Archive for the ‘Tradition’ Category

I distinctly remember the first time I heard mention of the Early Church Fathers. Our Anglican priest was inviting us to a class that would examine some of the writings of these men. At that time, having never heard the term “Early Church Father” before, I assumed we would study the patriarchs of the Old Testament – Noah, Abraham, Jacob, etc. I had no idea it was possible to read documentation, commentaries, or sermons from the New Testament church outside of Holy Scripture.

I now understand that the Early Church Fathers (hereafter known as the ECF’s) were Christian teachers and/or leaders who lived and wrote during the first eight centuries of the Church. Their writings, known as Patristic writings, give us historical documentation for what was believed and practiced by the Church in the early centuries.

The Apostolic Fathers are a subset of ECF’s who lived during the first two centuries of the Church. Many of these men lived their lives from infancy with Jesus and the Apostles and grew up to be the early Church. Some of the Apostolic Fathers were direct disciples of the Apostles: Clement of Rome was a disciple of the Apostles Peter & Paul, both Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna were disciples of the Apostle John. These men are able to give us eyewitness accounts of what the early Church believed and practiced and also to what the Apostles were saying about the faith.

By now you’re wondering why the accounts the Bible provides us aren’t enough. Right?

An analogy that has helped me to understand the importance of Patristric writings is that of a study bible. My favorite bible for years was my NIV Study Bible. I constantly referred to the study notes for a clearer understanding of a verse or passage. In essence, I was trusting the interpretation of modern-day scholars to give me a clearer understanding of the Scriptures. How much more valuable are the insights offered to us by the first Fathers of the Church because their accounts are first hand. History has proven that if you ask 20 different theologians their interpretation of a verse you will get 20 different answers. Interestingly enough, both Catholic and non-Catholic scholars appeal to Patristic writings for interpretation of the doctrines and practices of the early Church.

“Can any who spend several years in the seat of learning, be excused if they do not add to that of the languages and sciences, a knowledge of the Fathers?-the most authentic commentators on Scripture, as being both nearest the fountain, and eminently with that Spirit by whom all Scripture was given.” John Wesley – An Address to the Clergy

I would suggest that it’s impossible to get an accurate picture of early Christianity without consulting the writings of the Early Church Fathers. As Rod Bennett says in his book Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words:

“The early Church is no mystery. As a matter of fact, most believers would be astonished to learn just how much we do know about the first three hundred years of Christian history. We have, for example, much inspiring history about the founding of her many congregations throughout the ancient world. We actually know the names of some of her earliest pastors, and in a few cases we have their writings to read. We still have harrowing accounts of her persecution by the Pharisees and by the pagan Romans. We know what sorts of heresies attacked the early church and, once again, the very names of the heretics who stood against her. We have hymns and prayers and poetry preserved from this period. We have epitaphs from Christian tombs. We have doctrinal statements, Bible commentary, and sermons dating from these days. We have responsive readings used in church; in fact, we have a good deal of information about how Sunday services were conducted. To put it briefly, we have (contrary to popular belief) a very vivid picture of primitive Christianity-and a picture that is open for investigation by anyone.” p. 9

I hope this very basic explanation of the ECF’s has whet your appetite for more. It’s really fascinating to get a look at how these guys believed, lived, and worshipped. If you find yourself wanting more, here are a few resources to get you started:

Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words

The Spirit of Early Christian Thought

The Fathers of the Church

The Faith of the Fathers, Vols. 1-3



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I remember a time in my life when any mention of “tradition” related to matters of faith invoked negative connotations such as “empty”, “man-made”, “dead”, “contrary to scripture”, “idolatrous”, and “irrelevant”. I couldn’t understand why Catholics were willing to mindlessly follow made up rules. Why couldn’t they just follow what the bible teaches and leave it at that?!? Why did Catholics have to add to the bible?!? I wondered.

My disdain for tradition flowed out of a belief that Holy Scripture alone should be a Christian’s rule of faith, an idea known as Sola Scriptura. Tradition and the truth of God’s written word were mutually exclusive in my mind, a dichotomy of ideas, if you will. I never really considered how believers in the early church were able to adhere to the faith. I’m ashamed to admit that I just assumed they read the bible. The truth is, even by 300 A.D. some of the books we now accept in our New Testament were still being disputed. Many early believers felt no rush to get their accounts written down because they assumed the return of Christ was imminent. So without an agreed upon set of New Testament writings that they could refer to as the written word of God, how did believers in the ancient church know the faith as taught by Jesus? The knew it by tradition, given to the apostles and passed on orally.

~ tradition ~

the handing down of information, beliefs, or customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction

Even after the official Canon of scripture was agreed upon, the bible was not considered the lone authority on Faith. According to Dave Armstrong, in his book A Biblical Defense of Catholicism:

“Christians before the time of the Protestant Reformation learned mostly from homilies, sacraments, the Liturgy and its year-long calendar, Christian holidays, devotional practices, family instruction, church architecture, and other sacred art that reflected biblical themes.” p.5

The Bible, the written word of God, is part of a larger Tradition, the oral word of God as revealed to the apostles. Both hold equal importance. To quote Dave Armstrong again:

” Tradition and Scripture are one unified revelation…..True Tradition can never contradict Scripture, but rather complements, explains, and expands upon it.” p.10

It’s important to note the reference to “True Tradition” in the quote above for it is quite possible for Tradition to be bad and/or contrary to Scripture.

“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Colossians 2:8

“You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” Mark 7:8

“Wait just a minute!” you exclaim. “Weren’t you just trying to defend the value of Tradition when right there in Christ’s own words he warns against tradition?!”

Let’s take another look at what Jesus says. His warning is against the tradition of men, not against the traditions He Himself instituted. Paul, too, is warning against the “empty deceit according human tradition” as opposed to those “according to Christ”. In fact, when we look at Scripture, we find that there are good Traditions….and that we need to know them and practice them.

“Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” 1 Cor. 11:2

“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” 2 Thes. 2:15

“Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” 2 Thes. 3:6

Also interesting is this bit of information, again provided by Dave Armstrong:

“When the phrases ‘word of God’ or ‘word of the Lord’ appear in Acts and in the Epistles, they are almost always referring to oral preaching, not to Scripture. the Greek word usually used is logos…..” p. 9

So with that in mind, these verses can be understood for their true meaning:

“So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.” Matt. 15:6

“….thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.” Mark 7:13

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about Apostolic Tradition, meaning the teachings Jesus handed on to and through his apostles:

“In keeping with the Lord’s command, the Gospel was handed on in two ways:

orally – by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the examples they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received-whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit

in writing – by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing”

“Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing and move towards the same goal. Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own ‘always, to the close of the age’.” para. 80

My point in all of this is that the relationship between the Bible and Tradition doesn’t have to be, and was never meant to be an “and/or” relationship. Tradition, as handed down by Jesus, is a good and necessary thing. God gave both His written word and His oral word as means for us to know Him.

So how do we know to which Traditions we should hold? You’ll have to come back another day for that……….but I’ll give you a hint. It has to do with dead guys and Councils. 😉

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