Protestant Presupposition(s) About Holy Tradition – Right or Wrong?

Nicodemus’ Challenge to Protestants








Guest post by ‘Nicodemus’

It’s been said the Truth is latent in your presupposition. Or, that your conclusions rest, a priori, in your presuppositions. Thus, it is important to identify our presuppositions. Robert defended The Sign of The Cross via Holy Tradition – noting, “neither Scripture nor Holy Tradition fell from the sky.” So, from whence did they come?  The article he linked to on the biblical basis for Tradition is excellent and merits your careful attention. Robert then closes the article with yet another appeal to Holy Tradition. 

“…I raise this question because as Tertullian and Basil the Great pointed out the sign of the cross is not grounded in Scripture but in Tradition…To embrace Holy Tradition means giving serious consideration to the Orthodox Church’s claim to be the bearer of Holy Tradition. I close with a quote from Philosophy Professor Clark Carlton:

“There is also a great difference between claiming tradition for oneself and being claimed by tradition. I, along with Webber and the contributors to his book, was perfectly willing to claim the historic Church and the liturgy for my own understanding of Christianity. Yet, I was still in control! I, in true Protestant fashion, was judge and jury of what would and would not fit into my kind of Christianity. I was willing to claim the historic Church, but I had yet to recognize Her claim on me.”

Here, I want to challenge our Protestant friends to re-think their presuppositions about life in the early Church. What did the Apostle John, James, Peter et al. expect after the resurrection? After Pentecost? What had Jesus promised them? How had Jesus taught them? In the wisdom of God, Oral Tradition prevailed with the Apostles for decades after Pentecost – without newly printed Scripture from Christ or the Apostles. Year upon year the Apostles established Holy Tradition.

Why didn’t Jesus just write a book? Why didn’t He command His disciples to seclude themselves and immediately write The New Testament, dictating what to print on parchment scrolls? Like me, this reality has seldom occurred to most Protestants. As far as we know, Jesus only wrote once, and that in sand! The Apostles didn’t write their Gospel accounts (with many others) or letters to the Churches for at least 20 years. Nevertheless the Church thrived via Holy Spirit oral Holy Tradition.

It is hard to imagine learning or being taught other than how we’ve always been taught. Jesus taught His disciples by the spoken word, often in stories. That is, Jesus taught them orally. The Word of God was heard, His word spoken. When He left them he promised them the Holy Spirit, just as He had before in John 14 and 16, who would lead them into all Truth.

So what would the Apostles have expect to happen? They did not expect a scroll copied on parchment in letters. They expected the Holy Spirit to “teach them all truth.”  So, it is the Holy Spirit that makes Holy Tradition Holy, as the Apostles would have presupposed. Did Jesus fulfill His promised to send the Holy Spirit? Did the Holy Spirit teach the Apostles via Holy Tradition, or desert them?  (Missiologist Ralph D. Winter labeled this the “Blink-On, Blink-Off” Holy Spirit.) Again, Clark Carlton fleshes out the implications of the Church receiving Holy Tradition for us, per his reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Vindication of Tradition:

“In it Pelikan drew a distinction between the intellectual rediscovery of tradition and the existential recovery of tradition. In other words, there is a great difference between simply recognizing what has gone before and genuinely claiming it for oneself. I had discovered the Church of history, the wisdom of the Fathers, and the liturgy, but I had yet to come to grips with all that such a discovery entails.”

“…Of all my readings in this area, the writings of Fr. John Meyendorff, dean of St. Vladimir Seminary, were particularly helpful. Books such as Living Tradition and Catholicity and the Church helped me to understand that the Holy Tradition of the Church is not merely historical continuity or rootedness. It is the context in which the Church lives out Her divine life and carries out Her divine mission. Tradition is, to use Vladimir Losskys phrase, the Life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.” [my emphasis]

When I was Protestant, I admit, my presuppositions were different. I knew the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost. But soon after the Apostles died, I assumed the Holy Spirit left because their disciples quickly started getting many things wrong. After all was said and done, I assumed the Apostle were grand failures in passing on The Faith delivered to them. The Orthodox Church’s presuppositions were altogether different, and foreign to me. They assumed the Holy Spirit actually did what Christ had promised. I assumed the early Church fell quickly into Roman Catholic superstition.

So, whose presuppositions are right? No, the early church and early Church Councils, unified and dominated by the Greek Bishops (not Roman Catholics or the Pope) thrived. The first thousand years they gave us the Creeds, Trinitarian and Christological theology. It took over a thousand years before Rome split from the Orthodox Church.

Holy Tradition is what the Holy Spirit taught the Apostles. And this is what Professor Carlton submits has a claim upon all who bear the name of Christ. The Apostles’ doctrine of Act 2:42 is the same Tradition the Apostle Paul exhorted Timothy to keep and hold fast. Oral Tradition learned from the Holy Spirit, gave not only the creeds and Councils, but centuries later, settled on the canon of Holy Scripture. Christ did not leave His flock orphans. He promised the Holy Spirit to lead them into all Truth, and made good on His promise.

The presuppositions behind Holy Tradition are overpoweringly strong. Holy Tradition rests on the promise of the Savior, and the fidelity of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church. It was this mature Church that stood against the Arian, Gnostic, Nestorian heresies, and great persecution. It was the Church of strong meat, not tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine. This Holy Tradition Church “turned the world upside down.” It was the Church the Apostles delivered over to Timothy, Ignatius of Antioch, Ireneaus, and thousands of holy martyrs. And it still exist to this day, far from perfect and still full of sinners, but yet jealous to preserve the Holy Tradition inherited from the Apostles. Come and see. It’s the Orthodox Church.


  1. Enjoyed the essay.

    One thing about Christ’s writing though. Eusebius, in his History of the Church, includes the text of a letter from Jesus to the Toparch Abgar, sent in reply to Abgar’s written request for Jesus to visit and heal him. I have no idea if this letter still exists, but Eusebius reports it was in Edessa when he was composing his work. I take Eusebius’ word on this, and he was definitely an adherent to Tradition.

  2. Jason, I believe that this letter (which is only found in Eusebius) constitutes part of the pseudoepigrapha considered apocryphal even by the Orthodox. Not being an expert, I defer to others more learned to affirm or deny this. Presbytera Dr. Jeannie Constantinou offers a lot of very helpful information in her podcasts, “Search the Scriptures,” at She has several on understanding the Scriptures in which she discusses the nature of the early writings circulating during the early Church and how the canon of Scripture was formed and how other writings (even those regarded by many in the early Church as Scripture) excluded.

    1. Thank you Karen. I too defer to the experts on it. I have just not seen or heard anything specifically in reference to that. I’ll definitely own up to being wrong if that’s the case! And I have enjoyed listening to Dr. Constantinou’s podcasts periodically – of which I think she was recently on Kevin Allen’s show this past Sunday.

  3. Nicodemus, in your focus on oral vs. written Apostolic tradition, it occurred to me there is another layer of truth here that is being perhaps underemphasized. Jesus didn’t primarily teach even just by the spoken (as opposed to the written) word, but even more powerfully by Who He was, what He did, and how He did it. Every spoken word and story He told had a context (His own Person and way of relating to God and others) that could be experienced by the Apostles and members of His audience who were witnesses of this. This whole context, i.e., the very life and Spirit of Christ Himself, is what has been “traditioned” within His Church and which is evident, not only in the written record of the Church’s Scriptures, the writings of the Fathers, Conciliar decisions of its Bishops, etc., but in the very ongoing life and practices of the Church, especially as these are reflected in the lives of the Saints (past and present). I think this is implied in all you are saying, but I wanted to make it more explicit.

  4. Karen,

    You are likely more right than we imagine. All life has rich context, and it’s often helpful for us to try to place ourselves in the story, or at least on edge watching. I’ve imagined the after-the-fact conversation(s) for the men on the road to Emmaeus after Jesus left them…remembering. The Apostles must have done this several times a day as they remembered the context, inflection, mannerisms and body-language our Lord Jesus gave in context — which often communicates meaning/intent more than the words themselves. You’re on to something here that’s been neglected. Anyone know of a book or article that looks closer at this?


    1. Nicodemus, one factor that has highlighted this reality for me is the nature and importance of the Orthodox tradition of “eldership” within Orthodox monasticism. As I understand it, this is modeled after the Rabbinical tradition within Judaism that Jesus illustrates with His disciples who not only listened to His teaching every day, but lived with Him and followed Him around imitating his very way of life.

  5. Despite the doctrine of sola scriptura every Protestant group has its own tradition which tells its members what they consider correct doctrine and how to correctly interpret the Scriptures. The Lutherans have the Book of Concord. The Reformed have Calvin’s Institutes, a whole series of Confessions of Faith including the Westminster Confession and, of course, the Synod of Dort. Even the Anglicans have the 39 Articles although they do not agree on what they mean or how to apply them. They all affirm sola scriptura, but every Protestant group has felt it necessary to supplement the Scriptures with what can be considered their own traditions. In a very real sense we Orthodox are more intellectually honest than the Protestants because we admit that we follow our Tradition, while they all claim to follow only the Bible but actually follow the Bible as interpreted through their particular tradition.

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