But let us hurry to the real issue: Armstrong wrote, “…Christians were, therefore, bound to elements of Pharisaical teaching that were not only nonscriptural, but based on oral tradition, for this is what the Pharisees believed.” Armstrong assumes no distinction between practice, interpretation, or doctrine, regarding the teaching of the Pharisees, ignoring the function of the seat of Moses in the synagogue, and assuming an entire mountain of later Roman Catholic concepts in the process. But there is a simple, easy way of determining if Armstrong’s central assertion is true (indeed, without it, the rest of his argument is vacuous and irrelevant): are we to seriously believe that the opening words of the condemnation of the Pharisees and scribes for their hypocrisy and opposition to God’s truth are in fact commendations of the theology of the Pharisees, so that their extra-biblical traditions are to be taken as normative for Christians? Let’s test this theory. Remember Armstrong’s claim:
…it was precisely the extrabiblical (especially apocalyptic) elements of Pharisaical Judaism that New Testament Christianity adopted and developed for its own—doctrines such as resurrection, the soul, the afterlife, eternal reward or damnation, and angelology and demonology (all of which the Sadducees rejected).
And yet, in the immediately preceding chapter, the Lord Jesus had defended the truth about the resurrection (did He get this truth from the Pharisees or did the Pharisees simply believe the truth about the subject?) against the Sadducees, had He not? And how did He do so? If we are to believe Armstrong, he would do so by reference to Pharisaical tradition, since, as he said, the Old Testament is not clear enough, and besides, it is much clearer in the oral traditions, correct? Of course not! How did Jesus respond?
Matthew 22:29-33 29 But Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 31 “But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: 32 ‘I AM THE GOD OF ABRAHAM, AND THE GOD OF ISAAC, AND THE GOD OF JACOB ‘? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” 33 When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at His teaching.
Did Jesus appeal to Pharisaic traditions? Surely not. He took His opponents directly back to the text of Scripture itself, held them accountable for the words as if God had spoken them directly to them that very day, and proved that God is the God of the living, not of the dead. And please note the reaction of the crowds: they were astonished at His teaching. This was not the first time. Note the end of the Sermon on the Mount:
Matthew 7:28-29 28 When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; 29 for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
The reason given is important: the amazement came because Jesus taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes and the Pharisees! They did not run about claiming doctrinal authority but instead they literally bored their audiences to tears with the same kind of material we see in the Mishnah two and a half centuries later: “Rabbi G. interpreted this law this way, but Rabbi B. viewed it this way, and Rabbi M. agreed with Rabbi B., except he said this” and so forth. Jesus did not teach in this fashion, and thus the crowds were amazed. The same is true in Matthew 22. The crowds are amazed at the biblical and forceful answer the Lord gave to the Sadducees, for He did not argue from tradition, but from the Scriptures. This is just the opposite of the conclusions we would draw from Armstrong’s position.
But most compellingly the interpretation offered by Armstrong (and others) falters with finality when we ask a simple question: even if we were to grant all the inserted ideas about the centrality of “tradition” here, the fact is that Armstrong’s interpretation goes directly against Jesus’ own teaching in Matthew 15. You just cannot make these two passages fit together. We read,
Matthew 15:1-6 Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” 3 And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 “For God said, ‘HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER,’ and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER IS TO BE PUT TO DEATH.’ 5 “But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,” 6 he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition.
Note the text: 1) These are Pharisees, the very ones Armstrong refers us to as carrying divine traditions as those who have seated themselves in Moses’ seat. 2) The Pharisees begin with reference to one tradition (note it is behavioral in orientation, interpretive of other laws, not doctrinal or revelational) and the Lord respond by reference to a completely different tradition–but both are encompassed by the one phrase, “the tradition of the elders,” which, no matter how hard Armstrong may try, is definitional of the entire body of tradition to which he wishes to bind us via his reading of Matthew 23. 3) If Armstrong is right, the Corban rule to which Jesus refers here would be properly defined by the Pharisees and properly taught from “Moses’ seat.” Does it not follow, inexorably, that for Jesus’ followers to do as He commands in both Matthew 15 and Matthew 23 that they would have to exercise the very discernment and examination of the Pharisees’ teaching that Armstrong decries? The Corban rule was just as much a part of “oral tradition” as anything else. It was an “interpretation” of the law concerning a man’s duties to his parents as well as the laws dealing with giving to the temple and its worship. But it was a false teaching, as Jesus here makes clear. It was an allegedly divine tradition that men should have examined and rejected on the basis of their own reading of the Scriptures. In fact, it seems plain beyond contradiction that Jesus is here teaching the Scriptures are so clear and compelling on this point in relationship to honoring one’s father and mother that there is surely no need for a magisterium to tell you this, for the “magisterium” of the day was telling you just the opposite! But how could Jesus say these things about the Pharisees, who had seated themselves in Moses’ seat, in Armstrong’s scenario? He couldn’t! But if we simply allow the context to speak, and realize Matthew 23:1-3 is not a positive statement about the Pharisee’s authority, but the beginning of their condemnation, and their having seated themselves in Moses’ seat in the synagogue only adds to their condemnation (but has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with later Roman Catholic theories of authority or tradition), then we find a consistent reading of Jesus’ words.
While there is much more that could be said, we have certainly said enough. Mr. Armstrong was unwise to sub-title his book, “95 Bible Passages That Confound Protestants” when he is manifestly ill equipped to provide the “goods” to back up his claims. His work is convincing only to the already convinced, but surely not to anyone who is actually familiar with what is necessary to show respect to God’s Word by handling it aright. It is truly my prayer that the time I have invested in demonstrating the lack of substance in this work will help those who are seeking to minister the gospel of grace to those who have been ensnared by Rome’s false and deceptive “gospel.”