A couple of days ago, Pete Enns had a nice post about faulty "rhetorical strategies" used in evangelical circles to dismiss or avoid substantive arguments. If you've read the post, I'm sure you've seen exactly what he is referring to. I think that the Lord's words here are often mishandled to make them into such a rhetorical strategy: anything that happens in the Church that is not according to *my* reading of Scripture is a "tradition of men" and therefore automatically suspect. Usually this is followed with an argument meant to show how *my* reading is the "plain sense" or "obvious" reading. However, here lurk some dragons to which we must attend.
On a superficial level, we have the problems of translation: what is the proper reading of the Scriptures in our language? Even literal translations can differ significantly from each other: which one represents the true Word of God? (Is it possible that multiple translations or, even, multiple textual variants could all be inspired, however we understand that word?)
Going one level deeper: which text is the true text, the one that preserves the "original" reading (if, in fact, any such thing ever existed)? Byzantine, Majority, Textus Receptus, modern eclectic texts?
Going yet further: which canon is the authoritative one? Protestants suppose it is, basically, the canon as set by Luther and his successors. But why privilege that one over the ones (yes, plural) that the Church had used since at least the fourth century (as evidenced by St Athanasius' 39th Festal Letter, more on that in a moment): the Catholic or the Orthodox or the Coptic?
Each of these decisions is, properly, a "tradition of men." Each one comes not from the Scriptures themselves, but the minds and hearts of many people over a long period of time. Who decided the Christian canon? While I have read arguments that Sts Paul and Peter determined it in Rome in the first century, no one really gives any historical credence to that theory. No, the Church, based on her experience of bringing people to Christlikeness (theosis) and her union with Holy Spirit, privileged some books over others. Athanasius speaks about this (seemingly traditioned) process thusly:
"3. In proceeding to make mention of these things, I shall adopt, to commend my undertaking, the pattern of Luke the Evangelist, saying on my own account: ‘Forasmuch as some have taken in hand,’ to reduce into order for themselves the books termed apocryphal, and to mix them up with the divinely inspired Scripture, concerning which we have been fully persuaded, as they who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word, delivered to the fathers; it seemed good to me also, having been urged thereto by true brethren, and having learned from the beginning, to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine; to the end that any one who has fallen into error may condemn those who have led him astray; and that he who has continued steadfast in purity may again rejoice, having these things brought to his remembrance."
He is pastorally listing out those books which are "handed down" (that is, traditioned) and "accredited as Divine" (that is, inspired). These he will set against the "hidden" or "apocryphal" books. Care must be taken here, as "apocrypha" means something very different today."4. There are, then, of the Old Testament, twenty-two books in number; for, as I have heard, it is handed down that this is the number of the letters among the Hebrews; their respective order and names being as follows. The first is Genesis, then Exodus, next Leviticus, after that Numbers, and then Deuteronomy. Following these there is Joshua, the son of Nun, then Judges, then Ruth. And again, after these four books of Kings, the first and second being reckoned as one book, and so likewise the third and fourth as one book. And again, the first and second of the Chronicles are reckoned as one book. Again Ezra, the first and second are similarly one book. After these there is the book of Psalms, then the Proverbs, next Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Job follows, then the Prophets, the twelve being reckoned as one book. Then Isaiah, one book, then Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations, and the epistle, one book; afterwards, Ezekiel and Daniel, each one book. Thus far constitutes the Old Testament."
Fairly standard definition of the OT canon, at least from our historical vantage point, save for some difference in the order and composition of the Prophets (you thought Malachi was the last book of the OT, didn't you?). Baruch does make an appearance here, which already raises the question of why he is absent in modern Protestant bibles. We might argue that St Athanasius isn't the authority on biblical canonicity, but then again, who is? Who has the authority to set the canonical limits? If the battle is between the Reformers and Athanasius, I'm going to have to side with the Alexandrian.
"5. Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John."
The NT in all her glory, laid out for us. But why, if the Scriptures are self-evidently the Scriptures (an assumption behind the problem I'm writing about), do we need to have clarity about which ones are in and which are out? Because it isn't self-evident. The Scriptures are the book(s) of the Church, collected, preserved, and handed down from one generation to another. There is no divine "table of contents" in the front: rather, these books are part of the larger Tradition of the Church. Hence, the Church (whatever that exactly is), as historical community filled with the Spirit of God, decides which books are truly "theopneustos" or "inspired" (2 Tim. 3:16). What about all those others books, which we call apocryphal?
"7. But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings."
These books that we now call "apocryphal" Athanasius did not. They weren't quite Canon -- that is, the were not for the public services of the Liturgy -- but they were to be read, particularly by catechumens. Preliminary reading, in other words.
The canon of Scripture, which books are in and which are out for the purpose of "doctrine, reproof, correction, instruction in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16 again), was established by the "pillar and ground of the Truth, the Church of the living God" (1 Tim. 3:15) through the wisdom bestowed on Her by the Holy Spirit.
All this to say that the argument that some interpretations are "traditions of men" instead of the "plain reading" of the Scriptures are fraught with complexity, to say the least. The Scriptures do not exist in a vacuum and should not be treated that way. There are more part of interpretation, especially the indwelling of the Spirit through holiness of life, that need to be taken into account. The Lord Jesus Christ can rightly use this argument, as He is the Truth that the Scriptures witness to.
There is no reading, for us, outside of some tradition. The question for us is, which tradition is the tradition of God? Certainly, we must be on the lookout for those who would sneak in things that lead us away from Christlikeness (Athanasius makes a point of this in some of the portions I didn't quote; St Paul does as well in Colossians); but, unless we possess the Spirit (or better, the Spirit possesses us) we must be humble as to what the "plain reading" of the Scriptures are and, to take it a step further, what Church practices really are "commandments of God" versus the "tradition of men."