Sola Scriptura and Oral Tradition by Pastor Jack Lash July 2014
One of the arguments used against Sola Scriptura (the authority of Scripture alone) by those who advocate the authority of church tradition is that the NT repeatedly urges God’s people to believe and obey the tradition of the apostles.
They are correct that there ARE several times the NT epistles refer to tradition in a positive sense:
● 2Thessalonians 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.”
● 2Thessalonians 3:6 “We command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.”
● 1Corinthians 11:2 “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.”
The Greek word for tradition is a combination of the word for ‘give’ and the word for ‘over.’ The places where the noun is used just refer, then, to that which is passed along from one person to another. The verb means to hand something over to someone else, to pass something on to another person.
The verbal form is used in a positive sense in the NT as well:
● 1Corinthians 11:23 “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread...”
● 1Corinthians 15:3 “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures...”
Although the Greek words are different, the same idea is contained in other verses:
● 1Timothy 6:20 “O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you.”
● 2Timothy 1:14 “By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.”
● Titus 1:9 “He [an overseer] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”
Down through history, God has at times spoken infallibly to mankind through human prophets, vessels through which He has revealed Himself and His will. While those prophets were alive and delivering God’s prophetic messages, their messages were to be received by God’s people as authoritative. Many people, of course, did not hear the message directly from the prophet himself/herself. The message was passed along from one person to another, and each one who heard it was still responsible to listen to it and obey it. For a time, this oral tradition was the only form in which the messages of the prophet existed. And during this time the people of God were responsible to maintain, hold onto, and stand firm on the prophetic tradition they had received and to disapprove of those who were not willing to walk in accord with these traditions.
At some point, it was the will of God for these messages to be written down. (We all know that written transmission is generally more reliable in terms of preservation than oral transmission.) These written words were recognized as carrying the same weight and authority as the audible words of the prophet. There were some prophecies or pieces of prophecies which, in God’s providence, never got recorded in written form. We assume that any lost prophecies were deemed by God to be unnecessary for future generations of God’s people. We know of no mechanism or institution set up by God to preserve or orally pass along any non-written revelations received through the prophets.
There is no reason for us to conclude that the revelations of the apostles should be treated any differently. At first, the oral “tradition” which Jesus began and was proclaimed by the apostles was the only form in which this revelation existed. So, it does not surprise us to find commands in some of Paul’s early epistles to maintain the traditions they had received from the apostle.
But as time went on, God in His wisdom ordained for these things to be recorded in written form, through the epistles, through the gospels, etc. So, gradually over the years of the apostles, the need for passing along their teaching through oral tradition faded as the copies of their writings began to accumulate among the churches. And once the apostles died, the emphasis shifts from the oral tradition to the writings, since their teachings were preserved in their writings .
The principle of Sola Scriptura was not operative during those days of the apostles, of course, since the apostles themselves were a source of authoritative revelation (as well as the NT prophets). But in the period since the foundation-laying period of the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20), there has been no other authoritative source of revelation. Thus, in this era we have Sola Scriptura.