The teachings of Christ Himself as well as the Apostles delineate that the religious authorities of the Christian faith are Scriptures and “doctrine.” The latter has been passed on from Christ to the Apostles and then to subsequent clergy. Saint Paul commanded in numerous places that Christians hold to this Apostolic Tradition. The preceding (as covered in a previous article), is in effect, the Scriptures’ teaching on what the Orthodox Church calls “Sacred Tradition.”

This Scriptural teaching was expounded by the Church from the very beginning. For example, Saint Clement of Rome takes for granted that his audience (Corinthian laity in schism’) would recognize that valid ordinations require apostolic succession and the “appoint[ing]”/ordaining of clergy from those with that succession. (cf 1 Clem 43) This recognition was something that:

Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ…they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. (1 Clem 44)

As Saint Irenaeus observed about the episode surrounding 1 Clement:

In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. (AH Book 3, Chap 3, Par 3)

These oral “instructions” or “the tradition[s]” were not, according to Clement:

any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus says the Scripture a certain place, “I will appoint their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons in faith.” (1 Clem 43)

From the preceding it can be surmised that from the very beginning it has been understood that “Sacred Tradition” is a harmony between Scriptural teaching and Apostolic Tradition that was passed “orally” (whether it be in prayers, hymns, liturgy, or simply teachings passed on by word of mouth as Clement refers to). Saint Hippolytus, in committing the preceding into writing, was confident that, “For if all who hear the apostolic tradition follow and keep it, no heretic will be able to introduce error.” (Apostolic Tradition 43:2) He also took for granted the teaching authority of the Church and its role in preserving doctrine (cf 1 Tim 3:15), noting that despite him having not written all of the Apostolic Tradition down, “God will reveal it to those who are worthy, steering the Holy Church to her mooring in the quiet haven.” (Apostolic Tradition 43:4)

The Witness of Irenaeus. The most important early theologian to discuss the role of extra-Scriptural Apostolic tradition is Saint Irenaeus. His pedigree, on paper, is pretty good. He was well read (he had recourse to the writings of Saint Papias, who himself had written down what an Apostle/those who knew them had told him). He also traveled extensively (from Asia Minor, to Rome, to Gaul). This gave Irenaeus a well-rounded education in how the whole (Roman) world understood Christianity and what traditions they have been taught. However, on top of this, he had some serious interaction with Saint Polycarp, who was renown for being taught by the Apostle John himself.

In a letter preserved by Eusebius (Church History, Book V, Chap 20:4-7), Irenaeus wrote to Florinus concerning a doctrinal dispute. Irenaeus was accusing Florinus of imbibing in some sort of heresy (likely that God was the author of evil) and in this letter he mentions in passing that both he and Florinus were at one time “with Polycarp.” (Par 5) He relates to Florinus that they were both taught by Polycarp as “boys” and he remembers “the accounts which he gave of his intercourse [i.e. conversations] with John and with the others who had seen the Lord.” (Par 6) Interestingly, Polycarp “related all things in harmony with the Scriptures” (Ibid.), which reveals what he was saying was not explicitly found in the Scriptures, but was understood to be consistent with them. This is no different than the Orthodox understanding of Sacred Tradition.

What makes the preceding so important is that in a dispute with an adversary, Irenaeus appeals to Polycarp’s witness expecting that his adversary (Florinus) would have to concede both 1) the authenticity of his (Irenaeus’) claims and 2) that Polycarp was a legitimate authority and had in fact firsthand knowledge passed to him from the Apostles. When Irenaeus deals with full-blown gnostics, as it will be shown in a bit, the problem he often deals with is that that they confute the reliability of both Christian Scriptures and oral tradition in the Apostolic churches. With Florinus, being that they both knew each other and Polycarp as children, this is not the case. Hence, one can infer a good independent witness concerning the reality of a mutually-recognized Sacred Tradition stemming from the Apostles.

Why Didn’t Tradition “Save” Florinus? As a brief aside, it is worth conjecturing why Florinus, if he knew Polycarp, had allegedly gone awry. Wouldn’t tradition have prevented this?

Tradition is not magic. If ignored or interpreted wrongly, an individual may end up contradicting the plainest sense or majority view of the same tradition. If this were not so, why else does Irenaeus appeal to it in his letter to Florinus? Irenaeus’ point is that the absence of Florinus’ view from tradition should have prevented his (Florinus’) heretical speculations. Florinus, in Irenaeus’ mind, should have known better. This necessarily implies that the point under dispute probably was not explicitly addressed by Polycarp. Florinus was unlikely to have blatantly contradicted something Polycarp told both him and Irenaeus, or Irenaeus would have likely said so.

Hence, the interpretation of tradition can often be problematic. The Scriptures are no different in this regard. Similar to inter-Protestant debates between Arminians and Calvinists, the issue of whether God actually causes or merely ordains evil is something that Scripturally can be confusing and “debatable.” (cf Is 45:7, Job 2:3) Thus, Florinus could have independently started expounding this “error of Valentius [i.e. a Gnostic],” as a Syriac letter from Irenaeus to Pope Saint Victor calls it, based on being swayed by the logic of popular Gnostic ideas. He may even have heard Polycarp exegete the Scriptures, took the exegesis in its plain sense (that God Himself punished this or that party), and from this concocted the theological conclusion that God directly causes evil. This means it is entirely possible Florinus has misapplied tradition.

The Importance of Apostolic Succession. The preceding shows that the mere existence of Apostolic Tradition does not guard the faith. Florinus himself had significant recourse to one of history’s best sources of this tradition. Therefore, what can give Orthodox Christians today some sort of historical basis for having confidence in this tradition as it is allegedly preserved today in the body of Sacred Tradition?

One may infer that the Gnostics, whose tradition arose from Hellenistic Judaism, would have initially used the Scriptures as the starting point for their heresies. Nevertheless, as Irenaeus shows, if:

they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the cannot be extracted from them by those who are of tradition. For [they allege] that the was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce [i.e. tradition]….when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the Apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the Apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. (AH, Book 3, Chap 2, Par 1-2)

As one can see, the Gnostics in their apologetics were known to continually change the goal posts. They started with Scriptures, but when it was shown their eisegesis of these was extremely wanting, they appealed to tradition. Due to Hellenistic Judaism containing proto-Gnosticism, this was not entirely disingenuous. Some sort of tradition seemed to exist. However, due to such a tradition lacking explicit warrant among anyone actually credible within Christian history up to that point, a “secret” tradition was concocted. This nebulous “secret” tradition legitimized their vague Hellenistic-Jewish ideas and made it appear they had some sort of real traction in the Church–but in the shadows.

The Gnostics are wrong not only for doubting the plainest meaning of the Scriptures, but also rejecting that the interpretation of these Scriptures was something ubiquitous and publicly available. This is because, as the Scriptures themselves teach, tradition originates from the Apostles and was preserved by them ordaining presbyters in their place whose explicit task was to publicly teach and preserve the Apostolic doctrine. This is exactly what one sees in Titus 1. Hence, the “secret tradition” doctrine actually contradicts the Scriptures. In response, Irenaeus will expound the Scriptural view–a public succession of bishops tracing their origins to the Apostles, teaching a public doctrine.

Before detailing this, it must be said that the Orthodox can go too far textually in asserting that what Irenaeus asserts here is unequivocally a sort charism where all Bishops with succession are spiritually preserved from adulterating Sacred Tradition. In fact, Acts 20:29 appears to inveigh against this. Yet, Hippolytus appears to explicitly have had this view.

In any event, Irenaeus does not weigh in specifically on this idea. At minimal he asserts the principle that the normative means of correct doctrine being preserved is not by a recourse to Scriptures in isolation, but to look to the succession of publicly identifiable churches and presbyters with Apostolic Succession. These bishops can reasonably lay claim to having received Apostolic Tradition as handed down in the beginning and their teachings are known, thereby being open to examination.

Irenaeus on Oral Tradition. With the preceding being said, one can now contextualize the Scriptures, Clement, and Hippolytus on Sacred Tradition with the help of a few important passages from Irenaeus. Sacred Tradition, at least in the late second century, was not something that was thought of as abstract and difficult to discern. Irenaeus expected that one would have “recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse” where in the event “the apostles themselves had not left us writings” on this or that question, “the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches” would be available. (Ibid., Chapter 4, Par 1) This is because “the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth.” (Ibid.) These churches were well known, prominent, and consistent with their application of Apostolic doctrine–defying any other explanation for this occurrence other than their shared Apostolic origins. Anyone who denied what the universal tradition was of these ancient churches were “thieves and robbers.” (Ibid.) They were obvious outsiders to Catholic, Universal Christianity.

Outside of Christianity in the known world, in Against Heresies (Book 3, Chap 4, Par 2), Irenaues speaks of those “many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ…having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink.” This speaks of those who without Scriptures (perhaps due to not having a Latin or Greek based written language) otherwise share all the features of Catholic Christianity in the known world. The way in which doctrine was preserved and taught in these “barbarian” contexts was via oral tradition. Perhaps simply surmising their existence than actually speaking from any direct knowledge of their doings, Irenaeus records that they:

carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent. Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom. If any one were to preach to these men the inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears, and flee as far off as possible, not enduring even to listen to the blasphemous address. Thus, by means of that ancient tradition of the apostles, they do not suffer their mind to conceive anything of the [doctrines suggested by the] portentous language of these teachers, among whom neither Church nor doctrine has ever been established.

While one has no basis from the preceding that these barbarians would have such a clarified understanding of Sacred Tradition that they would have known the term homoousias, Irenaeus presumes that they would understand the correct teaching of the Scriptures even without those Scriptures. The Apostolic Tradition, the correct doctrines taught by the Apostles, would have been sufficient.

While these supposed barbarians are not perfect or (somehow) in a superior position to those with the whole of Sacred Tradition (both the Scriptures and Apostolic Tradition), one may rightly infer the Apostolic Tradition was both sufficient and consistent with the Scriptures. This is why it acts as a “good enough” substitute for the illiterate. The Apostolic Tradition would have informed the barbarians, even without ever reading the Scriptures, that the Gnostic handling of them would be incorrect. As one can see, Ireaneus infers oral/Apostolic Tradition serving the precise function that Sacred Tradition delineates. It acts as a governor of correct doctrine which disallows for false Scriptural interpretations.

Conclusion. In light of the preceding, one may with confidence understand that both the Scriptures themselves and the earliest Christians assigned to Apostolic Tradition a central role. It was understood that this tradition, preserved in the Church by its ordained ministers, would prevent the teaching of false doctrines. These false doctrines were ones derived from the Scriptures themselves. Hence, the Church was understood to preserve Sacred Tradition, a harmony between the Scriptures and the doctrinal tradition of the Church which has been preserved since Apostolic times.

The Orthodox approach to Sacred Tradition would not change with the centuries. Dealing with his own round of heretics in the fifth century, Saint Vincent de Lerins observed:

Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason — because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. (Commonitorium, Par 5)

Due to the Scriptures and early Church being in absolute agreement over the existence of an Apostolic Tradition as preserved by the Church and its necessary function in understanding doctrine, one can only lament that so many have abandoned this most necessary Christian teaching.