A very common objection to the Protestant rule of faith that has been around since the time of the Reformation is that sola Scriptura has led to the formation of novel doctrines such as sola fide and creates a great multiplicity of differing Biblical interpretations. It is argued that we must follow the unwritten traditions of the Church that have been passed down throughout the ages by the bishops who are the successors of the apostles as our lens through which we interpret Scripture. The criterion for what is truly “tradition” is that it has been believed always, everywhere, and by all, and by using this standard, we can know with certainty what the Bible really means. I have dealt with the “Doctrinal Chaos” argument elsewhere, and there are many problems with the appeal to Church tradition as a more objective way for interpreting the Bible:
Begging the Question: The argument that novel doctrines are always wrong assumes the priority of historical theology over against exegetical theology, and so, it begs the question in favor of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox priorities. The Protestant argument was always that the beliefs of the Church gradually became corrupted over time due to accretions from outside influences. [See “The Influence of Greco-Roman Thought and Culture” below.]
Shifting the Problem One Step Back: The writings of the church fathers are literary documents just like Scripture, and so, you have the same alleged problem in interpreting them as you do Scripture. Of course, it can be argued that the writings of the fathers have a greater degree of clarity than do the Scriptures (which I would deny), but once it is admitted that the difference in clarity between the church fathers and Scripture is one of degree and not of kind, then the argument loses much of its force and becomes somewhat subjective.
Even the Apostolic Church Had Its Problems: Even Paul’s first-hand hearers and disciples had problems understanding what he said and meant (Galatians 1:6-10, 1 Corinthians 1:11, 11:17-24, 2 Peter 3:15-16). There were also many false teachers who warped (or flat-out denied) apostolic teaching when the apostles weren’t around (Acts 20:28-30, 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, Revelation 2:14-15, 20). If the apostolic churches didn’t quite get Paul’s message even when he taught it to them in person and were persuaded by men coming into the church who taught pseudo-Christian ideas, then why should we believe that the post-apostolic Church fared any better?
The Appeal is Selective: The choice of beliefs for a tradition from amongst the early centuries of the church is selective since the church fathers and other early writers often held many differing views that were sometimes completely at odds with each other. Furthermore, there are a number of beliefs within Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy that were either developed after the early church era or are completely at odds with the early church’s beliefs. In other words, many of Roman Catholicism’s and Eastern Orthodoxy’s chief doctrines were not believed always, everywhere, and by all:
Papal Primacy: I covered this in my extensive quotations of Klaus Schatz here.1 To quote Cardinal Congar:
“Application of the principle is difficult, at least at a certain level. In regard to individual texts of Scripture total patristic consensus is unnecessary: quite often, that which is appealed to as sufficient for dogmatic points does not go beyond what is encountered in the interpretation of many texts. But it does sometimes happen that some Fathers understood a passage in a way which does not agree with later Church teaching. One example: the interpretation of Peter’s confession in Matthew 16.16-19. Except at Rome, this passage was not applied by the Fathers to the papal primacy; they worked out exegesis at the level of their own ecclesiasiological thought, more anthropological and spiritual than judicial. . . . Historical documentation is at the factual level; it must leave room for a judgement made not in the light of the documentary evidence alone, but of the Church's faith.”2
Papal Infallibility: This can be found nowhere in the early church, and in fact, most everyone up into the Middle Ages believed that past popes have erred.3
Popes Over Councils: Up until the fifteenth century, it was believed that ecumenical councils could overrule the decision of a pope. In fact, Martin Luther’s appeal was to a council so that the judgment of Pope Leo X would be overruled. But of course, the appeal was denied by the pope, and the authority of popes over that of councils became official at Vatican I.
Mary’s Immaculate Conception: Despite Rome’s claims to the contrary, almost everyone in the early church denied Mary’s sinlessness, and even amongst those in the West such as Augustine (who believed that she was free from the taint of actual sin) did not deny that she still had the taint of Original Sin. In fact, Vincent of Lerins names this doctrine as one of the innovations of the Pelagians. To quote J.N.D. Kelly:
“Tertullian, however, repudiated the suggestion, finding the opening of her womb prophesied in Exodus 13, 2, and Origen followed him and argued that she had needed the purification prescribed by the Law…Irenaeus and Tertullian recalled occasions on which, as they read the gospel stories, she had earned her Son’s rebuke, and Origen insisted that, like all human beings, she needed redemption from her sins; in particular, he interpreted Simeon’s prophecy (Luke 2, 35) that a sword would pierce her soul as confirming that she had been invaded with doubts when she saw her Son crucified…On the other hand, almost all Eastern theologians, so far from acknowledging her spiritual and moral perfection, followed Origen in finding her guilty of human frailties…Only in Syria, where Marian devotion was particularly fervid, do we find Ephraem delineating her as free from every stain, like her Son…But he [Hilary] still regarded the birth as a natural one; he also took it for granted that Mary would have to face God’s judgment for her sins…On the other hand, he [Augustine] did not hold (as has sometimes been alleged) that she was born exempt from all taint of original sin (the later doctrine of the immaculate conception)…After Ephesus, admittedly, her divine maternity and perpetual virginity seem to have been accepted without question in East and West; but the old doubts about her sinlessness and moral perfection continued to be widely held.”4
Some Catholic apologists like to cite some of the church fathers who called Mary “immaculate”, but this is a semantic anachronism as even many of Rome’s scholars have pointed out.
Mary’s Bodily Ascension: This dogma originally started with the Gnostics and was taught by only one church writer in the fifth century who did so on the mistaken notion that the Gnostic text which taught it was orthodox. The Transitus literature was later condemned by Pope Gelasius. This dogma has absolutely no basis in Scripture or historical tradition, and even the current Pope acknowledges this and has to appeal to a form of doctrinal development:
“Before Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven was defined, all theological faculties in the world were consulted for their opinion. Our teachers’ answer was emphatically negative... ‘Tradition’ was identified with what could be proved on the basis of texts. Altaner, the patrologist from Würzburg...had proven in a scientifically persuasive manner that the doctrine of Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven was unknown before the fifth century; this doctrine, therefore, he argued, could not belong to the ‘apostolic tradition.’ And this was his conclusion, which my teachers at Munich shared. This argument is compelling if you understand ‘tradition’ strictly as the handling down of fixed formulas and texts...But if you conceive of ‘tradition’ as a living process whereby the Holy Spirit introduces us to the fullness of truth and teaches us how to understand what previously we could still not grasp (cf. Jn 16:12-13), then subsequent ‘remembering’ (cf. Jn 16:4, for instance) can come to recognize what it had not caught sight of previously and yet was handed down in the original Word…”5
Beliefs Specific to the West:
Purgatory: Although Catholic apologists have for centuries cited the likes of Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, etc. as believing in Purgatory, this is an anachronism. In reality, those mentioned above believed in Catharsis which would happen on the Last Day, not an intermediate state that happens before the Last Day. In reality, the belief in Purgatory was limited to the Western Church with its theology of merit. I covered this on my old website here6 and here.7
Augustine’s View of Original Sin: Augustine’s view of Original Sin, namely that the guilt of the first sin of Adam was transmitted to his offspring, was for the most part limited to the West. To this day, most8 Eastern Orthodox believe that Adam’s sin added death and corruption to human nature, not the guilt of the sin as well.
Atonement Theories: The belief that Christ’s death gained merit that was placed in the Treasury of Satisfaction which is then communicated through the Church’s sacraments is limited to the Roman Catholic Church. The East never accepted merit theology.
Aristotelianism: Though there were theologians who appealed to Aristotle before him, Aquinas built an entire theology from Aristotelian categories, and the RCC later made his doctrines into dogma.
Transubstantiation: The teaching that the elements of the Eucharist change into the physical body and blood of Christ is specific to the RCC today (although some of the Eastern fathers taught something like it). Appealing to the passages in the early fathers that speak of Christ’s “Real Presence” is to commit the fallacy of equivocation since there were (and still are) several different “Real Presence” theories in the early church, only one of which involved a physical change.
Version of Justification: The theology of merit and grace as an infused substance (modeled after Aristotelian physics) is specific to the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, the Eastern Church has a theology of being unified with the uncreated, Divine energies of the Trinity.
Beatific Vision: The Roman Catholic Church, following Thomas Aquinas, teaches that the departed saints are given the vision of God’s essence. The East completely denies that one can see God’s essence but only His uncreated energies.
The Filioque: The addition to the Nicene Creed, called the Filioque, was accepted only in the West and was one of the causes of the Great Schism between the Western and Eastern Churches.
Beliefs That Were Either Not Held, Specifically Denied, or Innovated in the Early Church:
The Veneration of Images: The earliest Christians (mostly from the ante-Nicene era) not only did not use images, they specifically and forcefully repudiated their use. Even conservative Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox historians acknowledge this:
“Owing to the influence of the Old Testament prohibition of images, Christian veneration of images developed only after the victory of the Church over paganism. The Synod of Elvira (about 306) still prohibited figurative representations in the houses of God (Can. 36).”9
“The primitive church,” says even a modern Roman Catholic historian, “had no images, of Christ, since most Christians at that time still adhered to the commandment of Moses (Ex. xx. 4); the more, that regard as well to the Gentile Christians as to the Jewish forbade all use of images. To the latter the exhibition and veneration of images would, of course, be an abomination, and to the newly converted heathen it might be a temptation to relapse into idolatry. In addition, the church was obliged, for her own honor, to abstain from images, particularly from any representation of the Lord, lest she should be regarded by unbelievers as merely a new kind and special sort of heathenism and creature-worship. And further, the early Christians had in their idea of the bodily form of the Lord no temptation, not the slightest incentive, to make likenesses of Christ. The oppressed church conceived its Master only under the form of a servant, despised and uncomely, as Isaiah, liii. 2, 3, describes the Servant of the Lord.”10
“Christianity in the earliest period seems to have shared the aversion common in Judaism (though not an absolute aversion as is demonstrated by the highly decorated second-century synagogue at Dura Europos) to painted representations in religious contexts.”11
The Ignatian Episcopacy: Ignatius’ letters teaching the primacy of a single bishop per city have been used by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox apologists for centuries to support their form of church government. In fact, they argue that since Ignatius was so close to the apostles, the single bishop model must have been taught by the apostles. However, it is clear, both from the New Testament and from First Clement, that the Ignatian episcopacy was an innovation of some of the Eastern churches for practical reasons:
“The fractionation in Rome favored a collegial presbyterial system of governance and prevented for a long time, until the second half of the 2C, the development of a monarchical episcopacy in the city…Before the second half of the 2C there was in Rome no monarchical episcopacy for the circles mutually bound in fellowship.
I summarize my view of the sources. Individual presbyters preside over the different house communities in the city, leading the worship and, as bishops, directing the care of the poor in their own house congregation. Each individual congregation therefore also has its own treasury, and ministered by the individual “episcopus” (Apol.1.67)…Both examples from the end of the century illustrate what was customary at least until the middle of the century for each group in the city: each individual group was presided over by its own presbyter-bishop.”12
“These letters of Ignatius present us with a picture which is completely different from that which we know from other sources. If we compare the two, it appears that the letters of Ignatius must come from a later time…but the solution is a different one: what Ignatius includes in his letters, as often in church history, is not a description of the real situation, but a demand. In fact, matters had taken a completely different course in the churches to which Ignatius addressed in his letters, as their texts show clearly when we examine them more closely. Ignatius is greatly ahead of the actual development; not infrequently it took several generations until the monarchical episcopate was generally accepted.”13
“The organization, such as we can reconstruct it, does not resemble the hierarchical arrangement of the clergy described in Ignatius’s Letters. It comes closer to the synagogal structure of Diaspora Judaism, an organizational arrangement that, in turn, closely resembled that in Greco- Roman collegia. Such arrangements were available in Paul’s milieu. No long period of internal development was required for them to emerge…There is a complete absence of legitimation of any organizational element in these letters. Leaders are not designated as priests, and none of their functions are cultic in character. Instead, they are given the sort of secular designations used in clubs, and their functions are practical and quotidian…Nothing in the letters supports the idea that structure is in the process of creation…The elements of church structure found in 1 Timothy and Titus are far closer to the elements suggested by the undisputed letters of Paul than to the ecclesiastical arrangements outlined by Ignatius of Antioch.”14
Not only does this prove that the church governments advocated by Rome and the East are false by their own standard,15 it also proves that even Christian writers who were taught by the Apostles could innovate doctrine and practice. This casts a grave shadow upon the reliability of using historical theology (namely tradition) as a guide to the content and meaning of apostolic doctrine.
The Sacerdotal Priesthood: A sacerdotal priesthood did not arise in the Church until the third century when Tertullian started to ascribe sacramental functions to the Christian ministry and Cyprian asserted the same even further:
“Tertullian was the first who expressly and directly asserts sacerdotal claims on behalf of the Christian ministry, and calls it “sacerdotium,” although he also strongly affirms the universal priesthood of all believers. Cyprian (d. 258) goes still further, and applies all the privileges, duties, and responsibilities of the Aaronic priesthood to the officers of the Christian church, and constantly calls them sacerdotes and sacerdotium. He may therefore be called the proper father of the sacerdotal conception of the Christian ministry as a mediating agency between God and the people. During the third century it became customary to apply the term “priest” directly and exclusively to the Christian ministers especially the bishops. In the same manner the whole ministry, and it alone, was called “clergy,” with a double reference to its presidency and its peculiar relation to God.”16
The Eucharist as a Propitiatory Sacrifice: The earliest Christians knew nothing of the Eucharist as a propitiatory sacrifice but only as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, a contrite heart toward God:
“The ante-Nicene fathers uniformly conceived the Eucharist as a thank-offering of the church; the congregation offering the consecrated elements of bread and wine, and in them itself, to God…The germs of the Roman doctrine appear in Cyprian about the middle of the third century, in connection with his high-churchly doctrine of the clerical priesthood.”17
“The use of the word (sacrifice) in this connection is not to be understood as a reference to the sacrifice of Christ. The word was a common description of prayers, alms and gifts in the usage of the time. It is the “sacrifice” of the people to which reference is being made.”18
Private Confession: Despite the Council of Trent’s claim that private confession to a priest was always the practice of the Church from the time of the apostles19, all the evidence tells us that the early church only practiced public confession20:
“In spite of the ingenious arguments of certain scholars, there are still no signs of a sacrament of private penance (i.e. confession to a priest, followed by absolution and the imposition of a penance) such as Catholic Christendom knows to-day. The system which seems to have existed in the Church at this time, and for centuries afterwards, was wholly public, involving confession, a period of penance and exclusion from communion, and formal absolution and restoration - the whole process being called exomologesis. The last of these was normally bestowed by the bishop, as Hippolytus's prayer of episcopal consecration implies, but in his absence might be delegated to a priest. There is plenty of evidence that sinners were encouraged to open their hearts privately to a priest, but nothing to show that this led up to anything more than ghostly counsel. Indeed, for the lesser sins which even good Christians daily commit and can scarcely avoid, no ecclesiastical censure seems to have been thought necessary; individuals were expected to deal with them themselves by prayer, almsgiving and mutual forgiveness. Public penance was for graver sins; it was, as far as we know, universal, and was an extremely solemn affair, capable of being undergone only once in a lifetime.”21
Even the modern Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
“During the seventh century Irish missionaries, inspired by the Eastern monastic tradition, took to continental Europe the ‘private’ practice of penance, which does not require public and prolonged completion of penitential works before reconciliation with the Church. From that time on, the sacrament has been performed in secret between penitent and priest. This new practice envisioned the possibility of repetition and so opened the way to a regular frequenting of this sacrament. It allowed the forgiveness of grave sins and venial sins to be integrated into one sacramental celebration. In its main lines this is the form of penance that the Church has practiced down to our day.”22
Beliefs Specific to the East:
The Essence/Energies Distinction: The distinction between God’s essence and His energies was never accepted by the Roman Catholic Church which followed Thomas Aquinas.
Apophaticism: The Western Church never accepted a strict apophatic theology of God but held a healthy balance between apophatic and cataphatic theology instead.
View of Adam’s Fall: The Eastern Church teaches that mankind inherits only the consequences of Adam’s Original Sin, not his guilt. The West, on the other hand, accepted Augustine’s formulation that mankind inherits Adam’s guilt as well.
Beliefs That Were Either Not Held, Specifically Denied, or Innovated in the Early Church:
The Veneration of Images: (see above)
The Ignatian Episcopacy: (see above)
The Sacerdotal Priesthood: (see above)
Acceptance of Heretical Baptism: (see above)
Private Confession: (see above)
Differing Views Within the Early Church
The Council of Ephesus: The Patriarchate of Babylon (which traces its apostolic origins to St. Thomas) denied the decrees and beliefs of the Council of Ephesus and accepted Nestorianism. In fact, many of the Assyrian Christians are Nestorian to this day. On the basis of tradition, the Nestorian churches have as much a reason to believe that their belief is apostolic as do the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox.
The Council of Chalcedon: All of the churches which call themselves “Oriental Orthodox” trace their origins back to those Christians who did not accept the Chalcedonian formula. These churches include the Copts, the Syriac Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, and the Ethiopian Orthodox. Again, on the basis of tradition, these churches have as much a reason to believe that their belief is apostolic as do the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox.
The Old Testament Canon: While most of the Eastern Orthodox accept the Apocrypha and the Roman Catholic Church has accepted it dogmatically, many of the church fathers (especially the most learned) did not accept it. They include such names as: Melito of Sardis, Julius Africanus, Hilary of Poitiers, Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius, Epiphanius, Gregory Nazianzus, Amphilochius, Basil the Great, Rufinus, Jerome, Anastasius of Antioch, Primasius, Nicolas of Lyra, Pope Gregory the Great, and John of Damascus.
Differing Views of the Eucharist: Contrary to the Council of Trent, there were, in fact, many beliefs concerning the nature of the Eucharist after consecration within the early church. Among them included: the mystical view, the consubstantiation view, as well as a transubstantiation-like view. To quote Philip Schaff:
“…we distinguish three views: the mystic view of Ignatius, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus; the symbolical view of Tertullian and Cyprian; and the allegorical or spiritualistic view of Clement of Alexandria and Origen…The realistic and mystic view is represented by several fathers and the early liturgies…With the act of consecration a change accordingly takes place in the elements, whereby they become vehicles and organs of the life of Christ, although by no means necessarily changed into another substance…The symbolical view, though on a realistic basis, is represented first by Eusebius, who calls the Supper a commemoration of Christ by the symbols of his body and blood, and takes the flesh and blood of Christ in the sixth chapter of John to mean the words of Christ, which are spirit and life, the true food of the soul, to believers…But it is striking that even Athanasius, “the father of orthodoxy,” recognized only a spiritual participation, a self-communication of the nourishing divine virtue of the Logos, in the symbols of the bread and wine, and incidentally evinces a doctrine of the Eucharist wholly foreign to the Catholic, and very like the older Alexandrian or Origenistic, and the Calvinistic, though by no means identical with the latter…As to the adoration of the consecrated elements: This follows with logical necessity from the doctrine of transubstantiation, and is the sure touchstone of it. No trace of such adoration appears, however, in the ancient liturgies, and the whole patristic literature yields only four passages from which this practice can be inferred; plainly showing that the doctrine of transubstantiation was not yet fixed in the consciousness of the church.”23
Acceptance of Heretical Baptism: In the midst of the Donatist controversy, the early church accepted heretical Trinitarian baptisms as valid. However, two centuries before, the same controversy took place between Rome and North Africa, but this time the majority of the churches in North Africa and Asia sided against the acceptance of heretical baptisms. In fact, several church fathers rejected heretical baptisms:
“The most eminent Greek fathers of the Nicene age, on the other hand, adhered to the position of Cyprian and Firmilian. Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, and Cyril of Jerusalem regarded, besides the proper form, the true trinitarian faith on the part of the baptizing community, as an essential condition of the validity of baptism. The 45th of the so-called Apostolic Canons threatens those with excommunication who received converted heretics without rebaptism. But a milder view gradually obtained even in the East, which settled at last upon a compromise.”24
Atonement Theories: According to the noted church historian, J.N.D. Kelly:
“The student who seeks to understand the soteriology of the fourth and early fifth centuries will be sharply disappointed if he expects to find anything corresponding to the elaborately worked out synthesis which the contemporary theology of the Trinity and the Incarnation presents. In both these latter departments controversy forced fairly exact definition on the Church, whereas the redemption did not become a battle-ground for rival schools until the twelfth century, when Anselm’s Cur dues homo (c.1097) focused attention on it. Instead he must be prepared to pick his way through a variety of theories, to all appearance unrelated and even mutually incompatible, existing side by side and sometimes sponsored by the same theologian.”25
To be fair, Kelly goes on to say that the different theories held much in common. However, the commonalities shared by these theories are also found in the classic Protestant theory of the atonement, penal substitution. The East, following Athanasius, held to a more Platonic view of the atonement while the West held to a more legal and judicial view. These differences remain to this day.
Differing Views on Justification: Alister McGrath notes:
“For the first three hundred and fifty years of the history of the church, her teaching on justification was inchoate and ill-defined. There had never been a serious controversy over the matter, such as those which had so stimulated the development of Christology over the period...The medieval period was characterized by its attempts to accumulate biblical and patristic material considered to be relevant to particular issues of theological interpretation, and by its attempt to develop hermeneutical methods to resolve the apparent contradictions encountered in this process.”26
Catharsis: Amongst some of the earliest Christians, especially at Alexandria, was the belief in Catharsis, the purifying fire that would cleanse unperfected Christians of their sins on the Day of Judgment. This belief was held by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and others. Today, the Roman Catholic Church has accepted its offshoot doctrine, Purgatory, and the Eastern Orthodox have rejected it all together.
Eschatology: One of the earliest church fathers, Papias, held to a form of Premillennialism27 while most of the later church fathers held to Amillennialism.
The Date of Easter: In the late second century, there was a controversy on the exact day that Christians were supposed to celebrate Easter. Victor, the bishop of Rome, said that Easter should be celebrated one day, and the Eastern bishops represented by Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, said another. Both claimed apostolic tradition for their respective dates!
“For the parishes of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Saviour’s passover. It was therefore necessary to end their fast on that day, whatever day of the week it should happen to be. But it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world to end it at this time, as they observed the practice which, from apostolic tradition, has prevailed to the present time, of terminating the fast on no other day than on that of the resurrection of our Saviour.”28
Mary’s Perpetual Virginity: As Basil relates, there were not just a few in the early church who believed that Mary had other children:
“…but Basil of Caesarea, when criticizing the latter, implied that such a view was widely held and, though not accepted by himself, was not incompatible with orthodoxy...”29
Not All the Early Fathers Had a Complete Canon: Certain fathers (e.g. Arnobius), especially the earlier ones, did not have a complete canon, and this resulted in a massively lopsided theology. Sometimes they were totally ignorant of the Scriptures resulting in a theology that is more akin to Greek philosophy than Christianity.
Fathers with Bad Theology: Some of the church fathers were the authors of some of the most horrendous forms of heresy within the Christian Church. Arnobius was the author of annihilationism. Clement of Alexandria was the originator of Universalism. In fact, there are many within both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy who consider Universalism to be a possibility, and why shouldn’t they? It’s found in their own ‘Tradition’!
Obviously Wrong Exegesis: There are cases in which the church fathers obviously misinterpreted the Bible resulting in generations of Christians after them making the same mistake. For instance, Augustine used Luke 14:23 to justify the state’s use of force to quell heresy. He failed to notice that the parable was about God’s judgment upon the Jewish nation. This became the policy of the Latin Church for centuries to come, but for today’s Roman Catholics, such an interpretation wouldn’t even cross their minds.
Tradition Based on Bad Science: In Roman Catholicism, any attempt during sexual intercourse to not have a child (i.e. contraception) is considered sinful. This is based on tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages (and probably before that). However, this tradition was based upon a faulty biology:
“Aquinas, in the Summa contra Gentiles, in a chapter on “the disordered emission of semen” treats both masturbation and contraception as a crime against humanity, second only to homicide. Such a view is natural in the context of a biological belief that only the male gamete provides the active element in conception, so that the sperm is an early stage of the very same individual as eventually comes to birth. Masturbation is then the same kind of thing, on a minor scale, as the exposure of an infant…But the view that masturbation is a poor man’s homicide cannot survive the knowledge that both male and female gametes contribute equally to the genetic constitution of the offspring.”30
Thus, a belief was frozen in time as tradition and became part of dogmatic morality all because of a faulty biology.
Emperor-Enforced Orthodoxy: As I had noted in the “Differing Views Within the Early Church” section above, not all of Christendom accepted the Council of Ephesus or the Chalcedonian formula. In fact, much more of the Eastern Church might have been Nestorian or Monophysite today if it weren’t for the fact that the imperial state enforced the beliefs of Ephesus and Chalcedon upon the Empire and expelled heretics from its borders. Thus, what is now Eastern Orthodoxy is simply Byzantine Imperial Christianity and not the universal faith of all Christians.
The Influence of Greco-Roman Thought and Culture: I covered this important aspect which is relevant to any discussion of the early church here.
No Way to Substantiate an Oral Tradition: Both Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox implicitly assume that their oral traditions were apostolic and passed on faithfully without contortion, addition, or subtraction. However, the problem with this is that there is simply no way to substantiate such a claim, and in fact, there are numerous examples from church history which demonstrate the unreliability of oral traditions.
The Case of Papias’ Eschatology: One of the early church historians, Eusebius, records the beliefs and claims of an apostolic father named Papias:
“But it is fitting to subjoin to the words of Papias which have been quoted, other passages from his works in which he relates some other wonderful events which he claims to have received from tradition. That Philip the apostle dwelt at Hierapolis with his daughters has been already stated. But it must be noted here that Papias, their contemporary, says that he heard a wonderful tale from the daughters of Philip. For he relates that in his time one rose from the dead. And he tells another wonderful story of Justus, surnamed Barsabbas: that he drank a deadly poison, and yet, by the grace of the Lord, suffered no harm. The Book of Acts records that the holy apostles after the ascension of the Saviour, put forward this Justus, together with Matthias, and prayed that one might be chosen in place of the traitor Judas, to fill up their number. The account is as follows: “And they put forward two, Joseph, called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias; and they prayed and said.” The same writer gives also other accounts which he says came to him through unwritten tradition, certain strange parables and teachings of the Saviour, and some other more mythical things. To these belong his statement that there will be a period of some thousand years after the resurrection of the dead, and that the kingdom of Christ will be set up in material form on this very earth. I suppose he got these ideas through a misunderstanding of the apostolic accounts, not perceiving that the things said by them were spoken mystically in figures. For he appears to have been of very limited understanding, as one can see from his discourses.”31
Papias claimed that the eschatology of Premillennialism was an apostolic tradition passed down orally. However, both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches reject Premillennialism in favor of Amillennialism.
The Case of Irenaeus and Jesus’ Age: In an attempt to make an argument against Gnosticism, Irenaeus claimed that an oral tradition, which had supposedly been passed down from the apostles, taught that Jesus was around the age of fifty when he died. However, anyone who has studied the Gospels knows that Jesus was actually about thirty when He died. Irenaeus’ claim was one of the first times in which a later Christian said that he had received an oral apostolic tradition, and guess what? He was wrong.
The Case of *Pseudo*-Dionysius: In the fifth century, there appeared a work that had supposedly been written by Dionysius the Areopagite, one of Paul’s converts (Acts 17:34). It came to exert great influence on Christian theology in both the East and the West partly due to the fact that it was believed to have been written by one with close ties to Paul. However, beginning in the early Renaissance period, it became clear that the Dionysian writings could not have been written any earlier than the fifth century and are thus known as the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius. These writings greatly affected Eastern Orthodoxy which maintains the theology derived from these works as ‘Tradition’. This is another clear example of how easily a non-apostolic belief claiming to be ‘apostolic tradition’ can infiltrate the Church and become frozen as dogma. If a written source (in which the authenticity can be examined) can infiltrate the Church that easily, can one imagine how easily an oral tradition could do the same?
The Case of the Date of Easter: (See “The Date of Easter” under ‘Differing Views Within the Early Church’ above.)
The Case of Heretical Baptisms: As noted above in the discussion of “The Acceptance of Heretical Baptism”, there was a conflict in the third century church over the acceptance of heretical baptisms. What was not mentioned was that both sides claimed apostolic tradition! Cyprian records Pope Stephen’s claims:
“But that they who are at Rome do not observe those things in all cases which are handed down from the beginning, and vainly pretend the authority of the apostles…”32
Cyprian goes on to say that Stephen’s apostolic tradition is false and that the rest of the churches of the world agree with his (i.e. Cyprian’s) ‘apostolic’ tradition:
“…any one may know also from the fact, that concerning the celebration of Easter, and concerning many other sacraments of divine matters, he may see that there are some diversities among them, and that all things are not observed among them alike, which are observed at Jerusalem, just as in very many other provinces also many things are varied because of the difference of the places and names. And yet on this account there is no departure at all from the peace and unity of the Catholic Church, such as Stephen has now dared to make; breaking the peace against you, which his predecessors have always kept with you in mutual love and honour, even herein defaming Peter and Paul the blessed apostles, as if the very men delivered this who in their epistles execrated heretics, and warned us to avoid them. Whence, it appears that this tradition is of men which maintains heretics, and asserts that they have baptism, which belongs to the Church alone.”33
Cyprian records a letter from Firmilian, bishop of Cappadocia, which sides with him:
“But with respect to the refutation of custom which they seem to oppose to the truth, who is so foolish as to prefer custom to truth, or when he sees the light, not to forsake the darkness?-unless most ancient custom in any respect avail the Jews, upon the advent of Christ, that is, the Truth, in remaining in their old usage, and forsaking the new way of truth. And this indeed you Africans are able to say against Stephen, that when you knew the truth you forsook the error of custom. But we join custom to truth, and to the Romans’ custom we oppose custom, but the custom of truth; holding from the beginning that which was delivered by Christ and the apostles. Nor do we remember that this at any time began among us, since it has always been observed here, that we knew none but one Church of God, and accounted no baptism holy except that of the holy Church.”34
Eusebius records the letter of Dionysius of Alexandria to Sixtus I about Stephen:
“‘He therefore had written previously concerning Helenus and Firmilianus, and all those in Cilicia and Cappadocia and Galatia and the neighboring nations, saying that he would not commune with them for this same cause; namely, that they re-baptized heretics. But consider the importance of the matter. For truly in the largest synods of the bishops, as I learn, decrees have been passed on this subject, that those coming over from heresies should be instructed, and then should be washed and cleansed from the filth of the old and impure leaven. And I wrote entreating him concerning all these things.’”35
The Meaning of Justification: When the Bible was translated into Latin, the language of the West, the verb for “to justify,” “dikaioun,” was translated as “iustificare.” Alister McGrath notes the problems that this caused:
“The general tendency among Latin-speaking theologians was to follow Augustine of Hippo…in interpreting iustificare as iustum facere…While this may be an acceptable interpretation of iusificare considered in isolation, it is not an acceptable interpretation of the verb considered as the Latin equivalent of [dikaioun]…it would appear that the Greek verb has the primary sense of being considered or estimated as righteous, whereas the Latin verb denotes being righteous, the reason why one is considered righteous by others... [I]t 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.”36
The meaning of “to justify” as “to make intrinsically righteous” later became dogma in the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent. Again, we see another example of a belief becoming frozen in the Church as a “tradition” that was, in fact, based upon misinformation.
Scriptural Arguments for Tradition are to No Avail: The pro-tradition arguments from Scripture are to no avail since they a.) assume too much (see point 14. below), b.) can’t identify the ‘traditions’ spoken of with either Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox traditions, and c.) assume that that was to be the normative state of the Church for succeeding generations. I’ve started to cover some of the Scriptural arguments for ‘Tradition’ in my series called “The Eisegeted Verses”.
Scripture Assumes the Unreliability of Oral Tradition: There are multiple places, especially in the Old Testament Prophets, where God orders the prophets to write down what He had told them over their prophetic ministry so that succeeding generations would have knowledge of what was said (e.g. Isaiah 30:8, Jeremiah 36:2-4, Habakkuk 2:2-3, etc.). The very existence of the Gospels shows that the Apostles, like the Prophets before them, believed that only a written record, not an oral one, could withstand the test of time. The Protestant does not deny Apostolic Tradition. However, the only reliable way that we can know the content of this tradition is from the written text of Scripture.
Scriptural Perspicuity Should Be the Default Belief: First, why should we believe that the apostles wrote less clearly than when they spoke? Secondly, if one does not take the material sufficiency position, the burden of proof is on them to prove that these traditions were different in content than that of Scripture. Let them produce the documentation. Unless proven otherwise, the formal sufficiency of Scripture should be the default position.
Matthew 15: Christ clearly testifies to the need to test allegedly ‘divine’ traditions by the written Word instead of interpreting the written Word through the lens of tradition. The argument that Christ was only speaking of admittedly human-made traditions is completely false since the Rabbis taught that many of these traditions were given to Biblical personages and subsequently passed down orally through the Scribes, and thus, the situation is directly analogous. I covered this here.37
God Doesn’t Always Work Through Succession: Both Rome and Constantinople claim that the bishops of their Churches are the successors of the apostles, and so, Christians should be obedient to them since they are given this Divine authority that has been passed down through time. However, it should be noted that God frequently does not work through succession:
“There is in the Bible teaching a strong strain of discontinuity, which seems to me as yet almost wholly unacknowledged in Roman Catholic thought. Saul is anointed king and then deposed…There are prophets who belong to professional guilds, and others, like Elisha, who are anointed by a predecessor. But the great prophets are not among them…And finally the Epistle to the Hebrews points out that Jesus, the great High Priest, could not have been a priest at all if he had had to rely on historic succession, since he came from Judah and a priest must be descended from Levi; on the contrary, Jesus stands in the order of Melchizedek, who is notorious for having no genealogy…To say that God has committed himself to working through a historic succession, but has reserved the right of departing from this method in exceptional circumstances is to say that most of the prophets in the Old Testament, and John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul in the New Testament, are exceptions to a divine rule which finds its full expression in the temple priesthood in the one case and in the Sadducees and Pharisees in the other.”38
The fact that one bishop holds authority through an unbroken chain of succession which can be traced back to the apostles does not prove that they hold any divine authority. Scripture testifies that God has frequently disregarded the old authorities in favor of new ones which he brought forth from humble beginnings.
2 Yves M.-J. Congar, Tradition and Traditions: An Historical and a Theological Essay (London: Burns & Oats, 1966), pp. 398-399.
3 Klaus Schatz covers this in a limited fashion in my post on Papal Primacy above. I also have a few examples on my old website here:
4 J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, reprinted 2003), p.493, 495-498.
5 Joseph Ratzinger, Milestones (Ignatius, 1998), pp. 58-59.
8 Though, I should note that some Eastern Orthodox theologians do accept Augustine’s view.
9 Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1974), p. 320.
10 Hefele, as found in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 3.8.110
11 The Westminster Handbook To Patristic Theology (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 32.
12 P. Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus (Fortress 2003), 397, 400.
13 K. Aland, A History of Christianity (Fortress 1985), 1:12.
14 L. Johnson, The First and Second Letters to Timothy (Doubleday 2001), pp.75-76.
15 That is, the standard of tradition “believed always, everywhere, and by all.”
16 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 2.4.42
17 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. III, ch.7, part 96.
18 Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible 2:125a.
19 “If any one denieth, either that sacramental confession was instituted, or is necessary to salvation, of divine right; or saith, that the manner of confessing secretly to a priest alone, which the Church hath ever observed from the beginning, and doth observe, is alien from the institution and command of Christ, and is a human invention; let him be anathema.” Council of Trent, session 14, canon 6
20 For more information on this, see here.
21 J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (Peabody,MA: Prince Press, reprinted 2003), p.216-217.
22 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1447
23 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. III, ch.7, part 95.
24 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 3.7.92
25 J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, reprinted 2003), p.375 (emphasis mine).
26 Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 2nd edition (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, reprinted 1998), pp.23, 38.
27 Eusebius, Church History 3.39.8-13
28 Emphasis mine, Eusebius, Church History 5.23.1
29 J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, reprinted 2003), p.495.
30 A. Kenney, What I Believe (Continuum 2006), pp. 92-93.
31 Emphasis mine, Eusebius, Church History 3.39.8-13
32 Emphasis mine, Cyprian, The Epistles of Cyprian, Letter LXXIV.6
33 Emphasis mine, Cyprian, The Epistles of Cyprian, Letter LXXIV.6
34 Emphasis mine, Cyprian, The Epistles of Cyprian, Letter LXXIV.19
35 Emphasis mine, Eusebius, Church History 7.7.4-5
36 Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 2nd edition (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, reprinted 1998), pp.14, 15.
38 Our Dialogue with Rome, pp. 64-66.