On a hot August night in 1958 the Holy Spirit opened the doors to my heart. Since then, I have been gripped by an unrelenting hunger to know and learn more about this wonderful God and his glorious Church. Who is he? What is he like? What does he want? What pleases or displeases him? Where do I fit into his grand plan? What has he done for others? These questions flooded my heart that summer evening and have dogged me ever since.
For forty years I have been on a pilgrimage to know as accurately as possible the purposes and plans of this marvelous God. Aside from my college studies and post-graduate work in education, I have read books, attended various church services, engaged in dialogue Christians from differing backgrounds, argued with different sects, briefly attended a Bible college, and experimented with several variations of Protestantism. I have courted both Armenian and Calvinistic theology, embraced and discarded premillennial eschatology, practiced various forms of religious worship, preached holiness and sanctification, and generally enjoyed the spiritual experiences of my Pentecostal heritage. Yet underneath was the gnawing desire to dig deeper, ask questions, and find the will of God.
I found that wisdom quite by accident. It was during preparation for a Wednesday evening Bible study on the second chapter of First Timothy that I stumbled across this treasure buried in a field. Researching how to reenact a first-century worship service, I read the letters of the apostolic Fathers, and it was there that I unearthed a clearer understanding of Christ and his Church.
His Church was liturgical. It was hierarchical. I learned that as the Church grew, it kept a written record of lines of descent from the apostles themselves. Protestant claims of small “Bible study groups” scattered throughout the ancient world are pure fantasy. There is simply no historical record of them. The Christian Church was and has always been united, apostolic, and catholic. The rise of heresies forced the Church to cling tenaciously to what it had received from the apostles. All the churches from Gaul to India had a core belief and method of worship that all agreed could be traced directly to the apostles.
The center of Christian worship was not the operations of the gifts of the Spirit—which were in great abundance—nor was it the histrionics of great preachers. The center of Christian worship was and has always been the sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ, the Eucharist. To the early Church, the Eucharist was not a spiritual symbol of Christ—it was Christ himself being re-presented to the Father at every gathering.
Not only was the Church’s hierarchical structure and Eucharist-centered worship different than I expected, so were its teachings. Men were not saved by accepting Christ as their personal Savior, but by immersion in the regenerational waters of baptism. Men were not saved by faith alone, but by the obedience of faith—a faith demonstrated in good works and holy living. Christians did not seek “blessings”; on the contrary, they willingly sacrificed their lives for their Lord.
It was there, in the face of the apostolic Fathers, that I saw the true essence of Christian spirituality. It was not today’s Americanized faith of prosperity or materialistic blessing, nor was it the Pentecostal faith of endless exhilaration and emotional excitement. It was a deep, devotional faith of the heart that called forth self-sacrifice, penance, suffering, and righteous living.
With this clear understanding of the development of Christian belief came a true understanding of the Bible and Protestantism’s most treasured tradition, sola scriptura. This theology teaches that all we need to know about the revelation of Christ and his Church is contained within the pages of the Bible. Hence, the Bible is the authority for all questions on faith and morals. We Protestants have shortened this teaching into, “If its not in the Bible, I don’t believe it.”
On the surface this sounds admirable and correct—”If we cannot read it in the Bible, then discard it, it isn’t true.” But each of the 28,000 Protestant churches and denominations all claim support from the one Bible! Each of them claims the “truthful and correct” interpretation of Scripture. From Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal churches to Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, every last one of them interprets the Bible differently. We Protestants have grown so accustomed to this variety of interpretations that we call the Bible “unclear” in many passages that so that we can allow for differing opinions and interpretations.
Take for example Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus that he must be “born of the water and of the spirit” (John 3:5). Three interpretations have been offered by Christians: (1) amniotic birth fluid (the first birth) and the Holy Spirit’s indwelling (the second birth); (2) the word of God and the Holy Spirit’s baptism; and (3) the waters of baptism and the Holy Spirit’s action in the sacrament.
But Jesus’ statement certainly had one meaning. Although it isn’t spelled out in John’s Gospel account, I’m sure Jesus explained what he meant to Nicodemus. But how does that help us? Which of the interpretations listed above is true? All three cannot be true, yet Christians build their faith on one or the other of the three interpretations.
It doesn’t matter how scholarly or erudite Bible students are. Even scholars who wear all of the trappings of academia differ significantly on many important doctrinal matters. No amount of study and research brings consensus on what the Bible says.
Another problem with the “Bible-only” tradition is the belief that, with diligent study, the illumination of the Holy Spirit (John 14:25, 16:13) will unlock the truths of the Bible for all who listen to him. Certainly the study of Scripture and the illumination of the Holy Spirit are essential to personal spiritual growth and unlocking the spiritual content of the Bible. But try telling 28,000 bickering churches that their 28,000 differing views on the Bible are indication of their being either scripturally inaccurate or not Spirit-led.
Unfortunately, the apparently noble but unsubstantiated tradition of sola scriptura has limited its proponents to a narrow perspective of the Christian Church. It not only limits the Christian’s worldview of the development of the Church, its doctrines, its saints, and its history, it also does not tell the full story of the Christian Church and its practices.
For example, precisely how did the early disciples conduct worship services? How did Christian worship evolve? What did Jesus teach his disciples on the road to Emmaus? What did he teach the apostles about the kingdom during his forty days before his Ascension? How did the apostles baptize new converts? In what part of the world did each apostle plant the gospel? What happened to Peter after Acts 12:17 and Paul after Acts 28:31? What happened to Mary, the Lord’s mother? The Bible does not say.
How did the Church evolve after the death of the last apostle? Since the Holy Spirit was given to the Church to guide it in the truth, how was he evident in the centuries after Acts? What directions did he lead the Church in the application of Christian revelation? What great men and women did he raise up to shepherd the Church? How did the councils of the Church deal with the practical applications of Christian revelation to the needs of the day?
The Church had a vibrant, rich spiritual life that was not captured by the New Testament. There were martyrs, great saints, great evangelism, and great examples of self-denial and sacrifice in the early Church that we do not read about in the Bible. The culturally diverse church at Antioch went on to become the driving force in Christianity. Great saints such as Polycarp, Irenaeus, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Anthony, Basil, and the two Gregorys are unknown to most Protestant readers. The great thinkers of the Church—Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, to name but a few—are totally ignored by the mass of Protestants.
Yet it was these men who withstood heresies and heretics, hammered out Christian thought, and formulated the very New Testament doctrines and theology we Protestants believe today. One must remember the New Testament contains many letters (epistles) that were limited in their scope to indigenous problems in local churches. We therefore, unfortunately, get only a glimpse of Church life through its pages.
Think about this. Limiting ourselves to what is contained in the Bible is similar to limiting ourselves to “mastering” the United States Constitution while ignoring the Fathers that created it and the history of the thirteen colonies that occasioned it. We would know the basic rules of American government but be ignorant of the Bill of Rights, the great Supreme Court decisions that have interpreted the Constitution, the amendments to it, the slavery issue leading to the Civil War, et cetera.
Do not misunderstand me. The New Testament is the inspired word of God. It does contain God’s will for us. We must live by its principles and commands. It accurately and faithfully relates the life of Jesus, his teachings, and the teachings of the apostles. But it must be received with the total revelation of the Church. The Bible is not the “pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15)—the Church is! What the Bible gives is an accurate but incomplete picture of God’s working through Christ in the Church.
Mark ends his gospel, “And they went forth and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it” (16:20). But he does not tell us where they went or what they did. Acts reveals the beginning of the Church with tremendous power, but leaves us wondering the outcome of Paul’s trial in the twenty-eighth chapter. Nothing is said of the other eight apostles. Did they work miracles? Did they die for their faith? If so, how and where? Consequently, viewing Christianity through the eyes of the New Testament is like trying to see New York City through a first-floor window of the Empire State Building.
Consider this also: The Bible did not produce the Church, the Church produced the Bible. The Church is not built upon the Bible, it is built upon the apostles and prophets. Christ did not leave a written book to guide his Church, he left living men empowered by the Holy Spirit.
The New Testament, as we have received it, was not canonized until A.D. 393. What gave the Church its cohesion between the days of the apostles and the canonization of the New Testament? What determined orthodoxy of faith in the face of heresies and heretics? Except for a few minor variations, why did the Church worship God the same throughout the world? How could writer after writer call the Church “catholic” (universal) without the unifying element of the New Testament? What kept the Church afloat until the New Testament could be canonized? In fact, what was the “rule” used to admit certain books and exclude others from the New Testament canon?
The answers to these questions are found in the traditions of the apostles handed down to the Church Fathers. This sounds strange to Protestant ears. We have been taught the Word has preeminence over everything. Yet we have ignored the very Church that has gathered, preserved, and produced the Word. Does the tradition of the apostles and Church Fathers have precedence over the Bible? By no means! The Bible, along with the traditions of the apostles and Church Fathers, give us the total picture of God’s work in and through the Church.
Jews understand well the place of tradition in their faith. The Torah was given by God to Israel at Sinai, but there was also an “oral tradition,” called the Talmud, on how the Torah should be applied. For example, the Torah stipulated the times and types of sacrifices the priest should offer but did not always tell how the animal was to be slaughtered, dismembered, or presented on the altar. Judges were to administer justice, but the Torah did not tell how court was to be held. Engagements and marriages were to be held, but the Torah did not detail how or where the marriages were to be performed. The details and applications were handed down through oral, priestly traditions.
Of course, oral traditions did not have the authority of divinely inspired literature, and many times Jewish traditions conflicted with revelation knowledge. These were the traditions Jesus condemned (Matt. 12:2, 10; 16:12; Mark 7:1–23). Yet Christ followed other traditions. He accepted the title of “Rabbi.” He gathered about him disciples. He wore a beard. He recognized the tradition of feet-washing for guests. He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath. He recognized the “Moses’ seat” as the legitimately ordained teaching office of the Jewish religion (Matt. 23:1).
Apostolic tradition, however, differs significantly from Jewish traditions. It contains all that the apostles handed on to their successors, both written and oral. It is the total revelation of Jesus Christ entrusted to the Church, not accumulative practices and interpretations that many wrongly assert today. This sacred tradition (Greek, paradosis, “that which is handed down”) is divine revelation transmitted from one generation to another as a sacred body of knowledge. It is the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
In Second Thessalonians, Paul admonished his listeners, “Stand firm and hold to the traditions [paradosis] which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2:15). He wrote to the Corinthians, “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions [paradosis] even as I have delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2). To some who refused his authority, Paul appealed to the universally practiced but unwritten traditions of the Church: “If anyone is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God” (1 Cor. 11:16).
These statements made by Paul show that practices and traditions recognized by the apostles had begun to develop within his lifetime. In fact, he quotes teachings attributed to Jesus that cannot be found in the Gospels: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
Hence, the Christian faith began to grow well beyond the pages of the New Testament. Customs, practices, traditions—all practiced and recognized by the apostles—guided the first-century Church through its formative years. Without knowledge and familiarity with all of the Church’s teachings, the Protestant g.asp of the Christian message may be good, but it is certainly not complete.