Sacred Tradition and Saint Paul’s Spoken Word

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 modern 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.

References

References
1Images from: Sweet Publishing / FreeBibleimages.org. PAUL IN THESSALONICA AND BEREA, Acts 17:1–15. Free Bible images, www.freebibleimages.org/illustrations/paul-thessalonica-berea. Accessed: August 17, 2022

3 thoughts on “Sacred Tradition and Saint Paul’s Spoken Word”

  1. Thanks. The premise is another body of wholly God-inspired express public revelation relates to the Catholic position is that The One True Church” (here I will focus on Rome, but it also much applies to the EO) is effectively the supreme standard for faith and morals. And is necessary to assuredly know what is of God, or at lest writings. Thus whatever she declares is of God, is indeed so, including that she is. (Rome is more forward then the EOS, having presumed to formally infallibly” declare she is and will be perpetually infallible whenever she speaks in accordance with her infallibly defined (scope and subject-based) formula, which renders her declaration that she is infallible, to be infallible, as well as all else she accordingly declares, and presumes protection from at least salvific error in non-infallible magisterial teaching.).

    For, “People cannot discover the contents of revelation by their unaided powers of reason and observation. They have to be told by people who have received in from on high.”(Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, “Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith, p. 72). …the believer cannot believe in the Bible nor find in it the object of his faith until he has previously made an act of faith in the intermediary authorities…” (Catholic Encyclopedia>Tradition and Living Magisterium) And thus to avoid circularity (proving church by the Scriptures and the Scripture by the church), the recourse in Catholic apologetic has been, “when we appeal to the Scriptures for proof of the Church’s infallible authority we appeal to them merely as reliable historical sources, and abstract altogether from their inspiration.” (Catholic Encyclopedia > Infallibility)

    And the argument also is that “Jesus did not leave a Bible, He left a church,” implicitly arguing that the church was not built upon the Bible, and thus it is “The Church” ©  which gave us the Bible (they say) that owe allegiance of faith to.

    Enter Tradition, which provides an amorphous body of “inspired teaching for Rome to draw from, even to claiming that John 14:26 means that she can remember what even tradition forgot to evidence, or so Ratzinger claimed as regards the Assumption.
    However, rather than an infallible magisterial office being essential to know what writings are of God, and for the establishment of them, and the premise that the church was not being built on Scripture (which the Bible is), the reality is that an authoritative body of wholly inspired Scripture had been established by the time of Christ, as manifest by the frequent appeals to Scripture, including “He expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. Luke 24:27)) “even the tripartite canon of the Law, the Prophets and The Writings, by which the Lord Jesus established His messiahship and ministry and opened the minds of the disciples to, who did the same. (Luke 24:27.44,45; Acts 17:2; 18:28, etc.)
    Thus Scripture came before the church and which provided the prophetic and doctrinal epistemological foundation for the church.

    For God manifestly made writing His most-reliable means of authoritative preservation. (Exodus 17:14; 34:1,27; Deuteronomy 10:4; 17:18; 27:3,8; 31:24; Joshua 1:8; 2 Chronicles 34:15,18-19, 30-31; Psalm 19:7-11; 119; Isaiah 30:8; Jeremiah 30:2; Matthew 4:5-7; 22:29; Luke 24:44,45; John 5:46,47; John 20:31; Acts 17:2,11; 18:28; Revelation 1:1; 20:12, 15;
    And thus as abundantly evidenced , as written, Scripture became the transcendent supreme standard for obedience and testing and establishing truth claims as the wholly Divinely inspired and assured, Word of God. Thus the veracity of even apostolic oral preaching could be subject to testing by Scripture, (Acts 17:11) and not vice versa.

    Moreover, as regards oral tradition, while men such as the apostles could speak as wholly inspired of God and also provide new public revelation thereby (in conflation with what had been written), neither of popes and councils claim to do.

    Thus the written word is the assured infallible word of God and the only sure, supreme substantive standard for faith and morals, thanks be to God.

  2. Reading the above post left even me breathless! It actually had paragraphs when posted, and it could use some editing, yet at least the links were retained. Thanks for posting it. I came to your site via Beggars all (James Swan)

  3. This discussion on tradition is important. The strength of the sola scriptura argument is not in the Scriptures, for the Scriptures do indeed speak affirmatively of oral traditions (2 Thessalonians 2:15, 1 Corinthians 11:1-2 and 2 Timothy 2:2). Patrick Madrid once said that, the deposit of faith “proclaimed and defended” by Roman Catholicism “is incomplete if it is missing the oral Traditions that are part of it.” (Why is that in Tradition? 18). These are the verses used to prove that “oral tradition” must be part of the deposit of faith. Ok, part of the oral tradition of 2 Thessalonians is the identity of the restrainer (vv. 5-6). Who is that? Roman Catholicism doesn’t know and can’t tell us. Athanasius (370) believed Satan was the restrainer. Chrysostom (389 AD) said it might be the Holy Spirit, but more likely the Roman Empire. Severian of Gabala (389 AD), Theodore of Antioch (c. 400 AD) and Theodoret of Cyrus (c. 425 AD) assumed it is the Holy Spirit. Augustine threw up his hands in despair: “I frankly confess I do not know what [Paul] means.” The Catholic Encyclopedia doesn’t know: “We can here only enumerate the principal opinions as to the meaning of this clause, without discussing their value.” Thus, the “custodian” of oral apostolic tradition has lost track of it.

    What of 1 Corinthians 11:1-2? Chrysostom (the only earlier writer I could find who commented on it) said “It appears then that he used at that time to deliver many things also not in writing.” His best guess is that Paul must be referring to those traditions he explains in writing in the rest of the chapter. And 2 Timothy 2:2? The early church didn’t think he was referring to oral traditions at all. Clement of Alexandria (c. 215 AD) understood that the “many witnesses” that attested to Paul’s instructions were “the law and the prophets. For these the apostle made witnesses of his own preaching.” Tertullian (235 AD): “when he says ‘these things,’ he refers to the things of which he is writing at the moment.” Chrysostom (390 AD) understood “the things that thou hast heard of me” to refer to what Paul had only just written in the previous chapter.

    So, to summarize: Thessalonians 2—Roman Catholicism has lost track of them; 1 Corinthians 11:1-2—they are unknown and the earliest writers who were willing to guess simply assumed he must be talking about the stuff he was writing down at the moment. And the chiefest irony of all is that the modern Roman Catholic tradition that 2 Timothy 2:2 refers to ORAL apostolic traditions, is itself a tradition the early church did not “maintain”! So if Roman Catholicism has lost track of the apostolic traditions that the Scriptures DO mention, why should we trust them as custodians of the ones the Scriptures DO NOT mention? And if there is no accurate record of apostolic traditions to be found, to where shall we turn? I suspect Irenæus was on to something: “Since, therefore, the tradition from the apostles does thus exist in the Church, and is permanent among us, let us revert to the Scriptural proof furnished by those apostles who did also write the Gospel, in which they recorded the doctrine regarding God”. That sounds about right.

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