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§ 139. Catholic Tradition.


Irenaeus: Adv. Haer. Lib. I. c. 9, § 5; I. 10, 1; III. 3, 1, 2; III. 4, 2; IV. 33, 7. Tertull.: De Praescriptionibus Haereticorum; especially c. 13, 14, 17–19, 21, 35, 36, 40, 41; De Virgin. veland. c. 1; Adv. Prax. c. 2; on the other hand, Adv. Hermog. c. 22; De Carne Christi, c. 7; De Resurr. Carnis, c. 3. Novatian: De Trinitate 3; De Regula Fidei.Cyprian: De Unitate Eccl.; and on the other hand, Epist. 74. Origen: De Princip. lib. I. Praef. § 4–6. Cyril of Jerus.: Κατηχήσεις (written 348).

J. A. Daniel: Theol. Controversen (the doctrine of the Scriptures as the source of knowledge). Halle, 1843.

J. J. Jacobi:Die Kirchl. Lehre von d. Tradition u. heil. Schrift in ihrer Entwicketung dargestellt. Berl. I. 1847.

Ph. Schaff: Creeds of Christendom, vol. I. p. 12 sqq.; II. 11–44. Comp. Lit. in the next section.


Besides appealing to the Scriptures, the fathers, particularly Irenaeus and Tertullian, refer with equal confidence to the "rule of faith;"948948    κανων τῆς πίστεως, or τῆς ἀληθείας , παράδοσις τῶν ἀποστόλων, or παρ. ἀποστολική, κανὼν ἐκκλησιαστικός , τὸ ἀρχαῖον τῆς ἐκκλησίας , σύστημα, regula fidei, regula veritatis, traditio apostolica, lex fidei, fides catholica. Sometimes these terms are used in a wider sense, and embrace the whole course of catechetical instruction.48 that is, the common faith of the church, as orally handed down in the unbroken succession of bishops from Christ and his apostles to their day, and above all as still living in the original apostolic churches, like those of Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, and Rome. Tradition is thus intimately connected with the primitive episcopate. The latter was the vehicle of the former, and both were looked upon as bulwarks against heresy.

Irenaeus confronts the secret tradition of the Gnostics with the open and unadulterated tradition of the catholic church, and points to all churches, but particularly to Rome, as the visible centre of the unity of doctrine. All who would know the truth, says he, can see in the whole church the tradition of the apostles; and we can count the bishops ordained by the apostles, and their successors down to our time, who neither taught nor knew any such heresies. Then, by way of example, he cites the first twelve bishops of the Roman church from Linus to Eleutherus, as witnesses of the pure apostolic doctrine. He might conceive of a Christianity without scripture, but he could not imagine a Christianity without living tradition; and for this opinion he refers to barbarian tribes, who have the gospel, "sine charta et atramento," written in their hearts.

Tertullian finds a universal antidote for all heresy in his celebrated prescription argument, which cuts off heretics, at the outset, from every right of appeal to the holy scriptures, on the ground, that the holy scriptures arose in the church of Christ, were given to her, and only in her and by her can be rightly understood. He calls attention also here to the tangible succession, which distinguishes the catholic church from the arbitrary and ever-changing sects of heretics, and which in all the principal congregations, especially in the original sects of the apostles, reaches back without a break from bishop to bishop, to the apostles themselves, from the apostles to Christ, and from Christ to God. "Come, now," says he, in his tract on Prescription, "if you would practise inquiry to more advantage in the matter of your salvation, go through the apostolic churches, in which the very chairs of the apostles still preside, in which their own authentic letters are publicly read, uttering the voice and representing the face of every one. If Achaia is nearest, you have Corinth. If you are not far from Macedonia, you have Philippi, you have Thessalonica. If you can go to Asia, you have Ephesus. But if you live near Italy, you have Rome, whence also we [of the African church] derive our origin. How happy is the church, to which the apostles poured out their whole doctrine with their blood," etc.

To estimate the weight of this argument, we must remember that these fathers still stood comparatively very near the apostolic age, and that the succession of bishops in the oldest churches could be demonstrated by the living memory of two or three generations. Irenaeus in fact, had been acquainted in his youth with Polycarp, a disciple of St. John. But for this very reason we must guard against overrating this testimony, and employing it in behalf of traditions of later origin, not grounded in the scriptures.

Nor can we suppose that those fathers ever thought of a blind and slavish subjection of private judgment to ecclesiastical authority, and to the decision of the bishops of the apostolic mother churches. The same Irenaeus frankly opposed the Roman bishop Victor. Tertullian, though he continued essentially orthodox, contested various points with the catholic church from his later Montanistic position, and laid down, though at first only in respect to a conventional custom—the veiling of virgins—the genuine Protestant principle, that the thing to be regarded, especially in matters of religion, is not custom but truth.949949    "Christus veritatem se, non consuetudinem cognominavit .... Haereses non tam novitas quam veritas revincit. Quodcunque adversus veritatem sapit hoc erit haeresis, etiam vetus consuetudo."De Virg. vel. c. 1.49 His pupil, Cyprian, with whom biblical and catholic were almost interchangeable terms, protested earnestly against the Roman theory of the validity of heretical baptism, and in this controversy declared, in exact accordance with Tertullian, that custom without truth was only time-honored error.950950    "Cosuetudo sine veritate vetustas erroris est."Ep. 74 (contra Stephanum), c. 9.50 The Alexandrians freely fostered all sorts of peculiar views, which were afterwards rejected as heretical; and though the παράδοσις ἀποστολική plays a prominent part with them, yet this and similar expressions have in their language a different sense, sometimes meaning simply the holy scriptures. So, for example, in the well-known passage of Clement: "As if one should be changed from a man to a beast after the manner of one charmed by Circe; so a man ceases to be God’s and to continue faithful to the Lord, when he sets himself up against the church tradition, and flies off to positions of human caprice."

In the substance of its doctrine this apostolic tradition agrees with the holy scriptures, and though derived, as to its form, from the oral preaching of the apostles, is really, as to its contents, one and the same with there apostolic writings. In this view the apparent contradictions of the earlier fathers, in ascribing the highest authority to both scripture and tradition in matters of faith, resolve themselves. It is one and the same gospel which the apostles preached with their lips, and then laid down in their writings, and which the church faithfully hands down by word and writing from one generation to another..951951    So Paul uses the word παράδοσις, 2 Thess. 2:15: " hold the tradition, which ye were taught, whether by word (διὰ λόγου), or by epistle of ours (δι’ ἐπιστολῆς ἡμων) Comp. 3: 6 (κατὰ τὴν παράδοσιν ἣν παρελάβετε παρ’ ἡμων); 1 Cor. 11:2. In all other passages, however, where the word παράδοσις, traditio, occurs, it is used in an unfavorable sense of extra-scriptural teaching, especially that of the Pharisees. Comp. Matt. 15:2, 6; Mark 7:3, 5, 9, 13; Gal. 1:14; Col. 2:8. The Reformers attached the same censure to the mediaeval tradition of the Roman church, which obscured and virtually set aside the written word of God.51



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