One of the arguments that is used to defend church tradition as a source of religious authority is that the Bible speaks regarding traditions that the apostles held. It is pointed out that in 2 Thessalonians 3:6 Paul demands that Christians walk in submission to the traditions that they received from the apostles. Moreover, others point out that the language used in 1 Corinthians 15:1-3 and 1 Corinthians 11:23 (particularly in the words “received” and “delivered”) that Paul was passing along traditions that ought to be respected. Those who argue for such then state something to the effect that if there were apostolic traditions recorded in the New Testament that must be observed, then there were also apostolic traditions handed down orally that must also be observed as well. Does the Bible teach that there are some good traditions and that we must observe such in our lives?
First, there is no doubt that the apostles expected first century (and beyond) believers to accept their words as gospel truth. Acts 2:42 states, “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles� doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” We have an obligation today to continue in the apostles’ doctrine as well. But notice this: the obligation is to continue in the APOSTLES’ doctrine, not what someone else SAYS to be the apostles’ doctrine. The only way to KNOW what the apostles’ doctrine was, is to go back to the things that the apostles themselves said and wrote. This entails acknowledging the source documents as authoritative, but not necessarily secondary sources.
Second, we must remember that during the first century, men and women were directly inspired by the Holy Spirit to speak the gospel message. Jesus said to the apostles in John 16:13 “Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come.” Much of the inspired teaching that occurred in New Testament times was oral in nature. Jesus taught the apostles orally. The apostles, in turn, taught the first Christians orally. It wasn’t very long, however, before the inspired began to write down their Holy Spirit given messages to be preserved for all Christians everywhere. However, the quality of being inspired isn’t the same as receiving and delivering tradition. Inspiration can’t be wrong; one’s uninspired reception and delivery of tradition CAN be wrong. Herein lies the difference. Yes, individuals were expected to obey apostles and any other individuals who could PROVE they were inspired of God. But once inspiration ceased, the obligation to accept tradition as authoritative ceased as well.
Third, there is no evidence to suggest that the apostles wanted men to believe a succession of church leaders over the inspired words that they spake and wrote. In fact, Paul made it clear that he expected no one to believe anything less than what he himself directly received from the Lord. In Galatians 1:11,12 he wrote, “But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.” We can understand Paul to say here that the message he taught was given to him directly by God and that he held no expectation for anyone to believe anything less than that. His teaching and preaching wasn’t “after man” nor did he “receive it of man” nor was he “taught it” by man. The meaning is clear; Christians have no obligation to respect such teaching when it does not contain authority that is directly from God Himself.
Finally, we can be confident that in these documents they recorded everything that they taught orally. Paul told Timothy that everything that he needed to know to be a faithful man of God was found in the scriptures (2 Timothy 3:15-17). Peter said that everything that the Christian needed for life and godliness they had through the knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:3). We know that Jesus promised that His words would never pass away (Matthew 24:35). When we couple these facts with the truth that God always keep his promises (Hebrews 6:17,18), we have irrefutable evidence that the scriptures are all that we need in order to live the kind of lives that God wants us to live today.
Yes there was authoritative tradition in the first century, but the authority in that “tradition” ended with the apostles and inspired teachers of the first century. That authority was not handed down to uninspired successors who then were able to preach and teach their own traditions and etc. until the present day. The only obligation we have as Christians is to obey what the apostles and inspired teachers preached and taught and that obligation comes not from the fact that they were apostles and teachers, but from the fact that it was the Holy Spirit Himself who was giving them the teaching! Let us acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s authority to teach and deny it to all man made traditions whether they come from the past or present or whether they will be invented within the future. Catholic tradition holds no inherent authority in and of itself. Only the scriptures can supply us with everything for life and godliness.