Here’s how I’ve got it figured —
1. Yes, Paul certainly created a body of oral teaching. So did Jesus, who wrote nothing for us himself. Rather, he left it to his apostles to remember and write down his teachings.
2. The New Testament, as we know it, wasn’t available as a compiled work for generations after the apostles. Some congregations would have had some of the books, but in the early years, none had them all. The Synoptic Gospels were likely not written until around 60 AD, very late in the life of the apostles who were still living.
3. Therefore, there was a time when the oral teachings of Jesus and his apostles is all that the church had. These are the “traditions” which Paul mentions.
4. When Paul refers to his own teachings as “traditions,” his language is a little ironic. He is saying that his words are the true oral tradition, not the oral tradition that his Jewish readers learned from the rabbis. He is intentionally replacing the oral law with his own teachings. You see, the Jews considered the oral law as an essential supplement to the Tanakh (Hebrew BIble) —
As the Jewish Encyclopedia says,
The existence of an oral law was deduced, furthermore, from the character of the written law as well as of the other books of the Old Testament. Many of the Mosaic laws are worded very briefly, and are almost unintelligible without certain presuppositions which were assumed to be generally held; and some of the laws even contradict each other, e.g., Ex. xiii. 6 and Deut. xvi. 8 (comp. Mek., Bo, 17 [ed. Weiss, p. 25a]). If the written Torah is regarded as a complete code, it must be assumed that on certain points of some of the laws the people received instruction supplementing the Pentateuch itself, so that the written law might be put into a brief form.
In short, unlike the oral law taught by the rabbis, the “traditions” of the apostles were the true necessary supplement to the Law and the rest of the Old Testament. Yes, the Tanakh can be inscrutable without a supplemental explanation, but the true explanation — the true supplement — are the traditions of the apostles. They are what complete and explain the Tanakh! And while the oral law of the rabbis wasn’t truly binding, the tradition of the apostles, being the true tradition, is.
In very typically Pauline fashion, he was taking a concept familiar to his Jewish readers and re-interpreting it in Christian terms. The oral teachings of the rabbis were being replaced with the oral teachings of the apostles.
5. Of course, the apostles did write their teachings down. The lessons taught by Jesus are found in the Gospels. For decades these were passed along in oral form, but late in their lives, the apostles saw that their remembrances of Jesus were written. Just so, Paul wrote a massive body of epistles, including such works as Romans and Ephesians, that compile his theology and pastoral counsel in systematic form.
6. There is no evidence of consequence that there was some tradition beyond what is preserved in the New Testament. Indeed, the evidence is that many in the church found the New Testament inadequate and so invented works falsely attributed to the apostles to “fill in the blanks” and complete the silences.
The authors of these works may well have understood what they wrote to be apostolic, but that’s the nature of human institutions. We can’t help but create traditions that bind us, even when the founders never meant for that to happen. It’s human nature. And we often attribute our preferred way of doing things to the founders of our institution.
The 20th Century Churches of Christ claim that their divisive teachings can be traced back to Barton W. Stone and the Campbells, even thoough these men taught the opposite! And this was 200 or fewer years ago, with their writings well preserved and easily available! It’s human nature to just assume that what is surely right was taught by the founders.
Similarly, today it’s unthinkable to add food to the Lord’s Supper — clearly doctrinal error! — even though the early church regularly took communion as part of the love feast, combining the communion with a common meal. We attribute our refusal to eat a leg of lamb with the elements of communion to apostolic instruction. And the early church attributed their combining of communion with a meal to apostolic instruction. We like the comfort of having a rule, and since we just know the rule is right, it is surely apostolic. People like rules, because rules are easy and comfortable.
If the apostles created an oral tradition that would supplement and improve on scripture, the church failed to preserve it. And there’s precious little real evidence that it happened. Indeed, the strongest evidence is that the early church often made such things up, to defend their traditions. Just like us.
It’s unimaginable that there’d have been some sort of oral law handed down by the apostles that wasn’t preserved as a precious teaching, memorized word-for-word, and passed on generation to generation — with the help of the Holy Spirit, to make certain that this teaching would be preserved forever.
It’s inconceivable that such a body of teaching existed and that the only way we can find it is by exegeting Clement of Alexandria and Chrysostom, who wrote centuries after the apostles. Indeed, if we’d take the time to read these men, we’d quickly realize how very unlikely they are to have had access to some secret learning no longer available to us.
I don’t reckon myself an expert in the Early Church Fathers. (I’m much more interested in the scriptures!) I’ve likely overlooked some other documents that claim to be apostolic traditions. And I’m sure there are other writings where the writer mentions that what he is saying is supported by ancient apostolic tradition.
But a claim that a given tradition was taught by the apostles and preserved by the church is very suspect if the apostle didn’t make a point of having that teaching memorized and preserved for future generations. After all, that’s the way First Century Jews preserved their oral traditions.
If the apostle John wanted the Five Acts of Worship preserved for generations as a command from God Almighty, and if he didn’t want to write it down, he’d have had his disciples memorize the instructions and pass those memorized instructions on to their disciples word for word — forever. Not only was that the Jewish way, it’s the only way that gives inspired utterances and God’s own instructions the dignity and importance they deserve.
Therefore, I remain persuaded that sola scriptura is the only theology that gives proper respect to the scriptures and the Holy Spirit’s work in preserving them. The scriptures are true, inspired, and sufficient. And one reason we know that is the Spirit has preserved them for us across 2,000 years of persecution and corruption. And so I reject the theory that the apostles left anything unwritten to supplement the scriptures — because the Spirit did not preserve an oral tradition for us. And the fact that many early Christians falsely claim to have had such an oral tradition demonstrates just how easily that false claim was made in those days. Such claims carry no weight.
Therefore, the historical argument — that the necessity of a cappella singing is shown by history — carries no weight. It’s interesting to ponder whether the early church really was a cappella, and if so, why. But the Bible stands on its own entirely sufficient feet. The apostles wrote what the Spirit intended to have preserved. The scriptures are enough. And if the argument can’t be won from the pages of the Bible, it can’t be won.