Edith M. Humphrey. Scripture and Tradition: What the Bible Really Says. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.
I would like to thank Baker Academic for my review copy of this book. See here for Baker’s page about it.
According to Edith Humphrey, “tradition” has gotten a bad name in a
number of Protestant circles. I can vouch for that personally, for I
myself grew up in a church that rejected extra-biblical tradition. We
did not observe Christmas, Easter, or Sunday, seeing those as human-made
institutions that lacked divine sanction and even went against the word
of God. Like many Christians, we interpreted the Jesus of the Gospels
to be very critical of Pharisaic traditions, as if Jesus were in favor
of sticking with Scripture as the authority for faith and practice
rather than adding human commandments. I suppose that we believed in
Sola Scriptura, even if we did not know the technical name for our
stance. But we did not go as far as some Christians we knew, who did
not even have instrumental music at their church services! For them,
virtually every religious practice needed Scriptural support before it
could be done by Christians.
Humphrey is responding to Protestant anti-tradition mindsets, and
yet, at the same time, she is also addressing an increasing Protestant
tendency to embrace Christian traditions in what she considers to be a
flippant manner. Reading part of her book was like listening to a
Catholic who is debating James White about Sola Scriptura: she appeals
to New Testament passages in arguing that the early church did not just
rely on a written word but also on oral instruction, and that the early
church itself had traditions that it passed on. She even goes so far as
to argue that Jesus wasn’t particularly opposed to the Jewish
traditions of his day, which (according to her) played an important role
in the Jews’ religious lives. Jesus’ problem, according to Humphrey,
was that there were Pharisees whose treatment of the tradition was
lopsided: it emphasized certain elements at the expense of weightier
matters. When Jesus in Matthew 23:23 criticized Pharisees who tithed
while neglecting the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith,
Humphrey notes, Jesus encouraged the Pharisees to keep on tithing, but
he wanted them also to focus on the weightier matters. Jesus, according
to Humphrey, was not anti-tradition.
To be honest, I had a hard time figuring out what exactly Humphrey’s
main point was in her book. If tradition is not a bad thing, does that
mean that she thinks we should become like Roman Catholics, who regard
the ancient Christian tradition (embodied in the church fathers, among
other sources) as somehow authoritative? Or does she believe that
Christians can find the traditions spiritually edifying, without seeing
them as authoritative? She covers a lot of interesting territory in her
book: the importance of Christian community, how Christians can sift
between traditions that are obsolete and traditions that may still have
relevance, why Paul in I Corinthians 11:10 said women should cover their
heads on account of the angels (she thinks that Isaiah 6 is relevant to
this), her reflections on an encounter that she had with a Jehovah’s
Witness, and the list goes on and on. The book is worth the read on
account of its many rich discussions, and I found Humphrey to be a very
thoughtful writer. But I had a hard time discerning what Humphrey’s
main point was.
If I were to rate the book, I would give it four out of five stars.
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