Tradition and the Early Church

“So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” (2Thessalonians 2:15)

The transmission of the Christian faith from Jesus Christ and the apostles was dependent on the traditions in the Early Church of the Apostolic Age and the formation of the Canon of the New Testament of the Bible.

The Apostolic Age in the history of Christianity is the period of the Twelve Apostles, dating from the Commission of the apostles by the risen Jesus Christ in Jerusalem around 33 AD until the death of the last apostle, believed to be John the apostle in Anatolia 100 AD.

The word tradition in Greek is “Paradosis” which mean handing over or delivering a thing by hand. Thus, the word tradition does not mean ‘limitation of the past,” but it means biblically, delivering a deposit and receiving it.

Tradition includes all the teachings and religious rituals that the apostles gave to their successors orally through discipleship and Christian life day by day. All these teachings and rituals were transmitted generation after generation without any addition or deletion till the present day.

Tradition in the Apostolic Age

The heart of Christian tradition and the Christian way of life is Jesus Christ. The Church is the Body of Christ (Ephesians 5:23, Colossians 1:24) and provides continuity for the Word of God.

Christ did not deliver His disciples and apostles a written document, but rather He prepared them to follow Him and to accept Him dwelling within their hearts. Christ’s life, teaching and miracles formed the faith of his Apostles and disciples, and inspired them to hand on his message of salvation to future generations.

The apostles revealed that one of the sources of the authority of their apostleship is that tradition which they had received through their discipleship to Jesus Christ. They preached as eyewitnesses to the events of Christ’s life and His saving deeds.

Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper and directed his Twelve Apostles (Luke 22:19) to “Do this in memory of me.” The oral tradition of the Church included also the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism and the Apostles’ Creed.

St. John states, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…” John 1:1.

In the Apostolic Age, the New Testament books were already in existence, but these were not yet canonized officially. During the Apostolic Age, the Christian faith was transmitted by word of mouth (Romans 10:14-15). Tradition was the only source of Christian faith, doctrines and worship.

The Holy Spirit appeared at Pentecost and inspired the apostles to proclaim the faith (Acts 1:13-2:4). Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit the message of salvation was committed to the written world. It is believed that the first Christian Letters were composed by St. Paul in the mid-first century AD.

St. Paul said to his disciple St. Timothy: “and the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2Timothy 2:2)

Although the books of the New Testament were not canonized until the middle of the second century, yet through tradition, the Fathers of the Church accepted them as the inspired word of God, and many quotations were used in their writings.

When the Church was born the books of The Old Testament were already extant in use and the early Christians, on the authority of Christ and His apostles received these Scriptures from the Jews and treated them as the inspired and authoritative word of God.

Through tradition the Fathers of the Church conceived the unity of the Holy Scriptures between the Old and the New Testaments, as the one and the same word of God. The Church Fathers had an important role in the process of the formation of the canon of the New Testament, as well as the interpretation of Scripture.

St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote seven Letters in 110 AD on the road to martyrdom in Rome encouraging them to commit themselves to the traditions of the apostles and was one of the first to distinguish between the writings of the prophets and the Gospel; he often referred to the sayings of Matthew. A disciple of the Apostle John, St. Polycarp became the Bishop of Smyrna in the second century AD and quoted the writings of Peter, Paul, and John. He commanded the Philippians to commit themselves to the traditions of the apostles against the heretics.

The tradition that the apostles received from Christ and was deposited unto the Church was in its essence “the unity with God in Christ by the Holy Spirit.” In other words, the apostolic tradition was not a static deposit, but it bears within itself the continuity of the Pentecost in the Church as a whole and in every living member.