In the midst of my researching for my book, The Heresy of Ham, I am constantly amazed at the truly ironic things that I find time and time again in regards to Ken Ham and the young earth creationism (YEC) of Answers in Genesis. Case in point: his utterly twisted and deceptive use of the story in Mark 7 and Jesus’ condemnation of the “traditions of men.”
A quick recap of the passage is in order. The Pharisees notice that Jesus’ disciples are eating without washed hands, so they ask him why they do not observe “the tradition of the elders.” Jesus then proceeds to berate the Pharisees for encouraging people to violate the Torah itself, for the sake of obeying “the tradition of the elders,” or as Jesus calls it, “the traditions of men.”
Ham’s Use of the “Traditions of Men”
Now, Ken Ham freely uses this term, “traditions of men,” as an accusation against anyone who disagrees with his young earth interpretation of Genesis 1-11. “If you do not believe the earth is 6,000 years old or that Adam and Eve were ‘perfect,’” he says, “then you are putting the ‘traditions of men’ in authority over the Bible.” For Ham, the “traditions of men” means any interpretation of Genesis 1-11 other than his.
I ran into this accusation last year. I had mentioned that I thought Irenaeus’ explanation of Adam and Eve was very convincing and insightful. Irenaeus had speculated that when Adam and Eve were created, they were more like immature children, and therefore when they sinned, it was not so much of a “shaking their fists in rebellion against God” type of thing, as it was a bumbling sin of childish naiveté and immaturity. He, therefore, saw the story of Adam and Eve as kind of a story about all of us.
In any case, Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John himself. The fact, therefore, that Irenaeus was a generation separated from the apostle John tells me that it is very possible that his interpretation of the Adam and Eve story could have gone back to John, if not Jesus himself. That’s a pretty big deal, so I’m going to seriously consider what Irenaeus has to say.
Well, the person I was talking with said, “But Irenaeus was just a man. Are you going to put his fallible opinion over the clear Word of God? Isn’t that putting the “traditions of men” as the ultimate authority over God’s Word?”
So there you have it. If even a disciple of a disciple of the apostle John himself disagrees with Ken Ham, then the verdict is in: Ken Ham = God’s Word; Irenaeus = Traditions of Men.
A Look at Mark 7: What is “Oral Tradition”?
A simple reading of Mark 7, though, shows that Ken Ham has completely twisted and misused this passage. It is clear that the “traditions of men” Jesus condemned in Mark 7 were not condemnations of Church Tradition (as expressed in Ireneaus’ writings, for example), but rather of the “oral tradition” of the Pharisees (i.e. the tradition of the elders) that added extra rules to the Torah in order to insure that the Torah couldn’t be violated.
You see, if the Pharisees felt a particular rule in the Torah was a bit too vague, they would, through their “oral tradition,” add to that law to clarify what and was not allowed. If the Torah said, “Do not work on the Sabbath,” the Pharisees would then articulate what was considered “work” (i.e. picking heads off grain, or healing those who were paralyzed or lame). Nowhere in the Torah does it forbid healing on the Sabbath, but according to the “oral tradition” of the Pharisees, it was considered work, and therefore a violation of the Torah…even though it really wasn’t!
Now the thing was, not only did this “oral tradition” make up rules that weren’t in the Torah to begin with, sometimes “oral tradition” would actually end up violating the Torah itself. This is why Jesus condemned the Pharisees in Mark 7. One of the rules in the Torah said that people were obligated to honor their mother and father, meaning not only respecting them, but taking care of them in their old age as well. According to the “oral tradition” though, the Pharisees would tell people that if they took any money that would be used to help their parents, and instead gave it to the Pharisees, that it would be considered an offering to God (i.e. Corban), and therefore would not be in violation of the Torah.
Essentially, the Pharisees were telling people, “Hey, don’t use that money to help your parents! Give it to us, after all, we’re doing God’s work! God will be pleased if you give extra money for His service!” Jesus rightly called them on such a con-game. They, by means of their “oral tradition,” were actually encouraging people to neglect their mother and father, and thus break the commandment in the Torah.
Jesus was condemning the Pharisees for adding their own “tradition” to the Scriptures, and then claiming that their “tradition” essentially was on par with Scripture itself. They were making no distinction between the two, and therefore through manipulation, they were encouraging people to obey their authority and man-made “tradition” at the expense of what God clearly taught and revealed in Scripture.
Oh the Irony!
So that is what Mark 7 is about. Given that, there are two fundamental reasons why Ken Ham’s use of the “traditions of men” in Mark 7 is so ironic.
First, there is the fact that Ken Ham’s own tactics are the exact same as that of the Pharisees:
(A) Like the “oral tradition” of the Pharisees, Ken Ham’s YEC is not found in the Bible; both are later interpretations that have been imposed back onto the Bible;
(B) Just like the Pharisees added to and imposed their “oral tradition” onto the Torah, YEC has imposed a thoroughly modern interpretation onto the biblical text of Genesis 1-11;
(C) Just as the Pharisees’ “oral tradition” essentially over-rode the clear commandment in the Torah, YEC’s modern-scientific interpretation of Genesis 1-11 over-rides the clear meaning of Genesis 1-11;
(D) Therefore if Jesus condemned the Pharisees’ “oral tradition” of being the “traditions of men,” what does that imply about Ken Ham’s YEC? Should we not also see that YEC’s modern interpretation of Genesis 1-11 as being essentially a modern form of the Pharisees’ “oral tradition,” and thus deserving to be seen as the “traditions of men?”
The irony of all this is that this is the passage Ken Ham uses to condemn others who disagree with his YEC! He cannot see that he is actually the Pharisee in the story! Jesus’ condemnation of the “traditions of men” apply to Ken Ham!
What is BDG?
The second irony about Ham’s use of Mark 7 is a doozy. It can be seen in a recent fundraiser Answers in Genesis has promoted. Ken Ham announced on a September 19, 2015 blog post entitled, “What is BDG?” that Answers in Genesis has started a new way people could help their ministry and “partner with us in sharing the gospel and equipping the church”—the beneficiary designation gift.
Basically, Ken Ham wants you to designate Answers in Genesis as the beneficiary of your “retirement account, investment account, bank account, or life insurance policy.” If you name them the beneficiaries, then you will be able “to leave a lasting legacy as you impact the world and the church for God’s glory.”
That’s right! When you pass away, the money you have in your retirement, investment, and bank accounts, or the money wrapped up in your life insurance policy won’t go to your loved ones (you know, the people you normally would designate as beneficiaries)! It will “be paid or transferred to Answers in Genesis”! Well, Hallelujah! What a great “offering to God!”
Ironically, Ken Ham is doing the exact same thing as the Pharisees in Mark 7—the very thing that earned them the condemnation of Jesus himself! He is encouraging you to take the money you had been saving to take care of your family after you die and give it to him in order to help his ministry!
So Let’s Be Clear
The irony of all this is that not only is the “traditions of men” not about what Ken Ham claims it’s about, but the larger context of Mark 7 actually serves as a condemnation of Ken Ham’s own organization and questionable fundraising tactics. To recap:
- Ken Ham often uses Mark 7 and the term “traditions of men” to condemn others who do not hold to his YEC interpretation of Genesis 1-11, yet the “traditions of men” in Mark 7 is not a reference to any kind of interpretation of Genesis 1-11 at all.
- The “traditions of men” that Jesus condemns is the “oral tradition” of the Pharisees that they used to essentially trump the clear meaning of the Torah, much like how YEC is a kind of modern “oral tradition” that Ken Ham uses to essentially trump the clear meaning of Genesis 1-11.
- So when Ken Ham dismisses the testimony of Church Tradition that clearly shows YEC was never universally held as a fundamental tenant of Christianity—when he dismisses it as being the “traditions of men,” he is actually calling the very tradition and teaching that Christ himself handed down to his apostles “the traditions of men.”
- And to top it all off, by promoting the “BDG” fundraising practice, Answers in Genesis is guilty of the very thing the Pharisees were guilty of in Mark 7!
It is safe to say that Ken Ham stands self-condemned.
“You nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” (Mark 7:13)