Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Traditions of Men

One of the more annoying misinterpretation of Scripture is that of Matthew 15:1-8, which reads:

1 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said,

2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They do not wash (their) hands when they eat a meal.”

3 He said to them in reply, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?

4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses father or mother shall die.’

5 But you say, ‘Whoever says to father or mother, “Any support you might have had from me is dedicated to God,”

6 need not honor his father.’ You have nullified the word of God for the sake of your tradition.

7 Hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy about you when he said:

8 ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;

9 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.’”

The argument put forth is:

  1. [Jesus] condemned [traditions]
  2. The [Catholic Church] promotes [Tradition]
  3. Therefore [Jesus] condemns the [Catholic Church].

This is to entirely miss the point of the Scripture reading.

History and Context

The Pharisees, in Jesus time, had their own code of laws which were put on the same level as the Torah, indeed claimed that one could only follow the Torah through their interpretation, and the one who violated the rules of the Pharisees were considered as one who broke the Torah.

Jesus, in opposing the Pharisees, pointed out that these laws were focused on the legalism, and ignored the intent of the Law.  They would pay tithes on the very small plants mint, cumin and dill (See Matt 23:23) in observance of Lev 27:30 and Deut 14:22–23, but they were missing the point, by neglecting "judgment and mercy and fidelity."  They would strain the gnat (the gnat was the smallest of the unclean animals) pouring what they were to drink through a cloth to avoid accidentally swallowing one, but Jesus describes them as swallowing the camel, again missing the big picture (see Matt 23:24).

In other words, what Jesus was condemning was a rigid observation of religious requirements in the Law, while ignoring the greater parts.  Jesus didn't say Pharisees were not to keep the law (See Matt 23:23, "these you should have done, without neglecting the others.")

The idea of Qorban/Corban which Jesus condemned involved the donation of the individual's wealth to the Temple (sort of like a living trust today) after his death, and claiming that because the man did this, he was not obligated to use his wealth to support his parents in their need.  Thus for the claim that Qorban negated the obligation of the son to the parents was to make a human tradition go against the command of God.

When one considers this, one sees that the objection to Catholic disciplines and practices as being condemned by Christ by the very fact they are small-t traditions is to miss the point.  He did not condemn the authority of the religious authorities to make regulations on the governing of worship (See Matt 23:2-3), but on the wrong they did in thinking their laws were equal to the law of God, and could even circumvent the laws of God.

A Look at Tradition (παραδόσεις): Meaning and the Fallacy of Equivocation

There is a logical issue here over equivocation: Assuming a different meaning than the speaker intends.  Tradition has a range of meanings going from mere customs to Sacred Doctrine.  One needs to look at what Jesus meant by παραδόσεις and compare what He denounced to the Catholic use of the word.

Keep in mind that not all uses of a word in Scripture hold the same context.  Jesus is described as the Lion of Judah (Rev. 5:5).  Satan is described as a 'roaring lion" looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).  In one sense, the use of lion is used in a dangerous sense.  In another in a majestic sense (and yes, it is the same word in Greek: λεων [leōn]).  Likewise, Scripture speaks of tradition in numerous ways.

Let us not forget that St. Paul has also invoked Tradition.  In 2 Thessalonians 2, he says:

15 Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.

Oops.  Either Paul is contradicting Jesus, or else what Paul is praising is not what Jesus is condemning.  Paul is speaking as an Apostle sent to take the teachings of Christ to the world.  We believe he had authority.

So let's look at the word for tradition.

The word Paul uses is παραδόσεις (paradoseis) which means:

"that which is handed down or bequeathed, tradition, doctrine, teaching"

Liddell, H. G., Scott, R., Jones, H. S., & McKenzie, R. (1996). A Greek-English lexicon. "With a revised supplement, 1996." (Rev. and augm. throughout) (1309). Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press.

Meanwhile, the word Jesus uses is… the same word.  The phrase he uses is τὴν παράδοσιν ὑμῶν (Tēn paradosin umōn), literally "the tradition of you (Second Person plural)."

Paul also speaks favorably of traditions in 1 Cor 11:2, saying "I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold fast to the traditions [παραδόσεις], just as I handed them on to you."

He speaks of these traditions in 2 Thessalonians 3:6 when he says "We instruct you, brothers, in the name of (our) Lord Jesus Christ,to shun any brother who conducts himself in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition [παράδοσιν] they received from us. "

Thus the difference between Paul's παραδόσεις and the Pharisees' παραδόσεις is the authority they have to make it binding and whether or not it contradicts God's law.  The Pharisees traditions are self created laws which go against God's laws and indeed allow one to get around God's commands.

Now, while there are disputes about which Church is the Church Christ established, we do know that the Church created by Christ did have the power to bind and loose (see Matt 16:19 and Matthew 18:18), that it spoke with His authority and to reject the Church was to reject Him (See Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16).

Tradition and the Catholic Church

This seems to be the underlying dispute over the Catholic traditions that certain Protestants label as condemned, the denial that the Catholic Church is the Church which Jesus established.  One can see a certain logic in their objection.  If the Catholic Church does not have the authority which it claims, then yes, any traditions they make binding would be condemnable as the traditions of the Pharisees which Christ denounced

However, if the Catholic Church does have this authority, if it is the Church established by Christ, then she does have the authority to bind and to loose with the authority Paul invokes when writing to the Thessalonians and the Corinthians.

Now this article is not the place to delve into the arguments on what the true Church is.  Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows I remain in the Catholic Church because I believe she is the Church established by Christ.  Anyone who is interested can look at our Catechism to see what we believe and why, and investigate many defenses of the Church.

However, it is not enough to say "I don't believe the Catholic Church is the Church created by Christ."  What do you believe Christ's Church is?  Do you consider its teachings and interpretations of Scripture binding?  If so, you are invoking Tradition, even if you claim you interpret the Bible through the Bible.


Before one can condemn the Church teaching on account of a word in Scripture, one has to assess the meaning of the word within context, and be certain that the meaning and intent is the same.  Otherwise, one could create all sorts of alleged "contradictions" in Scripture and turn the Inspired Word of God into a partisan tool to advocate a position or bash another based on one's own personal reading.

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