Friday, October 08, 2010

Oscar Cullmann on the relationship between oral tradition and the canon of the New Testament, part 1

There is a discussion going on at Green Baggins on the topic of Oral Tradition. I contributed the following, which I've expanded and edited a bit; this has also gotten long enough that I'm going to relate it in two posts:

Nick asked: The $64 million question is: how do you know these inspired oral teachings were eventually enscripturated?

In his work, "Scripture and Tradition," (c) 1956, Oscar Cullman noted that something like this was precisely the Roman Catholic response to his 1953 work, “Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr”.
One argument especially is brought forward: scripture, a collection of books, is not sufficient to actualize for us the divine revelation granted to the apostles. (Oscar Cullmann, “The Early Church,” London: SCM Press LTD., pg 57.
Some things don’t change.

Fortunately, Cullmann had the background and resources in his day to research the issues and to think it through. One of the things that I’m most excited about in reading Kostenberger and Kruger’s “The Heresy of Orthodoxy” is that they make essentially the same argument, and relate essentially the same facts.

I’m not sure why this work hasn’t been picked up by more Protestants. Cullmann puts forth this argument:

1. For Paul, the paradosis (“oral tradition”), in so far as it refers to the confession of faith and to the words and deeds of Jesus, has a parallel in the Jewish concept of paradosis.

2. This tradition relates to the direct apokalypsis of the Lord to the Apostles. That is, the office of the Apostles was unique because they provided unique eyewitness testimony to the life of Christ.

3. This tradition lived and died with the apostolic office. No other source had the eyewitness authority of the Apostles.

4. The development of the canon was a conscious decision on the part of the earliest church, born from the consciousness of the heresies spinning out of control, to establish a superior written norm, and to stake out the boundaries of orthodoxy and heresy.

Essentially, he says, the early church made a key distinction between “apostolic tradition,” that is, what the Apostles taught orally and in writing, and “post-apostolic” or “ecclesiastical” tradition.
This is the place to speak about the establishment of the canon by the Church of the second century. This again is an event of capital importance for the history of salvation. We are in complete agreement with Catholic theology in its insistence on the fact that the Church itself made the canon. We even find in this fact the supreme argument for our demonstration. The fixing of the Christian canon of scripture means that the Church itself, at a given time, traced a clear and definite line of demarcation between the period of the apostles and that of the Church, between the time of foundation and that of construction, between the apostolic community and the Church of the bishops, in other words, between apostolic and ecclesiastical tradition. Otherwise, the formation of the canon would be meaningless.

We must recall the situation that led the Church to conceive the idea of a canon. About the year 150 there is still an oral tradition. We know this from Papias, who wrote an exposition of the words of Jesus. He tells us himself that he used as a basis the viva vox and that he attached more importance to it than to the writings. But him we have not only this declaration of principle; for he has left us some examples of the oral tradition as he found it, and these examples show us well that we ought to think of an oral tradition about the year 150! It is entirely legendary in character. This is clear from the story that Papias reports about Joseph Barsabbas, the unsuccessful candidate, according to Acts 1/23 f., for the post of twelfth disciple rendered vacant by Judas’s treason. Above all there is the obscene and completely legendary account [in Papias] of death of Judas Iscariot himself.

The period about 150 is, on the one hand, relatively near to the apostolic age, but on the other hand, it is already too far away for the living tradition still to offer in itself the least guarantee of authenticity. The oral traditions which Papias echoes arose in the Church and were transmitted by it. For outside the Church no one had any interest in describing in such crude colours the death of the traitor. Papias was therefore deluding himself when he considered viva vox as more valuable than the written books. The oral tradition had a normative value in the period of the apostles, who were eye-witnesses, but it had it no longer in 150 after passing mouth to mouth (Cullmann, 88-89).
[It's important to note here that, while Cullman capitalizes the word "church," he uses the word in the proper sense; not in the sense that Roman Catholics use the word.]

What Cullman relates here is that the church (as reported by Papias) had greatly valued the living voice of the Apostles. But they recognized the thing that we (Protestants) have all along been saying: the “living voice” is not a reliable transmitter, after a point. As with the game of “telephone,” where a message becomes badly distorted after being passed from person to person, the value of this “living tradition” had seriously degraded.
The traditions reported by Papias are not the only ones. From the same period we have the first apocryphal Gospels, which were collections of other oral traditions. It is sufficient to read these Gospels, one of which tells of the infant Jesus making living sparrows, carrying water in his apron, and miraculously killing companions who were annoying him, or to read the numerous apocryphal Acts, in order to realize that the tradition, in the Church, no longer offered any guarantee of truth, even when it claimed a chain of succession. For all these traditions were justified by [various chains] of transmission reaching back to the apostles. Papias himself also makes this claim when he says that he got his information from people who had been in contact with the apostles. The teaching office of the Church in itself did not suffice to preserve the purity of the gospel (88-90).
This selection is long enough for now. But I wanted to make the essential point: the early church did recognize the weakness of relying on "the living voice."

For more information, see also: Jason Engwer's series on The New Testament Canon.


Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"The teaching office of the Church in itself did not suffice to preserve the purity of the gospel (88-90)." [Cullman]

Hence, the Reformation.

Very informative post. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

John Bugay said...

Hi Truth -- So far there's one more, and it's scheduled to hit tomorrow (Saturday).

My hope is to continue to to tie this Cullmann series in with Kostenberger/Kruger's "The Heresy of Orthodoxy," and also to get a bit into Ridderbos's "Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures." I've got a lot of that stuff down so far, I just haven't tied it all together.

With these three, we have both the historical setting-out of facts, along with the historical reflection on them, from major theologians of a couple of different eras, to definitively address the "canon" objection that Roman apologists continue to throw out there (almost casually, as Nick had done and as I cited him at the top of this post).

Ryan said...

"...and also to get a bit into Ridderbos's "Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures.""

That's one of those books whose length is deceptive. I too am looking forward to your post on it.

John Bugay said...

Ryan, that was about as hard a book as I've read. The gist of it was similar to what Cullman said, although Cullman was in an "ecumenical mood" ("We are in complete agreement with Catholic theology in its insistence on the fact that the Church itself made the canon.")

And of course Ridderbos looked at this issue from a Reformed, Covenantal perspective.

That's what I remember anyway.

Ryan said...

From what meat I was able to stomach, I appreciated Ridderbos' candor and well-thought arguments. The following paragraph from his introduction, for example, so greatly coincides with my epistemological beliefs that I gave myself a mental check that this was a book I would need to read and reread:

"Traditionally, theologians who have acknowledged Scripture's authority in terms of the church's confession cited above have determined that relationship by appealing to the so-called self-attestation, or self-witness, of Scripture. The manner in which the New testament speaks of the Old is especially important. Since the New Testament canon is not followed by a subsequent canonical addition, there is no such general witness to it. Nevertheless, besides the analogy with the Old testament, the self-attestation of the individual New Testament writing yields considerable relevant data. These formal pronouncements of Scripture's authority, however, are valid only to those who already accept the authority of the Bible. Logically speaking, that is a form of circular reasoning. Certainly, every appeal to Scripture is ultimately based on its binding authority for faith, no matter how exactly that authority is understood. Nevertheless, just those who confess that the Scriptures "are of God" feel the need for further reflection on their revelatory character. Obviously, the Bible is not a heavenly gift arrived all at once as a finished divine, revelatory entity. Scripture has a history. It is a product of God's revelatory activity in the history of redemption. Therefore the revelatory character of the Bible should not be separated in a mechanical fashion from he history of redemption in which it came into being, for its revelatory character is neither an isolated phenomenon nor derived only from formal statements of Scripture concerning its authority. Thus the significance of the Bible and the nature of its authority can be properly understood only be closely relating Scripture to the history of redemption. Again we must reason in a circle since the history of redemption is known solely from Scripture. Thus in this study we are not seeking an extrabiblical basis for faith. Rather, we are seeking to delineate the essence of Scripture and the nature of its authority from within the framework of the history of redemption; we are seeking to clarify the relationship between the history of redemption and Scripture."

- page ix (emphasis is Ridderbos')

Tim Enloe said...

The Ridderbos quote is fascinating, and shows what REAL Protestant theology can produce (as opposed to the hack-quack Fundamentalist theology that most Catholic converts confuse with Reformation thought).

From my conversations with Catholics, a huge problem is that they start by assuming something that their own Church doesn't even assume: namely, that Scripture is just a book, just like any other book. Perhaps someone can correct me, but I'm aware of no Magisterial statement that calls Scripture just another book, or even implies that it is just another book.

However, the historic Christian witness is that Scripture isn't like any other book. By faith (which is not strictly "provable" by reason, though it is "in harmony with" reason) we CONFESS that this book is the Word of God. Once we already accept that (as Ridderbos says), we can take its internal declarations as the data from which to construct a theory of the shape and scope of revelation, and also of its meaning.

The ever-popular "Who made the canon" argument is about the community RECOGNITION of Scripture, not the fundamental NATURE of Scripture. By confusing the true idea that "the Church" gave us the community RECOGNITION of Scripture with the false idea that no one can have any knowledge that something is BY NATURE Scripture apart from "the Church," the apologists miss the forest for the trees.

Thanks for the Ridderbos quote, Ryan.

Paul said...

Hi John,

I don’t know how you do it, but another great post!

Greg Bahnsen did us all a favor in the area of analyzing what might properly be called “Tradition”. In order for capital T tradition to be what Roman Catholics assert it must meet the following criteria:

It must be some ethical or doctrinal truth which is:

i. Not already in Scripture.

ii. Not contrary to Scripture.

iii. Based upon as what is properly identified as “Tradition”

iv. Is necessary to the Christian life and Church.

v. Could not have been revealed during the days of the Apostles.

If we can apply this framework to that discussion – with gentleness and respect – I think the matter is uncovered for what it is.

More interestingly, John 21:20-24 is a Biblical example of why we should not rely on Oral Tradition. In this story, Jesus asks Peter a question which Peter misunderstands. Peter’s MIS-understanding results in the spread of speculative rumors – and not foundational truths.
Now, if the very first Pope, hearing the oral teaching of Christ Himself, got it wrong – what possible assurance is there the subsequent Popes got it right without Christ?

"Do not go beyond what is written." (1 Cor. 4:6)


Anonymous said...


I agree!

And guess what? When just two or three come together to agree on anything John produces, writes or says, ah, well, :)

Ah, I am not willing to go any farther than that seeing final judgment must come after the final part? Or, would you not agree?? :)

John Bugay said...

Constantine, Natamllc, you guys humble me. I pray never to let you down.

Anonymous said...


who are you kidding? As I recall, by your own confession and mine, we are cut out of the same cloth! :)

Joh 2:24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people
Joh 2:25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.

But, don't let that stop you! Edification is a Biblical principle:

Eph 4:15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,
Eph 4:16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

Especially when you too have passed from death to Life:

Luk 20:34 And Jesus said to them, "The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage,
Luk 20:35 but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage,
Luk 20:36 for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.
Luk 20:37 But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.
Luk 20:38 Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him."

John Bugay said...

Natamllc, as always, thank you for the Scriptural perspective!

dtking said...

I've had Cullmann's book since before the turn of the century, and have read these chapters in view repeatedly, and found him very helpful in clarifying my thoughts though we come from very different theological backgrounds.

One of the things that would have made his book even better, IMO, would be if he had, in addition to his emphasis on the apostles as eye-witnesses, stressed their unique position as ear-witnesses as well.

John Bugay said...

Hi David -- that's a great point about "ear-witnesses". Have you heard that phrase anywhere else? But you're right, the teaching was communicated in words.

As was mentioned here, Ridderbos and Kostenberger/Kruger present the same general information about the development of the NT canon. I've found all three of these works, and the confluence of their history, to be of tremendous help in responding to Roman critics.

James R. Polk said...

What Cullman relates here is that the church (as reported by Papias) had greatly valued the living voice of the Apostles. But they recognized the thing that we (Protestants) have all along been saying: the “living voice” is not a reliable transmitter, after a point. As with the game of “telephone,” where a message becomes badly distorted after being passed from person to person, the value of this “living tradition” had seriously degraded.

We have here in Papias a very early example of why a 'living voice' just will not work. It's too bad that this valuable lesson didn't take root in what eventually became the RCC.

Paul said...

Hi natamllc,

Thanks for the response.

I'm sorry for the delay here but my pc died. (We forget how dependent we are on the little buggers!) And it took me a while to "resurrect" it.

Yes - wherever two or three are gathered, John must be right! So it is written.


John Bugay said...

Guys, think of me as an investigative reporter, trying to piece together the story.

Tim Enloe said...

Just think, John - if you only had "faith" (as the RC apologists often define it), you would not have to "piece together" any story.

All you would have to do is submit to the Magisterium, confident that all stories have already been pieced together for you, and so all you must do is consult the Infallible Living Oracle whenever you have a question. Well, the Infallible Living Oracle and The Catholic Apologetics Organization of Your Choice, of course.

"Piecing together" things sounds awfully like a fallible process to me, and it just isn't fitting that God would give us a Faith that we had to use our own brains on. It just makes sense that God would want to avoid misunderstandings by providing an Infallible Living Oracle. Otherwise, how would you ever really know that some scholar you were reading wasn't right about both his view of some item of mundane history and his criticism of an article of faith?

This "Protestantism" thing you guys advocate here is just a recipe for pure human opinion, not God-honoring faith.

John Bugay said...

Hi Tim; that was an ok process the first few times, but more and more things from that pre-packaged story didn't quite fit together. Like a loose thread that you start pulling on, then you pull more and more, and things start falling off the garment.

The problem is that "the whole thing" is wrapped up so tightly, and there are layers and layers, and there are strings coming off all over the place. Eventually, you just want to get to the bottom of it, and so you start yanking strings and it's just amazing at how all of that is twisted together on the inside.

Tim Enloe said...

I don't doubt that at all, John.

History - that is, real historical discipline - has not been kind to Rome since the Renaissance. The Reformation continued what men like Valla started, and today, thanks to the great deal of Medieval material being translated and analyzed, it's possible to peer even deeper into the "historical" case for the papacy than ever before.

It's not that the people who believe and defend it are these shameless liars, nor is it that there is literally no historical support for anything that papalists say. Rather, it's that as a general rule they either (a) don't handle history responsibly, or (b)they give privileged place to theological and philosophical and personal concerns that have been removed from examination by and accountability to historical analysis.

The ones that do handle history responsibly and don't privilege extra-historical concerns as the master keys to interpreting history are the ones who get called "Liberals" by the "conservative" apologists, and, as said apologists run in superficial reaction from "the L word," they only make their own appeals to "history" less and less credible.

John Bugay said...

Tim: It's not that the people who believe and defend it are these shameless liars,

Not all of them are, of course. But some of them are.

nor is it that there is literally no historical support for anything that papalists say

But I think there is "literally no support" for that which is most foundational to the most ardent of them, and that is the notion of a "divine institution" of the papacy.

I can understand the need for someone to be "in charge"-- that's a natural development in any group. Or the occasional need for an appeal to a kind of final arbiter. But that never worked in practice.

But I know what you are saying about history, and the need to deal with it credibly.

Tim Enloe said...

I'm assuming you know my post three above was tongue-in-cheek.....

I agree there's no historical support for "divine institution" - few things are clearer to me than the fact that the papacy is a merely human contrivance born of specific socio-cultural circumstances and partaking of only one of several different strains of Western thought about "authority."

And, I think that when that strain and the other strains are all set by each other and analyzed in great detail (complete with connecting the theories to the actual outworking of them in history), the papacy decidedly suffers a severe loss of credibility as to its developed pretensions to be either divinely instituted or necessary for unity.

Don't know if I'll ever be able to get it done, but one of my projects right now is an extended analysis of the papacy "in classical perspective." I hope to show by the time I'm done that although there are substantial antecedents for the concept of the papacy (even in its developed form) in the classical and Medieval traditions, these antecedents represent the worst aspects of Western thought about "authority," not the best.

John Bugay said...

Tim, I understand you were speaking tongue-in-cheek.

On the one hand, I was giving it back to you; on the other hand, what makes for both good humor and good tragedy is the reality of the situation.

What do you mean by "substantial antecedents" "in classical perspective"?

Tim Enloe said...

The main antecedents of the papacy in the classical tradition are the 7th-6th century tyrants of Greece and Julius / Augustus Caesar in Rome. The Greco-Roman concept of kingship (the basic theory on which the papacy is based) is complicated and not entirely negative in orientation, but for the most part the Greeks and Romans were highly suspicious of putting all power in the hands of one man.

The Greco-Roman political thinkers are the ones who came up with the basic argument, still seen in papalists today, that government by the One is inherently more conserving of authority and often more powerful to resolve disputes in the short term. But they were also the ones who saw that government by the One, if not very carefully checked by other substantial powers, frequently devolves into base tyranny.

So, the substantial antecedents I'm speaking of involve the Greco-Roman view of monarchy, and its corollary, tyranny - which is exactly why I said that these antecedents represent the worst aspects of Western thought about "authority," not the best. There's nothing wrong with monarchy per se, but long ages of experience have shown reflective men that to put all power in the hands of the One is to throw wide the door to tyranny and social destruction.

Mid to Late Medieval thinkers reappropriated this Greco-Roman matrix of thought, and over the few centuries prior to the Reformation a widespread impression grew that the papacy had become a tyrant, and that other authorities in the Church (and State) had to reign it in. This, by the way, is precisely why the classically-trained Reformers all used the term "tyranny" of the pope. The word was deliberately chosen, and invoked in the mind of every educated person in the 16th century the last 2000 years of political thought.