The Doctrine of Human Tradition in the Tetrapolitan Confession

The Tetrapolitan Confession of 1530 represented the theology of the cities of Strasbourg, Constance, Memmingen, and Lindau. It was written chiefly by Martin Bucer. It can be thought of as an attempted Lutheran-Reformed unity confession to go along with the Augsburg Confession, and its immediate legacy was basically one of failure. The Holy Roman Emperor, the Lutherans, and many of the Swiss all rejected it. Still, its doctrinal affirmations and denials are instructive for us today, as it lays out the broader “Reformed” point of view, in distinction from the strictly Zwinglian variety. Much of the content of the Tetrapolitan Confession would reappear in the Helvetic Confessions and the Genevan Confession. This is true in particular reference to its chapter on human traditions.

Chapter 14 of the Tetrapolitan Confession addresses the role and significance of human traditions. I will reproduce the full chapter:

Furthermore, concerning the traditions of the fathers or such as the bishops and churches at this day ordain, the opinion of our men is as follows: They reckon no traditions among human traditions (such, namely, as are condemned in the Scriptures) except those that conflict with the law of God, such as bind the conscience concerning meat, drink, times and other external things, such as forbid marriage to those to whom it is necessary for an honorable life, and other things of that stamp. For such as agree with the Scripture, and were instituted for good morals and the profit of men, even though not expressed in Scripture in words, nevertheless, since they flow from the command of love, which orders all things most becomingly, are justly regarded divine rather than human. Of this sort were those of Paul — that women should not pray in the church bareheaded or men with heads covered; that they who are to commune should tarry one for the other; that no one should speak with tongues in the congregation without an interpreter; that the prophets without confusion should deliver their prophecies to be judged by those who sit by. Many such the Church even today justly observes, and according to occasion frames anew, which he who rejects despises the authority, not of men, but of God, whose tradition whatsoever is profitable. For “whatever truth is said or written is said and written by His gift who is the truth itself,” as St. Augustine has devoutly written. But oftentimes there is disputing about this as to what tradition is profitable, what not — i.e. what promotes and what retards godliness. But he who shall seek nothing of his own, and consecrates himself entirely to the public profit, shall easily see what things correspond to God’s law and what do not.

Furthermore, since the condition of Christians is such that they are even helped by injuries, the Christian will refuse to obey not even unjust laws, provided they make no godless command, according to the saying of Christ: “Whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.” Thus, undoubtedly, the Christian ought to become all things unto all men, so that he may endeavor both to suffer and to do everything for the pleasure and profit of men, provided they be not opposed to God’s commands. Hence it is that everyone obeys the civil laws that do not conflict with godliness, the more readily the more fully he is imbued with the faith of Christ.

(Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century, ed. Arthur C. Cochrane, pg. 71-72)

The expression “human tradition” had carried a negative connotation since at least the first century. When “human tradition” is used by our Lord, it signifies merely human tradition and especially those human traditions which have been illegitimately used in an abusive manner or in such a way to teach false doctrine. The Tetrapolitan Confession does not mount a defense of human tradition. Several of its earlier chapters invoke this concept to argue against Roman Catholic practices. But in this chapter it does something rather interesting. It denies that many ecclesiastical traditions are human traditions at all. As long as a tradition “agrees with the Scripture” and was set up for the purpose of “good morals and the profit of men” and “flow[s] from the command of love,” then such a tradition is actually considered divine. Importantly, the Tetrapolitan Confession explains that such traditions do not need to be “expressed in Scripture in words.”

This is surprising, at least to the modern reader. Here is an allowance for extra-Scriptural tradition. Even more so, such tradition is not merely called “human law” or “custom” but in fact “divine tradition.” Examples are then listed which include apostolic instruction from 1 Corinthians. This would indicate that Bucer believed the Apostle Paul to have been establishing traditions, rather than simply relaying direct divine commands. These still carried the weight of divine law because they followed from more basic biblical principles. The next sentence says that the Church has chosen to continue some of these traditions and to frame others anew “according to occasion.” If it has only continued some, then it has not continued all, indicating a belief that not every apostolic custom given in 1 Corinthians was perpetual. Its allowance for the church to frame other traditions anew according to the occasion grants some measure of sanctified creativity.

Who decides which traditions should be enforced and how? Here the Confession is perhaps overconfident. Such conditions are “easily see[n],” it says. The criteria are a general consistency with God’s word, the goal of morality and edification, and a pursuit of “public profit” rather than individual self-interest.

The second paragraph then takes up the burden of the response–but what if such traditions are disagreeable? The Confession says that even “unjust laws” serve to advance the Christian’s spiritual condition as they give him a chance to obey the teaching of Christ. This paragraph does refer to “civil laws,” but its context seems to suggest a unified logic with the earlier statements about church tradition. Thus, if one may submit to “unjust” civil laws without spiritual harm, which is assumed to be one implication from the Sermon on the Mount, they may also submit to church traditions with which they disagree. The exception is once again said to be, “provided they make no godless command… provided they be not opposed to God’s command.” Read together, this would mean that such traditions and laws cannot contradict biblical command and may not work against the overall corporate good. Otherwise, they are to be obeyed.

The Tetrapolitan Confession here grants a certain measure of authority to the leadership of the church to evaluate traditions and customs and even to establish new ones. Individual Christians are instructed to submit to these, even if they do not fully agree with them. The regulating principle here is not that each tradition must be explicitly commanded in Scripture. Rather it must not contradict anything in Scripture and it must follow from Biblical principles for the benefit of the whole body.


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