This was originally posted as a comment somewhere else, but the thread was taken down. I thought it might be helpful as a Prima facie account of a catholic understanding of apostolic succession and tradition. It’s inadequate for its brevity; and was written ‘off the cuff.’

Bear that in mind. It is what it is, and it’s not what it doesn’t pretend to be. Being a first blush account of why the church starts where she does, it’s not an attempt to change anyone’s mind. It’s an attempt to let noncatholic Evangelicals in on how the world looks from the other side.

Foundational concerns like this get little attention. They seems so obvious. Our presuppositions get the job done. Its hard to tear our eyes away from the important tasks at hand and look down at the ladder we’re standing on; a bit scary, too. Requests that we explain how it is that we can reach the gutter that needs cleaning seem like an invitation to respond with a ‘duh.’ Catholics of all varieties feel the same inclination. Think of this as a catholic ‘duh’ moment. 🙂

Now it seems to us that if we wish to use the word ‘tradition’ as scripture uses it, then it would simply refer to teaching and stories that are handed down from one person to another. ‘Apostolic tradition’ would be authoritative; non-apostolic tradition might or might not be- depending on the context.

”Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.


For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.  But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain…” I Cor 15:3-10

Paul delivered that which he had received. This is tradition. It is also clearly authoritative. Notice that the authoritative tradition was transmitted orally- it was preached.

The authority of written apostolic tradition isn’t controversial, but the fact that authoritative tradition was often passed on through oral transmission is attested to in so many ways that it is often missed for the ubiquity.

Take the Great Commission accounts- the apostles were to be witnesses of Christ, and this would be done through the preaching of the gospel. They were to teach everything that Christ had commanded. This is ‘tradition’- the apostles passing on what they had received… and though some of these men would be used to give us the written Canon, their transmission of what Christ had commanded would primarily be accomplished, orally. The commission was to preach the gospel- not write it down. Each of the apostles was faithful to this charge, though all didn’t leave us scripture.

Something else to notice is that the apostles could be sure of passing the tradition along because Christ himself promised to be with them… until the very end of the age.

This is picked up in the Acts account, where the apostle’s continuation of Christ’s mission to the world was dependent upon them receiving his Spirit. (Act 1:6-8) The apostles would pass on that with which Christ had entrusted to them by the enablement and protection of the Holy Spirit. Authoritative Tradition is only possible because of the Holy Spirit.

While Evangelicals are accustomed to equate ‘God’s Word’ or the ‘Word of God’ with scripture, scripture itself uses it to include the oral transmission of the authoritative tradition that is effectual because of the Holy Spirit. I Thess 1:2-10 is one of many examples of this. God’s Word goes forth without dependence on the development of writing or printing technologies.

All of this receives explicit endorsement from St. Paul when he rights ‘To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. 2 Thess 2:14-15

Obviously, it would not have been needful to point out that both written and oral apostolic tradition was authoritative and binding, if all authoritative tradition could be found in one or the other.

In addition, the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Covenant (that Israel would be regathered and then the Word of the Lord would flow out from Jerusalem into the entire world) was begun in the earthly ministry of Christ. He passed the continuation of that ministry on to his apostles.

We find this being done in the Great Commission passages and the account of Pentecost, for example. This is why St. Paul speaks about being entrusted with something precious- the deposit that St. Jude mentions.

The same limiting conditions that made it necessary for Christ to hand over his mission to those whom he sent out (which is what ‘apostle’ significantly means) continues to be present for the apostles… and each and every generation thereafter… until the end of the age.

This is why we find St. Paul entrusting his authority to men like Titus and Timothy.

We are told that these men were responsible for entire geographical areas. There was no congregational election. They appointed elders; they disciplined and spoke with the apostle’s authority- because the apostle said they did. (Titus 1:5-9)

We find St. Paul telling Timothy ‘For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands,  for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.


Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God,  who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, … for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.  Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. 2 Tim 1:6-14

Notice that 1) St. Paul has been appointed an apostle and that 2) this involves being entrusted with something, and that 3) he later entrusted Timothy with it, and that 4) the content of this trust was given to Timothy orally, and that 5) Timothy was to guard it by the power of the Holy Spirit… 6) a gift that was given through the laying on of hands.

So, it seems to us that :

* Tradition is authoritative.

* Tradition is equated with the Word of God.

* The authoritative transmission of tradition is guaranteed throughout the ages by the promised presence of Christ with his church, thought the Holy Spirit.

* Tradition is transmitted both orally and through written documents.

* Christ provided for the safe transmission of this authority by appointing men who spoke with his authority.

* They in turn did the same thing with men whom they selected to speak with their (with Christ’s) authority.

All of this seems to be the situation as scripture presents it.

Church history confirms that the self-conscious passing on of the trust through the laying on of hands, continued without interruption. Wherever the gospel went- from India to the ancient British Isles- bishops went with it.

To the catholic Xian, it seems that to these obvious scriptural facts the evangelical must add a few non-biblical (in the sense of not being found in scripture) assertions. We can’t affirm these innovations because in addition to being extra-biblical, they cancel out clear biblical precedent.  Finally,  they are non-catholic.

Being both extra-biblical and non-catholic removes them from the realm of authoritative tradition.

Might be bone-headed, but that’s where I am.