The Apostolic Tradition

I am coming to believe in the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession. This is a radical break from my Protestant/Reformed background.

A theme running through much of Protestantism is the desire to “get back” to the Apostolic Church, that is, the beginning. The apostles (especially Paul) are a big deal to Protestants, which is good. The idea that animates this theme of getting back to the beginning is a belief in an assumed purity that must have existed in the early Church, and which was increasingly corrupted as the Church got caught up in the worldly machinations of politics, Greek philosophy, paganism, arcane theological debates, bureaucracy, etc. Getting back, however, is usually not seen as a pure imitation of looking like those early Christians (who had many flaws anyway), rather it is usually a desire to get back to a pure understanding of what the apostles taught. This is a good thing, but it is difficult and typically (since the Reformation) has included an unqualified rejection of all tradition of the historical church—at least by Fundamentalists. Stripping away all supposed encumbrances of “religion” (as understood by Christians today) is at the very heart of sola scriptura and/or radical biblicism. Still, it is important not to try and “read” the hearts of individuals too closely; there are many reasons one may be a radical biblicist.

The idea is this: One cannot have the necessary freedom to be committed to sola scriptura if one is under a historical, successive, hierarchical, and dogmatic authority. Sola scriptura is antithetical to the magisterium and papal authority, and even tradition. Thus, apostolic succession (whereby the bishops get their authority handed down to them) stands in the way of sola scriptura, which means it stands in the way of the truth—or the possibility of coming to the truth. One must be free of authority, and in particular, specifically, and unequivocally, Catholic authority. Ironically, in much of Protestantism most pastors become a mini-popes, claiming their own authority to teach the scriptures, lead their flocks, and run their churches their way.

[Note: It was once said that printing the Bible in the vernacular made every man a pope—anyone could interpret as they wished, etc. The reality is that the average Christian looks to their pastor for interpretation, not to themselves, and pastors are typically only too willing to accept that responsibility. In this sense, and unfortunately, all too many pastors desire their pulpit for similar reasons that politicians desire their office.]

Anyway, that need for freedom is a perspective taught me by my Baptist church when I was young, and the perspective other churches I have attended. The basic idea is that the Reformation (which seems to me to have became more of a rebellion, uninterested in reforming the Church it ultimately despised, than a true reformation) sought to recover the authentic Apostolic Church, as though the Catholic Church had no interest in being genuinely, authentically Apostolic—and the Eastern Churches were essentially forgotten and thus not on the Protestant radar. In Reformed parlance, to get back to the early church, to be truly apostolic, is to reject the idea of apostolic succession. Interestingly, ever since the Reformation this theme (any many others) has grown and morphed until popular Christianity now no longer looks like the Church of the Reformers, and ironically, looks nothing like the Church of the Apostles from what I can tell.

And yet, I like the Protestant desire to get back to the basics, to recall the era of the earliest Church, and to be truly Apostolic. And certainly I agree that we should always have the highest regard for the teachings of the apostles—not just that we like them the most, but that we regard them as the highest.

But I am curious about Apostolic tradition. What is it that the Apostles established? How was it passed on? Do we still have, or follow, their tradition today? The Catholic and Orthodox Churches both claim Apostolic tradition—they claim that they do go back to the apostles, and have remained true to their teaching. Protestants don’t like the word tradition, so each (that is, each of the many thousands of Protestant denominations) claim something like the purity of the Gospel as against the traditions of other churches (Catholic, Orthodox, and other Protestant churches). In other words it is authentic apostolic Christianity versus the traditions of men. And yet, anyone who has even slightly questioned the teaching of their Baptist or fundamentalist preacher has learned quickly the Protestant tradition of every preacher a pope. (Catch a typical Protestant pastor misusing the Greek—because he knows his congregation doesn’t read Greek—and one is like to get a dismissive response, and even be belittled. Fortunately there are still some pastors and Bible teachers with real humility and grace.)

I wonder if the apostles would look at modern evangelicalism or fundamentalism and scratch their heads. Would they ask, “But where’s the church of Jesus Christ, the one he founded? Who’s in charge here? Where are your bishops?” Most Protestants would say the apostles would ask nothing of the sort. I am beginning to think otherwise. I am beginning to think that if a typical Protestant could time-travel back to the time of the apostles and early Church the response would be something like, “Oops.”

With all this in mind, I have sought to know what the Catholic church teaches. I am just beginning my study of this topic. The following quotes are taken from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I have inserted my thoughts throughout.

I. The Apostolic Tradition

75 “Christ the Lord, in whom the entire Revelation of the most high God is summed up, commanded the apostles to preach the Gospel, which had been promised beforehand by the prophets, and which he fulfilled in his own person and promulgated with his own lips. In preaching the Gospel, they were to communicate the gifts of God to all men. This Gospel was to be the source of all saving truth and moral discipline.”

My thoughts: Here we have one primary focus, that is, the Gospel. To be “apostolic” is to be about the Gospel. For us moderns, when we seek to live within the apostolic tradition, to have our churches be apostolic (which is a popular idea for Protestant churches seeking to break free from perceived impositions of the Christian “religion”), is to be about the fundamental message of Christ. Thus, to be apostolic is not to be about the apostles per se, rather it is to be all about the Gospel, which was fulfilled in Christ. The apostolic tradition begins thus with Christ. However, to be all about Christ does not preclude organization, structure, or even institutionalization. Because Christ and His Gospel are before and beyond (though not apart from) all structures and institutionalizations,  man can thus follow, in freedom, his natural and necessary requirements for liturgy, hierarchy, structure, authority, repetition, organization, community, praxis, responsibility, and sacrifice. These are not impediments to being apostolic, rather they are the extension of our humanity, our imageness, extending outward into the world and working inward upon us such that we are encouraged in our faith and drawn close to God. The apostolic tradition, while offering a picture of beginnings, perhaps even suggesting a kind of purity of faith, nonetheless established the proper foundation for the historical and visible Church, which is the mystical body of Christ extending into and through the creation.

In the apostolic preaching. . .

76 In keeping with the Lord’s command, the Gospel was handed on in two ways:

  • orally “by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received—whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit”;
  • in writing “by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing”.

My thoughts: Christ lived his Gospel, teaching it through his actions, including the cross. Christ spoke his gospel through direct and indirect language (stories and parables). Christ sent the Holy Spirit so that the Gospel would be both understood and take root in the hearts those who believed. Some of this—Christ’s actions, Christ’s words, and evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit—was written down for the early Church and for all of us who have come later. We can presume most of it was not written down, rather it was passed on through the teaching of the apostles and others, and through the practices they established. This is exactly the kind of human, historical situation that would establish traditions of teaching and worship in order to promote and preserve the Gospel. To assume the early Church was incapable or uninterested in maintaining the purity of orthodoxy and orthopraxy is far fetched. To imagine the Holy Spirit was incapable or uninterested in building and sustaining the Church from the beginning until now seems like foolishness. For a Bible teacher to assume theological darkness befell the Church after it first century, only to catch the first rays of light again in the 16th century, is potentially to warrant suspicion in all that he teaches.

. . . continued in apostolic succession

77 “In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority.” Indeed, “the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time.”

My thoughts: I think of the founding fathers of the United States of America. What they gave to us was a government not only a document. If they had only written the Constitution, but did not establish a government to live out that document and keep it preserved and alive, then all would have been chaos. Scripture tells us that God establishes rulers. Some rulers are good and some are bad, but to be ruled is as much a necessity of being human as is freedom. They go together. Perhaps to elevate scriptures over the Church is to show disinterest in Christ’s teaching and desires about His Church. It is also to open the Christian life to institutional chaos, diminish the ability for unity, and potentially distort the Gospel. This is the Protestant legacy.

Clearly the Scriptures are given to us in order to help secure right thinking about God. But it seems equally as clear that Jesus was and is more interested in his Church, in the love and unity of his body, than in scriptures; that the scriptures exist in order to help with that love and unity, to serve that love and unity.

Here’s a thought: Could it be that the “I love Jesus but not religion” position be, in fact, against Jesus? If Jesus and his apostles left us the Church, including offices with apostolic authority, and one refuses to accept the reality of those offices, then is not one refusing, in part, to love Jesus—if, at least, we include in loving Jesus the requirement to keep his commandments? Are we disobeying Christ if we refuse his Church (even as we claim to be part of that Church in our “own way”)? I think so—though I recognize the complicated nature of our age with many being educated to refuse the Church. My desire is to love Jesus, to give my life to him, to serve him, and to follow him. I want to believe in the open arms grace of God. But I also know the gate is narrow, and I know many believe God knows them when in fact they will be separated like goats from the sheep. It’s not about hedging my bets, though, but it is an earnest desire to be led and to follow. In fear and trembling… in fear and trembling…

78 This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, “the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.” “The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer.”

My thoughts: As I understand it, the Scriptures are to be understood as part of Tradition. Given that there are always the possibilities for many interpretations, it makes sense to consider the legacy of Tradition handed down by the Apostles and the early Church (and the continuing Church) as the means of keeping those interpretations on track. At the same time, the Christian life is not first and foremost about interpretations of Scripture, but of the life of faith lived out in love. Faith, hope, and love, but the greatest is love. It is not the Bible that gives life, it is being in the body of Christ—being part of a living, visible, mystical organism—that gives life. We should venerate the holy Fathers for their love of Christ, and for their love of us as they proved excellent witnesses for us. Perhaps we should see the Church as this big, rich, mysterious outpouring of the Holy Spirit inside and outside time and space, with our burning hearts driving the organism forward, and our curious minds continually enlivened by the fathomless “I AM”, and our souls longing for eternity within the loving gift we call human nature and all that is life giving and speaks to it, such as freedom, tradition, and authority. Perhaps we need to see Holy Scriptures as subservient to all that.

And perhaps one would object, saying that to “lower” the Scriptures, as it were, to being “merely” a part of Tradition is to open the door to abuse. And perhaps the response is to say, “May it never be…” that to know the Church is to know the Holy Spirit and the loving care that has been lavished on the Body of Christ throughout its visible and mystical history.

And perhaps the greatest gifts given to us by Saint Paul are not his epistles, perhaps they are his prayers.

79 The Father’s self-communication made through his Word in the Holy Spirit, remains present and active in the Church: “God, who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the Spouse of his beloved Son. and the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel rings out in the Church – and through her in the world – leads believers to the full truth, and makes the Word of Christ dwell in them in all its richness.”

My thoughts: By the work of the Holy Spirit we are the Church, the Body of Christ. We choose God only to discover that we have already been chosen. We love to find out that we have already been loved. We also receive the gift of adoption, the gift of faith, the gift of having brothers and sisters, and the gift of the scriptures. We live out the traditions, imperfectly, but with genuine hope. The Spirit has never left the Church, though some, even claiming the name of Christ, have left the Church. And yet God is sovereign. What His plans are, and why the story has gone the ways it has, must be for good. Work out your salvation… for it is God…

6 thoughts on “The Apostolic Tradition”

  1. Thanks for posting this, Tucker. I’m reading it. I find the sixth paragraph especially interesting.

    D and I have been reading Schaff’s 8 Volume Church History; we are taking a class from Wes Callihan at Schola Tutorials. I wish you were part of it—so much to talk about. I’ve come to learn, very recently, to talk about the church as “historical” and “eschatological” instead of “visible” and “invisible”… but that’s another conversation.

    I appreciate this post.

  2. Tucker,

    A fellow student wrote this as a response to our reading of the week in Schaff. I found it helpful. Especially the “we should instead see scripture as the canonical part of Tradition” part…

    “To speak of the relation between Tradition and revelation is necessarily to speak of the relation of authority and infallibility. The Roman Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox, to a lesser and different sort of extent) have made all of the Tradition, including non-canonical tradition, infallible. This is, of course, a rather difficult position to take. The Protestants, reactionaries that we sometimes are, often have a tendency to reject Tradition altogether, and to juxtapose it to scripture–the opposite error. The trouble is that authority is not equivalent to infallibility. The government has a real authority over its citizens, but that is not to say that the government is infallible. In the same way, non-canonical Tradition has real authority (the Church, the manifestation of Christ’s kingdom on earth, having been invested with this authority by Christ himself), but is not absolutely infallible. Thus instead of contrasting scripture with Tradition, we should instead see scripture as the canonical part of Tradition. The regula fidei is “the common faith of the Church, as orally handed down in the unbroken succession of bishops from Christ and his apostles” to this day (Schaff, Vol. II, pg. 525), including, but not limited to, the canonical scriptures.

    All Tradition is therefore authoritative, but not all of it infallible; all of it inspired, but not all of it canonical; all of it profitable, but not all of it the ground on which we may base doctrine; in its entirety it makes up the orthodox faith, but not all of it is the primary foundation of the orthodox faith. The Church is built “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). But the idea that the Church is built implies that there is something–something not merely superfluous, either–above its foundation.”

    1. There’s a lot about the Catholic Church’s position on Tradition that I don’t know. In fact I feel as though I know almost nothing at this point; I’m just beginning to scratch the surface. But I do know they use the word Tradition is a specific way. The Vatican II document Die Verbum says:

      And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (see 2 Thess. 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (see Jude 1:3) (4) Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.


      Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.

      I’m not sure what “non-canonical Tradition” means. Is that specific to scripture? I do know the Catholic Church says there is Sacred Tradition (or perhaps Tradition with a capital “T”) and Sacred Scripture, and there is also tradition (perhaps with a little “t”) that are more like customs. The catechism of the Catholic Church says this about the relationship between Tradition and Sacred Scripture:

      II. The Relationship Between Tradition and Sacred Scripture

      One common source. . .

      80 “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal.”40 Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own “always, to the close of the age”.41

      . . . two distinct modes of transmission

      81 “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.”42

      “and [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching.”43

      82 As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”44

      Apostolic Tradition and ecclesial traditions

      83 The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. the first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition.

      Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium.

  3. Good Morning Tucker,

    I haven’t left this conversation; I’m trying to address ““non-canonical Tradition” … but need to read more Schaff first. Back soon. Thank you!

  4. As a lifelong Catholic, it means so much to me that other Christians would consider reading the Catechism. I wish more of my fellow Catholics would do so!

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