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Oral Tradition and the Orthodox Church

Recently someone argued that 2 Thess. 2:15 requires even modern Christians to keep the oral traditions of the apostles.


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While I agree with this argument, the question that immediately arises is, how do we know what those are?

It is not just the Roman Catholic Church but also Eastern Orthodox churches that believe they have preserved the oral traditions of the apostles down through the centuries. One such Eastern Orthodox believer asked the following:

But *who* is to decide what traditions are to be observed, and which can perhaps be dispensed with? Can you invent a hermeneutic for this purpose? On what authority? How can we, 1500 years later, take it upon ourselves to discern this?

The following was my reply. I simply could not resist joining in on this discussion.

For you, the simple answer concerning who is to decide what oral traditions are to be observed is the Orthodox Church, or at least some ancient church that can trace an apostolic succession back to the apostles.

There are 2 reasons I must reject this.

Tertullian on Apostolic Churches

"Let [the heretics] produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [their first] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men—a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles.

"For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers. For example, the church of Smyrna, records that Polycarp was placed in his position by John; the church of Rome makes Clement to have been ordained in a similar manner by Peter. In exactly the same way the other churches also exhibit those whom have been appointed to their episcopal places by apostles. These they regard as transmitters of the apostolic seed.

"Let the heretics fabricate something of the same kind, for after their blasphemy, what could be unlawful for them? But even if they succeed in their fabrication, they will not advance a step. For their very doctrine, when compared with that of the apostles, will declare, by its own diversity and disagreement, that it had for its author neither an apostle nor an apostolic man … To this test, therefore, they will be submitted for proof by those churches who, although they derive not their founder from apostles or apostolic men (as being of much later date, for they are in fact being founded daily), yet, since they agree in the same faith, they are considered no less apostolic because they are alike in doctrine.

"Then let all the heresies, when challenged to these two tests by our apostolic church, offer their proof of how they deem themselves to be apostolic."

Prescription Against Heretics 32

Oral Tradition and Fruit

The most important reason is because a prophet is to be tested by his fruit.

I do not want the fruit I see in modern Orthodox Church congregations. In fact, I do not want the fruit I see even in 4th century "orthodox" congregations.

In the 4th century, I would have no choice, in whatever city I was in, to be part of the one congregation in that city and work for reform, hoping to get it to a place where it would not be certainly rejected by Jesus Christ. There is little doubt in my mind that most 4th century churches would be rejected by Jesus Christ as being far worse than late-1st-century Ephesus and at least as bad as, if not worse than, late-1st-century Laodicea, both of which were threatened with rejection by Jesus Christ himself (see Rev. ch. 2-3).

However, I'm not in the 4th century, and the only church with apostolic succession back to the apostles in my town is the Roman Catholic Church. It was not the first church in this town, so it's as divisive as any other. As far as I can tell, none of the churches in our town resemble early Christianity, and none of them are holding to apostolic oral tradition.

Therefore, as far as I can see, my job is to seek to unite the Christians—those few who have heard an apostolic Gospel, one which aligns with written and oral tradition.

Unfortunately, that includes none of the churches that claim apostolic succession.

What Was the Oral Tradition of the Apostles?

The second reason that I cannot accept "just listen to the Orthodox Church" as an answer is because of the apostolic tradition itself.

Tertullian tells us that those churches whose faith is other than apostolic faith are not apostolic churches (see sidebar). I do not believe that the Orthodox Churches hold to apostolic faith.

Oh, yes, some individual oral traditions that the Orthodox Church passes on are apostolic. Other oral traditions may be perfectly acceptable even if they are not being  apostolic. One doctrine, however, is completely unacceptable, which is the acceptance of whoever will do the rituals necessary to join and be a part.

The  foundation of Christ, according to Scripture, is that those who name his name depart from iniquity (2 Tim. 2:19). Therefore, the church, if it is to be found, will consist of those who are living in obedience to Christ. Those who do not are "obviously" not children of God (1 Jn. 2:3-4; 3:7-10).

Thus, we are forced to reject the answer that we should trust a church whose sole claim to the right to decide what traditions to observe is that they have an unbroken physical succession back to the apostles.

So where do we then turn? The answer, once I saw it, seems obvious to me … 

The Local Church

We turn to the local church.

The local church is the gathering of disciples in a town or city. Jesus Christ has promised to be in their midst, and where Jesus Christ is, there is truth (cf. 1 Jn. 2:19-27).

Such a group of people does need to look at both Scripture and tradition. As has been accurately pointed out, unless we look for where the oral tradition of the apostles has been recorded for us by those who heard them, we will have no way of knowing what that oral tradition is.

However, above all, they must be followers of the Spirit of God, for the apostles have promised us that the Spirit of God will guide believers—those who have believed and obeyed the Gospel—into truth; all truth, in fact (1 Jn. 2:27).

That is the principle that we have relied on here in Selmer, Tennessee, and I can testify that the results have been remarkable. It has meant gathering people who love Jesus and will obey him. It has meant that those who come into our midst are indeed instructed by God and provoked by his grace to live in love and to reject ungodliness and worldly lusts so that they might live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present age (Tit. 2:11-14).

You can judge as you will, but as for me, my judgment is that John has told us very plainly that those who love and live righteously are of God.

So I have joined myself to such a people, and I would do so in any city I was in, and I live in trust that God will guide such a people into all things and that his guidance will be true and not a lie.

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