The Transmission of Truth: Sacred Tradition
How were these essentials of the faith communicated to the emerging church? If the truths of the faith were given to the apostles, how did they pass on this sacred deposit? In our contemporary culture, we are quick to forget that the typical First or Second century individual did not possess a plethora of books. Nor did Paul keep a case of Bibles in the trunk of his car to pass out to new converts. Not only were there no Bibles to pass out, the official endorsement of what books constituted the complete canon did not even happen until The Council of Carthage in 397 A.D. The issue of what was considered authoritative as "Scripture" therefore, is a question of the greatest importance. There can be no uniformity of doctrine in the church if there is not some type of consensus as to what doctrine and true spiritual teaching is to be based upon. Today, most of us are agreeable to the simple postulate that Scripture is the ultimate source and fountainhead of all spiritual teaching; yet this does not, however, give us a solution to specifically identifying exactly what "scripture" is. Just to illustrate how variance in the simple definition of "scripture" has led to wide divergence of belief, consider that the Mormon sect claims to believe in the inspiration of the Bible, but also ascribes similar inspiration to the Book of Mormon; Christian Scientists give heed to the Bible as Scripture, but also elevate Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures with it's own level of inspiration. Even many New Age religions give lip service to the Bible, but point to some recent concoctions that they call the "Lost Teachings of Jesus" to give scriptural authority to esoteric ideas that did not exist back during the age of the apostles. In the early church, there were heretical groups that declared certain books canonical and others non-canonical from a very early stage. For the Orthodox Christians, the choice of what was canon had several criteria. As for the Old Testament, the early Christians relied chiefly upon the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. This sometimes was problematic in itself, since there were several versions extant, with variations and differences in each. Several versions contained the "Apocrypha", certain Greek sections or books that were known to be absent from the Jewish Scriptures. The question of the Apocrypha will be dealt with comprehensively at the end of this section.
As far as the New Testament is concerned, the selection of which books were canon carried it's own set of controversies. Whereas the Old testament was largely inherited from Judaism, the New Testament books had to be evaluated on an individual basis. Part of the criteria was that the writing had to have a close association with the apostles. It was required that any writing was either written by an apostle or by one intimately associated with the apostles. By the second century however, there was a tremendous amount of writing that was being circulated under the pretense that it was apostolic in origin. For this reason, the content of such writing and it's congruity with the rule of faith were vital factors in determining canonicity. Without "proven" or officially endorsed writings, we can presume that the primary test for content of each questionable had to be based on verbal tradition. By the time that the apostolic and the pseudo-apostolic letters had wide circulation amongst the churches, there was already a tremendous amount of verbal tradition from both the apostles and even from Jesus that had formed the bulwark of the faith of the churches. One clear example of such widely accepted verbal tradition is Paul's words in Acts 20:35 where he tells the elders of Ephesus that Jesus said that it was "more blessed to give than to receive". Nobody today would doubt that Jesus actually said these words, but it is interesting to note that these words do not actually appear in the gospels. Also, note that Paul never actually met Jesus so as to hear these words himself. The only explanation is that the phrase was verbal teaching and tradition from the other apostles, commonly held by the church. The authenticity of these words is verified by the fact that the apostles who lived with Jesus were still alive when Paul wrote these words, and could have easily have corrected Paul for putting words in Christ's mouth.
If we want to find out more about the earliest verbal tradition in the church before the acceptance of canon, we need to carefully scrutinize the forms and patterns of the phrases in the earliest Christian writing in the Bible. If we do we can find evidence of the pre-biblical faith of the early church.
"The Form of Sound Words"
When Paul had gone throughout the cities in Asia Minor preaching the gospel, he constantly had before him the need to preserve the work of his apostolic office. Most are familiar with the fact that he made a return trip to Iconium, Lystra and Antioch to "ordain elders" ( Acts 14:23) in each place to maintain order and solid church leadership. As far as the doctrinal legacy that he left, he, as well as the rest of the apostles, had to judiciously decide how to best assure that the gospel they committed to the believers would be remembered and preserved. In the churches that were comprised largely of Jews from the local synagogue, for example, the apostles corresponded with epistles that relied heavily on the Old Testament for it's philosophical base. (ie. Romans, Hebrews, Petrine epistles and James' epistle). However, we see in the epistles that are largely addressed to an Hellenistic audience (ie. Thessalonians, epistles to Timothy, and Titus) a completely different paradigm for the transmission and anchoring of the gospel. In these cases, there is a constant repetition to refer to a verbal tradition that was imparted to these churches. More specifically, it seems that this oral tradition had some type of either poetic or hymnic qualities to it. Paul put significant stress on these traditions. In 2 Timothy 1:13-14 he says:
Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed unto thee keep by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us.
Likewise in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, he urges the Thessalonians to persevere with this tradition, in both written and verbal forms:
Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.
I would not, as many have done before, attempt to say that any of this verbal tradition has been hidden from the church for the ages or that there is anything esoteric involved. On the contrary. If we look at these same epistles, we can see a large amount of popularly received "sayings" and credal statements that appear to be the essence of this verbal tradition. Woven in to these letters of Paul are these commonly held statements about Christ and faith, presented as doctrinal touchstones for the whole church. They come in two main categories. The first and most majestic, address the person of Christ, namely His dual-nature and his redemption of mankind. The others deal largely with our response to God's gift of grace. The texts that deal with his dual-nature have the added qualities of being arranged in stanzas or couplets, as if they were part of a hymn. Three of the most outstanding examples of this are as follows
Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
1 Timothy 3:16
And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness:
God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit,
seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles,
believed on in the world, received up into glory.
In both of these cases, the "hymns" couple the ideas of Christ's pre-existent Deity, his self-emptying in the incarnation, and his subsequent exaltation. Both also have a rhythmical style or metrical quality in the original language. A similar text can be found in Hebrews.
Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high; Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.
The importance of the hymn quality of these texts dealing with Christ's Deity is accentuated all the more, when we recall that one of the most memorable descriptions of the early church from Pliny the Younger was that the early believers would regularly "recite a hymn antiphonially to Christ, as to a god". (See Page 15). It is clear that well before there was debate on such issues as the Trinity and Christ's Deity, Paul and the other apostles went to great lengths to assure the questions of Christ's nature were already settled in the music and worship of the church. After all, what better way is there of locking in important truths to our long term memory then by putting something to poetry or music? This is the same concept that has spawned the need for advertisers today to come up with jingles. Even the most mundane statement can be burnt into our neural synapses by attaching it to music. Philo likewise noted that the believers in Alexandria spent time singing "hymns and such other things as augment and make perfect their knowledge and piety." The apostles, therefore knew exactly what they were doing with respect to the oral tradition in these churches. They knew that the spiritual truths regarding the Deity of Christ would remain if they put it into an antiphonal/hymn format. To confirm this fact, we have the testimony of Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History (V.28), who when citing Caius (210 A.D.) on the historicity of the doctrine of the divinity of Christ, puts the Christ-hymns on the same footing of the writings of the apologists in this matter:
For who is ignorant of the books of Irenaeus and Melito, and the rest, which declare Christ to be God and man? All the psalms, too, and hymns of brethren, which have been written from the beginning by the faithful, celebrate Christ the Word of God, ascribing divinity to Him.
There can be little doubt that he was referring to the above hymns, as well as untold numbers that were never codified in the pages of the New Testament. Clearly, the issue of Christ's divinity was not to be a ambiguous theological matter, but instead, an essential and integral part of the daily worship of the church.
In addition to these musical odes/credal statements of the nature of Christ, there are also many examples from these epistles of common sayings and "slogans" that were held as apostolic statements of the work of Christ. Paul will either introduce or conclude them with the phrase that this is "a faithful saying", which tells us that he is merely presenting commonly oral tradition that pre-dates his epistles. Some examples are:
1 Tim 1:15
This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.
The kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared,
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying,
1 Timothy 4:9-10
This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation.
For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.
2 Timothy 2:11-14
It is a faithful saying: For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him: If we suffer, we shall also reign with him: if we deny him, he also will deny us: If we believe not, yet he abideth faithful: he cannot deny himself.
2 Timothy 2:19
Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity.
Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.
The constant repetition of the phrase "this is a faithful saying" tells us that these expressions are pre-biblical, fully orthodox and common to the churches he is writing to. If they weren't, then it would be foolish of Paul to preface them with the statement "this is a faithful saying". There are other clues in the language that tell us something of the pre-New Testament faith. These are words of either Aramaic or Hebrew origin, that appear in letters addressed to Hellenists or Romans. For example, the fact that Paul used the Aramaic words "Maranatha" (Come, Lord) in 1 Corinthians 16:22, as well as "Abba" (Father, Daddy; Romans 8:15) with his Greek and Latin speaking audiences tells us that these terms carried over very early, before the advent of his epistles, and were already part of the liturgical language of the church. The most significant phrase, however, which is most commonly used is the simple term "Jesus is Lord". It is said to be the invoked only with the aid of the Holy Spirit ( 1 Corinthians 12: 3) and it is the prime determinant as to whether one is saved or not. ( Romans 10:9,10; Acts 8:35-38; 16:31-33). This absolute and defining declaration of the Lordship of Christ likewise settles not only the allegiance of the believer, but also the believer's view of the nature of Christ, since "Lord" in the mind of both Jew and Gentile in that age would have seen the clear claims upon Deity.
The Rise of Credal Statements
In addition to the pre-biblical oral tradition, there arose in the early church specific statements of beliefs and credal formulas. Two such statements, referred to as "The Rule of Faith" have already been cited in the writings of Irenaeus and Tertullian. Although we have no proof that any of the ones cited by these early church fathers were in reality composed by the apostles word-for-word, we do have a similar truncated statement by the apostle Paul, which may serve as a model for such a Rule of Faith. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, Paul reiterates his "Rule of Faith" that he had himself received and consequently passed on verbally
What was of first importance that I had received, I passed on to you, that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and to the twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred at one time, most of whom remain until now, although some have fallen asleep; then he appeared to James then to all of the apostles.
This may have encapsulated the significant truths of Christ's salvific work. The "rule of faith" and the subsequent creeds and theology developed during the patristic period was mostly an elaboration and augmentation of these truths of Christ's nature and his salvific work.
These elements: pre-New testament hymns and odes, common sayings of oral tradition, and early "Rules of Faith" show us what the faith of the church was like before there was a New Testament to officially cite. It is amazing to think that the church went an entire generation, under severe persecution, yet in great expansion and growth, with only these elements. Since the Book to Revelation wasn't written until around 96 A.D., it was at least two generations before anyone could have possibly seen the full, written inspired word of God. Even then, it was many years before the orthodox church had consensus on what the New Testament actually was.
Return to The Outline