Saturday, October 09, 2010

Oscar Cullmann on the relationship between oral tradition and the canon of the New Testament, part 2

Continuing from my previous post.

Slight clarification here. In the citation from Cullmann that follows, he is using the words "apostolic tradition" to describe "the sum of what the Apostles taught, both orally and in written form." He makes a distinction between "apostolic tradition," which was the definitive, eyewitness testimony of the Apostles, and what later became "ecclesiastical tradition," that is, the traditions of the church.

Cullmann is in the process of making the case that the canon of the New Testament became fixed, as a necessity, because of the damage that was being inflicted by various gnostic heresies: "oral" tradition was no longer reliable because it was becoming an admixture of too many things. The only reliable "apostolic tradition" was that which had been written down by the apostles and their associates during the lifetimes of the apostles.
By establishing the principle of a canon the Church recognized that from that time the tradition was no longer a criterion of truth. It drew a line under the apostolic tradition. It declared implicitly that from that time every subsequent tradition must be submitted to the control of the aposotlic tradition. That is, it declared: here is the tradition which constituted the Church, which forced itself upon it. Certainly the Church did not intend to thereby put an end to the continued evolution of the tradition. But by what we might all an act of humility it submitted all subsequent tradition to be elaborated by itself to the superior criterion of the apostolic tradition, codified in the Holy Scriptures.

To establish a canon is equivalent to saying this: henceforth our ecclesiastical tradition needs to be controlled; with the help of the Holy Spirit it will be controlled by the apostolic tradition fixed in writing; for we are getting to the point where we are too distant from the apostolic age to be able to guard the purity of the tradition without a superior written norm, and too distant to prevent slight legendary and other deformations creeping in, and thus being transmitted and amplified(90).
Well, while the early church understood the danger of "legendary and other deformations creeping in, thus being transmitted and amplified," it would seem that this has become the creed of the Roman Catholic Church: "We know that legendary and other deformations have crept into our dogmas, where they are transmitted and amplified. And we embrace these legendary and other deformations, and we press them on the consciences of loyal Roman Catholics."

But I digress. After some further justification of the process above: the need to fix a norm by fixing the Canon of the New Testament, Cullman notes something about the character of the Apostolic Fathers that I had noticed and have even commented on, but have not until this time been able to put it all together:
For a long time it has been noted that, apart from the letters of Ignatius, the writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers, who do not really belong to the Apostolic age but to the beginning of the second century—[1 Clement, Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas]—despite their theological interest, are to a considerable distance from New Testament thought, and to a considerable extent relapse into a moralism which ignores the notion of grace, and of the redemptive death of Christ, so central to apostolic theology. [See Torrance’s “The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers,” 1948].

It has also been noted that the Church Fathers who wrote after 150—Irenaeus and Tertullian—although chronologically more remote from the New Testament than the authors of the first half of the century, understood infinitely better the essence of the gospel. This seems paradoxical, but is explained perfectly by that most important act, the codification of the apostolic tradition in a canon, henceforward the superior norm of all tradition.

The Fathers of the first half of the century wrote at a period when the writings of the New Testament already existed, but without being vested with canonical authority, and so set apart. Therefore they did not have any norm at their disposal, and, on the other hand, and on the other hand, they were already too far distant from the apostolic age to be able to draw directly on the testimony of eye-witnesses. The encounters of Polycarp and Papias with apostolic persons could no longer guarantee a pure transmission of authentic traditions, as is proved by the extant fragments of their writings.

But after 150 contact with the apostolic age was re-established through the construction of the canon, which discarded all impure and deformed sources of information. Thus it is confirmed that, by subordinating all subsequent tradition to the canon, the Church once and for all saved its apostolic basis. It enabled its members to hear, thanks to this canon, continually afresh and throughout all the centuries to come the authentic word of the apostles, a privilege which no oral tradition, passing through Polycarp or Papias, could have assured them (96).
The written fixation of the witness of the apostles is one of the essential facts of the incarnation. The church of 150 AD consciously set about to formulate a canon, to put an end to the numerous apocryphal works that had been appearing in the first part of the second century, fueling the expansion of the different heresies.

Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger largely concur with this process, adding that first, the Apostles would have been more than familiar with the concept of covenant, the need for covenant documents. The books of Moses provided this very set of documentation. In their own era, there were, of course, the Apostles saw to o that the Gospels, and the various letters that they knew had been written. Kostenberger and Kruger then note:
Although the term “closed canon” is most commonly used to refer to fourth-century ecclesiastical decisions, there is a real sense in which the canon, in principle, was “closed” long before that time. In the Muratorian Fragment (c. 170), the very popular Shepherd of Hermas is mentioned as a book that can be read by the church but is rejected as canonical. The grounds for this rejection are due to the fact that it was written “very recently, in our own times.” In other words, the author of the fragment reflects the conviction that early Christians were not willing to accept books written in the second century or later, but had restricted themselves to books from the apostolic time period. They seemed to have understood that the apostolic phase of redemptive history was uniquely the time when canonical books were produced. [Jason Engwer has commented on this section, noting that they could have expanded this so much more than they did. See here.]

Thus, from this perspective, the canon was “closed” by the beginning of the second century. After this time (and long before Athanasius), the church was not “open” to more books, but instead was engaged in discussions about which books God had already given. In other words, due to the theological conviction of the early Christians about the foundational role of the apostles, there was a built-in sense that the canon was “closed” after the apostolic time period had ended.
Note that the books themselves carried the marks of “canonicity.” Kostenberger and Kruger cite Herman Ridderbos:
When understood in terms of the history of redemption, the canon cannot be open; in principle it must be closed. That follows directly from the unique and exclusive nature of the power of the apostles received from Christ and from the commission he gave to them to be witnesses to what they had seen and heard of the salvation he had brought. The result of this power and commission os the foundation of the church and the creation of the canon, and therefore these are naturally unrepeatable and exclusive in character.
Meanwhile, it was not the authority of “the Church” which determined the canon. In reality, as Cullmann notes, it was the decision of the church (in fixing the canon) determined that “oral tradition” was becoming too corrupted to be useful.

By establishing the principle of a canon the Church recognized that from that time the tradition was no longer a criterion of truth.


Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Thanks for part 2. I shall excerpt parts for the Oral Tradition debate over at Green Baggins.

steelikat said...

I like the article (parts 1 and 2) What I always want to tell people who argue either side of Tradition vs. Scripture is that there is an oral Tradition but it was written down (the NT) to make sure that future generations got it right.

John Bugay said...

Truth, thanks for posting that over there. It's pretty quiet there, and one imagines what's going through everyone's minds. (If the RCs there are honest with themselves, one can easily hope that they are at least beginning to re-think some things.)

Steelikat, that's something that we've always known; I think Cullmann's account ties a lot of things together for me, especially the role of the "Apostolic Fathers" and the development of "early Catholicism," both of which can be seen as corruptions entering because of the weakness of "oral tradition" as a method for holding on the truth.

Anonymous said...

He makes a distinction between "apostolic tradition," which was the definitive, eyewitness testimony of the Apostles, and what later became "ecclesiastical tradition," that is, the traditions of the church.

That sentence, John, to me, is the crux of the whole debate! For those reformed from the very days of Adam until our day, we suffer the hostilities of fallen man who want to trump God's authority by not living according to the First Commandment.

As you know from reading Dr. Fesko's book on the classic reformed doctrine of Justification, already, he writes perspicaciously that the Scriptures make the Church not the other way around.

Here we see clearly in these parts 1 and 2, your good works, the real necessity for sola scriptura because of that ability that any body of ecclesiology has inherent within them by virtue of first being of Adam's flesh and blood an ability to "twist" "twist" "twist" both what was written and or orally referred too continually about the works of Christ and the Holy Spirit in bringing forth the Church in all Her glory in every generation.

But hey, disobedience is inherited so no one has inherent an ability to "obey" the First Commandment!

In fact, some call this verse "really" "Good News" while others die adamant that they are not subject to the same futility revealed by it:

Rom 8:7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot.

When we read any historical record or testimony that clearly shows an obedience to the Faith, we know they too have been born again, of water and the Spirit!

This is that "mystery" that is no longer a mystery to those born again!

So, this whole exercise here by you of reviewing Oscar Cullmann, then publishing it hereon, is to make clear the proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom is contained in the Scriptures both old and new so those God is electing by them and after reading these parts, should "hear" and believe and repent and receive the forgiveness of sins too as Jesus foretold already would happen to God's Elect and ironically, as it is recorded in a secondary source of Scriptures about both the old and new:

Luk 24:44 Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled."
Luk 24:45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,
Luk 24:46 and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead,
Luk 24:47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
Luk 24:48 You are witnesses of these things.
Luk 24:49 And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high."

For some it is waiting for the Holy Spirit to work while for others it is waiting on the Holy Spirit to hurry up and elect, elect, elect!

In the mean time, this encouragement holds true for you too as you go about doing those prepared good works you do:

2Ti 2:3 Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.
2Ti 2:4 No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.

Constantine said...

This is fascinating, John. Thanks very much.

Not to steal your thunder, but hopefully to add to it, I note this wonderful epistle of Cyprian to the bishop of Rome circa the 3rd century. In the battle of tradition vs. Scripture, it is very clear which side Cyprian adopted.

Cyprian's use of Scripture to refute the pope

The “pope” of Rome had fallen afoul of the true Apostolic Tradition. To use your word, Roman theology had become an “admixture” of paganism and Christianity. Cyprian cites Scripture more than a dozen times in an effort to refute the “pope's” error. It certainly seems the case that “from that time the tradition was no longer a criterion of truth.”

Cyprian summed the matter up beautifully: “for custom without truth is the antiquity of error.”

I'm looking forward to your continued work, John. Thanks for letting me chime in.