Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the traditions of men. (Mark 7:8)
Traditions passed down from us from Christ and the Apostles are the very essence of Christianity. This true Holy Tradition, to the chagrin of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, cannot be found in the church fathers. No, it is only in the Scriptures.
Why? I am not writing anything Earth-shattering here, but it should be known to both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox that they have a major conundrum. Essentially, they put the Scripture and church tradition on the same level. The Eastern Orthodox teach that both are of the same Holy Tradition.
Now, Protestants might argue that it is impossible to reconcile the whole body of church tradition with the Scripture and so only one is right. Catholics and Orthodox will counter that there is no necessary contradiction between Scripture and true apostolic practice that is preserved in the “time honored” traditions of the church.
There is a reason they have to argue this. The Scripture is defined as “God breathed” (2 Tim 3:16) so obviously they can’t say the Scripture is ever wrong because the Holy Tradition is infallible. Further, as Jesus Christ God Himself says, “The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Again, the Scripture attests of itself, “Every word of God proves true; He is a shield to those who take refuge in him” (Prov 30:5, ESV). So, if the Scripture cannot be wrong, then true Apostolic teachings handed down by Christ Himself cannot be wrong either.
But, herein lies the problem. What is among the true Apostolic tradition? Being that everything we know with confidence that is from an apostle is actually in the Bible itself, those defending supposedly authoritative extra-biblical “traditions” essentially say the Apostles taught it but they don’t have a letter from an Apostle that shows it.
How can you really know what is true Apostolic teaching and what isn’t? They have to infer from the writings of men after apostolic times, the fathers of the Church, that the traditions they speak of found not in the Scripture itself are apostolic and not later inventions.
Now, there are major problems with this. First, the Church Fathers are not infallible and they themselves are not writing Scripture. Proof of this can be seen in the fact that there are clear and unequivocal examples where Church Fathers relate supposed apostolic traditions which are demonstrably wrong. Second, it ignores the fact that just like theologians today get stuff wrong, men not prophesying direct revelation from God (which the Scripture purportedly is) also can get stuff wrong.
Proof of the second point is seen in the fact that the Apostles weren’t gods on earth nor were they supermen. When Peter and “men from James” opposed Paul in Antioch as recorded in Galatians 2, obviously one side was right and the other wrong, though both sides consisted of apostles. This demonstrably proves that a practice, even if it really is apostolic, does not necessarily carry with it the weight of it being “God breathed” like Scripture anymore than Jews avoiding eating with gentiles, or the circumcision of gentiles for that matter, is an acceptable apostolic practice.
This alone is all the evidence we need to discount any Apostolic tradition that is not directly taught to us in the Scripture itself, because one has absolute authority and the other can never quite measure up.
The only reason we listen to what the Apostles have written is because we have faith that the letters attributed to them are indeed Scripture and God-breathed, not that they were great writers or particularly brilliant in any way. And, if this is true of the Apostles it is definitely true that the Church Fathers weren’t supermen either.
No Catholic or Orthodox will deny this. However, even with all of these practical problems in discerning what is really apostolic and in full knowledge that not everything an apostle has ever thought is truly of God, they will still argue that Holy Tradition inferred from the Fathers is equivalent to Scripture, because it is supposedly apostolic in origin and that these imperfect men preserved an extra-biblical authoritative tradition. Their inconsistent methodology aside, I pose this very simple question back at them: How can they sift through what the church fathers wrote to find what is actually God-breathed and what isn’t?
Scripture doesn’t require such a complicated venture in uncovering its truth. Approaching the Scripture is simple if you have faith in the Christian religion, because it’s all true. Catholics and Orthodox affirm this. However, approaching the whole of Holy Tradition does not quite work that way, because it cannot all be true, as the church fathers disagreed with not only one another, but even themselves! (See below.)
Essentially the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox teach that the ever-changing “Church” in the present has the correct interpretation, and even though it has got stuff wrong along the way, what is taught now is the truth. Essentially, what they don’t want to admit is that they believe in progressive revelation through the Church like the Pentecostals and it is only from this position they emphasize different ideas from the Bible and the Church Fathers while ignoring others.
Congratulations Catholics and Orthodox. You are right there with your Pentecostal brethren that continually recieve “new revelation” from God.
So, being that such a hermeneutic has shifted over the generations, there was never a consistent hermeneutic. It changes like a chameleon. Truth therefore is in constant flux and in constant doubt.
So, I ask, can anyone definitively demonstrate what is the true extra-biblical apostolic tradition? It appears to me that we are constantly inferring it from the Church Fathers based upon present day notions of what is taught to be the valid tradition and then purposely ignoring things the Church Fathers taught that the church presently rejects.
To end this post, I will quote Chapter 7 of Augustine’s On Predestination. In it, you will see how Augustine admits he got something wrong and he details how he changed his mind. Unlike the Scripture that cannot be broken, tradition appears quite malleable.
So, my Catholic and Orthodox friends, which of Augustine’s opinions are truly apostolic? There is only one conclusion one can draw: None of them. They all are his interpretations of the Scripture, which is the one and true source of apostolic authority.
For I am now writing treatises in which I have undertaken to retract my smaller works, for the purpose of demonstrating that even I myself have not in all things followed myself; but I think that, with God’s mercy, I have written progressively, and not begun from perfection; since, indeed, I speak more arrogantly than truly, if even now I say that I have at length in this age of mine arrived at perfection, without any error in what I write…
It was not thus that that pious and humble teacher thought— I speak of the most blessed Cyprian— when he said that we must boast in nothing, since nothing is our own. And in order to show this, he appealed to the apostle as a witness, where he said, For what have you that you have not received? And if you have received it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?
And it was chiefly by this testimony that I myself also was convinced when I was in a similar error, thinking that faith whereby we believe in God is not God’s gift, but that it is in us from ourselves, and that by it we obtain the gifts of God, whereby we may live temperately and righteously and piously in this world. For I did not think that faith was preceded by God’s grace, so that by its means would be given to us what we might profitably ask, except that we could not believe if the proclamation of the truth did not precede; but that we should consent when the gospel was preached to us I thought was our own doing, and came to us from ourselves.
And this my error is sufficiently indicated in some small works of mine written before my episcopate. … Eventually, when I was retracting all my small works, and was committing that retractation to writing … I then spoke thus:— Also discussing, I say, ‘what God could have chosen in him who was as yet unborn, whom He said that the elder should serve; and what in the same elder, equally as yet unborn, He could have rejected; concerning whom, on this account, the prophetic testimony is recorded, although declared long subsequently, Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated,’ I carried out my reasoning to the point of saying: ‘God did not therefore choose the works of any one in foreknowledge of what He Himself would give them, but he chose the faith, in the foreknowledge that He would choose that very person whom He foreknew would believe in Him—to whom He would give the Holy Spirit, so that by doing good works he might obtain eternal life also.’
I had not yet very carefully sought, nor had I as yet found, what is the nature of the election of grace, of which the apostle says, ‘A remnant are saved according to the election of grace.’ Which assuredly is not grace if any merits precede it; lest what is now given, not according to grace, but according to debt, be rather paid to merits than freely given.
And what I said a little after, ‘For it is ours to believe and to will, but it is His to give to those who believe and will, the power of doing good works through the Holy Spirit, by whom love is shed abroad in our hearts,’— is true indeed; but by the same rule both are also God’s, because God prepares the will; and both are ours too, because they are only brought about with our good wills…
But I discovered little concerning the calling itself, which is according to God’s purpose; for not such is the calling of all that are called, but only of the elect. Therefore what I said a little afterwards: ‘For as in those whom God elects it is not works but faith that begins the merit so as to do good works by the gift of God, so in those whom He condemns, unbelief and impiety begin the merit of punishment, so that even by way of punishment itself they do evil works’— I spoke most truly. But that even the merit itself of faith was God’s gift, I neither thought of inquiring into, nor did I say.
And in another place I say: ‘For whom He has mercy upon, He makes to do good works, and whom He hardens He leaves to do evil works; but that mercy is bestowed upon the preceding merit of faith, and that hardening is applied to preceding iniquity.’ And this indeed is true; but it should further have been asked, whether even the merit of faith does not come from God’s mercy—that is, whether that mercy is manifested in man only because he is a believer, or whether it is also manifested that he may be a believer? For we read in the apostle’s words: ‘I obtained mercy to be a believer.’ He does not say, ‘Because I was a believer.’