Sacred Oral Tradition in the Early Church


Mark J. Bonocore

In the Bible:

2 Thess 2:15: "Stand firm and hold fast to the Traditions you were taught, whether by an ORAL STATEMENT or by a letter from us."

Phil 4:9: "Keep on doing what you have learned and received and HEARD and SEEN IN ME. Then the God of peace will be with you."

1 Corinth 11:2: "I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold fast to the Traditions, just as I handed them on to you."

2 Thess 3:6: "We instruct you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who conducts himself in a disorderly way and not according to the TRADITION they received from us."

1 Peter 1:25: "...but the Word of the Lord REMAINS FOREVER. This is the Word that has been PROCLAIMED TO YOU (i.e., orally)."

In the Church Fathers:


"So forceful are these arguments that no one should henceforth seek the truth from ANY OTHER SOURCE since it would be simple to get it from THE CHURCH ....On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the things pertaining to the Church with utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the TRADITION OF TRUTH ..For how should it be if the Apostles themselves had not left us writing? Would it be necessary [in that case] to follow the course of Tradition which they handed down to those whom they committed the Churches?" (Against the Heresies 3:4:1)

"Though none others know we the disposition of our salvation, than those through whom the Gospel came to us, first heralding it, then by the will of God delivering us the Scriptures, which were to be the foundation and pillar of our faith. ...But when the heretics use Scriptures, as if they were wrong and unauthoritative, and we variable, and the truth could not be extracted from them by those who were IGNORANT OF TRADITION. And when we challenge them in turn with that TRADITION, which is FROM THE APOSTLES, which is guarded by the succession of presbyters in the churches, they oppose themselves to TRADITION, saying they are wiser, not only than those presbyters but even than the Apostles! The TRADITION OF THE APOSTLESmanifested, on the contrary, in the whole world, is open in every church to all who seeks the truth ...And since it is a long matter in a work like this to enumerate these successions, we will confute them by pointing to the TRADITION of the greatest and most ancient and universally-known Church founded and constituted at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul, aTRADITION which she has had and a faith which she proclaims to all men FROM THOSE APOSTLES." (Against the Heresies 3:1-3)

"It comes to this, therefore, these men do not consent to either Scripture nor TRADITION." (Against the Heresies 3:2:2).


"We do not take our scriptural teaching from the parables but we interpret the parables according to our teaching." (Purity 9:1)

"For this reason we should not appeal merely to the Scriptures nor fight our battle on ground where victory is either impossible or uncertain or improbable. For a resort to the Scriptures would but result in placing both parties on an equal footing, whereas the natural order of procedure requires one question to be asked first, which is the only one now that should be discussed. 'Who are the guardians of the real faith? To whom do the Scriptures belong? By whom and through whom and when and to whom was the committed the doctrine that makes us Christians? For wherever the truth of Christian doctrine and faith clearly abide, there will be also the true Scriptures and the true interpretations and all the true Christian traditions." (On Prescription Against the Heretics 36)

ORIGEN (c. 220):

"Although there are many who believe that they themselves hold to the teachings of Christ, there are yet some among them who think differently from their predecessors. The teaching of the Church has indeed been handed down through an order of succession from the Apostles and remains in the churches even to the present time. That alone is to be believed as the truth which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and Apostolic Tradition" (The Fundamental Doctrines 1:2 [A.D. 225]).


"But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep only that which is now delivered to you BY THE CHURCH, and which has been built up strongly out of the Scriptures." (Cat V:12)

Which Scriptures? These:

"Learn also diligently FROM THE CHURCH what are the books of the Old Testament and what are the books of the New." (Cat IV:33)

Note: St. Cyril is referring to the local church since, in his day, different city-churches recognized different Scriptural canons. And the very fact that he needs to tell his new converts this shows that the Biblical canon was not yet universally established.


"Wherefore, keep yourselves all the more untainted by them (the Arians), and observe the TRADITIONS of the fathers, and chiefly the holy faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, which you have learned from the Scripture, and which you have often been put in mind by me." (Athanasius' "Life of Anthony" NPNF Vol IV 2nd Series).

ST. ATHANASIUS (c. 330-370):

"Let them (the Arians) tell us from what teacher, or from what TRADITION, they derived those notions concerning the Savior." (De Decr 13)

"For what OUR FATHERS have DELIVERED, this is true doctrine; and this is truly the token of doctors, to confess the SAME THING with each other, and to vary neither from themselves nor from their fathers; whereas they who do not have this character are not to be called true doctors." (De Decr 4)

"Laying down their PRIVATE impiety as some sort of rule, they (the Arians) wrest all the Divine oracles (the Scriptures) into accordance with it." (Orat 1, 52)

"Had they dwelt on these thoughts and recognized the ECCLESIASTICAL (i.e., Church) scope as an ANCHOR for the Faith, they would not have made shipwreck of the faith." (Orat 3, 58)


"Of the dogmas and messages preserved in the Church, some we possess from written teaching and others we receive from the Tradition of the Apostles, handed on to us in mystery (i.e., Sacrament; the Liturgy of the Mass). . In respect to piety both are of the same force. No one will contradict any of these, no one, at any rate, who is even moderately versed in matters ecclesiastical. Indeed, were we to try to reject unwritten customs as having no great authority, we would unwittingly injure the Gospel in its vitals; or rather, we would reduce [Christian] message to a mere term." (The Holy Spirit 27:66 [A.D. 375]).


"I desire to learn what is the fashion of innovation in things concerning the Church. But since our faith has been proclaimed both in writing AND WITHOUT WRITING, here and in distant parts, in times of danger and of safety, how is it that some make such attempts and others keep silent?" (Ep 101).

"It suffices for proof of our statement that we have a TRADITION coming down from the fathers, an inheritance as it were, by succession FROM THE APOSTLES through the saints who came after them (Against Eunomius 4, 6 on Christ's nature).


"It is needful also to make use of Tradition, for not everything can be gotten from Sacred Scripture. The holy Apostles handed down some things in the Scriptures, other things in Tradition." (Medicine Chest Against All Heresies 61:6 [A.D. 375]).


" 'Stand firm and hold fast to the Traditions you were taught, whether by an oral statement or by a letter' (2 Thess 2:15). Hence it is manifest that they did not deliver all things by Epistle, but manythings UNWRITTEN, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore, let us think the TRADITION of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a Tradition, seek no farther." (Commentary on 2nd Thessalonians NPNF 13:390).


"Those which we keep, not as being written, but as from TRADITION, if observed by the whole of Christendom, are thereby understood to be committed to us BY THE APOSTLESthemselves or plenary Councils, and to be retained as instituted." (Ep 118).

"But in regard to those observances which we carefully attend and which the whole world keeps, and which derive not from Scripture but from Tradition, we are given to understand that they are recommended and ordained to be kept, either by the Apostles themselves or by plenary [ecumenical] councils, the authority of which is quite vital in the Church" (Letter to Januarius [A.D. 400]).

"And if anyone seek for Divine authority in this matter, though what is held by the whole Church, and not as instituted by Councils, but as a matter of invariable custom, is rightly held to have beenHANDED DOWN by APOSTOLIC authority." (On Baptism 24 speaking of infant Baptism).

"[T]he custom [of not rebaptizing converts] ...may be supposed to have had its origin in Apostolic Tradition, just as there are many things which are observed by the whole Church, and therefore are fairly held to have been enjoined by the Apostles, which yet are not mentioned in their writings" (On Baptism, Against the Donatists 5:23[31] [A.D. 400]).

Mark J. Bonocore