Scripture *is* Tradition

John Henry Newman by Sir John Everett Millais
“To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” ― John Henry Newman

This is part of a series on Roman Catholicism. See this index.

In a discussion with Protestant to Roman Catholic convert Kentucky Gent, he made a typical appeal to sacred tradition. Catholics argue that “sacred tradition” is not merely written, but also included spoken instruction. Thus he cited:

2 Thessalonians 2:15
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.

…and said…

“In other words, scripture commands us to keep Holy Tradition, so I cannot discard it and yet remain true to His Word.”

But this reflects a lack of knowledge of the deep history of the church.

During the apostolic era, churches only had a few written letters. Apostles would travel around, visiting churches, and giving them oral teachings in addition to those that were written down. Certainly some of the Apostle’s letters would themselves have been committed to memory and transmitted that way. And so the earliest Christians had the Apostles, the words of the Apostles, the letters of the Apostles, and the Jewish Scriptures (in the form of the Septuagint). That first generation of Christians did exactly what they were instructed to do, believing both the spoken and written instructions that they received.

In the generations that followed, the words of the Apostles would be distributed—notably including the gospels—as copies of the writings were made and distributed. No longer were any apostles or those who witnessed their words alive to attest to them. The writings became the church’s scripture and oral tradition was no longer required. So it was that church tradition became scripture and scripture alone.

In the late second century, Victor, Bishop of Rome, declared that everyone must celebrate the feast of the Passover in the same way. Victor was attempting to impose on all congregations something that wasn’t contained in scripture. He proceeded to excommunicate any who disagreed with him.

If there was ever a time for the Bishops of the church to cite the oral tradition of the church handed down by Peter and through his successors in Rome, now would have been the time to point it out.  But, this did not go well with the Bishops of the church. Instead, Irenaeus and other Bishops rebuked Victor sharply, stating that he must accept different customs and that he could not cut off whole churches because they decide to emulate an ancient observances. Eusebius wrote that there was no single tradition commanded by one voice, because there were many apostles who had different ideas of how to celebrate. Indeed, he argued that the disagreements confirmed the overall agreement in the faith! Irenaeus similarly noted that the church had long lived in peace (unity) without needing or requiring uniformity of the practice.

On matters that were not stated explicitly by scripture, the Bishops held that congregations could setup their own non-authoritative practices and customs. There was no authoritative tradition outside of scripture itself. Let’s read the words of Irenaeus, writing against the Gnostics in Against Heresies:

“Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth.” — Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book I, Chapter 8

What did they heretics do? They gathered their views from other sources than the Scriptures. They didn’t use the prophets, nor the words of Christ, nor what the Apostles delivered, but they claimed to have knowledge outside of these, a separate authoritative tradition.

“The method which these men employ to deceive themselves, while they abuse the Scriptures by endeavouring to support their own system out of them. […specific refutations of Gnosticism…] their whole system sinks into ruin — a system which they falsely dream into existence, and thus inflict injury on the Scriptures, while they build up their own hypothesis.” — Book I, Chapter 9

Again, the heretics looked outside scripture, falsely dreaming into existence invalid arguments which could only fall to ruin upon exposure to scripture. Indeed, by appealing to something other than scripture, they inflicted injury up it.

“As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shines everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.” — Book I, Chapter 10

Here Irenaeus states that the tradition of the church was scripture, and that this scripture has been fully received by the church, scattered throughout the world, but carefully preserved, so that the whole church was as one. The tradition is the same because the scripture is the same, one scripture handed to all the churches. Moreover, no Bishop of the church, no matter how gifted in speech, may teach doctrines contrary to the scriptures. One can neither add to nor remove from scripture anything by their words.

“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, pointing out that our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth, and that no lie is in Him.” — Book III, Chapter 5

Because the tradition of the apostles existed in the church and was completed, one need only look at the scriptural recording of doctrine.

The early church did not teach there there was an oral tradition of the Apostles. It taught that Holy Tradition was contained in the Scriptures, which all the churches had, and that no doctrine could be based on anything outside those scriptures. The early church was not Roman Catholic.


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  3. I recently wrote on 2 Thessalonians 2:15. While I generally agree with your perspective here, I think there is more in Scripture itself concerning Paul’s “spoken word” that is in sharp contrast to the idea of “sacred tradition.” It’d be interesting to try to determine when that term first appears in church history. Searching the entire ANF and NPNF collections, it doesn’t appear in the writings of any early church fathers. Anachronism is often the enemy of understanding. The word “tradition” is simply a modern trigger word whereby people assume meaning that was never intended in the early centuries of the church. Here is my post. If you see anything I got wrong, I’d gladly correct it.

    After I wrote this, I happened one day to search Scripture for the word “example.” Almost every verse where that English word appears speaks to this…i.e. the Gospel was the Gospel, the “example” of Christ and the Apostles was integral to their “tradition” (think of “The Way” which is captured in the Didache, etc.), and it was all recorded in Scripture as “theopneustos.” Regardless of how you define and approach “sola scriptura,” God has miraculously and graciously preserved His Word as witness. Nothing else has remained as constant through the centuries.

    On of my favorite patristic passages is from Basil of Caesarea. It fits your discussion well as he lived and wrote after Eusebius, and died in 379, just before the Edict of Thessalonica fused church and state (I think this was the real turning point). It’s always intrigued me that the Edict was issued right where Paul addressed his prophetic warnings. Anyway, this letter from Basil shows that even in the latter second half of the 4th century, “custom” (or tradition) was still subordinate to Scripture. The passage is remarkable too, in that it addresses Trinitarian doctrine. It is often claimed that Trinitarian doctrine came from tradition, which is simply false. Tradition gave us the word “Trinity” (likely coined by Tertullian) but not Trinitarian truth and doctrine. For Basil, Scripture is true, regardless of one’s custom:

    “They are charging me with innovation, and base their charge on my confession of three hypostases, and blame me for asserting one Goodness, one Power, one Godhead. In this they are not wide of the truth, for I do so assert. Their complaint is that their custom does not accept this, and that Scripture does not agree. What is my reply? I do not consider it fair that the custom which obtains among them should be regarded as a law and rule of orthodoxy. If custom is to be taken in proof of what is right, then it is certainly competent for me to put forward on my side the custom which obtains here. If they reject this, we are clearly not bound to follow them. Therefore let God-inspired Scripture decide between us; and on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the Word of God, in favor of that side will be cast the vote of truth.”

  4. Cyril of Jerusalem (died in 386 AD), in whom we start to see some shift, but who still maintains the same view of Scripture:

    “Have thou ever in your mind this seal, which for the present has been lightly touched in my discourse, by way of summary, but shall be stated, should the Lord permit, to the best of my power with the proof from the Scriptures. For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell you these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning , but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.”

    He certainly doesn’t point anyone to Rome.

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