But the church did not only pass the teaching on in written form. From the earliest days the teaching was also passed on through an oral tradition. By ‘Tradition’ Catholics don’t mean dead religious customs, ceremonies, rules and regulations. Instead when Catholics speak of ‘tradition’ we are referring to a body of teaching which is formed by the experience of the Church. A body of teaching which is at once ancient and yet fresh and alive.
Is this what the early Church believed? Did Paul rest his faith only in the Scriptures? He certainly rested them in the Old Testament Scriptures. He told Timothy, “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.” Elsewhere he told Timothy to “continue in what you have learned… because you know those from whom you learned it and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures.”
Paul believed in the Old Testament. He also believed that his own writings were to be taken as authoritative for determining doctrine and right Christian behavior. But he also believed his other teachings were authoritative. This strand of apostolic teaching isn’t written down. It is the inspired preaching of the apostles, and this oral teaching and preaching comes directly from God as does the written word.
Jesus said to his apostles in Luke 10.16 that “whoever listens to you listens to me.” In 2 Peter 3.2 Peter pointed out that the word of the apostles comes as from the Lord himself and in Galatians 1.11-12 Paul proclaimed, “I want you to know that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” Peter in 1 Peter 1.24-25 called this divinely inspired preaching the “living and enduring word of God.” and said that it would stand for ever. So along with the written word of God there was to be an enduring oral tradition—a teaching which would be passed on from generation to generation.
Paul stated this most clearly in 2 Thessalonians 2.15. There he said, “So then brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions we passed on to you whether by word of mouth or by letter.” So the teachings which Paul received from Jesus he passed on both in writing and by word of mouth.
Some people say that the word of mouth tradition ceased once the Bible books were written, but Paul acknowledges that both sources of teaching existed when he wrote to the Thessalonians. We also see that Paul not only received this oral tradition from others, but he also passed it on to his hearers. In I Corinthians 15. 2-3 he said, “By this gospel you are saved if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you….For what I received I passed on to you as of the first importance.”
Paul knows the importance of the oral teaching as well as the written teaching because he tells Timothy in 2 Timothy 1.13 to faithfully guard the oral teaching which he had received. So he writes, “What you heard from me keep as the pattern of sound teaching with faith and love in Jesus Christ guard the good deposit which is entrusted to you.” Elsewhere he praises the Corinthians for ‘upholding the traditions which I have passed on to you.’ (I Cor.11.2)
Catholics believe that this ancient teaching of the apostles has been handed on from generation to generation and kept alive by the constant and continual life of the Church—the new people of God. Did Paul think this oral teaching was to be passed on? Paul said to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2.2: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” In other words he commanded Timothy to hand on the oral tradition which he had received from Paul. Its interesting that in this passage Paul is referring to four generations of succession—his own, Timothy’s, the people Timothy would teach and the ones they would teach in turn.
The Deposit of Faith in the Early Church Fathers
The documents of the early Church in the years just after the death of the apostles show that they believed their Church leaders had inherited a precious deposit of faith—both in the writings of the apostles and in the oral traditions of the apostles. In about AD 95 a Church leader in Rome called Clement wrote to the church at Corinth about his church, “the faith of the gospels is established and the tradition of the Apostles is revered.”
Writing about the year 189 Irenaeus—a bishop in the French city of Lyons wrote: “What if the apostles had not left writings to us? Would it not be necessary to follow the order of tradition which was handed down to those to whom they entrusted the churches?” Elsewhere Irenaeus also pointed out how important this apostolic tradition is for people to know the full truth. “It is possible then for everyone in every church who may wish to know the truth to contemplate the Traditions of the Apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world.”
This helps us answer the difficult question—where do we turn for a faithful interpretation of the Bible? Is there a body of teaching which has been faithfully passed down from the apostles that would help us to interpret the Scriptures the right way? If such a body of teaching exists then it provides a rich mine for us to turn to when we try to interpret the Scripture. If an ancient strand of teaching exists which goes back to the apostles themselves then we have not only the Scripture for a source book, but we have a rich tapestry of teaching which helps us to understand the Scripture.
As Catholics we believe that we have just such a source for properly interpreting the Bible. So when we have a difficult question of Biblical interpretation we don’t just read the rest of the Bible to find the answer to the difficult question. We turn to the tradition to see what the people of God believed before us. Did they face the same question? How did they answer it? Did they face a similar circumstance? How did they confront it? Did they face the same doubts, problems, heresies and attacks? How did they stand up for the truth in their day? How can it help us determine the truth today? Continue Reading