[This is part of an ongoing series. See my introduction.]
“Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you…The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” -2 Timothy 1:13-14, 2:2
Issue Raised: Oral Tradition
Many Roman Catholic apologists will use these texts in support of the concept of oral tradition passed down from the apostles to their successors, the bishops, which acts as an interpretive grid for Scriptural exegesis. Dave Armstrong is an example:
“Catholics believe that these verses clearly set forth a notion of a binding oral tradition that has as much authority as the written word of Scripture.”
- Dave Armstrong, The Catholic Verses: 95 Bible Passages That Confound Protestants (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2004), p.12.
First, before exegeting this passage, it would be helpful to display its context:
“Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher. For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day. Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you… You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” -2 Timothy 1:8-14, 2:1-2
The letter of Second Timothy was likely written during the reign and tyranny of the Emperor Nero (c.66-67). This was during Paul’s second imprisonment, the first being recorded at the end of the book of Acts (Acts 28). The first time he was imprisoned, he was allowed to stay in a rented house (Acts 28:30), but now, he was chained (1:16, 2:9) and placed in a cold dungeon (4:13). As he could foresee, his life was at an end, and he would soon be beheaded during this awful persecution.
Paul is thus instructing Timothy on how to supervise and lead his church now that Paul won’t be around. Paul instructs Timothy to pass on the teachings he taught him before many witnesses to other teachers who will faithfully teach the faith.
Is this Proof of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Sacred/Holy Tradition?
Can this be used as proof that we must adhere to the RC/EO concept of Sacred/Holy Tradition? There are a number of problems with using this as a proof-text for that concept:
a.) There is no proof that these traditions were any different in content or clarity than that which was or would be enscripturated. Why should we believe that the apostles’ preaching and teaching was any less clear in writing than in their oral proclamation? The Roman Catholic is the one making the claim here, and so, he has the burden of proof to show that the contents and/or clarity of these oral traditions were in any way different than that which is stated in Scripture.
b.) In fact, from the surrounding context, he identifies that “standard of sound words which you have heard from me” and the “the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses” as the gospel:
“Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher. For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day.” -2 Timothy 1:8-12
As Tertullian pointed out concerning this passage:
“Paul addressed even this expression to Timothy: “O Timothy, guard that which is entrusted to thee;” and again: “That good thing which was committed unto thee keep.” What is this deposit? Is it so secret as to be supposed to characterize a new doctrine? or is it a part of that charge of which he says, “This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy?” and also of that precept of which he says, “I charge thee in the sight of God, who quickeneth all things, and before Jesus Christ who witnessed a good confession under Pontius Pilate, that thou keep this commandment?” Now, what is (this) commandment and what is (this) charge? From the preceding and the succeeding contexts, it will be manifest that there is no mysterious hint darkly suggested in this expression about (some) far-fetcheddoctrine, but that a warning is rather given against receiving any other (doctrine) than that which Timothy had heard from himself, as I take it publicly: “Before many witnesses” is his phrase. Now, if they refuse to allow that the church is meant by these “many witnesses,” it matters nothing, since nothing could have been secret which was produced “before many witnesses.” Nor, again, must the circumstance of his having wished him to “commit these things to faithful men, who should be able to teach others also,” be construed into a proof of there being some occult gospel. For, when he says “these things,” he refers to the things of which he is writing at the moment. In reference, however, to occult subjects, he would have called them, as being absent, those things, not these things, to one who had a joint knowledge of them with himself.” (emphasis mine)
-Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, ch.25
[I will note in passing that, according to the standards used by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, this interpretation of Tertullian’s should be considered “an early witness” to the interpretation of this verse that likely went back to the apostles.]
This teaching which Timothy was instructed to hand on, the gospel itself, is found written in the previous sentences, can be found elsewhere in Scripture, and is quite clear. Timothy is simply being instructed to teach the things of the gospel to other ministers, something that Protestants carry out quite faithfully.
c.) I actually have no problem with the idea of apostolic tradition. If a teaching can be proven to have its origin from the apostles, then it is apostolic and binding on the conscience. The problem comes in proving a tradition to be apostolic. How are we to know if the tradition in question is truly apostolic or a teaching that started in a later age? How can we tell the difference between a truly apostolic tradition and a belief that came into the church via the influence of pagan religion, philosophy, language, or culture? As Alister McGrath pointed out:
“…it is necessary to observe that the early theologians of the western church were dependant upon their Latin versions of the Bible, and approached their texts and their subject with a set of presuppositions which owed more to the Latin language and culture than to Christianity itself. The initial transference of a Hebrew concept to a Greek, and subsequently to a Latin, context point to a fundamental alteration in the concepts of ‘justification’ and ‘righteousness’ as the gospel spread from its Palestinian source to the western world…The earlier patristic period represents the age of the exploration of concepts, when the proclamation of the gospel within a pagan culture was accompanied by an exploitation of both Hellenistic culture and pagan philosophy as vehicles for theological advancement…Indeed, by the end of the fourth century, the Greek fathers had formulated a teaching on human free will based upon philosophical rather than biblical foundations. Standing in the great Platonic tradition, heavily influenced by Philo, and reacting against the fatalisms of their day, they taught that man was utterly free in his choice of good or evil…It is quite possible that the curious and disturbing tendency of the early fathers to minimize original sin and emphasize the freedom of fallen man is a consequence of their anti-Gnostic polemic…Justin’s anti-fatalist arguments can be adduced from practically any of the traditional pagan refutations of astral fatalisms, going back to the second century B.C.”
–Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 2nd edition (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, reprinted 1998), pp.15, 17, 19, 20.
As the Historical Dictionary of the Orthodox Church states:
“The appeal to Holy Tradition (q.v.) (including Scripture and/or the Councils [qq.v.]) is recognized as of ultimate authority…The primary hurdle in appealing to Holy Tradition as an authority lies in the selection of appropriate sources, applicable to a given situation…Similarly, precedent is difficult to establish quickly, since the selection of sources itself is a matter of interpretation, and the question raised might not have been asked previously…Everyone agrees that Holy Tradition is authoritative, but which beliefs and practices truly manifest Holy Tradition is open to a variety of interpretation.”
-M. Prokurat et al., Historical Dictionary of the Orthodox Church (Scarecrow Press 1996), p.50.
So, how are we to determine what is an apostolic tradition unless it was written by the apostles, passed on, and documented? Yes, a teaching found in the early church could provide some degree of probability (depending on the doctrine and the time period), but the only way to confirm that a tradition came from the apostles is to have it written by their own pen.
d.) It is the Protestant contention that all the doctrines that were preached by the apostles, concerning both faith and morals, were eventually committed to writing in clarity. As Irenaeus said:
“We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.”
-Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1
[Again, I must note that, according to the standards used by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, this belief of Irenaeus’ should be considered “an early witness”, likely dating back to the apostles themselves, to the relationship between the early oral proclamation of the apostles and the content of Scripture.]
The evangelists wrote the gospels and the churches reproduced all the apostles’ writings for the very purpose that it should be reliably preserved for posterity. It would only be logical for them to do so since it was the policy given by God to the prophets before them (e.g. Isaiah 30:8, Jeremiah 36:2-4). Only the time-preserving medium of written documents could reliably accomplish that task.
A Review of Dave Armstrong’s The Catholic Verses on 2 Timothy 1:13-14, 2:2
[Unless otherwise stated, all of these quotes come from Dave Armstrong, The Catholic Verses: 95 Bible Passages That Confound Protestants (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2004).]
[The section in his book on 2 Timothy 1:13-14, 2:2 also covers Jude 3 and Acts 2:42. However, the last two will not be covered since the counter-arguments given here are sufficient to answer the use of these Scriptures as well.]
First, it should be noted that there is no attempt at even a brief exegesis of the text. There is no attempt to connect verses 1:8-12 with 1:13-14 or 2:2. This is typical proof-texting all too common amongst Roman Catholic apologists, and thus, he commits the exegetical fallacy of text isolation (see the intro., part f.). While Mr. Armstrong’s stated purpose of his book was not to provide a full-length exegesis of the text, he could have at least provided a single paragraph or two to give some context to the verse he was citing.
After saying what the Roman Catholic interpretation of these verses are, Mr. Armstrong writes:
“The oral, spoken component of 2 Timothy 1:13-14 and 2:2 is also noteworthy (and potentially troubling to Protestants). St. Paul seems to make no distinction between written and oral teaching. He considers both equally authoritative (and able to be “guarded by” or “entrusted” to men).” (Armstrong, op. cit., p.12)
I don’t see how this is troubling to Protestants. Of course the apostles taught and preached orally before there was any New Testament, but the Protestant contention is that the content and clarity of their preaching and teaching did not differ in any way from what they later recorded in Scripture.
Secondly, from the context, the content of the oral teaching is the gospel message and its doctrines which are listed quite clearly in vv.8-12. Paul is simply telling Timothy to teach these doctrines to other faithful men. Protestants carry this out when we teach future pastors and theologians in our seminaries.
“The usual Protestant argument I have encountered when bringing up this topic has been to assert that this apostolic deposit was authoritatively contained and summarized in the Bible, and nowhere else.” (ibid. p.12)
I don’t know who Mr. Armstrong has talked to, but this is a straw-man (see intro., part b.) of the common Protestant counter-argument. It would have been fine if he hadn’t added on “and nowhere else.” Of course the gospel and its doctrines were contained in an oral message at first, but it was later summarized in Scripture with clarity (Luke 1:1-4, John 20:30-31, 1 John 1:4, 5:13, etc.). All the necessary ingredients that are needed for sola Scriptura are material sufficiency and the perspicuity of the key doctrines. The faith could be summarized elsewhere, but as long as Scripture is formally sufficient, it is enough to serve as the sole infallible rule of faith.
“Apart from the vexing problems of biblical interpretation, this reply fails to take into account the fact that none of the four passages just cited even mentions the Bible in this regard.” (emphasis in original; ibid. pp.12-13)
As to the issue of biblical interpretation, we must ask Mr. Armstrong, “How is the interpretation of which “Traditions” throughout church history exhibit the true Traditions of the apostles any less difficult?” Many Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox simply assume that the traditions of their church were the original traditions handed down by the apostles. However, as both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox as well as Protestant church historians have come to realize, things are not so simple. [I am not going to go into this here. I may write several posts in the future on these topics, though.]
Secondly, as to his comment that the verses don’t mention Scripture: So what? They refer to the previous verses which spell out the content of these oral teachings. These oral teachings are the doctrines of the gospel in almost creedal form which are clearly summarized in Scipture.
Next, he comments on one of Charles Spurgeon’s sermons (though without quoting a word of it):
“Spurgeon rejects the very notion of a true Christian tradition and the historical sense of continuity.” (ibid. p.13)
No, just unverifiable oral tradition.
“Rather than follow the Pauline injunction to follow oral tradition, Spurgeon advises his hearers to give no heed to traditions that have been passed down.” (ibid. p.13)
No, he says not to naively follow any oral tradition that comes down the line, but to judge its veracity by Scripture. Does Mr. Armstrong believe that we should just accept any oral tradition? By this standard, how could he *ever* judge which traditions are truly apostolic and which came in via the influences of pagan philosophy, religion, language, and culture?
Secondly, how does Mr. Armstrong know that the oral traditions that Paul says to pass on are *his* Church’s traditions?
“Of course, no reason is given for this belief.” (ibid. p.13)
What, you want him to give a doctoral dissertation in the middle of a sermon?
“That the Catholic Church is corrupt and compromised beyond all hope is part of classical Protestant mythology. It need not be argued; it is assumed and is common “knowledge” in certain anti-Catholic Protestant circles.” (ibid. p.13)
That’s because its dogmas contradict both Scripture as well as many of the beliefs of the early church. [The latter is an internal critique, by the way.]
“What Catholics believe in faith is that the apostolic doctrine or Christian Tradition (uniquely preserved by the Catholic Church) does not and will not conflict with Holy Scripture.” (ibid. p.14)
This begs the question: Are the traditions of Rome truly apostolic, and how could we know? RC and EO apologists like to ask this kind of question to the Protestant about the Scriptural canon, but yet, when it is turned on their Tradition, it is far more damaging.
“Protestants believe that God protected Holy Scripture from error, by means of inspiration, even though sinful, fallible men wrote it. Catholics agree with that and also believe that God (the Holy Spirit: John 14-16) can protect His church from error by means of infallibility…” (ibid. p.15)
The reference to chapters 14 through 16 of John’s Gospel only refers to the gift of inspiration being given to the apostles; there is no mention of any alleged successors to their office.
“If God can do the one thing, he can do the other. Since both are indicated in Scripture and apostolic and patristic tradition, we believe them.” (ibid. p.15)
First of all, the question is not over possible worlds but over the actualized world. It is, of course, possible for God to preserve traditions within an infallible church. However, this begs the question: has He?
Second, he mentions the early church fathers, but yet, they believed that the key doctrines of the faith, such as the deity of Christ and the Trinity, are found in Scripture with clarity.
Third, he has yet to show that those traditions mentioned by Paul are *Rome’s* traditions.
Fourth, those oral teachings in 2 Timothy are listed in the previous verses and found elsewhere in Scripture with clarity.
The attempt to use this verse as a proof-text for Sacred Tradition fails to prove anything.
BTW: I encourage my readers to give comments on what I can add to these posts to make my arguments/counter-arguments more complete, and of course, I encourage criticism as well.