Why apostolic tradition matters, part 2

Irenaeus of Lyons
Irenaeus of Lyons

It seems that every time a supposedly “lost gospel” is unearthed the media hypes it as if it were the Second Coming.

Invariably, these texts contradict the received understanding of the church. The most recent example is the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. The scrap of parchment, published to great fanfare but quickly shown to be fake, purportedly demonstrated belief among early Christians that Jesus was married.

Before that you’ll recall the froth and frenzy around the 2006 publication of The Gospel of Judas. And before Judas, gnostic texts attributed Thomas, Mark, Mary, and others made their splash.

It’s erroneous to speak of these as lost gospels. They were not lost; they were rejected by the church around the time they were originally written. Irenaeus of Lyons, for instance, seems to have known about Judas and deemed it a “fiction” (Against Heresies 1.31.1). As we saw in part one of this series, apostolic tradition enabled early church leaders like Irenaeus and Serapion of Antioch to determine which books were authentic and which were spurious, which embodied an orthodox understanding and which did not.

Apostolic street cred

Apostolic tradition was the key element in these controversies. Both the orthodox and the gnostics appealed to tradition to establish their respective cases because tradition meant trustworthiness. Note how Luke began his gospel:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed. (1.1-4)

The evangelist wasn’t there, but he spoke with those that were. That’s what legitimized his account; the content of his testimony could be authenticated by witnesses.

The gnostics attempted to grace their books with the same legitimacy. Judas, for example, begins by declaring itself “[t]he secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot. . . .” (Rodolphe Kasser, et al., The Gospel of Judas, p. 19). Divine revelation from Christ, through an apostle, to the recipients of the gospel — sound familiar? Don’t let the particular apostle’s identity throw you. This account painted Judas as the only true apostle; the others were ignorant unbelievers. Jesus saw that Judas possessed true understanding and so pulled him aside to deliver the real truth:

Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it [the immortal realm], but you will grieve a great deal. For someone else will replace you, in order that the twelve [disciples] may again come to completion with their god. (Kasser, et al., p. 23. “Their god” is a reference to Yahweh. Gnostics thought him more than shaggy and forbidding; they also considered him an evil deity.)

Now, Matthias replaced Judas, which is a bit ironic because while the gnostic sect that rallied around Judas tied Matthias to the unbelievers, another gnostic group was busy appropriating Matthias as its supposed link to Christ and his revelation. “Basilides,” wrote Hippolytus of Rome, “say[s] that Matthias communicated to [him] secret discourses, which, being specially instructed, he heard from the Savior” (The Refutation of All Heresies 7.8).

Both claims work because of the men’s apostolic credentials. As Peter explained about Matthias, for instance, he was “one of the men who accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and among us. . .” (Acts 1.21).

The apostles needed a physical link to Jesus to claim to speak for him. Peter said much the same thing about himself: “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet 1.16). This is why the gnostics appropriated the apostle’s name for The Gospel of Peter. In a perfect example of fake it till you make it, they nicked his name to lend apostolic credibility to their fictions.

Tracing it back to the source

Like Peter, Matthias was an eyewitness, and he wasn’t around to refute whatever Basilides said about him. That made him the perfect candidate to pull a fast one. But Hippolytus wasn’t buying.

Tradition authenticates. If something is passed down, you can trace it back. Hippolytus refuted Basilides by following the transmission — not back to the gospel, but to Greek philosophy. Basilides, said Hippolytus, transferred

the tenets of Aristotle into our evangelical and saving doctrine. . . . For Aristotle, born many generations before Basilides, first lays down a system. . . . And these heretics bring this (system) to light as if it were peculiarly their own, and as if it were some novel (doctrine), and some secret disclosure from the discourses of Matthias. (Refutation 7.7, 8)

Hippolytus quoted some Scripture in his refutation, but his primary tool for debunking Basilides was tradition — comparing Basilides’ doctrine against the apostolic witness. By showing that Basilides’ doctrine was really repackaged Aristotle, he demonstrated that it did not descend from Christ through Matthias. That meant it had no authority. It was not part of the apostolic tradition, but rather the “traditions of men,” which Jesus condemned (Mark 7.8).

Whenever the media start buzzing about how a discovery like Judas or The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife will “rewrite the faith,” we should yawn and forward the chatterers a copy of Against Heresies. But an appreciation and reliance on apostolic tradition is good for more than debunking bogus books by early gnostics. The approach of Irenaeus, Serapion, and Hippolytus should instruct all evaluations of doctrine.

The claims of Mormonism, for instance, do not trace back to the apostles. Quite the opposite; apostolic tradition refutes much of Mormonism’s distinctive doctrines. The present-day move among evangelicals to grant the name “Christian” to Mormons is misguided at best and possibly a profound betrayal.

The health-and-wealth gospel similarly finds no support in the tradition, nor many other things that call themselves Christian today. They may not all be as damnable as roping in Judas to support a fundamentally anti-Christian message, but novelties of all sorts should be discounted if for no other reason than that they distract us from pursuing a genuine experience of Christ.

Apostolic tradition is the gospel’s measuring stick. If a teaching or practice doesn’t fit, it should be discarded.

Don’t miss this: Why apostolic tradition matters, part 1

Also be sure to check out Frank Viola’s The most ignored sin

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  • Susie T

    Thanks, Joel. Your blog is prodding me to take a serious look at my own beliefs. This is the spiritual “exercise” that I have avoided for so long. Keep it up; I’m reading.

    • Joel J. Miller

      That’s wonderful. Thank you for sharing that. I get it: A lot of what I write is spiritual exercise for myself.

      Merry Christmas!

  • Dan

    Regarding the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”, or the scientific paper by Harvard historian and Professor Karen King. . .

    Two papyrologists/Coptic scholars, Roger Bagnall of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University and AnneMarie Luijendijk, an associate professor of religion at Princeton University, reviewed the fragment and determined it was likely authentic. According to Luijendijk, it would have been impossible to forge.

    The Catholic Church immediately declares it a forgery. . . others follow. . .

    And of course there has not yet been a final determination, as they are waiting on tests to be done, which can sometimes take months. . . right now still awaiting the results of ink composition tests, which cannot establish for sure that it is authentic — but they could reveal that it is a forgery. . . or in the meantime, maybe it is being quietly swept under the rug???

    • Joel J. Miller

      The news that it contains a modern typo deals a pretty serious blow. But regardless, the apostolic witness affirms the celibacy of Christ for a reason: it’s been attested to from the start. A document, even an ancient document, that suggests otherwise only suggests an ancient error. Coincidentally, that modern typo is similar to the mistakes made by Joseph Smith when he fabricated portions of the Book of Mormon from Christian scriptures.

      • Dan

        I read somewhere that “While the New Testament “appears” to be silent on the subject, it was not until late in the 2nd Century, that any Christian leader denied that Jesus Christ was married. Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria believed that a married Jesus was inconsistent with His role as the Savior of the world, not that marriage would have Him sinful, but rather, that His mission was too demanding and heavenly to allow Him the opportunity for marriage. In fact, the rationale for the Roman church’s later view that priests should not be married partially stems from the view that Jesus was not married.
        Later references in the Patristic writings show the Church Fathers following the same pattern: they deny that Jesus was married based upon the supposed silence of the Scriptures and doctrinal problems which were inconsistent with the Church’s dogma (e.g. a celibate priesthood, the ritual defilement of seminal emissions, etc.).”

        And still no one has a clue what Jesus Christ did for 18 years of his life as a youth and young man. Yet at the end of his New Testament gospel, the apostle John concludes: “…And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written…” (John 21:25)

        • Joel J. Miller

          Could it be that there was no denial because there was no assertion? To say that no one refuted a statement only matters if you can demonstrate there was a statement. Otherwise it’s just an argument from silence, which is hardly convincing. Even then, however, the church has never accepted the view (whenever it first popped up) so question just goes back to the point of the article: Unless a position is validated by the tradition, it’s suspect.

  • Dan

    Funny statement. . . “The claims of Mormonism, for instance, do not trace back to the apostles.” – When in fact they seem to be the only ones who follow the New Testament statements . . .

    “…And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues…” (1 Corinthians 12:28) [The first Christians were very well organized – note the word “governments”]

    “…Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner [stone]; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit…” (Ephesians 2:19-22)

    “…gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…” [And it continues by saying how long apostles, prophets, etc. will be needed]: “…Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine…” (Ephesians 4:11-15)

    In fact it seems that everywhere you read, the Bible clearly shows in numerous scripture, a very well organized christian church that relies on continuous revelation and guidance from Heaven, through apostles and prophets.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I certainly agree with those passages. But the church that best represents them is the Orthodox church or possibly the Catholic church — certainly not Mormon church, which by its own history acknowledges prophecy and apostolic leadership were dead for centuries. Your assertion reflects a historical blind spot. The Orthodox church has been meeting in councils, its apostles and prophets — bishops and monks — faithfully guiding and directing the church for two thousand years, fully affirming and practicing the idea of ongoing, active revelation. Joseph Smith meanwhile fabricated his scheme less than 200 years ago. If the Mormons believe in apostles and prophets they believe in the same way the gnostics believed: by rearranging and inventing doctrine to suit their needs (they should also read Irenaeus). To hold otherwise is a concession to intellectual and theological hucksterism.

      • JohnH

        So why are you Evangelical and not Roman Catholic or Orthodox? Can’t decide whether to swim the Tiber or the Bosphorus?

        “its apostles and prophets — bishops and monks”
        Actually they don’t claim to be prophets, nor do they claim to be apostles but to have apostolic authority; nor do they claim to receive revelations from God but to be guided by the Holy Spirit, which would be a lot more believable if disputes at councils weren’t occasionally settled by throwing punches (thus demonstrating which side had the Holy Spirit, which brings peace, apparently) and if “Ecumenical” didn’t mean “which ever side can hold a council and then exterminate the other side first”. Such an excellent way of determining which side has the “Tradition” correct, holding a meeting of people that agree with you and then exiling, slaughtering, torturing, and attempting to force the conversion of those that don’t agree with you. Persecuting out of “Love”, per Augustine, I am sure is what Christ meant. As well as blaming those that choose to die under torture for dieing rather then converting, that truly shows the validity of the much vaunted “Tradition” as “by their fruits ye shall know them”.

        ” faithfully guiding”
        Again, why haven’t you gone swimming in the Tiber or crossed the Bosphorus if you can say this? I assume you are familiar with the actions of Popes and their ruling made for personal gain or political gain so I really wonder about the “faithfully” part.

        “fabricated his scheme ”
        If a bad tree can not bear good fruit and the a statistics of studies such as the Pew study are accurate then you will have to explain how the fruit is so good if the root is so bad and why it is clearly and demonstrably better then other alternatives. Furthermore, to say this then you are accusing all Latter Day Saints of lying when we say that we have asked God about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and received an answer by the power of the Holy Ghost. I suppose if you were there when Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon or if you had yourself asked God about its truthfulness then you could say he fabricated it, otherwise that is an assertion with no solid backing.

        “they should also read Irenaeus”
        Many of us have read Iranaeus, I have only read a translation into English myself.

        • Joel J. Miller

          I am Eastern Orthodox. I was received into the church in 2009.

          The bishops of the church serve in the apostles’ stead. They are their heirs and successors. They may not walk around calling themselves apostles and prophets; that just indicates that they’re less presumptuous than the Mormon hierarchy. Nonetheless, they have exercised that office continually since Christ founded his church. Mormonism’s so-called apostles and prophets, however, took a lengthy hiatus until Joseph Smith could resuscitate the ailing body — which to my mind calls the whole enterprise into question. Apparently the gates of hell did prevail.

          The fact that the history of the church is messy just means that people are involved. If being a sinner barred one from church leadership, then Christian history would have come to a halt pretty early on. God works with what he has, and that’s us — warts and all. To insist on a pure church is to insist on a fantasy. The wheat and tares grow together until the end, and God separates them. Joseph Smith tried pulling out the weeds early, and he got it wrong.

          As for the fabrication of the Book of Mormon, I point you to Richard Abanes’ book, One Nation Under Gods, particularly chapter 4.

          • JohnH

            Are you familiar with Courtier’s Reply?

            You being Eastern Orthodox explains a lot, it doesn’t appear on your about page.

            • Joel J. Miller

              I’m not familiar with it, no. I do mention on my about page that I tend to write from the Orthodox perspective. That’s been there since the blog came to Patheos.