Question: I have been trying to witness to a Catholic friend who is quite knowledgeable regarding the beliefs of his Church. He claims that the “apostolic tradition” of the Catholic Church has the same authority as the Bible, that the Bible can’t be understood without tradition, that it was passed down through history, that the Catholic Church has been its careful guardian, and that evangelicals lack a full understanding of God’s truth because they reject tradition. I can see how this idea would undermine the Bible as the basis of our faith. Yet he quotes the Bible (such verses as 2 Thessalonians:2:15 and 3:16) to support the authority of tradition. How do I respond to him?
Response: Make him this simple, honest offer: If his Church can prove that just one of its traditions came from the Apostles, I (Dave Hunt) will become a Roman Catholic; and if it can’t, he must admit that his Church is in serious error. Absolutely no “apostolic” tradition held as such by Roman Catholics today came from the Apostles. Catholic traditions and dogmas such as the Mass, rosary, prayers to Mary and the “saints,” Mary’s immaculate conception and ascension bodily to heaven, purgatory, indulgences, etc. developed gradually over the centuries. Moreover, they directly contradict Scripture and therefore must be rejected. God does not contradict Himself.
Obviously, without a voice recording (impossible until recently) there was no way of preserving an oral record. That simple fact alone eliminates any possibility of oral apostolic tradition surviving in pure form today. And even with a voice recording, who could identify the voice of any apostle? Clearly, the Holy Spirit inspired the apostles to put in written words all of their infallibly inspired teachings to be passed on to subsequent generations. Such teachings are an integral part of the Bible, for which we have overwhelming evidence (both internal, external, and prophetic) that it is indeed the Word of God.
Of course, while the canon of the New Testament was in the process of composition, much of the apostles’ teaching had only been given orally. That’s what Paul meant by “the tradition...received of us” (2 Thes:3:6). He admonished them to “stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle” (2:15). It is equally clear, both biblically and logically, that whatever oral teaching was for the church down through the ages was put into writing and included in the permanent New Testament record. The apostles’ teaching certainly has been preserved nowhere else.
Can we identify apostolic teaching first given orally and then written as part of the New Testament scriptures? Yes. Paul repeats to the Corinthians in writing what he had previously taught them orally (“I [already] delivered unto you”) concerning the Lord’s supper (1 Cor:11:23). Likewise he puts in writing to the Thessalonians what he had previously taught them orally concerning the Antichrist: “[W]hen I was yet with you, I told you these things” (2 Thes:2:5). Other examples could be given, but these should prove the point.
The faith which we are to defend against error is found in the Bible, not in tradition. We are assured that all Scripture is inspired of God, but no such assurance is given for tradition, for the obvious reasons given above.
Instead of promoting extrabiblical tradition, the Bible condemns it. With the exception of 2 Thessalonians:2:15 and 3:6, every mention of tradition in the New Testament (there is no mention in the Old) condemns it. Both Peter (1 Pt 1:18) and Paul (Gal:1:13-16; Col:2:8) reveal its errors and testify to their own deliverance from it.
Far from augmenting and being equal to God’s Word, as Rome insists, tradition is always exposed as contradicting it. Christ rebuked the Pharisees for voiding the Word of God by their tradition (Mt 15:2,3,6; Mk 7:3,5,8,9,13). There is not one biblical example of legitimate tradition from Old Testament times which the Jews were to follow. Surely, then, neither does the New Testament need supplemental tradition. Rome’s traditions (like those of the Jewish rabbis) have only led her astray.
For centuries, God’s Word has been under attack from without by atheists and critics of all kinds. The critics have now slipped inside seminaries and churches to continue their attack. More deadly than easily recognized frontal assaults is the subtle undermining of God’s Word from within, and thus of the faith based upon it.
Roman Catholic tradition undermines God’s Word, first of all, by contradicting it. By so doing, it presumes that the Bible is not infallible. Furthermore, that tradition is needed to supplement God’s Word presumes that the Bible is not sufficient.
Nor are Rome and the rabbis alone in rejecting the Word of God in favor of tradition. Most denominations follow pet traditions having no basis in the Bible: dress codes, the way in which worship is conducted, church organization, etc. And usurping the authority of the Bible worldwide is a whole new set of extrabiblical traditions introduced by “Christian” psychology, including a new professional priesthood with its own confessional and rituals. We need to get back to and obey the Bible with absolute confidence that in it God has given us all we need for life and godliness.