The Bible Alone? That’s Not What the Bible Says

Dave Armstrong

Dave Armstrong is a full-time Catholic author and apologist, who has been actively proclaiming and defending Christianity since 1981. He was received into the Catholic Church in 1991. His website/blog, Biblical Evidence for Catholicism, has been online since March 1997. He also maintains a popular Facebook page. Dave has been happily married to his wife Judy since October 1984. They have three sons and a daughter (all homeschooled) and reside in southeast Michigan.

The Bible, Tradition, and the Church make up the “three-legged stool” of the apostolic faith.

Jan Lievens, “The Apostle Paul,” c. 1628
Jan Lievens, “The Apostle Paul,” c. 1628 (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

To my great delight (Psalm 119:162; Jeremiah 15:16), after 30 years of Catholic apologetics, I’ve discovered in the Bible some significant additional insights regarding apostolic tradition. Sometimes we miss things that have been right in front of us all along. 

  • 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2, 5 (RSV)Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, [2] not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. … [5] Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you this?

What’s striking — especially in context — is Paul’s free and easy equation of the authority and trustworthiness of oral teaching alongside written. He clearly asserts the authority of his epistle (and by implication, all his epistles), in 2:15 and also 3:14: “If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed” (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:27; Colossians 4:16). But he also gives his oral word the same authority (in 2:13 and 2:2, 5; cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Timothy 1:13-14; 2:2). 

  • 1 Thessalonians 3:2-4 and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s servant in the gospel of Christ, to establish you in your faith and to exhort you, [3] that no one be moved by these afflictions. You yourselves know that this is to be our lot. [4] For when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction; just as it has come to pass, and as you know.

This is a fascinating equation of written and oral teaching. The teaching (that Christians were to fully expect afflictions and sufferings) is in writing as part of this epistle. But note that it was also authoritatively proclaimed orally by Paul (“beforehand”) and also by Timothy (“exhort[ed] you”). Thus, in three verses Paul provides proof of “equal” oral and written proclamation of the same teaching. The logical conclusion is that he sees no difference in authority, whether a teaching comes through oral proclamation or tradition, or the written medium.

In other words, it’s the Catholic understanding of the rule of faith, whereby tradition (including oral tradition) and writing in what was to be understood (later) as Scripture have the same authority and binding nature. The Thessalonians were just as bound by the teaching when Paul spoke it to them and Timothy further exhorted them, as when they received Paul’s letter.

  • 1 Thessalonians 2:13 And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.

What the Thessalonians “heard” was not only the true gospel and accompanying Christian teachings, but indeed, the very “word of God.” It’s hard to imagine a stronger statement of the veracity and trustworthiness of oral tradition.

  • 2 Timothy 2:2 and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

Here Timothy receives oral traditions and passes them on to others (orally or, if in writing, not inspired writing like Scripture), who in turn teach yet more people. Conclusion: oral tradition has the same authority as written/scriptural tradition. Otherwise, Paul would have to restrict such things, passed on in turn to others, to what was in his epistles only. But he never does that. He tells Timothy (in inspired Scripture) to “entrust” his oral teaching to others to in turn pass on. He refers to his epistles in a “non-exclusive” way that doesn’t rule out oral teachings alongside them. 

  • Ephesians 1:13 … you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation . . . (cf. 3:2; 4:21)
  • Philippians 4:9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.
  • Colossians 1:23 … not shifting from the hope of the gospel which you heard, … (cf. 1:5-6)

These are many instances of hearing the oral tradition, or gospel (which are essentially synonymous in the New Testament and especially in St. Paul’s usage). The Philippians were bound to “do” not only what they learned from Paul’s letters, but also what they heard him orally teach (Philippians 4:9) or proclaim (1 Corinthians 2:1, 4, 13). Oral tradition or proclamation was “the word of [the] truth” (Ephesians 1:13; Colossians 1:5) and a form of the “gospel” (Ephesians 1:13; Colossians 1:5, 23).

St.  Luke (Acts 15:22-23, 27-32, 35; 16:4), in a Paul-related portion of Acts, also shows the same outlook: equality of authority whether something is taught orally or through a letter.  This had to do with the decision of the Jerusalem Council, which decreed a teaching which was binding on all churches (as seen in Acts 16:4). The teaching was delivered through a written letter (15:23; 30-31; cf. 16:4). Note that the decision was determined by an assembly of apostles and other elders in the early Church and then sent out to be observed by the Church as a whole. 

What is remarkable is how the verbal proclamation is made equal to the letter itself: “Judas and Silas, . . . will tell you the same things by word of mouth” (15:27). Then reference is made to Judas and Silas exhorting and strengthening “the brethren” (15:32) and Paul and Barnabas “teaching and preaching the word of the Lord” (15:35).

There isn’t the slightest hint of a verbal oral tradition or proclamation being lesser than a written one. The entire episode is completely in accord with the Catholic understanding of the rule of faith: the “three-legged stool” of Bible-Tradition-Church.