This is essentially a reprint of a blogpost I had written about a year ago. I’m reprinting it here as a reminder that many of us will see folks walking around today with little black dots on their foreheads, and they no doubt will have been taught that this little black dot is somehow a mark of piety.
It’s true that Lent is one of the earliest church traditions. But it’s also one of just a handful of such “traditions.” Most of these are really just practices, which in fact are no longer practiced. Yves Congar, in his “The Meaning of Tradition,” (and derived from his scholarly “Tradition and Traditions” and a textbook for Roman Catholic seminarians), provides a list (pg. 37) of some of the traditions that can be traced to the early church:
-- The Lenten fast (Irenaeus, Jerome, Leo)
-- Certain baptismal rites (Tertullian, Origen, Basil, Jerome, Augustine)
-- Certain Eucharistic rites (Origin, Cyprian, Basil)
-- Infant baptism (Origen, Augustine)
-- Prayer facing the East (Origen, Basil)
-- Validity of baptism by heretics (pope Stephen, Augustine)
-- Certain rules for the election and consecration of bishops (Cyprian)
-- The sign of the cross (Basil, who lived 329-379)
-- Prayer for the dead (note, this is not “prayers to the dead”) (John Chrysostom)
-- Various liturgical fests and rites (Basil, Augustine)
Again, while such practices as Lenten fasts the sign of the cross are still practiced, many of these “apostolic traditions” – really those extending earlier than the 4th century – such as prayer facing east, and Cyprian’s rules for electing and consecrating bishops are, well, in the dustbin of history.
Note, too, that the only way we can trace these “traditions” is not because they are somehow held “orally”; rather, we know of the origins of these practices because we trace their beginnings through the writings of various fourth and fifth century writers.
Yves Congar was one of the leading experts on the early church. He was influential at Vatican II, and John Paul II named him a Cardinal in 1994. (I mention this because Congar was a noted liberal, as well, and I’ve had some Catholic apologists dismiss “liberal” theologians as if their writings had no official standing in Rome.)
Congar wrote, “We should be prepared to find that the apostles had not recorded in writing all the rules they gave the churches in view of the fragmentary and occasional nature of their writings.” (pg 34)
“What do the written documents we possess tell us of the preparation for baptism, of the Eucharistic celebration, of the way to deal with sinners, and so on? St. John tells us he has not written everything concerning Christ, at least with regard to his miracles (Jn 30:30; 21:35). The apostles preached before they wrote (cf. 1 Cor 15:1); they preached more than they wrote, and their letters speak of certain of their actions that are not recorded in writing. St. Paul gave this advice to the Thessalonians: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess 2:15); he congratulated the Corinthians because they “maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you” (1 Cor 11;2); just as without repeating them he reminded the Thessalonians of the instructions he had given them verbally (1 Thess 4:1-2; 2 Thess 2:15); finally he told the Corinthians that he would settle a certain number of points at his next visit (1 Cor 11:4).” The existence of unwritten traditions is therefore a certainty…”However, as I noted above, the only “unwritten apostolic traditions” that exist, from the time of the earliest church, are the items listed above.
Catholics are wont to trumpet the fact that their church has “tradition,” but the paucity of actual extra-Scriptural traditions means that any other “unwritten traditions” from the Apostles were either unimportant enough to be forgotten, or written down as Scripture.
David King, in his work “Holy Scripture: A Biblical Defense of the Reformation Principle of Sola Scriptura,” explains this very well:
“Roman apologists use [these texts mentioning tradition, including 1 Thess 4:1-2; 2 Thess 2:15] often when objecting to the principle of sola Scriptura. What they attempt to prove is that if we hold only to those traditions delivered in Scripture, then we are not receiving God’s full or complete revelation, leaving the impression that the Roman communion has access to special revelation not contained in holy Scripture. So then, failure to hold to the traditions passed down orally in the Church is disobedience to the complete revelation of God. However, as has been repeatedly shown, the problem is that they cannot even identify what these orally ‘preserved’ traditions are. (pg 119)
So now, for those Protestants concerned that you might be missing out on “the fullness of the faith,” you can know that many of the “infallible [T]raditions” are accretions that were added in post-apostolic times.
And when all is said and done, the best advice about this day comes from the pen of the Apostle Paul:
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.It is “for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—"Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch" (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh (Col 2:8-22).
I am not among those who think that the practice of asceticism in the early church was a good thing. Even if the early church did not explicitly adhere to a doctrine of “sola Scriptura,” what was preventing them from adhering even to this not-unclear admonition from Paul? In the light of this passage of Scripture, what good reason is there for anyone to walk around today with a black dot on his forehead? NOT having a dot on your forehead today also means something in that context.