There is a strong antipathy in Protestant/Evangelical circles towards the word ‘tradition.’ The Roman Church, rather like the Pharisees, have given the word a bad name. Peter puts it succinctly when he writes against, ‘your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers.’ (1 Pet.1:17-19) Rome has had an unfortunate habit of giving their ‘traditions’ equal weight with Scripture itself.
‘Tradition’ however is found in the Bible, something any good Roman Catholic apologist will point out. Paul, writing to Corinth, uses the word, ‘Now I commend you for remembering me in everything and for maintaining the traditions, just as I passed them on to you.’ (1 Cor.11:2) That’s awkward, you might think, but what is Paul writing about?
The word here is paradosis and simply means surrendering, giving up, the passing on of something. In this case, what is passed on is instruction, precepts, teaching. Tradition doesn’t mean the content of what is passed on, but simply the act of passing it on. This brings us to a good question…what has Paul passed on?
…and Your Children’s Children
As far back as Moses we find this ‘tradition’ is important. In his final sermon to Israel Moses urged them:
‘Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children…’ (Deut.4:9)
As Moses preaches he reminds Israel of their sinfulness and God’s faithfulness, of the dangers of idolatry, of the commandments by which they were to live, and of their duty to pass on these ‘traditions.’ They were to be so integral to God’s people they were to define everything about them:
‘And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise.’
Paul writes something similar to the church in Thessalonica:
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. (1 Thess.4:1-2)
In this instance the word is parangelia and carries the meaning ‘instruction’ or ‘command.’ So we have something that was ‘received’ (paralambanō,) to take possession) by Thessalonica, which was ‘from us,’ in other words passed on paradosis, and it was instruction that was received.
Jesus and Tradition
It may surprise you to know this describes what Jesus did:
‘So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.”’( John 8:28)
“For I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak. “I know that His commandment is eternal life; therefore the things I speak, I speak just as the Father has told Me.” (John 12:39-40)
The earliest church followed the same pattern, ‘And…devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ (Acts 2:42)
As we have seen, the early church continued in this pattern of being devoted to the traditions, the established truth:
‘Now I commend you for remembering me in everything and for maintaining the traditions, just as I passed them on to you.’ (1 Cor.11:2)
‘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.’ (1 Thess.4:1-2)
Church Leaders and Tradition
We are familiar with Paul’s instruction to Timothy:
‘From childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.’ (2 Tim.3:15-17)
As time went by it became even more important to know and follow established truth, as Jude reminds us:
‘Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.’ (Jude 3)
Let what you heard from the beginning
abide in you
Indeed, Paul considered the church to be in a battle for truth and wrote to Timothy, ‘Fight the good fight of the faith.’ (1 Tim.6:12)
Warning of Anti-Christs, Peter cautions believers, ‘Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father.’ (1 John 2:24)
Jesus warned us about ‘false christs and false prophets [who] will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand.’ (Mt.24:24)
Apostolic tradition was vital in the first centuries of the church. Writing to Corinth, Clement wrote from Rome:
The apostles ave preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ has done so from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits, having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe.’ (Clement of Rome, 1 Clement, ch.42)
Paul Pavao comments:
‘Apostolic tradition is the foundation for this quote. The apostles taught what they had received from God through Jesus. They were the authorities. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch in the late first and early second centuries, wrote, “Study…to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles so that in everything, whatever you do, you may prosper.”’
In his Against Heresies the early church apologist Irenaeus wrote:
The church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points, just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth…Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these…nor, on the other hand, will he who is so deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.’ (Against Heresies, Book 1, ch.10, par.2)
So we have a picture of Jesus bringing the message of salvation from God, speaking only what the Father speaks. The apostles, in turn, passing on (paradosis) this same instruction (paralambanō) to the church, that faithfully devotes itself to the apostles’ teaching. Paul commends the Corinthian church for maintaining the traditions passed on to them, and presses Timothy to fight the good fight of that faith. Jude urges us to contend for it, and Peter urges believers to abide in it.
In the post-apostolic church that same practice of passing on the one faith continues, with Clement tracing that same line of ‘tradition’ from God through Christ, to the apostles, and then the church. Irenaeus writes in his turn of the church, ‘ she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth.’ Further, he assures us, ‘neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.’
I am reminded of Moses’ words to Israel, ‘You shall be careful therefore to do as the LORD your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.’ (Deut.5:32)
This isn’t a call to blind legalism, but a call to intelligent obedience to what has been handed down ‘to your children, and to your children’s children.’ It stands today, a call to devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, as handed down from God through Christ, to the apostles and the church.
Where is the apostles’ teaching? In the Bible
I have often been asked where, in Christian history, do we find the kind of continuity claimed by the Roman Catholic Church or, according to Mormonism, lost by the Roman Catholic Church then restored by the Mormon Church. The answer is the creeds and confessions of the Christian Church. How can we know if they truly continue in the Apostolic Tradition? By being good Bereans and comparing them to the apostles’ teaching. Where is the apostles’ teaching? In the Bible.
Many today seek the experience of the early church. Many others promise they bring that experience, claiming to be restoring it. This is the experience of the early church, holding to the true tradition received from God, the apostles’ teaching.
Whatever we think about spiritual gifts and church leadership it is our responsibility to do as did the Twelve, Paul, Timothy, Jude, Peter, John, Polycarp, Clement, and the early church, keep obedient to it, passing it on whole and complete.
If you want to understand more I recommend Paul Pavaos’ book Rome’s Audacious Claim from which I lifted the Clement and Irenaeus quotes.