Vol.XIX No.X Pg.1
December 1982

Traditional Teaching

Robert F. Turner

Longtime church members have been frequently warned of the dangers of tradition. "In vain do they worship me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men" (Matt. 15; Mk. 7). My impression has been that we must not allow customs of long standing to be regarded as of divine authority.

But Christ apparently quoted from Isaiah 29:13 (LXX), and in checking this out another aspect develops. In the RSV we read, "...but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men which hath been taught them." This last phrase is given a footnote, "Or, learned by rote." Their fear of God is learned" in the sense of memorized doctrine — making an "A in catechism but knowing little of the genuine fear or respect that comes from a mature grasp of God's greatness.

In this sense "traditions of men" need not be limited to doctrines that originate with men; the teaching per se may be an accurate statement of divine truth. But it is taught and received as official Jewish doctrine — dare we say, "official Church of Christ doctrine"? It is learned "by rote" — by repetition of form or word but often without attention to meaning. The small children of church members may know "faith, repentance and baptism" well, and quote a few scriptures to go with it — as a result of catechism-type drilling on our part. This is "cute"; we may be proud of them; and yet none of this proves their hearts are given to God. When adult learning goes no deeper than "rote" it is a reflection upon all.

"Their fear of me is a commandment of men..." They fear because they are told to do so. Should we not teach men to "fear God?" Oh Yes! But teaching is incomplete that does not gender that fear by developing humility and dependence upon God. Teaching must go far deeper than the impartation of facts. In a companion passage to Isaiah, Ezekiel says, "thou art unto them as a very lovely voice, and can play well on an instrument; for they hear thy words, but they do them not" (33:31-32). Sing us to sleep preacher, and be sure to say right words — old familiar doctrines which we know well, but which move us not!!!