On April 12, 1633, Father Vincenzo Maculani da Firenzuola, chief inquisitor appointed by Pope Urban VIII, began the inquisition of physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei. He was on trial for holding the belief that the Earth revolves around the sun. The prolonged dispute between Galileo and the Catholic church over heliocentrism (that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around) is a well-known and sad chapter in the history of Christianity. The mistake made by the medieval church was to allow traditional assumptions about the world to crystallize into doctrine, assumptions that were formed not by scripture, but by culture and tradition.
In the New Testament, the word “tradition” is a neutral word. Jesus’ disciples were criticized for breaking the “tradition of the elders” (Matt 15:2). Paul, before his conversion, was zealous for the tradition of his ancestors (Gal 1:14). Jesus accused the Pharisees of breaking God’s commandments for the sake of their “traditions” (Matt 15:6). Paul warned against false teachers who were teaching “empty deceit, according to human tradition” (Col 2:8).
Tradition is defined as a long-established custom or belief that has been passed on from one generation to another. The term is not always used with a negative connotation in the New Testament. Paul encouraged the Thessalonians and Corinthians to hold to the “traditions” that they were taught (2 Thess 2:15; 3:6; 1 Cor 11:2). Why are many traditions in Roman Catholicism problematic? Not because traditions are wrong, but because they often conflict with explicit biblical teachings. The most obvious example of this is the tradition of keeping Sunday rather than Sabbath as the day to worship God. In Galileo’s case, they conflicted with science. The battle was not between science and the Bible but between science and tradition.
As Seventh-day Adventists, we also have traditions. We worship corporately on Sabbath morning rather than Sabbath afternoon. In North America, we eat haystacks. In Brazil, all pastors take the month of January for vacation. It’s mandatory. Our world church traditionally meets every five years for General Conference sessions. In North America, we have traditionally started Sabbath School at 9:30 a.m. In Brazil, it is still 9:00 a.m. In the Oregon Conference, for the last twenty years, the church has organized a program called Follow the Star. We could go on and on listing Adventist traditions.
We are no different from other Christian denominations in terms of following long-established customs or beliefs that are not explicitly commanded in Scripture. We claim to be different in the sense that our traditions do not necessarily conflict with explicit biblical teachings. However, we should be concerned when we prioritize our traditions over our mission.
For example, when H.M.S. Richards wanted to use the radio to evangelize in Southern California, he was not supported by many church leaders. Why? Because that is not how the church had traditionally done evangelism. When guitars were introduced in the 1960s, they were initially rejected by many churches because that was not the instrument we had traditionally used to worship God. The same was true for the organ in the 1880s.
Traditions are good, so long as they do not conflict with biblical principles or the church’s mission.