Archive for the ‘Oral Tradition’ Category

>Addendum to "Oral Word of God?"

March 27, 2010

>In the meanwhile of my drafting the previous response to Bellisario, Messrs. Swan and Hays have already forced Bellisario to admit that there is no new revelation. Accordingly, he has attempted to rely on a yet more flimsy branch. That flimsy branch is essentially that there are oral teachings of Jesus that were not placed into Scripture but were otherwise handed down to us via the Apostles.

This is, effectively, Bellisario’s last gasp in the discussion, since he cannot demonstrate the apostolicity (let alone the divine origin) of any doctrine not found in Scripture. He has no good reason for thinking that there are any such doctrines, has no positive argument to offer in defense of oral traditions, so he’s left with arguments like, “Where does Jesus say that now all of His Word would be in written form only?”

– TurretinFan


>Oral Word of God? Response to Bellisario

March 27, 2010

>Matthew Bellisario (Roman Catholic) has been trying to argue with my friend Steve Hays (Reformed) over in the comment box of Beggars All Reformation (link to comment box).

Bellisario’s argument, which seems to be a common “street” argument these days, boils down to this:

1) The Word of God was proclaimed orally at some past point;

2) You can’t prove from Scripture that this has stopped;

3) Therefore, it continues,

with at least the implied addendum:

4) And it consists of the “Sacred Tradition” of the Roman Catholic Church.

From a logical standpoint, this argument is bankrupt. Even if the first three points were fine, the fourth point would not follow. That is to say, even if the first two points proved that God’s Word continues to be proclaimed orally, it does not therefore follow that the way in which that happens is via the “Sacred Tradition” of the Roman Catholic Church. If the Roman Catholic wants to assert that the “Sacred Tradition” of the Roman Catholic Church is the continuing oral proclamation of the Word of God, the onus is on him to establish that. But Roman Catholic apologists can’t establish that. That’s why some of them feel compelled this kind of logically invalid argument.

To make matters worse, the first three points are not fine. One cannot establish that something continues from the absence of proof that it ceased. Instead, if one wants to insist that the oral proclamation of the Word of God continues, one has to demonstrate that. But Roman Catholic apologists can’t demonstrate that. That’s why some of them feel compelled this kind of logically invalid argument.

But that’s not the only problem. The statement that God’s Word was proclaimed orally is itself ambiguous and potentially equivocal. For example, whenever a Reformed minister preaches from the pulpit he is (or ought to be) proclaiming the Word of God orally. That aspect of the oral proclamation of the Word of God obviously does continue, as it should.

But there is another sense in which the Word of God was proclaimed orally. The Word of God was given to prophets. The proclaimed God’s word orally.

Hebrews 2:1-4
Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip. For if the word spoken by angels was stedfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompence of reward; how shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?

Notice how those who received the Word of God to proclaim it in a prophetic way were given the witness of God, “both with signs and wonders, and with [a variety of] miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost.” This is the consistent Biblical pattern. Moses provides the first example:

Exodus 4:1-9

And Moses answered and said, “But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice: for they will say, ‘The LORD hath not appeared unto thee.'”
And the LORD said unto him, “What is that in thine hand?”
And he said, “A rod.”
And he said, “Cast it on the ground.”
And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it.
And the LORD said unto Moses, “Put forth thine hand, and take it by the tail,” and he put forth his hand, and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand: “that they may believe that the LORD God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath appeared unto thee.” And the LORD said furthermore unto him, “Put now thine hand into thy bosom.”
And he put his hand into his bosom: and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous as snow.
And he said, “Put thine hand into thy bosom again.”
And he put his hand into his bosom again; and plucked it out of his bosom, and, behold, it was turned again as his other flesh.
“And it shall come to pass, if they will not believe thee, neither hearken to the voice of the first sign, that they will believe the voice of the latter sign. And it shall come to pass, if they will not believe also these two signs, neither hearken unto thy voice, that thou shalt take of the water of the river, and pour it upon the dry land: and the water which thou takest out of the river shall become blood upon the dry land.”

Thus, like Moses, the apostles performed a variety of miracles that testified to the fact that they were prophets of God:

Paul raised the dead (Acts 20:9-12) and was not harmed by the bite a poisonous snake (Acts 28:3-6). Likewise Peter raised the dead (Acts 9:36-43) and his shadow cured the sick (Acts 5:15).

Popes like Benedict XVI cannot raise the dead, their shadows cure no one, and if they get bitten by a poisonous snake, they will die. They do not possess the witness of God testifying to any prophetic gift. The same has been true of the popes that preceded them.

So, this alternative sense of the “Oral Word” is also not something possessed by the Roman Pontiff, whether or not anyone else possesses it.

But there is one further weakness to Mr. Bellisario’s argument (and before he complains that the exact form of the argument is not his, I simply point out that the reader can peruse the comment box linked above to see whether or not the paraphrase of his argument is accurate). The further weakness is that Scripture itself testifies in at least three ways to the end of this extraordinary Oral Word.

1) Use of a Past Tense in Hebrews 2

In the passage from Hebrews 2, which we saw above, the author expresses the confirmation of the witnesses in the past tense (in English it past, in Greek it is aorist tense: “ἐβεβαιώθη” – confirmed). The author of Hebrews speaks of that discussion as though it were essentially a thing of the past, suggesting that the extraordinary gifts were already passing away at the time the book of Hebrews was written, during the lifetime of some of the apostles.

Notice that I say, “suggesting,” not “proving.”

2) Lack of Iterative Succession of the Gifts

Philip the Evangelist was able to perform miracles in view of the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit. However, as we will see in the following passage, he was unable to transfer that gift.

Acts 8:5-17

Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them. And the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. For unclean spirits, crying with loud voice, came out of many that were possessed with them: and many taken with palsies, and that were lame, were healed. And there was great joy in that city.
But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one: to whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God. And to him they had regard, because that of long time he had bewitched them with sorceries.
But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done.
Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.

As we see from the preceding passage, the gift of being able to lay hands on the people and have them perform miracles was something the apostles could do but that Philip could not. Thus, we can see that these extraordinary testifying gifts were passed directly from the apostles, but not iteratively by those who had received the gifts from the apostles.

Now that the apostles are all dead, and all those people whom the apostles laid hands on are dead, there are no more of these testifying gifts. While the passage doesn’t explicitly say this will happen, we may reasonably deduce it from the passage in view of the universal mortality of man.

3) Prophecy of the Cessation of the Gifts

1 Corinthians 13:8-10
Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

This, of course, is the answer the question that Bellisario asks when he states, “Where did Jesus tell you that the New Testament replaced, and did away with His Oral Word?” That which is in part, the extraordinary gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge have been done away. The Bible is now complete.

The usual response from those of the Roman persuasion is that the Bible is not explicitly mentioned in the context of this prophecy. Instead, if the Bible is to be understood as the completion, it is merely implied. Nevertheless, even though it is only implied, it is implied by such expressions in the context as Paul’s expression: “Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine?” (1 Corinthians 14:6)

Notice that the context of this prophesying and “knowledge” is revelation and doctrine. We are informed explicitly in 2 Timothy 3:16 that Scripture has as one of its purposes the revelation of doctrine (see also Proverbs 4:2). So, we may rightly conclude that God’s revelation of himself in Scripture is the completion of the revelation of doctrine that God promised, and that this explains the cessation of extraordinary gifts that we now see and that Paul had prophesied.

Of course, what makes Bellisario’s point especially absurd is that his own church acknowledges that public revelation ceased with the death of the last apostle. (see, for example, CCC 66)

In short, Bellisario’s informal argument is logically fallacious, it employs equivocation, and its premises are flawed. While Bellisario points to the fact that the Apostles preached the Word of God orally, he fails to see how little this proves. We readily grant that they did. Yet that does not suggest that the extraordinary gifts of prophecy granted to the Apostles and those upon whom they laid hands continued beyond the deaths of the Apostles. Moreover, it certainly doesn’t support the “Sacred Tradition” of the Roman Catholic church as being “Oral Word of God.” Support for such a position would require something more than alleged Biblical silence.

– TurretinFan

Oral Tradition, The Early Church, and Paul Pavao’s Astonishment

October 12, 2009

I had written (in this previous post):

That’s rather the point about the early church fathers – they did not transmit an oral apostolic tradition to us, rather they were our predecessors in trying to search out the meaning of Scripture. Where they do a good job they are to be commended, and where they err they are to be corrected.

Paul Pavao (affiliation unstated, but not Roman Catholic) responded:

I’m a little astonished you can say this. I’m not Roman Catholic, but the early church’s appeals to the rule of faith/rule of truth are common. Irenaeus (A.H. III:2:2, I think) makes it clear that they referred gnostics to both the Scriptures and the traditions derived from the apostles.

The rule of faith/rule of truth for the early church fathers was normally either Scripture or the creed (which was derived from Scripture). The creed itself was not in ipse an apostolic tradition, though it was based on the Scriptures (the only authentic apostolic traditions that we have). Irenaeus did refer the gnostics both to Scripture and tradition, as we ourselves do when we point back to what Irenaeus did. Irenaeus comment about heretics claiming to follow Scripture and tradition is a dead-on criticism of Roman Catholicism.

Paul Pavao continued:

There was obviously a rule of faith. It’s summarized by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and later writers. Justin refers to it by talking about teachings that came from the apostles. (He even gives a reason for baptism that he said came from the apostles.)

See above regarding the rule of faith. For more discussion, see J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines, pp. 88 et seq.

Paul Pavao continued:

There was an oral apostolic tradition passed down to the church, as well as an attempt to be Scriptural. So your statement’s confusing because no one familiar with the pre-Nicene writings would agree with you. (There’s a couple summations of the idea of the rule of faith in BakerAcademic’s Evangelical Ressourcement Series; those are Evangelical and they treat the oral apostolic tradition as obvious as well.)

There were, of course, men to whom the apostles preached the gospel. What they preached was not in substance different from the Scripture. However, and this is key, no reliable report of their oral teachings has come down to us apart from Scripture. There are some (extremely scattered) alleged oral traditions handed down from the apostles that we find recorded in the earliest centuries of the writings of the church fathers. Generally speaking, though, we find them relying (as do we) solely on the authority of the written tradition of the apostles (i.e. Scripture) to settle doctrinal disputes among themselves. The untrustworthiness of oral transmission can be seen not only in the Rabbinic traditions that made void the Scripture but also in examples from the early church fathers (example here).

Paul Pavao concluded:

I haven’t even brought up 2 Thess. 2:15.

I have:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4


John of Damascus Points to Practices (not Doctrines) Handed Down Orally by the Apostles

August 28, 2009

I had asked: “I would be very interested if someone wanted to try to find any comparable statement by John Damascene on oral tradition” (link)

One kind reader of the Eastern Orthodox persuasion, using the handle “Orthodox,” responded with a list of three quotations, which I’ve taken the liberty of beefing up by providing greater context. All of these come from the same work of John of Damascus, and we’ll see a theme to them when we carefully examine them. I have maintained the order of the three quotations.


It is not without reason or by chance that we worship towards the East. But seeing that we are composed of a visible and an invisible nature, that is to say, of a nature partly of spirit and partly of sense, we render also a twofold worship to the Creator; just as we sing both with our spirit and our bodily lips, and are baptized with both water and Spirit, and are united with the Lord in a twofold manner, being sharers in the mysteries and in the grace of the Spirit.

Since, therefore, God is spiritual light [1 St. John i. 5.], and Christ is called in the Scriptures Sun of Righteousness [Mal. iv. 2.] and Dayspring [Zach. iii. 8, vi. 12; St. Luke i. 78.], the East is the direction that must be assigned to His worship. For everything good must be assigned to Him from Whom every good thing arises. Indeed the divine David also says, Sing unto God, ye kingdoms of the earth: O sing praises unto the Lord: to Him that rideth upon the Heavens of heavens towards the East [Ps. lxviii. 32, 33.]. Moreover the Scripture also says, And God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there He put the man whom He had formed [Gen. ii. 8.]: and when he had transgressed His command He expelled him and made him to dwell over against the delights of Paradise, which clearly is the West. So, then, we worship God seeking and striving after our old fatherland. Moreover the tent of Moses [Levit. xvi. 14.] had its veil and mercy seat [Ibid. 2.] towards the East. Also the tribe of Judah as the most precious pitched their camp on the East [Num. ii. 3.]. Also in the celebrated temple of Solomon the Gate of the Lord was placed eastward. Moreover Christ, when He hung on the Cross, had His face turned towards the West, and so we worship, striving after Him. And when He was received again into Heaven He was borne towards the East, and thus His apostles worship Him, and thus He will come again in the way in which they beheld Him going towards Heaven [Acts i. 11.]; as the Lord Himself said, As the lightning cometh out of the East and shineth. The old translation gives occupat.even unto the West, so also shall the coming of the Son of Man be [St. Matt. xxiv. 27.].

So, then, in expectation of His coming we worship towards the East. But this tradition of the apostles is unwritten. For much that has been handed down to us by tradition is unwritten.

– John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 4, Chapter 12

As you may have guessed, the particular part quoted was: “So, then, in expectation of His coming we worship towards the East. But this tradition of the apostles is unwritten. For much that has been handed down to us by tradition is unwritten”

Note, first of all, that this is appeal to tradition for a practice, not a doctrine. The claim that John of Damascus makes is that the apostles worshiped to the East and handed down this tradition of worshiping to the East.

Note, second of all, that John of Damascus explains the practice quite extensively from Scripture. Every doctrinal and symbolic basis for the practice has (at least in John of Damascus’ view) Scriptural support.

Let’s continue to the next quotation:

But besides this who can make an imitation of the invisible, incorporeal, uncircumscribed, formless God? Therefore to give form to the Deity is the height of folly and impiety. And hence it is that in the Old Testament the use of images was not common. But after God [St. John i. 14; Tit. iii. 4.] in His bowels of pity became in truth man for our salvation, not as He was seen by Abraham in the semblance of a man, nor as He was seen by the prophets, but in being truly man, and after He lived upon the earth and dwelt among men [Bar. iii. 38.], worked miracles, suffered, was crucified, rose again and was taken back to Heaven, since all these things actually took place and were seen by men, they were written for the remembrance and instruction of us who were not alive at that time in order that though we saw not, we may still, hearing and believing, obtain the blessing of the Lord. But seeing that not every one has a knowledge of letters nor time for reading, the Fathers gave their sanction to depicting these events on images as being acts of great heroism, in order that they should form a concise memorial of them. Often, doubtless, when we have not the Lord’s passion in mind and see the image of Christ’s crucifixion, His saving passion is brought back to remembrance, and we fall down and worship not the material but that which is imaged: just as we do not worship the material of which the Gospels are made, nor the material of the Cross, but that which these typify. For wherein does the cross, that typifies the Lord, differ from a cross that does not do so? It is just the same also in the case of the Mother of the Lord. For the honour which we give to her is referred to Him Who was made of her incarnate. And similarly also the brave acts of holy men stir us up to be brave and to emulate and imitate their valour and to glorify God. For as we said, the honour that is given to the best of fellow-servants is a proof of good-will towards our common Lady, and the honour rendered to the image passes over to the prototype. But this is an unwritten tradition, just as is also the worshipping towards the East and the worship of the Cross, and very many other similar things.

– John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 4, Chapter 12

As you may have guessed, the quoted part was “But this is an unwritten tradition, just as is also the worshipping towards the East and the worship of the Cross, and very many other similar things.”

Again, John of Damascus is alleging that the practice of giving honor to images is acceptable on the basis of it being an ancient practice of the church. Notice that John of Damascus is again appealing to tradition for the practice, not a doctrine.

The same can be seen from the next quotation which comes (in John of Damascus’ book) directly after the quotation I provided above:

A certain tale [Evagr., Hist. iv., ch. 27.], too, is told [Procop., De Bellis, ii. ch. 12.], how that when Augarus [i.e. Abgarus.] was king over the city of the Edessenes, he sent a portrait painter to paint a likeness of the Lord, and when the painter could not paint because of the brightness that shone from His countenance, the Lord Himself put a garment over His own divine and life-giving face and impressed on it an image of Himself and sent this to Augarus, to satisfy thus his desire.

Moreover that the Apostles handed down much that was unwritten, Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, tells us in these words: Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which ye have been taught of us, whether by word or by epistle [2 Thess. ii. 15.]. And to the Corinthians he writes, Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the traditions as I have delivered them to you [1 Cor. xi. 2.].”

– John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 4, Chapter 12

You will not be surprised that the quoted part this time is: “Moreover that the Apostles handed down much that was unwritten, Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, tells us in these words: Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which ye have been taught of us, whether by word or by epistle. And to the Corinthians he writes, Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the traditions as I have delivered them to you”

And again, the issue is one of orally transmitted practices, not doctrines. The legend of Jesus’ supposed self-imaging is patently absurd, of course. Jesus’ human appearance was ordinary. He took on a true human nature as well as a true divine naure. Can anyone seriously imagine that Jesus shone so brightly that a painter couldn’t paint him, and yet Pilate would not be afraid to crucify him? Does anyone seriously think that Jesus shone so brightly that a painter couldn’t paint him, but the Roman soldiers were not afraid to nail him to the cross? This foolish legend is a most desperate straw used by John of Damascus to try to bolster the fairly novel (though clearly not first-generation) use of images for worship (against the objections of Christians at that time).

Finally, John of Damascus’ flawed reasoning has been picked up and expanded to matters not only of practice but also of doctrine by those who seek to deny the material and/or formal sufficiency of Scripture. Nevertheless, we do not – in any of the quotations provided above – see John of Damascus alleging that there are doctrines of the Christian faith that are not taught in Scripture and that are only transmitted orally from the apostles.

– TurretinFan

Irenaeus and the Reliability of "Early" Oral Tradition

June 3, 2009

People sometimes like to think that if you go back to the earliest fathers you’ll get very good accounts of extra-scriptural tradition. There is a certain amount of intuition to back this up. After all, the earliest fathers were closer in time to the gospel accounts than we are.

Intuition is wrong – at least to some extent. One reason it is wrong is that we look at the fathers with a foreshortened perspective. If you’ve ever looked at a mountain range from a distance and then driven up to it, you know what I’m talking about. From far enough away the mountain range looks like the serrated edge of a knife. From up close, you see that some of the mountains are miles closer or further from you. You also see the same effect when photographers take in urban scenes using a telephoto lens. Things blocks apart can look practically adjacent.

Even so it is with the “Early Church Fathers.” Most of the early church fathers are not just decades but centuries removed from the apostles. Even those in the second century were about as far or farther removed (in practical terms) from the gospel accounts than you are from Abraham Lincoln.

Consequently, even as early as the second century there were a number of wildly erroneous traditions trying to take hold with greater or lesser success. Thus, for example, we see Irenaeus (lived and died in the 2nd Century) who declares that Jesus lived to be 50 years old, which today is rejected virtually unanimously.

Of course, Irenaeus also provides testimony that those who are of the Church of Rome today find helpful to their case (they don’t much care about the 50 years old claim, but they like some of the other traditions he alleges). Thus, you can see folks like Art Sippo (on the newly re-opened “Speak Your Mind” forum), an apologist who is part of the “Catholic Legate” group making the following claim to try to revitalize Irenaeus:

Jesus was likely 30 or so when he started his ministry. That is close to 50 since the life expectancy of most men at that time was ~45. That age represented a man in his so-called “declining years” since it was all down hill from 30 onwards.

St. Irenaeus was postulating that Jesus as the New Adam had lived out in his body all the ages of man from infancy to adolescence to young manhood to seniority. This recapitulation theory was never picked by other theologians and is of no real importance than as an historical curiosity. The only relevant thing about it is that it emphasizes that Jesus was truly human and not just a phantom.


One wonders whether this is simple ignorance on Sippo’s part or a disregard for the truth in the form of a deception (note how artfully he words he claim) to try to support mother Rome. Surely Sippo is aware that Irenaeus doesn’t equate 30 and 50, in fact, he specifically distinguishes them:

Now, that the first stage of early life embraces thirty years, and that this extends onwards to the fortieth year, every one will admit; but from the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards old age, which our Lord possessed while He still fulfilled the office of a Teacher, even as the Gospel and all the elders testify; those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information.

(Against Heresies, 2:22:5)
and again:

But, besides this, those very Jews who then disputed with the Lord Jesus Christ have most clearly indicated the same thing. For when the Lord said to them, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad,” they answered Him, “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast Thou seen Abraham?” Now, such language is fittingly applied to one who has already passed the age of forty, without having as yet reached his fiftieth year, yet is not far from this latter period. But to one who is only thirty years old it would unquestionably be said, “Thou art not yet forty years old.” For those who wished to convict Him of falsehood would certainly not extend the number of His years far beyond the age which they saw He had attained; but they mentioned a period near His real age, whether they had truly ascertained this out of the entry in the public register, or simply made a conjecture from what they observed that He was above forty years old, and that He certainly was not one of only thirty years of age. For it is altogether unreasonable to suppose that they were mistaken by twenty years, when they wished to prove Him younger than the times of Abraham. For what they saw, that they also expressed; and He whom they beheld was not a mere phantasm, but an actual being of flesh and blood. He did not then want much of being fifty years old; and, in accordance with that fact, they said to Him, “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast Thou seen Abraham?” He did not therefore preach only for one year, nor did He suffer in the twelfth month of the year.

(Against Heresies, 2:22:6)

No, Irenaeus didn’t mean that Jesus was thirty which is basically the same thing as fifty – quite to the contrary he made a big fuss over the fact that Jesus had a long ministry of closer to 20 years than 1 year. Sippo’s comment about Jesus being flesh and blood rather than a phantasm suggests that Sippo is not ignorant of the context of the quotation – which then would suggest a measure of dishonesty in suggesting that Irenaeus was simply equating 30 and 50.

Incidentally, in the same thread, another poster recommended an article by another apologist for Rome, Mark Bonocore (link). This article has long ago (January 2005) been rebutted (link to rebuttal), and I will not bog down this blog unnecessarily be repeating what has already been said in rebuttal.

The bottom line is that just because Irenaeus declares something to be tradition and is one of the earliest fathers (though not one of the apostolic fathers), it does not mean that Irenaeus got it right. Sometimes (as with Jesus’ age) Irenaeus got it horribly wrong. There’s another example we can point to as well:

Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops.

(Against Heresies 3:3:2)

Yes, Irenaeus thought that the church of Rome was founded and organized by both Peter and Paul. In fact, however, we can know with assurance from Paul’s epistle to the Romans that Paul did not found the church at Rome. So, again, Irenaeus – while undoubtedly sincere – was sincerely wrong about what the history of the even more recent event of the founding of the church(es) at Rome was.

That’s why we need Scripture to be our rule of faith: not oral tradition (even if it was written down in the second century). Oral tradition is prone to error and Irenaeus is a prominent example of that problem. Scripture on the other hand is the inspired Word of God and has been providentially preserved for us down through the centuries so that we me read and believe it. Don’t let the telephoto lens of phrases like “the early church” lead you to erroneous conclusions regarding their historical reliability.

Place your confidence without reservation in one worthy of your whole trust, in God the author of Scripture, not in Irenaeus the mistaken author of Against Heresies or in your church which likewise can err – either sincerely or in a self-serving way. The wise man built his house upon a rock, and you will do well to emulate his example.


2 Thess 2:15 – Comments Answered

April 2, 2008


“Reginald de Piperno” has provided a post that appears to be aimed at objecting to my previous post on 2 Thessalonians 2:15, available here. I appreciate that he read my post and took the time to respond.


As best I understand, RdP grants 1(a) and seems to grant 1(b) although he wants to define “gospel” broadly. RdP makes a claim of apparent self-contradiction, but RdP appears to have overlooked that an area can be defined other ways than by its boundaries. We may not know the precise content of Paul’s preaching that is referenced, but we know the topic and the topic is the gospel.

RdP also appears to grant (2). RdP doesn’t seem to directly engage (3), although he goes on to discuss Impacts (a)-(d).

RdP appears to grant (a)-(b). It’s unclear whether RdP grants (c) … he says he doesn’t see its relevance. Perhaps we should presume he does grant (c), as he doesn’t provide any reason not to accept it. Finally, with respect to impact (d), RdP says that Catholics wouldn’t say it that way … but I suppose that RdP doesn’t directly disagree with (d).

RdP seems to try, in the course of mostly agreeing with what I had written, to insert various contentions that Catholicism does not abuse the text, because (apparently) Catholicism doesn’t disagree with what I had written. However, RdP ends his consideration of the post, with the Impacts, without getting to the three specific abuses. It would be interesting to hear whether RdP would agree that those identified abuses are actually abuses or not.

I’m not overly worried about the inserted dialog provided by RdP. Presumably the underlying concerns expressed in RdP’s dialog may be set aside by reference to several concrete examples of how the verse is put to use by “traditionist” commentators.

Concrete Examples

I provide the following example abuses of the verse. I know that some of these are from fairly popular Catholic sites, so hopefully no one will think I picked only the most obscure or atypical Catholic presentations. In one or two instances, the person may even be a non-Catholic … I was focused more on the content and error than on the person presenting it:

1. “Well for starters, look in your Bible in Thessalonians: [quotation of 2Thes 2:15] This verse is telling you to honor the traditions which have been handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation.” (Source)

Antidote: No, it’s telling the Thessalonians to hold fast to the gospel preached to them by Paul. See “Specific Abuse 3.”

2. “Well I guess if Sola Scriptura is correct then II Thessalonians 2, 14 would be incorrect then. [quotation of 2Thes 2:14/15, depending on your version] We all know that St. Paul is correct though.” (Source)

Antidote: Paul is correct, but 2 Thessalonians 2:14/15 doesn’t indicate that the Thessalonians are to hold to any extra-scriptural doctrine. See “Specific Abuse 2.”

3. “Divine Revelation “By Letter” (2 Thess 2:15): The Bible … The Bible itself does not define what it includes; nor does it claim to contain all that God revealed. Paul affirms that some of what is handed on–the way Jews passed on revelation–was “by letter,” in writing.” (Source)

Antidote: Paul is not distinguishing between Scriptural and oral traditions, but between his preaching and written admonitions. We’re passing over the canon issue for now, and we agree that the Bible does not claim to contain all that God revealed. That sentence is just provided for context. See “Specific Abuse 2.”

4. “2 Thess. 2:15 – the fullness of the Gospel is the apostolic tradition which includes either teaching by word of mouth or by letter. Scripture does not say “letter alone.” The Catholic Church has the fullness of the Christian faith through its rich traditions of Scripture, oral tradition and teaching authority (or Magisterium).” (Source)

Antidote: There’s simply no way to a get a tripartite division from 2 Thess. 2:15, even with the most violent of abuse. Furthermore, Paul does not in any way suggest that Scripture does not itself of itself contain the entirety of the fullness of the Christian faith. Instead, Paul’s direction is specific to the brethren to whom he preached the gospel at Thessalonica. One interesting aspect of this particular explanation is that it appears to recognize the relationship between the gospel and “traditions” mentioned in the verse. If you try to make “the gospel” to broad a category, you are going to run into difficulties in another area: something that may or may not be appreciated by this comment’s author. This comment doesn’t fit neatly into one of the example specific abuses mentioned in my original post.

5. “FACT: There is something in Scripture advocating reliance on both Scripture as well as oral Tradition [citation to 2 Thess 2:15 among other verses]. … the same Scripture which testifies that Christian truth comes to us in two ways: through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition (2 Thess 2:15). ” (Source)

Antidote: This one is more subtle. It’s actually not wrong until you understand that the author is suggesting that “oral Tradition” is as reliable as Scripture, and that Paul is speaking of oral Tradition in the abused verse. Of course, the verse says neither of those things, though it is the case that we can and do rely on the preached word and on oral traditions. We do not rely on them as though they were a rule of faith, but then again we are not preached to by apostles. See “Specific Abuse 2.”

6. “This means that Scripture itself is tradition and it is part of the greater category of Tradition (cf. 2 Thess. 2:15). Both means of transmitting the deposit of faith, Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, are bound closely together and communicate one with the other.” (Source)

Antidote: In fairness, again, this one is rather nuanced. For one thing, the author uses the “cf.” tag, which means we shouldn’t necessarily assume that he’s saying the verse says just what he’s claimed. On the other hand, considering the page as a whole, it seems to be what the author is trying to convey. If so, then he’s abusing the text – because it does not establish the Roman Catholic categories that the article presupposes in much of its discussion. Again, this doesn’t neatly fall into one of the specific examples of abuse mentioned in my original post.

7. “The point, however, is that the things taught – not merely written – are deemed to be of equal authority with the epistle. And it is nothing but question-begging to insist that their content is the same.” (Source)

Antidote: The verse doesn’t say that the things taught are of equal authority with those written. It says that the Thessalonians should hold fast to the Gospel Paul taught, whether he did so by word or epistle. It does not say that Paul was creating general categories (such as the Roman Catholic categories) or that Paul was contrasting all things written with a separate category of all unwritten things. Reading those “traditionist” categories into the verse is question-begging. Furthermore, the question that is raised is not whether what Paul preached was coterminous with what Paul wrote to the Thessalonians. Instead, the question raised is whether Paul preached some “gospel” that expands beyond the 4-in-1 gospel, the acts of the apostles, and the rest of Scripture. To assert that the “traditions” commended by Paul in anyway exceed the content of Scripture would also be question-begging. This particular comment seems closest to “Specific Abuse 2,” in my original post.

Conclusion / Warnings

As a general caveat, I encourage skeptical readers to click through to the pages linked as “source” material for the quotations provided. Perhaps you will disagree about the way that I’ve quoted the material.

Furthermore, just because the people who made the comments above are (or some of them are or were or called themselves) Catholic, doesn’t make any of their positions “the Catholic position.” That’s not how Catholic theology works. Nevertheless, they are arguments that Catholics try to use to justify acceptance of what are – upon a reasonable inquiry into the historical data – traditions of men.

Tradition Distinguished – Abuse of 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Thwarted

April 1, 2008

Those who wish to oppose the doctrine of Sola Scriptura typically run to 2 Thessalonians 2:15 as one of the first passages to discuss. As will be demonstrated below, this verse does not support such abuse, and – in fact – demonstrates the eisegetical mindset of those who seek to use it to oppose a doctrine that our only infallible rule of faith is Scripture.

2 Thessalonians 2:15 Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.

The usual way this verse is abused is to make a loose claim, such as:

a) See, tradition according to Scripture includes both written and oral components; and

b) See, oral tradition is also as binding as written tradition.

There are several reasons why these are abuses, and there are several reasons why even these abuses are not particularly helpful to those who usually attempt them.

Reasons why such loose statements are abuses of the text or unhelpful to those trying to use them.

1(a). We do not know precisely the content of the traditions mentioned is. The significance of this fact will become apparent shortly.

1(b). We know from the context that the general content of these traditions is the gospel:

2Th 2:13-15
13But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: 14Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.

2. The “brethren” (not simply the bishops/elders) are those who received the “traditions” mentioned.

3. The “traditions” mentioned are a combination of the things preached to those brethren and “our epistle” and not between the things preached and Scripture generally.

Impacts of the facts above.

Why are these three/four facts significant to stop abuse of the verse?

A) The verse is not saying to hold anything taught outside of Scripture, as such.
B) The verse is not saying to hold fast to something other than the gospel.
C) The verse is not saying making a general statement about all teachings by every apostle.
D) The verse is not saying that Scripture generally fails to contain the gospel to which Paul required the Thessalonians to hold fast.

Specific Abuse 1
If someone is trying to say that we need to permit some “tradition,” because this verse says so, we need to ask ourselves (and them, if they’ll answer) three questions:

1) Is the tradition that they want us to permit the gospel preached by Paul to the Thessalonians, or something else?

2) Is the tradition they want us to permit something that they can demonstrate Paul taught to the Thessalonians at all?

3) Is the tradition they want us to permit something that they can demonstrate that any of the apostles or prophets of the apostolic age taught to the Thessalonians?

If the answers are “something else,” “no,” and “no” (as is usally the case) then it should be apparent that their reliance on this verse is completely in appropriate.

Specific Abuse 2
Likewise, if someone is trying to use this verse to suggest that we must consider as infallibly authoritative something in addition to Scripture, we need to ask ourselves (and them, if possible) three questions:

1) Does the verse contrast Scripture and oral traditions or “our epistle” and other “things preached”?

2) Does the verse say that the Thessalonians had been preached extrascriptural doctrines?

3) Does the verse explain anything about the “things preached” beyond that they were the “truth” and “the gospel”?

If the answers are “the latter,” “no,” and “no” then it should be apparent that the verse cannot stand for the proposition for which they are attempting to use it.

Specific Abuse 3
Finally, if the verse is provided as an argument that the magesterium of the church has been entrusted with oral teachings that are passed down orally for long periods of time, but which must be accepted when finally revealed to the public, we must ask the following questions:

1) Is there any reason to think that Paul taught things in secret, especially from this verse?

2) Is the verse directed to the leaders of the Thessalonian church or to the brethren?

3) Does the verse specify that the “things taught” were not things that were committed to writing?

If the answer is “no,” “brethren,” and “no,” then it should be apparent that the verse is being abused by the person citing it.


As demonstrated above, 2 Thessalonians 2:15 does not defeat Sola Scriptura, nor does it establish the “traditionist” positions. It’s important, of course, to recall that those two things are separate issues. The “traditionist” position that we have to have an infallible magesterium in addition to Scripture is not proved simply by attacking Sola Scriptura. For example, the “traditionist” claims for their tradition are not simply that there is a body of inspired knowledge that is additional to Scripture that was taught by the apostles. Instead, the claim is usually a claim to be able to – in essence – add to the base of inspired knowledge additional infallible teaching that was not the teaching (by word or letter) of Paul to the Thessalonians. In short, to make assertions that 2 Thessalonians 2:15, because it uses the words “traditions” is supportive of a “traditionist” position such as Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, is simply to demonstrate one’s unfamiliarity with the text, and one’s inability to consider what the text itself has to say.

May God give us wisdom to hold fast to the gospel that Paul preached to the Thessalonians,


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