"Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?...in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men." - Jesus Christ (Matthew 15:3, 15:9)
"both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal feelings of devotion and reverence" - Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation", no. 9
Catholic apologists often cite oral tradition to support Catholic doctrines that aren't found in the Bible. The Catholic Church maintains that the first generation of Christians didn't record in the New Testament all that God had revealed to them, so that the revelations not recorded in scripture were passed on by some other means, exclusively through the Roman Catholic Church. The question, of course, isn't whether some apostolic teachings may not have been recorded in scripture. Obviously, some teachings may not have been recorded in the New Testament. That's a possibility. A possibility isn't enough, though. There must be compelling evidence that a tradition not recorded in the New Testament was actually taught by the apostles, if that tradition is to be placed on equal ground with scripture in terms of authority. What must be asked, then, is whether what the Catholic Church teaches today as "apostolic tradition" can actually be traced back to the apostles.
Is the Catholic Church resting on the firm historical ground on which it claims to be resting? Contrary to some misleading quoting of church fathers and a lot of history revision on the part of Catholic apologists, the doctrines that are unique to the Roman Catholic Church not only contradict scripture, but also contradict what many of the early church fathers believed. The historical record is at odds with what the Catholic Church teaches. The Catholic Church doesn't represent historic Christianity, as instituted by Jesus and the apostles. Catholicism is a false religion that came into being centuries after the time of Christ and the apostles, and has only gotten more heretical with the passing of time.
When the beliefs of the earliest church fathers are examined, what's found is much closer to evangelical beliefs than Catholic beliefs. Even among the later church fathers, who might be considered closer to Catholicism, there are a lot of differences between what those church fathers believed and what the Roman Catholic Church teaches.
On some issues, there is no unanimous consent among the church fathers. One example is the eucharist. Although the Catholic view of the eucharist didn't arise until centuries after the time of Christ and the apostles, there were conflicting views of the eucharist held by different church fathers, including ones that were similar to the Catholic view in some ways. Some church fathers seem to have believed in consubstantiation. Others seem to have held the spiritual view of the eucharist or the symbolic view. So the eucharist is an example of an issue over which there was widespread disagreement.
The church fathers often disagreed with one another, and some of them held views that were similar to what the Catholic Church teaches. But their views on some of the most controversial issues today (salvation, church government, Marian doctrine, etc.) were non-Catholic. It was only after centuries of gradual departure from what Jesus and the apostles taught that the Catholic Church came into being, and went on to become a major religious and political force. Even in the early years of what could be considered "the Roman Catholic Church", however, there was some adherence to Biblical doctrines that the Catholic Church has since abandoned. For example, Leo I, one of the earliest Roman bishops who could possibly be identified as a Pope, denied the Immaculate Conception of Mary by teaching that Christ alone was so conceived.
Before examining the beliefs of the early church fathers that contradict Catholicism, it should be emphasized that the ultimate authority on all of these issues is the Bible. If every church father was to hold one belief, and scripture would teach the opposite, the teaching of scripture would hold more authority than all of the church fathers combined. Many of the early church fathers would agree with that standard, as will be demonstrated in the section below on sola scriptura.
The intent of this article isn't to suggest that the early church fathers are as authoritative as the Bible, but rather to demonstrate that even in the territory the Catholic Church claims as its stronghold (post-apostolic tradition), Catholicism fails to live up to its claims. Not only does the Bible stand in condemnation of the Roman Catholic Church, but the early church fathers do as well.
If there's any one doctrine that makes or breaks the Catholic Church's claims to authority, that doctrine is the papacy. All of the Catholic Church's claims to authority rest on its interpretations of a few passages of scripture, primarily Matthew 16:18-19, in which Christ tells Peter that the Christian church will be built on a rock. The Roman Catholic Church claims that the rock is Peter, and that Jesus was therefore establishing Peter, and future bishops of Rome as the successors to Peter, as the leader of a worldwide denomination. Not only does the Catholic Church claim that Matthew 16 establishes the papacy, but it also claims that the early church fathers believed the same. Obviously, if one man and his successors had been set up as leader of a worldwide denomination, and Matthew 16 established that leadership role, every church father should have acknowledged such a fundamental doctrine. Was this interpretation of scripture, on which all of the Catholic Church's claims to authority rest, held by the early church fathers?
The answer is "no". Many of the church fathers interpreted the rock in Matthew 16:18 as Christ Himself, Peter's confession of Christ, or something else other than Peter and a succession of Roman bishops. Even the fathers who interpreted the rock as Peter generally saw Peter fulfilling that role by playing an influential historical role in establishing the church, not by having universal jurisdiction as a Pope who then passed that authority on to a succession of Roman bishops. They didn't apply Matthew 16:18 to the bishops of Rome as exclusive papal successors to Peter, but rather to Peter himself, to all Christians, or to more than one bishop, for example. The Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16:18, which has Jesus establishing a papacy through Peter and the bishops of Rome, didn't even become a consistent minority interpretation until hundreds of years after the time of Christ and the apostles.
Some church fathers, such as Jerome and Augustine, even changed their interpretation of Matthew 16:18 from time to time. This was a passage considered to be open to multiple interpretations, with the interpretation of "rock" not considered a matter of much importance. Obviously, the early church didn't see this passage as the foundation for a papal office. Origen, commenting on Matthew 16 early in the third century, reflects the early church's ignorance of the papal interpretation of the passage:
And if we too have said like Peter, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God," not as if flesh and blood had revealed it unto us, but by light from the Father in heaven having shone in our heart, we become a Peter, and to us there might be said by the Word, "Thou art Peter," etc. For a rock is every disciple of Christ of whom those drank who drank of the spiritual rock which followed them, and upon every such rock is built every word of the church, add the polity in accordance with it; for in each of the perfect, who have the combination of words and deeds and thoughts which fill up the blessedness, is the church built by God. But if you suppose that upon that one Peter only the whole church is built by God, what would you say about John the son of thunder or each one of the Apostles? Shall we otherwise dare to say, that against Peter in particular the gates of Hades shall not prevail, but that they shall prevail against the other Apostles and the perfect? Does not the saying previously made, "The gates of Hades shall not prevail against it," hold in regard to all and in the case of each of them? And also the saying, "Upon this rock I will build My church"? Are the keys of the kingdom of heaven given by the Lord to Peter only, and will no other of the blessed receive them? But if this promise, "I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven," be common to the others, how shall not all the things previously spoken of, and the things which are subjoined as having been addressed to Peter, be common to them? For in this place these words seem to be addressed as to Peter only, "Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven," etc; but in the Gospel of John the Saviour having given the Holy Spirit unto the disciples by breathing upon them said, "Receive ye the Holy Spirit," etc....And if any one says this to Him, not by flesh and blood revealing it unto Him but through the Father in heaven, he will obtain the things that were spoken according to the letter of the Gospel to that Peter, but, as the spirit of the Gospel teaches, to every one who becomes such as that Peter was. (Commentary on Matthew, 12:10-11)
The Protestant historian Philip Schaff explains that although many of the church fathers held exalted views of Peter and the Roman church and its bishops, they did not believe in the doctrine of the papacy:
Augustine, it is true, unquestionably understood by the church the visible Catholic church, descended from the apostles, especially from Peter, through the succession of bishops; and according to the usage of his time he called the Roman church by eminence the sedes apostolica. But on the other hand, like Cyprian and Jerome, he lays stress upon the essential unity of the episcopate, and insists that the keys of the kingdom of heaven were committed not to a single man, but to the whole church, which Peter was only set to represent. With this view agrees the independent position of the North African church in the time of Augustine toward Rome, as we have already observed it in the case of the appeal of Apiarius, and as it appears in the Pelagian controversy, of which Augustine was the leader. This father, therefore, can at all events be cited only as a witness to the limited authority of the Roman chair. And it should also, in justice, be observed, that in his numerous writings he very rarely speaks of that authority at all, and then for the most part incidentally; showing that he attached far less importance to this matter than the Roman divines. (The Master Christian Library [Albany, Oregon: AGES Software, 1998], History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3, p. 246)
The Catholic historian Robert Eno confirms that Augustine held a non-papal view of church government:
Elsewhere I have argued in detail Augustine's views of authority in the Church and that, in my opinion, the council [not the Pope] was the primary instrument for settling controversies....
I believe that Augustine had great respect for the Roman church whose antiquity and apostolic origins made it outshine by far other churches in the West. But as with Cyprian, the African collegial and conciliar tradition was to be preferred most of the time. (The Rise of the Papacy [Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1990], p. 79)
Augustine's conviction that councils have more authority than the Roman church and its bishops is reflected in passages such as the following:
Well, let us suppose that those bishops who decided the case at Rome were not good judges; there still remained a plenary Council of the universal Church, in which these judges themselves might be put on their defense; so that, if they were convicted of mistake, their decisions might be reversed. (Letter 43:19)
Augustine considered the bishop of Rome a successor of Peter, but also considered other bishops successors of Peter. He comments on John 21:15-17:
So the Lord entrusted His sheep to us bishops [plural], because he entrusted them to Peter; if, that is, we are worthy with any part of us, even with the tips of our toes, to tread the dust of Peter's footsteps, the Lord entrusted his sheep to us [plural]. You are his sheep, we are sheep along with you, because we are Christians. I have already said, we are fed and we feed. (Sermon 296:13)
The Catholic historian Klaus Schatz explains that the Roman church's earliest attempts to broaden its influence among other churches failed. Regarding a eucharistic controversy of the second century and a baptismal controversy of the third century, Schatz writes:
Rome did not succeed in maintaining its position against the contrary opinion and praxis of a significant portion of the Church. The two most important controversies of this type were the disputes over the feast of Easter and heretical baptism. Each marks a stage in Romes sense of authority and at the same time reveals the initial resistance of other churches to the Roman claim. (Papal Primacy [Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1996], p. 11)
The Rule of Faith
The Roman Catholic Church claims that "both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal feelings of devotion and reverence" (Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation", no. 9). According to the Catholic Church, not all authoritative teachings of the apostles were recorded in the Bible. Therefore, those traditions not recorded in the Bible were handed down by other means, exclusively through the Roman Catholic Church. Evangelicals, however, maintain that the New Testament represents the only material that can conclusively be traced back to the apostles, thus making scripture the Christian rule of faith. This concept of scripture being the ultimate standard is known as "sola scriptura". Catholic apologists often claim that the concept of sola scriptura was created during the Protestant Reformation or shortly before the Reformation.
As with the issue of the papacy, however, an examination of what the church fathers taught about the authority of scripture reveals that many of them disagreed with the Roman Catholic Church. The Bible, like these church fathers, always refers to scripture positively, while most New Testament references to tradition are negative (Matthew 15:3, Colossians 2:8, Galatians 1:14, etc.). While many church fathers did refer to tradition as authoritative, they generally were not referring to doctrines not found in the Bible, but rather were referring to what the apostles taught as a whole as the tradition of the apostles. With that sort of tradition evangelicals have no problem. The question is always whether any given tradition can actually be traced back to the apostles. Since the New Testament represents the only material that can conclusively be traced back to the apostles, evangelicals adhere to sola scriptura. And when disputes arose in the early church, the church fathers often argued for sola scriptura as well. Some of them were more consistent than others in adhering to sola scriptura, but the concept was known and advocated long before the Reformation, regardless of how consistently. For example:
There is, brethren, one God, the knowledge of whom we gain from the Holy Scriptures, and from no other source. For just as a man if he wishes to be skilled in the wisdom of this world, will find himself unable to get at it in any other way than by mastering the dogmas of philosophers, so all of us who wish to practise piety will be unable to learn its practice from any other quarter than the oracles of God. Whatever things then the Holy Scriptures declare, at these let us look; and whatsoever things they teach these let us learn. (Hyppolitus, Against the Heresy of One Noetus, 9)
Vainly then do they run about with the pretext that they have demanded Councils for the faith's sake; for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a Council be needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers, for the Nicene Bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrines so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly, cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ announced in divine Scripture (Athanasius, De Synodis, 6)
For concerning the divine and sacred Mysteries of the Faith, we ought not to deliver even the most casual remark without the Holy Scriptures: nor be drawn aside by mere probabilities and the artifices of argument. Do not then believe me because I tell thee these things, unless thou receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of what is set forth: for this salvation, which is of our faith, is not by ingenious reasonings, but by proof from the Holy Scriptures. (Cyril of Jerusalem, Lecture 4:17)
Even if nobody had advocated sola scriptura during the earliest centuries of Christianity, the fact would remain that nobody advocated the Roman Catholic rule of faith either. Some of the church fathers referred to "tradition", but they defined that "tradition" differently than the Catholic Church defines the term. In the early centuries, there was no one rule of faith that everybody followed. Sometimes sola scriptura was advocated, and sometimes a combination between scripture and something else was advocated. Nobody, however, adhered to the Roman Catholic rule of faith, with a Pope and a Roman Catholic magisterium that interprets scripture for everybody and tells them which non-scriptural traditions to believe in.
The apostle Paul wrote the book of Galatians to condemn the adding of works to the gospel. In Galatians 1:8-9, Paul goes as far as to say that those who preach any gospel of works are accursed. The Catholic Church has had more than a thousand years to add more works to the gospel than the false gospel preachers of Paul's day probably ever imagined. Over the centuries, Roman Catholicism has said that everything from membership in the Roman Catholic Church to obeying the Pope to participating in Catholic sacraments is required for salvation. The Council of Trent anathematized anybody who believes that he's saved through faith in Christ alone:
If anyone says that the faith which justifies is nothing else but trust in the divine mercy, which pardons sins because of Christ; or that it is that trust alone by which we are justified: let him be anathema. (session 6, "Decree on Justification", canon 12)
There are a number of Biblical passages that contradict this teaching of the Catholic Church (Luke 18:10-14, 1 Timothy 1:15-16, Titus 3:5). Some of the church fathers also contradicted the Roman Catholic view of salvation. Clement of Rome, for example, wrote:
And so we, having been called through His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety or works which we wrought in holiness of heart, but through faith, whereby Almighty God justified all men that have been from the beginning; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. (First Clement, 32)
Clement goes on, in the next chapter, to encourage his readers to do the works he just excluded from the gospel. Therefore, Catholic apologists can't argue that Clement was only excluding bad, faithless, or graceless works in chapter 32. Clement was excluding all works, including good works.
Mathetes wrote a document in defense of Christianity about 50 to 100 years after the time of the apostles. He also advocated a view of salvation much closer to evangelicalism than Roman Catholicism. Notice the exclusion of works and the belief in the substitutionary righteousness of Christ:
As long then as the former time endured, He permitted us to be borne along by unruly impulses, being drawn away by the desire of pleasure and various lusts. This was not that He at all delighted in our sins, but that He simply endured them; nor that He approved the time of working iniquity which then was, but that He sought to form a mind conscious of righteousness, so that being convinced in that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works, it should now, through the kindness of God, be vouchsafed to us; and having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God, we might through the power of God be made able. But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors! (The Epistle to Diognetus, 9)
While most of the church fathers advocated some form of salvation through works, not all of them did. And among those who did, none advocated the Roman Catholic form of salvation through works. Roman Catholic concepts such as numbering the sacraments at seven and Mary being dispenser of all grace were unknown to the earliest Christians. There are some similarities between the church fathers' beliefs about salvation and those of the Roman Catholic Church, but there also are some differences. The church fathers didn't even agree among themselves about salvational doctrine. They held contradictory views on baptism, infant salvation, penance, the sacraments, predestination, the atonement, etc.
The early church's view of Mary was far from the Roman Catholic view. Mary is near the forefront of modern Roman Catholicism, receiving all sorts of attention, since she's considered a perpetual virgin, sinless, the dispenser of all grace, co-redeemer, etc. The Protestant historian George Salmon observed a contrast:
Suppose, for an example, a Roman Catholic reads the Bible; how can you be sure that he will not take notice himself, or have it pointed out to him, that, whereas [Pope] Pius IX. could not write a single Encyclical in which the name of the Virgin Mary did not occupy a prominent place, we have in the Bible twenty-one Apostolic letters, and her name does not occur in one of them? (The Infallibility of the Church [London, England: John Murray, 1914], p. 123)
The church fathers gradually developed a view of Mary that was more exalted than the Biblical view, but still fell far short of the view held by modern Roman Catholicism. I have another article at this web site documenting how historically untenable the Catholic view of Mary is (http://members.aol.com/jasonte/mary.htm). I would also recommend the section on the Immaculate Conception in my article on development of doctrine (http://members.aol.com/jasonte2/develop.htm). For this article, I'll just quote two passages from John Chrysostom, one of the later and most influential of the church fathers. As you read these passages, notice his references to Mary being a sinner, and ask yourself whether a modern Roman Catholic would write such things.
Chrysostom comments on Matthew 12:46-49 (emphasis mine):
That which I was lately saying, that when virtue is wanting all things are vain, this is now also pointed out very abundantly. For I indeed was saying, that age and nature, and to dwell in the wilderness, and all such things, are alike unprofitable, where there is not a good mind; but to-day we learn in addition another thing, that even to have borne Christ in the womb, and to have brought forth that marvellous birth, hath no profit, if there be not virtue.
And this is hence especially manifest. "For while He yet talked to the people," it is said, "one told Him, Thy mother and Thy brethren seek Thee. But He saith, who is my mother, and who are my brethren?" And this He said, not as being ashamed of His mother, nor denying her that bare Him; for if He had been ashamed of her, He would not have passed through that womb; but as declaring that she hath no advantage from this, unless she do all that is required to be done. For in fact that which she had essayed to do, was of superfluous vanity; in that she wanted to show the people that she hath power and authority over her Son, imagining not as yet anything great concerning Him; whence also her unseasonable approach. See at all events both her self-confidence and theirs. Since when they ought to have gone in, and listened with the multitude; or if they were not so minded, to have waited for His bringing His discourse to an end, and then to have come near; they call Him out, and do this before all, evincing a superfluous vanity, and wishing to make it appear, that with much authority they enjoin Him. And this too the evangelist shows that he is blaming, for with this very allusion did he thus express himself, "While He yet talked to the people;" as if he should say, What? was there no other opportunity? Why, was it not possible to speak with Him in private? (Homilies on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, 44)
Regarding John 2:3-4, Chrysostom comments:
For where parents cause no impediment or hindrance in things belonging to God, it is our bounden duty to give way to them, and there is great danger in not doing so; but when they require anything unseasonably, and cause hindrance in any spiritual matter, it is unsafe to obey. And therefore He answered thus in this place, and again elsewhere, "Who is My mother, and who are My brethren?" (Matt. xii. 48), because they did not yet think rightly of Him; and she, because she had borne Him, claimed, according to the custom of other mothers, to direct Him in all things, when she ought to have reverenced and worshiped Him. This then was the reason why He answered as He did on that occassion....And so this was a reason why He rebuked her on that occasion, saying, "Woman, what have I to do with thee?" instructing her for the future not to do the like; because, though He was careful to honor His mother, yet He cared much for the salvation of her soul (Homilies on the Gospel According to St. John, 21)
A lot of other comparisons could be made between the beliefs and practices of the church fathers and those of the Roman Catholic Church. There are a lot of contradictions. For example, the earliest church fathers were premillennialists, while the Catholic Church has historically been amillennial. No church father in the earliest centuries believed in private confession of all sins to a priest. The concept that there are no less and no more than seven sacraments was unknown for centuries. Etc.
What's more important, though, is whether the Roman Catholic Church contradicts what Jesus and the apostles taught. If the Catholic Church has misled you about the church fathers, might it also have misled you about what was taught by Jesus and the apostles?
"I think it much better, then, instead of running away from this ghost of tradition which Roman Catholic controversialists dress up to frighten us with, to walk up to it, and pull it to pieces, when it is found to be a mere bogey. You say that you have other evidence as to the teaching of our Lord and His Apostles as trustworthy as the Books of the New Testament. Well, produce your evidence, and let us see what it is worth. When the question is looked at in this way it will be found that the appeal to tradition by Roman Catholics means no more than this: that there are doctrines taught by the Church of Rome which, it must be acknowledged, cannot be found in Scripture, and which she is unwilling to own that she invented, or to pretend that they were made known to her by a new revelation. It remains, then, that she must have received them by tradition. But the baselessness of this pretence appears when we come to look into the testimony of antiquity with respect to each of the peculiar doctrines of Romanism." - George Salmon, The Infallibility of the Church (London, England: John Murray, 1914), p. 133