Holding on to the Traditions We Received  

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Dr. John Byron, Professor of New Testament

By Dr. John Byron

I recently had the privilege to speak in the ATS chapel. One thing I noted in my message is the importance of remembering those teachings and practices which were passed on to us over the centuries. In Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, he calls these teachings/practices “traditions.”

So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.  2 Thessalonians 2:15

In the opening scene of Fiddler on the Roof the central character, Tevye, describes to the audience how Jews in the Russian village of Anatevka have kept their balance while living in a place dangerous for Jews. He explains it in one word, tradition. They have traditions for how they sleep, how they eat, how they work, even how they wear cloths. But what he can’t explain is how the various traditions got started. He doesn’t know. But explaining the origin of the traditions is not what is important to Tevye and the others. More important is what the traditions do. And what they do is remind everyone of who they are and what God expects them to do.

Unlike Tevye, Christians are not always fond of traditions. We are sometimes suspicious of tradition if its purpose, much less its origin, cannot be explained. People may participate in a certain practice or ritual for years and then one day ask why do we do it this way? If they are not satisfied with the answer they may end up rejecting the tradition in favor of another practice or none at all. But sometimes a tradition can be like a tool that only gets used once in a while. It sits in a draw, seems to take up space and you may even contemplate getting rid of if now and then. But then one day you need it and you remember why you have held on to it after all these years.

I remember once sitting in a seminar in Cambridge, England when a graduate student asked the professor why the seminar was run in a particular way and wouldn’t it be better to try a different format. The professor responded: “This is Cambridge and we have been doing it this way for more than 800 years.” The professor’s answer explains why they do it that way, even if it doesn’t explain what it means. But it also shows that we don’t simply get rid of a practice simply because it is not “new” or even because we have forgotten what it means. Sometimes we hold onto those traditions because it is what helps keep us anchored to the past and who we are.

Traditions are important for Christianity since they represent a link back to the teachings of the apostles and Jesus. The practice of communion and the Lord’s Prayer, for instance, are teachings encapsulated in ritual. When properly employed they remind us of who we are and what God expects us to do.This is one reason for the creeds of the early church. Creeds put into words the experiences of the believing community and summarize the basic ideas and practices that make one Christian. When recited they remind us what the church has taught throughout history.

When Paul talks about “traditions” he is referring to those things that are commonly agreed upon by the church and have been inherited from the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. These traditions are not something that were invented or lack meaning, but are the very foundation of Christian life and faith.

In his letter here the “traditions” Paul refers to are things the Thessalonians were taught. Although he doesn’t tell us what these teachings were, we do know their function. They were to be used to combating the erroneous teachings that were circulating in the community. The Thessalonians had become “alarmed” and “unsettled” (2:2). The way that Paul combated the situation was not with new information or creating new practices, but reminding them of what had already been passed on to them. He told them to hold fast to their traditions.

Here the message here:

John Byron, PhD is Professor of New Testament at Ashland Theological Seminary.

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