What Are Some Arguments against Apostolic Tradition?

Article ID: DC170-3 | By: Norman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie

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Apostolic Tradition- The Evidence Against Apostolic TraditionThere are many reasons Protestants reject the Roman Catholic claim that there is an extrabiblical apostolic tradition of equal reliability and authenticity to Scripture. The following are some of the more significant ones.

Apostolic Tradition Argument- Oral Traditions Are Unreliable

In point of fact, oral traditions are notoriously unreliable. They are the stuff of which legends and myths are made. What is written is more easily preserved in its original form. Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper notes four advantages of a written revelation: (1) It has durability whereby errors of memory or accidental corruptions, deliberate or not, are minimized; (2) It can be universally disseminated through translation and reproduction; (3) It has the attribute of fixedness and purity; (4) It is given a finality and normativeness which other forms of communication cannot attain.15 By contrast, what is not written is more easily polluted. We find an example of this in the New Testament. There was an unwritten “apostolic tradition” (i.e., one coming from the apostles) based on a misunderstanding of what Jesus said. They wrongly assumed that Jesus affirmed that the apostle John would not die. John, however, debunked this false tradition in his authoritative written record (John 21:22-23). Common sense and historical experience inform us that the generation alive when an alleged revelation was given is in a much better position to know if it is a true revelation than are succeeding generations, especially those hundreds of years later. Many traditions proclaimed to be divine revelation by the Roman Catholic Magisterium were done so centuries, even a millennia or so, after they were allegedly given by God. And in the case of some of these, there is no solid evidence that the tradition was believed by any significant number of orthodox Christians until centuries after they occurred. But those living at such a late date are in a much inferior position than contemporaries, such as those who wrote the New Testament, to know what was truly a revelation from God.

Apostolic Tradition Argument- There Are Contradictory Traditions

It is acknowledged by all, even by Catholic scholars, that there are contradictory Christian traditions. In fact, the great medieval theologian Peter Abelard noted hundreds of differences. For example, some fathers (e.g., Augustine) supported the Old Testament Apocrypha while others (e.g., Jerome) opposed it. Some great teachers (e.g., Aquinas) opposed the Immaculate Conception of Mary while others (e.g., Scotus) favored it. Indeed, some fathers opposed sola Scriptura, but others favored it. Now this very fact makes it impossible to trust tradition in any authoritative sense. For the question always arises: which of the contradictory traditions (teachings) should be accepted? To say, “The one pronounced authoritative by the church” begs the question, since the infallibility of tradition is a necessary link in the argument for the very doctrine of the infallible authority of the church. Thus this infallibility should be provable without appealing to the Magisterium. The fact is that there are so many contradictory traditions that tradition, as such, is rendered unreliable as an authoritative source of dogma. Nor does it suffice to argue that while particular fathers cannot be trusted, nonetheless, the “unanimous consent” of the fathers can be. For there is no unanimous consent of the fathers on many doctrines “infallibly” proclaimed by the Catholic church (see below). In some cases there is not even a majority consent. Thus to appeal to the teaching Magisterium of the Catholic church to settle the issue begs the question. The Catholic response to this is that just as the bride recognizes the voice of her husband in a crowd, even so the church recognizes the voice of her Husband in deciding which tradition is authentic. The analogy, however, is faulty. First, it assumes (without proof) that there is some divinely appointed postapostolic way to decide — extrabiblically — which traditions were from God. Second, historical evidence such as that which supports the reliability of the New Testament is not to be found for the religious tradition used by Roman Catholics. There is, for example, no good evidence to support the existence of first century eyewitnesses (confirmed by miracles) who affirm the traditions pronounced infallible by the Roman Catholic church. Indeed, many Catholic doctrines are based on traditions that only emerge several centuries later and are disputed by both other traditions and the Bible (e.g., the Bodily Assumption of Mary). Finally, the whole argument reduces to a subjective mystical experience that is given plausibility only because the analogy is false. Neither the Catholic church as such, nor any of its leaders, has experienced down through the centuries anything like a continual hearing of God’s actual voice, so that it can recognize it again whenever He speaks. The truth is that the alleged recognition of her Husband’s voice is nothing more than subjective faith in the teaching Magisterium of the Roman Catholic church.

Apostolic Tradition Argument- Catholic Use of Tradition Is Not Consistent

Not only are there contradictory traditions, but the Roman Catholic church is arbitrary and inconsistent in its choice of which tradition to pronounce infallible. This is evident in a number of areas. First, the Council of Trent chose to follow the weaker tradition in pronouncing the apocryphal books inspired. The earliest and best authorities, including the translator of the Roman Catholic Latin Vulgate Bible, St. Jerome, opposed the Apocrypha. Second, support from tradition for the dogma of the Bodily Assumption of Mary is late and weak. Yet despite the lack of any real evidence from Scripture or any substantial evidence from the teachings of early church fathers, Rome chose to pronounce this an infallible truth of the Catholic faith. In short, Roman Catholic dogmas at times do not grow out of rationally weighing the evidence of tradition but rather out of arbitrarily choosing which of the many conflicting traditions they wish to pronounce infallible. Thus, the “unanimous consent of the fathers” to which Trent commanded allegiance is a fiction. Third, apostolic tradition is nebulous. As has often been pointed out, “Never has the Roman Catholic Church given a complete and exhaustive list of the contents of extrabiblical apostolic tradition. It has not dared to do so because this oral tradition is such a nebulous entity.”16 That is to say, even if all extrabiblical revelation definitely exists somewhere in some tradition (as Catholics claim), which ones these are has nowhere been declared. Finally, if the method by which they choose which traditions to canonize were followed in the practice of textual criticism of the Bible, one could never arrive at a sound reconstruction of the original manuscripts. For textual criticism involves weighing the evidence as to what the original actually said, not reading back into it what subsequent generations would like it to have said. Indeed, even most contemporary Catholic biblical scholars do not follow such an arbitrary procedure when determining the translation of the original text of Scripture (as in The New American Bible).

Apostolic Tradition- Conclusion

In conclusion, the question of authority is crucial to the differences between Catholics and Protestants. One of these is whether the Bible alone has infallible authority. We have examined carefully the best Catholic arguments in favor of an additional authority to Scripture, infallible tradition, and found them all wanting. Further, we have advanced many reasons for accepting the Bible alone as the sufficient authority for all matters of faith and morals. This is supported by Scripture and sound reason.


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