<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=1906385056278061&ev=PageView&noscript=1" />
Skip to main content Accessibility feedback

Why do Catholics Follow “Traditions of Men” When the Bible Says Not To?

Jimmy Akin

Audio only:

Do Catholics favor traditions of men over the word of God? Jimmy Akin next on Catholic Answers Focus.


Cy Kellett:

Hello and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus I’m Cy Kellett, your host, joined by Jimmy Akin, Senior Apologist here at Catholic Answers. Hello Jimmy.

Jimmy Akin:
Howdy.

Cy Kellett:
I want to ask you today about some passages in the gospels that say not to replace God’s word with the traditions of men-

Jimmy Akin:
Okay.

Cy Kellett:
… particularly in Matthew and Mark’s gospel.

Jimmy Akin:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cy Kellett:
So, and this is covered by the way in your book, A Daily Defense.

Jimmy Akin:
Uh-huh (affirmative), sure.

Cy Kellett:
So why do Catholics nullify God’s word and replace it with the traditions of men?

Jimmy Akin:
You like being a provocateur, don’t you?

Cy Kellett:
What? I read that they did.

Jimmy Akin:
Well-

Cy Kellett:
They do-

Jimmy Akin:
… don’t believe everything you read.

Cy Kellett:
Okay, fair.

Jimmy Akin:
So, now I’m not going to say that no Catholics do that.

Cy Kellett:
Oh, okay.

Jimmy Akin:
Because there are people of every persuasion who want to deviate from what God says.

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
We call that, there’s this fancy word for that, we call that sin.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
And people like to have this… they kind of like to rationalize their sins. And so, they will come up with justifications for actions that they want to do, that are not maybe what God wants. And some of them will appeal to, “Oh, we’ve always done it this way.”

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
Or, “I was just following orders,” or things like that.

Cy Kellett:
Right, yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
So you will find people of every persuasion who will use tradition as a way of avoiding God’s will, but that doesn’t mean that the Catholic church or the Catholic faith does that systematically.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
And it doesn’t mean that tradition’s a bad thing. This is one of the big mistakes that some of our friends, particularly in the Protestant community, make in looking at these passages, they will see Jesus criticizing the Pharisees, and we should talk about the details of what the gospels say about what the Pharisees were doing. But they’ll notice Jesus is criticizing the Pharisees for holding two traditions of men, and then they skip over passages in the New Testament that talk about traditions in a positive way. So it’s not all tradition is a bad thing, it’s not that-

Cy Kellett:
Can you give me an example of a where someone talks about tradition as a-

Jimmy Akin:
Yeah.

Cy Kellett:
… as a good thing?

Jimmy Akin:
Paul in 1 Corinthians says to the Corinthians, “I commend you for keeping the traditions just as I delivered them to you.”

Cy Kellett:
Okay, got you.

Jimmy Akin:
So we should take a step back and say, “Okay, so what is tradition?” Well, the English word, tradition, comes from the Latin word trādere, which means something that is handed on.

Cy Kellett:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jimmy Akin:
So, if a piece of information or a practice or anything at all, is handed on from one person to another, that’s an item of tradition. And tradition can be either good or bad because some people, sometimes people hand on something good to you and sometimes people hand on something bad to you.

Cy Kellett:
Okay, good point, yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
So tradition itself is a neutral concept and that’s why you find both passages in the New Testament that speak positively of tradition and passages that speak negatively of tradition, because some traditions are good and some traditions are bad. What happens though is in some Protestant translations there is an attempt to obscure this where they will take the word, the Greek word for tradition, and whenever it sounds bad, they’ll render it tradition.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
But whenever it sounds good, they’ll render it something else, like teaching.

Cy Kellett:
Ahh, okay.

Jimmy Akin:
So you’ll find some Protestant translations where in 1 Corinthians, Paul is represented as saying, “I commend you for keeping the teachings just as I delivered them to you.” And that’s an attempt-

Cy Kellett:
But the underlying Greek is the same word?

Jimmy Akin:
It’s the same as tradition.

Cy Kellett:
Oh, okay.

Jimmy Akin:
And it’s not the Greek word for teachings. So this is a deliberate attempt on the part of the translators to make tradition sound bad and hide it when the New Testament speaks of tradition in a positive way. And that’s kind of an ideological translation rather than a neutral translation.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
So, what you have to do is some sorting and you have to sort the good from the bad. And if a tradition is bad, then obviously you want to avoid it, if it’s good, you want to embrace it, and if it’s neutral, you can do what you want with it. Some traditions like, “Oh, on Fridays we have chocolate ice cream instead of strawberry.”

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
That’s a neutral tradition. If you want to do that, fine. If you don’t want to do that, fine.

Cy Kellett:
Okay. Okay, so that makes sense. You have good traditions, bad traditions, and probably a large number of neutral traditions. But what specifically does it mean then to nullify the word of God and keep the traditions of men?

Jimmy Akin:
So here we have to look at the details of what’s going on in these passages. And if you want to read the original version, it’s the one in Mark-

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
… and it’s in Mark chapter seven. Matthew also has a parallel, but as typical, because Matthew wants to write a longer gospel that includes more information than Mark’s does, he shortens the passage he takes from Mark, he trims it down so that he can fit more information into his gospel. So the fuller discussion is actually in Mark.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
Mark notes that there was some conflict between some of Jesus’s critics and his disciples, because his critics saw that the disciples were eating their food, or bread it says in Greek, the word for food and the word for bread are the same thing, they’re eating their bread with unwashed hands. And this is contrary to Jewish tradition because Judaism had a lot of ritual purity laws. And so, Mark takes note of this and he comments on how, not just Jesus’ critics, but all Jews culturally would do a lot of these purification rituals where they would wash their hands before eating. Just like the stereotypical American mom is always telling her kids to do. And they also would wash other things to make them ritually pure, and so this was a major aspect of daily Jewish life. And so when Jesus’ critics see the disciples eating without washing their hands first, it’s, “Whoa, what’s up with you all? Are you a bunch of Hicks or something? You’re not keeping the tradition here.”

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
And so they object to the disciples doing that and Jesus turns the tables on them. Jesus, one of the things He points out is that, and this is a radical reinterpretation of the Jewish purity laws, Jesus says, “Nothing that enters a man makes him unclean.”

Cy Kellett:
Okay, yeah that-

Jimmy Akin:
“It’s what comes out of his heart that makes him unclean.” But anything that, if he’s got dirt on his hands and he eats his bread with it and some dirt gets in his mouth, it’s just going to pass through his body. It’s no big deal, it’s not going to make them unclean, not in the sense that counts.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
Which is uncleanliness before God. And Mark then has a note where he says, “And Jesus thus declared all foods clean.” And this is a fascinating note because what it shows us is Mark did not feel free to make up traditions about Jesus. So Mark was written in, probably the AD 50’s, and at that time in the church, and for well afterwards, there was a controversy about if you were a Gentile, did you have to become a Jew to be a Christian?

Cy Kellett:
Yeah, right.

Jimmy Akin:
The apostles had said, “No you don’t.” But there was still this controversy and a lot of Jewish Christians thought you did, and that’s why Paul wrote Romans and Galatians. And so, a big issue separating Jewish and Gentile Christians was, do you have to keep kosher food? Do you have to eat a kosher diet or can you eat other stuff like pork or rabbit?

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
Which are not kosher.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
And Mark says that based on what Jesus said, you can infer that all foods are clean because nothing that enters your mouth is going to make you unclean in the sense that counts.

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
So there, implicitly, Jesus declared all foods clean, but Mark doesn’t attribute it as a saying to Jesus.

Cy Kellett:
No, he does not.

Jimmy Akin:
He attributes it as an inference based on what Jesus said. So this shows us that Mark is concerned with accurately reporting what Jesus said and not making up quotations and attributing it to him.

Cy Kellett:
Yes, indeed.

Jimmy Akin:
So there’s a fascinating little apologetic nugget buried in this discussion. Jesus also goes on to criticize as part of his turning the tables on the Pharisees, He also criticizes their traditions. And he notes in particular one tradition called Qurban. And in Aramaic, Qurbana means Holy or consecrated.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
In fact, in modern Aramaic, you know what they call the mass? The Holy sacrifice?

Cy Kellett:
No.

Jimmy Akin:
The [Qurbakna 00:00:09:37].

Cy Kellett:
Oh, okay.

Jimmy Akin:
And so, what they meant by, it was different. They had this custom called Qurban or Qurbana, where what you would do is if you’re an adult and you have aged parents that you need to support, who needs some financial help, you could take the money you would otherwise give them and dedicate it to God, declare it consecrated or Holy.

Cy Kellett:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jimmy Akin:
Now, according to various reports I’ve read, and I haven’t had a chance to dig into the source materials to really prove this to myself because it sounds so amazing, but at least according to reputable encyclopedias and stuff that I’ve read, you didn’t actually have to give up what you dedicated to God. You could keep it and keep using it, and someday it’ll be God’s.

Cy Kellett:
Oh, what a deal.

Jimmy Akin:
But you could declare it God’s now and you didn’t have to give it to your parents.

Cy Kellett:
Despite God’s commandment.

Jimmy Akin:
Right. Now, if that’s true, that’s really bad.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
Even if it’s not true, saying, “Oh yeah, mom, I know your pantry’s bare and you need something to eat, but I’m giving this to God.”

Cy Kellett:
Yeah., right.

Jimmy Akin:
Okay, well Jesus objects to that and He cites a specific commandment of God that this conflicts with, “Honor your father and mother.”

Cy Kellett:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jimmy Akin:
And so, by not supporting your parents in their old age or when they need help from you, you are using this Qurban tradition to nullify a specific commandment, 1 of the 10, “Honor your father and mother.” So, you have the word of God in the 10 commandments and you’re disobeying that on account of tradition. So this obviously isn’t a divine tradition, it’s just a tradition that men have come up with because it conflicts with the word of God. But that doesn’t… and so that’s why Jesus accuses the Pharisees of nullifying, the word of God or setting aside the word of God, on the basis of their tradition, which He flags has a tradition of men. Now, as we mentioned, just because something is a tradition of men that does make it bad. If you have-

Cy Kellett:
No, no.

Jimmy Akin:
… chocolate ice cream Fridays as a tradition, that’s not bad.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah, no that’d be good. We should think about that okay.

Jimmy Akin:
It’s when it conflicts with the word of God that a tradition of men becomes bad. But not all traditions are even traditions of men. There are also traditions that come to us from God and were passed down to us by Jesus to the apostles. All of that oral teaching Jesus did-

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
… it was all oral teaching.

Cy Kellett:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jimmy Akin:
It wasn’t written. Jesus didn’t write any kind of theological manual for the disciples, He trained them orally, and that means that what he gave them was a body of traditions.

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
And so, and even if he had written a book, it would be a tradition in written form because he would’ve been handed it on to them. So, He didn’t, and so Jesus himself gave the disciples oral tradition. Now are you going to call the teachings that Jesus gave His disciples traditions of men?

Cy Kellett:
No, I am not.

Jimmy Akin:
Right, because they come to us from God.

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
And they were passed on through the apostles to the church. And so, consequently today, Catholics and other Christians will refer to them as an apostolic tradition because they were traditions that were endorsed and passed on by the apostles, and those traditions are the ones that the New Testament commends. So as we said in 1 Corinthians, Paul is an apostle, he’s commending the Corinthians for keeping the apostolic traditions he gave them. He also in 2 Thessalonians, he’s talking to the Thessalonians, and he commands them to hold fast to all of the traditions he gave them either by word of mouth or by letter. So if he’s writing in 2 Thessalonians, what’s the letter he’s thinking of?

Cy Kellett:
1 Thessalonians.

Jimmy Akin:
1 Thessalonians, right. So, “Whether I gave you traditions in 1 Thessalonians or orally in person, you need to keep them.” And he even tells them, because one of the problems they had in Thessalonica was they had some slackers there I’m afraid to say. And so, they were mooching off folks instead of going out and getting a job.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah, they still have that reputation.

Jimmy Akin:
Yeah.

Cy Kellett:
Those Thessalonians.

Jimmy Akin:
Those slackers. Anyway, I don’t know about Thessalonians today, but slackers have that reputation.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
And so, Paul in 2 Thessalonians knows that this problem has not been taken care of despite the fact he said to take care of it in 1 Thessalonians. And so, in 2 Thessalonians 3, he actually says, “Keep away from those slacker people because they’re not living according to the tradition that we set for you of working for a living.” And so, you could actually be shunned or excluded from the Christian community in the 1st century, and Paul endorses this, if you don’t keep the apostolic traditions. So, tradition is something we need to take very seriously, and in fact, everybody does. If you look in the Protestant world, do Protestants hand on ideas or things from one person to another?

Cy Kellett:
Well, they have phrases like Sola Scriptura.

Jimmy Akin:
Okay, so that would be a tradition.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
You know what also they have that they hand on from one person to another?

Cy Kellett:
What?

Jimmy Akin:
Bibles. When you are a Protestant and you get your first Bible, just like being a Catholic when you get your first Bible, someone gives it to you.

Cy Kellett:
Oh yeah. That’s literally handing on a tradition.

Jimmy Akin:
It’s literally, yes. My grandmother gave me my first Bible.

Cy Kellett:
Right, right.

Jimmy Akin:
And I was Protestant at the time. And it may be your grandmother who gives you a Bible, it may be a parent, it may be someone from your church, it may be someone in a Catholic bookstore, or Protestant bookstore, that you’ve gone to to buy a Bible. But someone literally handed you the Bible. And if it’s a Protestant Bible and you’re a Protestant and you open it and you see, “Oh, it has these 66 books in it.”

Cy Kellett:
Oh, that’s a tradition-

Jimmy Akin:
You just accepted the canon of scripture based on something that was physically handed to you.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
And so, you’re not only accepting the physical book of the Bible, you’re accepting the tradition that there should be 66 books in it.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
And that’s a matter of tradition. And I would, as someone who comes from an older Christian group, so this isn’t just Catholics, it’s also Orthodox and Coptic and so forth, I would say, “Actually that’s an imperfect tradition because there should be more than 66 books there.” But how do you know which tradition is right?

Cy Kellett:
There, that’s where I was getting-

Jimmy Akin:
Because the Bible does not tell you which canon, which understanding of the canon is right. The contents page is not divinely inspired, that was something that the publishers came up with. They decided, the publisher, decided which books to put on the contents page and how to classify them. So, this itself points to the role of tradition even in Protestant life. And it’s fortunate, and maybe this is a good note to end on, but I think it’s fortunate that these days you have a growing number of Protestant scholars who are much more comfortable talking about tradition. They’ll talk about, “Our tradition as Lutherans,” or, “Our tradition as Calvinist,” or, “Our tradition as Baptist.”

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
And even more than that, they recognize the role that tradition played in the early church.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
Because they’ll talk about how the gospels preserve Jesus traditions. There were these accounts of Jesus that were originally handed on orally, and those are preserved in the gospels and they’re reflected in the New Testament letters. And so you have a much greater openness these days as some of the passions of the reformation era have cooled and we started to getting along together better, we started playing better together. You will have Protestant scholars, biblical scholars, who are much more open about the role of tradition in the early church and how it’s important for our faith.

Cy Kellett:
So if I may end with just this quick question.

Jimmy Akin:
Uh-huh (affirmative).

Cy Kellett:
So it’s not fair then to say, “Well, this is a Catholic, Protestant thing. You Catholics are not following Jesus’ commandment, not to replace the word of God with the traditions of men.” But let’s say a person of goodwill, whether Protestant or Catholic says, “I do want to actually take seriously this commandment of God. I want,” as we all should, I mean, here’s Jesus giving us a direct commandment, “What are the things that I should do? How does one say, ‘Well, here’s the proper way to actually follow that commandment.'”

Jimmy Akin:
The commandment being?

Cy Kellett:
The commandment being not to replace the word of God with the traditions of men.

Jimmy Akin:
Okay. Well, there are a variety of approaches. One thing you want to do is acquire a knowledge of God’s word, and then be on the lookout for, does a particular practice or belief conflict with that? But, you have to be careful in doing that because God’s word is not found only in scripture.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
We’ve just been talking about how it’s found in this oral apostolic traditions too. How do you know they all got written down? The Bible never says they’re all going to get written down.

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
And that’s a problem for Sola Scriptura, because we know in the apostolic age, the apostles were not using Sola Scriptura. Paul is telling people to adhere to the oral traditions he gave them.

Cy Kellett:
Yes.

Jimmy Akin:
He’s not saying, “If you didn’t read it somewhere, forget it.”

Cy Kellett:
But what-

Jimmy Akin:
He’s doing the opposite of that. So they’re clearly using oral tradition as authoritative for the faith of Christians in the apostolic age. That means if you want to say, “We need to shift after the apostolic age to some other principle,” you’re going to need verses that say or imply things like, “Well guess what guys? All of us apostles got together and we decided we’re going to write down everything that’s authoritative.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
So if-

Cy Kellett:
And that’ll be it.

Jimmy Akin:
And that’ll be it. And you don’t have anything that says that. Or you would need something that would say, “Guess what guys? After we apostles are dead, everything we said, you can just forget, it has to be written down. It loses its authority.”

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
Well that would make no sense. I mean if Jesus taught something and it wasn’t written, it’s not going to lose its authority because it’s not written, it comes from Jesus.

Cy Kellett:
Yes.

Jimmy Akin:
So you don’t have those kinds of passages either and it wouldn’t make sense even if you did. So that suggests that the pattern of looking both to apostolic scripture and apostolic tradition is meant to be used by us today. Because the apostles never put a sunset clause on this principle that they were using. Also, one principle that they also used was turning to authoritative teachers to settle questions, the apostles, for example, in the council at Jerusalem in Acts 15. And so when difficult questions arose like, “Which tradition should we follow? Do people have to be circumcised to become a Christian or not?”

Cy Kellett:
Yeah, because both of these are coming [crosstalk 00:21:07] and good people I suppose are proposing both possibilities, yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
So in settling that question, the Holy Spirit directed them to have a council, and that shows that God’s will is for sometimes questions to be settled by humans in discussions in authoritative teaching moments. And that’s what we Catholics refer to as the magisterium. And so we also see the word of God as expressed in scripture and tradition with hard questions being ruled on by the magisterium. And by using those three bodies, we can sort out, or those three elements, we can sort out the question of which particular traditions conflict with God’s word and which don’t.

Cy Kellett:
Jimmy Akin has been our guest, thank you Jimmy.

Jimmy Akin:
My pleasure.

Cy Kellett:
If you want to explore apologetics topics, a whole bunch of them, as a matter of fact 365 plus 1, Jimmy’s book, A Daily Defense, does that in a very readable and accessible way. And if you want to explore this idea of the word of God being expressed in scripture, but not being only expressed in scripture, Jimmy handles that and many other topics in his book, The Bible is a Catholic Book. Thank you very much for joining us here on Catholic Answers Focus. Please give us a like or some stars or a comment where you get your podcasts.

Jimmy Akin:
Five stars, please.

Cy Kellett:
Five stars, please. And that would be at… most people get the podcast at Apple podcasts, so if you could do that there, that would be very, very helpful to us. Also, let people know that they can go to catholicanswersfocus.com and find out about these weekly apologetics podcasts from Catholic Answers. I’m Cy Kellett, your host, and we’ll see you next time.

Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission! Donate