In Mark 7:13 Jesus charges the Jews with making void the word of God by their tradition (cf. Mt. 23). He was not the first to do so, for the same charge was made by the prophets in OT times (see e.g. Jer. 23 and Ezekiel 13). Later the apostle Paul having first been freed from the toils of Pharisaic tradition himself soon learnt that the most persistent enemies of his new-found faith in Christ were traditionalists.
In our own day it has been said that any good heresy which becomes orthodoxy is beyond challenge. I personally have discovered the truth of this.
During my student days at Nottingham University in the late fifties, evangelicalism in its war with liberalism reasserted the inspiration and authority of the Bible so ably defended earlier in the century by B.B.Warfield (reprinted London, 1959). Among other works two books that exerted a powerful influence on me personally were “‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God” by J.I. Packer (London, 1958) and “Our Lord’s View of the Old Testament” by J.Wenham (London, 1953). From them I drew the conclusion that our tradition had in various ways nullified the truth set forth in the Bible and that the task that lay before us was the correct interpretation of Scripture with a view to a new reformation not a return to the old one.
In the event many who claimed the Bible as their authority simply went back to the Reformers and to the Puritans apparently assuming that they had plumbed Scripture’s depths. Though far from denying that our spiritual forebears had much to teach us, I found this assumption impossible to accept. As a consequence I decided to devote myself to reading the Bible and theology in general for myself. The conclusion that I soon drew from my studies was that even our evangelical traditions left much to be desired. One thing that stood out like a sore thumb was the widespread and uncritical acceptance of infant baptism. Even on the most superficial view it seemed to undermine the doctrine of justification by faith and so I concluded that the theology behind it must be false. It was against this background that over the years I surveyed the faith once delivered and became convinced that misunderstanding in the course of church history had been extensive. Regrettably this misunderstanding had been cemented in church traditions and especially in confessions and creeds which tended to serve as an independent authority nullifying the word of God.
To date (2010) I have spent forty years trying to challenge Reformed orthodoxy in particular, but such is commitment to received dogma that I seem to have made little impression on its traditional devotees. Yet, having just read (Jan. 2010) “Risking the Truth” edited by Martin Downes (Fearn, 2009) I am astonished at the assumption (or should I say presumption?) that evangelical orthodoxy as portrayed in the Westminster Confession of Faith, for example, is a true and correct presentation of what the Bible teaches.
So what are my problems? As intimated above, it was infant baptism that first made me question the stance of the mainline churches. One of the first works I read was P.Ch. Marcel’s “The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism” translated by P.E.Hughes, an Anglican of unquestioned Reformed orthodoxy. This book only exacerbated my unease since I failed to understand the covenant theology which Reformed theologians claimed was the foundation of infant baptism. It was my rejection of traditional covenant theologies and acceptance of a different view that gave rise to my questioning of various other doctrines propounded by the churches.
To reject received covenant theology in its various forms is one thing, providing another is different. For all that, on the basis of my assiduous scrutiny of Scripture I came up with another. I argued, first, that Scripture revealed no covenant with Adam though the advocates of federal theology contended that there was one. They “acquired” it from the so-called covenant or counsel of redemption which it was and still is claimed was made in eternity before the plan of salvation was put into operation. However, whatever the truth of this, it does not manifest itself as such in Scripture. What is apparent in the Bible is that the first covenant was made with Noah. It was the basis of other covenants that followed it but was not itself annulled. It was to exercise the role of preserving creation until the plan of salvation was complete at the end of the world (Gen. 8:22). The next covenant was a covenant of promise made with Abraham. It was not, however, dispensational and hence did not usher in a new era or stage in human salvation. Then followed the covenant of law given through Moses. This exercised a powerful influence over the Jews and separated them from the nations. It formed the basis of a new dispensation under the continuing covenant with Noah. It was later succeeded by another promissory covenant, that with David which extended the one already made with Abraham. These latter three were all fulfilled by Christ who inaugurated a new and permanent covenant with all who believed in him. Of course, not all did, but those that did not were still bound by nature and law, even non-Jews who did not have the full benefit of the law (cf. Rom. 2). So it remains at the time of writing (Aug. 2010). The Jews are still under the law of Moses and Gentiles are under the unwritten law of nature. Needless to say, in these days of mass communication and travel, they are affected by the impact of the covenant of Christ and to a degree are accountable with regard to it.
Individual and Community
Is this taught specifically in the Bible? The answer is yes. Romans 1:16-4:8, for example, relates to all men and women universally. All five covenants embrace the race. It is also true on the individual level. This is evident from Romans 7-8 where Paul sees himself first as the child of Eve, then of Adam and the law and finally as a believer in Christ of the Holy Spirit. And Jesus himself as a true human being was also the perfect(ed) or fully mature man (Heb. 2:10; 5:9; 7:28) who lived out the full complement of covenant life as Galatians 4:1-7 implies.
If this is true, then certain things follow. First, as Irenaeus taught long ago in the early church there is a scriptural doctrine of recapitulation. We all begin at the beginning and head for the end, that is, perfection (cf. 1 Cor. 13:9-13; Phil. 3:12-14; Heb. 6:1; 11:39f.) even though we are heavily influenced and conditioned by our spiritual and physical environment. Next, since we all prove incapable of keeping the law by which salvation is attained (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.) we are compelled to accept justification by faith in Christ. There is no other way of gaining salvation. Then, even when we become believers in Christ, the journey is by no means over. As those who are deemed righteous in Christ it is necessary for us to be born again and sanctified by the Spirit on our journey towards the celestial city.
The Priesthood of Christian Believers
Other things follow. Since as Christians under the new covenant we have taken the place of the Jews as the people of God, we are constituted a holy nation and a royal priesthood (Mt. 21:43; 1 Pet. 2:9). In other words, we are all priests and no longer need a Levitical priesthood as under the old covenant. And instead of offering animal sacrifices which since the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ have become redundant, we offer a sacrifice of praise to God and seek to please him (Rom. 12:1f.; Heb. 13:15; 1 Pet. 2:5).
Does all this suggest the abolition of the Churches as we now know them? Not necessarily. Just as we have different characteristics and personalities as individuals and nations, so there is no reason why we should not express our congregational worship in different ways. Again, while different forms of church government may arguably serve both the individual and the people in general, it is vital that all come to doctrinal maturity as portrayed in the Bible. There is simply no room for ecclesiastical primacy or ascendancy. The notion of “the one true church” or of sacerdotal infallibility must be regarded not only as obsolete but positively erroneous. The motto of all the churches must be semper reformanda or always in the process of reformation. This applies not only to doctrine but also to practice where we are all prone to come short.
Re damnation by tradition? Knowledge, law, understanding vitally important. We cannot be judged for what we do not know (Rom. 4:15, etc.). It is infraction of known law that causes sin to come into existence. See the final page of my Fruitlessness and Destruction. Ignorance always a mitigating factor: total ignorance as in babyhood means sinlessness (Dt. 1:39) and certainly not original sin.