How Do We Know Which Traditions Are Apostolic?

In response to my post on the NIV’s skewed translation (namely, that the translate bad paradosis as “tradition” and good paradosis as “teachings,” even though it’s the exact same word), a blogger calling himself “The 27th Comrade” raised a number of arguments.  He noted at the beginning of his second comment, “While this comment here may seem combative (perhaps it is), just consider it as an irreverently-written-but-honest-to-goodness question.” I think that his questions are fair, and warrant a response.  I’ve reordered them slightly for organization’s sake:

The problem is (something you almost explicitly note) that anyone can appeal to his tradition, and claim that it compels this or that.
These translators can claim that their traditions compel such a distinction between good teachings—“traditions”—and good teachings—“teachings”.

We agree on the core problem here, but let me point something out.  The NIV choice to translate the same word in two different ways based, not on context, but on whether a certain paradosis was being praised or condemned, isn’t a translation derived from Scripture.  Scripture, in its original language, flat-out doesn’t make that distinction: it uses the same word, while the NIV uses two different words (with very different meanings and connotations). 

T27C raises a broader problem, though: what’s to be done about exegetical traditions: that is, those traditions which serve as a lens for how we read Scripture?  We can’t say they’re right or wrong on the basis of Scripture alone, since to do so, we’d have to first determine how Scripture should be understood.  So if one camp reads a verse in one sense, and another camp reads it in an opposite sense, on what basis do we determine who’s right?  We can’t just say, “Well, what does the Bible say?”  That’s the entire dispute: they agree on the text, but not what it means.

But, really, the root of all this stuff is (first) a failure to realise that Scripture is whatever it is for which you say “Let this be true, and every man a liar,” and that is the Bible for the Protestants and the Tradition for the Catholics (it cannot be both Tradition and Scripture, because one has to validate and legitimise the other—the superior validating and legitimising the inferior); and (second) a failure to realise that, if anybody holds the Bible to be authoritative at all, then such a one must also recognise the superiority of it to any traditions, so that for the Catholic who follows after Tradition, the Bible might as well never be referred to ever again, and Catholicism will survive and therefore for him the Bible is just a superfluous commentary on what the Tradition holds, while for the Protestant, the Tradition can as well vanish irretrievably forever, and he will not be bothered, because he still has his Bible.

Romans 3:4 actually says it’s God, not Scripture, who is true, and every man a liar (the context being that even if we break the covenant, He won’t).  But T27C is making a huge mistake by claiming that “it cannot be both Tradition and Scripture, because one has to validate and legitimise the other—the superior validating and legitimising the inferior.”  This is just absolutely false.  I mean, you could force the same false choice between the Gospels and the Pauline epistles.

Catholics view Tradition almost as if It was simply another book of the Bible: this is perhaps too simplistic, but it establishes the basics of what I’m saying.  Just as Luke and Matthew agree (but each contain details the other omits, for whatever reason), so too does Tradition agree with Scripture (although it contains details Scripture omits).  The only time you would ever have to “choose between” Matthew and Luke is if they contradicted each other. Since they don’t, it’s a false choice. Same with Tradition and Scripture: true Tradition doesn’t contradict Scripture.

That T27C’s choice is a false choice is demonstrable from Scripture: remember, 2 Thessalonians 2:15 assumes that Christians must hold fast not only to the Apostlic letters, but also to the oral Apostolic traditions passed on.  There would be no reason to require both if they were identical.  Nobody says “you must obey the NIV and the KJV Scriptures,” because they’re the same Scriptures.  So the fact that Paul says to obey the Bible but also oral Apostolic Tradition proves that Paul didn’t take the view that Tradition was simply a derivative of Scripture.  No Catholic — none — treats the Bible as simply a “superfluous commentary.”  That’s a straw man.  But there are Protestants who don’t care a whit about Tradition.  And 2 Thessalonians 2:15 (along with the other passages I cited in the original post) serves as a ringing denunciation of this view.

How do you segregate between any two traditions claiming to be representatives of the Deposit of Faith? As always, you would have to appeal to Scripture.

Nope.  You can, certainly.  After all, if a purported tradition is obviously in contradiction with Scripture, we can know it’s false.  But here’s a much smarter way of determining the validity of Scripture and tradition:

  1. We can tell from history that the New Testament and Patristic texts reliably report on what was taught in the early Church, and on the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus ChristNota bene, we don’t need to start off assuming that a given book is Scripture, or that Scripture is inspired.  Just treat the documents like you would any other historical documents.
  2. If the texts are reliable in reporting on Jesus Christ (and we established in #1 that they are), we know He is God, and that He sent His Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and upon the Church to deliver His message.  John 14, John 16, Acts 1-2, and Acts 15 establish this all really thoroughly, and we have reason to believe the Apostles’ accounts here (in no small part, because the events they’re describing had upwards of thousands of eyewitness, like Peter’s speech at Pentecost, and the date of the texts is so early that if they were lying, they would have been instantly exposed).
  3. The early Church claims that a group of texts were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  This includes texts which don’t claim to be Scripture, and even texts (like Hebrews) which may not have even been written by an Apostle.
  4. The early Church also claims that a set of traditions were instituted by these same Apostles.  These include both teachings and certain practises.  If 2 Thessalonians 2:15 is true (and we know it is from #3), then these Traditions are binding on Christians.

From this, we can know which books are Scriptures, and which aren’t; we can also know which traditions are Apostolic Traditions, and which aren’t.

But then, this is exactly what creates the distinction between Scripture and Tradition: that one is deemed superior to the other. In short, one is “teachings”, and the other “traditions”, where traditions are supposed to be synchronised with what scripture says, and they are not equal to it in force.

T27C’s logic could be flipped on its head: how do we know which books are in the Bible? After all, in the early Church, there were numerous books claiming to be Scriptural Books.  Just as we have to separate between true Tradition and false tradition, we have to separate between true Scripture and false scripture.  And this is done, not on the basis of Scripture alone (since Scripture is silent as to which other books are Scriptural), but on the basis of Tradition and the authority of the Catholic Church.  It was the Catholic Church who declared the canon of Scripture, after all.  Without Her, you don’t even have a Scriptura to sola.

It may seem like this question is settled, but it’s not:  Protestants have taken seven books out of the Bible, without any authority to do so.  On what basis did the Reformers get to reset the canon of Scripture?  Who gave them this authority, and what determining factors were used?  I think you’ll quickly discover both that they had no authority, and that the determining factors were extra-Scriptural (which they had to be, by definition).

So to determine whether a given Tradition is true, we look (in part) to whether it agrees with Scripture and those things we know to be part of authentic Apostolic Tradition.  And to determine if a given Scripture is true, we look (in part) to whether it agrees with Tradition and those books we know to be part of the authentic Bible.  For both, we look to what the students of the Apostles said on the subject.  This doesn’t mean that Scripture or Tradition is superior than the other: it just means that if you know x is true, and aren’t sure about y, you use x as a guide.

Finally, he asks:

I note that you say “we’re ordered in the name of Jesus Christ to shun anyone who doesn’t follow Aposotolic Tradition.”

This is true; but I think that Roman Catholicism is not the Apostolic Tradition. If it were, you would say faith seventy times for every time you say works, and say “believe, and you will be saved” ten times for every single time you say “follow these statutes”, and you would say “by grace you have been saved, not through works, but by faith—and this not of yourselves, but of God” instead of “man should work for his salvation”. That is the Apostolic Tradition, and it is not the Roman Catholic Tradition. Which of the Traditions that you know of would you consider to be the “traditions of men”, looking at what various Christian groups do? Would you use Roman Catholic (“Apostolic”) Tradition as the definer of what the Apostolic Tradition is? How would you find out what the traditions of men are, as opposed to the traditions of God?

This is easily disproven.  You can’t say that because you don’t think Catholicism emphasizes the same things to the same degree as Scripture, that She’s wrong.  After all, does the Epistle of James say the word faith seventy times as often as the word works?  Nope.  He uses the term “faith” 16 times and the term “works” 13 (although you wouldn’t know this from the NIV, which translates “works” as “deeds” and “actions,” etc., even though it translates the same word as “works” in Romans 3:28, in another example of the NIV distorting Scripture to make it sound less Catholic). In contrast, the Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the term “faith” 473 times, and the term “works” 100.  And look to how Christ answers the question of justification in Mark 10:17-22 – does He say “salvation is by faith alone” when asked “Good Teacher, what must I do to get eternal life?”  Different parts of Scripture emphasize different things, given their setting, and Protestantism is guilty of taking Paul’s answers to the Judaizers, and acting like it’s all Scripture says on the subject, or even all that the Gospels have to say. The truth is, Catholicism affirms everything Scripture says on justification, including Romans 3:28, although we also affirm Philippians 2:12-13.  If you read what the Church actually says on justification (instead of what Protestants claim She says on justification), I think you’ll see that the chasm is much smaller than it appears. 

More to the point of your question, if you want to know what the Apostles taught, look both to the written records of what they taught (the Bible), and the records of what their students describe them as saying.  The body of writings about the teachings of the Apostles is voluminous, and they carefully guarded this Deposit of Faith.  And these writings are really clearly Catholic.  One of my friends, a Presbyterian at a leading Protestant seminary, is in an Early Church Fathers class, and conceded that they were very Catholic-looking.  These are the exact same people who we rely on to know which books are actually Apostolic, which books belong in the Bible.  If we can’t trust them, how can we trust the canon of Scripture?

So yes, I would say that Roman Catholicism and Apostolic Tradition are one in the same. But that’s not my starting point, but my conclusion.   (Of course, the fact that Christ describes the Church as unfailing, authoritative, and reliable helps support this conclusion).  That said, “the 27th Comrade,” if there are any Catholic traditions which leave you disturbed, where you think we teach something other than the students of the Apostles of Jesus Christ (that is, something other than Christ Himself taught, and which was passed on), let me know, and I’ll address it specifically.

9 Comments

  1. Hello, Mr. Heschmeyer; I have typed a comment off-line, in response to your post. I think you make some brilliant points, and it would be a shame to reply with a short dashing repartée (not least because that would not doubt because that would have to be rude and sarcastic, since I disagree with you). But my comment is rather on the long side, so I shall split it into small bits that Blogger can take, and I shall put it up bit by bit. I hope it does not get too … bothering. Blogger fails when a comment is past a certain size.

    You say:
    “The NIV choice to translate the same word in two different ways based, not on context, but on whether a certain paradosis was being praised or condemned, isn’t a translation derived from Scripture. Scripture, in its original language, flat-out doesn’t make that distinction …”
    Which is true. But their Tradition does make that distinction. When you say they are wrong, you are saying that Scripture over-rules Tradition. But tat is against your position.
    In other words, you cannot critique that translation to support Tradition, because you would have to argue against Tradition to do it.

    “I mean, you could force the same false choice between the Gospels and the Pauline epistles.”
    By all means. Let’s have at it; it is just that these two have no conflicts between them.

    “Same with Tradition and Scripture: true Tradition doesn’t contradict Scripture.”
    This is true. But the Tradition for which I say “this is true” is not the Roman Catholic Tradition, because that is not identical to the Apostolic Tradition. Of course, many affirm that I am wrong, but I know Grace when I see it—it found me—and I do not see it the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church.

    “That T27C’s choice is a false choice is demonstrable from Scripture: remember, 2 Thessalonians 2:15 assumes that Christians must hold fast not only to the Apostlic letters, but also to the oral Apostolic traditions passed on. There would be no reason to require both if they were identical.”
    The passage affirms that they are identical (they are referred to as one plural entity: traditions); it is the methods of delivery that vary. This is quite plainly what the passage says: “the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.”

  2. “So the fact that Paul says to obey the Bible but also oral Apostolic Tradition proves that Paul didn’t take the view that Tradition was simply a derivative of Scripture.”
    The scriptures that St. Paul wrote are now what made part of the Scriptures. Since the traditions of which he spoke are in sync with Scripture, as we both believe, we know what the Scripture says, so we know what the Tradition says. It says “Grace, by Faith,” and that is the Apostolic Tradition. It is different from the Roman Catholic Tradition.

    “No Catholic — none — treats the Bible as simply a “superfluous commentary.” That’s a straw man.”
    No, it is not. From what I know, the Bible is not the final authority even on what it is. Unless a Council or Pope decides that the Bible says X, the Catholic cannot affirm that it does. Therefore the Bible is like an Encyclical written in retrospect; and the Roman Catholics do function without all the encyclicals not yet written which nevertheless are part of their Scripture. So, no, it is not a straw man. Catholicism would not vanish if the Bible did. Protestantism would.

    “But there are Protestants who don’t care a whit about Tradition.”
    By definition, Protestants care about Tradition. They even chant “sola scriptura”. Scriptura is part of tradition, Roman Catholic or otherwise. (For Roman Catholics, it includes encyclicals and bulls and so on.) Protestants just do not care about what Roman Catholics seem to consider as tradition to the (sensible) exclusion of all else, and so, to Roman Catholics, they do not seem to care about Tradition.

    “After all, if a purported tradition is obviously in contradiction with Scripture, we can know it’s false.”
    No, it is the scripture which would be false. Or vice versa. Does this, at least, suffice to show the contradiction of which I speak?

    “But here’s a much smarter way of determining the validity of Scripture and tradition: …”
    I agree with it, more or less; and one thing I get from it is that the Roman Catholic Tradition is not the Apostolic Tradition (which latter one was quite simple, and made of pretty much a gloss of “Whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish”; and that is certainly not what the Roman Catholic Church follows).

    “T27C’s logic could be flipped on its head: how do we know which books are in the Bible? After all, in the early Church, there were numerous books claiming to be Scriptural Books.”
    I do not justify what I treat as Scripture (which is probably why I am not a Protestant, and is certainly why I do not debate on sola scriptura with any side against any side). I just believe in the canon I believe in by simple, bling, guy faith. This cannot even be settled logically.

    “It was the Catholic Church who declared the canon of Scripture, after all. Without Her, you don’t even have a Scriptura to sola.”
    Without the sola scriptura, we do not even have a cathedra out of which to ex. See the circular dependency? See why this cannot be settled in the fashion the Roman Catholic Church uses? See why the skirmishes with the Protestants are never decisive? See why I do not bother debating what should be a matter of faith alone? Here, reason lies.

    “I think you’ll quickly discover both that they had no authority, and that the determining factors were extra-Scriptural (which they had to be, by definition).”
    If they had only extra-scriptural mandate, then they had tradition. But this is the same state we find the Roman Catholic Church in. Now the different traditions—the one of those against the apocrypha and yours—have to combat on extra-scriptural mandate. How do you determine which of these two warring traditions is true, each ex-communicating and anathematising the other, each claiming to be the Apostolic Tradition?

  3. “So to determine whether a given Tradition is true, we look (in part) to whether it agrees with Scripture and those things we know to be part of authentic Apostolic Tradition. And to determine if a given Scripture is true, we look (in part) to whether it agrees with Tradition and those books we know to be part of the authentic Bible.”
    I hope you see the circularity. We can know authentic—Scripture or Tradition—only by looking at the authentic. This creates a circular dependency. In other words, unless one decides that Tradition is right, he cannot say that the translation that segregates against Tradition is wrong; that the anti-Tradition Tradition is wrong.
    Note that I have no problem with deciding on one thing or the other by simple, blind, gut faith (it is what I do); but the Roman Catholic Tradition insists that these things must be reasonable.

    “This doesn’t mean that Scripture or Tradition is superior than the other: it just means that if you know x is true, and aren’t sure about y, you use x as a guide.”
    As in the NIV passages, it is about Scripture talking of Tradition, and vice versa; this is a more-common stalemate than people realise (indeed, probably the only such stalemate in these matters).

    “After all, does the Epistle of James say the word faith seventy times as often as the word works? Nope.”
    I do not hold St. James to the same standards I hold the Roman Catholic Church. James, I wager, insisted that justification is by faith, and insisted on the liberty that comes from death to the Law. That is why he is the only other one who says “Law of Liberty,” apart from St. Paul.
    As for the Roman Catholic Church? Nope.

    “although you wouldn’t know this from the NIV, which translates “works” as “deeds” and “actions,” etc., even though it translates the same word as “works” in Romans 3:28, in another example of the NIV distorting Scripture to make it sound less Catholic”
    I think this is the point of their translation. They are convinced of the trajectory of the New Testament. Their Tradition compels them to say things in certain ways—knowing the pre-conceived ideas of their audiences—so as to high-light some things. I feel that they made the right compromises. Then again, the issue here is really what mandate we have to say they are wrong in this tradition (which title NIV translation does indeed qualify for).

  4. “And look to how Christ answers the question of justification in Mark 10:17-22 – does He say “salvation is by faith alone” when asked “Good Teacher, what must I do to get eternal life?””
    A perfect example—forgive me for the following harshness—of how confused I feel the Roman Catholic view is, because it does not quite have the tradition of the Apostles, the one that St. Paul referred to.
    Just four verses below the passage you mention, in verse 26-27:
    The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
    Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

    Those with the Grace tradition will recognise this is what St. Paul writes of as “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” And again, he said “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” And again “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

    So, you see, if a verse helps people understand this Grace from that seeming appeal to works, gloss it appropriately. At least, that is what the translators’ tradition seems to say. So, Jesus does in fact say “Salvation by faith alone.” You just need the Tradition of the Apostles to know it; I do not think that the Roman Catholic Tradition is it.

    “Different parts of Scripture emphasize different things, given their setting, and Protestantism is guilty of taking Paul’s answers to the Judaizers, and acting like it’s all Scripture says on the subject, or even all that the Gospels have to say. ”
    Why would we exclude the Roman Catholic’s teachings on justification from the attacks of St. Paul, considering that both are related to justification before God? I think the attacks on the Judaizers have maximum import for all who would want to make our relationship with God dependent on our works, because that is the point of the letters: It Is Finished, the Veil is Torn.

    “The truth is, Catholicism affirms everything Scripture says on justification, including Romans 3:28, although we also affirm Philippians 2:12-13. If you read what the Church actually says on justification … the chasm is much smaller than it appears. ”
    I do not see how Philippians 2:12-13 disagrees with salvation by faith alone. Working out our salvation is what we do when we read the Gospels when we read Jesus saying “Repent and believe.” It does not say “work for your salvation”, and that is different from “work out”; but you would need a Grace tradition to see it.
    I think I have seen what the Roman Catholic Church says on justification, and I cannot fail to see that it is almost ashamed of affirming that we are saved by faith. As I know to be true, as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church, works are not necessary at all for justification.

    “And these writings are really clearly Catholic. One of my friends, a Presbyterian at a leading Protestant seminary, is in an Early Church Fathers class, and conceded that they were very Catholic-looking.”
    I do not know what Catholic-looking would mean, but I can say for certain that if the early scholars sounded like the Roman Catholic Church, they are wrong. I know the Grace that found me, and whoever disagrees is wrong.
    Antiquity does not determine truth; the Apostles were fighting heresy in their time.

  5. I think some of your readers may find help from Dei Verbum the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. Chapter 2 is very relevant as discussing the real nature of handing on true paradosis as it were.Number 9 in the Chapter seals an understanding where the Council Fathers discuss the relationship between Scripture and Tradition that both flow from the same wellspring that they merge to a form of unity and both have the same end. I hope this is helpful

  6. 27th Comrade, I’ve responded to your major themes here, and will (hopefully) respond more to the specific points you raise tomorrow. I hope that this helps sort of clarify what it is I mean by binding Tradition (as opposed to mere traditions of men), and what the Catholic Church teaches on justification. Feel free to respond at once: you don’t need to wait for my post tomorrow. Also, I second what Andrew says: that’s a very good resource, because it’s the Church speaking, in Her own words.

  7. T27C, we’re not saying, “read Dei Verbum to settle the controversy,” we’re saying “read Dei Verbum to understand the Catholic position.” It’s not asking the man in the dock to be judge, but to be allowed to testify in his own defense.

  8. “… we’re saying “read Dei Verbum to understand the Catholic position.” It’s not asking the man in the dock to be judge, but to be allowed to testify in his own defense.”
    Yes, indeed. I know that his position is that he holds the Apostolic Tradition. If he is ultimately saying this, I already have disagreed with him above. The history of the Tradition can be claimed by either party; after all, the only reason I would expect that, in reading Dei Verbum, I am not reading the insistences of heretics is if first I agree with the source tradition Dei Verbum. I do not accept, for example, the Muslim claims on Jesus’ inferiority to Mohammed, because I already reject the tradition of the Mussulmans, even as for those who accept that tradition, these recounts of Mohammed’s superiority to Jesus are authoritative (precisely because they already accept the tradition of Islam as truthful).
    I hope I have stated my position (which you should disagree with, of course, along with its denial of the correctness of the Roman Catholic Tradition, if to you I am a heretic, as indeed I am to you).

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