“Catholic Verses” #3: Tradition, Pt. 1

“Catholic Verses” #3: Tradition, Pt. 1 October 26, 2023

Including the Church Fathers’ Opinion Regarding Authoritative Apostolic Oral Tradition

[see book and purchase information for The Catholic Verses]

“excatholic4christ” (Tom) was raised Catholic, lost his faith in high school, attended Mass for a while after he married and had children, and then “accepted Jesus Christ” as his Savior, leading to his sole attendance at an independent fundamental Baptist church for eight years. He claims that the “legalism” of this church and the fact that his “trust had been in men rather than God” caused him to “walk away from the Lord for 23 years.” He “returned to the Lord” in 2014. As of April 2020, Tom stated that he was “somewhere in the middle of the Calvinism-Arminianism debate,” but “closer to Calvinism.” I couldn’t determine his denomination. See Tom’s index of all of his replies. I will now systematically refute them. His words will be in blue. When he cites my words, they will be in black. I use RSV, unless otherwise specified.

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This is a reply to Tom’s article, The Authority of Sacred Tradition? – Part 1 (8-27-23).

With the four verses below, Armstrong argues for the authority of oral tradition:

2 Timothy 1:13-14 Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.

2 Timothy 2:2 And what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

Jude 3 Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.

Acts 2:42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Directly beneath these verses, Armstrong writes, “Catholics believe that these verses clearly set forth a notion of binding oral tradition that has as much authority as the written word of Scripture.” – p. 12.

The infant church absolutely depended on the oral teachings of Paul and the other apostles, but as the inspired Gospels and apostolic epistles were written and circulated throughout the church, apostolic oral teaching ended with the deaths of the apostles. God’s Word is the sole authority for Christians and all that we need.

The serious difficulties inherent in this viewpoint are threefold:

1) The Bible itself never states that oral tradition would come to an end with the death of the apostles. This is simply (in a great irony) an arbitrary, unsupported Protestant “tradition of men.”

2) The Church fathers (generalizing) also know of no such ending of oral tradition.

3) The Bible never teaches “inscripturation“: the arbitrary Protestant man-made tradition which holds that everything needed to be known by the Church (including knowledge previously preserved solely or primarily through oral teachings and preaching) is included in Scripture and that no source outside of it could be authoritative and infallible (which is one of the key tenets of the definition of sola Scriptura: the Protestant rule of faith). See my articles:

Oral Tradition: More Biblical (Pauline) Evidence (. . . and an Examination of the False and Unbiblical Protestant Supposed Refutation of “Inscripturation”) [2-27-21]

The One-Legged Stool Called ‘Inscripturation’ is Not Taught in the Bible [National Catholic Register, 3-15-21]

Catholicism claims that it has preserved many of the mysterious, unwritten, extra-Biblical oral teachings of Jesus and the apostles down through the centuries, but how was that done? By word of mouth?

At first, obviously it was by word of mouth, that were “heard” (2 Tim 1:13-14; 2:2 above; cf. Luke 11:28; Acts 4:4; 13:46; 15:7; Eph 1:13; Phil 4:9; Col 1:5-6; 1 Jn 1:5; 2:7, 24; 2 Jn 1:6; Rev 3:3). Hence, St. Paul also wrote:

1 Thessalonians 2:13 . . . 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.

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

The existence of such an ongoing tradition is plainly seen in these two passages:

John 20:30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;

John 21:25 But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

Clearly, if all the world couldn’t contain the books if all the deeds and words of Jesus were “written,” then the amount of oral tradition was very huge indeed: far far greater than the length of the New Testament. Later, much or all of this would be written down, by the Church fathers and others, just as the Jewish oral Torah (also substantiated by the Bible) was, in rabbinical writings. Catholics didn’t invent this idea. There it is, right in the inspired, inerrant revelation of Holy Scripture.

Readers can observe how I ground all of my arguments in the Bible (as well as solid patristic testimony), whereas Tom mostly produces biblically unsubstantiated Protestant traditions of men (how ironic, since Protestantism is supposed to be so much more “biblical” than Catholicism), and playbook propaganda. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for doing the same thing Tom is doing (Tom tried to cite the same passage against me):

Mark 7:6-8 . . . “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; [7] in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ [8] You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.”

One would think that, by now, all of those oral teachings would have been collected and published, but you won’t find a “Compendium of the Oral Teachings/Sacred Traditions of Jesus Christ and the Apostles” at your local Catholic bookstore.

Many if not most of them have eventually been written down, and are incorporated into the sacred tradition preserved by the Catholic Church. To learn what doctrines Catholics accept, see Denzinger’s Enchiridion symbolorum, the standard source; now available in a 2012 edition; edited and translated in part by my good friend, systematic theologian Dr. Robert Fastiggi). Accordingly, St. Augustine wrote:

And this custom, coming, I suppose, from tradition (like many other things which are held to have been handed down under their actual sanction, because they are preserved throughout the whole Church, though they are not found either in their letters, or in the Councils of their successors), . . . (On Baptism, Against the Donatists, II, 7, 12)

For if none have baptism who entertain false views about God, it has been proved sufficiently, in my opinion, that this may happen even within the Church. “The apostles,” indeed, “gave no injunctions on the point;” but the custom, which is opposed to Cyprian, may be supposed to have had its origin in apostolic tradition, just as there are many things which are observed by the whole Church, and therefore are fairly held to have been enjoined by the apostles, which yet are not mentioned in their writings. (Ibid.., V, 23, 31)

Protestant Church historian Heiko Oberman notes concerning St. Augustine:

Augustine’s legacy to the middle ages on the question of Scripture and Tradition is a two-fold one. In the first place, he reflects the early Church principle of the coinherence of Scripture and Tradition. While repeatedly asserting the ultimate authority of Scripture, Augustine does not oppose this at all to the authority of the Church Catholic . . . The Church has a practical priority: her authority as expressed in the direction-giving meaning of commovere is an instrumental authority, the door that leads to the fullness of the Word itself.

But there is another aspect of Augustine’s thought . . . we find mention of an authoritative extrascriptural oral tradition. While on the one hand the Church “moves” the faithful to discover the authority of Scripture, Scripture on the other hand refers the faithful back to the authority of the Church with regard to a series of issues with which the Apostles did not deal in writing. Augustine refers here to the baptism of heretics . . . (The Harvest of Medieval Theology, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, revised 1967 version, 370-371; my bolding)

Patristic scholar J. N. D. Kelly described how St. Irenaeus (130-202) accepted such oral tradition:

His most characteristic thought, however, is that the Church is the sole repository of the truth, and is such because it has a monopoly of the apostolic writings, the apostolic oral tradition and the apostolic faith. . . . [haer. (i.e., Against Heresies) 1, 10, 2]. (Early Christian Doctrines, San Francisco, Ignatius, 1978 edition, 192; my bolding and italics)

[T]he identity of oral tradition with the original revelation is guaranteed by the unbroken succession of bishops in the great sees going back lineally to the apostles [Cf. haer. 3, 2, 2; 3, 3, 3; 3, 4, 1]. Secondly, an additional safeguard is supplied by the Holy Spirit, for the message was committed to the Church, and the Church is the home of the Spirit [E.g. ib. 3, 24, 1]. Indeed, the Church’s bishops are on his view Spirit-endowed men who have been vouchsafed ‘an infallible charism of truth’ (charisma veritatis certum [Ib. 4, 26, 2; cf. 4, 26, 5] ). (Ibid., 37; my bolding and italics)

Protestant Church historian Philip Schaff summarizes the patristic consensus in the time of St. Athanasius (c. 297-373):

The church view respecting the sources of Christian theology and the rule of faith and practice remains as it was in the previous period, except that it is further developed in particulars. The divine Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as opposed to human writings; and the oral tradition or living faith of the catholic church from the apostles down, as opposed to the varying opinions of heretical sects together form the one infallible source and rule of faith. Both are vehicles of the same substance: the saving revelation of God in Christ; with this difference in form and office, that the church tradition determines the canon, furnishes the key to the true interpretation of the Scriptures, and guards them against heretical abuse. The relation of the two in the mind of the ancient church may be illustrated by the relation between the supreme law of a country (such as the Roman law, the Code Napoleon, the common law of England, the Constitution of the United States) and the courts which expound the law, and decide between conflicting interpretations. (History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3, Chapter IX, section 118: “Sources of Theology: Scripture and Tradition,” 606-608; my bolding and italics)

Every time that a doctrine was formulated that had no basis in Scripture, the Catholic hierarchy was able to invoke its sacred tradition “wild card.” Incredulous Catholics were unable to object because the proof allegedly rested upon undocumented and unverifiable oral traditions known only to a privileged few. From this dark hole came such doctrines as purgatory, indulgences, the immaculate conception and assumption of Mary, praying to canonized saints, the pope, the seven sacraments, etc., etc.

Untethered from the sole authority of God’s Word, Catholicism has been able to propagate one un-Biblical teaching after another. In contrast, throughout God’s Word, believers are exhorted to adhere to the sure teachings of Scripture. Yes, there are examples in Scripture when believers were encouraged to obey doctrines that were taught orally, but that was always in connection to teachings that came directly from Paul and the other apostles, not handed down mysteriously over many centuries and made manifest out of the clear blue.

These topics have to be dealt with individually. I don’t play the cynical, sneering game of “101 topics at once”: with its ridiculous “appearance of strength” (i.e., to the relatively ignorant and uneducated masses and those inclined to an anti-Catholic standpoint from the outset). I have written entire books — concentrating on biblical support — about all the subjects Tom mentions above: Bible & tradition, purgatory, indulgences, & the saints, Marian doctrines, and papal & Church infallibility (as well as about the Eucharist). I also have written about the historical / patristic / traditional corroboration of Catholic doctrines:

Development of Catholic Doctrine: Evolution, Revolution, or an Organic Process? (June 2002)

Catholic Church Fathers: Patristic and Scholarly Proofs (Nov. 2007 / rev. Aug. 2013)

The Quotable Eastern Church Fathers: Distinctively Catholic Elements in Their Theology (July 2013)

The Quotable Augustine: Distinctively Catholic Elements in His Theology (Sep. 2012)

Orthodoxy and Catholicism: A Comparison (July 2004 / 3rd rev. ed. July 2015; co-author, Byzantine Catholic priest, Fr. Daniel Dozier)

I have shown, conversely, how Protestant distinctive doctrines are unbiblical: and contrary to the history of the Christian Church:

Pillars of Sola Scriptura: Replies to Whitaker, Goode, & Biblical “Proofs” for “Bible Alone” (July 2012)

Biblical Catholic Salvation: “Faith Working Through Love” (Oct. 2010)

Martin Luther: Catholic Critical Analysis and Praise (April 2008)

Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin (March 2010)

A Biblical Critique of Calvinism (Oct. 2012)

A very long and in-depth book chronicling my debate on justification with Brazilian Calvinist Francisco Tourinho is currently in process. While we await that, the entire debate is available online, in English.

Moreover, in addition to my book that was critiqued by Tom, I have several other books that provide biblical arguments for any and all of the Catholic distinctives that anyone might bring up:

A Biblical Defense of Catholicism (May 1996 / June 2003)

Proving the Catholic Faith is Biblical: From Priestly Celibacy to the Rosary: 80 Short Essays Explaining the Biblical Basis of Catholicism (July 2015)

The One-Minute Apologist: Essential Catholic Replies to Over Sixty Common Protestant Claims (May 2007)

Bible Proofs for Catholic Truths (Aug. 2009)

Revelation! 1001 Bible Answers to Theological Topics (Oct. 2013)

The Catholic Answer Bible (Sep. 2002; the 44 apologetics inserts are my contribution)

I list these books for the use of serious, open-minded, fair-minded, inquiring non-Catholic readers, who actually want to engage these topics fairly and in the proper depth (rather than “learn” from soundbites thoroughly biased in one direction only); also for Catholics to be better equipped to defend Catholic doctrines from the Bible and reason, and to have a more confident, informed, robust faith. See book and purchase information for all 53 of my books; most available very inexpensively as e-books ($2.99 or $3.99), and several even for free.

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Summary: Anti-Catholic Tom tries to draw a wedge between oral and written tradition and the Bible. I show how the Bible plainly espouses both unwritten and written tradition.

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