What Is Apostolic Tradition?

In the New Testament, you might have noticed that the word “tradition” is used in different ways. For example, Jesus condemns the Jewish religious leaders for holding to their tradition rather than to God’s word (Matt 15:6). On the other hand, Paul tells the Thessalonian church to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thes 2:15 ESV). What are the traditions that we should follow?

When we think of traditions, we generally think of customs or habits. However, the Greek word translated “tradition” has a broader meaning. Basically, the word means “what is transmitted in the way of teaching, precept, doctrine.”1See this dictionary. Some translations have used the word “ordinance” to translate that Greek word. So basically, when the New Testament speaks of a tradition, it just means a teaching or doctrine of some sort that was handed down.

So should we follow traditions? It all depends on who is handing down the teaching. If it’s the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, then no. They were teaching man-made commandments as though they came from God. But if God authorizes someone to hand down a teaching to us, then we certainly should obey that tradition—we owe God our full obedience.

So who did God authorize to teach? Through Jesus, God authorized the apostles to teach his commandments to all the world.2“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt 28:18-20 ESV) So that means that there are traditions that we must follow—the apostolic traditions. That’s what the apostle Paul was referring to when he told the Thessalonians to “hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word [commands that the apostles gave orally] or by our letter [e.g., commands in New Testament books].”

The faith that the apostles taught can be found in the New Testament. The New Testament doesn’t contain every letter that the apostles wrote, however (some were lost), and it doesn’t include much apostolic oral teaching. But even so, the New Testament contains all that we need for salvation. How do we know? Because the earliest Christians, the ones who heard the apostles’ oral teachings, also wrote letters and treatises. Their writings show that all the most significant apostolic traditions were recorded in the New Testament for us to read. When speaking of apostolic teaching, the early Christians typically quoted and commented on what the apostles wrote in the New Testament. To know more about the early Christians and how they should affect our understanding of Christianity, see my post on the historic faith.

Some Christians don’t realize the importance of apostolic traditions and have chosen not to follow them. Anabaptists typically have chosen to follow apostolic traditions that many other Christians haven’t followed. One example is the Christian woman’s head covering (1 Cor 11).

What about Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox traditions?

The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches claim that, besides Scripture, they have access to other apostolic traditions. If their further traditions are actually apostolic, then we certainly need to follow those traditions. But are they?

Consider this question: How late can an oral tradition about the apostles surface before we know that it’s not a true tradition? In other words, if someone says that doctrine A was taught by the apostles, but it’s not fully evidenced in the New Testament, how far after the New Testament does it need to be before we know it’s not apostolic?

Well, the Christians who followed the apostles often wrote down things that they understood to be from the apostles. And they also practiced some doctrines that some would argue Scripture isn’t clear on. This makes sense when it’s being written down by someone who knew the apostles. It even makes sense when it’s being written down by someone who knew a disciple of the apostles. But can it work beyond that? Unless these churches can point to their doctrines being taught by people only one or two steps removed from the apostles (such as the pre-Nicene Christians), we can’t give their claims too much credibility.

Furthermore, given that the apostles taught the same teachings at all the churches they founded, if two different beliefs arose simultaneously in apostolic churches, neither one can be judged to be correct just because the apostolic churches were teaching it. And later teachings certainly can’t outweigh earlier ones.

Some Misconceptions

Here are a few misconceptions about apostolic traditions:

  • “Traditions were just what Christians happened to be doing then. We don’t need to follow them anymore.” Or maybe “Tradition just means that it was what the worldly cultures were doing, so the Christians followed them too. Now we can follow the current worldly cultures.” Instead, as I’ve shown, “traditions” are binding commandments that all Christians must follow, because the apostles had authority from God to teach them to all Christians.
  • “Jesus condemned traditions.” Yes, he condemned teaching traditions of man as though they were binding traditions of God. But the apostles had authority from God, so their traditions are not merely traditions of man.
  • “The Roman Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox Church have church traditions that are binding on all Christians.” Insofar as anyone teaches a truly apostolic tradition, we should follow that tradition. But many of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions were actually introduced into the church long after the apostles had passed on. These were traditions of man and not of God. Some of them, like the veneration of icons, actually contradict apostolic traditions that are found in Scripture and in the practice of the early church.
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    “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt 28:18-20 ESV)

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