Suffice it to say that the chief arguments of all Protestantism generally rest on the assumption that only the written texts are the Word of God, and that the Word Himself is only known from these. If this fails, then so does all of that system, since this is its sole foundation. My goal is to open the minds of readers to the error of this most foundational Protestant presupposition, and the overwhelming evidence for traditional Orthodoxy. When we consider the history of Revelation, we note that in the beginning (Gen. 1:1-3), God’s Word was spoken, and yet nothing was written down. In fact, from Adam to Moses, a period of several hundreds of years passed with the Revelations given to Noah, Abraham, Joseph and others being passed orally. At least, we have no knowledge of anything being written. So, we see that there is nothing inherently defective with oral tradition, as Calvin seems to have thought in the Institutes. If God can guide the written texts, as the Protestant will admit, then He can also guide the oral transmission as well. And, in fact, if one believes the Bible, one must affirm that from Adam to Moses the Oral Revelation was passed on faithfully and perfectly to Moses and Joshua, because this is from whence arises the origin of the written texts.
When we survey the Old Testament, we realize that the Patriarchs, all through Genesis, operated according to this infallible Oral Tradition, when God was not giving a new Revelation, of course. When Abraham built an altar, he didn’t have a book or written text to instruct him; he had the truths passed on from the time of Adam in the godly line of Seth, and whatever Revelations God spoke. He didn’t refer to “Genesis.” As an even better example, we can examine the formation of the temple worship of God based on Sacred Oral Tradition in 2 Chron. 29 as follows, concerning King Hezekiah:
“25 And he stationed the Levites in the house of the LORD with cymbals, with stringed instruments, and with harps, according to the commandment of David, of Gad the king’s seer, and of Nathan the prophet; for thus was the commandment of the LORD by His prophets. 26 The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets.”
But we have no written record of what David commanded concerning these things. Furthermore, it’s also clear that King David flourished some 250 years before the time of King Hezekiah! It might be argued that this was David’s “opinion” concerning worship, but we know that God doesn’t tolerate men’s opinions in His worship. Such is the irony of the “regulative principle.” The next chapter makes it clear that this was the Oral Word of God,
“10 So the runners passed from city to city through the country of Ephraim and Manasseh, as far as Zebulun; but they laughed at them and mocked them. 11 Nevertheless some from Asher, Manasseh, and Zebulun humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem. 12 Also the hand of God was on Judah to give them singleness of heart to obey the command of the king and the leaders, at the word of the LORD.”
Take note of this reformed regulativists: the most holy thing–the very worship of God, is here based on an Oral Tradition. Very similar to the way the Holy Church of God has handed down her Liturgies “from the commandment of God through Apostles.” Other examples can be given. When we read of the sons of the prophets in 2 Kings, for example, we know that there was a guild/school, of which Elijah and Elisha were the preeminent members. These “sons of the prophets” were all prophets and prophesied. But we do not have any record of all that they prophesied, but if they were prophets of the LORD, then they prophesied the Word infallibly. Similarly, Obadiah was a prophet, but his recorded prophetic text is only 21 verses. Do we seriously believe that when he preached (and the OT prophet functioned in many ways like a preacher), that he only read the same 21 verses day in and day out, as if OT prophets functioned in a modern, Protestant, sola scriptura fashion? Such a view strains credulity. I point all this out because Protestants often use Isaiah 8:20-21 where we are commanded to stick to “the law and the testimony.” I know, I used to use it. But the “testimony” here is precisely the Oral Tradition. Now, when I say “Oral Tradition,” it should be recognized that that Tradition can, of course, be written down, and never achieve canonical status as a book. We see that in the New Testament with The Book of Enoch. But I want to remove from opponents the idea that one can cite OT texts as proof of sola scriptura. Furthermore, how can you have sola scriptura in a period of on-going Revelation? You can’t. This is why there were Sadducees who rejected the Prophets and only believed the Torah.
We see the same principle of Sacred Tradition also exemplified in the following extra-canonical books/traditions quoted in the OT. Note particularly the fact that the books of those prophets listed must have contained infallibly true religious propositions since they were prophets of the Lord, and not false prophets:
1] Book of the wars of the Lord: “Wherefore it is said in the book of
the wars of the Lord: As he did in the Red Sea, so will he do in the
streams of Amen. The rocks of the torrents were bowed down that they
might rest in Ar, and lie down in the borders of the Moabites.”
2] Book of the just:”Then Josue spoke to the Lord, in the day that he
delivered the Amorrhite in the sight of the children of Israel, and he
said before them: Move not, O sun, toward Gabaon, nor thou, O moon,
toward the valley of Ajalon. And the sun and the moon stood still,
till the people revenged themselves of their enemies. Is not this
written in the book of the just? So the sun stood still in the midst
of heaven, and hasted not to go down the space of one day.” (Jos.
“(Also he commanded that they should teach the children of Juda the
use of the bow, as it is written in the book of the just.) And he
said: Consider, O Israel, for them that are dead, wounded on thy high
places.” (2 Kings 1:18)
3] Book of Nathan the prophet:”Now the acts of king David first and
last are written in the book of Samuel the seer, and in the book of
Nathan the prophet, and in the book of Gad the seer:” (1 Paral. 29:29)
Now the rest of the acts of Solomon first and last are written in the
words of Nathan the prophet, and in the books of Ahias the Silonite,
and in the vision of Addo the seer, against Jeroboam the son of
Nabat.(2 Paral. 9:29)
4] Book of Samuel the seer: Now the acts of king David first and last
are written in the book of Samuel the seer, and in the book of Nathan
the prophet, and in the book of Gad the seer: (1 Paral. 29:29)
5] Book of Addo the seer:”Now the rest of the acts of Solomon first
and last are written in the words of Nathan the prophet, and in the
books of Ahias the Silonite, and in the vision of Addo the seer,
against Jeroboam the son of Nabat.”(2 Paral. 9:29)
The last one is particularly revealing, in that we are told that that prophetic text contained visions of Addo the seer against Jeroboam. Thus, a true prophet is prophesying against the evil king Jeroboam, obviously from the Lord. But where is the “written law” of this incident? Note also that the undisputed OT text itself is directing one to these books as references! On the Protestant model, we would have the infallible referencing the fallible for truths about the Lord! But that is absurd. So, again we see that they did not have a sola scriptura mindset in the OT, as Josh’s use of Is. 8:20-21 mandates. All of these prophecies were still the “Word of the Lord.” Rather, the written law and the Oral Testimony of the prophets was the Word of the Lord. And, it’s because the Word is a Person, and not a book, that some of these obscure prophesies and visions have been lost. It’s because the Person of the Word came to men (Is. 2:1) and spoke what was necessary whenever and wherever He saw fit. And in His providence, He has maintained and preserved for us today what He has seen fit in both an Oral and written form.
At this point, I move to the New Testament. Is this principle continued into the New Testament, or do the arrival of the Word Incarnate and the commission of the Apostles inaugurate sola scriptura? I believe it can be shown that the OT principle carries right on through into the New. Now, this does not mean that there are any new, public revelations that bind the Church after St. John died. Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and most reformed hold that the deposit of faith was complete with the death of the last Apostle. From what conduits that Revelation is derived is where we all differ.
Our Lord Jesus, as far as we know, never wrote anything (aside from what he inscribed in the sand). Yet St. John records in John 20:
“30 And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”
And in John 21:
“25 And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.”
All those other words and actions and miracles and signs of our Lord are all infallible truths concerning Himself. And the Apostles were taught all these things, yet could not write them all down. Now surely there is an advantage to the written form, in terms of communication, but there is nothing inherently faulty with the Oral. If the Oral is inherently flawed, then Jesus would have surely written something! But, it so happens that only some of the Apostles wrote anything we know of! But they all went out teaching and preaching the deposit they had received from Jesus, which includes all that He did and said (that each particular one knew).
Opponents often cite Acts 20:27, concerning sticking only with the “full counsel of God,” which they assume means only written texts. However, this section itself functions as a powerful refutation of the Protestant tradition. St. Paul says that he taught day and night for three years in Ephesus (31)! Now, all we have from St. Paul in this regard is his letter to the Ephesians and the two to St. Timothy. Are we to imagine that he only repeated these written texts (as if that was all the Holy Spirit had to say to the Ephesians)? Was St. Paul like Obadiah in the Protestant view, only reciting his few verses day and night for three years? Of course not, and we can see in the Book of Acts that this is not Apostolic method. They preach the Word. As a side note, it is also in Acts 20:35 where we have the Oral Tradition recorded that Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” This is nowhere recorded in the Gospels. Thus, all that they taught, both Oral and Written, was the Word of God. Here, my opponent may raise an objection and say that only what the Apostles taught in written form is authoritative and inspired. But where does the NT say that? From whence does he derive that principle? In fact, it says the exact opposite. We read in St. Paul:
“For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe.” (1 Thess. 2:13)
This means the Oral preaching of the Apostles was undoubtedly infallible. Opponents are often hesitant to agree to this, but we see that St. Paul clearly claims that his oral preaching to the Thessalonians was “the Word of God.”
And to St. Timothy he writes:
“Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed to you, keep by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us.” (2 Tim. 1:13)
“1You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2 And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim. 2:1-2)
Again we see that the Oral preaching of St. Paul is commanded to be passed on to men after St. Timothy, along with the written. This is the same injunction of St. Paul used with the Thessalonians: 2 Thess. 2:15:
“Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.”
Clearly the command is for both to be passed on because both are the Word of God. St. Peter agrees:
“…having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God [a Person] which lives and abides forever, because,
“All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, and its flower falls away, but the word of the LORD endures forever. Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you.” (1 Peter 1:23-24).
Thus, St. Peter understands that the Oral preaching he did was infallible, inspired revelation from God, as much as His written texts were. James White admits this, too, in one of his debates with Matatics. Too many glaring problems arise when we propose that the Apostles could orally teach error, and were inerrant only in written texts. And clearly the infallible biblical evidence is otherwise. The same goes for St. Paul’s lost letter to the Laodiceans:
“Salute the brethren who are at Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church that is in his house. And when
this epistle shall have been read with you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans: and that you read that which is of the Laodiceans.” (Col. 4:15-16)
St. Paul would not have ordered that it be read in the church if it was not the Word of God! And yet, we do not have this text. But for a Catholic, it would be no problem if it were discovered and were identified as certainly Pauline. It wouldn’t be a new revelation, but part of the original deposit. Furthermore, if the Apostles could err in their oral teaching, they could also err in their written teaching, since their written proposition that their oral is infallible would be proven false!
How do we account for all this? The answer is that all truths and all knowledge are summed up in a Divine Person: The Logos Himself, who contains all the logoi of creation, as St. Maximus says. That is why we read in John 5:
“But you do not have His word abiding in you, because whom He sent, Him you do not believe. You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.”
The very same thing said to the Pharisees can be said with equal weight to the Protestant sola scripturist: you search the texts because you confusedly think that they are the Word, when the written texts bear witness to Him. That’s Jesus’ theory of inspiration. And that’s really as far as you can go with the idea concerning what sense the written texts are the Word. Strictly speaking, they are not. They are merely words on a page. But just like holy icons and images, they are created images which are empowered to be vehicles of Revelation for the Word Himself. And, they contain nothing erroneous. If the Protestant has no problem with me writing “God” or “Jesus,” he should have no problem with icons, since words themselves are images. And those two words are made holy by that fact.
“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His (the Word’s) sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” (Heb. 4:12)
He is a living, Divine Person, not a book. And just like it is true that someone can know about me through a letter, without knowing me personally, the Protestant is devoid of the fullness of knowledge of Christ, and is just like the Pharisees who worshipped Moses, like the Protestants do St. Paul, when, in fact, St. Paul “wrote of Him.” Even St. John expresses this fact when he writes that he would rather speak in Person as opposed to writing (3 John 13)! Why wasn’t he thinking in terms of sola scriptura?
What was it the Introduction and Epilogue of the early, regional Council of Gangra (325-381) said?
And the Epilogue:
These things we write, not to cut off those who wish to lead in the Church of God an ascetic life, according to the Scriptures; but those who carry the pretence of asceticism to superciliousness; both exalting themselves above those who live more simply, and introducing novelties contrary to the Scriptures and the ecclesiastical Canons. We do, assuredly, admire virginity accompanied by humility; and we have regard for continence, accompanied by godliness and gravity; and we praise the leaving of worldly occupations, [when it is made] with lowliness of mind; [but at the same time] we honour the holy companionship of marriage, and we do not contemn wealth enjoyed with uprightness and beneficence; and we commend plainness and frugality in apparel, [which is worn] only from attention, [and that] not over-fastidious, to the body; but dissolute and effeminate excess in dress we eschew; and we reverence the houses of God and embrace the assemblies held therein as holy and helpful, not confining religion within the houses, but reverencing every place built in the name of God; and we approve of gathering together in the Church itself for the common profit; and we bless the exceeding charities done by the brethren to the poor, according to the traditions of the Church; and, to sum up in a word, we wish that all things which have been delivered by the Holy Scriptures and the Apostolical traditions, may be observed in the Church.