New Wineskins: A Thought Experiment on Sola Scriptura and the Historical Argument, Part 2

WineskinsbannerWhat writings claim to be apostolic traditions?

There are some writings that claim to be preserved oral teachings of the apostles. For example, there is the Didache (“Teachings”), dated around 100 AD, which begins,

The Lord’s Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations.

Here are some samples —

Chapter 7. Concerning Baptism

And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Matthew 28:19 in living water. But if you have not living water, baptize into other water; and if you can not in cold, in warm. But if you have not either, pour out water thrice upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whatever others can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.

Chapter 8. Concerning Fasting and Prayer (the Lord’s Prayer)

But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites; Matthew 6:16 for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week; but fast on the fourth day and the Preparation (Friday). Neither pray as the hypocrites; but as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, thus pray: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, as in heaven, so on earth. Give us today our daily (needful) bread, and forgive us our debt as we also forgive our debtors. And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one (or, evil); for Yours is the power and the glory for ever. Thrice in the day thus pray. …

Chapter 14. Christian Assembly on the Lord’s Day

But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one that is at variance with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.

Obviously, we don’t obey all these instructions. Many are quite scriptural and very wise. Others make rules where the Bible doesn’t make rules, and seem to be contrary to the heart of the scriptures. Others take good advice and turn it into a command. Despite how very ancient the Didache is, neither Protestant nor Catholic nor Orthodox churches consider it inspired or binding, even though it fills in many blanks: how to conduct a baptism, what to pray before and after communion, when to fast, etc.

There are also the Apostolic Constitutions (ca. 400 AD), which begin —

The apostles and elders to all those who from among the Gentiles have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ; grace and peace from Almighty God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, be multiplied unto you in the acknowledgment of Him.

Sure reads like a Christian Talmud! But it teaches that it is sin to read anything other than scripture or Christian literature —

VI. Abstain from all the heathen books. For what have you to do with such foreign discourses, or laws, or false prophets, which subvert the faith of the unstable? For what defect do you find in the law of God, that you should have recourse to those heathenish fables? For if you have a mind to read history, you have the books of the Kings; if books of wisdom or poetry, you have those of the Prophets, of Job, and the Proverbs, in which you will find greater depth of sagacity than in all the heathen poets and sophisters, because these are the words of the Lord, the only wise God. If you desire something to sing, you have the Psalms; if the origin of things, you have Genesis; if laws and statutes, you have the glorious law of the Lord God. Therefore utterly abstain from all strange and diabolical books. Nay, when you read the law, think not yourself bound to observe the additional precepts; though not all of them, yet some of them. Read those barely for the sake of history, in order to the knowledge of them, and to glorify God that He has delivered you from such great and so many bonds.

Book 1, VI.

The book also urges twice-daily church attendance for both priests and laity.

LIX . When you instruct the people, O bishop, command and exhort them to come constantly to church morning and evening every day, and by no means to forsake it on any account, but to assemble together continually; neither to diminish the Church by withdrawing themselves, and causing the body of Christ to be without its member. For it is not only spoken concerning the priests, but let every one of the laity hearken to it as concerning himself, considering that it is said by the Lord: He that is not with me is against me, and he that gathers not with me scatters abroad. Do not you therefore scatter yourselves abroad, who are the members of Christ, by not assembling together, since you have Christ your head, according to His promise, present, and communicating to you.

Book 2, LIX.

And so, you see, this is clearly not a first century oral tradition preserved in the manner of the oral law.

The Third Century Didascalia Apostolorum or Teaching of the Apostles is a Syriac (Aramaic) document, claiming to reflect apostolic traditions —

1. The apostles therefore appointed: Pray ye towards the east: because, as the lightning which lightens from the east and is seen even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of man be: Matthew 24:27 that by this we might know and understand that He will appear from the east suddenly.

2. The apostles further appointed: On the first day of the week let there be service, and the reading of the Holy Scriptures, and the oblation: because on the first day of the week our Lord rose from the place of the dead and on the first day of the week He arose upon the world, and on the first day of the week He ascended up to heaven, and on the first day of the week He will appear at last with the angels of heaven.

3. The apostles further appointed: On the fourth day of the week let there be service: because on that day our Lord made the disclosure to them about His trial, and His suffering, and His crucifixion, and His death, and His resurrection; and the disciples were on account of this in sorrow.

4. The apostles further appointed: On the eve of the Sabbath, at the ninth hour, let there be service: because that which had been spoken on the fourth day of the week about the suffering of the Saviour was brought to pass on the same eve; the worlds and creatures trembling, and the luminaries in the heavens being darkened.

5. The apostles further appointed: Let there be elders and deacons, like the Levites; and subdeacons, like those who carried the vessels of the court of the sanctuary of the Lord; and an overseer, who shall likewise be the Guide of all the people, like Aaron, the head and chief of all the priests and Levites of the whole city.

6. The apostles further appointed: Celebrate the day of the Epiphany of our Saviour, which is the chief of the festivals of the Church, on the sixth day of the latter Canun, in the long number of the Greeks.

7. The apostles further appointed: Forty days before the day of the passion of our Saviour fast ye, and then celebrate the day of the passion, and the day of the resurrection: because our Lord Himself also, the Lord of the festival, fasted forty days; and Moses and Elijah, who were endued with this mystery, likewise each fasted forty days, and then were glorified.

8. The apostles further appointed: At the conclusion of all the Scriptures other let the Gospel be read, as being the seal of all the Scriptures; and let the people listen to it standing upon their feet: because it is the Gospel of the redemption of all men.

9. The apostles further appointed: At the completion of fifty days after His resurrection make ye a commemoration of His ascension to His glorious Father.

10. The apostles appointed: That, beside the Old Testament, and the Prophets, and the Gospel, and the Acts (of their exploits), nothing should be read on the pulpit in the church.

Etc. Clearly, this is not really apostolic teaching!

Indeed, many teachings of the early church attributed to apostolic tradition — an oral law of the apostles — is clearly simply not what the apostles taught. It seems that many authors chose to attribute their teachings to the apostles to give them weight, but they confused church tradition with apostolic instruction.

And so, if there is an oral tradition, it wasn’t written down — unless it was written down as scripture.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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11 Responses to New Wineskins: A Thought Experiment on Sola Scriptura and the Historical Argument, Part 2

  1. Price says:

    Jay, thanks for sharing…The inconsistencies between scripture and opinion of many within the early days of the church should give us pause when placing import upon said opinion. Is there a book which summarizes the writings of the early church fathers ??

  2. Clyde_symonette says:

    Jay:

    You nailed it!

  3. aBasnar says:

    You quoted three different documents, that claim to sum up the Apostolic Tradition, Jay, which are – in fact – quite differerent in character even among themselves.

    The Disdaskalia and the Apostolic Constitutions are from a time that many call "early catholicism" (translated from German "Frühkatholizismus") which describes a shift in the nature of church that is quite stunning, compared to the simplicity of the 2nd century churches of Christ:

    They developed a strict distiction between clergy and layity
    It was the beginning of infant baptism
    Theology became more and more important
    Sacramentalism led to lengthy debates about the validity of baptism and rebaptism …

    I would never put these three documents on one level.

    The Didache is dated by some as early as 70 or 80 AD, especially for the following reasons:

    1) Simplicity of doctrine – focus on life style (the was of life, a paraphrase of the Sermon on the Mount)
    2) The transition of leadership by Prophets and teachers to elders (as can also be seen in the NT: Older letters tend to mention only prophets and teachers as leadership; younger letters have more refernces to elders/bishops and deacons)
    3) The prominence of travelling prophets points to the beginning of Christianity

    So I think this text should be placed somewhere between 70 and 80 AD rather than 100 or later. The situation does not fit at all the clearly structured churches Ignatios of Antioch describes (around 105-110 AD), who was from a similar region.

    So much for an introduction.

    So I see the Didache as a document written most likely by teachers who knew the Apostles personally or by elders who were appointed by them. It was soon widely spread and in some areas even considered part of the canon of the NT. I know of no writer in the ECF who criticizes this document in any way. This is quite remarkable and noteworthy (considering the discussion we are all used to …).

    Recommenadtions/Commands

    I don't see the Didache as a set of rules, but as a set of regulations how to conduct church life and how to develop spiritual disciplines. It is a document to be taught to baptismal candidates as well, it focusses on "basics" for New Believers.

    The Lord's Prayer to be prayed three times a day

    It is not just what the Didache says. This practice was encouraged in all churches throughout the Empire. All Christians kept special hours of prayer (or were encouraged to keep them): This was the 3rd, the 6th and the 9th hour. We have this example not only here, but also in Clement of Alexandria's writings. Tertullian teaches the same, Cyprian and the Apostolic Constitutions and many more.

    But there is more to the story: We see the Apostles how they observed the 3rd, 6th and 9th hours (Acts 2:1 and 15 – The Spirit came when they had a meeting at the 3rd hour; Acts 3:1 – Peter and John went to prayer at the 9th hour; Acts 10:9 – Peter prayed at the 6th hour). So, praying three times a day at specific hours, was part of the spiritual life of the Apostles, which they handed down to the church by sharing their lives with them (1Cor 11:1). So, this should not come as a surprise, it is there in the Scriptures! But we tend to overlook these examples (PATTERNS!!), because no one taught us to pray that way! When we now read the Didache, we shake our heads because of their ritualistic prayer life, don't we? But I think, we miss something …

    And why the Lord's Prayer? Actually, the words of our Lord: "When you pray, say …" are straightforward (Luke 11:2). The Greek has: ??????, which is 2nd Person Pl. ind. pres. Act…. So it is perfectly allright to understand that we should also (not exclusively) use these words in our prayers. In Mat 6:9 the Lord says: "Pray then like this" – Greek: ????? ??? ???????????? ??????? – ????? means "like this" but also "thus". So even here we can accept the interpretation that it is perfectly allright (or desirable) to pray with these words.

    So the teaching of the Didache is not that odd after all, is it? But it shows us – together with so many other testimonies from the ECF – that this was the way the church helped New Believers to develop and maintain a disciplined prayer life. When I understood this and started to put it into practice, I noticed that it made a difference in my life.

    Fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays

    I think everyone noticed the reference to Luke 18:12 where the pharisee boasts before God because of his reagular fasting. What we cannot know from scripture is the fact that this was a general practice among devout Jews to fast on Mondays and Thursdays. BTW another reason why I think the Didache should be dated rather early is its closeness to Jewish practices. Christinas should choose different days for their fastings than the hypocrites, which helps them to separate themselves from a pharisaic mind set. Later the added the rememberance of Judas betraying the Lord (Wednesday) and the Lord's crucifiction (Fraiday) to these days, which is not heretical.

    Again, is that really odd? I think it is odd that Christians nowadays (especially the Protestants) don't fast! When you check on the rest of the ECF you will see, that ALL embraced fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays as a general spiritual discipline. You'll find none who says this was unnecessary or even legalistic – except maybe the Gnostics …

    Back to the sriptures we then see that Christ himself expects us to fast! "When you fast, … then don't do it as the hypocrites do it" (Mat 6:16) Of course it was about not making a show of it; but in fact: Christ expects us to fast! Why? Because the bridegroom is absent and we wait for the wedding feast (Mat 9:15) – and it was absolutely strange for everyone that His disciples did NOT fast when He was with them (Mat 9:14).

    So again: Fasting was part of the lives of the disciples after His ascension. It is not mentioned in acts or the letters; but these two texts in Matthew and the background information from Luke 18 give us enough reason to also have two regular days of fasting. We can discover this as a PATTERN for our spiritual lives in the Scriptures.

    But since no one taught us to live that way, we tend to overlook this. The ECF are unanimous on the discipline of fasting and praying at specific hours. Reading them makes us aware that there is something the NT we haven't noticed, because … because we only have the written apostolic teaching, but we lack their loves to imitate and their oral explanaitions.

    In the end, however, these two examples are absolutely a NT-teaching we should take to heart. For me both are good examples of the oral teachings of the Apostles, we can find in the ECF, but also hinted to in the NT.

    Conclusion

    It is not about the Didache alone, or a single document here or there that might seem odd to us. It is about the general practice ofthe churches of Christ that point us to genuine apostolic teachings that are sometimes only hinted to in the NT, but they are there!

    Think that through – there might be some valid reasons for other traditions as well. If we cannot trace them back to the NT we might dismiss them with a good conscience, but we should not dismess them light-heartedly.

    Alexander

  4. Anonymous says:

    Price,

    I'm sure there are many such books, but I can't make a recommendation. I'm sure others here could do so.

    Everett Ferguson's Early Christians Speak vol 1 and vol 2 are excellent but they extract what the ECFs teach on topics of particular interest to those in the Churches of Christ. The book offer no overall guidance or background, such as what we read in Danny Corbitt's work.

  5. Eric Prine says:

    I don't know if I'm just interpreting the word "tradition" in just a modern sense, but when I hear the word, I think more of a common habitual practice, not a set in stone law. What did the early Christians mean when they used that word? Is it possible that alot of the stuff you mentioned could have been practiced since the early church and they all did it for the sake of unity and structure or did they look at it as forever binding? I don't know but wondered if anyone here knew?

  6. Anonymous says:

    Eric,

    The word the ESV translates as "tradition" had a definite meaning in Jewish practice — the oral law maintained by the rabbis as, in their minds, an essential explanation of and supplement to the Old Testament.

    We think of "tradition" as a non-binding custom, but the rabbis and Jews considered the Oral Law very binding. Indeed, it was sometimes said that it was a greater sin to violate the traditions than the Torah, because the traditions were more easily understood and so there was no excuse for misunderstanding!

    It would be a mistake, therefore, to equate modern "church tradition" with the rabbinic concept of "tradition," although we sometimes really do create an oral law that is more binding than the Bible! It's just that we pretend we really are following the Bible itself, whereas the rabbis saw their traditions as authoritative in themselves.

    [quote]Without the Oral Law, the Torah would always be something separate from ourselves, as is the Written Torah. This would render the Torah something abstract and removed. But this was not G-d’s Will. G-d’s whole reason for creating the Torah was so that we could keep it – so that we could become walking Sifrei Torah. The Oral Law is therefore not a luxury. It is G-d’s way of ensuring the implementation of His plan
    http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/oral-l

    Therefore, when Paul refers to his teachings as "tradition," he really means something like "oral teachings having binding authority — just as the Jews claim for the Oral Law."

  7. Kad says:

    Wow. Compulsary attendance sure got started early.

  8. Eric Prine says:

    Thanks! That explains alot. I was having trouble following your recent articles on traditions before you mentioned this.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Alexander,

    I've just figured out how to rescue comments trapped in the spam filter at DISQUS. Evidently, two or more links triggers the spam filter, as does being too lengthy. I wish I knew the word limit, but I can't find it.

    Several of your comments from last week are now posted, but so far haven't hit the DISQUS email. They are, however, posted on the site with their original date and time.

    In the future, trapped comments should show up more quickly, now that I've learned the trick for finding and posting them.

  10. Pingback: One In Jesus » Richland Hills, Instrumental Music, and the future of the Churches of Christ: In Reply to HistoryGuy

  11. R.J. says:

    As for the instrumental debate, it is quite shocking that not one Early church father explicitly makes the heart(kardia) an instrument. Nor do they explicitly refer to Ephesians 5:19/Colossians 3:16 to back up their case for typology. If anything, they refer to the Psalms and interpret it allegorically.

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