Scripture and Tradition: What The Bible Really Says

May 22, 2013 — 1 Comment

9781441240484Edith M. Humphrey is the William F. Orr Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. She has written a few books including Grand Entrance: Worship on Earth as in Heaven and And I Turned To See The Voice (in Baker’s Studies in Theological Interpretation series). Here in Scripture and Tradition: What The Bible Really Says, she tackles the sticky issue of Christian relations with tradition. Helpfully, she wants to keep the focus on how Scripture directs us to focus on tradition rather than how certain traditions urge us to focus on tradition.


This is a relatively short book that would make a good reading companion to Carl Trueman’s The Creedal Imperative. Humphrey highlights three questions that will ultimately animate her study (21-22):

  • Can we separate Scripture from tradition?
  • Is there a difference (and if so what is it) between “traditions” and Holy Tradition?
  • What is the relationship between the Church, Scripture, and Tradition?

Though she does not aim to definitively answer each of these questions, she does attempt “to make a start using a kind of ‘common denominator’ approach, something shared by Christians: What does the Bible really say about tradition?” To make this start and answer this specific question, Humphrey says “Our major business will be to compare Scripture with Scripture, with all the help that we can get from others in the Christian community, past and present, who have read with care these text that touch on the nature of tradition.” (22)

This project, first of all, involves an examination of the NT passages that involve the Greek paradosis (a handing over or giving down) and paradidomi (to hand over, or to gift), as well as places where tradition may be invoked with this specific word group being used. She raises the question whether something is lost in translation. In other words, there are several places in the NT where these words are translated in a way that fails to highlight their connection to tradition being passed (or gifted) on.

Chapter 2 then takes a look at the transmission of Scripture itself, the teaching of the rabbis, and eventually Jesus’ condemnation of tradition. Here Humphrey seeks to show that Jesus’ condemnation was not a blanket disapproval of any and all traditions, but rather a certain kind of tradition. Also dealt with is whether or not we should take Jesus and Paul’s condemnation of the Law as applying equally to any and all traditions.

Chapter 3 turns the focus to Acts and how the early church functioned, especially as it relates to the apostolic basis underlying it. She also uses Paul’s letters to the Corinthians as a window into how he appropriated tradition in his own ministry. Here we see tradition functioning as a kind of apostolic precedent for how to handle issues in the life of the church.

Chapter 4 is a sermon turned book chapter in which Humphrey discusses how God’s “blessed delivery” to the Church. God is not only the Giver and the Gift, he is in and among us the recipients. We are not the first to be given the gift of life with God, nor will we be the last. Tradition in this light is seen as a kind of divinely instituted connective tissue. Not that better than or superior to the Gift, but a means of joining into it.

Chapter 5 brings this into sharper focus. Humphrey sees a connection between the giving of the Holy Spirit and God’s personal gift of tradition to the Church. Here she brings up issues of mediation, both in terms of how God is mediated through leaders in the church like the apostles and prophets, as well as how tradition can continue that trend into the present. If the tradition being referred to is properly apostolic, then it is extending that mediation.

Finally, chapter 6 digs into issues that readers already tuned into this discussion might have expected. Humphrey uses Scripture to dig into the differences between Holy Tradition and human tradition. Here she examines four examples from church history of “mutable traditions.” They are: (1) how the Gospels reinterpret Isaiah 6:10, (2) Sabbath keeping, both in terms of changing the day, and the nature of keeping it, (3) Acts 15 and nature of the decision making there, and (4) the habit of praying to the Holy Spirit even though it is not commanded or modeled in Scripture. She then concludes with a brief discussion of some other debated traditions and how to approach them in light of the preceding study.


As she writes in the conclusion, “Our main quest in this study has been to examine the theme of tradition in the Scriptures, rather than Scripture as read by the Tradition. At every point, however, these two concerns are linked, since Scripture is enveloped by Tradition and Tradition is enshrined in Scripture.” (160) I think the quest is successful, although I imagine there will be some debate about how to exactly appropriate tradition even if one is in general a fan of it. Humphrey’s book though seems more aimed at popular level and simply making the case to Protestants that tradition isn’t bad in and of itself. Footnotes are fairly sparse in this book and it is an easy read. Much like Trueman’s The Creedal Imperative, the audience seems to be an evangelical world that seems intent on reinventing the ecclesiological wheel. Rather, as both Trueman and Humphrey urge, there is guidance to be found in tradition, but never in such a way that it subordinates Scripture. Sola Scriptura doesn’t mean Solo Scriptura although many treat it this way. Scripture and tradition work in tandem and Humphrey’s book does a good job of illustrating from Scripture itself why this is so. For readers interesting is testing her case, I would encourage you to pick up a copy and read for yourself.

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One response to Scripture and Tradition: What The Bible Really Says

  1. Edith m. humphrey July 7, 2013 at 7:49 pm

    Thanks for an informative and kind review! you are correct that the major intended audience is evangelical, but I hope there is something in the book for Catholics and Orthodox as well!

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