Apostolic Tradition? (by Jon Shuler)

“Truth or Traditions?” last week stirred deep feelings in some readers. “We only keep Traditions (with a capital “T”) that are apostolic,” they said. “These are not separate from the ‘Truth.’ ”

How shall we unpack that?

Luke the Evangelist and Church Historian left us a significant record of the first days of the church after Pentecost. The new believers “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship….” What was it that the apostles taught?

Can anyone doubt it was what they had learned from Jesus Christ their risen Lord? It was this that they conveyed to new converts. The gospel of Jesus Christ, enfolded in the memory of all that he had said and done. In a very short time this was recorded in four gospels, and expounded in apostolic letters and writings. It is the heart of what we call the New Testament.

When there was dispute about the truth in the subsequent years, the leaders returned to these writings to resolve the conflict. They did not invent new teachings. They conveyed what had first been conveyed. Little by little they became deeply convinced that God had given them what we now call the New Testament to stand in the place that was once taken by the apostles themselves. To depart from these writings was to depart from the community of the Lord’s people, the church of Jesus Christ.

But they were human beings, and they did organize themselves in confidence that the Holy Spirit was with them, and leading them, as Jesus had told them he would. Traditions grew up among them while the apostles were still alive.

We know that everywhere there were Christians, they met on the Lord’s Day for worship and to hear the message of the gospel, to baptize and celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and to share in the fellowship of love brought to them by the Lord. And we know that from the beginning there were leaders who had responsibility to oversee the local body in the truth, leaders who were in accountable connection and submission to one another. We know their leaders met with other leaders too, and adjudicated later disputes. But none of this was of greater authority than the truth given by Jesus. The truth we have in our New Testament. For the better part of 500 years these things were described as “apostolic traditions.” These are the things that missionaries took throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.

If someone wants to appeal to these traditions as “Traditions,” I have no complaint. Nor did any faithful leader in the early church. They do not overturn the truth, they uphold it.

But what of traditions (small “t” ) added later? Things not in the apostolic record?


Next Week: Drawing a Line?


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