Standing on the Apostolic Tradition

“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”

- 2 Thessalonians 2:15

Regrettably, many believers today regard Christian doctrine as merely theoretical, having no practical value. For Paul and the other Apostles, however, theology was immensely practical. Just consider 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12. Why does Paul remind us of various doctrines regarding what must happen before Christ returns? Because he does not want us to be “shaken in mind or alarmed” (v. 2). He teaches doctrine so that readers will enjoy the practical benefits of emotional stability and confidence in Christ.

Paul connects doctrinal knowledge and stability again in today’s passage. He exhorts readers to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (v. 15). This verse shows us how we understand the deposit of truth revealed by God through His Apostles. The English word “traditions” translates the plural form of the Greek term paradosis, or “that which is handed on.” Essentially, Paul is saying that the teaching he has delivered to the Thessalonian Christians has been handed on, that he received instruction from Christ and then passed it on to them. Since the Apostolic teaching is from Christ, it is to be afforded the same authority we grant to the teaching of Christ in the Gospels. The words of Paul, Peter, and the other Apostles in Scripture are not less inspired than the words Jesus spoke during His earthly ministry. We are to stand firm on these traditions by believing them and handing them on to others without alteration.

Paul says he taught these traditions “either by our spoken word or by letter.” Historically, Roman Catholicism has used this text to justify belief in a body of unwritten Apostolic teachings (“spoken word”). These unwritten teachings are preserved exclusively by the Roman Catholic Magisterium (the pope and bishops), and they contain teachings not found in Scripture that are equal in authority to the Word of God written. However, as even many modern Roman Catholic scholars have observed, this verse cannot support that view. In context, the traditions to which Paul refers are found in 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12, where Paul reminds his readers that what he says in writing is what he had told them face-to-face (v. 5). In other words, Paul did not tell the Thessalonians by mouth anything other than the traditions he puts into writing. There is no body of teaching that the Apostles wanted the church to have that can be found outside the Scriptures (see 2 Tim. 3:16–17).

Coram Deo

Scripture is sufficient to tell us what we must believe in order to be saved and how we must live in order to please God. Discovering the will of God does not require any special methods; we simply need to study God’s Word and pray for the Lord to illumine its meaning to us. May we never look to anything other than the Word of God written for infallible direction on what we must believe to be saved and what we must do to please Him.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 4:2
Mark 7:1–13
2 Thessalonians 3:6
2 Timothy 1:14

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.