The authority of apostolic tradition in early Christianity cannot be overstated.
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It can, however, be misconstrued, and that is done every day.
The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Having therefore received their orders and thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the firstfruits [of their labours], having first proven them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. (First Clement 42, c. A.D. 95)
This simple statement is an excellent summation of the early Christian view of tradition. The faith of Christ came from God, was given to the apostles by Christ, and then was committed to the elders of the churches.
The job of the elders was to preserve it unchanged, to "contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).
When Christians hear about tradition in the context of Christianity, we usually immediately think of Roman Catholicism. We assume that the authority of tradition means that some church with a large organization—usually the Roman Catholic Church—gets to determine doctrine for all Christians.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The key word in apostolic tradition is not tradition, but apostolic.
It is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since, the apostles, like a rich man in the bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth. …
Suppose there arose a dispute relative to some important question among us. Should we not have recourse to the most ancient churches, with which the apostles held constant interaction and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? (Irenaeus, Against Heresies III:4:1, c. A.D. 185)
Notice the emphasis here. The idea behind tradition, to Irenaeus, was that it helped determine what the apostles taught. He even adds that this is only necessary where we don't have the apostles' writings:
How would it be if the apostles had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary to follow the course of tradition which they handed down to those [elders] to whom they committed the churches? (Irenaeus, Against Heresies III:4:1, c. A.D. 185)
Apostolic tradition was whatever the apostles taught.
The early Christians wanted it whether by letter or by word of mouth (2 Thess. 2:15), and the apostles' churches were a terrific link to what the apostles taught.
It's not just Irenaeus who says this. It is all over the early Christian writings:
Since the Lord Jesus Christ sent the apostles to preach, no others ought to be received as preachers than those whom Christ appointed … What that was which they preached … can … properly be proven in no other way than by those very churches which the apostles founded in person, by declaring the Gospel directly to them themselves, both viva voce (i.e., by voice), as the phrase is, and afterwards by their letters. (Prescription Against Heretics 21)
More quotes on this subject can be found on the Quotes About Apostolic Tradition page.
It seems almost certain to me that the writings that make up our New Testament were chosen for their association with the apostles. Even Hebrews, which is believed by very few modern scholars to be written by Paul, was thought by the early church to be Paul's. (There's a great page on Origen's thoughts on Hebrews that help give a picture of the early Christian view that "the men of old handed it down as Paul's.")
My favorite book on the use and development of the New Testament in early Christianity is Craig Allerts' A High View of Scripture?. It's put out by BakerAcademic, a noted Evangelical publisher.
It's not an easy read, but it is far from boring.
I'm recommending it because it's so well-researched and honest. Not many Protestant scholars could be that honest, and not many Protestant publishers would publish something that honest.
Writings like The Epistle of Barnabas and 1 Clement were in some collections of Scripture also because of their association to apostles. Many thought The Epistle of Barnabas was written by the Barnabas of Acts, and there's a Clement mentioned as a "fellow-worker" of Paul's in Philippians 4:3.
In the same way, all four Gospels were considered apostolic in early Christianity. Matthew and John were apostolic for obvious reasons. In early Christianity, however, Mark was considered to be Peter's Gospel because Mark traveled with Peter. The same was true for the Gospel of Luke. Luke was Paul's companion; so, his Gospel carried Paul's authority.
Tertullian (c. A.D. 200) explained it this way, calling the apostles' companions "apostolic men":
The apostles would never have taught things which were self-contradictory. In the same way, the apostolic men would not have inculcated teaching different from the apostles. (The Prescription Against Heretics 32)
As you can see, in early Christianity truth was intimately tied to apostolic teaching. Even the Bible was put together to preserve "the faith once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3)
Even the Roman Catholic Church admits that tradition should not carry any authority unless it originated with the apostles. The Catholic Encyclopedia states:
At first there was question only of traditions claiming a Divine origin, but subsequently there arose questions of oral as distinct from written tradition, in the sense that a given doctrine or institution is not directly dependent on Holy Scripture as its source but only on the oral teaching of Christ or the Apostles. ...
Now in this respect there are several points of controversy between Catholics and every body of Protestants. Is all revealed truth consigned to Holy Scripture? or can it, must it, be admitted that Christ gave to His Apostles to be transmitted to His Church, that the Apostles received either from the very lips of Jesus or from inspiration or Revelation, Divine instructions which they transmitted to the Church and which were not committed to the inspired writings? ("Tradition and Living Magisterium", accessed 12/19/2011)
The problem is that the RCC claims an authority to teach that allows them to claim that their traditions are apostolic even when there is abundant evidence to the contrary. The lateness of traditions like the sinlessness and assumption of Mary (the teaching that here body was caught up to heaven after death), and the egregiously anti-scriptural nature of traditions like indulgences make it clear that the RCC is inventing their own traditions without even any real effort to solely preserve apostolic tradition. Nonetheless, statements like the one above make it clear that they still—officially if not practically—hold the doctrine that all authoritative tradition must have originated with the apostles.
By promulgating the Bull Munificentissimus Deus, 1 November, 1950, Pope Pius XII declared infallibly that the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was a dogma of the Catholic Faith. Likewise, the Second Vatican Council taught in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium that "the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, when her earthly life was over, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things (n. 59)." ("The Assumption of Mary", accessed 12/19/20110)
None of the traditions here presented as authoritative—papal infallibility, the assumption of Mary, her sinlessness and perpetual virginity, and the blasphemous assertion that she is "Queen over all things"—can be traced even to the pre-Nicene church (before A.D. 325), much less back to the apostles.
This sort of tradition, based on the wishes of organizations raised up long after apostolic times, are the antithesis of true apostolic tradition. The apostolic tradition of the early churches was meant to prevent the invention of such falsehoods.
In the early churches, they were not limited to the Bible. Apostolic truth could be found, as we saw earlier, by resorting to apostolic churches.
Irenaeus, quoted earlier, had it even better. An old man when he wrote his Against Heresies in the 180's, he had listened to Polycarp, the revered bishop of Smyrna, in his younger years. Polycarp had been appointed to his position by the apostle John, and Irenaeus describes what it was like to hear him:
I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and talk, … his general mode of life and personal appearance, along with the discourses he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar interaction with John and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord. He would call their words to remembrance. Whatever things he had heard from them regarding the Lord … Polycarp, having heard from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures. (Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. I, "Fragments of Irenaeus" ch. 2)
Irenaeus understood that the reason this was wonderful is because Polycarp was thus a witness to the apostolic tradition, that body of truth, "the faith once for all delivered to the saints," that he himself—for Irenaeus was a bishop, too—was to preserve unchanged for future generations:
Polycarp was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna. I saw him in my early youth, for he tarried a very long time … he departed this life having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, which the Church has handed down and which alone are true. (Against Heresies III:3:4)
The problem is, we have neither Polycarp nor apostolic churches today.
True, churches like the Roman Catholic Church in Rome or the Greek Orthodox Church in Antioch could claim to have some sort of physical succession from apostolic times, but after 2,000 years that is no witness at all to the apostolic traditions, especially when we consider what has happened over those 2,000 years.
Since that is true, do we need a testimony to apostolic tradition, or are the Scriptures enough?
Since the writings of the early Church could be considered a testimony to the traditions that the apostles handed down, it would be possible to argue that these ought to carry authority for us today. It is not just the early Church that honored apostolic tradition, but Paul said to do so as well (1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15).
However, I would rather dodge the question.
St. Clement of Rome Church in Russia
Why should it matter whether we must consult the early church witness to apostolic tradition when we can consult them?
Look around you. Are the Scriptures, by themselves, leading Christians to walk in the ways of the apostles?
Do we not argue and divide? Jesus said a house divided against itself cannot stand, and Paul pleaded with his churches to be of one mind (Matt. 12:25; 1 Cor. 1:10-13; Phil. 1:27 - 2:4). It is apparent that the Scriptures alone are not solving our differences of opinion.
All who have come before us have humbly consulted those who came before them in order to know better how to please God and how not to damage the church of Jesus Christ, which is both his body and his bride. John Wesley, for example, wrote:
Can anyone who spends several years in those seats of learning, be excused if they do not add to that learning the reading of the Fathers? The Fathers are the most authentic commentators on Scripture, for they were nearest the fountain and were eminently endued with that Spirit by whom all Scripture was given. It will be easily perceived, I speak chiefly of those who wrote before the council of Nicaea. (Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., as quoted at The Village Global Blog).
It is not a matter of requirement, but of need, that we should familiarize ourself with those who can, through their writings, still bear witness to us of the traditions of the apostles.
We cannot speak to Polycarp, as Irenaeus did, but Irenaeus tells us what we can do:
There is also a very powerful letter of Polycarp written to the Philippians, from which those who choose to do so and are anxious about their salvation can learn the character of his faith and the preaching of the truth. (ibid. III:3:4)
Irenaeus' statement is still true because Polycarp's letter to the Philippians is indeed still available.
Numerous other testimonies to the faith once for all delivered to the saints are also available. First Clement is a 1st century document written from the church at Rome to the church at Corinth. The anonymous Letter to Diognetus may be just as early and claims to be written by a disciple of the apostles. The Letter of Barnabas, though it certainly does not have a Scriptural quality to it, was honored in the 2nd century church, as was the later Shepherd of Hermas.
The testimonies of the apostolic faith in the apostles' churches are many. The collection of those writing is far larger than the New Testament, are replete with references to the Scripture, and the faith contained in them is always recounted "in harmony with the Scriptures."
Why would we, who care with the early churches what the apostles taught, not do all we can to find out what the apostolic tradition is?