The Authentic Tradition Received from the Apostles

Judas Maccabeus

This is Part 26 of my series on the canon of Scripture – Part One can be found here.

I want to avoid the appearance of claiming that the Protestant scholars whose work is quoted in this series somehow advocate a 73-book canon. They do not. Those historians and theologians recognize a great deal of the historical truth behind the discernment of the canon, but having begun with the assumption that the Protestant canon is, of course, the correct one, they do not take this evidence to its logical conclusion. Herman Ridderbos, for example, who wrote so eloquently on the subject of “tradition,” (as does David Dunbar in his chapter in Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon, cited below) believed that while this “tradition” was both oral and written, in accord with 2 Thessalonians 2:15, once the New Testament books had been written and recognized as Holy Scripture, oral tradition lost its value and gave place to written tradition (the “written fixation of the tradition” as Ridderbos called it), i.e., sola Scriptura. Thus, Ridderbos would not have admitted that what the Church calls “Sacred Tradition” played a role in the discernment of the canon of Scripture. Likewise, scholars such as McDonald and Porter, who recognize that the Old Testament canon simply was not closed before the Resurrection, are amenable to the incomprehensible suggestion that the Pharisees at Jamnia, after the Resurrection, after Pentecost, after St. Paul said, “From now on I will go to the Gentiles,” after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, somehow still had the God-given authority to decide for the bride of Christ which books belonged in her Bible. While recognizing that Church Fathers like St. Irenaeus set great store by apostolic succession and believed that those successors to the apostles faithfully preserved the good deposit, they would never agree that those successors (Catholic bishops!) had the authority to discern the Old Testament canon. Lutheran theologian Albert C. Sundberg, Jr. is one of the few to explore the reality that the Protestant Old Testament canon may be seriously deficient, perhaps enabled in this by the fact that he is Lutheran (the Lutheran denomination has not, to this day, decided on a canon of Scripture). Popular Protestant authors such as Geisler and Nix, McDowell, and Lutzer avoid all these difficulties by claiming doggedly that the Old Testament canon was closed centuries before the time of Jesus, and by steadfastly ignoring the fact that the early Christians placed their faith in oral Tradition (just as St. Paul urged them to) as well as in written Scripture. The picture they paint of a happy, proto-Protestant world filled with Bible-only Christians, with a settled, pre-Resurrection Old Testament canon and an almost complete absence of controversy concerning the books of the New Testament canon, is decidedly ahistorical, a fact which does not seem to affect the sales of their books.

Examining Scripture, our Protestant hero notes that St. Paul insisted over and over again that his teaching, both oral and written, be kept as the pattern of sound teaching, and that it be faithfully transmitted to succeeding generations. The first Christians called this teaching “apostolic tradition.”

One promise given by Paul catches your eye – it seems to be the key to the whole ‘what did they do without a definite canon of Scripture for so many years???’ dilemma:

“Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”

Paul certainly seems to be assuring Timothy, whom he ordained to lead the church at Ephesus, that God the Holy Spirit would supernaturally aid him in guarding the “good deposit,” that is, the things that Paul had faithfully passed on to him. Timothy was then to repeat this process – he was to keep Paul’s teaching as the pattern, and entrust that teaching “to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.”

So to the early Christians it wasn’t really of the utmost importance whether or not the epistle of James was Holy Scripture. The important thing was that they knew how to “stand firm,” to “maintain the traditions” and cling to “the good deposit.”

Maybe you’re onto something!

When Marcion, the 2nd-century heretic, tried to make his own canon of Scripture, tossing out the Old Testament and accepting only Paul’s writings (with heavy editing) and the Gospel of Luke (minus its first two chapters – that account of the birth of Christ just had to go!), the Christian church responded. A bishop in France named Irenaeus wrote a treatise against Marcion and folks like him called the “Refutation and Subversion of Knowledge Falsely So Called” (“Against Heresies” for short). Irenaeus wrote about 70 years after the death of the apostle John, and he claimed to have been personally acquainted with Polycarp, a disciple of John’s. You pick up your church library’s copy of Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon and reread Protestant theologian David Dunbar’s chapter entitled “The Biblical Canon.” There Dr. Dunbar writes that Irenaeus had had his fill of the heretics who made all sorts of claims about what was Scripture and what wasn’t, claiming that they were members of an elite group called “the perfect” who were privy to “hidden mysteries” that the average believer knew nothing of. Irenaeus declared that he knew how many Gospels had been written, and who wrote them, because he insisted that certain things had been “handed down” to believers. This is Irenaeus’ enumeration of the Gospels:

We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith…. Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.

Dunbar comments:

…Irenaeus reflects with greater depth on the nature of apostleship than any before him. The church is founded upon the apostles. They have received from the Lord the power to announce the gospel, and through them we know the truth. It was to the apostles that Jesus said, ‘He who hears you hears me, and he who despises you despises me and the one who sent me” (Lk 10:16). The plan of salvation was first proclaimed publicly by the apostles and then later delivered to us in the Scriptures, to be ‘the future ground and pillar of our faith.’ The two forms, oral and written, of the apostolic witness are a unity. Neither has preeminence over the other, and for Irenaeus there can be no thought of any contrast or conflict between them. This is the error of the Gnostics, for they demean the Scriptures by appealing to esoteric traditions. By contrast, Irenaeus argues that the testimony of the apostles is public, having been proclaimed in the most ancient (apostolically founded) churches and preserved by an unbroken succession of faithful bishops. It is this same tradition, however, that is recorded in the (New Testament) Scriptures, ‘which are indeed perfect since they were spoken by the Word of God and his Spirit.’

So Irenaeus, living in the 2nd century, believed that the testimony of the apostles was safe-guarded in the teaching of the churches, and “preserved by an unbroken succession of faithful bishops”? Your eyes widen as you read on. Dr. Dunbar writes:

The basis for all of Irenaeus’ argumentation is the tradition of the church, which believes that these four Gospels alone had their origins in the ministry of the apostles.

In Irenaeus’ writings you find what he considered to be a fool-proof way to determine how to know that Marcion and his cronies were wrong: Marcion’s teaching was a novel doctrine which disagreed with what the church as a whole was teaching! Irenaeus insisted that the way to determine such issues was to check with the church leadership, most particularly with those churches which had been established by the apostles. Those leaders would be in a position to say what had been handed down to them. Irenaeus wrote:

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 those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the churches, and to demonstrate the succession of these men 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 have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the churches themselves.

The ‘tradition of the apostles’ – that’s something you don’t find any mention made of in the popular literature. You hunt through your reference books to see if you can find out more. Early Christianity and Its Sacred Literature claims that while Irenaeus and other second-century Christians denounced Marcion’s stunted canon, they didn’t respond to it by coming up with a canon of their own. Rather:

They responded with the church’s sacred teachings, that is, its regula fidei, which was illustrated by a number of OT and NT Scriptures that only later became part of a fixed biblical canon.

This ‘regula fidei’ (rule of faith) is the ‘tradition of the apostles’, and just as you thought, the early Christians didn’t wave the correct canon in Marcion’s face (since it apparently hadn’t been decided upon yet!) – they responded to his assertions by clinging to ‘the good deposit.’ The doctrine ‘handed down’ from the apostles was their ultimate guide in determining what a canonical book should look like.

McDonald and Porter explain that Irenaeus relied on this ‘rule of faith’ to combat the heretical ideas that people like Marcion were proposing. Irenaeus, according to them,

argued instead for the legitimacy of the truth of the regula fidei that he contends was passed on in the church by apostolic succession through the bishops.

You look this up. Irenaeus claims that he can tell you whom the apostles ordained as bishops, and can demonstrate the succession of those bishops from the time of the apostles down to his own time (circa 180 A.D., over 100 years later!):

But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the succession of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition…. Having founded and built the Church, the blessed apostles entrusted the episcopal office to Linus, who is mentioned by Paul in the Epistles to Timothy; Linus was succeeded by Anacletus; after him, in the third place from the apostles, the bishopric fell to Clement, who had seen the blessed apostles and conversed with them, and still had their preaching ringing in his ears and their authentic tradition before his eyes…. In the same order and the same succession the authentic tradition received from the apostles and passed down by the Church, and the preaching of the truth, have been handed on to us.

The authentic tradition received from the apostles and passed down by the Church – if only you had lived back then, some 150 years after the Resurrection! To be able to say that you had had “the preaching of the truth” handed on to you by your leaders from the apostles themselves! To know people who had known people who still had the preaching of the apostles ringing in their ears and their authentic tradition impressed upon their minds and hearts!

So, what does this Irenaeus of Lyons recommend as far as the canon of Scripture goes?

For Part 27 please click here


On the memorial of St. John Ogilvie

Deo omnis gloria!


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