Apostolic tradition

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Apostolic tradition or Sacred Tradition (from the Latin traditio, meaning “to hand on”), according to the doctrine of the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, refers to the Church's teachings that have been faithfully passed down by the successors of the Apostles, and is defined by Christian leadership in the line of apostolic succession as the transmission of the message of Jesus Christ, though the ages, brought about, or developed, from the beginning of Christianity by means of preaching, bearing witness, institutions, worship, and inspired writings. Thus, “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God” [1] as the body of teaching handed down by the apostles to the church. It is mentioned several times in Scripture and throughout the early Christian writings. While we must guard against merely human tradition, the Bible contains numerous references to the necessity of clinging to apostolic tradition. Thus Paul tells the Corinthians, "I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you" (1 Corinthians 11:2)

Tradition in the New Testament

The original language of the Christian scriptures is Greek, more specifically Koine Greek. The words for "tradition" in the Greek New Testament are from δικαίωμα dikaioma, δόγμα dogma, δογματίζμω dogmatizo, and παράδσις paradosis[2] See the following texts, interlinear, and multiple translations, with multiple commentaries:

Catholic and Orthodox theologians and apologists find in the New Testament passages that explicitly teach that not all of the doctrine of the apostles is found written in the Bible.

John 14:15-16; 15:1-10; 16:12-15; 20:21, 30-31; 21:25; Acts 1:3; 2:42; 15:2, 6, 24, 28; Romans 14:1–15:7, 14-15; 1 Corinthians 2:6–3:2; 11:2; 12:4-11, 28; 14:3, 29-33; 2 Corinthians 5:20; Galatians 1:7-8; Ephesians 4:11-14; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15; 3:6, 14; 1 Timothy 3:14-15; 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 2:2, 11-14; 3:13–4:5; Titus 2:1, 15; 3:9-11; Hebrews 5:11-14; 6:1-3; 13:17; James 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13-17; 4:10-11; 2 Peter 1:3-11, 19-21; 3:15-18; 2 John 4, 8-12; 3 John 3-4, 13-14; Revelation 22:18-19.

Apostolic tradition has been rejected by Evangelicals and Fundamentalists on the Protestant foundational principle of sola scriptura as being a body of doctrinal teachings not according to the Bible, or not written in the Bible. 2 Timothy 3:16 and 1 Corinthians 4:6, often cited as proof texts against extra-biblical apostolic traditions, do not say that the Bible is the sole rule of faith. Two basically divergent approaches to biblical hermeneutics have been adopted by various Protestant and Independent Christian groups:

(1) Whatever is not explicitly commanded is prohibited.
(2) Whatever is not explicitly prohibited is permitted.

This last allows development of a distinctive, particular tradition of denominational interpretation and practice. Neither of these principles of interpretation is explicitly taught in the New Testament. References to 1 Corinthians 4:6 and 2 Timothy 3:14-17 and Revelation 22:18-19 have been differently interpreted, both for and against apostolic tradition. "What is written" includes "holding fast to the traditions", 2 Thessalonians 3:15, together with the command to "obey those who are over you in the Lord", Hebrews 13:17, as part of the obligation to be subject to legitimate authority established by God, Romans 13:1-8 and 1 Peter 2:13-17. Those who reject long-standing traditions as man-made corruptions opposed to the Bible, and opposed to their interpretations of its scriptures as being a true recovery of the truth of their meaning by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and see themselves as appointed representatives of the Lord sent by him, have traditionally appealed to Acts 4:19 and to 1 Timothy 4:1. Both sides of the controversy over apostolic tradition have argued their positions unsuccessfully using both apologetics and polemic as well as debate, methods which sometimes exhibit evidence of confirmation bias on both sides. A place has been found for carefully reasoned discussions about the place, if any, for ancient forms and expressions of apostolic tradition in ecumenical dialogues between different denominational traditions, seeking to resolve misunderstandings and misinterpretations of different systems of theological terminology to facilitate communication and genuine understanding of genuine Christian doctrine in the life of the church under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. All wish to avoid compromising the truth of the Gospel.

Conservative Christian historians and apologists are mindful of this statement by John Eck addressed to Martin Luther, in the year 1521:[3]

"...there is no one of the heresies which have torn the bosom of the church, which has not derived its origin from the various interpretation of the Scripture. The Bible itself is the arsenal whence each innovator has drawn his deceptive arguments. It was with biblical texts that Pelagius and Arius maintained their doctrines. Arius, for instance, found the negation of the eternity of the Word—an eternity which you admit, in this verse of the New Testament—Joseph knew not his wife till she had brought forth her first-born son; and he said, in the same way that you say, that this passage enchained him. When the fathers of the council of Constance condemned this proposition of John HussThe church of Jesus Christ is only the community of the elect, they condemned an error; for the church, like a good mother, embraces within her arms all who bear the name of Christian, all who are called to enjoy the celestial beatitude."[4]

Sensus fidelium, sensus plenior, sensus Christianorum

Apostolic tradition includes sensus fidei and sensus fidelium and sensus Christianorum, the "sense of the faith" and the "sense of the faithful" and the "common sense of Christians", without which scripture has been "twisted, distorted" into meanings that do not faithfully express the literal sense of scripture, according to the "mind of Christ".[5]

Both Catholic and Orthodox theologians and scripture scholars, who differ from each other on some important doctrinal issues, but both of them far more profoundly from Protestant theologians, point to evidence of a consistent tradition of interpretation in 1 Peter 3:15-18 and 1 Timothy 6:4; 2 Timothy 2:23 which has been repeatedly violated over the centuries by what they call heretical interpretations and innovations rooted in controversy over the very words of scripture for the purpose of supporting deviations from the truth of the gospel. For this reason, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant biblical exegetes seek to derive a true hermeneutic based on the constancy of the Christian faith as rooted in what they each variously discern to be the original doctrine of the apostles of the Lord. According to both Orthodox and Catholic theologians this is demonstrable evidence of the need for a reliable means of resolving disputes over doctrinal interpretations and deviations from the faith of the apostles either based on faulty exegesis of scripture and tradition or on matters not clearly defined or addressed in the Bible. Orthodoxy relies on the intuited sense of the whole of the tradition of the life of the church as one organic whole, including the consistent teaching of the church fathers, the mystical tradition of the saints, the tradition of prayer and devotion, and the definitions of the first seven ecumenical councils of the church.

See Sensus fidelium, sensus plenior, sensus Christianorum.

The only traditions that all Christians seem to completely agree upon appear to be limited to only two:

  • God exists.
  • Jesus was sent by God.

Even these two points of substantially fundamental agreement have admitted slight differences of significance in interpretation.

"Apostolic Tradition"

The Apostolic Tradition (or the Egyptian Church Order) is the title of an early Christian treatise which belongs to genre of the Church Orders, which are roughly compendiums combining catechetical doctrine and ecclesiastical law. It has been described as of "incomparable importance as a source of information about church life and liturgy in the third century".

The text of the Apostolic Tradition was part of two main ancient collections of the Church Orders, the Alexandrine Sinodos and the Verona Palimpsest. The Alexandrine Sinodos was re-discovered in the 19th century: the Bohairic Coptic version was published in 1848 by Tattam, the Sahidic Coptic version was published in 1883 by Paul de Lagarde, the Ge'ez and Arabic versions in 1904 by George William Horner.

See also

Apostolic Tradition

A priori

Apostolic Fathers

Ante-Nicene Fathers


Ecumenical council

Apostles' Creed

Nicene Creed

Athanasian Creed

Apostolic Constitutions




Ex opere operato and ex opere operantis

Cafeteria Christianity

Cafeteria Catholic

Protestant Reformation

Five Solas

Sola spiritu

Great Apostasy

Petrine Primacy

Old Catholic Church


  1. The Sixteen Documents of Vatican II, Dei Verbum 10. See Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 74-197, 1122-1134, 2650-2724; in particular 75-79, 80-84, 97, 113, 120, 126, 174, 1124, 2651.
  2. See Strong's numbers 1345 διΚαίωμα dikaioma, 1378 δόγμα dogma, 1379 δογματίζμω dogmatizo, 3862 παράδσις paradosis.
  3. Eck's statement here is supremely appropriate in light of Luther's refusal to submit to the judgment of the Church, the emperor Charles V, and the Pope, and the teaching of Paul in Romans 13:1-5.
  4. Martin Luther. Life of Luther (Luther by Martin Luther).
  5. 1 Corinthians 2:16. See the context in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16.

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