Early Fathers on Oral Tradition

Papias

Whenever anyone came my way, who had been a follower of my seniors, I would ask for the accounts of our seniors: What did Andrew or Peter say? Or Phillip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew, or any of the Lord’s disciples? I also asked: What did Aristion and John the Presbyter, disciples of the Lord say. For, as I see it, it is not so much from books as from the living and permanent voice that I must draw profit (The Sayings of the Lord [between A.D. 115 and 140] as recorded by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3:39 [A.D. 325]).

Irenaeus

For even creation reveals Him who formed it, and the very work made suggests Him who made it, and the world manifests Him who ordered it. The Universal [Catholic] Church, moreover, through the whole world, has received this tradition from the Apostles (Against Heresies 2:9 [A.D. 189]).

True knowledge is 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, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved, without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither addition nor curtailment [in truths which she believes]; 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… (ibid. 4:33 [A.D. 189]).

Tertullian

For wherever both the true Christian rule and faith shall be shown to be, there will be the true Scriptures, and the true expositions, of all the true Christian traditions (The Prescription of Heretics 19 [A.D. 200]).

Eusebius

While [Ignatius of Antioch] was making the journey through Asia under the strictest military guard, he strengthened the diocese in each city where he stayed by spoken sermons and exhortations, and he especially exhorted them above all to be on their guard against the heresies which then for the first time were prevalent and he urged them to hold fast to the tradition of the Apostles to which he thought it necessary, for securities sake, to give form by written testimony (Ecclesiastical History, 3:36 [A.D. 325]).

Athanasius

Without prefixing Consulate, month, and day, [the Fathers] wrote concerning Easter, “It seemed good as follows,” for it did then seem good that there should be a general compliance; but about the faith they wrote not, “It seemed good” but, “Thus believes the Catholic Church”; and thereupon they confessed how they believed, in order to show that their own sentiments were not novel, but Apostolic; and what they wrote down was no discovery of theirs, but is the same as was taught by the Apostles (Letter on the Councils of Ariminum and Seleucia [A.D. 359]).

Basil

Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us “in mystery” by the tradition of the Apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will contradict; – no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in these matters… (On the Holy Spirit 27 [A.D. 375]).

Jerome

Don’t you know that the laying on of hands after baptism and then the invocation of the Holy Sirit is a custom of the Churches? Do you demand Scripture proof? You may find it in the Acts of the Apostles. And even if it did not rest on the authority of Scripture the consensus of the whole world in this respect would have the force of a command. For many other observances of the Churches, which are do to tradition, have acquired the authority of the written law (The Dialogue Against the Luciferians 8 [A.D. 382]).

John Chrysostom

“So then brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word, or by epistle of ours” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Hence it is manifest, that they did not deliver all things by epistle, but many things also unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore let us think the tradition of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a tradition, seek no farther (Homilies on Second Thessalonians [circa A.D. 400]).

Vincent of Lerins

I have often then inquired earnestly and attentively of very many men eminent for sanctity and learning, how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical pravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That whether I or any one else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief n two ways: first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church (Commonitory 2 [A.D. 434])

Theodoret

I have ever kept the faith of the Apostles undefiled… So have I learnt not only from the Apostles and the Prophets but also from the interpreters of their writings, Ignatius, Eustathius, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory, John, and the rest of the lights of the world; and before these from the holy Fathers in council at Nicaea, whose confession of the faith I preserve in its integrity, like an ancestral inheritance [styling corrupt and enemies of the truth all who dare to transgress its decrees] (Letters no. 89 [circa A.D. 443]).

Scriptural Basis

Mark 13:31 – heaven and earth will pass away, but Jesus’ Word will not pass away. But Jesus never says anything about His Word being entirely committed to a book. Also, it took 400 years to compile the Bible, and another 1,000 years to invent the printing press. How was the Word of God communicated? Orally, by the bishops of the Church, with the guidance and protection of the Holy Spirit.Mark 16:15 – Jesus commands the apostles to preach the Gospel to every creature. But Jesus did not want this preaching to stop after the apostles died, and yet the Bible was not compiled until four centuries later. The word of God was transferred orally.Mark 3:14; 16:15 – Jesus commands the apostles to preach (not write) the gospel to the world. Jesus gives no commandment to the apostles to write, and gives them no indication that the oral apostolic word he commanded them to communicate would later die in the fourth century. If Jesus wanted Christianity to be limited to a book (which would be finalized four centuries later), wouldn’t He have said a word about it?Luke 10:16 – He who hears you (not “who reads your writings”), hears me. The oral word passes from Jesus to the apostles to their successors by the gracious gifts of the Holy Spirit. This succession has been preserved in the Holy Catholic Church.Luke 24:47 – Jesus explains that repentance and forgiveness of sins must be preached (not written) in Christ’s name to all nations. For Protestants to argue that the word of God is now limited to a book (subject to thousands of different interpretations) is to not only ignore Scripture, but introduce a radical theory about how God spreads His word which would have been unbelievable to the people at the time of Jesus.Acts 2:3-4 – the Holy Spirit came to the apostles in the form of “tongues” of fire so that they would “speak” (not just write) the Word.Acts 15:27 – Judas and Silas, successors to the apostles, were sent to bring God’s infallible Word by “word of mouth.”Rom. 10:8 – the Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart, which is the word of faith which is preached (not just written).Rom. 10:17 – faith comes by what is “heard” (not just read) which is the Word that is “preached” (not read). This word comes from the oral tradition of the apostles. Those in countries where the Scriptures are not available can still come to faith in Jesus Christ.1 Cor. 15:1,11 – faith comes from what is “preached” (not read). For non-Catholics to argue that oral tradition once existed but exists no longer, they must prove this from Scripture. But no where does Scripture say oral tradition died with the apostles. To the contrary, Scripture says the oral word abides forever.Gal. 1:11-12 – the Gospel which is “preached” (not read) to me is not a man’s Gospel, but the Revelation of Jesus Christ.Eph. 1:13 – hearing (not reading) the Word of truth is the gospel of our salvation. This is the living word in the Church’s living tradition.Col. 1:5 – of this you have “heard” (not read) before in the word of truth, the Gospel which has come to you.1 Thess. 2:13 – the Word of God is what you have “heard” (not read). The orally communicated word of God lasts forever, and this word is preserved within the Church by the Holy Spirit.2 Tim. 1:13 – oral communications are protected by the Spirit. They abide forever. Oral authority does not die with the apostles.2 Tim. 4:2,6-7 – Paul, at the end of his life, charges Timothy to preach (not write) the Word. Oral teaching does not die with Paul.Titus 1:3 – God’s word is manifested “through preaching” (not writing). This “preaching” is the tradition that comes from the apostles.1 Peter 1:25 – the Word of the Lord abides forever and that Word is the good news that was “preached” (not read) to you. Because the Word is preached by the apostles and it lasts forever, it must be preserved by the apostles’ successors, or this could not be possible. Also, because the oral word abides forever, oral apostolic tradition could not have died in the fourth century with all teachings being committed to Scripture.2 Peter 1:12, 15 – Peter says that he will leave a “means to recall these things in mind.” But since this was his last canonical epistle, this “means to recall” must therefore be the apostolic tradition and teaching authority of his office that he left behind.2 John 1:12; 3 John 13 – John prefers to speak and not to write. Throughout history, the Word of God was always transferred orally and Jesus did not change this. To do so would have been a radical departure from the Judaic tradition.Deut. 31:9-12 – Moses had the law read only every seven years. Was the word of God absent during the seven year interval? Of course not. The Word of God has always been given orally by God’s appointed ones, and was never limited to Scripture.Isa. 40:8 – the grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God (not necessarily written) will stand forever.Isa. 59:21 – Isaiah prophesies the promise of a living voice to hand on the Word of God to generations by mouth, not by a book. This is either a false prophecy, or it has been fulfilled by the Catholic Church.Joel 1:3 – tell your children of the Word of the Lord, and they tell their children, and their children tell another generation.Mal. 2:7 – the lips of a priest guard knowledge, and we should seek instruction from his mouth. Protestants want to argue all oral tradition was committed to Scripture? But no where does Scripture say this. 


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