RETURNING TO APOSTOLIC TRADITIONS
Rev. Alex Jones
Pastor of the Maranatha Christian Church
Copyright, 2000, Alex Jones.
How great and marvelous are the works of our God; how deep and unsearchable are His purposes and plans. Paul said it well:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out.(Romans 11:33)
The greatest discovery in my life occurred on a hot, summery August night in 1958 when the Holy Spirit opened the doors of God's life and knowledge to my heart. From this religious experience in 1958 until now an unrelenting hunger has gripped my heart to know more and learn more about this wonderful God and His glorious church. Who is He? What is He like? What does He want? What pleases Him or displeases Him? Where do I fit into His grand plan? What has He done for others? All of these questions flooded my heart on that August evening and has never ceased to make their presence felt.
For the past forty years I have been on a pilgrimage to know as accurately as possible the purposes and plans of this marvelous God. Aside from my college studies and resulting degree and post graduate work in Education, I have read books, attended various church services, dialogued with Christians from differing backgrounds, argued with different sects, briefly attended a bible college, and experimented with several variations of the Protestant background I grew to love. I have courted both Arminian and Calvinistic theology, embraced and then discarded Premillennial eschatology, practiced various forms of religious worship, preached holiness and sanctification, and generally enjoyed the spiritual experiences of my Pentecostal heritage. Yet underneath all of these searchings, practices, and activities was the gnawing desire to "dig deeper," ask questions, and find the will and wisdom of God.
I found that wisdom quite by accident. It was during a lesson preparation for a Wednesday evening bible study on the second chapter of 1 Timothy that I stumble across this treasure buried in a field. Pursuing information to reenact a first century worship service, I read the letters of the Apostolic Fathers, and it was there, in the writings of the early Christian writers, I unearthed a clearer truth of Christ and His Church.
Finally, after years of searching I found the truth of Christ and His Church: His Church was liturgical, it was hierarchical, and it was catholic. I learned that as the Church grew it kept a written record of lines of descent from the Apostles themselves. Protestant claims of small bible study groups scattered through out the ancient world were pure fantasy. They simply didn't exist. The Christian church was and has always been united, apostolic, and catholic. The rise of heresies forced the Church to cling tenaciously to what they had received from the Apostles. All of the churches from Gaul to India had a core belief and method of worship that all agreed could be traced directly to the Apostles.
The second century Church had an organized liturgy that included scripture readings, psalms, litanies, responses, and an orderly, systematic eucharistic service. The center of Christian worship was not the operations of the gifts of the Spirit, which were in great abundance, nor was it the histrionics of great preachers. The center of Christian worship was and has always been the sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ, the Eucharist. To the early church the Eucharist was not a spiritual symbol of Christ, it was Christ Himself being re-presented to the Father at every gathering.
Not only was the Church's hierarchical structure and Eucharistic-centered worship different than I expected, so was its teachings. Men were not saved by accepting Christ as their personal Savior, but by immersion in the regenerational waters of baptism. Men were not saved by faith alone, but by the obedience of faith -- a faith demonstrated in good works and holy living. Christians did not seek "blessings," but, to the contrary, willingly sacrificed their lives for their Lord. It was there, in the face of the Apostolic Fathers, that I saw the true essence of Christian spirituality. It was not today's Americanized faith of prosperity or materialistic blessing, nor was it the pentecostal faith of endless exhilaration and emotional excitement. It was a deep, devotional faith of the heart that called forth self-sacrifice, penance, suffering, and righteous living.
With this enlarged understanding of the development of Christian belief came a clearer understanding of the Bible and our most treasured tradition, sola scriptura. This theology teachesthat all we need to know about the revelation of Christ and His Church is contained within the pages of the Bible. Hence, the Bible is the authority for all questions on faith and morals. We have shortened this teaching into, "if its not in the Bible I don't believe it." On the surface this sounds admirable and correct -- "if we cannot read it in the Bible, then discard it, it isn't true." But the problem with this approach is that each of the 28,000 churches and denominations all claim support from the one Bible! Each and everyone one of them claim the "truthful and correct" interpretation of the Scriptures. From Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal churches to Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses every last one of them interpret the Bible differently. We've grown so accustomed to these variety of interpretations that we call the Bible "unclear" in many passages that so that we can allow for differing opinions and interpretations.
Take, for example. Jesus' statement to Nicodemus that he must be "born of the water and of the spirit" (St. John 3:5). Three interpretations have been offered by Christians:
1. Amniotic birth fluid (the first birth) and the Holy Spirit's indwelling (the second birth),
2. The word of God and the Holy Spirit's baptism,
3. The waters of baptism and the Holy Spirit's indwelling
Jesus statement certainly had one meaning! Although it isn't stated in John's gospel account, I'm sure Jesus explained what He meant to Nicodemus. But how does that help us? Which of the interpretations listed above is true? All three cannot be true! Yet Christians build their faith on one or the other interpretations listed above.
It doesn't seem to matter how scholarly or erudite bible students are; even scholars who wear all of the trappings of academia, differ significantly on many important doctrinal matters! Much study and research do not seem to be able to bring agreement or consensus on what the Bible says.
Another problem with "the bible only" tradition is the belief that, along with diligent study, the illumination of the Holy Spirit (St. John 14:25; 16:13) will unlock the truths of the Bible for all who listen to Him. Certainly study of the Scriptures and the illumination of the Holy Spirit are essential to personal spiritual growth and unlocking the spiritual content of the Bible, but try telling 28,000 differing, bickering churches that their 28,000 differing views on the Bible are indication of their either being scripturally inaccurate or not Spirit-lead. Surely the Holy Spirit does not have28,000 interpretations of God's word.
Unfortunately, this noble but unsubstantiated tradition has limited us to an extremely narrow perspective of the Christian Church. It not only limits the Christian's world-view of the development of the church, its doctrines, its saints, and its history, but it does not tell the full story of the Christian Church and its practices.
For example, precisely how did the early disciples conduct worship services? How did Christian worship evolve? What did Jesus teach His disciples on the road to Emmaus? (St. Luke 24:45) What did He teach the apostles about the kingdom during His forty days before His ascension? (Acts 1:3) How did the apostles baptize new converts? In what part of the world did each Apostle plant the gospel? What happened to Peter after Acts 12:17 and Paul after Acts 28:31? What happened to Mary, the Lord's mother? The Bible does not say. How did the Church evolve after the death of the last Apostle? Since the Holy Spirit was given to the Church to guide it into the truth, how was He evident in the centuries after Acts? What directions did He lead the Church in the application of Christian revelation? What great men and women did He raise up to shepherd the Church? How did the councils of the Church deal with the practical applications of Christian revelation to the needs of the day?
The Church had a vibrant, rich spiritual life that was not totally captured by the New Testament. There were martyrs, great saints, great evangelism, and great examples of self-denial and sacrifice in the early church that we do not read about in the Bible. The culturally-diverse church at Antioch went on to become the driving force in Christianity. Great saints such as Polycarp, Irenaeus, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Anthony, Basil, and the two Gregorys are unknown by most Protestant readers. The great thinkers of the Church: Origin, Tertullian, St. Cyprian, St. Augustine, St. Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, to name a few, are totally ignored by the mass of Protestant Christians. Yet it was these men that withstood heresies and heretics, hammered out Christian thought, and formulated the very New Testament doctrines and theology we believe as Protestants today. One must remember the New Testament contains many letters (epistles) that were limited in their scope to indigenous problems in local churches. Unfortunately, we only get a glimpse of church life through the pages of the New Testament.
Think about this. Limiting ourselves to what's contained in the Bible is similar to us limiting ourselves to "mastering" the Constitution of the United States but ignoring the Fathers that created it, the history of the Thirteen Colonies that occasioned it, and the history of the country it brought into existence. We would indeed be knowledgeable about the basic rules of American government, but would totally ignorant of:
1. The Bill of Rights
2. The Fathers of this country,
3. The great Supreme Court decisions that interpreted it,
4. The amendments to the Constitution,
5. The slavery issue leading up to the Civil War, etc.
Do not misunderstand me. The New Testament is the inspired word of God. It does contain God's will of us. We must live by its principles and commands. It does accurately and faithfully relate the life of Jesus, His teachings, and the teachings of the Apostles. But it must be receive with the total revelation of the Church. The Bible is not the "pillar and foundation of truth." The Church is! (1 Timothy 3:15) What the Bible gives is an "accurate" but not a "complete" picture of God's working through Christ in the Church. Mark ends his gospel with,
Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it (Mark 16:20).
But he does not tell us where they went or what they did! Acts reveals the beginning of the Church with tremendous power, but leaves us wondering the outcome of Paul's trial in the twenty-eighth chapter. Nothing is said of the other eight Apostles. Did they work miracles? Did they die for their faith? If so, how and where? Consequently, viewing Christianity through the eyes of the New Testament is like trying to view New York city through a first floor window at the World Trade Center.
We must also consider that the Bible did not produce the Church, the Church produced the Bible. The Church is not built upon the Bible, it is built upon the Apostles and Prophets. Christ did not leave a written book to guide His Church, He left living men empowered by the Holy Spirit! The New Testament, as we have received it, was not finally canonized until 393 A.D. Until then, what gave the church its cohesion between the Apostles and the canonization of the New Testament? What determined orthodoxy of faith in the face of heresies and heretics? Except for a few minor variations, why did the Church worship God the same throughout the world? How could writer after writer call the Church "catholic" (universal) without the unifying element of the New Testament? What kept the Church afloat until the New Testament could be canonized? In fact, what was the "rule" scholars used to admit certain books, and exclude others from the New Testament canon?
The answers to these questions is found in the Traditions of the Apostles handed down to the Early Church Fathers. This sounds strange to Protestant ears. We have been taught the Word has preeminence over everything! Yet we have ignored the very Church that has gathered, preserved, and produced the Word. Does the Tradition of the Apostles and Church Fathers have precedence over the Bible? By no means! The Bible with the Traditions of the Apostles and Church Fathers give us the total picture of God's work in and through the Church.
The Jews well understand the place of tradition in their faith. The Torah was given by God to Israel at Sinai, but there was also an "oral tradition" called, the Talmud, on how the Torah should be applied. For example, the Torah stipulated the times and types of sacrifices the priest should offer, but did not always tell how the animal was to be slaughtered, dismembered, or presented on the altar. Judges were to administer justice, but the Torah did not tell how court was to be held. Engagements and marriages were to be held, but the Torah did not detail how or where the marriages were to be performed. The details and applications were handed down through oral, priestly traditions.
Of course oral traditions did not have the authority of divinely inspired literature, and many times Jewish traditions conflicted with revelation knowledge. These were the traditions Jesus condemned (Matthew 12:2, 10; 16:12; Mark 7:1-23). Yet He followed certain traditions:
1. He accepted the title of Rabbi
2. He gathered about Him disciples
3. He wore a beard
4. He recognized the tradition of feet-washing for guests
5. He rarely ventured outside of Israel to have contact with Gentiles
6. He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath
7. He recognized the "seat of Moses" as the legitimately ordained teaching office of the Jewish religion (Mat.23:1).
Apostolic Tradition, however, differs significantly from Jewish traditions in that Apostolic Tradition contains ALL that the Apostles handed on to their successors, both written and oral. It is the total revelation of Jesus Christ entrusted to the Church, not accumulative practices and interpretations that many wrongly assert today. This sacred tradition (Gk. Paradosis = "that which is handed down") IS divine revelation transmitted from one generation to another as a sacred body of knowledge. It is the "faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). In 2 Thessalonians Paul admonished the Thessalonians:
Stand firm and hold to the traditions (paradosis) passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.(2 Thessalonians 2:15)
He wrote to the Corinthians:
I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, (paradosis) just as I passed them on to you . (1 Corinthians 11:2)
To some who refused his authority, Paul appealed to the universally practiced but unwritten traditions of the church:
If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice (custom)-- nor do the churches of God. (1 Corinthians 11:16)
These statements made by Paul show that practices and traditions recognized by the Apostles had begun to develop within his lifetime. In fact, he quotes teachings attributed to Jesus that cannot be found in the gospels:
...remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.
In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:14)
Hence, the Christian faith began to grow well beyond the pages of the New Testament. Customs, practices, traditions, all practiced and recognized by the Apostles, guided the first century church through its formative years. Without knowledge and familiarity with ALL of the Church' s teachings, our grasp of the Christian message may be good, but certainly it is not complete.
So, let us return to the beginnings of the Church and rediscover the precious treasure of Apostolic Tradition. Let us take another look at the long history of the Church of Jesus Christ and enjoy the fullness of the Christian faith. For more information on this fascinating subject, write to Maranatha Christian Church , 4801 Oakman Blvd., Detroit, MI 48204 or e-mail me at Mchurch788@aol.com.