What part does oral tradition play in the Church of God, and what part should it play? What part did oral tradition play in Israel and in the Jewish religion from the time of Moses to the time of Christ and beyond?
Are there lessons we can learn for the Church in the history of oral tradition among the Jews? And does God want the Church today to rely on its Church of God oral traditions?
Should there be an oral tradition in the Church, and if so, to what degree should we rely on it?
It is easy to see from history and from the New Testament that oral tradition played an important part in the religion of the Jews. Although the Jews by the time of Christ misused the principle of tradition and used it to nullify parts of God's law, some say that the principle of passing on the understanding of the written law of God from generation to generation as an oral tradition is a right principle and comes from God. Some may say that this principle teaches us to use oral tradition in the Church of God in a right way, not as the Jews at the time of Christ used tradition, but as a way of passing on from generation to generation the understanding of the Bible that we have today in the Church of God.
I want to discuss the matter of oral tradition in the Church of God. I will try to show that, while God wants the ministry to teach the members and parents to teach their children a right understanding of the Bible, we must never rely on our traditions as the Jews did as a way of trying to know the truth, but rather we must put primary reliance on the Bible itself. I want to show the dangers of over-reliance on any tradition not confirmed by the Bible, and I want to show that the same danger of abuse of tradition that got the Jews into trouble can also get the Church into trouble today.
Some may say, we are different from the Jews because we have the Holy Spirit to guide us. Yes, converted Christians have the Holy Spirit, yet collectively we are not as different from the Jews as some of us might think. We still have human nature. The warnings Christ gave about the traditions of the Jews are also warnings for the Church today.
The Oral Tradition of the Jews
The Jews have maintained an oral tradition that is supposed to give understanding and fill in details of the written text of the law given in the Old Testament. This oral tradition was passed on from generation to generation, with teachers teaching it to their students and students in turn becoming teachers to teach the next generation of students. By the time of Christ, this oral tradition was used by the Jewish religious leaders to make the law of God of no effect. "Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: 'These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men' " (Matthew 15:6-9). The oral tradition of the Jews contradicted the Bible, yet the Jews considered their oral tradition more important than the written word of God. This was prophesied by Isaiah, as Christ said, but how and why did this come about?
Jews call the first five books of the Bible, the law, or the "Torah". Many Jews maintain that God taught Moses an oral tradition, an "oral Torah", in addition to the written Torah that is the books of Moses, and that God intended this oral Torah to be passed down from generation to generation. Some Jews may think that this oral tradition, which Jews think fill in details of the law of God not given in the books of Moses, was given to Moses by God when Moses was on the mountain with God.
Many Jews think that this oral tradition is intended by God to teach the understanding of the written Bible. Over time, many began to think of the oral tradition as superior to the Bible because when a teacher teaches his student personally, if there is anything ambiguous in what the teacher says, the student can ask questions and get clarification, which you cannot do with the written Bible.
But it is clear that by the time of Christ, the oral tradition of the Jews did NOT give accurate understanding of God's law and God's word. Christ condemned their oral traditions, and those who held those traditions rejected Christ and were responsible for His murder.
"Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, 'Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.' He answered and said to them, 'Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, saying, "Honor your father and your mother"; and, "He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death." But you say, "Whoever says to his father or mother, 'Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God' - then he need not honor his father or mother." Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition' " (Matthew 15:1-6).
In fact, God never said that such an oral tradition should be handed down from generation to generation and have authority to interpret the written text of the Bible, God's word. You will not find any instructions from God to Moses that say, "You will teach the priests everything I told you, both that which you write and that which you do not write, that they may teach the people the understanding of the law from Me that you write. And each generation of priests will teach the next generation, that you may understand the written law."
Instead, it was God's practice to have Moses write God's word. There are many scriptures referring to writing the law in a book and "the book" of the law. "Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Write this for a memorial in the book and recount it in the hearing of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven' " (Exodus 17:14).
"And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord. And he rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars according to the twelve tribes of Israel" (Exodus 24:4). "Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people. And they said, 'All that the Lord has said we will do, and be obedient' " (Exodus 24:7). Notice in verse 4 that Moses wrote all the words of the Lord. There is no suggestion that God told Moses things for an oral tradition that Moses did not write down.
"Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Write these words, for according to the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel' " (Exodus 34:27).
"And it shall be, on the day when you cross over the Jordan to the land which the Lord your God is giving you, that you shall set up for yourselves large stones, and whitewash them with lime. You shall write on them all the words of this law, when you have crossed over, that you may enter the land which the Lord your God is giving you, 'a land flowing with milk and honey,' just as the Lord God of your fathers promised you" (Deuteronomy 27:2-3).
"If you do not carefully observe all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, THE LORD YOUR GOD, then the Lord will bring upon you and your descendants extraordinary plagues—great and prolonged plagues—and serious and prolonged sicknesses" (Deuteronomy 28:58-59). "The Lord would not spare him; for then the anger of the Lord and His jealousy would burn against that man, and every curse that is written in this book would settle on him, and the Lord would blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord would separate him from all the tribes of Israel for adversity, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this Book of the Law" (Deuteronomy 29:20-21).
"The Lord your God will make you abound in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your body, in the increase of your livestock, and in the produce of your land for good. For the Lord will again rejoice over you for good as He rejoiced over your fathers, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this Book of the Law, and if you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul" (Deuteronomy 30:9-10). Notice, God would rejoice over the people for good and bless them if they obeyed His commandments and statutes that are in the written book of the law. There is no hint of a requirement that the people needed to obey any oral tradition not written in the Bible before God would bless them.
"So it was, when Moses had completed writing the words of this law in a book, when they were finished, that Moses commanded the Levites, who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying: 'Take this Book of the Law, and put it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there as a witness against you; for I know your rebellion and your stiff neck. If today, while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord, then how much more after my death?' " (Deuteronomy 31:24-27).
Notice, in the last quote above, that the book was to be a witness against Israel because Moses knew Israel was rebellious against God. So if Israel was rebellious, how could they keep an oral tradition that was faithful? The very purpose of the written law was to be a witness, in writing, against a carnal people who could not be trusted to keep a faithful oral tradition.
In God's instruction to Joshua, He said, "This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success" (Joshua 1:8). Notice, it was the written word of God that was to be in Joshua's mouth, not an oral tradition. He was to observe all that was in the book of the law, and if he did, he would have good success. There was no requirement that he observe an oral tradition in order to have good success.
If God wanted an oral tradition to be trusted, He would have given instructions for the keeping and obeying of an oral tradition in the written law.
There is no hint that God gave Moses instruction to give to Israel concerning the law, doctrine, and truth that Moses did not write down. There is certainly no indication in the Bible that Moses received any oral instruction when he was on the mountain with God apart from what he wrote in the Bible. Rather, God spoke to Moses, and Moses wrote down what God told him. There is no biblical evidence than an "oral Torah" from God ever existed.
You do find scriptures that say that parents should teach their children, not only the law but what they themselves were eyewitnesses to, the great intervention and miracles of God. And there are scriptures that show that the priests and Levites were to teach the law and the understanding of the law to the people. But the understanding of the written law was to come from a study of the written law, not from an oral tradition passed down separately from the law that had the power to interpret the written law. Any oral teaching was to be a reinforcement and reminder of the written law.
"Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. And teach them to your children and your grandchildren" (Deuteronomy 4:9).
"And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up" (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). "These words" refer to the written text, not a separate oral tradition.
These passages refer always to either the written law itself or God's saving miracles that ancestors have personally witnessed, not to a separate oral tradition that had authority to interpret the written law. Parents were to teach their children the law from the scriptures, from the Bible. People did not have personal copies of the Bible in those days. Yet the nation had the written law, and the priests taught the people from the written law and parents could in turn teach and remind their children what the written law says.
Although there are no scriptures that teach the maintenance and passing down of an oral tradition with authority to interpret the written word of God, there are many scriptures that affirm the importance of the written word itself in both the Old Testament and New Testament.
I have already quoted a number of them. Let's look at a few more examples in the Old Testament.
The priests and Levites were to read the written law to the people every seven years. "So Moses wrote this law and delivered it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel. And Moses commanded them, saying: 'At the end of every seven years, at the appointed time in the year of release, at the Feast of Tabernacles, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place which He chooses, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Gather the people together, men and women and little ones, and the stranger who is within your gates, that they may hear and that they may learn to fear the Lord your God and carefully observe all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land which you cross the Jordan to possess" (Deuteronomy 31:9-13). This would keep the people anchored firmly to the written law of God, not to a separate oral tradition.
Kings were instructed to write a copy of the written law and to read it all their life. "When you come to the land which the Lord your God is giving you, and possess it and dwell in it, and say, 'I will set a king over me like all the nations that are around me,' you shall surely set a king over you whom the Lord your God chooses; one from among your brethren you shall set as king over you; you may not set a foreigner over you, who is not your brother....Also it shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this law in a book, from the one before the priests, the Levites. And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God and be careful to observe all the words of this law and these statutes" (Deuteronomy 17:14-19).
Prophets were commanded to write their prophecies. "Now go, write it before them on a tablet, and note it on a scroll, that it may be for time to come, forever and ever: that this is a rebellious people, lying children, children who will not hear the law of the Lord" (Isaiah 30:8-9).
"The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, 'Thus speaks the Lord God of Israel, saying: "Write in a book for yourself all the words that I have spoken to you" ' " (Jeremiah 30:1-2). "Now it came to pass in the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, that this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying: 'Take a scroll of a book and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel, against Judah, and against all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah even to this day' " (Jeremiah 36:1-2).
So there is instruction that the written law was to be followed, but no instruction for a separate oral tradition that had authority to interpret the written word in the name of "understanding".
In fact, such an oral tradition that would "fill in details" was forbidden to be added to God's written word as binding instruction. "Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it" (Deuteronomy 12:32). And as Jesus pointed out, Isaiah condemned the adding of an oral tradition when such a tradition originated with men, calling such "oral tradition" the "commandments of men" (Matthew 15:7-9). A Jew might say, these oral traditions were not from men but from God. But how can a Jew know where oral traditions came from? Isaiah gives the warning that some traditions would be the commandments of men, and God condemns them. There is no way to know that oral traditions are not from men, therefore, in light of God's word through Isaiah, oral traditions should never be trusted as "commandments".
Did the priests and the judges have authority to make binding decisions, decisions that the people were required to obey? Yes. When the law was broken, the judges had authority to issue sentences and command compensation for victims. They had authority to tell people what to do. They had authority to resolve disputes. The priests had authority to make decisions concerning the details of how the law was to be obeyed and administered.
"And you shall come to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge there in those days, and inquire of them; they shall pronounce upon you the sentence of judgment. You shall do according to the sentence which they pronounce upon you in that place which the Lord chooses. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they order you. According to the sentence of the law in which they instruct you, according to the judgment which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left from the sentence which they pronounce upon you" (Deuteronomy 17:9-11).
But nowhere is there instruction that gives each generation of priests binding authority over the judgments of the next generation of priests. Nowhere is there authority for one generation to impose its mistakes and sins on the next generation. Each case was to be decided based on the evidence and on the written word of God. Each generation was to obey the written law.
In the case of the daughters of Zelophehad, God made certain judgments, and those judgments set precedent for future generations because the judgments were from God and they were written as part of the law of God (Numbers 27:1-11, Numbers 36:1-12). But there is no instruction from God that the judgments of human priests and judges in particular cases, not recorded as part of God's written word, must be applied by future priests and judges in similar cases.
Were the priests to teach both the written law and the understanding of that written law? Yes. "So Ezra the scribe stood on a platform of wood which they had made for the purpose....And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people....Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law; and the people stood in their place. So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading" (Nehemiah 8:4-8).
But where did that understanding come from? Did the priests get that understanding from an oral tradition handed down generation to generation from the time of Moses, giving instruction that God gave Moses but was never written down? There is no evidence of that. Rather, the priest, being a priest, could devote his life to studying the written law so he could teach the people.
The priests had greater understanding of the written law, not necessarily because of an unwritten oral tradition, but because they had the opportunity to study the written law all their lives. They lived off the tithes and offerings of the people and did not have to spend their time raising crops or earning a living some other way than being priest. They had time to devote to the written word, and they could use that time to develop an understanding they could then teach to the people.
In other words, the priests had the opportunity, if their hearts were right with God, to gain a greater understanding of the written text of the Bible by studying it so they could teach others. That is exactly how Mr. Armstrong gained his understanding of the Bible, not by receiving some oral or written tradition from the Church of God Seventh Day, but by spending many hours every day, both before and after conversion, in studying the Bible, which is the written text of God's law. Before he was converted, while God was calling him, he learned the truth of the weekly Sabbath and also the holy days (Church of God Seventh Day did not know that we should keep the holy days). After he was converted and received God's Holy Spirit to guide him, he learned new truth from the Bible at a faster rate. But he did not learn most of what he learned from the oral or written traditions of any church.
I don't say that the priests did not get help in understanding the written text from the older priests who went before them. Just as Mr. Armstrong helped those at Ambassador College learn the Bible, so priests could help each other understand the written text. I am just pointing out that such an understanding is NOT evidence that there was an oral tradition, separate from the written text, that God gave to Moses and was handed down from generation to generation. Rather, those who understood the written word of God from a life-long study of that written text could help the next generation understand the written text as that next generation studied the text and learned to prove for themselves what it said.
The New Testament also reaffirms the importance of the written word of God. The New Testament says that scripture cannot be broken. "Jesus answered them, 'Is it not written in your law, "I said, 'You are gods?' " If He called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, "You are blaspheming," because I said, "I am the Son of God" '? " (John 10:34-36). Many times gospel writers said that something happened for the very purpose of fulfilling written scripture (Matthew 1:21-23, 2:14-15, 23, 4:13-16, 8:16-17, 12:16-21, 13:34-35, 21:4-5, 26:53-54, 27:35, Mark 14:49, John 13:18, 15:24-25, 17:12, 18:8-9, 31-32, 19:24).
"All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). "These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11).
"For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book" (Revelation 22:18-19).
The New Testament directly condemns the oral traditions of the Jews. I have already quoted the passage where Christ said that the Pharisees made the law of God of no effect by their traditions. Here is another example of how they could twist scriptures by their traditional "understanding": "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you" (Matthew 5:43-44). I do not find in the Bible that God ever commanded Israel to hate their enemies. But it was evidently in the oral traditions of the Jews. Christ said it was wrong.
The Problem with Using Oral Tradition to Interpret the Written Word of God
What is wrong with an oral tradition to give understanding and fill in details of the law that would be passed on from generation to generation?
The problem is, such a tradition can never be trusted, for two reasons.
One reason is that an oral tradition can change. Verbal instructions given from one generation to another can drift into error. Many people have played or heard about a game some play at parties. People sit in a circle and one person whispers a story to the person on his or her side, and that person does the same to the next person, and so on around the circle. By the time the story goes all the way around the circle, it has completely changed. Why? Errors are bound to creep into the repeating of the story, and those errors accumulate because they are not corrected.
Later, the Jews put their oral traditions into writing, first into the Mishnah, later into the Talmud. But by that time, their traditions had become utterly corrupt. The fact that the Jews felt the need for putting their traditions into writing merely underlines the recognition of the fact that oral traditions, if not put into writing, can change.
Can errors creep into the replication and passing down of a written text? Yes, but there is much less chance. Why? When a written text is duplicated by copying by hand, the copyist can make small errors. But the original remains and can be painstakingly compared with the new copy to identify errors. It can be checked and double-checked. Letters can be counted to make sure nothing was missed or added. And over time there will be many copies around to help insure that no one generation deliberately changes the text. But without these safeguards, an oral tradition can change greatly from generation to generation.
And how will the oral tradition change? In the direction of greater and greater understanding of the written text? No, not in this age when Satan deceives the world. Ancient Israel as a whole never had spiritual discernment to rightly understand God's word.
That brings us to the second reason why an oral tradition in Israel cannot be trusted. Israel was, and is, carnal and unfaithful to God and his law and word. You cannot trust carnal men to faithfully transmit understanding of God's word as an oral tradition.
This world as a whole, including Israel, is blinded and deceived by Satan. You do not ask Satan to give you "understanding" of God's word. Except for a few prophets and righteous leaders who had God's Spirit, Israel DID NOT HAVE SPIRITUAL UNDERSTANDING of God's word. So how could they transmit an oral "understanding" of the written text when they themselves did not understand it? A student might well ask his teacher a question about the written text, but the teacher cannot give a correct answer if he does not have the correct answer.
"Yet the Lord has not given you a heart to perceive and eyes to see and ears to hear, to this very day" (Deuteronomy 29:4). "For I know that after my death you will become utterly corrupt, and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you. And evil will befall you in the latter days, because you will do evil in the sight of the Lord, to provoke Him to anger through the work of your hands" (Deuteronomy 31:29).
"For who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief" (Hebrews 3:16-19).
"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9). "And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: 'Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive; For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them' " (Matthew 13:14-15).
"But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them" (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). "For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in" (Romans 11:25).
"So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him" (Revelation 12:9).
I have already quotes Deuteronomy 31:24-27, which shows that Moses knew that Israel was rebellious by nature and would not be faithful to God after the death of Moses.
The history of Israel shows that they were not faithful, from the time of the Exodus to the time of Christ. Over and over they rebelled against God, they turned to idolatry, and they were unfaithful to His word. Exodus through Deuteronomy show Israel's unfaithfulness to God in the wilderness. The book of Judges shows that as soon as Joshua and the elders of his time who witnessed God's mighty miracles were gone, the people turned to sin. They sinned, God punished them, then God raised up a leader to save them, and when the leader died they sinned again. This cycle was repeated over and over (Judges 2:11-19).
Similarly, in the times of the kings of Israel and Judah there was continued unfaithfulness to God. Once the kingdom was split, the northern house of Israel never had a righteous king, and the southern kingdom of Judah sometimes had a righteous king and sometimes went into idolatry. Eventually, God sent both houses into captivity.
What about the Levitical priests? Could they be trusted to maintain a faithful oral tradition even while the nation as a whole was unfaithful? No, they had the same human nature. Even in the wilderness, Aaron made a golden calf and the two sons of Aaron disrespected the word of God by offering profane fire and God burned them up (Exodus 32:1-35, Leviticus 10:1-3). In the time of Samuel, Eli's sons were corrupt and sinned and he did not restrain them (1 Samuel 2:12-17, 21-36, 3:11-14).
"Therefore I will give their wives to others, and their fields to those who will inherit them; Because from the least even to the greatest everyone is given to covetousness; From the prophet even to the priest everyone deals falsely" (Jeremiah 8:10).
And in the time of Christ, the priests condemned Jesus to death and rejected His teachings. They had, by that time, developed and passed on an oral tradition contrary to God's written word, though they no doubt claimed it gave "understanding" of that word.
Why? From the time of the sin of Adam, this world has been cut off from God and His Holy Spirit and is blinded by Satan. God has called only a few prophets to be faithful to record God's written word, and God has given those prophets His Holy Spirit, and He has preserved that word from Him that they wrote.
By the time of Christ, the oral tradition of the Jews had become completely corrupt. "Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch" (Matthew 15:14). Christ acknowledged the authority of the Pharisees who sit on Moses seat to rule but said we are not to follow their ways (Matthew 23:1-7).
Without God's Holy Spirit, the mind of man cannot properly understand the law and the word of God. "For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God....But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:11-14). "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind" (2 Timothy 1:7).
For those without God's Spirit, there is a veil that prevents them from understanding the Bible. "But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away" (2 Corinthians 3:14-16). And if they cannot understand the Bible, how can they accurately transmit an oral understanding of the Bible?
No oral tradition passed on by carnal men claiming to interpret or understand the written word of God can be trusted. Only God's written word, written by a few men inspired directly in their writings by the Holy Spirit and carefully preserved word for word, can be trusted.
Did those who teach in Israel have God's authority to teach? God certainly authorized certain roles. Parents were given the authority, office, and responsibility of teacher of their children. Priests and Levites were given the office and authority to teach the people. Their offices were from God, and their responsibility to teach the people came from God. They were commanded to teach. But they only had the authority to teach what is consistent with the written word of God, and the people were not commanded to obey or believe any teaching that was wrong and not according to God's law.
Just because God authorizes a certain role and office, that does not mean He requires our unconditional submission to that office.
Here is an extreme example. Satan is on a throne over this earth. He rules mankind. God gave him that role and office, and until Christ returns to rule the earth, Satan continues in that office. That office that Satan presently holds comes from God. God will not allow anyone, not any angel or demon, not any righteous angel such as Michael or Gabriel or any demon or group of demons, to knock Satan off his throne. God presently maintains Satan's office. But that does not mean God requires that we believe and obey what Satan teaches.
One of God's purposes in giving a written text was to prevent corruption from carnal men. The majority in Israel was never faithful unless led by a faithful leader. It was only the minority, the few, who were faithful, and God directly inspired a tiny number of them to write His word so God could use them to insure His word would be transmitted faithfully, so He had a written text produced that would be transmitted word-for-word apart from the interpretation of carnal men.
What About Oral Tradition in the Church of God?
How about tradition in the Church of God? What part should oral tradition or even written tradition, apart from the Bible, play in our doctrines and practices? Should we have oral and written traditions of how to understand the Bible, and should those traditions be passed on from generation to generation in the Church of God, being taught by ministers to members and by parents to children?
To a degree, yes, we have and we should have traditions in our understanding of the Bible that are passed on from generation to generation in the Church. But those traditions should never have AUTHORITY to interpret the Bible for us or to command and enforce belief in doctrines not in the Bible. Our traditions, used in a right way, can be helpful. But they must always be subject to correction from the Bible, and practices that are our tradition only and not commanded in the Bible must never become mandatory upon future generations.
"Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it" (Deuteronomy 12:32).
"For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book" (Revelation 22:18-19).
We in the Church have traditions of doctrine and traditions of practice. Both can be helpful as long as they are subordinate to the Bible itself, which is God speaking to us directly.
We have, for example, a number of traditions in doctrine that are unique to us in the Church of God. We have the tradition of the understanding of the Bible that God's purpose is to reproduce Himself in mankind, that we will be God in the Kingdom of God. We have the tradition of understanding that God's plan is revealed in the holy days. We have the tradition of understanding that Christians should observe the holy days. We have the tradition of understanding the modern identity of Israel, particularly the tribes of Joseph.
But where did we get these traditions in doctrine? Did we get them from an oral tradition passed on generation to generation in the Church of God from the time of Jesus Christ and the original apostles? No, absolutely not. One member found these truths and this understanding in the Bible, and he showed others were to find them in the Bible. That one member was Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong, a man we in the Church recognize now as an apostle because of his fruits. But that one man did not get these things from any oral tradition passed on to him from the Church of God Seventh Day. He got them directly from the Bible. And those who heard him looked up these truths in the Bible and believed what they saw in their own Bibles. They believed God. They in turn taught others and taught their children, and that is how we received these doctrines as our tradition.
The Church of God Seventh Day, which should have accepted these truths, rejected them, though they are from the Bible. They kept their traditions, but rejected the Bible. They, like the Pharisees, put their traditions over the word of God. Yet they were part of the true Church of God (Revelation 1:12-20, 3:1-6), not a church of this world. Still, they put tradition over the Bible, and God could not use them to do a powerful work.
Because the Church of God Seventh Day put their oral tradition over the Bible, as the Pharisees did, God had to reject them from being used by Him to do a powerful work to the nations. And it was not just because they lacked the knowledge to preach the gospel that God had to reject them. There was another reason, which I will explain later.
So, we have our traditional understanding of the Bible. And we should teach our understanding of the Bible to the next generation of the Church. Ministers should teach the members and parents should teach their children. But we should teach it from the Bible. Our teaching should primarily be showing the next generation where to find these doctrines and prove them in the Bible. And we should never hold on to any tradition if and when we are shown and can see in the Bible that our tradition is in error. We should always let the Bible correct our traditions. That is one thing the Pharisees did not do and Church of God Seventh Day did not do.
So the traditions of doctrine we have are not passed on from one generation to the next generation in the Church, but they are passed on to each generation directly by God through the Bible. What may be passed on from one generation to the next is the knowledge of where to find the answers to questions and the proof of doctrine, in the Bible.
Is there a doctrine we hold in the Church of God that we received from generation to generation in the Church, from the first century to now, that is not in the Bible? Name one, if you know of any. I do not know of a single doctrine we know by tradition and not by the Bible. All of our doctrines come from the Bible, unless any of our doctrines are in error, and if a doctrine can be shown by the Bible to be in error, we should change it.
The same thing that happened in Israel with the Pharisees using their traditions to make the word of God of no effect happened also in God's own Church, the Church of God Seventh Day, even though that Church had God's Holy Spirit. They rejected the truth of the holy days that Mr. Armstrong found in the Bible and many other truths of the Bible.
Thus, oral tradition in the Church of God is not reliable and does not carry God's authority from one generation to another, but God teaches each generation directly from His word, the Bible.
We also have traditional practices in the Church of God. Sometimes these are things that are based on Bible principles but are not specifically commanded in the Bible. Sometimes these are judgments those in the Church with authority have to make.
We have the tradition at the Feast of Tabernacles of having services every day. We have a tradition of having a family dance and a senior citizen's lunch. We have a certain order of services on the Sabbath - we sing three hymns, someone gives the opening prayer, there is a sermonette, then another hymn before announcements and the main message, then another song, then the closing prayer. We have the blessing of little children once a year. These are just examples. These practices are not commanded in the Bible in detail, but they are based on biblical principles, and the leadership of the Church has made certain judgments to do things a certain way. At other times in history and in other places the Church may have had different traditions, but also based on the Bible.
But these details are not commanded by God in the Bible, and the judgments the leadership in one generation makes are not necessarily binding on the next generation. These details and traditions can change because they are not commanded by God.
We do not know how Christ will have the nations keep the Feast in the millennium, and many details may be different from what Mr. Armstrong gave us.
Family traditions can be of this type. One father may make it a tradition of his family to have a special dinner every Friday night to start the Sabbath, or maybe a family Bible study. This is based on the Bible and on the law of God, but it is not a requirement. The next generation in that family is not required to observe the same custom. The son of that man, when he moves out of his father's house and starts his own family, may have a different tradition. His father had an office from God, the office of being the head of the family, and he had the authority to make a Friday night special dinner a tradition in his house. But that does not mean that the tradition he observed had permanent authority from God. When his children grew up and started their own households, that tradition was optional for them.
God can give a man the role and office of teacher and give him the authority to teach others. But that does not mean that everything that man teaches is infallible and every judgment he makes has permanent authority.
Paul gave certain traditions to the congregations he raised up and supervised (1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 2 Thessalonians 3:6). In matters of doctrine, the doctrines God wants us to have, including the traditions of doctrine Paul gave his congregations, God had recorded in the Bible. In matters practice and custom, we do not have every detail of every decision and judgment Paul made. Did Paul have his congregations observe a certain order of Sabbath services similar to what we have today? The Bible doesn't say and we can't know.
When a teaching Paul gave is recorded by God in the Bible, for us it becomes mandatory because the Bible is God speaking to us directly. That is not necessarily true for every decision and judgment Paul established for his congregation. As I pointed out, we do not know their order of services.
Did Paul have opening and closing prayers at services? Did he have his congregations sing three hymns at the beginning of services, one before the main message, and one at the end? Did he have one sermonette and one main sermon? Is it possible that those were his traditions? Yes, it is possible. But if so, those traditions were not binding on new generations of those who followed simply because God did not put them in the Bible.
Likewise, Mr. Armstrong gave us a tradition for the order of services. And we keep that tradition because it has borne good fruit, because Mr. Armstrong developed this over time by trial and error, and because we have no good reason to change it. But we are not bound by God's law to continue in it.
There is a difference between what God puts in the Bible and what God does not put into the Bible. If it is in the Bible, it is God's word, and we are bound by it (unless it is clear from the context that it is not intended for all times and circumstances). If it is not in the Bible, then it is voluntary, we are not bound by it, except we must obey our current leaders. But our leaders do not have the authority to make binding decisions upon future generations apart from what the Bible binds, not when it comes to traditional doctrines of the Church. Thus, current COG leaders can change details of Mr. Armstrong's doctrines if they have good cause from the Bible for doing so.
Some might say, because we as a Church are to grow in understanding and because we have the Holy Spirit, our understanding of the Bible as a Church should grow from generation to generation, and we should preserve and build upon our oral and written traditions. We should regard our traditional doctrines as truth because they were built by men with God's Holy Spirit. Thus, we should regard them as having authority in how we understand the Bible.
That is wrong.
Look at the history of the Church of God in the last 100 years.
The Church of God Seventh Day was wrong in some of their traditions. They were wrong not to keep the holy days. Did they have the Holy Spirit? Some of them must have had the Holy Spirit or they would not be God's Church. But that Church as a whole refused to be corrected by the Bible. Like the Pharisees, they held to their oral traditions more than the Bible.
Look at the history of the Church since the death of Mr. Armstrong. Did the leadership and ministry of the Church make right choices because they had the Holy Spirit? Would you trust Mr. Tkach to faithfully pass on a correct understanding of the Bible to the next generation by oral or written tradition?
And what about the many scattered groups that exist today in the whole Church of God? Which one would you trust to pass on by oral tradition a correct understanding of the Bible to the next generation? One group differs from another - all the scattered groups do not believe in the same set of doctrines.
Are we so different from carnal Israel because we have the Holy Spirit that our oral traditions can be trusted more than the Bible itself?
We are still human. We make mistakes. We have human nature, and we sin. This is true for leaders, ministers, and lay members alike. And we can make mistakes in our oral and written Church of God traditions.
Moreover, we are wrong to assume we can always tell who has God's Holy Spirit and who does not. Remember, God allows Satan to bring tares into the Church of God (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, 2 Peter 2:1-22, Jude 3-19, 1 John 2:19, 3 John 9-10). I, for one, could not have told you before Mr. Armstrong died who would stay with the truth and who would leave. Many of those who went into apostasy were members who seemed to me to be very spiritual. Either they were never converted to begin with, but seemed to be converted, or they were converted but fell away. I don't rule out the possibility that some of them may yet be able to repent.
Am I the only one who lacked insight into people's conversion and character so I could not see in advance who was deeply converted and would remain faithful to the Bible and who was not? No, it was Mr. Armstrong who named Joseph Tkach as his successor. He expected Mr. Tkach to teach the same truth from the Bible that Mr. Armstrong taught. But he was mistaken. There was something about Mr. Tkach that Mr. Armstrong could not discern.
The only protection we have against deceit is the Bible. Only the Bible is God speaking to us directly. We cannot go by oral tradition more than the Bible. Nor can we regard oral tradition as having authority over our beliefs from one generation to another. Certainly we should teach what we know to the next generation, but the teaching should be to show the answers in the Bible, and each generation is responsible for studying their Bibles and proving or disproving the things taught to it by the previous generation. Each generation is responsible for correcting errors it finds in its traditional doctrines.
Effect of Trusting Oral and Written Traditions on Preaching the Gospel to the World
There is another problem with over-reliance on oral tradition. It disqualifies us from preaching the gospel to the world. It makes the powerful preaching of the gospel impossible.
Why? We cannot preach a different message to the world than we teach to our own members (Deuteronomy 25:13-16, Exodus 12:49, Numbers 15:15-16). It must be the same. If we preach something different than we practice, or if we preach something different to the world than we teach our own members, two things will happen. One, new members coming in will see the difference. They will see right away that what we preach to others is not what we practice. Those who are initially attracted by what we say to the world will be repelled when they come among us and see we are living by a different standard. They will walk in, then walk out. Two, God will see our hypocrisy and will not bless us with the power to preach the gospel to the world.
We cannot teach reliance on our oral and written traditions in the Church of God and at the same time teach the world, "Don't believe us, don't believe your own ministers, don't believe your own traditions, just believe your Bible". It won't work.
The world of traditional, mainstream religion has its own oral and written traditions, particularly the Catholic Church. If we teach our members that oral traditions can govern and have authority over our understanding of the Bible, Catholics will wholeheartedly agree. They will say, "Yes, that is exactly right, it is the church's oral and written traditions that determine how the Bible is to be understood."
But the traditions they hold are not the same traditions we hold.
How can we say, "We have the right traditions and you have the wrong ones"? Where is the proof? The Catholics will say, "Our traditions come from Christ and the apostles in unbroken succession". Apart from the Bible, how can you prove that is wrong? I suppose some can delve deeply into the history of the last 2,000 years and find books and quote passages to show certain inconsistencies in someone else's traditions, but that is beyond the scholarly skills (and time available for study) of most people. And Catholics and Protestants will always have an explanation based on their interpretation of the Bible and their traditions.
And how can we prove, apart from the Bible, that our traditions come in unbroken succession from the first century Church of God? We can't. The history of the true Church of God is spotty at best. We get little clues here and there of where the true Church was. But our identification of that true Church is always based on what we know about them from the Bible. First we determine true doctrine from the Bible, then we look for clues in history to determine where there were groups that held that true doctrine.
It comes back to the same place - you can only prove the truth from the Bible. And we can only prove the truth to others in the world by the Bible, not by traditions of the Church. And if we teach the world that only the Bible has authority over our faith and belief and they should let the Bible interpret the Bible, but teach our members that our oral traditions have authority over how we understand the Bible, how are we not hypocrites in God's sight and in the sight of those we preach to? We cannot succeed that way.
That is why God could not use the Church of God Seventh Day to do a powerful work of preaching the gospel to the world. It was not just that they didn't have the knowledge God wanted preached. It was that they refused to accept new knowledge from the Bible when it went against their oral and written traditions. Because they refused to let the Bible correct their traditions, God could not use them to teach the world to let the Bible correct the world's traditions. "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being priest for Me; Because you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children" (Hosea 4:6).
Our preaching to the world must be consistent with what we are willing to practice. And if our reason for believing what we believe is that it is a tradition of the Church of God, we will have to teach the same reason for belief to the world when we preach the gospel as we ourselves hold and practice.
If the reason we believe what we believe is that we believe our Church of God traditions, then we must teach the world that they also should believe our Church of God traditions. If that is our reason for belief, we must teach that same reason for belief to the world, or else we are hypocrites.
But the world has its own traditions, and they have no reason to give up their church traditions to embrace our church traditions. If we say, "We believe our church", they will say, "We also believe our church", and they will not change.
But if we say, as Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong did, "Believe God, believe the Bible", they can check up in the Bible and believe the Bible. But to do that without being hypocrites in God's eyes and in the eyes of the world, we must do the same. We must believe the Bible more than our traditions. So an emphasis on Church of God tradition as authority for belief can make it hard or impossible for us to powerfully and effectively teach the world. Our only authority for belief must be the Bible.
And if a tradition practiced by Mr. Armstrong is right because we can prove it in the Bible, we should continue it, but not all Church of God organizations do. For example, there are several Church of God fellowships, at least two I know of and probably many more, that have abandoned one of Mr. Armstrong's major traditions he found in the Bible and can be proved in the Bible. That tradition is the tradition of preaching the gospel to the world.
These Church of God fellowships have started a new tradition for themselves of NOT preaching the gospel to the world. They have started a new tradition of rejecting God's law of love, the law that says, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself". In this, they have changed the tradition of the Church of God under Mr. Armstrong, not for the better but for the worse, for the tradition of preaching the gospel which Mr. Armstrong gave us (and even Church of God Seventh Day held) is totally based on the Bible and on God's spiritual law of love, whereas the tradition of being self-centered and inwardly focused and ignoring the needs of the world for the gospel and the Ezekiel warning is in direct rebellion against God and direct disobedience to His word and His spiritual law of love.
These groups have started a tradition based on Satan's way of life, "Me first", or in the case of an entire fellowship, "US first". One group has established this tradition for itself and its members for only about two years, and another group has made this their tradition for about two decades, and both call themselves, "Church of God".
In this case, their tradition of refusing to love their neighbors as themselves is a tradition that such groups need to reverse and correct by the Bible, just as the Pharisees needed to reverse their traditions that contradicted the word of God and the law of God (Matthew 15:1-9). But most of the Pharisees refused to do this, and many members and ministers in groups that have a tradition of not preaching the gospel to the world may also refuse to do this, and that can be their downfall.
The Bible Must Correct and Control Our Traditions
We must always go by the Bible more than our traditions, and we must not assume that the traditions of the true Church of God are always right because we have the Holy Spirit. If we say that we should always believe and obey the oral and written traditions of the Church, even when they go beyond the written word of God, because the Church has the Holy Spirit and thus its traditions must be right, we are on dangerous ground and can never, with sincerity, effectively preach the gospel to the world.
Oral traditions in the Church of God can be useful in passing on from one generation to the next the knowledge of how to find answers in the Bible. But those traditions do not carry authority from one generation to the next. The only authority for belief and practice from one generation to another is the Bible, and each generation is responsible for correcting the errors of the previous generation, IF errors are found, by studying and believing the Bible.
Did Paul say that the congregations he supervised should keep the traditions as they were given to them by Paul? Yes. "Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you" (1 Corinthians 11:2). "Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle" (2 Thessalonians 2:15). "But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us" (2 Thessalonians 3:6).
Does this mean that every person in every church in history should keep the traditions he or she grew up with? No, because the traditions of many churches are not the traditions Paul taught. When Paul spoke of the traditions his congregations were to keep, he was talking about the traditions that he and the other apostles gave them. How do we know what those traditions were? By the Bible. There is no other way.
How did the people know that the traditions Paul gave them were from God? They could know because Paul performed miracles and because the Old Testament scriptures backed up what Paul taught (Acts 17:11-12, 2 Corinthians 12:12). There were more miracles in Paul's day to prove the authenticity of his message than today because the Bible was not complete and widely available and provable by fulfilled prophecy in Paul's day as it is today.
The Church of God Does Not Always Increase in Knowledge
Do we grow, as a Church, in understanding of the Bible because we have the Holy Spirit? Does our having the Holy Spirit mean that the Church's progress is always forward, never backward, because the longer the Church exists the longer we have the Holy Spirit and the more accurately we will understand the Bible? No, the history of the Church of God proves that is not true. You only need to read the messages to the seven churches in Revelation, which show the future history of the Church of God as a series of church eras, to see that the Church sometimes goes backward. Laodicea follows Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-22). That is not forward progress.
Or, if you don't believe in eras of the Church, look at the history of the Church of God in the last 100 years. Did the Church of God make forward progress after the death of Mr. Armstrong? Was Church of God Seventh Day more accurate in its oral traditions and understanding of the Bible than any Church of God since the time of Christ? No.
God works with each of us individually. The decision to repent and make the effort to overcome our sins is individual, not group. God judges us as individuals. We are not saved or judged by our association with a group (Ezekiel 14:12-20).
Each of us individually grows in understanding of the Bible the longer we live after we are converted and receive the Holy Spirit, provided we are faithful to believe, obey, and strive to overcome. And we grow in knowledge and understanding to the degree we believe and obey God's word, the Bible. So our own choice comes into play. We have to do our part to grow, and if we do not, we will not grow. And if we neglect to live by the truth we have and to SHARE IT WITH OTHERS as God commands, we can go backwards, lose the truth we have, and go into error, and maybe even fall away completely and lose our salvation.
And even if we are faithful to overcome and grow and our knowledge and understanding of God's truth increases, that increased knowledge does not automatically pass on to our children no matter how much we teach them. They have to make their own choice to repent, be converted, and live a life of faith and obedience to God's word, the Bible. To the degree they do this, they also will grow in understanding, but they still start out as babes in Christ. Our teaching can help them, but they still have to do their part. It is not an automatic given that each generation understands the Bible better than the previous one.
What Israel and the Jews did with their oral traditions is a warning to the Church of God. They allowed their oral traditions to interpret the Bible for them, but we must not do the same with our traditions. We must always count the Bible as having greater authority over our beliefs and practices than our traditions, and we must change or abandon any tradition of ours that we find in conflict with the Bible. We must always let the Bible interpret the Bible, and not let our traditions interpret the Bible.
If we don't do that, we can be led astray by our traditions and our ministers, as the Jews were led astray, and if that happens we can lose the truth that we have.
And if by our own wrong choices we place our traditions above the Bible, we disqualify ourselves from preaching the gospel to the world and the Ezekiel warning to Israel. And because we do not give the warning because of our bad choices, the blood of the people will be on our heads (Ezekiel 3:17-21).
In other words, God will count us as murderers. That is what Ezekiel 3:17-21 means.
The Right Use of Oral Tradition in the Church
In the Church of God, parents need to teach their children and ministers need to teach their members. And that teaching can and should include the traditional doctrines and practices of the Church. But only the Bible has absolute authority from one generation to the next over doctrine and practice. The Bible has authority over our traditions, not the other way around, and traditions in doctrine should be primarily used to teach members how to find and prove true doctrine in the Bible.
Our oral and written Church of God traditions should NEVER be used to interpret the Bible. If we do that, we are overthrowing a major Bible-based tradition of Mr. Armstrong that we must let the Bible interpret the Bible, and that tradition is important and necessary for understanding the Bible correctly. Instead, we must use the Bible to examine our traditions and change any traditions that are found to be in error. No generation of the Church's leadership and ministry has the authority to make its errors binding on the next generation, but each generation has the responsibility to correct any errors in its tradition according to the Bible.
Here are links to related chapters or sections in Preaching the Gospel:
CHAPTER 6 - OBTAINING GOD'S HELP -- PRACTICING WHAT WE PREACH