I recently met some traditional Salafi Muslims at their bookstall in a shopping centre, who were keen to dissociate themselves from their extremist offshoots such as ISIS. They are a back-to-Koran movement who pay little regard to later Islamic traditions that rule most Muslims. I realised with some surprise that they are the Islamic equivalent of Christians like me who regard the Bible alone as authoritative and give little weight to later Church tradition.
Other branches of Islam can also be compared to equivalent Christian traditions. The Shi’ite Muslims have a hierarchical system similar to Catholics and Orthodox churches with an Ayatollah ruling like a pope or patriarch. In contrast, Sunni Muslims are more like Protestants because every mosque can be independent, though most are banded together into groups like Christian denominations. Sufi Muslims are the charismatics of Islam, worshipping with lots of music and often enthusiastic dancing. The Ahmadiyya sect believes that the Islamic messiah arrived in 1835, rather like Jehovah’s Witnesses who think the second coming started in 1914. And the Salafites are like back-to-the-Bible groups such as Brethren, Baptists and others who give little weight to historical Church traditions. Though, like these Christian groups, the Salafites are gradually accumulating their own traditions.
Christians in the New Testament stood on the words of the Old Testament but soon started accumulating their own traditions. The Church later compiled creeds and other documents that summarised doctrine and Bible interpretation. Actually, all Christian groups accumulate traditions – even those who think they don’t. Modern movements have statements of faith, prayers and everything else that is included in the statement, “We’ve always done it this way.”
Jesus appeared to be vehemently against human traditions. One of his loudest condemnations of the Pharisees was: “You nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down” (Mark 7:13). On that occasion his disciples were eating without having washed their hands. The rabbis had added this rule on the basis that according to the Law of Moses, priests had to wash before eating in the Temple, so it was clearly what God wanted. All very well, but it wasn’t very practical when farm workers had a lunch break.
In defence of Pharisees
Even though they got things so wrong, I’d like to put in a good word for the Pharisees, because their hearts were often in the right place. The motivation behind all these rules and regulations was a desire to please God. If God gave a commandment, they reasoned that they should make sure they never even got close to breaking it.
God said they shouldn’t work on a Sabbath by labouring to gather wood or get a fire started, so they protected this command with a ‘fence’ – that is, they decided to put strict rules in place to make sure no one accidentally broke God’s command. So they declared that on a Sabbath you shouldn’t light any fires at all, however small – not even lighting a lamp from an existing fire. Some Jews today won’t even use a light switch on the Sabbath because this creates a tiny spark. So if a Jew returns from synagogue on Friday afternoon to find he and his wife had forgotten to light the lamps before sunset, they have to spend the whole evening in darkness, probably arguing about traditions!
Beers and burgers
Traditions are a part of being human, of course. In our church community, our worship follows an order (even if it’s that there is no order!), our dress code is predictable, and we probably look up doctrines in creeds or statements rather than in scripture. Recently I was shocked to see a man wearing a flat cap while leading worship. Then I realised that in most churches today we don’t make women wear hats so we shouldn’t demand that men be bare-headed, seeing as both customs are based on the same text (1 Corinthians 11:2-7). However, I found myself uneasy when I heard of an Australian church barbecue having communion with beer and burgers instead of bread and wine.
Traditions become toxic when they are the barriers to necessary change
I realise that Jesus used normal food for this meal, and normal food is now different, but it still seems wrong for one big reason: it isn’t traditional! Traditions become toxic when they are the barriers to necessary change. If we base our beliefs on traditions rather than scripture, we won’t realise when our interpretation of scripture has been coloured by an old culture. The ascetic movement of the early Church was a reaction against the sexual and materialist corruption in the increasingly depraved and declining Roman Empire. But we got stuck with that tradition and we have only recently reversed it by allowing exuberant worship and fashionable clothing back into churches. Perhaps this would never have happened without the positive influences of many black churches that had never experienced this ascetic movement.
The lens of tradition
All of us will read scripture through the lens of our traditions – we can’t help it. But we should be aware that we are doing this. We must accept that Christians are influenced by tradition as much as Muslims, Jews and other faiths. And, of course, tradition isn’t all bad – being wary of change can save us from being swayed by every novel idea. But our tradition can also “nullify the word of God” when it blinds us to the true meaning of the Bible simply because it is different to what we’ve always done.
In the end, scripture always has to trump tradition if we want to live our lives according to God’s revelation rather than a man-made religion. And that means that sometimes we have to admit that we’ve been reading the Bible through the glasses of a culture that is now long gone. We need to re-examine the text without those glasses on…But I’m still not sure about the Aussie communion with beers and burgers. Maybe I’ll have to take my shades off.
David Instone-Brewer is senior research fellow in Rabbinics and New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge