By Keith Thompson
In this essay I will refute the Roman Catholic appeal to extra-biblical tradition as a way to refute Sola Scriptura. I will be arguing although tradition is a valid concept, the Tridentine partim-partim theory that it contains doctrines not found in scripture is incorrect. Instead, the scriptures subordinate valid traditions to the ultimate authority of scripture.
2 Thessalonians 2:15
"So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter" (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
It must be noted again that Protestantism doesn’t believe the Bible is the only authority. This is often falsely claimed but that is not Sola Scriptura. We believe other sources such as traditions, councils, creeds, confessions, the teaching office of the church and catechisms are authoritative insofar as they are subject to the ultimate authority of Scripture. 2 Thessalonians 2:15 speaks of tradition and so Protestants accept it. The debate is the identity of this tradition. Is this tradition subservient to Scripture? (i.e., is the content of Paul’s tradition here found in Scripture?) That would support Protestantism since the tradition Christians are ordered to follow would not be separate from the text of Scripture but instead subordinate to it. Or does the tradition Paul mention consist of teachings which cannot be found in Scripture? This would support the Catholic view many hold to which is that tradition is a body of doctrine containing teachings not always found in Scripture.
The Roman Catholic writer Robert Sungenis identifies this tradition here in the following way: “. . .oral revelation serves as an additional source of revelation alongside the written word” (Robert Sungenis, Not By Scripture Alone, [Queenship Publishing Company, 1997], p. 126). In the same book Catholic writer Mark Shea rejects the view that this tradition “of which Paul spoke would someday be ‘crystallized’ in Scripture alone” (Mark Shea, What is the Relationship Between Scripture and Tradition?, ed., Robert Sungenis, Not by Scripture Alone, [Queenship Publishing Company, 1997], p. 174). We must therefore examine the identity of this tradition and see who is right.
Firstly, if the Roman Catholic is going to assert the content of this oral tradition is a body of doctrine containing teachings not found in Scripture (such as the assumption of Mary, papal infallibility, etc), they must prove this instead of assuming it. The text certainly does not say that so one can not come to that conclusion exegetically. The Romanist would need to produce an early list of collected apostolic oral traditions from people writing after the New Testament was completed who say they got such teachings from the apostles apart from Scripture in order to validate the claim that the tradition Paul refers to is Roman extra-biblical tradition, and not teachings one can find in Scripture.
Second, it is very clear in the context of 2 Thessalonians 2 that the content of the tradition Paul had in mind is indeed found in and thus subject to Scripture. In vv. 2-12 Paul discusses those who say the day of the Lord (or the return of Christ) has already come. He says not to believe them even if they send a letter attributed to the apostles saying such things (v. 2). He then explains what must first happen before the Lord returns all the way until v. 12. Following that Paul mentions salvation and the gospel in vv. 13-14 and then mentions the tradition the Thessalonians must obey either by word or letter in v. 15. Hence, we know the traditions mentioned consist of the truth of the second coming of Christ which should be pitted against those who distort the facts about that doctrine, as well as salvation and the gospel. Since the truth of the second coming of Christ, salvation and the gospel are all teachings found all over Scripture, this tradition Paul was talking about was not extra-biblical deviant Roman material as the Catholics suggest. The facts concerning Christ’s second coming or the Day of the Lord are discussed at great length in both the Old and New Testaments (Daniel 713-14; Zechariah 14:1-9; Matthew 24:5-27, etc.). Moreover, Paul defines the gospel as Jesus dying for our sins, rising and appearing (1 Corinthians 15:1-6), and the Old and New Testaments speak about the gospel all over the place at great length (e.g. Isaiah 53; Psalms 22; John 3:16, etc).
Hence, there is no evidence Paul was speaking about anything other than topics which are sufficiently covered in Scripture. We have positive evidence the tradition he mentioned consisted of things found in Scripture. But we do not have any positive evidence that this tradition consisted of things one can not find in Scripture. Thus, 2 Thessalonians 2:15 does not support the Catholic partim-partim view of tradition affirmed by the Council of Trent. The only way this text would be relevant is if Protestantism completely rejected the concept of tradition as a whole. But this is not the case with the classical Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura as I demonstrated elsewhere.
2 Thessalonians 3:6
Paul then exhorts the Thessalonians to hold to this same tradition in the next chapter (3:6). Catholics also appeal to that verse to support their view of extra-scriptural tradition. However, the previous comments apply to this text as well since it is the same tradition in view. In fact, concerning 3:6, Mitchell Pacwa, one of the authors of Sungenis’ book Not by Scripture Alone, conceded this verse uses the word tradition, “to refer to the basic teachings of the Gospel” (Mitch Pacwa, Appendix 2: Excursus on Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23, ed. Robert Sungenis, Not by Scripture Alone, [Queenship Publishing, 1997], p. 565). The basic teachings of the gospel are, again, covered at length in both the Old and New Testament’s (e.g. Isaiah 53; Psalms 22; John 3:16; 1 Corinthians 15:1-6, etc.). This means that the Reformation Christian is justified in affirming that when Paul exhorted the Christians to tradition, he exhorted them to the oral proclamation of the contents of Scripture. Thus, apostolic traditions are subordinate to the ultimate authority of Scripture.
Concerning these Thessalonian texts, Robert Sungenis contradicts himself, since, on the one hand on p. 258 of Not by Scripture Alone he argues if the contents of this oral tradition could be found in Scripture, it wouldn’t make sense for Paul to command the Thessalonians to adhere to both Scripture and oral tradition, but on the other hand on p. 127 of the same book he admits that he believes many of the elements of this tradition mentioned by Paul are found in Scripture. Based on his reasoning it must be asked: if this oral tradition contained many things found in Scripture, why would Paul even include them in oral tradition and command the church to adhere to it? Sungenis refutes his own argument.
1 Corinthians 11:2
"Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you" (1 Corinthians 11:2).
Since, again, Protestantism is not opposed to tradition as long as it is found in and thus subservient to the ultimate authority of Scripture at least implicitly, we must once again examine the identity of this tradition in 1 Corinthians 11:2. Commenting on this text, Mark Shea argues,
". . .he is thinking not merely of written Scripture but of extra-biblical tradition as well. As with the Thessalonians, the very thing Paul does not do is give the Corinthians the slightest hint that writing alone is the word of God or that Scripture will someday contain everything he has delivered extrabiblically" (Mark Shea, What is the Relationship Between Scripture and Tradition?, ed., Robert Sungenis, Not by Scripture Alone, [Queenship Publishing Company, 1997], pp. 185-186).
However, contrary to these false claims, Paul does not merely hint at the fact this tradition can be found in Scripture, but he very strongly affirms it. First, in the immediate context of the mention of tradition in 1 Corinthians 11:2, Paul goes on to mention the roles of men and women in worship and in terms of authority (v. 3ff). Hence, this tradition is identified for us and found in Scripture. It is not mysterious or purely extrabiblical. Then Paul goes on to mention correct observance and practice concerning the Lord's Supper (v. 17ff). This tradition is identified for us and is thus found in Scripture. It is not mysterious or purely extrabiblical.
Secondly, in this text Paul says he delivered (paredōka in the Greek) these traditions to the Corinthians. However, a little later in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 Paul also speaks about what he delivered (paredōka) to the Corinthians, tradition which he himself previously received (or parelabon in the Greek). These Greek words paredōka and parelabon (“delivered” and “received”) are technical rabbinic terms denoting the passing of oral tradition. And when Paul goes on to identify this handed on and received tradition which the Corinthians are commanded to hold fast to, he identifies it as the basic gospel message:
"Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you--unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me" (1 Corinthians 15:1-8).
So yes, Paul does command the Corinthians to adhere to his oral tradition in 1 Corinthians 11:2. But he defines this tradition as things found in Scripture such as the roles of men and women regarding authority and worship as well as the proper observance of the Lord’s Supper. Then later in the book in chapter 15 when identifying his tradition, he explains the Gospel (i.e., Jesus dying for sins, rising and then appearing). Paul did not identify this tradition as papal infallibility, the assumption or immaculate conception of Mary, etc. Therefore, the Catholic position is not evidenced here
It is ironic because on p. 37 of his book Where is that in the Bible? Roman writer Patrick Madrid lists 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, which we just discussed, as an example of extrabiblical tradition supportive of his case, when that very text identifies Paul’s tradition as the basic gospel message which is, again, found all over scripture (e.g. Isaiah 53; Psalms 22; John 3:16, etc.). Why cite a text to support your position when it actually refutes your whole case? The only explanation is that such Roman writers (1) do not know what Sola Scriptura means; or (2) they knowingly distort it.
The Roman Catholic scholar Mitchell Pacwa has, again, affirmed that such texts as 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and 1 Corinthians 11:2 present tradition as basic facts about the gospel, not as some extrabiblical list of doctrines not found in Scripture as other Catholics claim:
"Some passages in the New Testament use ‘tradition’ to refer to the basic teachings of the Gospel . . . 1 Cor. 11:2; 15:3; 2 Thess 2:15; 3:6" (Mitch Pacwa, Appendix 2: Excursus on Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23, ed. Robert Sungenis, Not by Scripture Alone, [Queenship Publishing, 1997], p. 565).
This is supportive of the Protestant position. Robert Sungenis has argued Paul went on the preach more oral tradition (i.e., instruction) to the Corinthians concerning the Lord’s Supper face to face which he did not fully detail in 1 Corinthians 11 when covering that issue. He argues this oral tradition is not precisely contained in Scripture. Therefore, he claims, one must accept oral teaching as a separate body of divine doctrine not found in Scripture. He argues,
". . .in 1 Corinthians 11:34 Paul is teaching how to observe the Lord’s Supper but terminates his remarks by saying, ‘And when I come I will give further instructions.’ We assume that because Paul would eventually speak to them face to face that the additional instructions were given orally and were just as authoritative as his previous written instruction in the remainder of 1 Corinthians 11. Certainly one could not conclude that this oral teaching was any ‘different’ with respect to the nature of the gospel at large, but certainly it was different in regard to additional details of Eucharistic celebration" (Robert Sungenis, Not by Scripture Alone, [Queenship Publishing, 1997], p. 124 n. 18).
Sungenis can’t just assume Paul’s later oral message to the Corinthians concerning the Lord’s Supper is different from what is taught in the whole of Scripture as regards additional details. He has to prove that if he is going to take that position. There are numerous New Testament texts concerning the Lord’s Supper such as Matthew 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:14-21; John 6:25-58; John 13:1-30 Acts 2:45-46; Acts 20:7-11; Acts 27:35, etc. So, if Sungenis is going to confidently say Paul’s oral message can’t be found in these texts, he must prove that by documenting Paul’s oral tradition to the Corinthians concerning the Eucharist and showing its absence from Scripture. However, Sungenis doesn’t attempt to do so because no Roman Catholic can. Catholics do not have a later patristic or popish book of apostolic oral traditions. Moreover, there is good reason to believe this oral tradition was identical to that of the New Testament material. Witness the fact that 1 Corinthians was written about A.D. 55 and it is generally believed that Paul’s visit to the Corinthians, where he preached about these Eucharistic details, occurred one year later in A.D. 56. But there are numerous New Testament materials coming after this time such as the four Gospels and the book of Acts which speak about the Lord’s Supper. If Paul and the Church were so concerned about these alleged extra and essential Eucharist materials being affirmed, these later New Testament books would have include them. Thus, the position Paul’s Eucharistic tradition wasn’t preserved in detail in the New Testament is problematic and remains unproven.
2 Timothy 2:2
Another text which is commonly brought up by Catholics is 2 Timothy 2:2 which states:
"and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Timothy 2:2).
Again the underlying and unproven assumption of the Catholic when citing this verse is that the substance of what Paul taught Timothy orally differs from what is in this letter (2 Timothy), Paul’s other epistles and in the rest of Holy Scripture. Secondly, the early church writer Tertullian wrote concerning this text stating, “he refers to the things which he is writing at the moment” (Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, Ch. 25). Indeed, in the same letter (2 Timothy), Paul tells Timothy that Scripture fully equips him and makes him adequate for all of his good works such as doctrine reproof, etc (3:16-17). Concerning the concept tradition Paul mentioned Timothy in 2:2 which Timothy was to entrust to others, we know Paul was talking about the basic gospel message since he emphasizes it shortly before (1:8-9) this exhortation. 2 Timothy 1:8-9 says,
"8Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, 9who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:8-10).
Hence, in context what Timothy heard from Paul and which is he to entrust to others so they can teach it (2:2), is the basic gospel message he outlines in the letter which, again, is sufficiently covered in scripture (e.g. Isaiah 53; Psalms 22; John 3:16, etc.). As the author of the finest commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, William D. Mounce confirms, “In order to continue the work Timothy began, it is essential that men of character continue to teach the true gospel, the same gospel Timothy learned from Paul” (William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, [Thomas Nelson Inc., 2000], p. 504 italics mine). Paul was not saying Timothy was to teach some imaginary later Roman Catholic tradition of the assumption of Mary, papal infallibility or the immaculate conception of Mary. Such an understanding of Paul's tradition he mentions here is refuted by the letter itself.
In sum, there is nothing in the biblical exhortations affirming tradition that indicates the tradition consists of doctrine not found in scripture (i.e., the Tridentine partim-partim view of tradition). Rather, there is positive evidence the tradition scripture mentions consists of things already found in scripture. Thus, the Protestant view is correct which says tradition is valid insofar as it coheres with scripture at least implicitly.