing things like “no creed but Christ,” and at the same time we clearly had our traditions. I can remember every Christian season the Lottie Moon Christmas offering and how important that was for emphasizing evangelism and cross-cultural ministry. So let’s start with, like, the jugular. Let’s just go for the jugular. How does the Bible view tradition?

Justin: Well, it’s a mixed relationship. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s really bad. It’s funny because I grew up in a nondenominational charismatic church where tradition was anathema. I mean, it was bad. It was only bad. And now I’m in the Anglican Church where tradition is celebrated. And I did that on purpose. So, when I hear “tradition,” I actually go first to a positive thing, but when you were describing tradition that’s really helpful because that actually makes it more robust of a conversation than just, “How do you understand Scripture and tradition and get them in the right order?” Well, there are some problems with tradition, which you described, is that sometimes our traditions get treated — whether church traditions, or Roman Catholic tradition, or our Protestant traditions — get treated as if they’re on par with Scripture. Or sometimes they’re actually, they practically, even though we’d never say tradition is above Scripture, practically it can be. So many churches have traditions that are actually counter to, or they undermine, the spirit of what Scripture’s saying. And Jesus talked about the traditions of the Pharisees. They would creatively find ways to actually violate the law of God but still project their piety.

I’m thinking about Mark 7, right? And the command to honor your father and mother, and Jesus says, “Well, you find a way to nullify the word of God by the traditions of men.” So, yeah, he’s very clearly challenging their traditions which they have made equal to or greater than Scripture.

Justin: Yup, that’s the negative category. And then you have the things that were handed over to you — the good side of tradition — which is, “Well, we had some eye witnesses who have seen some things, and they told me, and I’m telling you.” So it’s the handing over of an account. And how do you guard the deposit of faith that was entrusted to you? So, tradition actually can be a really good thing or a really bad thing. C.S. Lewis called it “chronological snobbery” where we give preference and privilege to what’s happening right now. We’re standing on the shoulder of thousands of leaders and people over thousands of years, so there’s actually lots of wealth in the tradition of the church. So it really takes discernment and wisdom and biblical wisdom and discernment to say, okay, what from the tradition should be celebrated, and what should we not use? What tools are good tools, and what tools are bad tools that we need to get rid of?


Yeah, you open your book on Creeds and Councils with a quote from J.I. Packer, whom many evangelicals will know very well, his book Knowing God. He says, “Tradition is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God's people have sought [to understand] Scripture. It’s not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it.” So, I’m just thinking about, maybe, what are some of the examples of the poverty that he’s talking about and how sound teaching or tradition — the pattern of sound teaching — is an antidote to it. What would be an example or two?

Justin: Well, let’s unpack a little bit of what he’s saying there. So there’s really two extremes. There is the Roman Catholic understanding of how Scripture and tradition work, which is that Scripture and tradition are equals and that you need the tradition to make sense of the Scriptures — because the Scriptures aren’t clear, you need the tradition. And that’s a violation of what Duns Scotus, who’s a famous Medieval theologian, said: No, Scripture is authoritative over tradition. Let me read to you Vatican Council II. It says, “Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal feelings of devotion and reverence… Scripture and tradition make up a single deposit of the Word of God which is entrusted to the church.” Well, if you do that, then whatever the church has done… I mean, you can’t put tradition on par with Scripture because then you’re doing eisegesis. You’re reading into the Scriptures what you want to be there from your tradition, and you have a train wreck, so you’ll end up doing or believing things that aren’t in Scripture but because the tradition has done it.

So Dr. Packer makes that important distinction. It’s not infallible. He’s saying Scripture is infallible, but not the tradition. So that’s one extreme he’s dealing with.

Justin: And if you treat tradition like it is infallible, then you’re... But then the other extreme is what most of, I mean, our experience has been in the Protestant world, which is usually a denigrating of tradition more than a celebrating of what is there. And so we end up saying things like “no creed but the Bible, no creed but Jesus,” and we downplay the wisdom. I mean, the whole ministry of Third Mill is based on the idea that God is actually, through his Spirit, using people now to explain the Christian faith to hundreds and thousands of people. And all tradition is saying is, well, yeah, we think that’s happening, but that’s also happened for the past two thousand years, and there’s some wisdom back there that we shouldn’t leave in the attic of church history.

And it’s why Calvin really celebrates the teaching office of church, isn’t it?

Justin: Absolutely. The phrases that are helpful for this is magisterial authority and ministerial authority.

That’s important. Explain that distinction. That’s really helpful.

Justin: So, the Roman Catholic Church said that you need the magisterium to explain, you know, what’s the ultimate norm authority. You need the tradition to explain the Scriptures. And Calvin and the Reformation tradition said no, magisterial authority is in Scripture alone, but the tradition has ministerial authority; it aids Christians. Let me read you a quote from Calvin. This is from Book 4.9.1: “We willingly embrace and reverence as holy the earlier Councils such as those of Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus 1, Chalcedon, and the like, which were concerned with refuting errors insofar as they relate to the things of faith.” And he referred to them as a very useful tool. So that sounds really different from … what Calvin writes about the tradition is very different from what most Protestants would think of the tradition. So the early Reformed tradition actually had a very high view of tradition, but a tradition under the authority of Scripture.


The term tradition is a trip wire because… It’s interesting I think, you know, it both serves as an alarm when false teaching is around because the Holy Spirit has been at work in the church for two thousand years and we’ve seen the gospel come into new situations and new questions be asked, and there needed to be answers for that. And so we have this valuable tool that serves as an alarm to protect what’s valuable in the house of faith, as it were. But also it can trip us up if we treat it as on par with Scripture. So that’s a very helpful distinction that Dr. Packer gives us. But on the one hand, not infallible. On the other hand, it’s not negligible. It’s something that’s very helpful.

Justin: That’s why I like what you’re doing with “trip wire” because it has both of those dimensions built into it. The tradition gives boundaries beyond which you should not go if you are claiming that the Bible’s authoritative, and it gives you the boundaries. Tradition can offer helpful boundaries in a fruitful, good way, thanks because — we’ll get into this later on — you have heretics, and we have creeds because of the heretics. Like, many of the things, you know, the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Chalcedonian Creed, those are gifts from the church because of the heretics, so that’s part of the tradition. Now, if you end up celebrating the tradition or the creeds or a liturgy to the extent that you actually downplay the role of Scripture, the authority of Scripture. If your worship service doesn’t have the Bible in it as central, then you’re not doing the Scripture-tradition thing well. I mean, there’s a reason why Paul said, “Hey, when you get together, read Scripture.” Now, he also wants it to be expounded upon, but there’s something in his theology of Scripture that just the reading of Scrip… because it’s clear. And the Holy Spirit inspires the text and is faithful to illuminate the texts in the hearts and minds of the hearers and readers. So, because of that, there’s something important about just the public reading of Scripture that should be more prevalent in Protestant churches.

Justin, thank you so much for opening this conversation about the trip wire of tradition. Next time we’re going to talk about more examples of the poverty that Dr. Packer warned about when we talk about heresy and its effect. But heresy is a word that sometimes too easily gets weaponized in our social media space. So, listen next time as we talk with Justin Holcomb about heresy and heretics next time on 4 the World.

4 the World is a production of Third Millennium Ministries where we are reimagining biblical education for Christian leaders in a global church. Each week we bring you conversations to cultivate your curiosity about God’s Word, to inform your intercessions for God's people, and to equip your efforts in God's mission for the world. Our host is Dr. Greg Perry. Our sound engineer and editor is Christopher Russell. Our web designer is Ra McLaughlin, and our director of communications is Darlene Perry. Production assistance is provided by David Zoeller and John Cook, and I’m your announcer, Cindy Sawyer. Our guest for this series is Dr. Justin Holcomb, the Canon for Vocations in the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida. Learn more about Dr. Holcomb at justinholcomb.com where you can access his books, including Know the Creeds and Councils, and Know the Heretics from the Know series published by Zondervan. And join us next week as we continue our conversations 4 the World.