Church Fathers on Sacred Tradition by Josh Schwartz
“Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing and move towards the same goal. Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own ‘always, to the close of the age’ (Mt 28:20)”(80).
“And in dizziness about the truth, are full set upon accusing the Council, let them tell us what are the sort of Scriptures from which they have learned, or who is the Saint by whom they have been taught…” (Defence of the Nicene Definition, 18 NPNF 2, IV: 161).
Here, St. Athanasius supports the Church’s argument as to how the teachings of the Church and Scripture are passed down. He completely discredits the Arians on the basis that they had not gotten their knowledge of these through the “Saints”.
“But beyond these [Scriptural] sayings, let us look at the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers kept. Upon this the Church is founded, and he who should fall away from it would not be a Christian, and should no longer be so called” (Ad Serapion 1:28).
What this continues to show is that the early Church Fathers passed down more than Scripture to their “disciples”. Tradition was seen as something “preached” by the Apostles (Oral Tradition), and this was passed down through the Church Fathers. It can’t say it any clearer than it does here. Additionally, as to not confuse, he clearly calls the Church, Catholic, and states that to stray from the “preached” traditions of the Church is to cease being a Christian.
These are all quotes from Athanasius that I previously gave to you. Here are a few additional quotes.
“Let the unlearned persons cease such misrepresentations, but let them learn from the example of the Fathers; AND let them read the Scriptures” (Defence Before Constantius, 18; NPNF 2, IV:245).
“But ye are blessed, who by faith are in the Church, dwell upon the foundations of the faith, and have full satisfaction, even the highest degree of faith which remains among you unshaken. For it has come down to you from Apostolic Tradition.”
“Accordingly we too, according to your confession of faith, desire to hold the Apostolic Tradition and to live according to the commands of the divine law” (Second Letter to Lucifer, Epistle 51 NPNF 2, IV:561-562).
“But do you, remaining on the foundation of the Apostles, and holding fast the Traditions of the Fathers, pray that now at length all strife and rivalry may cease, and the futile questions of the heretics may be condemned” (Councils of Arminum and Seleucia, 54; NPNF 2, IV:479).
“He had not received his ordination according to ecclesiastical rule, nor had been called to be Bishop by apostolic tradition…” (History of the Arians, 14; NPNF 2, IV:274).
“For although the sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to DECLARE the truth-while there are other works of our blessed teachers compiled for this purpose, if he meet with which a man will gain knowledge of the interpretation of the Scriptures, and be able to learn what he wishes to know-still, as we have not at present in our hands the compositions of our teachers, we must communicate in writing to you what we learned from them…” (Against theHeathen, 1:3 (318 AD), NPNF 2, IV:4).
“Wherefore keep yourselves all the more untainted by them, and observe the tradition of the fathers, and chiefly the holy faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, which you have learned from the Scripture, and of which you have often been put in mind by me” (Life of Antony, 89; NPNF 2, IV:220).
“Well, they preserving the tradition of the blessed doctrine derived directly from the holy apostles, Peter, James, John, and Paul, the sons receiving it from the father (but few were like the fathers), came by God’s will to us also to deposit those ancestral and apostolic seeds. And well I know that they will exult; I do not mean delighted with this tribute, but solely on account of the preservation of the truth, according as they delivered I” (Stromata, 1:1; ANF II:301).
This is a great portrayal, from one of the men you chose to study, of how the early Church saw the succession of the Apostles. It also shows how the authority and Traditions of the Church were there to “preserve the truth” as Jodi and I have argued from the very beginning.
“But all things are right,’ right says the Scripture, ‘before those who understand’ that is, those who receive and observe, according to the ecclesiastical rule, the exposition of the Scriptures explained by Him; and the ecclesiastical rule is the concord and harmony of the law and the prophets in the covenant delivered at the coming of the Lord” (Ibid., 6:15 ANF II:509).
“For those are slothful who, having it in their power to provide themselves with proper proofs for the divine Scriptures from the Scriptures themselves, select only what contributes to their own pleasure. And those have a craving for glory who voluntarily evade, by arguments of a diverse sort, the things delivered by the blessed apostles and teachers, which are wedded to inspired words; opposing THE DIVINE TRADITION OF HUMAN TEACHING, in order to establish the heresy” (Ibid., 7:16 ANF II:553-554).
It is almost as if he foresaw the looming debate over Church Authority that loomed 1,500 years down the line. He is clearly warning that heretics find their truths in divine Scripture as well, but it is only through the equally divine Traditions of the Church that we are to know the truth. I should think this should be enough, but let me go on for good measure.
“Those, then, that adhere to impious words, and dictate them to others, inasmuch as they do not make a right but a perverse use of the divine words, neither themselves enter into the kingdom of heaven, nor permit those whom they have deluded to attain the truth. But not having the key of entrance (could this be the key that Jesus gave Peter?), but a false, a counterfeit key, by which they do not enter in as we enter in, through the tradition of the Lord, by drawing aside the curtain; but bursting through the side-door, and digging clandestinely through the wall of the Church and stepping over the truth, they constitute themselves the Mystagogues of the souls of the impious” (Ibid., 7:17 ANF II:554).
“The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the
“Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry” (First Epistle to the Corinthians, 44; ANF I:17).
Another verse supporting Apostolic Succession.
“While more than three hundred bishops remarkable for their moderation and intellectual keenness, were unanimous in their confirmation of one and the same faith, which according to the truth and legitimate construction of the law of God can only be the faith; Arius alone beguiled by the subtlety of the devil was discovered to be the sole disseminator of this mischief (I guess that the Church Fathers saw disunity a little differently than you do), first among you, and afterward with unhallowed purposes among others also. Let us therefore embrace that doctrine which the Almighty has presented to us: let us return to our beloved brethren from whom an irreverent servant of the devil has separated us: let us go with all speed to the common body and our own natural members. For this is becoming your penetration, faith and sanctity; that since the error has been proved to be due to him who is an enemy to the truth, ye should return to the divine favor. For that which has commended itself to the judgment of three hundred bishops cannot be other than the doctrine of God; seeing that the Holy Spirit dwelling in the minds of so many dignified persons has effectually enlightened them respecting the Divine will” (Ecclesiastical History, I:9, NPNF 2, II:13-14).
Cyprian (c. 200 AD)
“After such things as these, moreover, they still dare-a false bishop having been appointed for them by heretics-to set sail and bear letters from schismatic and profane persons to the throne of PETER (not James), and to the chief church whence priestly unity takes its source; and not to consider that these were the Romans whose faith was praised in the preaching of the apostle, to whom faithlessness could have no access” (To Pope Cornelius, Epistle 54 (59):14; ANF V:344.
“For if we return to the head and source of divine tradition, human error ceases (i.e. infallibility)…And this it behoves the priests, of God to do now, if they would keep the divine precepts, that if in any respect the truth have wavered and vacillated, we should return to our original and Lord, and to the evangelical and APOSTOLICAL TRADITION; and thence may arise the ground of our action, whence has taken rise both our order and our origin” (To Pompey, Epistle 73 (74):10 (256 AD) ANF V:389).
“But we have nevertheless felt compelled to give a catalogue of these also, distinguishing those works which according to ecclesiastical tradition are true and genuine and commonly accepted…” (Ecclesiastical History, 3, 26 (inter 300-325 AD) NPNF 2, I:157).
“We have received from TRADITION that we are to assemble on that day (Sunday)” (Commentary on the Psalms, 91; FOC I:143).
This brings up a good point. Protestants commonly accept Sunday as the “Lord’s day”, and attend Church this day. However, where does it say this in Scripture? Saturday’s had been the Sabbath for Jews previously, so where do we get the idea of celebrating the Mass on Sundays? Eusebius seems to think it is from the Tradition of the Church.
“Which things being shortly propounded to the Galatians, out of their own epistle, namely, the saving faith which gives us the mystical regeneration in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; and besides the divine (traditions) which are written, the CATHOLIC CHURCH (i.e. universal) of God, which is from one end of the earth to the other, seals to us the testimonies of Scripture, by TRADITION WHICH IS NOT WRITTEN” (Against Marcellus, 1:1 as cited by George Peck, Rule of Faith, p. 164).
“But we, as being their successors (the Apostles), and as participators in this grace, high-priesthood, and office of teaching, as well as being reputed guardians of the Church (identical to what I have told you Catholic Church’s view is previously), must not be found deficient in vigilance, or disposed to suppress correct doctrine…they have endeavoured to establish their tenets, taking nothing from the holy Scriptures-nor is it from preserving the succession of any saint that they hurried headlong into these opinions (addressing the matter of heretics here)” (Refutation of All Heresies, 1:Preface; ANF V:10).
“Let us believe then, dear brethren, according to the TRADITION of the Apostles, that God the Word came down from heaven, (entered) into the holy Virgin Mary, in order that, taking the flesh from her, and assuming also a human, by which I mean a rational soul, and becoming thus all that man is with the exception of sin…” (Against the Heresy of on Noetus, 17; ANF V:230).
Now we move on to Irenaeus, whom you have claimed espouses a Protestant notion of Tradition. Let us just see shall we?
“For even creation reveals Him who formed it, and the very work made suggests Him who made it, and world manifests Him who ordered it. The Universal (Catholic means Universal) Church, moreover, through the whole world, has received this tradition from the apostles” (Against Heresies, 2, 9:1; ANF I:369).
“It is within the power of all, therefore in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the TRADITION of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up to those who were BY THE APOSTLES INSTITUTED BISHOPS in the Churches, and (to demonstrate) the succession of these men down to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these (heretics) rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to ‘the perfect’ apart and privily from the rest, they would DELIVERED them especially to those to whom THEY WERE ALSO COMMITTING THE CHURCHES THEMSELVES” (Ibid., 3,3:1 ANF I:415).
“But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true” (Ibid., 3,3:4 ANF I.416).
This is one of the most telling quotes to me. Notice that he didn’t say the Apostles passed on their teachings by writing here. These Fathers actually conversed with the Apostles. They knew what Scripture meant, because they were able to personally ask and learn from the Apostles, whom knew Christ. He then says this Tradition was handed down. The debate is over. However, I will go on further just to continually prove my point.
“Since, therefore, the TRADITION from the apostles does thus exist in the Church, and is permanent among us, let us revert to the SCRIPTURAL PROOF furnished by those apostles who did ALSO WRITE the Gospel, in which they RECORDED the doctrine regarding God, pointing that our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth, and that no lie is in Him” (Ibid., 3, 5:1).
Funny, but it seems to me I have repeatedly told you this. Remember, “Scripture is part of the larger Tradition”? That is what Irenaeus is saying clearly right here in front of your eyes. He says Scripture is “proof” of the Tradition, not vice-versa. Although, I would say that it goes both ways, as I am sure he would too. Do not refer to Irenaeus as having a Protestant outlook anymore, because that is clearly false.
“True knowledge is (that which consists in) the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place (i.e. Universally), and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved WITHOUT ANY FORGING OF SCRIPTURES, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither RECEIVING ADDITION NOR CURTAILMENT’ and (it consists in) reading (the Word of God) without falsification, and a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures, both without danger and without blasphemy; and (above all, it consists in) the pre-eminent gift of love, which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and which excels all the other gifts (of God)” (Ibid., 4, 33:8 ANF I:508).
“You lay down a prescription that this faith has its solemnities ‘appointed’ by the Scriptures OR BY THE TRADITION of the ancestors; and that no further addition in the way of observance must be added, on account of the unlawfulness of innovation. Stand of that ground if you can…Besides, throughout the provinces of Greece there are held in definite localities those councils gathered out of the Universal (Catholic) Churches, by whose means not only all the deeper questions are handled for the common benefit, but the actual representation of the whole Christian name is celebrated with great veneration” (On Fasting, 13 ANF IV:111).
“After such a fashion as this, I suppose you have had, O Marcion, the hardihood of blotting out the original records (of the history) of Christ that His flesh may lose the proofs of its reality. But, prithee, on what grounds (do you do this)? Show me your authority. If you are a prophet, foretell us a thing; if you are an apostle, open your message in public; if a follower of apostles, side with apostles in thought; if you are only a (private) Christian, believe what has been HANDED DOWN to us: if, however, you are nothing of all this, then cease to live…Now that which had been handed down was true, inasmuch as it had been transmitted by those whose duty it was to hand it down. Therefore when rejecting that which had been handed down, you rejected that which was true. You had no authority for what you did” (On the Flesh of Christ, 2 ANF III:249).
“So that no other teaching will have the right of being received as apostolic than that which is at the present day proclaimed in the churches of APOSTOLIC FOUNDATION. You will, however, find no church of apostolic origin but such as reposes its Christian faith in the Creator. But if the churches shall prove to have been corrupt from the beginning, WHERE shall the PURE ONES BE FOUND? Will it be amongst the adversaries of the Creator? Show us, then, one of your churches, tracing its descent from an apostle, and you will have gained the day” (Against Marcion, I:2 ANF III:286).
I have challenged and still challenge you to do this as well. Although, you will find it impossible seeing how the Church Fathers unanimously support the Catholic Church’s view. You could look for support among the Arians, among other heretics, but I don’t know how this would aid your argument. Additionally, it is simply a historical fact that Protestantism stemmed from the Catholic Church. Thus, it is impossible to say that any of the Protestant churches have apostolic foundations, as Tertullian says the Catholic Church does.
“But I must take some further pains to rebut their arguments, when they make selections from the Scriptures in support of their opinion, and refuse to consider the other points, which obviously maintain the rule of faith without any infraction of the unity of the Godhead…But in their contention they only act on the principle of all heretics. For, inasmuch as only a few testimonies are to be found in the general mass, they pertinaciously set off the few against the many, and assume the later against the earlier. The rule, however, which has been from the beginning established for every case, gives its prescription against the later assumptions, as indeed it also does against the fewer” (Ibid., 20 ANF III:615).
He clearly states that the heretics, i.e. the Arians in this case, used Scripture to support their argument. What they failed to take into account is the teachings of the Church. They assumed that they were the first to look in Scripture to support their argument, but in fact the Church’s teaching on the Trinity is extremely Scriptural. You, among other Protestants, take this teaching for granted everyday. It is clearly not explicit in Scripture, although it is implicit. Even so, the Arians denied this teaching as Scriptural, and put forth their own “Scriptural” interpretation of the Godhead. This very clearly applies to Protestants as well. They have come along and have “assume(d) the later against the earlier” as Tertullian puts it. I have used this quote by C.S. Lewis before, but funny enough, I believe it says the same thing. He states, “Whenever traditional values are challenged, as if the burden of proof lie with them, we have taken the wrong position” (The Abolition of Man). This is exactly what Tertullian is trying to get across.
“Alienated thus from the truth, they do deservedly wallow in all error, tossed to and fro by it, thinking differently in regard to the same things at different times, and never attaining to a well-grounded knowledge, being more anxious to be sophists of words than disciples of the truth. For they have not been found upon the one rock (ironic that he uses rock here, or is it?), but upon the sand, which has in itself a multitude of stones” (Ibid., 3, 24:2 ANF I:458).
“We, however, are not permitted to cherish any object after our own will, nor yet to make choice of that which another has introduced of his private fancy. In the Lord’s apostles we possess our authority; for even they did not of themselves choose to introduce anything, but faithfully delivered to the nations the doctrine which they had received from Christ”…”Where diversity (Apparently he frowns on disunity as well) of doctrine is found, there, then, must the corruption both of the Scriptures and the expositions thereof be regarded as existing” (On Prescription against the Heretics, 6, ANF III:245-246; 38, ANF III:261).
“But if there be any which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that (that first bishop of theirs) bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men, -a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed theirin by John, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by PETER. In exactly the same way the other churches likewise exhibit, whom, as having been appointed to their Episcopal places by apostles, they regard as transmitters of the apostolic seed. Let the heretics contrive something of the same kind. For after their blasphemy, what is there that is unlawful for them (to attempt)? But should they even effect the contrivance, they will not advance a step. For their very doctrine, after comparison with that of the apostles, will declare, by its own DIVERSITY and CONTRARIETY, that it had for its author neither an apostle nor an apostolic man; because, as the apostles would never have taught things which were self-contradictory (as I have continually argued against Protestants), so the apostolic men would not have inculcated teaching different from the apostles, unless they who received their instruction from the apostles went and preached in a contrary manner. To this test, therefore will they be submitted for proof by those churches, who, although they derive not their founder from apostles or apostolic men (as being of much later date, for they are in fact being founded daily), yet, since they agree in the same faith, they are accounted as not less apostolic because they are akin in doctrine. Then let all the heresies, when challenged to these two tests by our apostolic church, offer their proof of how they deem themselves to be apostolic. But in truth they neither are so, nor are they able to prove themselves to be what they are not. Nor are they admitted to peaceful relations and communion by such churches as are in any way connected with apostles, inasmuch as they are in no sense themselves apostolic because of their diversity as to the mysteries of the faith” (On Prescription against the Heretics, 32,, ANF III:258).
Wow! I would say this really speaks for itself. Can your church trace its lineage back to the apostles? Let’s be honest here. There is only one Church that can do as such, and it is called the Catholic Church. Tertullian would thus say, your church is in heresy. Not I, but Tertullian says this. Once again, if a church doesn’t have its roots in the apostles (i.e. The throne of Peter), then it is man-made. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you read it yourself from all the above Church Fathers.
“Although there are many who believe that they themselves hold to the teachings of Christ, there are yet some among them who think differently from their predecessors. The teaching of the Church has indeed been handed down through an order of succession from the Apostles, and remains in the Churches even to the present time. That alone is to be believed as the truth which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition” (The Fundamental Doctrines, 1, P.2)
“But now according to our ability let us make investigation also into the things that are stored up in it. In this place it does not appear to me that by Elijah the should is spoken of, lest I should fall into the dogma of transmigration, which is foreign to the church of God, and NOT HANDED DOWN BY THE APOSTLES, NOR ANYWHERE SET FORTH IN THE SCRIPTURES” (Commentary on Matthew, 13:1 ANF X:474).
“The Church received from the Apostles the TRADITION of giving Baptism even to infants” (Commentary on Romans, 5 JUR I:209).
Now, he is claiming that the Apostles approved of infant Baptism. We as Catholics believe this to be very Scriptural, in accord with the Traditions of the Apostles. Baptists on the other hand, don’t see this as Scriptural at all. What is the problem then? The Church Fathers saw this as Biblical, so why doesn’t everyone? Sola scriptura is the problem. The criterion for what is Biblical, under this “doctrine”, is completely subjective and based on the individual reader’s outlook. This is not so under the Tradition that Origen, along with the other Church Fathers, are referring to.
“When heretics show us the canonical Scriptures, in which every Christian believes and trusts, they seem to be saying” ‘Lo, he is in the inner rooms (i.e. the word of truth)’. But we must not believe them, nor leave the ORIGINAL TRADITION OF THE CHURCH, nor believe otherwise than we have been taught by the succession in the
St. Ignatius of
“When I heard some saying, ‘If I do not find it in the ancient Scriptures (i.e.OT), I will not believe the Gospel’ (hmmmmm…sounds like a Protestant and their subjective view of what is Scriptural); on my saying to them, ‘It is written’ (the Catholic Church’s response), they answered me, ‘That remains to be proved’ (the typical outcome when people are left to determine what is Scriptural for themselves). But to me Jesus Christ is in the place of all that is ancient: His cross, and death and resurrection, and the faith which is by Him are undefiled monuments of antiquity” (Epistle to the Philadelphians, 8 (c. 110 AD), ANF I:84).
“See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is administered either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the
Notice the appearance of the term Catholic (universal). This is much earlier than Protestants would have us believe. I believe you have tried to make the case that this appeared four hundred years into the Christian Church, but this is clearly wrong in the eyes of St. Ignatius.
“Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God and with the presbyters (aka priests) in the place of the Apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me…” (Letter to the Magnesians, 6,1).
“In like manner let everyone respect the bishop as a type of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and
“Give heed to the bishop and the presbytery and the deacons” (Letter to the Philadelphians, 7,1).
“Time will fail me if I attempt to recount the unwritten mysteries of the Church. Of the rest I say nothing; but of the very confession of our faith in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, what is the written source” (On the Spirit, 9:22)?
This is clearly addressing the issue of the Trinity. He refers to this as the unwritten mystery of the Church. I wonder why he would do such a thing. We all can see the Trinity very clearly in Scripture, right? Wrong! It is really easy to see now that we have had it defined by the Church, as many accept unknowingly. However, during this period, many questioned the Church’s interpretation (that you accept), and appealed to Scripture as their reason. Thus, he is referring to the fact that the final authority on this matter was the Church. Was the Trinity in Scripture? Sure! However, it is implicit, rather than explicit in Scripture. I would further say that there are many other things that Protestants unknowingly accept that they have not found from Scripture. The number one example of this is, indeed, sola scriptura.
“It remains then for them to assert that, by means of words, they have discovered the substance of his divinity. Where are these words? By which of the saints have they been handed down” (Against Eunomius, 1:12; FOC I; 425)?
by Josh Schwartz