Apostolic Tradition

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Apostolic Tradition, also called sacred tradition, or holy tradition, is a theological term used by major Christian traditions such as the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, and Anglican traditions, primarily those claiming apostolic succession, in reference to the divinely revealed foundation of the doctrinal and spiritual authority of Christianity.

Apostolic Tradition is also the name of a third century text, also called Egyptian Church Order, uncertainly attributed to Hippolytus of Rome.

Living Tradition

Christians believe that the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles came from God, who gave it to Jesus[1] to pass on to his apostles and was preserved by word of mouth and handed on by them to the whole church through their authorized successors as a single deposit of doctrine and practice, to be faithfully guarded by them under the guidance and help of the Holy Spirit.[2] This perpetual handing on of the tradition received and passed down from the Twelve Apostles to be rightly understood, interpreted and applied by the leaders of the church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit of God is called the "Living Tradition", believed to be the faithful and constant transmission of the teachings of the Apostles from one generation to the next. The Deposit of Faith (Latin: fidei depositum) refers to the entirety of divine revelation preserved by apostolic tradition.

In Eastern Orthodox theology, Holy Tradition is the inspired revelation of God and orthodox catholic teaching (Greek katholikos, "according to the whole") of the Church, not an independent contradictory source of dogmatic authority to be regarded as a supplement to biblical revelation. Tradition is rather understood as the fullness of divine truth proclaimed in the scriptures, preserved by the apostolic bishops and expressed in the life of the Church through such things as the Divine Liturgy and the Holy Mysteries (Eucharist, baptism, marriage, etc.), the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed and other doctrinal definitions of the First seven ecumenical councils, canonical Christian iconography, and the sanctified lives of godly men and women. The organic and seamless whole of this catholic and orthodox Christian culture of the living and breathing life of the church comprises the living expression of the unchanging essence of the apostolic tradition.

According to Catholic theology, two accessible sources of divine revelation in Christ constitute a unified single "Deposit of Faith", meaning that the entirety of divine revelation and the Deposit of Faith is transmitted to successive generations in scripture and sacred tradition through the teaching authority and authentic interpretation of the Church's Magisterium, which consists of the Church's bishops, in union with the Pope, the Patriarch of the West, typically proceeding from the doctrinal decisions and definitions of synods of bishops and ecumenical councils, preserved from error by the discernment of the Holy Spirit.

According to the Christian theological understanding of these Churches, scripture is the written part of this larger tradition, recording (sometimes through the work of the individual authors) the community's experience and understanding of God and more specifically of Jesus as the Living Word of God. Thus, the Bible must be interpreted within the context of sacred tradition and within the community of the church.

This is rejected by many Protestant traditions based on the principles set forth by the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, which, against the centuries-old tradition of the Church, teach that the Bible alone is a sufficient basis for all Christian teaching (a position known as sola scriptura).

Oral tradition


The idea of a Judeo-Christian oral tradition as part of the divine revelation of truth finds its origin in the Jewish doctrine of the Oral Law transmitted to Moses and the elders at Mount Sinai. With the rise of the Christian Church in the first century, rabbinical authorities began to be concerned with what they saw as corrupt and deviant interpretations of the sacred scriptures of Israel as illicit attempts to support the claims of the Christian sect that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah. To safeguard the traditions of the fathers handed down orally over the centuries, these traditions were carefully collected and eventually codified in the Talmud, in two recensions: the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud.


Christian experience of schisms in the first century caused by the deviations of heretical innovations in doctrine by "false brethren", already seen in the warnings in the Letters of Saint Paul as threating the true faith of the community, prompted the writings of the Gospel by the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and during the four successive centuries after them the apologetical writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers in defense of the true faith. All of this was part of the apostolic tradition.

Apostolic Tradition in the New Testament

The New Testament contains several passages referring to the authority of doctrinal tradition corresponding to the established teaching and praxis (Greek "practice") of the church (assembly) of the Apostles of the Lord as necessary for salvation.

Acts 15:2, 15:6 and Matthew 16:18-19; 18:15-20.

John 14:15-17; 16:12-15; 20:30; 21:25.

Acts 1:1-3; 20:28.

1 Corinthians 11:2; 1:10-13; 2:14–3:2; 4:1; 4:14-17.

Galatians 1:6-9.

2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6.

2 Timothy 1:14; 2:2.

Hebrews 1:1-2; 5:11-14; 13:17.

1 Peter 1:10-12.

2 Peter 1:19-21; 3:14-18.

2 John 4-12.

3 John 9, 13.

Jude 3, 16-20.

Quotations about Apostolic Tradition both East and West

The early Church Fathers, who were links in that chain of succession, recognized the necessity of the traditions that had been handed down from the apostles and guarded them scrupulously, as the following quotations show.

Clement of Rome, A.D. 96

“The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ, therefore, was sent by God, and the apostles by Christ.”[3]

Ignatius of Antioch, c. A.D. 110

“Apart from [Christ] let nothing attract you. For him I carry these chains around, these spiritual jewels. By them may I arise through your prayers, of which I request that I may always be a partaker, so that I may be found among the Christians of Ephesus, who have always been of the same mind with the apostles through the power of Jesus Christ.”[4]
“Study...to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles so that in everything, whatever you do, you may prosper in the flesh and spirit; in faith and love; in the Son, and the Father, and the Holy Spirit; in the beginning and the end; with your most admirable bishop, the well-compacted spiritual crown of your presbytery [i.e., body of elders], and the servants [deacons] who are according to God.”[5]

Papias A.D. 120

“Papias, who is now mentioned by us, affirms that he received the sayings of the apostles from those who accompanied them, and he, moreover, asserts that he heard in person Aristion and the presbyter John. Accordingly, he mentions them frequently by name, and in his writings gives their traditions [concerning Jesus].... [There are] other passages of his in which he relates some miraculous deeds, stating that he acquired the knowledge of them from tradition.”[6]

Pseudo-Barnabas, A.D. 120 - 130

“When he chose his own apostles who were to preach the Gospel, [he chose those] who were sinners above all sin, so that he might show that he came "not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" [Matt. 9:13].[7]

Justin Martyr, c. A.D. 150

“For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have delivered through them to us the things enjoined upon them: that Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, said, ‘Do this in memory of me; this is my body.’ After that, in the same way, having taken the cup and given thanks, he said, ‘This is my blood,’ and he gave it to them alone.”[8]

Eusebius of Caesarea - Teachers of the faith A.D. 150

“At that time there flourished in the Church Hegesippus, whom we know from what has gone before, and Dionysius, bishop of Corinth, and another bishop, Pinytus of Crete, and besides these, Philip, and Apollinarius, and Melito, and Musanus, and Modestus, and, finally, Irenaeus. From them has come down to us in writing, the sound and orthodox faith received from tradition.”[9]

Irenaeus, A.D. 183 - 186

“Such, then, is [the Valentinian] 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 by reading from what is not written. To use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavor 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.”[10]
“The church...has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith....”[11]
“We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. For it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they had perfect knowledge, as some even venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles. For, after our Lord rose from the dead, they were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down, were filled from all, and had perfect knowledge. They departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things [sent] from God to us and proclaiming the peace of heaven to men, who indeed do all equally and individually possess the Gospel of God.
“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned upon his breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”[12]

Irenaeus A.D. 189

“As I said before, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth. For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the tradition is one and the same.”[13]
“That is why it is surely necessary to avoid them [heretics], while cherishing with the utmost diligence the things pertaining to the Church, and to lay hold of the tradition of truth.... What if the apostles had not in fact left writings to us? Would it not be necessary to follow the order of tradition, which was handed down to those to whom they entrusted the churches?”.[14]
“It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors to our own times—men who neither knew nor taught anything like these heretics rave about.
“But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles.
“With this church, because of its superior origin, all churches must agree—that is, all the faithful in the whole world—and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition.”[15]

Clement of Alexandria A.D. 208

“Well, they preserving the tradition of the blessed doctrine derived directly from the holy apostles, Peter, James, John, and Paul, the sons receiving it from the father (but few were like the fathers), came by God’s will to us also to deposit those ancestral and apostolic seeds. And well I know that they will exult; I do not mean delighted with this tribute, but solely on account of the preservation of the truth, according as they delivered it. For such a sketch as this, will, I think, be agreeable to a soul desirous of preserving from loss the blessed tradition.”[16]

Tertullian, c. A.D. 210

“Since the Lord Jesus Christ sent the apostles to preach, [our rule is] that no others ought to be received as preachers than those whom Christ appointed; for 'no one knows the Father except the Son, and him to whom the Son wishes to reveal him' [Matt. 11:27]. Nor does the Son seem to have revealed Him to any other than the apostles, whom he sent forth to preach.”[17]

Origen A.D. 225

“Although there are many who believe that they themselves hold to the teachings of Christ, there are yet some among them who think differently from their predecessors. The teaching of the Church has indeed been handed down through an order of succession from the apostles and remains in the churches even to the present time. That alone is to be believed as the truth which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition.”[18]

Cyprian, c. A.D. 250

“Let nothing be innovated, says [Stephen, bishop of Rome], nothing maintained, except what has been handed down. From where is [his] tradition? Does it descend from the authority of the Lord and the Gospel or does it come from the commands and letters of the apostles? For that those things which are written must be done, God witnesses and admonishes, saying to Joshua … "The book of this Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night so that you may be careful to do all that is written in it" [Josh. 1:8]. Also, the Lord, when he sent his apostles, commands that the nations should be baptized and taught to observe all that he commanded. If, therefore, it is either prescribed in the Gospel or contained in the letters or Acts of the apostles, that those who came from any heresy should not be baptized, but only hands laid on them to repentance, let this divine and holy tradition be observed. But if everywhere heretics are called nothing other than adversaries and antichrists, if they are pronounced as people to be avoided, twisted and condemned by themselves, why is it that they should not be found worthy to be condemned by us, since it is obvious by the apostolic testimony that they are condemned by themselves? So no one ought to defame the apostles as though they had approved of the baptism of heretics, or had taken communion with them without the Church's baptism, when they, the apostles, wrote such things about the heretics.”[19]

Cyprian of Carthage A.D. 253

“[T]he Church is one, and as she is one, cannot be both within and without. For if she is with Novatian, she was not with [Pope] Cornelius. But if she was with Cornelius, who succeeded the bishop Fabian by lawful ordination, and whom, beside the honor of the priesthood the Lord glorified also with martyrdom, Novatian is not in the Church; nor can he be reckoned as a bishop, who, succeeding to no one, and despising the evangelical and apostolic tradition, sprang from himself. For he who has not been ordained in the Church can neither have nor hold to the Church in any way.”[20]

Athanasius A.D. 330

“Again we write, again keeping to the apostolic traditions, we remind each other when we come together for prayer; and keeping the feast in common, with one mouth we truly give thanks to the Lord.”[21]
“But you are blessed, who by faith are in the Church, dwell upon the foundations of the faith, and have full satisfaction, even the highest degree of faith which remains among you unshaken. For it has come down to you from apostolic tradition, and frequently accursed envy has wished to unsettle it, but has not been able.”[22]

Basil the Great A.D. 375

“Of the dogmas and messages preserved in the Church, some we possess from written teaching and others we receive from the tradition of the apostles, handed on to us in mystery. In respect to piety, both are of the same force. No one will contradict any of these, no one, at any rate, who is even moderately versed in matters ecclesiastical. Indeed, were we to try to reject unwritten customs as having no great authority, we would unwittingly injure the gospel in its vitals; or rather, we would reduce [Christian] message to a mere term.”[23]

Epiphanius of Salamis A.D. 375

“It is needful also to make use of tradition, for not everything can be gotten from sacred Scripture. The holy apostles handed down some things in the scriptures, other things in tradition.”[24]

Augustine A.D. 400

“[T]he custom [of not rebaptizing converts]...may be supposed to have had its origin in apostolic tradition, just as there are many things which are observed by the whole Church, and therefore are fairly held to have been enjoined by the apostles, which yet are not mentioned in their writings.”[25]
“But the admonition that he [Cyprian] gives us, ‘that we should go back to the fountain, that is, to apostolic tradition, and thence turn the channel of truth to our times,’ is most excellent, and should be followed without hesitation.”[26]
“But in regard to those observances which we carefully attend and which the whole world keeps, and which derive not from Scripture but from Tradition, we are given to understand that they are recommended and ordained to be kept, either by the apostles themselves or by plenary [ecumenical] councils, the authority of which is quite vital in the Church.”[27]

John Chrysostom A.D. 402

“[Paul commands,] ‘Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or by our letter’ [2 Thess. 2:15]. From this it is clear that they did not hand down everything by letter, but there is much also that was not written. Like that which was written, the unwritten too is worthy of belief. So let us regard the tradition of the Church also as worthy of belief. Is it a tradition? Seek no further.”[28]

Vincent of Lerins A.D. 434

“With great zeal and closest attention, therefore, I frequently inquired of many men, eminent for their holiness and doctrine, how I might, in a concise and, so to speak, general and ordinary way, distinguish the truth of the Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical depravity.
“I received almost always the same answer from all of them—that if I or anyone else wanted to expose the frauds and escape the snares of the heretics who rise up, and to remain intact and in sound faith, it would be necessary, with the help of the Lord, to fortify that faith in a twofold manner: first, of course, by the authority of divine law [Scripture] and then by the tradition of the Catholic Church.
“Here, perhaps, someone may ask: ‘If the canon of the scriptures be perfect and in itself more than suffices for everything, why is it necessary that the authority of ecclesiastical interpretation be joined to it?’ Because, quite plainly, sacred Scripture, by reason of its own depth, is not accepted by everyone as having one and the same meaning....
“Thus, because of so many distortions of such various errors, it is highly necessary that the line of prophetic and apostolic interpretation be directed in accord with the norm of the ecclesiastical and Catholic meaning.”[29]

Pope Agatho A.D. 680

“[T]he holy Church of God...has been established upon the firm rock of this Church of blessed Peter, the prince of the apostles, which by his grace and guardianship remains free from all error, [and possesses that faith that] the whole number of rulers and priests, of the clergy and of the people, unanimously should confess and preach with us as the true declaration of the apostolic tradition, in order to please God and to save their own souls.”[30]

Apostolic Tradition, also called Egyptian Church Order

The Apostolic Tradition (or Egyptian Church Order) is an early Christian treatise which belongs to the literary genre of the manuals of Ancient Church Orders. It has been described as a witness of "incomparable importance as a source of information about church life and liturgy in the third century".[31]

Rediscovered in the 19th century, it was initially given the name of Egyptian Church Order. Later, in the first half of the 20th century this text was commonly identified with the lost Apostolic Tradition presumed to have been composed by Hippolytus of Rome. Due to this ancient attribution, and the apparent early date of the text, this manual played a crucial role in the liturgical reforms of main mainstream Christian bodies and traditions.

See also

Apostolic tradition

Sensus fidelium

Sensus plenior

Sensus Christianorum

Apostolic Fathers

Athanasian Creed

Council of Nicaea


Apostolic Canons

Apostolic Constitutions

Petrine Primacy


Five Solas

Great Apostasy


Biblical Canon



Historical-critical method (Higher criticism)

Cafeteria Christianity

Cafeteria Catholic

Invincible ignorance


  1. Revelation 1:1; Hebrews 1:1-2
  2. John 14:15-17; 16:12-15; Acts 20:28; 2 Timothy 1:14; 1 Peter 1:10-12.
  3. Clement of Rome, 1 Clement 42
  4. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians 11
  5. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Magnesians 13
  6. fragment in Eusebius, Church History 3:39 - A.D. 312
  7. Pseudo-Barnabas, Letter of Barnabas 5
  8. Justin Martyr, First Apology 66
  9. Eusebius, Church History 4:21 - A.D. 312
  10. Irenaeus, Against Heresies I:8:1
  11. Irenaeus, Against Heresies I:10:1
  12. Irenaeus, Against Heresies III:1:1
  13. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1:10:2 [A.D. 189]
  14. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3:4:1
  15. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3:3:1–2
  16. Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 1:1 [A.D. 208]
  17. Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics 21
  18. Origen, The Fundamental Doctrines 1:2 [A.D. 225]
  19. Letter to Pompeius, Letter 73:2-3 in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. V
  20. Cyprian of Carthage, Letters 75:3 [A.D. 253]
  21. Athanasius, Festal Letters 2:7 [A.D. 330]
  22. Athanasius, Festal Letters 29
  23. Basil the Great, The Holy Spirit 27:66 [A.D. 375]
  24. Epiphanius of Salamis, Medicine Chest Against All Heresies 61:6 [A.D. 375]
  25. Augustine, On Baptism, Against the Donatists 5:23[31] [A.D. 400]
  26. Augustine, On Baptism, Against the Donatists 5:26[37]
  27. Augustine, Letter to Januarius [A.D. 400]
  28. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Second Thessalonians [A.D. 402]
  29. Vincent of Lerins, The Notebooks [A.D. 434]
  30. Pope Agatho, Letter read at fourth session of III Constantinople [A.D. 680]
  31. Hippolitus A Text For Students. Goffrey J. Cuming (1976), Grove Books. page 5. ISBN 978-0-905422-02-2.

External links