Tradition is a fundamental concept in biblical theology but one whose importance extends far beyond biblical theology to the definition of culture. As we know, culture is transmitted chiefly by means of tradition, which during most of human history has taken the form of oral transmission and ritual action. And what is culture? The best definition of that which I have heard is that it is "what you do when you have forgotten why you do it".
"Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living". (Epigram by an unknown author)
People find it hard to believe that the ancients were capable to memorising huge chunks of the Bible and yet as recently as the early 20th century Milman Parry (1902-1935) discovered that Yugoslav peasants could recite thousands of lines of folk epic. Thus it is not unreasonable to conclude that large portions of the Bible were accurately transmitted orally long before Moses wrote it down.
The original collection of Christian sayings was transmitted orally before it was written down, collected and finally canonised three centuries later.Thus one of Yah'shua's best known sayings, "Happiness lies more in giving than in receiving" does not appear in the Gospels at all, but was quoted by the apostle Paul from the pool of oral tradition, who is then quoted by Luke in Acts 20:35. The Torah or Pentateuch came about in exactly the same way.
It is safe to assume that there was a Christian tradition long before there was a New Testament or a Christian Bible that was just as valid as its eventual written form. The apostle Paul was ashamed of his earlier "boundless devotion to the [Talmudic] traditions of my ancestors" (Gal.1:14) and consequently early believers rejected the post-biblical traditions of contemporary Judaism and other received doctrines as "traditions of man-made teaching" (Col.2:8) which had usurped the divine authority of the Word of Elohim. Regrettably many Messianics are not doing the same but trying to revive these dead works. For the same reason the Protestant Reformers rejected most of the post-biblical traditions of Catholicism as superfluous at best and subversive at worst, and others like Messianics are in their turn rejecting the post-biblical traditions of Protestants. Neither are wrong to do so in the light of biblical teaching.
If the spiritual state of the seven churches or assemblies in Asia Minor, as described in the Book of Revelation, is anything to go by then apostacy had well and truly set in even before the current Protestant Bible was canonised. This leads me to question the emphasis that both Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestants place on the teachings of the 'church fathers' so-called.
Let's take an example. In 325 AD the then church decided to interpret the scattered scriptural statements about Father, Son and Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit) and arrive at the full-blown doctrine of the Trinity which, though not explicitly taught in the Bible, assumed a status equal to that of the Bible because of evolving tradition. To deny the credal statements of the Trinity is, in the eyes of Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestants, tantamount to blasphemy and will earn you the rebuke of being called a 'cultist' even though no such doctrine existed among the apostles of the first century. It is not uncommon to be told that you will lose your salvation if you do not accept these creeds. And whilst the Trinity doctrine is indeed indispensable to an understanding of Christian history it is not true to say that it is indispensable to either understanding first century Christianity let alone to living the pure and unadulterated Christian faith. The New Testament believers managed quite well enough without it.
How shall we define tradition, then? Theologian G.K.Chesterton (1874-1936) offers this excellent suggestion:
In other words, tradition is a kind of evolving consensus. It is the fickle opinions of men that are constantly changing. But does not the New Testament say that we are to follow the tradition of the apostles?
"Tradition is only democracy extended through time. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead."
But is this actually what these passages say? Looking at the Greek, you would think so. There are 14 passages in the new Testament which speak of "tradition(s)" and all of them use the word paradosis which in all but the two scriptures cited above refer to the Jewish traditionary law which would become the Talmud. Are we then to understand that the apostles insisted that the believers abide by their opinions in the same way the Jewish religious leaders expected the Judahites of Judea to abide by their oral tradition? Does that even sound likely? True, Paul does give his opinions in some matters but these he clearly distinguished from commandments that arise out of direct apostolic revelation. One Messianic version, the HRV, as a result uses "commandments" instead of "traditions" based on Psalm 119:151 but I think this is stretching it somewhat. If, then, actual apostolic "traditions" did exist, of what did they consist? One Messianic translation (RSTNE) maintains that these traditions concerned service and worship proceedures during feasts and the sabbath. In my opinion this is the most likely explanation and that disputes about headcoverings which Paul had to resolve fall under this heading.
"But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Master Yah'shua the Messiah (Lord Jesus Christ), that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition (Gk. paradosis) which he received from us" (2 Thess.3:6, NKJV).
"Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions (Gk. paradosis) which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle" (2 Thess 2:15, NKJV).
What about the traditions of the 'church fathers'? Are we obliged to follow them as orthodox Christians insist? No, we are only obliged to obey the commandments in the Bible and the apostolic traditions in the Bible which ought to be the position of all Protestants too who maintain a Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) position. That does not mean we should not study Church History but it does not mean that we should view the teachings of the 'church fathers' in the same way we do that of the apostles either.
In terms of doctrinal tradition, it is interesting to trace historically how the doctrine of Incarnation went through an elaborate devleopment but the doctrine of the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit) did not. The Catholic doctrine of baptism sprang almost full-grown from the brow of patristic theology in the second-century church whereas the Eucahrist did not achieve a similar formulation (if indeed or ever did) until the controversies of the mediaeval and Reformation periods. Yet all of these emerged (however badly mutated in some instances) from the earliest apostolic tradition and deposit of faith.
So tradition can provide a source of insight into Scripture and is not, as Harnack insisted, mere 'detrius' from the past, though I do think we can get needlessly bogged down in it. For Catholics tradition is even more important than Scripture and we can see where that has taken them - it is a religion wholly alien to the New Testament faith. What I do believe we need is better understanding of Scripture, better understanding of the historical and cultural context of Scripture, better understanbding of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, and perhaps even more importantly, fresh revelation from the Ruach haQodesh. What we must convey, if we are to be true to our witness, is living, and only the Ruach haQodesh can do that.