The Role of Tradition in the Early Church

Above, St. Irenaeus of Lyons

If the scriptures are the Word of God, how does tradition play a role in the church without undermining the uniqueness of the scriptures? How does it benefit the church without undermining biblical study? Many Protestants today take the approach of rejecting altogether any extra-biblical tradition. But is this healthy or safe?

Tradition has always been around ever since the conception of the church. And in fact, it was very important during the first five centuries of the early church. To understand the importance and role of tradition, it’s important to get a glimpse of how the early church fathers understood tradition.

Alister McGrath, in his Historical Theology, says this about the early church:

A movement known as Gnosticism emerged as a major threat to the Christian church during the [first century], partly on account of the fact that its teachings were similar to those of Christianity itself.Many Gnostic writers argued that salvation was achieved through access to a secret teaching, which alone ensure that believers would be saved. The “secret knowledge” in question, for same Gnostic writers, was almost like a form of “cosmic password”. When someone died, their spirit was liberated from its physical prison, and it was free to begin its long and complex journey to its final and glorious destination. To get there, it needed to get past series of potential obstacles, for which the “secret knowledge” was required.

Some Gnostic writers argued that this secret oral teaching had been passed down from the apostles, and that it was to be found in a “veiled” form in the Bible. Only those who knew about the Bible in a certain way would gain access to this knowledge, which was not publicly available…. (pg 37)

So within the first few decades of the church, Gnosticism had emerged which threatened orthodox teaching. And the problem was that they claimed to have a secret interpretation of the scriptures which they had received from the apostles. Something which was novel and different from the teaching of the other churches. How was the early church to combat this?

McGrath explains:

In response to the threat from Gnosticism, a “traditional” method of understanding certain passages of the Scripture began to develop. Second-century patristic theologians such as Irenaeus of Lyons began to develop the idea of an authorized way of interpreting certain texts of Scripture, which he argued went back to the time of the apostles themselves. Scripture could not be allowed to be interpreted in any arbitrary or random way: it had to be interpreted within the context of the historical continuity of the Christian church. The parameters of its interpretation were historically fixed and given. “Tradition” here means simply “a traditional way of interpreting Scripture within the community of faith”…

[Specifically], Irenaeus…argues that the living Christian community possessed a tradition of interpreting Scripture which was denied by heretics. By their historical succession from the apostles, the bishops ensure that their congregations remain faithful to their teachings and interpretations (pg. 38)

Irenaeus’ argument was that there was an historical, orthodox interpretation of the scriptures that went back to the apostles, and was passed down to the bishops of that time. One cannot simply have their “own interpretation” of scripture. Novelty is no friend of the church. It must go back to the traditional interpretation of the apostles and bishops. In this way, “tradition” is seen as a historically “verified” interpretation of scripture, passed on to the bishops and so on from the apostles. An interpretation which could be trusted.

And Irenaeus wasn’t the only which argued this. McGrath also cites Tertullian, saying:

A similar point is made by the Roman theologian Tertullian, in an early third-century analysis of the sources of theology dedicated to demonstrating the weaknesses of the heretical position. Tertullian here lays considerable emphasis upon the role of tradition and apostolic succession in defining of Christian theology. Orthodoxy depends upon remaining historically continuous with and theologically dependent upon the apostles. The heretics, in contrast, cannot demonstrate any such continuity (pg 39)

McGrath quotes Tertullian who says,

If the Lord Jesus Christ sent out apostles to preach, no preachers other than those which are appointed by Christ are to be received, since “no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son has revealed him”, and the Son appears to have revealed him to no on except the apostles who he sent to preach what he had revealed to them. What they preached…ought, by this ruling, to be established only by those churches which those apostles founded by their preaching and, as they say, by the living voice, and subsequently through their letter (pg. 39)

Tertullian says that only teaching which proceeds from the Father, to the Son, to the apostles, and to those sent by the apostles, is to be accepted as orthodox. That is, only biblical interpretation which follows this historical line is to be considered orthodox. Again, tradition is this historically verified interpretation passed on by the apostles.

As time went by, into the fifth century, another theologian Vincent of Lerins developed this thought on “apostolic tradition”. McGrath says:

Writing in the aftermath of the Pelagian controversy, Vincent of Lerins expressed his belief that the controversies of that time had given rise to theological innovations, such as new ways of interpreting certain biblical passages…But how could such doctrinal innovations be identified? In response to this question, he argues for a triple criterion by which authentic Christian teaching may be established: ecumenicity (being believed everywhere), antiquity (being believed always), and consent (being believed by all people). This triple criterion is often described as the “Vincentian canon”, the word “canon” here having the sense of “rule” or “norm”…

The problem that Vincent hopes to resolve is: how are authentic Christian teachings to be distinguished from those of heretics? (pg. 40)

So Vincent had this triple criterion: believed everywhere, always, and by everyone. One cannot simply just come up with a novel interpretation. It must find itself in line that rule of faith.

So then, tradition was the historical interpretation of the scriptures passed from the apostles down throughout the centuries. And when verifying a correct interpretation of scripture, all one need do is ask: is this believed everywhere, always, and by everyone?

In this light, tradition is not in competition with the scriptures, but actually protects them! But even more important, no Christian should approach the scriptures a-historically. Meaning, Christians today find themselves in this big saga called the Christian church, with smarter and godlier men and women before us. We must approach the scriptures, standing on their shoulders, depending on the apostles and the churches after them.

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