In Orthodox and Roman Catholic apologetics, 2 Thes 2:15 often gets thrown around as a proof-text against Protestants, or Sola Scriptura specifically. The problem is, the most obvious exegesis of that verse seems to disallow for such a rendering.
This article is not meant to disprove the Orthodox view of Sacred Tradition, Saint John Chrysostom’s exegesis of the same verse, or anything else. Rather, it is my goal to put simply what in my own personal view Saint Paul was getting at specifically when he actually penned the passage. It is my hope that this will help improve honest dialogue between Orthodox and Protestants.
First, the verse:
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us (2 Thes 2:15).
At first glance, it’s exegesis appears obvious. Saint John Chrysostom wrote that the Apostles “did not deliver all things by Epistle, but many things also unwritten…let us think the tradition of the Church also worthy of credit.” After all, the verse appears to speak of Apostolic teaching that was viva voce.
Nevertheless, I am asserting that such an exegesis of the passage ignores what we have plainly spoken to us in 1 Thes and 2 Thes. We do not need to speculate about what extra-biblical oral traditions are being referred to, because the traditions Paul is speaking of are all referenced within the letters.
In order to understand this, it helps to summarize what 2 Thes was being written about: Paul begins by praising the Thessalonians in a matter similar to 1 Thes, a reiteration of his end-times teaching from 1 Thes 4, and then a re-iteration that the Thessalonians should “go get a job,” a concern that likewise permeates 1 Thes.
Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction…Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things (2 Thes 2:1-3, 5)?
In verse 5, we can see that the “tradition” invoked later in the same chapter pertains specifically to what Saint Paul already told the Thessalonians. 2 Thes 2 chiefly concerns itself with the eschatology that he wrote about in 1 Thes 4:
Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words. Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. (1 Thes 4:17-18, 1 Thes 5:1-2).
As we can see, in 1 Thes 5:1, Saint Paul thought it was unnecessary to get into the details about the great apostasy that he describes in 2 Thes 2, because he figured they remembered what he told them. Ironically, whether it was a rumor, a false letter, or some combination of first century “fake news,” Saint Paul ate his words in 2 Thes 2. He describes what the Thessalonians “have no need” of being written down in explicit detail. To pretend that 2 Thes 2:15 is speaking about a teaching that is “word of mouth” which is not relevant to eschatology (or the topic of sanctification, which he addresses in passing in verse 14*) is to ignore the circumstance that actually inspired Saint Paul in his writing. Simply, Saint Paul is admonishing the Thessalonians to hold to the traditions pertaining to topics that we see described in both of his letters.
Obviously, there would have been context and details which exist apart from the letters. Otherwise, 2 Thes 2:15 would not make sense. However, what Saint Paul is not alluding to is there being a deposit of faith that includes details completely alien to his writings or the Old Testament. This would be to blow up his statement beyond what it is actually addressing.
Paul’s use of the term “tradition” is found elsewhere in the epistles and in a fashion consistent with the thesis of this article:
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it… For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either (2 Thes 3:6-8, 10).
Again, the “tradition” is not all of these extra-biblical things that God did not bother inspire the Prophets and Apostles to write down. Rather, the tradition Saint Paul is referring to is necessity of laying one’s life for one another in Christian service and work (1 John 3:15-16). Yes, even having a job and making money is necessary Christian service:
For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God (1 Thes 2:9).
But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you (1 Thes 4:10-11).
Similar to 2 Thes 2:5, 1 Thes 4:11 appears to show that Saint Paul’s concern was to put into writing what he thought he did a sufficient enough job imparting orally. Because the Thessalonians for whatever reason misunderstood Saint Paul’s teachings on eschatology and hard-work, he wrote not only one letter on the subjects…but two!
*Finally, let’s address the topic of sanctification that 2 Thes 2:14 invokes:
It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It would appear that Saint Paul is invoking the same tradition he spoke of in 1 Thes 4:
Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality (1 Thes 4:1-3).
It is my contention that when Saint Paul is talking about excelling, he has gaining the glory of Christ via sanctification in mind. This, as he makes clear in 1 Thes 4:1, he considered a tradition. Obviously, Saint Paul goes into some detail how one ought to walk–one tip he gives is abstaining from sexual immorality. Another is to work diligently.
Conclusion. In the preceding, we can see that Saint Paul considered teachings he had not had written down in detail to be “tradition.” Yet, within the corpus of the Epistles to the Thessalonians, these traditions pertained specifically to topics he comments on within those letters.
For this reason, when a Protestant is not very convinced by citing 2 Thes 2:15 in favor of an Orthodox understanding Sacred Tradition, it is important to be humble and not try to prove more than the Scriptures bear out. Instead of postulating that 2 Thes 2:15 pertains to Marian dogmas or something that it is really not addressing at all, it is more helpful to point out the traditions Saint Paul is referring to may be all referred to in the letters themselves, but he expected the Thessalonians to be informed by his life and example. It was with consternation that he wrote these two letters, due to the Thessalonians not being able to do this without explicit written instruction.
The application for today is that without being informed by the life of the Church over the centuries and the Liturgy, we lose the context that informs our Scriptural interpretations. For Paul, this context was his personal example and his teachings in Thessaloniki. For Christians today, it is the example of God’s people throughout the ages and the lives of the saints, sharing one and the same Spirit.