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What is apostolic tradition?

apostolic tradition

The phrase apostolic tradition is not found in the Bible, but the term is used to refer to the teachings of the apostles passed down to the church. According to the Roman Catholic Church, apostolic tradition is “the transmission of the message of Christ, brought about from the very beginnings of Christianity by means of preaching, bearing witness, institutions, worship, and inspired writings. The apostles transmitted all they received from Christ and learned from the Holy Spirit to their successors, the bishops, and through them to all generations until the end of the world” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church). Among Catholics, apostolic tradition is seen as a special revelation of God, distinct from the written Word, that the apostles passed down to the early church. It is an authoritative supplement to Scripture.

Second Thessalonians 2:15 mentions “tradition” in some translations: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle” (KJV). The NIV simply says “teachings.” Paul cites both his oral teaching and his written epistles as authoritative for the church. There is nothing here, though, that would suggest apostolic succession or a lasting body of oral tradition distinct from the written Word. Paul, who had been teaching for many years before he wrote any epistle, is simply saying that his previous instructions delivered in Thessalonica were to be followed, as were those contained in his first letter to them. In other words, Paul is saying, “Hold fast to what I directly taught, whether I said it when I was with you, or wrote it after I left.” What Paul had taught the Thessalonian church can all be found in the Bible. There is nothing in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 that teaches acceptance of indirect teaching “traditionally” attributed to the apostles.

Likewise, when Paul instructed Timothy to pass his teaching on to others, he was not referring to an oral transmission of tradition to be passed on during the early church period. Here is what he said: “You have heard me teach things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Now teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others” (2 Timothy 2:2, NLT). The truths Paul taught refer to the teachings that can now be found in the corpus of his writings, which occupy 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament.

Although Christian creeds and the writings of the early church fathers do have value and can be used as secondary sources in studying biblical issues, the Bible alone is the only authority in a Christian’s life. Men like Irenaeus and Origen provide insight into the teachings of the early church, but their writings are not inspired and sometimes even contain faulty theology. In contrast, Scripture contains what the apostles explicitly passed down for the instruction and teaching of the church (1 Corinthians 15:3–4; 2 Timothy 3:16–17; 2 Peter 1:16, 20–21). We do not need an oral tradition passed down through the first few centuries of church history.

Despite the belief of the Catholic Church, the authoritative teachings of the apostles are found solely in Scripture, not in apostolic tradition. Christians do not have to turn to early church writings to read and interpret the Bible. Reading creeds and the works of people like Papias or Clement of Rome can be insightful, but such works should not be viewed as authoritative in setting a Christian’s faith and doctrine.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022