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A Response to William Webster’s Presentation of:

Sola Scriptura and the Early Church

 

By Scott Windsor

 

My words will be in this color (teal) to offset them from Mr. Webster’s words.


The Reformation was responsible for restoring to the Church the principle of sola Scriptura, a principle which had been operative within the Church from the very beginning of the post apostolic age.

The problem we have, from the very beginning, is the precept is not taught IN Scripture.  This makes sola scriptura an extra scriptura teaching. 

Initially the apostles taught orally…

And here we have the admission that “initially” – that is “from the beginning” the Church taught orally, in fact for most of the 1st century, the Scriptures were incomplete.  The fact of the matter is too, it would be nearly 400 years until the Church (at the Councils of Carthage and Hippo) stated the Canon of Sacred Scripture like we have it today.  It would be about 1500 years before Christendom had a “Bible” identical to what Protestantism uses today.

…but with the close of the apostolic age all special revelation that God wanted preserved for man was codified in the written Scriptures.

This is pure conjecture, and an unsupported (and unsupportable) statement.

Sola Scriptura is the teaching and belief that there is only one special revelation from God that man possesses today, the written Scriptures or the Bible, and that consequently the Scriptures are materially sufficient and are by their very nature as being inspired by God the ultimate authority for the Church.

And again, I assert – this is NOT taught IN Scripture, thus if Scripture is to be the “only one special revelation from God,” then certainly God would have made that clear to us IN Scripture and not force us to go beyond Scripture to develop a precept that restricts us to Scripture.  Are you getting dizzy yet?  Sola scriptura is a self-refuting proposition.  If we have to go beyond Scripture to get the teaching of sola scriptura, then the teaching itself denies the precept!

This means that there is no portion of that revelation which has been preserved in the form of oral tradition independent of Scripture.

Mr. Webster, where is this taught IN SCRIPTURE?  There are teachings of the sufficiency of Scripture, but there’s not one definitive teaching that says sola scriptura.  It’s just not there, so it is an invention – and when do we first see the Latin words “sola scriptura?”  You will not find these words used until just about the time of the Protestant schism from THE Church.  It is rather obvious to the objective reader that sola scriptura is an invention of the innovators of the 16th century who, in their revolt, had to invent a new authority to justify their abandonment of the Church which Jesus Christ founded and built upon the Apostles.

The Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, on the other hand, declared that the revelation of God was not contained solely in the Scriptures. It was contained partly in the written Scriptures and partly in oral tradition and therefore the Scriptures were not materially sufficient. This was the universal view of Roman Catholic theologians for centuries after the Council of Trent and is the predominant view today.

The fact of the matter is, the Church convenes a dogmatic ecumenical council when it needs to.  When the Trinity and the Nature of Jesus was being taught falsely by false and/or deceptive or at least deceived leaders, the Church answered with the Councils of Nicea, Constantinople, Ephasus, Chalcedon, etc.  Likewise, when Luther and Calvin, et al, were teaching heresy and dividing Christendom, the Church answered with the Council of Trent. Church councils are not new, but as I have pointed out earlier, sola scriptura certainly was new and unheard of until about the 16th century.  Again, the objective reader here can certainly see the novelty of sola scriptura.  I challenge Mr. Webster, or any sola scripturist, for that matter, to document the first use of the terminology sola scriptura, that is prior to the era of the 16th century.  I have asserted there is NO USE of this terminology, and one would THINK that among the Early Church Fathers – most of whom spoke and wrote Latin – that we’d see the Latin terms sola scriptura not only used, but it should predominate the Early Church writings and teachings – and we should find it IN THE BIBLE!  Since I cannot prove a negative, the burden of proof lies with those who hold the positive – namely that it WAS taught and WAS used by the Early Church Fathers (patristics).

It is interesting to note, however, that in Roman Catholic circles today there is an ongoing debate among theologians on the nature of Tradition. There is no clear understanding of what Tradition is in Roman Catholicism. Some agree with Trent and some don't. But the view espoused by Trent is contradictory to and is a repudiation of the belief and practice of the Church of the patristic age.

What is truly interesting to note, to the observant reader, is that Mr. Webster again makes an unsupported claim.  He does not demonstrate for us this alleged “view espoused by Trent” and then show us how it is contradictory to the belief and practice of the Church of the patristic age. 

The early Church held to the principle of sola Scriptura in that it believed that all doctrine must be proven from Scripture and if such proof could not be produced the doctrine was to be rejected.

I do not deny that Scripture was used as a litmus for teachings, but it was not the sole source of authority, revelation or instruction.  More accurately speaking, when a teaching was tested by Scripture – it had to not contradict Scripture.  That’s a far different cry from the belief in sola scriptura.

From the very beginning of the post apostolic age with the writings of what we know as the Apostolic Fathers we find an exclusive appeal to the Scriptures for the positive teaching of doctrine and for its defense against heresy.

This statement is utterly false!  One of the earliest heresies the Church had to combat was the teachings of Arius and the heresy known as Arianism.  Arius based his teachings on Scripture too, and the scary part was, he got most of the Church to follow him into heresy!  It would not be Scripture alone that ended the heresy of Arius – it would be the Council of Nicea, and even after that council the heresy lingered.  In the modern age it has been reborn among groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The writings of the Apostolic Fathers literally breathe with the spirit of the Old and New Testaments.

And they breathe with Sacred Tradition and Apostolic Authority of the Church AND the Scriptures.

With the writings of the Apologists such as Justin Martyr and Athenagoras in the early to mid second century we find the same thing. There is no appeal in any of these writings to the authority of Tradition as a separate and independent body of revelation.

And that would be Mr. Webster’s misrepresentation of the True Church.  The authority of the Church is NOT something that is “separate and independent” from the Scriptures.  The Church’s authority is from Jesus Christ Himself and is recorded IN the Scriptures! 

It is with the writings of Irenaeus and Tertullian in the mid to late second century that we first encounter the concept of Apostolic Tradition that is preserved in the Church in oral form.

I submit to the readers, writings from the “mid to late second century” (we’re talking in the 100’s AD now) are among the EARLIEST of the Patristic writings!  Very few other writers works are still extant from prior to the mid to late second century.

This being said, St. Clement of Rome, our fourth Pope, teaches of the authority of the “generals” (we can relate that to the bishops/overseers) who are above others, yet the great need the small, and the small need the great.  He also relates the same hierarchical structure to the head of the body needing the feet, and the feet needing the head. (1st Epistle, Chapter 37).  “The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen” (ibid, Chapter 40).

CHAPTER 42 -- THE ORDER OF MINISTERS IN THE CHURCH.

The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done sol 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 [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this 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." (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1010.htm)

Well, here we have our fourth Pope describing those who had “received their orders” were to be “bishops and deacons.”  We truly do see the foundations of the Catholic Church, but we don’t see sola scriptura – even though St. Clement does mention Scripture from time to time, he never says “sola.

The word Tradition simply means teaching.

No, it does not.  Tradition means much more than simply teaching.  Traditions are practices and teachings which are passed down from previous generations.  The word tradition comes from the Latin word traditio which literally means “the action of handing over” (www.m-w.com).  The definition from Merriam-Webster begins with:  “1. the inherited, established or customary pattern of thought, action or behavior (as a religious practice or social custom)” (ibid).  So yes, from a certain point of view “tradition” includes “teaching” but it most certainly is not “simply teaching,” but is much deeper and richer than this minimalist definition.  It is apparent that Mr. Webster is attempting to minimize the word so that it might fit his paradigm.

But what do these fathers mean when they say this Apostolic Teaching or Tradition is preserved orally. All they mean is that the Bishops of the Church preach the truth orally and anyone interested in learning the true Apostolic Tradition could learn by simply listening to the oral teaching of the Bishops of any orthodox Church of the day.

“All they mean…” is a pretty big statement, and I contend that they didn’t “simply” mean what Mr. Webster contends, as I shall demonstrate below.

Irenaeus and Tertullian state emphatically that all the teaching of the Bishops that was given orally was rooted in Scripture and could be proven from the written Scriptures. Both fathers give us the actual doctrinal content of the Apostolic Tradition that was orally preached in the Churches and every doctrine is derived from Scripture. There is no doctrine in this Apostolic Tradition that is not found in Scripture. And there is no appeal in the writings of these fathers to a Tradition that is oral in nature for a defense of what they call Apostolic Tradition. The Apostolic Tradition for Irenaeus and Tertullian is simply Scripture. It was Irenaeus who stated that while the apostles at first preached orally their teaching was later committed to writing in the Scriptures and the Scriptures have since that day become the pillar and ground of our faith. His exact statement is as follows: "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" (Alexander Roberts & W.H. Rambaugh Translators, The Writings of Irenaeus, Against Heresies (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1874), 3.1.1). Tradition, when referring to oral proclamation such as preaching or teaching, was viewed primarily as the oral presentation of Scriptural truth, or the codifying of biblical truth into creedal expression.

Mr. Webster has at least a couple problems here.  First, Book 3 of Against Heresies is speaking to ONE error of the heretics contemporary to St. Irenaeus.  Second, in this chapter St. Irenaeus does not make any mention of the Scriptures being the sole authority.  It is also interesting to note that the actual subject of what Mr. Webster is quoting here is NOT the Scriptures, but the Apostles!  Consider using parentheses instead of commas, and you get:  “We have learned from non 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, hand down to us in the Scriptures) to be the ground and pillar of our faith.”  Mr. Webster would like the emphasis of this snippet to be on Scripture, but the actual syntax of the sentence points to the Apostles as the pillar and ground of the faith, and this latter explanation more cohesively fits with the Scriptures themselves wherein the Church is proclaimed to be the pillar and ground of the faith (truth).

Perhaps the biggest problem one would have in reading Mr. Webster’s “take” on this passage from Against Heresies, is a matter of context.  One need only read the very next chapter in Book 3 and we find this:

But, again, 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.  (Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 2).

Bearing this in mind, St. Irenaeus certainly cannot be stolen from the Catholic Church to support the 16th century innovation of sola scriptura.  Just in reading the above, it sounds exactly like St. Irenaeus is preaching to the proponents of sola scriptura, for they believe they have discovered the unadulterated truth in opposition to the tradition handed down to us which originates from the apostles and is preserved by the means of the succession of presbyters! 

Irenaeus and Tertullian had to contend with the Gnostics who were the very first to suggest and teach that they possessed an Apostolic oral Tradition that was independent from Scripture. These early fathers rejected such a notion and appealed to Scripture alone for the proclamation and defense of doctrine. Church historian, Ellen Flessman-Van Leer affirms this fact:

For Tertullian Scripture is the only means for refuting or validating a doctrine as regards its content...For Irenaeus, the church doctrine is certainly never purely traditional; on the contrary, the thought that there could be some truth, transmitted exclusively viva voce (orally), is a Gnostic line of thought...If Irenaeus wants to prove the truth of a doctrine materially, he turns to scripture, because therein the teaching of the apostles is objectively accessible. Proof from tradition and scripture serve one and the same end: to identify the teaching of the church as the original apostolic teaching. The first establishes that the teaching of the church is this apostolic teaching, and the second, what this apostolic teaching is (Ellen Flessman-van Leer, Tradition and Scripture in the Early Church (Van Gorcum, 1953, pp. 184, 133, 144).

Mr. Webster has mentioned Tertullian several times now, but has not cited a single passage from him.  All he’s cited is St. Irenaeus – and I’ve already demonstrated that he does NOT support the concept of sola scriptura, and in fact speaks against those who put themselves above the authority of the succession of presbyters.  We must also not overlook the straw man that Mr. Webster has used in the above quote.  It is pointed out that St. Irenaeus is against an authority which is “exclusively viva voce” (more accurately: living voice, or living tradition) – and the Catholic Church opposes such exclusivity as well.

It is also interesting to note that the “viva voce” quote actually comes from Chapter 2, but Mr. Webster (and his secondary source) conveniently skip over the part that reinforces the authority of the succession of presbyters in the Church.

The bible was the ultimate authority for the fathers of the patristic age. It was materially sufficient and the final arbiter in all matters of doctrinal truth. As JND Kelly has pointed out:

The clearest token of the prestige enjoyed by (Scripture) is the fact that almost the entire theological effort of the Fathers, whether their aims were polemical or constructive, was expended upon what amounted to the exposition of the Bible. Further, it was everywhere taken for granted that, for any doctrine to win acceptance, it had first to establish its Scriptural basis (Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), pp. 42, 46).

Webster jumps from misrepresenting quotes from Early Church Fathers to commentary from a modern non-Catholic secondary source. 

Heiko Oberman makes these comments about the relationship between Scripture and Tradition in the early Church:

Scripture and Tradition were for the early Church in no sense mutually exclusive: kerygma (the message of the gospel), Scripture and Tradition coincided entirely. The Church preached the kerygma which is found in toto in written form in the canonical books. The Tradition was not understood as an addition to the kerygma contained in Scripture but as handing down that same kerygma in living form: in other words everything was to be found in Scripture and at the same time everything was in living Tradition (The Harvest of Medieval Theology (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1963), p. 366).

Oberman is yet another relatively modern source.  Webster’s task was to show us authentic Early Church Father’s teachings, not modern commentaries.

That the fathers were firm believers in the principle of sola Scriptura is clearly seen from the writings of Cyril of Jerusalem, the bishop of Jerusalem in the mid fourth century. He is the author of what is known as the Catechetical Lectures. This work is an extensive series of lectures given to catechumens expounding the principle doctrines of the faith. It is a complete explanation of the faith of the Church of his day. And his teaching is thoroughly grounded in Scripture. There is in fact not one appeal in the entirety of the Lectures to an oral Apostolic Tradition that is independent of Scripture. He states in unequivocal terms that if he were to present any teaching to these catechumens which could not be validated from Scripture, they were to reject it. This tells us that his authority as a Bishop was subject to his conformity to the written Scriptures in his teaching. The following are some of his statements from the Lectures on the final autghority of Scripture:

This seal have thou ever on thy mind; which now by way of summary has been touched on in its heads, and if the Lord grant, shall hereafter be set forth according to our power, with Scripture-proofs. For concerning the divine and sacred Mysteries of the Faith, we ought not to deliver even the most casual remark without the Holy Scriptures: nor be drawn aside by mere probabilities and the artifices of argument. Do not then believe me because I tell thee these things, unless thou receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of what is set forth: for this salvation, which is of our faith, is not by ingenious reasonings, but by proof from the Holy Scriptures (A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford: Parker, 1845), The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril 4.17).

But take thou and hold that faith only as a learner and in profession, which is by the Church delivered to thee, and is established from all Scripture. For since all cannot read the Scripture, but some as being unlearned, others by business, are hindered from the knowledge of them; in order that the soul may not perish for lack of instruction, in the Articles which are few we comprehend the whole doctrine of Faith...And for the present, commit to memory the Faith, merely listening to the words; and expect at the fitting season the proof of each of its parts from the Divine Scriptures. For the Articles of the Faith were not composed at the good pleasure of men: but the most important points chosen from all Scriptures, make up the one teaching of the Faith. And, as the mustard seed in a little grain contains many branches, thus also this Faith, in a few words, hath enfolded in its bosom the whole knowledge of godliness contained both in the Old and New Testaments. Behold, therefore, brethren and hold the traditions which ye now receive, and write them on the table of your hearts (Ibid., Lecture 5.12).

Notice here that Cyril states that these catechumens are receiving Tradition and he exhorts them to hold to the traditions which they are now receiving. Where is this Tradition derived from? It is obviously derived from the Scriptures. The Teaching or Tradition or Revelation of God which was committed to the Apostles and passed on to the Church is now accessible in Scripture ALONE. It is significant that Cyril of Jerusalem, who is communicating the entirety of the faith to these catechumens, did not make a single appeal to an oral Tradition to support his teachings.

Tradition is more than just an oral teaching; it consists of the practices and beliefs of the Church that were not enscripturated.  What else does St. Cyril teach?  I wonder if Mr. Webster has read Lexture 23 wherein St. Cyril describes what happens in every Catholic Mass?  How about Lecture 4.35 where St. Cyril states Baruch is part of the Canon of the Old Testament?  Let’s not overlook Lecture 3 which teaches us of baptismal regeneration wherein our sins are indeed washed away in the Sacrament of Baptism.  I would not deny St. Cyril’s support of Scripture, but would Mr. Webster accept his support of these other Catholic traditions?

The entirety of the faith is grounded upon Scripture and Scripture alone. This principle is also enunciated by Gregory of Nyssa:

The generality of men still fluctuate in their opinions about this, which are as erroneous as they are numerous. As for ourselves, if the Gentile philosophy, which deals methodically with all these points, were really adequate for a demonstration, it would certainly be superfluous to add a discussion on the soul to those speculations, but while the latter proceeded, on the subject of the soul, as far in the direction of supposed consequences as the thinker pleased, we are not entitled to such license, I mean that of affirming what we please; we make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet (dogma); we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings. (Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Peabody: Hendrikson, 1995), Second Series: Volume V, Philosophical Works, On the Soul And the Resurrection, p. 439).

Yes, St. Gregory of Nyssa says this, but he’s not saying sola scriptura.  He does not say that there cannot be other tenets, but that the Holy Scriptures are the rule and measure of every tenet (or dogma).  St. Gregory goes on to say that these teaching which “harmonize” with the Scriptures are to be approved.  To be in harmony or more importantly, to be not out of harmony with – that is to not be contradictory to – the Scriptures is his point here.  There is no mention of sola scriptura.

Basil the Great, the bishop of Caesarea from 370 to 379 A.D., testifies to his belief in the all-sufficient nature of the Scriptures in these words taken from a letter he wrote to a widow:

Enjoying as you do the consolation of the Holy Scriptures, you stand in need neither of my assistance nor of that of anybody else to help you comprehend your duty. You have the all-sufficient counsel and guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead you to what is right (Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Peabody: Hendrikson, 1995), Second Series: Volume VIII, Basil: Letters and Select Works, Letter CCLXXXIII, p. 312).

Again, we find part of this passage is omitted, let’s look a bit more at the sentence the precedes that which Mr. Webster has quoted:

Your dream, I think, reveals more perfectly the necessity of making provision for spiritual contemplation, and cultivating that mental vision by which God is wont to be seen. Enjoying as you do the consolation of the Holy Scriptures, you stand in need neither of my assistance nor of that of anybody else to help you to comprehend your duty. You have the all-sufficient counsel and guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead you to what is right. (Letter 283).

The subject of this paragraph is the widow’s dream primarily, and secondarily her consolation of the Holy Scriptures.  So again this is not sola scriptura and again Mr. Webster misrepresents the Church Father.

These fathers are simply representative of the fathers as a whole. Cyprian, Origen, Hippolytus, Athanasius, Firmilian, Augustine are just a few of the fathers that could be cited as proponents of the principle of sola Scriptura, in addition to Tertullian, Irenaeus, Cyril and Gregory of Nyssa. The early Church operated on the basis of the principle of sola scriptura and it was this historical principle that the Reformers sought to restore to the Church.

It has already been demonstrated that Tertullian, Sts. Irenaeus and Gregory of Nyssa cannot be used to support sola scriptura.

The extensive use of Scripture by the fathers of the early Church from the very beginning are seen in the following facts:

Irenaeus: He knew Polycarp who was a disciple of the apostle John. He lived from @ 130 to 202 A.D. He quotes from 24 of the 27 books of the New Testament. He makes over 1800 quotes from the New Testament alone.

Clement of Alexandria: He lived from 150 to 215 A.D. He cites all the New Testament books except Philemon, James and 2 Peter. He gives 2400 citations from the New Testament.

Tertullian: He lived from 160 to 220 A.D. He makes over 7200 New Testament citations.

Origen: He lived from 185 to 254 A.D. he succeeded Clement of Alexandria at the Catechetical school at Alexandria. he makes nearly 18,000 New Testament citations.

We do not deny that Scripture is a source of authority and instruction – we just deny the 16th century precept that Scripture is the sole source, or even the sole infallible source.

By the end of the third century virtually the entire New Testament could be reconstructed from the writings of the Church fathers. Norman Geisler and William Nix sum up the position of the New Testament Scriptures in the early Church in these words: "In summary, the first hundred years of the existence of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament reveal that virtually every one of them was quoted as authoritative and recognised as canonical by men who were themselves the younger contemporaries of the apostolic age" (Norman Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody, 1980), p. 190).

And several other non-canonical books are quoted from, and some even listed as canonical which were eventually not accepted in the canon (Shepherd of Hermes, Epistles of Clement, etc.).  This quote from Geisler is really meaningless.  I must also point out that Mr. Webster is drifting from the thesis here.  The necessary point for him to prove was not the canon of the New Testament, we AGREE on that!  His task was to demonstrate and prove the concept of sola scriptura.

B.F. Wescott comes to a similar conclusion: "With the exception of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the two shorter Epistles of St John, the second Epistle of St Peter, the Epistles of St James and St Jude, and the Apocalypse, all the other books of the New Testament are acknowledged as Apostolic and authoritative throughout the Church as the close of the second century. The evidence of the great Fathers by which the Church is represented varies in respect of these disputed books, but the Canon of the acknowledged books is established by their common consent. Thus the testimony on which it rests is not gathered from one quarter but from many, and those the most widely separated by position and character. It is given, not as a private opinion, but as an unquestioned fact: not as a late discovery, but as an original tradition
(B.F. Westcott, A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament (Cambridge: Macmillan, 1889), pp. 337-338).

And again, Mr. Webster is diverting attention from his thesis, and again we AGREE on the canon of the New Testament!

It is true that the early Church held to the concept of Traditon as referring to ecclesiastical customs and practices and that they often believed that such practices were actually handed down from the Apostles even though could not necessarily be validated from the Scriptures.

What’s this?  The admission of the fact that the Early Church held to Traditions not explicitly found in the Bible?

But these practices did not involve the doctrines of the faith and were often contradictory among different segments of the Church.

How about baptismal regeneration?  Would that not be a “doctrine of faith?”  Certainly for those who accepted that Baptism indeed washed away Original Sin, it was – for those who do not accept baptismal regeneration, it’s not a doctrine of faith – is that what Mr. Webster means?  How about the teaching that the bread and wine actually become the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus and that the Mass is indeed a sacrifice?  These are matters that are “doctrines of faith” which one assumes Mr. Webster disagrees with, yet these teachings quite prevalent among the Early Church Fathers.

An example of this is found early on in the second century in the controversy over when to celebrate Easter. Certain Eastern churches celebrated it on a certain day, while the West celebrated it on a different one, but both claimed that their particular practice was handed down to them directly from the Apostles. It actually led to conflict with the Bishop of Rome who was demanding that the Eastern fathers submit to the Western parctice. This they refused to do firmly believing that they were adhering to Apostolic Tradition. Which one is correct? There is no way to ascertain which, if either, was truly of Apostolic origin. It is interesting, however, to note that one of the proponents for the Eastern view was Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John. And there are other examples of this sort of claim in Church history. Just because a particular Church father claims that a particular practice is of Apostolic origin does not mean that it necessarily is. All it means is that he believes it was. But there is no way to verify if in fact it truly was a tradition from the apostles.

Mr. Webster’s example is flawed.  The date of Easter is not a matter of dogma.  Yes, it was controversial, but it was not a “doctrine of faith,” as Mr. Webster contends. 

There are numerous practices which the early Church engaged in which they believed were of Apostolic origin which are listed for us by Basil the Great which no one in the Church practices today. So clearly, such appeals to oral Apostolic Tradition are meaningless.

Mr. Webster’s assertion is meaningless – he provides no examples, no citations – yet we’re supposed to just accept his word on this? 

The Roman Catholic Church states that it possesses an oral Apostolic Tradition which is independent of Scripture and which is binding upon men.

No, the Church does not teach that Apostolic Tradition is “independent” of Scripture.  Apostolic Tradition is in “conjunction” with Scripture, and in fact is derived from Scripture!  In Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18 men are given infallible authority – for whatsoever they bind on earth is also bound in heaven.  Unless one believes error could be bound in heaven, then whatsoever is bound by these men is infallibly bound.

It appeals to Paul's statement in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 for the justification for such a claim, where Paul states that he handed on traditions or teachings to this Chruch in both oral and written form. Rome asserts that, based on Paul's teaching in this passage, the teaching of sola Scriptura is false, since he handed on teachings to the Thessalonians in both oral and written form.

If this were the only reference Catholics used, maybe Mr. Webster would have a point.  However, we have just seen two passages in Matthew’s Gospel which establish infallibility of the bishopric of the Apostles.

But what is interesting in such an appeal is that Roman apologists never document the specific doctrines that Paul is referring to which they claim they possess and which are binding upon men. In all the writings of apologists from the Reformation to the present day no one has been able to list the doctrines that comprise this supposed Apostolic Oral Tradition. From Francis De Sales to the writings of Karl Keating and Robert Sungenis there is this conspicuous absence.

Is there this absence?  How about the doctrine of infallibility?  Though it is rooted in Scripture, I believe Mr. Webster would not accept it as such – yet it is something we believe has been handed down from the Apostles to the present day.

Sungenis is editor of a work recently released on a defense of the Roman Catholic teaching of Tradition entitled Not By Scripture Alone. It is touted as a definitive refutation of the Protestant teaching of sola Scriptura. It is 627 pages in length. But not once in the entire 627 pages does any author define the doctrinal content of this supposed Apostolic Tradition that is binding on all men. All we are told is that it exists, that the Roman Catholic Church possesses it, and that we are bound therefore to submit to this Church which alone possesses the fulness of God's revelation from the Apostles. But they can't tell us what it is. And the reason is because it doesn't exist. If they are of such importance why did Cyril of Jerusalem not mention them in his Catechetical Lectures? I defy anyone to list the doctrines Paul is referring to in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 which he says he committed orally to the Thessalonians.

Sungenis’ book Not By Scripture Alone, was very well done.  I have already stated at least one Sacred Tradition, the authority of men to bind things infallibly, and this was no mystery prior to me writing it.  This being said, one need only read as far as page 4 of Not By Scripture Alone to find: “It (sola scriptura) does not work – really, it cannot work – simply because the written Word cannot cry out to you, ‘Wait!  You have misinterpreted me!’  But the Church can.”  Clearly, one does not have to go very far into this book to see that the Church is an accompanying authority – not independent of Scripture, but in conjunction with it.  Mr. Webster’s assertion is false.

The Roman Catholic authority on Tradition, Yves Congar, makes this interesting observation about the nature of revelation from the Old Testament dispensation:

Revelation is a disclosure of his mystery which God makes to men...a disclosure through created signs, guaranteed by God not to mislead us, though they may be very imperfect. These signs are events, realities, actions and words; but ultimately, at least as regards the Old Covenant, the events and actions are known to us only in words, and written words at that: the writings of sacred Scripture (Yves Congar, Tradition and Traditions (New York: Macmillan, 1966), p. 238).

Yves Congar readily admits the principle of sola Scriptura with regard to the Old Testament. The only revelation we possess of that dispensation is the written Scriptures, even though prophets from the very beginning preached and taught orally. Protestants are simply saying that the same principle applies to the New Testament dispensation. To paraphrase Congar: God's revelation in the New Testament dispensation is known to us only in words, and written words at that: the writings of sacred Scripture. The only special revelation man possesses today from God that was committed to the Apostles is the written Scriptures of the New Testament. This was the belief and practice of the Church of the patristic age and was the principle adhered to by the Reformers which they sought to restore to the Church after doctrinal corruption had entered through the door of Tradition.

Just because one who happens to be a Catholic, writes a book on Tradition, doesn’t make that book “authoritative” nor “accurate.”  The fact is the late Fr. Yves Congar was reputed to be a neo-modernist and it is no secret that Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis, was condemning the philosophies of “reform” being espoused by Fr. Congar.  Little credence can be put on Mr. Webster’s reference to Fr. Congar, and it speaks volumes to Webster’s lack of research when he cites Fr. Congar as “THE Roman Catholic authority on Tradition,” in fact it is quite laughable.

The teaching of a separate body of Apostolic revelation known as Tradition which is oral in nature originated, not with the Christian Church, but with Gnosticism. This was an attempt by the gnostics to bolster their authority by asserting that the Scriptures were not sufficient. They stated that they possessed the fullness of apostolic revelation because they not only had the written revelation of the apostles in the Scriptures but also their oral tradition, and the key for interpreting and understanding that revelation. Just as the early fathers repudiated this teaching and claim by an exclusive reliance upon and appeal to the written Scriptures, so must we.

And again I must point out that all we have here is a straw man argument from Mr. Webster.  The Catholic Church does not teach that Tradition is a “separate body” of authority.  Webster builds up this false argument, and then blows it down – thus the unsuspecting and/or unknowledgeable reader might accept what he is saying without question.  I also reiterate that it is precisely against those who claim to “go back to the original teachings” that St. Irenaeus opposed in Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 2.  St. Irenaeus opposed those who claimed to be "going back to the original teachings" in opposition to the Church AND Scripture, and how is Mr. Webster's argumentation any different than that which St. Irenaeus opposed? Just as the Early Church Fathers repudiated false teachers and teachings of those who rejected the Apostolic Authority of the Church as recorded in the Scriptures, so must we. 

(posted May 3, 2004)

JMJ


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