It is difficult to be neutral about the idea of tradition. Either you are attracted to it, or you are repelled by it. This is especially true when it comes to the Christian faith.

Many Christians are attracted by the idea of being part of tradition. The liturgy, the Nicene-Constantinople creed and the Church Fathers are therefore essential for defining and identifying the kernel of Christian faith. But this attraction is not usually due to mere irrational sentiments towards the past. It is usually accompanied by what might be called ‘the hermeneutic of trust’: if the historic Christian faith is the true Christian faith, then my Christian faith must be measured in line with the historical Christian tradition.

Others, however, are more attracted by the idea of freedom from tradition. In this perspective, the core of the Christian faith must not be mistaken with the human and corruptible conditions that transmitted the faith to us as we know it since human tradition is not trustworthy: liturgy, creeds and Church Fathers can put on unnecessary restrictions to the reality of Jesus Christ. This attraction to freedom from tradition is motivated by what might be called ‘the hermeneutic of suspicion’: if the true kernel of the Christian faith has been distorted by traditional forms of Christianity, then my faith must shake off the tradition in order to rediscover the pure Christian faith.

If my starting premise is correct – that Christians are polarised when it comes to approaching tradition either through the ‘hermeneutic of trust’ or the ‘hermeneutic of suspiciion’ – then there is an uneasy fact that confronts us. This is the fact that both logics are present in the New Testament.

Freedom from Tradition: The Hermeneutic of Suspicion


“So for the sake of your tradition (τὴν παράδοςιν) you have made void the word of God…Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me,

in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

(Matthew 15:6)


Jesus’ teaching against the Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew will be second nature to those who are firmly convicted by the logic of renewal. The context here is that the Pharisees and scribes were questioning why Jesus’ disciples do not wash their hands when they eat. It seems that the Pharisees were very strict regarding the washing of hands because they had utmost regard for purity. But in response, Jesus provides a more over-arching critique that is not restricted to the issue at hand about hand washing. He points out that the Pharisees were hypocrites since at heart, they didn’t actually intend to honour God. Rather, quoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus condemns the Pharisees of “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men”. Jesus’ critique is based on the fact that while the Pharisees were showing such zeal for the nitty-gritties of maintaining the law, they did not actually concern themselves with the deepest substance underlying the law – and so “for the sake π your tradition you have made void the word of God.”

Two key features in Jesus’ argument here are often applied by Christians when it comes to the idea of tradition. First, tradition is often aligned with human teachings or commandments, as Jesus did here by aligning the Pharisees’ teachings with human commandments. This can be found not only in the Gospels, but in Paul’s Letters as well (Col 2:8). Second, human tradition is often pitted in opposition with the word of God or the pure message of faith. Combining these two points, it is easy to how we can form a hermeneutic of suspicion towards tradition: if tradition leads people “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men”, then it constitutes distortion to the Christian faith. Tradition as used in reference to the distortion of faith is often the use of the idea when we are equipped with the hermeneutic of suspicion.

Belonging to Tradition: The Hermeneutic of Trust

 “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions (τὰς παραδὀςεις) that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” (2 Thess. 2:15)

In a similar vein, Paul’s instruction to the Thessalonians in this passage will be second nature to those who operates naturally with the hermeneutic of trust when it comes to tradition. The context here is that Paul is instructing his readers to stand firm in the tradition that the Apostles have passed to them in order to resist false teachings. From chapter of 2 Thessalonians, we may infer that there were false teachers who taught that the day of the Lord has come. Further, these teachers seemed to be aligning their teachings with the Apostles, presumably claiming authority. Paul’s purpose here in this passage therefore is to reassure his readers of what he actually taught them and how to differentiate between the Apostolic tradition and the false teachings. This is why he called them to ‘stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us’.

It will be striking if we note the contrast between the use of the same word tradition (Greek: παράδοσις) here and the use by Jesus in the previous passage. First, Paul uses the word to refer to the right teachings that he passed to the Thessalonians (elsewhere, he commends the Corinthians for maintaining ‘the traditions even as I delivered them to you’, cf 1 Cor 11:2). As a result, tradition serves as shorthand for the kernel of Christian doctrines. Second, and more strikingly still, Paul uses tradition to refer to that which opposes false, human teachings that do not come from God. Thus in a dramatic reverse of meaning, tradition here refers to the vehicle by which the Thessalonians may know the Apostolic Gospel, through which they ‘may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ’.

The lessons

It is clear that in Scripture, tradition can be approached both through the hermeneutic of trust and the hermeneutic of suspicion. What is the lesson here?

  1. The key question is not whether or not tradition is authoritative and therefore trustworthy for Christians. Rather, the important question is how we differentiate traditions that warrant the hermeneutic of trust from traditions that warrant the hermeneutic of suspicion. The idea of tradition will only be useful for Christians and the wider church if clear answers to this question are found.
  2. The fact that we can find both the hermeneutic of trust and the hermeneutic of suspicion applied to the idea of tradition suggests that as Christians, we should also learn to think through whether we have extreme leanings towards one over the other. Absolute preference towards one hermeneutic over the other is going to cover up the real substantial problem (see point 1) which the church needs to address.
  3. We need both hermeneutics to function in a healthy approach to the role of tradition in Christian life. But this is only possible if (a) individual Christians take a more balance approach to develop both hermeneutics in his or her Christian view of tradition, (b) churches are filled with people who have different leanings towards one or the other hermeneutic. Thus the fact that both hermeneutics are present in Scripture has implications both at the individual level and at the corporate level.



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Pui Him Ip

Pui is currently a PhD student at Cambridge University, studying early Christian reflections on God.

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