The Allure Of Unwritten Tradition

The earliest post-apostolic Christians (some of whom are denominated the Apostolic Fathers) knew of an apostolic tradition but they did not know about a secret and unwritten apostolic tradition on the authority of which the church could justify virtually anything it wanted. Remarkably, however, over time this is just what happened in the life of the church. In preparation for the annual conference this Friday and Saturday (January 13–14, 2017) I have been looking at Thomas Aquinas’ appeal to an unwritten tradition to justify practices that he freely admits are not biblical. In Summa Theologica 3a 25.3, where he was defending the veneration of the cross, he faced a very sensible and eminently biblical objection:

Further, it seems that nothing should be done in the Divine worship that is not instituted by God; wherefore the Apostle (1 Cor. 11:23) when about to lay down the doctrine of the sacrifice of the Church, says: I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you. But Scripture does not lay down anything concerning the adoration of images. Therefore Christ’s image is not to be adored with the adoration of latria. (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.)).

Remarkably, this is a fair summary of the approach employed both by Scripture and the early post-apostolic Christians to the question of faith and practice. The test used in Acts, in the Epistles, and by the early post-Apostolic Christians was: is it biblical? Is it commanded by Scripture? Scripture not only says nothing about the adoration of images it positively prohibits in in the 2nd commandment of the moral law and in countless other places.

To which Thomas replied:

Reply Obj. 4. The Apostles, led by the inward instinct of the Holy Ghost [Spirit], handed down to the churches certain instructions which they did not put in writing, but which have been ordained, in accordance with the observance of the Church as practised by the faithful as time went on. Wherefore the Apostle says (2 Thess. 2:14): Stand fast; and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word—that is by word of mouth—or by our epistle—that is by word put into writing. Among these traditions is the worship of Christ’s image. Wherefore it is said that Blessed Luke painted the image of Christ, which is in Rome. (ibid.).

There are several things to notice here. First, note that Thomas first appealed to what is essentially a subjective, unverifiable principle and claim: “the inward instinct” of the Holy Spirit. The genius of such an appeal is that it is difficult to gainsay. If you tell me that you have had a subjective experience I may doubt it but how can I say definitively that it did not happen? In this case, however, we have an objective test by which we can measure this claim of a tradition generated by the “inward prompting” of the Spirit. We have Holy Scripture which is inspired by the Spirit himself. God’s Word says of itself: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16–17; ESV. Emphasis added). The Apostles wrote Scripture as they were “carried along” by the Spirit (2 Pet 1:21). Scripture itself testifies to the work of the Spirit in the Apostles to produce Scripture, not in the production of extra-canonical, secret, unwritten traditions.

Second, notice how Thomas appeals to Scripture to justify the existence of such a tradition. He appeals to the 2 Thessalonians 2:14 to justify his assumption that such a tradition exists but nothing about Paul’s language in 1 Thessalonians remotely supports his claim. The theology, piety, and practice that Paul handed over (traditio) to the Thessalonian Christians is essentially preserved for us in Holy Scripture. The claim that there secretly preserved traditions, prompted by the Holy Spirit, is sheer speculation and imagination.  In fact, we have no actual evidence from Scripture that there was ever any such tradition of the veneration of the cross. There is no evidence that the cross was venerated in the early post-apostolic church. It was used as a Christian symbol but it was not venerated. Indeed, the very distinction between “worship” and “veneration” on which Thomas’ argument rests is not a biblical or even early Christian distinction. It was a medieval distinction.

There is no evidence that Luke produced a portrait of Christ. There were no images of Christ in the 2nd century. Eusebius refused a request to create one in the 4th century. When images began to appear in the late patristic and early medieval periods, they were hotly controversial. They did not become widespread until after the 8th century.

The objection that Thomas faces here is the very objection the earliest Christians made. The evidence is that they adhered to what they called the “rule of faith” (regula fidei). They held to it so strongly that they did in worship only what is commanded in Scripture. One of the most important arguments in the 2nd century was about when to observe the resurrection of our Lord. It became so heated it nearly caused a schism. Why? It was about the regulatory authority of God’s Word. Whether God’s Word regulated worship was not in question. How God’s Word regulated worship was in debate. The doctrine and practice that the Scripture is the rule of the Christian faith and the Christian life is principle that Calvin and the Reformed recovered in the 16th century.

The only way for Thomas to overcome the New Testament and the early post-apostolic Christian objection to the principle on which he wants to proceed is to invent an unwritten tradition for which there is actual no biblical evidence and for which neither he nor Rome can produce any actual evidence. Yet this is the faith, piety, and practice of millions of Romanists across the globe. Any attempt to persuade them otherwise is met with fierce resistance. Why? Because people like their traditions and practices. They like the idea that there is divine sanction for what they want to do. Scripture teaches us that people naturally like pictures of God. They like the idea that they share a secret to which only they have access. You and I have known this since elementary school. This is a powerful idea to which the church turned increasingly from the late Patristic era, through the medieval period, to defeat heretics and to justify unibiblical practices.

It is an idea to which we are all tempted. How many times have Protestants said, “But that is the way we have always done it?” —This claim is almost always false. Much of what Protestants consider fixed tradition, e.g., instruments in worship, hymnals, Sunday School, dates to the 18th and 19th centuries—Consider the speed with which the idea of continuing, extra-biblical revelation has taken hold among ostensible Protestants? Since the mid-1970s it has become common place for Pentecostal and charismatic evangelicals to claim to have unwritten revelation from God. I recall hearing people in the foyer of an Anglican congregation in Oxford refer to an alleged post-canonical “prophecy,” which they regarded as God’s Word, with which they were familiar but to which the rest of us had no access. We could multiply examples.

The great news about the Reformation is that the rediscovery of the principle of sola scriptura, i.e., that Scripture is the sole, unique, final authority for the Christian faith and practice, is wonderfully liberating. If you are looking for a connection to the most ancient Christian theology, piety, and practice you can find it in Scripture alone. Tradition has a place in the Christian faith and life but that place is always subordinate to Scripture. According to sola scriptura, the authority of the church begins and ends with God’s Word. The church is a minister of God’s Word, not the mother of God’s Word. We are obligated to believe and practice what is explicitly revealed and what is necessarily implied but nothing else. This means that we are free from merely human tradition, however well intended it may be. It also means that confessional Protestants should not feel guilty about ignoring Roman claims about ancient, extra-canonical traditions. They are simply making up things to justify pet doctrines and practices.

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  1. Thank you for your helpful post.

    I would just point out that in the quote by Thomas the reference to 2 Thessalonians 2:14 is from the The Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition verse numbering. The Vulgate, Greek, and Protestant Bibles have v.15. I have no idea why The Douay-Rheims combined verses 10 & 11 into one verse, 10, causing the following verses to be off by 1 verse.

    In the sentence, “He appeals to the 2 Thessalonians 2:14 to justify his assumption that such a tradition exists but nothing about Paul’s language in 1 Thessalonians remotely supports his claim,” did you mean to say 2 Thessalonians; or 1 & 2 Thessalonians?”

    I agree with you 100%. I don’t mean to be nit-picking, just hopefully clarify an excellent post.

    Would you kindly provide the source for the sentence, “Eusebius refused a request to create one in the 4th century”? It would be helpful for me in my studies.

    Again, thank you for an excellent post.

    • Hi Paul,

      Thanks for the note. Thomas was, quoting the Vulgate, which, of course, is the source of the DR.

      Constantine’s sister asked for an image of Christ and Eusebius, to his credit, refused. The Romanist history Philip Hughes (not to be confuses with the evangelical Anglican scholar, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes) records the story as do others.

  2. Thanks, Dr Clark. I’ve had debates with EO and they used the same argument. I pointed out that their argument is an example of the fallacy of affirming the consequent:

    If p (Paul uses the word tradition), then q (since we use the word tradition, and we do x, y, and z, then that must be what Paul meant).
    Therefore, P.

  3. One edit:

    Added premise after conclusion:

    Since P, then that must justify our own practice. So the argument would look like this:

    (1) If p (Paul uses the word tradition), then q (since we use the word tradition, and we do x, y, and z, then that must be what Paul meant).
    (2) Q.
    (3) Therefore, P
    (4) Since P, then that must justify our own practice.

  4. In fairness, Thomas isn’t saying anything is justifiable. If the image of Christ in Rome he had in mind was painted by St Luke, then it would be an Apostolic-era artifact he was appealing to, even if not Scripture. So, in fairness, he wasn’t just inventing things out of thin air. In my study of the situation, it seems unwritten tradition is basically synonymous with Liturgy, rather than some game of telephone of whispering a bunch of secrets from one ear to another. But there’s a danger of a sort of bait-and-switch here, because if Scripture is the standard by which we are to worship, there is strikingly little Biblical information to go by in regards to worship. For example, I don’t see anywhere in the Bible, especially the NT, where Sunday Worship consists largely of a Sermon/Homily/Exegesis of Scripture. We are told almost nothing of a format, what specific prayers, etc. I’ve seen John Calvin’s own devised Sunday Liturgy, and it doesn’t follow any actual rule of Scripture. And for the large number (majority?) of Reformed who don’t even hold to a weekly Lord’s Supper, that’s even less justifiable because the Lord’s Supper is probably the most prominent feature in NT worship. Even Thomas says in the quote above that Paul was going to “lay down the doctrine of the sacrifice of the Church” in 1 Cor 11.

    • Nick,

      1. The painting wasn’t painted by Luke.
      2. Even were it so, it wouldn’t be canonical. Luke’s laundry list wouldn’t be canonical. What makes something canonical is not that it was produced by an apostle but because it was inspired by the Spirit.
      3. There’s no bait and switch. We’ve never claimed that Scripture gives us a liturgy. We say that Scripture norms worship, that we may do in worship only what he has commanded. That is the regula fidei (rule of faith). The most basic elements of worship are clearly commanded: Word and prayer. The Word preached is commanded. The Word made visible, in the two Dominical, true sacraments is commanded. Prayer in response to God’s Word and the singing of God’s Word in response to God’s Word read, preached, and made visible, is commanded. We need no liturgy. We have the essential pattern of Christian worship (the call of God’s Word and our response) laid out for us in Scripture. There is good evidence in Scripture itself for weekly communion and that was Calvin’s argument for it. Further, we know what took place in the Synagogue and we know what took place in the early 2nd century. We have the Psalms. We have plenty of information in Scripture which is illumined by history.

      So, Calvin’s liturgy was a faithful attempt to follow the pattern we see in Scripture as illumined by the early post-apostolic history of the church. The framers of the Didache would have made much more sense of the Genevan liturgy than a 4th century service and certainly more than in a 21st-century Roman mass—which would appear to the Apostles and 2nd century-Christians like a pagan ritual.

      As to Paul and sacrifice, Thomas was completely wrong. This is another example of his abuse of Scripture. You should read 1 Cor 11 for yourself. It says nothing of a sacrifice. Paul did remind the Corinthians about the institution of the Lord’s Supper, which, contra Rome, is no memorial, propitiatory sacrifice, but he said nothing about a sacrifice.

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