Written by Dr. John F. MacArthur, Jr
The tendency to venerate tradition is very strong in religion. The world is filled with religions that have been following set traditions for hundreds — even thousands — of years. Cultures come and go, but religious tradition shows an amazing continuity.
In fact, many ancient religions — including Druidism, Native American religions, and several of the oriental cults — eschewed written records of their faith, preferring to pass down their legends and rituals and dogmas via word of mouth. Such religions usually treat their body of traditions as a de facto authority equal to other religions’ sacred writings.
Even among the world’s religions that revere sacred writings, however, tradition and Scripture are often blended. This is true in Hinduism, for example, where the ancient Vedas are the Scriptures, and traditions handed down by gurus round out the faith of most followers.
Tradition in effect becomes a lens through which the written word is interpreted. Tradition therefore stands as the highest of all authorities, because it renders the only authoritative interpretation of the sacred writings.
This tendency to view tradition as supreme authority is not unique to pagan religions. Traditional Judaism, for example, follows the Scripture-plus-tradition paradigm. The familiar books of the Old Testament alone are viewed as Scripture, but true orthodoxy is actually defined by a collection of ancient rabbinical traditions known as the Talmud. In effect, the traditions of the Talmud carry an authority equal to or greater than that of the inspired Scriptures.
Teaching as Doctrines the Precepts of Men
This is no recent development within Judaism. The Jews of Jesus’ day also placed tradition on an equal footing with Scripture. Rather, in effect, they made tradition superior to Scripture, because Scripture was interpreted by tradition and therefore made subject to it.
Whenever tradition is elevated to such a high level of authority, it inevitably becomes detrimental to the authority of Scripture. Jesus made this very point when he confronted the Jewish leaders. He showed that in many cases their traditions actually nullified Scripture. He therefore rebuked them in the harshest terms:
“Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.”
“Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” He was also saying to them, “You nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death’; but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, anything of mine you might have been helped by is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’ you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother, thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that (Mark 7:6 — 13).
It was inexcusable that tradition would be elevated to the level of Scripture in Judaism, because when God gave the law to Moses, it was in written form for a reason: to make it permanent and inviolable. The Lord made very plain that the truth He was revealing was not to be tampered with, augmented, or diminished in any way. His Word was the final authority in all matters: “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you” (Deuteronomy 4:2). They were to observe His commandments assiduously, and neither supplement nor abrogate them by any other kind of “authority”: “Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:32).
So the revealed Word of God, and nothing else, was the supreme and sole authority in Judaism. This alone was the standard of truth delivered to them by God Himself. Moses was instructed to write down the very words God gave him (Exodus 34:27), and that written record of God’s Word became the basis for God’s covenant with the nation (Exodus 24:4, 7). The written Word was placed in the Ark of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 31:9), symbolizing its supreme authority in the lives and the worship of the Jews forever. God even told Moses’ successor, Joshua: “Be strong and very courageous; be careful to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, so that you may have success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night., so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it” Joshua 1:7 — 8).
Of course, other books of inspired Scripture beside those written by Moses were later added to the Jewish canon — but this was a prerogative reserved by God alone. Sola Scriptura was therefore established in principle with the giving of the law. No tradition passed down by word of mouth, no rabbinical opinion, and no priestly innovation was to be accorded authority equal to the revealed Word of God as recorded in Scripture.
Agur understood this principle: “Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Do not add to His words lest He reprove you, and you be proved a liar” (Proverbs 30:5 — 6).
The Scriptures therefore were to be the one standard by which everyone who claimed to speak for God was tested: “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20, KJV).
In short, tradition had no legitimate place of authority in the worship of Jehovah. Everything was to be tested by the Word of God as recorded in the Scriptures. That’s why Jesus’ rebuke to the scribes and Pharisees was so harsh. Their very faith in Rabbinical tradition was in and of itself a serious transgression of the covenant and commandments of God (cf. Matthew 15:3).
The Rise and Ruin of Catholic Tradition
Unfortunately, Christianity has often followed the same tragic road as paganism and Judaism in its tendency to elevate tradition to a position of authority equal to or greater than Scripture. The Catholic Church in particular has its own body of tradition that functions exactly like the Jewish Talmud: it is the standard by which Scripture is to be interpreted. In effect, tradition supplants the voice of Scripture itself.
How did this happen? As James White has demonstrated in his chapter on “Sola Scriptura and the Early Church,” the earliest church Fathers placed a strong emphasis on the authority of Scripture over verbal tradition. Fierce debates raged in the early church over such crucial matters as the deity of Christ, His two natures, the Trinity, and the doctrine of original sin. Early church councils settled those questions by appealing to Scripture as the highest of all authorities. The councils themselves did not merely issue ex cathedra decrees, but they reasoned things out by Scripture and made their rulings accordingly. The authority was in the appeal to Scripture, not in the councils per se.
Unfortunately, the question of Scriptural authority itself was not always clearly delineated in the early church, and as the church grew in power and influence, church leaders began to assert an authority that had no basis in Scripture. The church as an institution became in many people’s eyes the fountain of authority and the arbiter on all matters of truth. Appeals began to be made more often to tradition than to Scripture. As a result, extrabiblical doctrines were canonized and a body of opinion that found no support in Scripture began to be asserted as infallibly true.
Roman Catholic doctrine is shot through with legends and dogmas and superstitions that have no biblical basis whatsoever. The stations of the cross, the veneration of saints and angels, the Marian doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, and the notion that Mary is co-mediatrix with Christ — none of those doctrines can be substantiated by Scripture. They are the product of Roman Catholic tradition.
Officially, the Catholic Church is very straightforward about her blending of Scripture and tradition. The recently published Catechism of the Catholic Church (henceforth CCC, citations referring to paragraph numbers rather than page numbers) acknowledges that the Roman Catholic Church “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition. must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence” (CCC 82, emphasis added).
Tradition, according to Roman Catholicism, is therefore as much “the Word of God” as Scripture. According to the Catechism, Tradition and Scripture “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” (CCC 80). The “sacred deposit of faith” — this admixture of Scripture and tradition — was supposedly entrusted by the apostles to their successors (CCC 84), and “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone…. This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome” (CCC 85).
The Catechism is quick to deny that this makes the Church’s teaching authority (called the magisterium) in any way superior to the Word of God itself (CCC 86). But it then goes on to warn the faithful that they must “read the Scripture within ‘the living tradition of the whole Church’ ” (CCC 113). The Catechism at this point quotes “a saying of the Fathers[:] Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God’s Word” (CCC 113).
So in effect, tradition is not only made equal to Scripture, but it becomes the true Scripture, written not in documents, but mystically within the Church herself. And when the Church speaks, her voice is heard as if it were the voice of God, giving the only true meaning to the words of the “documents and records.” Thus tradition utterly supplants and supersedes Scripture.
Modern Catholic Apologetics and Sola Scriptura
In other words, the official Catholic position on Scripture is that Scripture does not and cannot speak for itself. It must be interpreted by the Church’s teaching authority and in light of “living tradition.” De facto this says that Scripture has no inherent authority, but like all spiritual truth, it derives its authority from the Church. Only what the Church says is deemed the true Word of God, the “Sacred Scripture… written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records.”
This position obviously emasculates Scripture. That is why the Catholic stance against Sola Scriptura has always posed a major problem for Roman Catholic apologists. On one hand faced with the task of defending Catholic doctrine, and on the other hand desiring to affirm what Scripture says about itself, they find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. They cannot affirm the authority of Scripture apart from the caveat that tradition is necessary to explain the Bible’s true meaning. Quite plainly, that makes tradition a superior authority. Moreover, in effect it renders Scripture superfluous, for if Catholic tradition inerrantly encompasses and explains all the truth of Scripture, then the Bible is simply redundant. Understandably, sola Scriptura has therefore always been a highly effective argument for defenders of the Reformation.
So it is not hard to understand why in recent years Catholic apologists have attacked sola Scriptura with a vengeance. If they can topple this one doctrine, all the Reformers’ other points fall with it. For under the Catholic system, whatever the Church says must be the standard by which to interpret all Scripture. Tradition is the “true” Scripture, written in the heart of the Church. The Church — not Scripture written in “documents and records” — defines the truth about justification by faith, veneration of saints, transubstantiation, and a host of other issues that divided the Reformers from Rome.
To put it another way, if we accept the voice of the Church as infallibly correct, then what Scripture says about these questions is ultimately irrelevant. And in practice this is precisely what happens. To cite but one example, Scripture very plainly says, “There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). Nonetheless, the Catholic Church insists that Mary is her Son’s “co-mediatrix.”(1)
And in the eyes of millions of Catholics, what the Church says is seen as the final and authoritative Word of God. First Timothy 2:5 is thus nullified by Church tradition.
Obviously, if Rome can prove her case against sola Scriptura, she overturns all the arguments for the Reformation in one fell swoop. If she can establish her tradition as an infallible authority, no mere biblical argument would have any effect against the dictates of the Church.
Modern Roman Catholic apologists have therefore mounted a carefully focused attack against sola Scriptura. Hoping to turn the Reformation’s greatest strength into an argument against the Reformation, they have begun to argue that it is possible to debunk sola Scriptura by using Scripture alone! This line of argument is now being employed by Catholics against evangelicalism in practically every conceivable forum.
For example, these excerpts are from some articles posted on the Internet:
The Protestant teaching that the Bible is the sole spiritual authority — sola Scriptura — is nowhere to be found in the Bible. St. Paul wrote to Timothy that Scripture is “useful” (which is an understatement), but neither he nor anyone else in the early Church taught sola Scriptura. And, in fact, nobody believed it until the Reformation.(2)
The Bible nowhere teaches that it is the sole authority in matters of belief. In fact, the Bible teaches that Tradition — the oral teachings given by Jesus to the apostles and their successors, the bishops — is a parallel source of authentic belief. [Quotations from 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and 1 Corinthians 11:2 follow].(3)
From some books written by Catholic apologists:
Nowhere does [the Bible] reduce God’s Word down to Scripture alone. Instead, the Bible tells us in many places that God’s authoritative Word is to be found in the church: her tradition (2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6) as well as her preaching and teaching (1 Peter 1:25; 2 Peter 1:20 — 21; Matthew 18:17).
That’s why I think the Bible supports the Catholic principle of sola verbum Dei, “the Word of God alone” [with “Word of God” encompassing both tradition and Scripture], rather than the Protestant slogan, sola scriptura, “Scripture alone.”(4)
The Bible actually denies that it is the complete rule of faith. John tells us that not everything concerning Christ’s work is in Scripture John 21:25), and Paul says that much Christian teaching is to be found in the tradition that is handed down by word of mouth (2 Timothy 2:2). He instructs us to “stand fast, and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word or by our epistle” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). We are told that the first Christians “were persevering in the doctrine of the apostles” (Acts 2:42), which was the oral teaching given long before the New Testament was written — and centuries before the canon of the New Testament was settled.(5)
And from a public debate on the question of sola Scriptura:
Sola Scriptura itself must be proved from Scripture alone. And if it can’t be done, sola scriptura is a self-refuting proposition, and therefore it is false.(6)
[In] 2 Thessalonians 2: 15, Paul commands the Church to stand firm and hold fast in the traditions that they had been given, whether orally, spoken, or through an epistle of theirs. So in other words, tradition is one major category, and there are two subsets in the one category: oral tradition, written tradition. That’s what the Word of God says.(7)
Many of these claims will be refuted elsewhere in this book. My main focus will be on explaining the biblical passages cited in support of the Catholic veneration of tradition. But allow me a brief summary response to the thrust of all these arguments.
The Sufficiency of Scripture
First, it is necessary to understand what sola Scriptura does and does not assert. The Reformation principle of sola Scriptura has to do with the sufficiency of Scripture as our supreme authority in all spiritual matters. Sola Scriptura simply means that all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture.
It is not a claim that all truth of every kind is found in Scripture. The most ardent defender of sola Scriptura will concede, for example, that Scripture has little or nothing to say about DNA structures, microbiology, the rules of Chinese grammar, or rocket science. This or that “scientific truth” for example, may or may not be actually true, whether or not it can be supported by Scripture — but Scripture is a “more sure Word,” standing above all other truth in its authority and certainty. It is “more sure,” according to the apostle Peter, than the data we gather firsthand through our own senses (2 Peter 1:19). Therefore, Scripture is the highest and supreme authority on any matter to which it speaks.
But there are many important questions on which Scripture is silent. Sola Scriptura makes no claim to the contrary. Nor does sola Scriptura claim that everything Jesus or the apostles ever taught is preserved in Scripture. It only means that everything necessary, everything binding on our consciences, and everything God requires of us is given to us in Scripture.
Furthermore, we are forbidden to add to or take away from Scripture (cf. Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32; Revelation 22:18 — 19). To do so is to lay on people’s shoulders a burden that God Him-self does not intend for them to bear (cf. Matthew 23:4).
Scripture is therefore the perfect and only standard of spiritual truth, revealing infallibly all that we must believe in order to be saved, and all that we must do in order to glorify God. That — no more, no less — is what sola Scriptura means.
The Westminster Confession of Faith defines the sufficiency of Scripture in this way: “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men” (1:6).
The Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican Church include this statement on sola Scriptura: “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation” (article 6).
So sola Scriptura simply means that Scripture is sufficient. The fact that Jesus did and taught many things not recorded in Scripture John 20:30; 21:25) is wholly irrelevant to the principle of sola Scriptura. The fact that most of the apostles’ actual sermons in the early churches were not written down and preserved for us does not diminish the truth of biblical sufficiency one bit. What is certain is that all that is necessary is in Scripture — and we are forbidden “to exceed what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6).
As other chapters in this volume have demonstrated and will demonstrate, Scripture clearly claims for itself this sufficiency — and nowhere more clearly than 2 Timothy 3:15 — 17. A brief summary of that passage is perhaps appropriate here as well. In short, verse 15 affirms that Scripture is sufficient for salvation: “The sacred writings… are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” Verse 16 affirms the absolute authority of Scripture, which is “God-breathed” (Gk. theopneustos) and profitable for our instruction. And verse 17 states that Scripture is able to equip the man of God “for every good work.” So the assertion that the Bible itself does not teach Sola Scriptura is simply wrong.
How Do We Know the Doctrine of the Apostles?
Now let’s examine the key Scriptures Rome cites to try to justify the existence of extrabiblical tradition. Since many of these passages are similar, it will suffice to reply to the main ones. First we’ll examine the key verses that speak of how apostolic doctrine was transmitted, and then we’ll explore what the apostle Paul meant when he spoke of “tradition.”
2 Timothy 2:2: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” Here the apostle Paul instructs Timothy, a young pastor, to train other faithful men for the task of leadership in the church. There is no hint of apostolic succession in this verse, nor is there any suggestion that in training these men Timothy would be passing on to them an infallible tradition with authority equal to the Word of God.
On the contrary, what this verse describes is simply the process of discipleship. Far from imparting to these men some apostolic authority that would guarantee their infallibility, Timothy was to choose men who had proved themselves faithful, teach them the gospel, and equip them in the principles of church leadership he had learned from Paul. What Timothy was to entrust to them was the essential truth Paul himself had preached “in the presence of many witnesses.”
What was this truth? It was not some undisclosed tradition, such as the Assumption of Mary, which would be either unheard of or disputed for centuries until a pope declared ex cathedra that it was truth. What Timothy was to hand on to other men was the same doctrine Paul had preached before “many witnesses.” Paul was speaking of the gospel itself. It was the same message Paul commanded Timothy to preach, and it is the same message that is preserved in Scripture and sufficient to equip every man of God (2 Timothy 3:16 — 4:2).
In short, this verse is wholly irrelevant to the Catholic claim that tradition received from the apostles is preserved infallibly by her bishops. Nothing in this verse suggests that the truth Timothy would teach other faithful men would be preserved without error from generation to generation. That is indeed what Scripture says of itself: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching” (2 Timothy 3:16), but no such assertion is ever made for tradition handed down orally.
Like Timothy, we are to guard the truth that has been entrusted to us. But the only reliable canon, the only infallible doctrine, the only binding principles, and the only saving message, is the God-breathed truth of Scripture.
Acts 2:42: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” This verse simply states that the early church followed the apostles’ teaching as their rule of faith. Once again this passage says nothing about apostolic succession and contains no hint of a guarantee that “the apostles’ teaching” would be infallibly preserved through any means other than Scripture.
Note also that this verse describes the attitude of the earliest converts to Christianity. The “they” at the beginning of the verse refers back to verse 41 and the three thousand souls who were converted at Pentecost. These were for the most part rank-and-file lay people. And their one source of Christian doctrine (this was before any of the New Testament had been penned) was the oral teaching of the apostles.
This verse is even more irrelevant to the question of infallible tradition than 2 Timothy 2:2. The only point it asserts that is remotely germane to the issue is that the source of authority for the early church was apostolic teaching. No one who holds to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura would dispute that point. Let it be stated as clearly as possible: Protestants do not deny that the oral teaching of the apostles was authoritative, inerrant truth, binding as a rule of faith on those who heard it. Moreover, if there were any promise in Scripture that the exact words or full sense of the apostolic message would be infallibly preserved through word of mouth by an unbroken succession of bishops, we would be bound to obey that tradition as a rule of faith.
Scripture, however, which is God-breathed, never speaks of any other God-breathed authority; it never authorizes us to view tradition on an equal or superior plane of authority; and while it makes the claim of inerrancy for itself, it never acknowledges any other infallible source of authority. Word-of-mouth tradition is never said to be theopneustos, God-breathed, or infallible.
What Tradition Did Paul Command Adherence To?
We’ve already noted, however, that Catholic apologists claim they do see verses in Scripture that accord authority to tradition. Even non-Catholic versions of Scripture, speak of a certain “tradition” that is to be received and obeyed with unquestioning reverence.
What of these verses? Protestants often find them difficult to explain, but in reality they make better arguments against the Catholic position than they do against sola Scriptura. Let’s examine the main ones:
1 Corinthians 11:2: “Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.” Those words of Paul to the Corinthians speak of tradition, do they not?
Yet as is often true, the meaning is plain when we look at the context. And examining the context, we discover this verse offers no support whatsoever for the Roman Catholic notion of infallible tradition.
First of all, the apostle is speaking not of traditions passed down to the Corinthians by someone else through word of mouth. This “tradition” is nothing other than doctrine the Corinthians had heard directly from Paul’s own lips during his ministry in their church. The Greek word translated “traditions” is paradosis, translated “ordinances” in the King James Version. The Greek root contains the idea of transmission, and the idea is no doubt doctrine that was transmitted by oral means. In this case, however, it refers only to Paul’s own preaching — not to someone else’s report of what Paul taught.
The Corinthians had had the privilege of sitting under the apostle Paul’s ministry for a year and a half (Acts 18:11), so it is ironic that of all the churches described in the New Testament, Corinth was one of the most problematic. Paul’s first epistle to this church deals with a series of profound problems related to church discipline and practice, including serious sin in their midst, disunity among the brethren, disorder in church meetings, Christians who were taking one another to court, abuse of spiritual gifts, and so on. Second Corinthians is an extended defense of Paul’s ministry in the face of opposition and hostility. Someone in the church — possibly even someone whom Paul had entrusted with a position of leadership — had evidently fomented a rebellion against Paul during his long absence.
The Corinthians knew Paul. He had been their pastor. Yet they were obviously slipping away from the moorings he had so carefully established during his pastorate there. Far from being instruments through which Paul’s tradition was infallibly preserved and handed down, the Corinthians were rebelling against his apostleship! That is why Paul encouraged them to remember what he had heard from them and follow it to the letter. What did he teach during that year and a half in their midst? We have no way of knowing precisely, but we have every reason to believe that the substance of his teaching was the same truth that is recorded throughout his epistles and elsewhere in the New Testament. Once again, we do know for certain that everything essential for thoroughly equipping Christians for life and godliness was preserved in Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15 — 17). The rest is not recorded for us, and nothing anywhere in Scripture indicates that it was handed down through oral tradition — especially not through any means that guaranteed it would be inspired and infallible.
I Corinthians 11:2 in particular teaches no such thing. It is nothing but Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians that they remember and obey his apostolic teaching. It reflects Paul’s own personal struggle to protect and preserve the doctrinal tradition he had carefully established in Corinth. But again, there is no implication whatsoever that Paul expected this tradition to be infallibly preserved through any inspired means other than Scripture. On the contrary, Paul was concerned lest his ministry among the Corinthians prove to have been in vain (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:1).
2 Thessalonians 2:15: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.” This is perhaps the favorite verse of Catholic apologists when they want to support the Catholic appeal to tradition, because the verse plainly delineates between the written word and oral “traditions.”
Again the Greek word is paradosis. Clearly, the apostle is speaking of doctrine, and it is not to be disputed that the doctrine he has in mind is authoritative, inspired truth.
So what is this inspired tradition that they received “by word of mouth”? Doesn’t this verse rather clearly support the Catholic position?
No, it does not. Again, the context is essential to a clear understanding of what Paul was saying. The Thessalonians had evidently been misled by a forged letter, supposedly from the apostle Paul, telling them that the day of the Lord had already come (2 Thessalonians 2:2).
The entire church had apparently been upset by this, and the apostle Paul was eager to encourage them. For one thing, he wanted to warn them not to be taken in by phony “inspired truth.” And so he told them clearly how to recognize a genuine epistle from him — it would be signed in his own handwriting: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand, and this is a distinguishing mark in every letter; this is the way I write” (3:17). He wanted to ensure that they would not be fooled again by forged epistles.
But even more important, he wanted them to stand fast in the teaching they had already received from him. He had already told them, for example, that the day of the Lord would be preceded by a falling away, and the unveiling of the man of lawlessness. “Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things?” 2:5). There was no excuse for them to be troubled by a phony letter, for they had heard the actual truth from his own mouth already.
Now, no one — even the most impassioned champion of sola Scriptura — would deny that Paul had taught the Thessalonians many things by word of mouth. No one would deny that the teaching of an apostle carried absolute authority. The point of debate between Catholics and Protestants is whether that teaching was infallibly preserved by word of mouth. So the mere reference to truth received firsthand from Paul himself is, again, irrelevant as support for the Catholic position.
Certainly nothing here suggests that the tradition Paul delivered to the Thessalonians is infallibly preserved for us anywhere except in Scripture itself. In fact, the real thrust of what Paul is writing here is antithetical to the spirit of Roman Catholic tradition. Paul is not encouraging the Thessalonians to receive some tradition that had been delivered to them via second or third hand reports. On the contrary, he was ordering them to receive as infallible truth only what they had heard directly from his own lips.
Paul was very concerned to correct the Thessalonians’ tendency to be led astray by false epistles and spurious tradition. From the very beginning the Thessalonians had not responded to the gospel message as nobly as the Bereans, who “received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
It is highly significant that the Bereans are explicitly commended for examining the apostolic message in light of Scripture. They had the priority right: Scripture is the supreme rule of faith, by which everything else is to be tested. Unsure of whether they could trust the apostolic message — which, by the way, was as inspired and infallible and true as Scripture itself — the Bereans erased all their doubt by double-checking the message against Scripture. Yet Roman Catholics are forbidden by their Church to take such an approach! They are told that the Church through her bishops dispenses the only true and infallible understanding of Scripture.
Therefore it is pointless to test the Catholic Church’s message by Scripture; for if there appears to be a conflict — and make no mistake, there are many — Rome says her traditions carry more weight than her critics’ interpretation of Scripture.
What the Apostle was telling the Thessalonians was nothing like what Rome tells faithful Catholics. Paul was urging the Thessalonians to test all truth-claims by Scripture, and by the words they had heard personally from his own lips. And since the only words of the apostles that are infallibly preserved for us are found in Scripture, that means that we, like the Bereans, must compare everything with Scripture to see whether it is so.
Roman Catholic apologists protest that only a fraction of Paul’s messages to the Thessalonians are preserved in the two brief epistles Paul wrote to that church. True, but may not we assume that what he taught the Thessalonians was the very truths that are found in generous measure throughout all his epistles — justification by faith alone, the true gospel of grace, the sovereignty of God, the Lordship of Christ, and a host of other truths? The New Testament gives us a full-orbed Christian theology. Who can prove that anything essential is omitted? On the contrary, we are assured that Scripture is sufficient for salvation and spiritual life (2 Timothy 3:15 — 17). Where does Scripture ever suggest that there are unwritten truths that are necessary for our spiritual well-being? One thing is certain — the words in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 imply no such thing.
2 Thessalonians 3:6: “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.” This is the only other verse in all the New Testament where Paul uses the words tradition or traditions to speak of apostolic truth that is to be obeyed.
By now, Paul’s use of this term should be well established. This cannot be a reference to truth passed down from generation to generation. Again, Paul is speaking of a “tradition” received firsthand from him.
This is the closing section of the epistle. Paul is summing up. And he once again underscores the importance of the teaching the Thessalonians had received directly from his mouth. The “tradition” he speaks of here is doctrine so crucial that anyone who refuses to heed it and live by it should be rejected from the fellowship.
What is this “tradition”? Is it Marian theology, or dogma about the efficacy of relics, or other teachings unique to Roman Catholicism? Not at all — it is simple, practical apostolic doctrine, taught and lived out by example while Paul was among the Thessalonians. Paul goes on to define specifically what “tradition” he has in mind:
We did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we might not be a burden to any of you; not because we do not have the right to this, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, that you might follow our example. For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone will not work, neither let him eat. For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread. But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary of doing good (3:7 — 13).
In other words, Paul was speaking of simple, practical doctrine about stewardship of one’s time, a man’s responsibility to work and provide for his family, and personal discipline in daily life. These truths are now part of holy Scripture, by virtue of Paul’s including them in this epistle. Put that together with everything else the New Testament records, and you have every part of the apostolic message that was infallibly preserved for us.
Is the sum of Scriptural truth a sufficient rule of faith for the Christian? We have the Bible’s own assurance that it is. Scripture alone is sufficient to lead us to salvation and fully equip us for life and eternity (2 Timothy 3:15 — 17). Therefore we may know with certainty that every essential aspect of the apostolic message is included in Scripture.
Note that Paul clearly regarded his epistles as inspired, authoritative Scripture. He charged the Thessalonians with these instructions: “And if anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that man and do not associate with him, so that he may be put to shame” (2 Thessalonians 3:14).
So the written words of Scripture are binding. Apostolic preaching was equally binding for those who heard it from the apostles’ own mouths. Beyond that, Scripture lays no burden on anyone’s shoulders. But, thank God, His own Word assures us that Scripture is fully sufficient to bring us to salvation and to equip us spiritually for all that God demands of us.
No man, no church, no religious authority has any warrant from God to augment the inspired Word of Scripture with additional traditions, or to alter the plain sense of it by subjecting it to the rigors of a “traditional” meaning not found in the Word itself. To do so is clearly to invalidate the Word of God — and we know what our Lord thinks of that (Matthew 15:6 — 9).
- From the Vatican II documents, Lumen Gentium, 62.
- From an article by George Sim Johnston posted on the Catholic Information Network.
- From a tract issued by Catholic Answers.
- Scott Hahn, Rome Sweet Home (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993) p. 74.
- Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988) p. 136.
- Patrick Madrid, in a debate with James White. Information on ordering this tape can be had by writing Alpha and Omega Ministries, P.O. Box 37106, Phoenix, AZ 85069.