Header Image: ntrf.org

Quite often in discussions which are about or involve some aspects of early church history or practices earlier Christians did, someone will inevitably throw out the "show stopper" that is "it's all just man made tradition" therefore not valid and the discussion is over. It’s as though saying it's "man made", without considering anything other than that they can't find an isolated chapter and verse in the bible which states something explicitly, means they've "won" the debate!


Nothing more to see here folks, someone told us it's man made so we can all go home now.

Either that, or the mere mention of the word “tradition” and suddenly you’re accused of being a Roman Catholic or that any Church tradition only has its basis in the Roman Catholic Church, and is therefore automatically wrong and invalid in a discussion, and/or in practice.

Except that's not exactly true nor a good way to discuss anything (and probably falls under the Post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy).

Advertisement

Traditions and creeds go back much further than the Catholic Church – all the way back to a time of the Apostles.
Yes, Jesus had a go at all the Pharisees for making their traditions greater than Scripture (Matt 15:2-3; Mark 7:9) and in that case dismissing something as "man made" is valid.

But what about when it's something based on or inspired by Scripture, something that becomes almost 'living exegesis' rather than just head knowledge? I've been thinking of Lent lately, as that often is dismissed as "man made” or “Catholic tradition" without looking at the history or how the practice came to be.

Generally, no one has an issue with you saying that you're going to fast, but say you'll do it at a specific time of year or for a certain length of time, and suddenly it's wrong and “man made”?

What do the Scriptures say?

Colossians 2:8
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.

Advertisement

 

This is often something quoted as a backup to arguing against traditions. Paul’s warnings here are quite valid, we should be careful what we believe and follow as Christians. This is a warning against "man made traditions" but what if I told you that Paul also tells the churches to FOLLOW traditions too?

1 Corinthians 11:2
I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.

2 Thessalonians 2:15
So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.

2 Thessalonians 3:6
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.

Philippians 4:9
Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Advertisement


Did you catch the theme here? "Hold fast to the traditions" that the apostles taught the believers, either “by word”, action, or by letter!

There is a big difference between "man made tradition" and Apostolic tradition. The former meaning heathen or non-Christian beliefs, or those added as extra rules on top of God’s commands, and the latter being things which will help the Church grow together in Christ.

The key word here is “Apostolic”.

We only have a handful of the apostles letters still, which now forms our New Testament, so anything else they taught was done orally and in person to the people they discipled. These were the traditions they handed down to be observed.

How can we know what else they taught?

All's not lost though! Those who followed the apostles wrote down many things which they were taught, so that they could then in turn, teach the churches the "traditions" passed onto them. These early Christians well understood the difference between the “man made traditions” which Jesus warned against, and those of apostolic origin.

Bishop of Carthage, Cyprian, who was a prominent early leader and writer (c. 250 AD), sums up the view on human tradition rather well, when he says:

...what presumption, to prefer human tradition to divine ordinance, and not to observe that God is indignant and angry as often as human tradition relaxes and passes by the divine precepts … for custom without truth is the antiquity of error.

Cyprian, Epistle 73:3,9

In contrast, he also says this about “divine tradition”:

…you must diligently observe and keep the practice delivered from divine tradition and apostolic observance, which is also maintained among us, and almost throughout all the provinces

Cyprian, Epistle 67:5

Said no apostle ever meme
Said no apostle ever.
Advertisement

There is actually much said about apostolic traditions which were handed down to the bishops and churches by the Apostles themselves, and which were followed and contrasted with the Scriptures that those same apostles wrote. Tradition wasn’t blindly accepted in the early church, but only followed if it could be shown to have originated with apostolic teaching, either by word or by letter; and if it were by word, it was checked against Scripture to make sure it was all in harmony.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they looked for “chapter and verse” (since chapter and verses didn’t exist in Scripture fully until 1553), but to see if what was being taught was consistent with the principles behind what was written down by the Apostles.

Let's explore a few examples of how Apostolic tradition was understood:

If then, any one who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings—what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord's disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice.

Papias, fragments of. 

Just in this short quote from Papias (a bishop of Hierapolis, c. 70-163 AD), it displays that there was a value in seeking after those who had had direct contact with the source, and that was the preferred method over reading what was in books, to make sure that what they learned was as accurate as possible.

But, again, when we refer them (the Gnostics/heretics) to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles

Irenaeus, Against Heresies III, 2:2

Advertisement

If something was handed down and received from the Apostles, it was held in high regard and used as a means to defeat heresies which often tried to creep into the Church and corrupt the faith. This is also the purpose of the creeds (see 1 Cor 15:3-7 for the earliest type of New Testament creed; or the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed for later adaptations).

Irenaeus talks a lot about the traditions handed down in his Against Heresies, and as a bishop himself, took this responsibility very seriously to keep that which he had received “by … succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles … which has been preserved in the church from the apostles until now” (Against Heresies III, 3:3).

Basically, whatever the Apostles taught and did, that was Apostolic Tradition!

The early Christians who were close to the time of the Apostles, relied on this tradition for their learning in not only the faith, but in how to go about “doing church” and as a means to settle any disputes that arose over certain things which weren’t written down. They still had available to them churches which were founded or led by apostles, and so could enquire of them, or those who succeeded the apostolic bishop.

The Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies III, 3:3

Suppose there arise 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 intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?

Irenaeus, Against Heresies III, 4:1

The expectation was that anyone could consult the ancient, apostle founded churches, and learn from them the things which had been taught – especially in cases where it concerned something that hadn’t been written down, and learn the truth. But not only learn it, but be able to fully trust it because of its long preserved, historical ties back to the apostles themselves.

Advertisement

In cases where there were people that had been directly taught by the apostles still around, or who had left writings on what they were taught, this was also preferential to learning the traditions of the apostles.

In this line of thinking, Irenaeus, again, speaks highly of Polycarp as one who could be relied on to learn about the apostles and their teachings, as he had faithfully handed these things on to those who succeeded him.

But Polycarp also 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 … having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down … to these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies III, 3:4

Advertisement

But in the case where someone couldn’t directly speak with a bishop from one of these churches, letters which were still in existence were favoured:

There is also a very powerful Epistle 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.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies III, 3:4

And the amazing thing is, we still have Polycarp’s letter today! It has survived and been preserved by the Church for over 2000 years, so we can still learn from him today as one who “would speak of the conversations he had held with John and with others who had seen the Lord” (a description by Irenaeus, who knew Polycarp).

Traditions and creeds
Know your history, know your heresy

What about the Bible?

Advertisement

Scripture was canonised to preserve and teach the basics of the Gospel and the way of salvation. Not everything that was written was canonised but certain other texts were held as important for teaching within the early church

The dependence on other people in the church body for learning and interpretation possibly came from taking those with the teaching gift seriously as Spirit led individuals, which Scripture expects (James 3:1; 1 Tim 3:2), and also from an understanding of Peter’s epistle warning against just making up your own interpretations:

2 Peter 1:20
First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation

Just as Jesus didn't write anything down, but taught his disciples personally, they also taught people in the same way, mainly orally and in person, and wrote few things down when the occasion presented itself. Their followers then wrote down the things which they learned from the Apostles instead, probably more so as the Church grew and as time went on, to better preserve all they had learnt.

Advertisement

If we look at Hebrews, we can see what the basic teaching is considered to be:

Hebrews 6:1-2
Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

These things listed here were considered to be the “basic teaching about Christ” (and are basically a summary of much of the New Testament doctrine) which implies that there is more to learn apart from these things listed!

If we are serious about our faith and learning all we can in order to fully walk in the way of Christ and his Apostles, then we must consult our forefathers in the faith and learn from them, just as they learned from those who preceded them, and those before them all the way back to the Apostles and Christ himself.

Advertisement

The New Testament letters and Gospels serve as a basis for our faith and doctrine, and as an introduction to the traditions of the Apostles as we can see the things they did and said, and what they taught the churches. But Christianity didn’t (and doesn’t) stop with the New Testament. Jesus himself promised the Holy Spirit to us as a means to be taught more (Jn 14:26) so that we wouldn’t be left alone or have everything he taught, lost to the sands of time.

The truth of the Gospel and how believers should act and live, and how to conduct ourselves in Church gatherings, was tied closely to what the Apostles taught and those traditions of theirs which were handed down to the succession of Bishops in all the churches. These Bishops and church leaders wrote many things which we can learn from, and better understand our faith in light of apostolic tradition, many of whose letters still survive.

But why should we trust them?

Ever skeptical, we should check our sources as there were many forgeries and heretical sects rising up and also writing letters trying to push their agendas. Firstly, historical resources will tell us who is a legitimate author if the date of the letter actually matches the lifespan of the claimed author. Not only that, other historical sources will validate certain people – such as Irenaeus validating Polycarp (and many others) when he makes a list of Bishops in the churches, all whom link back to the apostles. Then we have the vast resources of early Christian writers who took it on themselves to preserve and verify older texts to show which ones were truly written by an Apostle or by “apostolic men” as Tertullian calls them (Prescription against Heretics, ch. 32), meaning the companions of the apostles, like Luke and Mark or Clement (Phil 4:3).

Other than Polycarp’s letter, some of these other texts were so highly regarded and read in the early church, that some were included in early lists of canonical books, possibly due to their close ties with apostles, such as: the Epistle of Barnabas and 1 Clement. Later on, other books such as the Letter to Diognetus; the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache were also included or widely read and used for teaching.

Advertisement

Better still, all of these texts still survive today and can be read and consulted as a modern way to seek to learn from apostolic tradition, since we can no longer just pop to the Ephesus church and enquire after the things John taught, or go to Corinth and ask after the things Paul which weren’t written down. You can view each of these letters by clicking the corresponding links above.

The references to apostolic traditions and the writings of those who followed and succeeded the apostles in the churches they founded are many. These texts make up a much larger collection than the New Testament, which just goes to show in itself that there was much more to be said and expounded on about the faith which many of us are unaware of.

Many questions that arise from reading the Scriptures have been dealt with quite thoroughly by the early Christians and church leaders and we’d do well to invest time in learning from them too.

So, as John Wesley puts it, “can anyone … 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.”.

Advertisement

Happy reading!


Further Reading

Contribute on Patreon

Enjoying this? Consider contributing regular gifts for this content on Patreon.
* Patreon is a way to join your favorite creator's community and pay them for making the stuff you love. You can simply pay a few pounds per month or per post that a creator makes, and in return receive some perks!

Subscribe to Updates
Order my new book today from Amazon or fortydays.co.uk

Subscribe to:

Have something to say? Leave a comment below.

Leave a comment   Like   Back to Top   Seen 3.2K times   Liked 0 times

Subscribe to Updates

If you enjoyed this, why not subscribe to free email updates and join over 107 subscribers today!

Order my new book today from Amazon or fortydays.co.uk

Subscribe to Blog updates

Enter your email address to be notified of new posts:

Subscribe to:

Alternatively, you can subscribe via RSS

‹ Return to Blog

We never share or sell your email address to anyone.

I've already subscribed / don't show me this again

Recent Posts

Francis Chan turns towards a more historical and ancient view of Communion

| 14th January 2020 | General Interest

If you follow certain Christian blogs, or have Christian friends on Social Media, then you may have seen a short video clip being shared which has been taken from a recent sermon by popular Evangelical pastor/speaker and author, Francis Chan of Crazy Love ministries. Depending on who shared the clip will depend on which reaction you have seen; some are praising his words, others fearing for his future calling it a “red flag”. And all of this over a short statement he made about communion! I recommend you watch this 3 minute clip below before continuing, if you haven’t seen it already. I would also recommend watching the whole 47 minute sermon for some better context, where he talks about his struggles and journey to this point in his faith around the topic of communion — something he was wrestling with even back in his BASIC series teaching on Communion from around 2012, views which have clearly moved on since then towards a more historical view. Chan says he isn’t making any sort of “grand statement” here, and goes on to give a brief, if little distorted, overview of church history: “I didn’t know that for the first 1,500 years of church history, everyone saw it as the literal body and blood of Christ … And it wasn’t until 500 years ago that someone popularised the thought that it’s just a symbol and nothing more. I didn’t know that. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s something to consider.’” This part isn’t too far from reality, really, though a little over-simplified. But I understand his zeal and excitement about this discovery of his, as I went through the exact same mind-blowing realisation around five or so years ago when I first delved into the writings of the Early Church Fathers and was forced to come to the same conclusion that there was something there to seriously consider. If the Church had always understood Jesus’ words and the interpretation of Scripture in a fairly singular and unified way for nearly two millennia, then who was I to come along and say my understanding exceeds the wisdom of everyone before me? It was actually one of the earliest texts, from a second century bishop called Ignatius, that really tipped me over the edge from a “memorialist” view (that the bread and wine are purely symbolic, nothing more), to a sacramental view (that the bread and wine are a means of grace that God uses). Ignatius was writing against a heretical group who were teaching a false doctrine about Jesus not really coming in the flesh, and uses communion as an example to prove the opposite, which also gives us an interesting and early view on the sacraments: “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.”— Ignatius Of Antioch: Letter To The Smyrnaeans (c.108 AD) At first reading I was stuck by the literal nature in which Ignatius spoke of the Eucharist (communion), and as I read more of the Early Church Fathers, that same, common thread kept appearing: they all held to a view of Communion which was definitely more than simply a symbol or memorial (you can read some more quotes on the topic here). Chan later talks about unity in the early church and how he longs to see that type of unity again in the Church globally, explaining that making communion more central to worship would help with that. Chan then laments about the apparent disunity within Protestantism, citing the dramatic statistics of there being “30,000 denominations” in the Protestant world. It’s a common claim, often from Roman Catholic apologists, but it’s not exactly accurate; there’s really only about six general umbrellas if you boil it all down: Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Baptist, Methodist and Pentecostal/Charismatic. Most “non-denominational” churches are still largely Baptist in their theology, despite avoiding an...

Does Christmas have pagan origins?

| 19th December 2019 | Christmas

For most people, the question of the origins of Christmas is probably far from their minds. Some may recognise and give a cursory glance towards the Biblical narrative on the birth of Jesus as something to do with it (although a 2017 study showed that almost 1 in 20 Brits thought Easter was the birth of Jesus!);—but in some Christian circles the question (accusation?) that “Christmas is pagan” is at the forefront of their minds. Table of Contents When was December 25th celebrated? The Christian Calendar Further Reading & Sources: As time goes on and we move further and further into the future, away from the initial events of the first Nativity, the festival of Christmas has morphed into something altogether different than how the first Christians recognised and celebrated it (if they even did). We know from historical records and study now that a lot of what has been incorporated into the festivities surrounding Christmas does have pagan origins, but does that make the holiday itself still pagan today? Are you inadvertently worshipping “the birthday of the Unconquered Sun” (Dies Natalis Solis Invicti) when you celebrate on the 25th of December? Let’s trace a little bit of history and see how the early church viewed these festivals, as they were still happening in full force whilst the Church was still young and were a contemporary concern, and what date they pinned the birth of Christ on to. Much of the earliest references to the Nativity occur in a passing way as a commentary on the event rather than anything celebratory about it. Justin Martyr in his First Apology (~160 AD) mentions that Jesus was born 150 years before him, in the time of Quirinius (or Cyrenius as some translations have it – cf. Luke 2:2), where his readers could “ascertain also from the registers” the accuracy of his statement. Tertullian (197 AD) also references this census as a place where “Mary is described”, in which New Testament scholar W. M. Ramsey saw as proof that Tertullian at least, had access to documents which we no longer do. Origen (~248 AD) even mentions that in his own day, “there is displayed at Bethlehem the cave where Jesus was born”, and that “this sight is greatly talked of in the surrounding places—even among the enemies of the faith” (now known as The Church of the Nativity)! The first person we see write about a specific date of the birth is Clement of Alexandria around 195 AD in book one of The Stromata, and he speaks about others who have tried to pinpoint the exact day and month of Jesus’ birth, which brings up a variety of dates: From the birth of Christ, therefore, to the death of Commodus [December 192 AD] are, in all, a hundred and ninety-four years, one month, thirteen days [18th November]. And there are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord's birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus, and in the twenty-fifth day of Pachon [20th May]. And the followers of Basilides hold the day of his baptism as a festival, spending the night before in readings. […] Further, others say that He was born on the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi [19/20th April]. — Clement of Alexandria, 195 AD So from this quote, we have Clement calculating the birth of Christ to around the 18th of November, 2 BC by our calendar today, and others still who he mentions have worked it out to be around April or May time. He also mentions other people who placed the date of birth on January 6th in 2 or 3 BC, which for any liturgical people reading this, will recognise as another important date in the Christian calendar (we'll come back to this date later). Keeping and celebrating birthdays was a very Roman thing to do, so it’s no surprise that earlier Christians from a more Jewish heritage didn’t see any importance on marking the exact day and month that Jesus was born, as it was his death and resurrection which...

Power Cuts and the Fear of God

| 11th November 2019 | Devotional

The other week we had a series of power cuts in our town. It doesn’t happen very often here where I am, but there was particularly bad weather recently which damaged some cables; but sitting in the dark winter evening, my phone low on battery power, it made me realise just how much we rely on electricity for nearly everything these days. We don’t even have a gas supply so we were completely cut off from doing anything! Now it might sound obvious, but it’s easy to forget how dependent we are on modern conveniences until it’s suddenly taken away and you’re sat in the cold surrounded by tiny little tea-light candles. The following Sunday, the sermon at church touched on the fear of God, which got me thinking about how that concept is still kind of strange to me—God is love, He’s our Father, we’re His children… but then we are to also fear Him?  What does this have to do with electricity and power cuts, I hear you say—I’ll come to that in a moment. I’ve often been taught that the word “fear” used in this context actually means “respect”, so I decided to look up the Greek and Hebrew words that are used when we see the words “fear God” in the Bible. It wasn’t exactly what I expected to find. 2 Corinthians 5:11 is where I began, as that was the verse quoted in the sermon. Knowing therefore the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are revealed to God, and I hope that we are revealed also in your consciences. I thought I may see a Greek word with a semantic range which includes “respect” or “honour” maybe, but what I found was the word φόβος (phobos) which literally means “alarm or fright; be afraid, fear, terror”. It’s also where we get our English word “phobia” from! So I went forward a couple of chapters to this verse: 2 Corinthians 7:1Having therefore these promises, beloved, let’s cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. But again, the word “phobos” was used, so now I decided to search across the New Testament for this phrase, and the next passage that came up was in Romans. Romans 3:18“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” This is part of a larger passage which ends on this verse about the fear of God (still using the same Greek word), where I saw a footnote to say it had been a quote from Psalm 36:1. Ah, I thought, maybe the Hebrew word used for “fear” will show something different! I thought wrong. This particular verse in Psalm 36 used the word פַּחַד (p̱aḥaḏ), which has a wide meaning such as: a (sudden) alarm (properly, the object feared, by implication, the feeling): — dread(-ful), fear, (thing) great (fear, greatly feared), terror. So again, the type of fear is an actual fear!  A little searching through the Old Testament revealed that the word “fear” has a couple of other Hebrew words which lie underneath the English translations, one of which does also mean “reverence” as well (יָרֵא [yârê], found in Gen 22:12 and 1 Sam 12:14). So maybe there is an element of that understanding in the Greek by the time the New Testament writers came along who meant that ‘fear’ as awe and reverence as well. So this all leads me back to where I was a week or so ago, sat in church listening to a sermon, wondering when my power would be back on. As I thought about all of this, the combination of electricity and the fear of God combined into something that helped me put some perspective on it: the fear of God is like a live, sparking electric cable.  I’ll clarify my thinking—if we saw an electric cable on the ground, flailing around and sparking  everywhere, we should be fearful of that because touching it could kill us! But when electricity is used right, it is good for and to us; it provides power and comfort etc. Without it we lose access to pretty much everything these days and go into darkness—Much like if we lose sight of,...

Patristics.info has launched!

| 13th September 2019 | Early Church

Hey everyone, so I’ve launched a new website called Patristics.info to be a new resource for all things early church related. I’ve added a few texts which I already had formatted from my book manuscript, plus other resources like timelines, maps, recommended books etc. I’ll be adding more soon in the coming days. I’ve also created a “topical index” page too which is auto-generated from the tags on the pages to aid with searching, plus I created a word highlighter on each page so you can search keywords in a text and have them highlighted if you’re looking for particular things. If anyone would like to be involved to contribute resources or blogs, or have any book you’ve written which you’d like linked/advertised on the site then just get in touch! I want this to be as useful a tool for people who are interested in this area as much as for people who are new to Patristics (the early church fathers). Features and functionality Much of the site is ready to go in terms of functionality and resources etc for the time being. I’m still working on adding more Early Church texts to the site, but this takes a lot of time as I need to transcribe them from unformatted text into a nicer format for reading, plus inserting all of the footnotes as well (I’m currently half way through 1 Clement now). While I mention the footnotes, I’ve created a feature similar to Wikipedia where if you hover on a footnote number, it will display a popup with the footnote text in it hopefully making it simpler to read the Patristic text and quickly see any additional information from the original translators as you go. This should also work well on mobiles too. Inline footnote hover popups Another new feature I’ve created is the Quote Search page: https://patristics.info/quote-search.html This is an experimental tool at the moment while I still perfect it, but please give it a go and submit any feedback if you can. The page will allow you to search a keyword and bring up a list of contextual quotes from within the Church Father texts where that word is mentioned. As far as I’m aware, there’s nothing else like this available online in this format so I hope it will prove useful for study! Example quote search for the word “baptism” I hope that you enjoy the site and find it a useful tool. Please share it online etc. and if you want to get involved with creating blogs or resources just get in touch, or if you feel so inclined, you can support this project financially via Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/LukeJWilson Go and explore the site today: Patristics.info !...