Thursday, December 26, 2013

Book Write-Up: Scripture and Tradition, by Edith M. Humphrey

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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