Apostolic Tradition: Oral or Written? An Examination of 2 Thessalonians 2:15

Apostolic Tradition_Oral or Written

Thomas Cartwright
Confutation of the Rhemists’
Interpretation of 2 Thessalonians 2:15
pp. 530-534.

Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle. (2 Thessalonians 2:15)

Upon this, that the Apostle affirmeth that he gave the Thessalonians some things by word, and some things by epistle to be holden for ever: the Jesuits conclude that there are certain things not contained in Scripture as necessary to be observed as that which is contained therein. And they do not conclude it only, but do it with such triumph and trumpet blowing against us, with such insultation and lewd reproaches, as if they had won Carthage. Wherein if the reader shall find nothing but words and wind, or as it were, a childish crackling of paper shot, let him thereby learn at the least, not always to be troubled when the Jesuits cry alarm.

And first of all, mark the strength of their argument: Paul taught the Thessalonians some things by word of mouth which he taught them not in his two epistles which he wrote unto them, therefore he taught some doctrines which he wrote not. As who should say that Paul wrote no more epistles than these two? Whereby that which he taught not them in writing unto them, he taught them by writing unto others. Was it not fitting unto the wisdom of the Apostle to write rather to all the churches jointly the whole body of the doctrine of the Gospel which he preached to every one apart: than to write the whole to every church apart which he preached unto? For so should the Church have had more books than the world would have contained. In the time when the Prophets lived, it was just and dutiful that men should keep not only the writings of Moses, but also that which they received by the preaching of the Prophets: will you conclude therefore that the Jews were not bound to stay only upon the writings of the Prophets and the Law, when all the whole Canon of the Old Testament was written? If you do so, you shall not only conclude contrary to truth, but contrary to the judgment of your own pillars and grossest Papists. [1] Again, how followeth this argument, Paul wrote not all the doctrines of God unto the Thessalonians, therefore they are not all written in the Prophetical and Evangelical writings. Whereas it is plainly testified that the Old Testament containeth a perfect rule of the doctrine of salvation (2 Tim. 3:15-16; Luke 16:29-31), the New being written for a declaration of the fulfilling and further clearing of that in the Old Testament. Who would therefore use such arguments as these, but either ignorant or shameless men? Or who can be abused by them, but such as have their ears tied to believe whatsoever their teachers which they have made choice of shall say?

Secondly, if upon this that it is said, that they should as well hold that which was given by word as by writing, it followeth that something is given by word that is not given by writing. Then it followeth also that something was given of the Apostle by writing that he gave not by word. Considering that it is as well said that the traditions were given by word as by epistle. But the latter is false (considering that the Apostle taught the whole doctrine of God by word, as is granted, and may be shewed by that which he expressly testified to his preaching at Ephesus, Acts 20:20, 27) therefore also the former.

Thirdly, to cease these Jesuitical janglings about traditions, it appeareth manifestly in the Acts, what was the sum of that which Paul taught the Thessalonians by word of mouth. For there it is witnessed that Paul taught out of the Scriptures, that it behooved Christ to suffer and rise again from the dead, and that Jesus was Christ (Acts 17:3). Which goeth to the windpipe of the traditions which you establish out of this place; seeing this teaching by word, which you enlarge to the compassing in of all your unwritten verities, is there strained and brought within the territory and limits of the holy Scriptures of the Law and the Prophets. Neither ought it to seem strange that this was the sum of all which the Apostle taught at Thessalonica, where he tarried so small a while, when amongst the Corinthians (where he remained longest of any place, and consequently taught most), he sheweth that he taught nothing but Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2).

Last of all, the Apostle himself in this very place, calling whatsoever he taught by word, or writ by the name of the Gospel (2 Thes. 2:14), doth declare evidently that he taught nothing but that which is contained in Scripture. [2] Seeing the Apostle defineth the Gospel which he preached to be that which is contained in the Scriptures. But herein we are (forsooth) to blame, that where this Greek word [παραδόσεις] doth mark out things in worser part, there we translate “traditions” (Mat. 15:2-6; Mark 7:3-13; Gal. 1:14; Col. 2:8), and when it signifieth anything in the better part, there we translate “doctrines,” “ordinances” (1 Cor. 11:2), and what not, saving traditions (1 Cor. 15:3). It is true that we alter according to the circumstances of the place, especially considering that the word of “traditions,” which of itself is indifferent, as well to that which is written, as to that which is not written, hath been both of us and you appropriated to note forth only unwritten constitutions so that unless we should lead the simple reader to another sense than the Apostle’s meaning will suffer, we must needs avoid in places such as this, the word of “tradition.” 

But having no meat to feed this cause of their unwritten vanities in the Scripture, they go a foraging in the Fathers; whom (that the reader may understand how shamefully and impudently they abuse them) we will shortly set down what their judgment is of these traditions which are not contained in the Scripture.

Denys [the Areopagite], [3] the first of those that are here alleged, affirmeth in the beginning that whatsoever he would teach, should be out of “the supernatural and most holy oracles,” which your own Denys the Monk (expounding that place) interpreteth to be the holy Scriptures.

Chrysostom (the second of those which they alleged) affirmeth that every necessary thing is clear and evident in the Scriptures. [4]

Basil (the next alleged by them) affirmeth it to be a manifest revolt from the faith, either to disallow anything that is written, or to bring in anything that is not written. [5]

Jerome (the next to him) affirmeth that as we believe because we read, so we believe not because we read not: which if it be a good reason against Helvidius, it is as strong against the Pope. [6]

Augustine (another of their witnesses) affirmeth that whatsoever concerneth faith and manners is plainly contained in the Scriptures. [7]

Irenaeus utterly condemneth the heretics of his time for that they affirmed that the truth could not be learned out of the holy Scriptures unless a man knew the tradition. [8]

Tertullian saith that he honoureth the fullness of the Scriptures. Let, saith he, Hermogenes whole tout or train shew it to be written; if it be not written, let him fear that woe which is appointed for them that either add or diminish. [9]

Cyprian, expounding what the Evangelical and Apostolical tradition is, saith, it is that which is written in the Gospel, in the Acts, or in the Epistles. [10]

Origen saith that for every doctrine we must bring the sense of the Scripture to confirm that sense which we will confirm. [11]

Here we pass by Epiphanius, because (notwithstanding it were not hard to prove out of his disputations against the heresies somewhat for this purpose, yet) we see that he chose rather to use his wooden dagger of tradition against the adversaries of the truth, than to content himself with the two hand sword of God’s Word, which is able to cut asunder all the knots which any heretic at any time is able to knit, we would not (as the Papists do in the other Fathers) wrest his words against his settled and stayed judgment in other places. And how fondly he was carried away with the opinion of these traditions; the reader may thereof conjecture, that he had rather think according to unwritten tradition, that our Saviour Christ was born in a cave by the way, than according to the Scripture that he was born at Bethlehem.

To these here reckoned might be added the testimonies of Justin, Athanasius, Cyril, etc. [12] if it were not tedious to the reader, whom we would not have charged with these were it not that by this point of unwritten verities, not only a door, but broad gates are opened, not to bring in only one or two errors, as it were the shanks, but all the whole carcass of Popish religion.

Their first testimony out of Denys is depraved: for Denys meaneth that whatsoever in the Scripture is contained in that matter he handleth, the sense of it was delivered by the Apostles, and other teachers, and from them to others. Therefore he saith not that some, but whatsoever was given, not partly written and partly unwritten, but both written and unwritten—so that he meaneth that which we confess, that the same holy institutions were written and unwritten, and affirmeth that both the one and the other were according to the Scriptures.

Secondly, although he should mean as you would have him, that those things he speaketh were partly written and partly unwritten, yet he is still against you, seeing your traditions are not unwritten, but written, partly in counterfeit writers, partly in some of the Fathers; not delivered, as Denys saith, from understanding to understanding, or mouth to mouth, by a bodily speech, and yet passing all sense, but passing from paper to paper, not by word which exceedeth sense, but by conveyance of them from the books of some Fathers, without whose record of them they should have utterly fallen away.

Chrysostom (upon 2 Thes. 2) appears to be mistaken, whose meaning is that the Apostles did speak at large many things that are not particularly laid down in writing, and yet notwithstanding contained in the Scriptures, and of the same authority with that which is written. First, for that, if by Chrysostom’s words it be concluded that something was taught which is not written, it will also follow of the same words, that he esteemed somewhat written which was not taught by word of mouth. The latter whereof being too hard a judgment of him, it followeth also that the former is so. Secondly, Theophilactus (which followeth him) seemeth to deliver the same sense, saying that “they delivered their doctrine by living voice, not by epistle only”: so that his meaning is that the Apostles delivered their doctrine not only briefly by writing, but largely by speech, and both of equal authority. Last of all, if Chrysostom should mean otherwise, he should be at variance with himself, who not only in the place before cited, but otherwhere (Homily 9 upon 2 Timothy), doth most clearly and in many words declare that nothing must be taught in the Church, whether in instruction of truth, or refutation of falsehood, or etc. but the Scriptures, which (saith he) are in stead of Paul unto all ministers.

Now where you say that other Greek Schools and Commentaries do follow the same sense that you father upon Chrysostom, you betray an impudent face past all shame. For first Theodore saith, “you have for a rule of doctrine the words we delivered you, which we did both preach unto you when we were present, and wrote unto you when we were absent,” plainly and directly setting down that the Apostle wrote the same doctrine which he preached by word of mouth. Touching the place of Basil, it is answered before. Jerome followeth [13] who speaketh not of Apostolical traditions, as you pretend, but of customs and observations grounded upon some reason. And the traditions that he speaketh of are in part not observed of yourselves, as the giving of milk and honey to children new baptized, not to worship kneeling at Whitsuntide, etc. Unless you will therefore take upon you to disannul the doctrine and tradition delivered in Scripture, you cannot allow these things to be Apostolical, and of like authority with that which is written in the Scriptures: for thereof will follow that by the same authority that you have broken those, you may also break those which the Scripture commandeth to be done in baptism. That other which is nearer in words, is in matter further off: for in that epistle he speaketh only of such Apostolical traditions as are variable by time and place, which he admonisheth his friend to keep so far as they are not hurtful to faith, as whether a man should fast on the Sabbath, or receive the Supper of the Lord every day, which being done of some, were not observed of other some.

Augustine [14] is no less shamefully abused: for he speaketh there of Apostolical tradition, but not of Apostolical tradition unwritten. And when themselves are constrained to confess that the word of “tradition” containeth as well written as unwritten doctrines; it is too childish to conclude from the general to the special affirmatively as to say it is proved by Apostolical tradition, ergo by unwritten verities, or by unwritten verities only. And that it may be evident that Augustine stood upon better ground for the baptism of young infants than upon unwritten traditions, the reader consider by that he writeth in these words: “lest I should seem to handle this matter with human reason, I bring forth certain instructions out of the Gospel.” And in another place he allegeth this sentence to prove children’s baptism: “Unless a man be renewed of water and of the spirit, he cannot enter into etc.” And this is evident by his words in this place which they allege: for when he saith it were not to be believed unless it were Apostolical, if it should be restrained to unwritten traditions, it should thereof follow that we may believe nothing but unwritten verities, which is absurd; beside that of this point, in the next words he giveth a reason out of the Scriptures. And where they pretend that upon upon ground of unwritten verities only he refused the opinion of rebaptizing those which were baptized by heretical ministers, they do extremely wrong him, as one which in divers places affirmeth that it was contrary to the Scriptures which Cyprian did with his council determine in that behalf. For beside the church’s custom, and the strength of general councils, he saith [15] that there were both many and great testimonies of Scripture, and also evident reasons. Also, that it is against the commandment of God that they are baptized which have been baptized of heretics; and what commandment that is, he sheweth by name the testimonies of the Scriptures, which do not only teach, but plainly teach, that they should not be rebaptized. And in the 14th chapter of this book [6 of On Baptism] which they allege, he citeth this Scripture (John 13:10) to prove it, that he which is washed, needeth no more to be washed. So that under the word of “tradition,” Augustine must needs understand the Scriptures. And when he denieth that such things are written in the Scriptures, his meaning must needs be that there is no particular and express case wherein it is namely said that an infant was baptized, or that a Christian baptized by an heretic was not to be rebaptized.

As for the surmise of the Helvidian’s heresy against the perpetual maidenhood of the blessed mother of Christ, that it standeth upon tradition only, it hath been answered before upon Matthew 1:25. Whereunto add that Basil affirmeth, [16] that it belongeth nothing to the mystery of faith, whether she married again or remained a virgin. So that if there were nothing in Scripture to prove her perpetual maidenhood, yet the faith of God’s people (by Basil’s judgment) should not be once touched, much less shaken.

In Epiphanius’ first place, [17] he sheweth that not to marry after vow of virginity is an Apostolical tradition; and yet you pretend Scripture for it. And himself allegeth 1 Timothy 2 to prove it: wherefore it is apparent that an Apostolical tradition is not here opposed unto the doctrine of the Scriptures. In the second place, [18] asking what treatises ought to be credited, he answereth that they are to be believed as they bring right traditions, and like succession and such like. But this proveth not that there are things in tradition necessary to salvation, no more than it can prove succession to contain things necessary to salvation, not contained in tradition. Thus you see that you can win nothing to help you with, not so much as out of Epiphanius, who of all others, unless it were Clement of Alexandria, was the most traditionary Father.

Irenaeus is answered before upon Ephesians 4:13, so is Tertullian upon Galatians 4:9. Cyprian is here affirmed to be of their judgment in divers places, but they durst name non, for he is in truth an utter enemy to their unwritten traditions, as hath appeared, and further may if need were. Origen is to be understood of ecclesiastical observations only, as it appeareth by his examples which he useth of kneeling and praying toward the East. And that there is any necessity of such things, we think that the Jesuits themselves will not say. In one of them we are sure that they fault (if it be a fault) oftentimes in their Mass, where the Priest saith the most of his prayers standing bolt upright.

In the next of Denys Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, chapter 7, they go about to abuse the reader and to deceive him by taking the word “tradition”, which hath divers significations, in another sense than the author meant it. For he taketh it for that which is delivered, and yet contained in Scripture. For in the same place he saith that the minister hath learned out of the holy Scriptures the promises whereby his prayers are made, touching the reward of those that have lived godly. Whereby it is evident that he would have the prayers of the Church grounded upon promises fetched out of the Scriptures. And he saith also that the minister and the rest kissed the dead corpse, which was perfumed with oil poured upon it. And (beside that there was no anniversaries in his time) he sheweth, that those which they prayed for were in joy and saith that they were come to the end of their battles. And therefore it is clear that, although that corruption were then in the Church, yet was it without the opinion of Popish Purgatory.

Tertullian [19] Is falsified, who saith, that prayers for the dead rose of a custom, and placeth it amongst the tasting of milk and honey after baptism, which the Jesuits dare not say to have been an Apostolical tradition of the same authority with that which is taught in Scripture.

Touching Augustine, [20] he saith that mention was made of the dead; but thereof followeth not that they were prayed for, considering that it might be in the way of thanksgiving. And understanding it of prayer for them, yet as it was a foul corruption without all warrant of the Word, helping to prove and prepare the way to Antichrist, that was to come two hundred years after, so it appeareth that it was but to declare their love and Christian affection towards the dead, as in that he was praying for his mother, assureth himself that she had already that which he prayed for.

Chrysostom [21] saith indeed that it is an Apostolical tradition, but that maketh nothing for unwritten verities. For in the same place he doth the best he can to prove it out of that Scripture [2 Kings 19:34], I will protect it for David my servant’s sake.

Damascene (as hath been shewed) is not of age to bear witness in this cause. Beside that he is manifestly convinced of untruth by Jerome and Pope Gregory, who affirm that the Apostles used no other prayer in celebration of the Supper, but only the Lord’s Prayer. Hereunto we may add (say they) that the Scripture hath no authority but by tradition. They that may speak all untruth by their Pope’s good leave, may also add this blasphemy, but the contrary hath been shewed before at large. And if we had received the Scripture by tradition, yet thereof followeth not that we should receive whatsoever they will deliver as the tradition of the Apostles, no more than we are bound to believe the Jews in their Kabbalah, because we believe them in their testimony that they give of the books of the Old Testament. 

As for the twelve articles of our Creed, it hath been shewed before what place they have, and are here spoken of without a cause, seeing there is nothing said in them which is not contained and (almost) in as many words expressed in the holy Scriptures, whereas our question here is, whether there be any Apostolical traditions (not contained in Scripture) of equal authority and necessity to observe with them. Where they ask what Scripture we have to prove that nothing is to be received but that which is expressly written in Scripture, they shew themselves loath to some triflers, being none of us hold that, nor need to hold it, to cast down their hold of unwritten traditions. But if they had asked us how we prove that nothing is to be received but that which is contained in the Scriptures, and may be soundly and substantially grounded and gathered of them (which is sufficient for us in waging our battle against their traditionary doctrine) then they know that the proof thereof both by Scripture, reason, and Fathers, is such as they durst never look in the face of, but either do utterly turn back upon them, or else cowardly come behind them here and there to bite at the heel of one or two of them. 

Your last argument with two horns is crooked and striketh with neither, for if there were Apostolical tradition, yet is there no necessity of observation of them, considering that some of their orders which they gave to be observed were of ceremonies variable by time, person, and place, which may be altered. In which regard their ordinance (which is written) of not eating of blood, and things strangled, is now out of use. Secondly, if it were possible that they should be the Apostles’ traditions, which you entitle them unto, as it is not; yet would we not fear upon the word of the Apostle himself to refuse them, as those which we prove contrary to that which the Apostles have left written (Gal. 1:8). 

Your other horn, that you have those for witnesses of your traditions fetched from the Apostles which lived in their times, goreth none but yourselves. For first of all you are driven here to such straights as you can allege none but lost evidences, an evidence of your lost cause. Secondly, it is shewed already to be a foolish argument of a book written by Ignatius of Apostolical traditions, to conclude that they wrote of traditions not contained in the Scripture, when themselves are constrained to confess out of this place, that the word of Apostolical tradition is taken as well for written, as for unwritten doctrines, and so often taken in the Fathers, especially Cyprian. Secondly, if Ignatius’ book had not been lost, yet being none of those holy men which spake by inspiration (2 Peter 1:21)—as we were to respect his testimony as the testimony of a holy martyr in those things wherein he contraried not the Apostles’ writings—so we could not build our conscience upon his words, being not the words of God. How much less when we could not be assured that they should be so much as the words of Ignatius, through the manifold corruptions and falsifications that have crept in to the most worthy writers? [22]

As for that they allege of Tertullian, [23] they keep their old wont of most untrue speaking, seeing it is evident throughout the discourse of that whole book that Tertullian fighteth with the sword of God’s written word against the power of Hell in those heresies against which he dealt. And expressly taketh up the heretics, for that (under colour of our Saviour’s saying that he had many things to teach which the Apostles could not then bear away, John 16:12), they fled from the judgment of the Scriptures. In which things the Papists coming behind those old heretics in time, have notwithstanding overtaken and gone beyond them in the shameless practice of that heretical flight.


[1] Pedro de Soto on Luke 16.

[2] cf. Ambrosiaster in hunc locus, who so expoundeth it. (In Epistolam Beati Pauli Ad Thessalonicenses Secundam, Patrologia Latina 17, p. 483).

[3] Denys the Areopagite, Ecclesiastical Hierarchy chapter 1.

[4] Chrysostom in Homily 3 on 2 Thessalonians.

[5] Basil, Sermon on Faith.

[6] Jerome, Against Helvidius on the Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary (NPNF 2.6.334).

[7] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 2.9.

[8] Irenaeus, Lib. 3, cap. 2.

[9] Tertullian, Against Hermogenes.

[10] Cyprian, Epistle 73 to Pompey.

[11] Marginal citation illegible.

[12] Justin, quaest. 119; Athanasius contra Gentes; Cyril in John 12.6.

[13] Jerome, Dialogue Against the Luciferians 8; Letter 28 to Licinium.

[14] Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis 10.23; On Baptism 2.7.

[15] Augustine, On Baptism 6.4.

[16] Basil, de Nativ. Christi.

[17] Epiphanius, heres. 55.

[18] Epiphanius, ibid.

[19] Tertullian, On the Military Garland.

[20] Augustine, de cara pro mort; Confessions 9.13.

[21] Chrysostom, Letter to Philip. Hom. 5.

[22] “There are many additions in this chapter (I make no question) foisted in by such as make a practise of depraving authors of authority: some I will cut off, and other some I will but touch at.” (Joannes Ludovicus Vives (1493–1540), Commentary on Augustine, City of God 22.8, pp. 890-891). cf. The Relevance of the Church Fathers Today.

[23] Tertullian, de prescript adversus haert. Vid.


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