2 Thessalonians 2:15 and Tradition (vs. Steve Hays)

2 Thessalonians 2:15 and Tradition (vs. Steve Hays) May 12, 2020

Steve Hays of Tribalblogue is a Protestant anti-Catholic polemicist and sophist. I’ll be responding to one portion of his article, “Catholic prooftexts” (12-17-17, Tribalblogue). His words will be in blue.

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2 Thessalonians 2:15 (RSV) So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.

Catholic apologists quote this to prove the authority of Sacred Tradition. However:
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1. In this verse, Paul points to his own firsthand teaching, and not some free-floating paradosis. 
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The passage doesn’t assert that. It’s merely read into it by Steve (i.e., improper eisegesis). There is no internal evidence that establishes Steve’s claim beyond all doubt. It’s simply not there. Paul refers to traditions that he has taught others. That says nothing about whether he originated them. Logically, the passage is  consistent with that possible scenario, but it’s not logically necessary. The passage could also mean that Paul is passing on traditions that he has received and made his own, and now urges his followers to also make their own. This would be consistent with what Steve calls “free-floating paradosis.”
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I would contend that the external evidence of other Pauline passages that are topically related do indeed prove that Paul, in referring to tradition is in fact referring to a body of teachings (largely oral at first) which he has received and passed on. There are several such passages, that I noted in my first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism (1996). The Bible in its original Greek uses two terms to represent “delivering” and “receiving”: respectively, paradidomi and paralambano. Each is used seven times in Scripture with regard to some portion of apostolic tradition. Here are the relevant passages:
Luke 1:1-2 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, [2] just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word,
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1 Corinthians 11:2 I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.
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1 Corinthians 11:23-24  For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, [24] and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
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1 Corinthians 15:1-8 Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, [2] by which you are saved, if you hold it fast — unless you believed in vain. [3] For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, [4] that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, [5] and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. [6] Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. [7] Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. [8] Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
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Romans 6:17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed,
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Galatians 1:9, 12 As we have said before, so now I say again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed. . . . [12] For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
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1 Thessalonians 2:13 And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.
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2 Thessalonians 3:6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.
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2 Peter 2:21 For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.
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Jude 3 . . . contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.
Does all this data suggest that Paul is referring only to “his own firsthand teaching”? No; it suggests a tradition “out there” that he has received, and is now passing it on (delivering it), to others who receive it and deliver it to others in turn. Steve simply creates an arbitrary tradition in his head and “applies” it to Holy Scripture, whereas I bring a multitude of related Scriptures to bear, showing that his tradition of men is false. Who said that it is Protestants who are “always” more based in Scripture than Catholics?
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2. This is a command…to whom? To Christians in general? Did Paul address 1 Thessalonians to modern-day Christians? No. Did he speak to us personally? No. Was a modern reader in the audience when he spoke? No.
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Is Paul enjoining us to adhere to the written and oral traditions which he (Paul) taught us by his spoken word or earlier letter? No. False on both counts.
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Is Paul enjoining us to follow a 5C bishop of Thessalonica—or 8C bishop of Constantinople, or 18C bishop of Moscow—who claims to be handing down an oral Pauline tradition? No. Since the text never says that, it can’t very well mean what it never said.
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Rather, the verse is directed to mid-1C members of the church of Thessalonica. It’s not referring to Christians in general. It’s not referring to apostolic succession. It’s not referring to subapostolic oral traditions allegedly of Pauline origin.
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That’s what it says. That’s all it says. It can’t mean more than it says. No contortions. Couldn’t be more straightforward.
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Steve “proves too much” in trying to argue that Paul was merely writing to the Thessalonians; therefore, his advice doesn’t apply to any Christians today. Such reasoning quickly breaks down to absurdity, since Pauline teaching clearly is central to all Christian teaching, and plainly has application to all Christians in some sense. Otherwise, it would follow that the complete corpus of Pauline letters has no relevance to 99.999% or more of Christians who ever lived, and would apply only to first-century Christians who happened to be members of the churches of Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Phillipi, Colossae, Thessalonica, and the individual persons Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.
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The passage — in conjunction with the related ones above — certainly is referring to apostolic traditions originating outside of Paul, including oral ones (“word of mouth”), and not “subapostolic oral traditions allegedly of Pauline origin.” Christians are bound to these, as they learn of them (which is already very different from the massively unbiblical notion of sola Scriptura). Steve is a master of obscurantism and obfuscation in his apologetics / polemics but such things are amply and easily refuted from Holy Scripture itself.
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3. Indeed, it has an expected expiration date. Paul is telling people who have face-to-face knowledge of his teaching to hold fast to what they heard from his own mouth. You can’t legitimately extrapolate from that to situations far removed from face-to-face knowledge, as if Paul is vouching for traditions in the indefinite future. 
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This is ridiculous. Nothing in the passage says that such traditions would “expire.” It’s yet more desperate Protestant man-made traditions smuggled into explicit Christian teaching, so as to gut it of any suspected “Catholic” so-called “corruption.” These are the lengths that Protestants have to go in order to undermine authoritative scriptural traditions intended to be observed by all Christians. It is similar to the notion that everything that Christians need to know and hold to would eventually be in Scripture (what is called “inscripturation”).The Bible never ever teaches such a thing.
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Paul is teaching, in effect, “there is this apostolic tradition out there. You may receive it either by letter or orally. Either way, you are bound to it, and need to stand firm and hold to these teachings.”
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4. Keep in mind that this occurs in correspondence where Paul warns about forgeries. That’s why he signs his letters. So even at that stage there’s a concern about spurious apostolic traditions.
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He warns about false teachings and traditions, in, for example, Colossians 2: 8 (“See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.”). It doesn’t follow that, therefore, there is no true apostolic tradition: including the portion of it that is oral and not written down in Holy Scripture.
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The Thessalonians should hold to the oral preaching which they heard direct from the lips of Paul himself. It doesn’t extend to allegedly apostolic tradition from some thirdhand source (or worse). To the contrary, this very epistle warns the reader to be wary of spurious apostolic communications (2:2; 3:17). That’s the point of 2 Thes 2:15. It’s the polar opposite of a blanket endorsement of allegedly apostolic traditions. 
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This is true, but not as limited as Steve makes out. It’s not just that it came from Paul; therefore, hearers are bound to it; it’s also a matter of such traditions being “out there” and binding to all who become aware of them, whether through Paul or another apostle or gospel preacher. Paul merely receives these things from others, as he states several times (as documented above). Moreover, it’s obvious that in the Bible, the terms “tradition,” “gospel,” “word of God,” and “the faith” are synonymous:

1 Corinthians 11:2 . . . maintain the traditions . .  . . even as I have delivered them to you.

2 Thessalonians 2:15 . . . hold to the traditions . . . .  taught . . . by word of mouth or by letter.

2 Thessalonians 3:6  . . . the tradition that you received from us.

1 Corinthians 15:1 . . . the gospel, which you received . . .

Galatians 1:9 . . . the gospel . . . which you received.

1 Thessalonians 2:9 . . . we preached to you the gospel of God.

Acts 8:14 . . . Samaria had received the word of God . . .

1 Thessalonians 2:13  . . . you received the word of God, which you heard from us, . . .

2 Peter 2:21. . . the holy commandment delivered to them.

Jude 3 . . . the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.

As I wrote in A Biblical Defense of Catholicism:

In St. Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians alone, we see that three of the above terms are used interchangeably. Clearly then, tradition is not a dirty word in the Bible, particularly for St. Paul. If, on the other hand, we want to maintain that it is, then gospel and Word of God are also bad words! Thus, the commonly asserted dichotomy between the gospel and Tradition, or between the Bible and Tradition, is unbiblical itself and must be discarded by the truly biblically-minded person as (quite ironically) a corrupt tradition of men. (p. 13)

5. Of course, there are commands in Scripture which do apply beyond their immediate audience. But there’s no automatic presumption that any or every divine command is binding on all Christians at all times and places. That, rather, depends on the nature of the command, the wording of the command, and/or the context in which it’s given. You’ve taken a verse of Scripture, stripped it of its historical context, and then reapplied it willy-nilly to your denomination of choice.

Now Steve tries to soften his impossibly incoherent previous stance, but it’s too late: the damage is already done to the reader inclined to accept his relentlessly unbiblical and self-defeating positions. The overall scriptural data on tradition and the rule of faith is abundantly clear, and it is harmonious with Catholicism, and not at all with Protestantism and its false principle, sola Scriptura.

6. Paul isn’t appealing to apostolic tradition, in the customary sense of tradition. The concept of tradition connotes a chain of transmission with links in the chain. But that’s not what Paul is describing. He’s explicitly referring to direct oral teaching, from Paul to his immediate audience.

That’s not true, since Paul also refers to reception “by letter.” That means that they are bound to the teachings in his epistles (which later were determined to be divinely inspired, God-breathed Holy Scripture as well as by oral teachings not written down (some of which, for all we know, may never have been written down or included in the Bible).

There are no intervening links. Not what Paul taught a second person who passed it along to a third person who passed it along to a fourth person. That’s not what Paul has in view. Rather, hold fast to what Paul taught you in person.

Again, the passage has to be understood in conjunction with related ones, that repeatedly describe a tradition that is delivered and received. Steve appears to simply ignore those, since they are contrary to his preferred view. But that’s not how proper biblical interpretation is done. One must accept what the Bible teaches: not force it into something we want that is foreign to it.

Face-to-face transmission from an apostle to a Christian. The principle is restricted to Christians with firsthand knowledge of Paul’s oral teaching. 

Again, this proves too much. If he claims that it’s only Paul’s oral teaching to his immediate hearers that is in view, then he must say that this is true also for his epistles, which he mentions in the same passage. That gets back to the problems I discussed above. It would mean that his epistles, too, are only binding to a tiny, tiny percentage of all the Christians who have ever lived.

That doesn’t necessarily invalidate a chain of custody. Some historical traditions are reliable. But 2 Thes 2:15 isn’t making that claim. 
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Its surely not teaching what Steve is claiming it teaches, since that would be incoherent mishmash, and inspired Scripture is neither illogical nor incoherent.

I submit that the only coherent and self-consistent interpretation of 2 Thessalonians 2:15 is what I have submitted, which is, of course, Catholic teaching: there is such a thing as an infallible, binding Sacred Tradition, including oral components that may not specifically end up in Scripture.

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For much more on the many issues related to tradition and the rule of faith, see my Bible and Tradition web page.
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Photo credit: Uncial 0220 (Gregory-Aland), manuscript of the New Testament (3rd century): manuscript of the Epistle to the Romans (fragment) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
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