The concept of “Sacred Tradition” — extrabiblical church tradition, customs, and teaching that are equal in weight and authority to God’s Holy, infallible, and inerrant Word (i.e. that which is God-breathed, theopneustos in 2 Timothy 3:16) is one of the most divisive ideas to develop in church history. Proponents are quick to pit it against the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. However, they typically do so with a gross misunderstanding of what Sola Scriptura means. This often results in an ignorant, even dishonest implication that Sola Scriptura is a rejection of historical, church tradition as a valid and edifying source of authority in the Christian life and community. Mischaracterization aside, Scripture mentions “tradition” in both negative and affirming terms, though there is far more of the former. One of the few verses that speaks positively about unwritten tradition is 2 Thessalonians 2:15. It is also the one most “sacred tradition” proponents cite:
“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”2 Thessalonians 2:15 (ESV)
The modern church, apologetics, and the “sacred tradition” claim
It is popular for certain apologists to make statements like: “Where does the Bible say it’s the only authority?” It’s a strawman, easily erected and set ablaze by the “teacher” who preys on unprepared neophytes in the faith. The discussion that follows, usually implants a sense of unease and fosters disillusionment with modern church and societal trends. Then, an appeal to something more ancient and pure becomes very enticing. Do the writers of Scripture ever make such an appeal? They had thousands of years to draw from, too. Hardly! But with widescale neglect of the faith and ignorance of history, many “teachers” today pounce on the vulnerable. They make their literal and spiritual living selling a “fuller” materialistic, experience-based faith. It’s an easy sell…
We love to feel like we’ve figured it out, solved a problem, and found ancient secrets. I often see people not grounded in faith drift until they convince themselves they’re right. This isn’t faith accompanied by reason, it’s reason-directed faith. It’s evidence-based, which means it’s not faith at all. The promise of a greater “fullness of faith” draws many to a vast accumulation of teachers and their dogmatic surety. The experience they promise excites the human senses and intellect. Regardless of the promises anyone offers, God is sufficient (Psalm 62:1), Christ alone mediates access to Him (1 Timothy 2:5), and He offers joy that transcends all this material world offers, but it’s elusive to the comfortable modern man, in his flesh.
A message of repentance, humble submission to a God we cannot see, and simple faith that seems humanly irrational, doesn’t excite many in our wealth-blind culture, where sacrifice is superficial, self-achievement is glorified, and gratification must be instant. All sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). There is but one way and one truth, and He alone offers eternal life (John 14:6).
Grace is a gift, not a reward (though there are rewards) for adhering to 613 Jewish laws or 255 “Christian” dogmas. When extrabiblical dogma that didn’t exist in the 1st century becomes the draw and centuries of accumulation become necessary, true history is obscured. Rather than the example of our forefathers being edifying and instructive, it becomes an overly glamorous, burdensome stumbling block, though not recognized as such. Then one sees what they want to see, dismissing history’s lessons and relegating the Gospel message for which the apostles and martyrs gave their lives, to insufficient simplicity. What a tragedy.
Now, I’ll step off my soapbox. Let’s examine the apostle Paul’s “spoken word” as tradition. Is it a call for an ever expanding body of extrabiblical dogma, an invitation to essentially ignore the reality of human depravity, and reason to disregard the inevitability of the telephone game?
A Biblical analysis of the “tradition” of 2 Thessalonians 2:15
The apostle Paul soundly rejects tradition that contradicts the Gospel of grace:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel…For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me”Galatians 1:6, 13-14, 16a (ESV)
Jesus addresses tradition, too:
“And he said to them, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”
You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.'”Mark 7:6-8 (ESV)
In context, Paul is speaking of the Jewish ceremonial/ritual traditions, etc. that creep in over time by way of the “leaven of the Pharisees” (e.g. Phylacteries, purification baths, hand washings, vainly repetitious prayers, etc. see Matthew 16:6-12, Mathew 23, Mark 8:15, Luke 12:1). Pharisees and Scribes in the late second temple period ascribe such “sacred tradition” a sort of sacramental efficacy. One would become “pure” by adhering to Pharisaic teaching from the “Oral Torah” and by practicing it’s requirements. For the most part, none of the Jewish tradition Scripture mentions were truly ancient and their practices were riddled with hypocrisy.
The sacred tradition or “Oral Torah” of the Pharisees and Scribes (majority sect of the time) is mostly a late second temple period development. Relative to Scripture, Pharisees and Scribes also considered themselves the authoritative teachers/interpreters of God’s timeless Word. Sound familiar? The same idea develops in “Christianity.” The degree of development directly relates to the church’s distance from Scripture through history. It’s nothing new. It’s worth reading about Josiah’s reformation in 2 Kings 22. Another example Hezekiah returning to the commandments, abolishing idolatry, and destroying objects of devotion. Scripture describes him as a man who “trusted in the Lord” (2 Kings 18), not sacred tradition. These Judean kings take a stand against tradition, just as Jesus and Paul do in the 1st century.
What do Paul, Silas, and Timothy “speak” in Thessalonica?
Regarding Paul’s statement in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Scripture tells us a great deal about his time in Thessalonica. This includes the “tradition” of Paul and details concerning what he “said’ while there:
“Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.'”Acts 17:1-3 (ESV)
In three sabbath days, Paul was not teaching Mariology, indulgences, papal authority or infallibility, the role of a magisterium, divine liturgy, how to consecrate a host, how to properly venerate objects and other humans so as not to cross the “worship” line, etc. He was in a Synagogue, reading through scrolls, discussing the history of the Jews, explaining Messianic prophecies, and proclaiming Jesus as the risen Christ. All of Paul’s “preaching” was new to the Gentiles and his message of the Messiah upended the traditional Jewish conception. One might question what Paul, Silas, and Timothy do during the other 18 or so days they are in Thessalonica. Scripture speaks to that, too:
“You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake…for you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.”1 Thessalonians 1:5b, 2:9 (ESV)
Summary of Paul’s “sacred tradition”
In summary, Scripture tells us that Paul’s three weeks in Thessalonica are spent reasoning from the Scriptures and proclaiming the Gospel (kerygma), as he lives as an upright life of obedience. Enduring Jewish hostility in Thessalonica, Paul aspires to live quietly, mind his own affairs, and work with diligently with his hands (possibly building tents). He lives this way while proclaiming the Gospel, so as not to be a burden. In 1 Thessalonians 4:11, Paul instructs his hearers (and us today) to do the same. The “letter” he mentions in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 is what we know as 1 Thessalonians. His “spoken word” is three weeks of toilsome, kerygmatic, and evangelistic mission. This is Paul’s sacred tradition. It is the “pattern of sound words” Paul exhorts Timothy with in 2 Timothy 1:13.