Roman Catholic apologists like to emphasize the tradition of the early church, and claim that other unwritten oral apostolic traditions that Paul mentions in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, are brought out later in church history. The problem is, the main early church fathers, when they explicate what “the tradition of the apostles”, or “the faith” or “the preaching” or “the rule of faith” or “the faith” is, the content is all Biblical content. It is all doctrinal points that are in Scripture, and based on and outlined from the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19, organized around The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and these are very similar in content to the early creeds such as the Apostles Creed, and the Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed.
Nowhere do these early fathers mention anything that Rome has deemed as dogmatic centuries later in these passages. There is nothing about a Pope, or Marian dogmas or piety (except for the virgin birth, which Protestants accept), nothing about indulgences, purgatory, or Transubstantiation, or priests, etc. Nothing.
Since these are all in Scripture, this points to the truth that the early church held to Sola Scriptura, and the fact that no extra Biblical traditions or doctrines are included in these explications of “the tradition” or “the rule of faith” or “the preaching”, it shows that all that was necessary for the church to function and minister in the power of the Holy Spirit was written down in the Scriptures.
This is true apostolic succession – faithfully passing down sound doctrine to the next generation.
I will cite from 4 famous early church fathers who explicate the rule of faith / tradition of the apostles:
- Irenaeus, writing, 180-202 AD
2. Tertullian, writing, 190-220 AD
3. Origen, around 250 AD
4. Athanasius, ministry from 325-373 AD
1. The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,”and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.
2. As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.
Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1:10:1-2
(Irenaeus wrote around 180-202 AD)
In another famous passage, Irenaeus calls it “the tradition of the apostles” in Against Heresies 3:3:1 ff
1. It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to “the perfect” apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity.
. . .
[ yes, I realize I am skipping the famous passage about the church at Rome (Against Heresies 3:3:2-3), but you can go to the link and see the flow and keep reading.
There has been lots of scholarly debate about what Irenaeus means there, about the church at Rome’s authority, which I am hoping to do a separate article on that soon. The main point is that the tradition of the apostles is preserved, at the time of Irenaeus, against Gnostic heretics, in the churches, and he focused in on Rome because both Peter and Paul were there, and it is the capital of the empire, but in order to understand the content of the tradition of the apostles, one must keep reading. It is important to see that Irenaeus is making a long continuous argument. Irenaeus’ point is not that all sorts of other teachings that come out later in history that Roman Catholics claim are apostolic or sacred tradition, are preserved in the apostolic churches, but rather what is explicated specifically as the rule of faith or the tradition or preaching here, that is what is preserved. And Protestants agree with those doctrines, that are against Gnosticism and other heresies at the time of Irenaeus.]
but then later, if one keeps reading to 3:4:2, Irenaeus tells us what the content of the tradition is:
2. To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent. Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom. If any one were to preach to these men the inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears, and flee as far off as possible, not enduring even to listen to the blasphemous address. Thus, by means of that ancient tradition of the apostles, they do not suffer their mind to conceive anything of the [doctrines suggested by the] portentous language of these teachers, among whom neither Church nor doctrine has ever been established.
Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics, 13
Chapter XIII.—Summary of the Creed, or Rule of Faith.
Now, with regard to this rule of faith—that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend—it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen “in diverse manners” by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics.“
Tertullian, Presciption Against Heretics, 13
Tertullian wrote around 190-220 AD
Origen, writing around 250 AD.
He calls it the truth and the apostolic tradition and the teaching of the apostles. I include the first 3 points of doctrine about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You can go to the link and see the other points about souls, angels, demons, and judgment day.
4. The particular points clearly delivered in the teaching of the apostles are as follow:—
First, That there is one God, who created and arranged all things, and who, when nothing existed, called all things into being—God from the first creation and foundation of the world—the God of all just men, of Adam, Abel, Seth, Enos, Enoch, Noe, Sere, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the twelve patriarchs, Moses, and the prophets; and that this God in the last days, as He had announced beforehand by His prophets, sent our Lord Jesus Christ to call in the first place Israel to Himself, and in the second place the Gentiles, after the unfaithfulness of the people of Israel. This just and good God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Himself gave the law and the prophets, and the Gospels, being also the God of the apostles and of the Old and New Testaments.
Secondly, That Jesus Christ Himself, who came (into the world), was born of the Father before all creatures; that, after He had been the servant of the Father in the creation of all things—“For by Him were all things made”. He in the last times, divesting Himself (of His glory), became a man, and was incarnate although God, and while made a man remained the God which He was; that He assumed a body like to our own, differing in this respect only, that it was born of a virgin and of the Holy Spirit: that this Jesus Christ was truly born, and did truly suffer, and did not endure this death common (to man) in appearance only, but did truly die; that He did truly rise from the dead; and that after His resurrection He conversed with His disciples, and was taken up (into heaven).
Then, Thirdly, the apostles related that the Holy Spirit was associated in honor and dignity with the Father and the Son. But in His case it is not clearly distinguished whether He is to be regarded as born or innate, or also as a Son of God or not: for these are points which have to be inquired into out of sacred Scripture according to the best of our ability, and which demand careful investigation. And that this Spirit inspired each one of the saints, whether prophets or apostles; and that there was not one Spirit in the men of the old dispensation, and another in those who were inspired at the advent of Christ, is most clearly taught throughout the Churches.
Athanasius, who was a deacon at Nicea in 325 AD, and a few years later became bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, and stood for the Deity of Christ, the Trinity, was exiled 5 times, etc. Athanasius wrote the famous list of the NT books in Festal Letter 39 in 367 AD. Athansasius died in 373 AD.
He described the tradition this way.
Here is more of the full quote: (It is all based on Matthew 28:19 and 2 Cor. 13:14, and Ephesians 4:6:
28. But, beyond these sayings, let us look at the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers kept. Upon this the Church is founded, and he who should fall away from it would not be a Christian, and should no longer be so called. There is, then, a Triad, holy and complete, confessed to be God in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, [based on Matthew 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14] having nothing foreign or external mixed with it, not composed of one that creates and one that is originated, but all creative; and it is consistent and in nature indivisible, and its activity is one. The Father does all things through the Word in the Holy Spirit. Thus the unity of the holy Triad is preserved. Thus one God is preached in the Church, ‘who is over all, and through all, and in all’ [ Ephesians 4:6] — ‘over all’, as Father, as beginning, as fountain; ‘through all’, through the Word; ‘in all’, in the Holy Spirit. It is a Triad not only in name and form of speech, but in truth and actuality. For as the Father is he that is, so also his Word is one that is and God over all. And the Holy Spirit is not without actual existence, but exists and has true being. Less than these (Persons) the Catholic Church does not hold, lest she sink to the level of the modern Jews, imitators of Caiaphas, and to the level of Sabellius. Nor does she add to them by speculation, lest she be carried into the polytheism of the heathen. And that they may know this to be the faith of the Church, let them learn how the Lord, when sending forth the Apostles, ordered them to lay this foundation for the Church, saying: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ [ Matthew 28:19 ] The Apostles went, and thus they taught; and this is the preaching that extends to the whole Church which is under heaven. (Athanasius, To Serapion, against the Tropici heretics, Book 1:28, Translated, intro, and notes by C.R. B. Shapland.)
It is the same principle for the other 2 quotes; they are not exalting some kind of extra-biblical man made tradition over Scripture, but Athanasius is saying the proper interpretation of Scripture about the Deity of Christ and the Trinity is passed down by the fathers.
Addendum: (May 26, 2016)
Also, Irenaeus’ wrote that it was the Gnostics who pointed to a living voice and living oral tradition outside of Scripture, and this is what Roman Catholics attempt to do by point back to 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and John 20:30 and 21:25 – reading centuries later doctrines, practices, or “seeds” of those concepts back into those verses – this is what the Gnostics were doing in Irenaeus’ day, in order to try and establish an authority from the apostles outside of written Scripture. See Against Heresies 1:8:1
Such, then, is their [Gnostics] system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures . . .
When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce (“living voice”) . . .
This is exactly what Roman Catholics all the time when attacking Sola Scriptura.