Monday, January 18, 2010

Papias, Apostolic Succession, Oral Tradition, And "Relativism"

Yesterday, I posted some introductory remarks about a series of posts by Dave Armstrong that was written in response to an article I posted in 2008. What I want to do today is address some comments Dave made about one church father in particular, Papias. I do so for a few reasons. For one thing, it was in response to something I said about Papias that Dave issued some of his harshest criticism. And some of his other comments about Papias are relevant to his claims to "copiously document everything" and his objection that I'm not offering enough documentation for my own views. His comments on Papias also illustrate just how misleading it can be to use terms like "apostolic succession" and "oral tradition" to describe the views of a father.

In the course of his series of posts responding to me, Dave repeatedly accuses me of "relativism". I said that if I were in the position of somebody like Papias, I wouldn't adhere to sola scriptura. I went on to comment that "If sola scriptura had been widely or universally rejected early on, it wouldn't follow that it couldn't be appropriate later, under different circumstances." Dave responded:

"And he is employing the typical Protestant theological relativism or doctrinal minimalism....After having expended tons of energy and hours sophistically defending Protestantism and revising history to make it appear that it is not fatal to Protestant claims (which is a heroic feat: to engage at length in such a profoundly desperate cause), now, alas, Jason comes to his senses and jumps on the bandwagon of fashionable Protestant minimalism, relativism, and the fetish for uncertainty. He resides, after all, in the 'much different position' of the 21st century. He knows better than those old fuddy-duds 1500 years ago. What do they know, anyway?...Why are we having this discussion at all, then, if it doesn't matter a hill of beans what the fathers en masse thought?"

What Dave claims I "now" believe is what I had been saying for years, long before I wrote my article in 2008. And I didn't say or suggest that "it doesn't matter a hill of beans what the fathers en masse thought". Anybody who has read much of what I've written regarding the church fathers and other sources of the patristic era ought to know that I don't suggest that they're "old fuddy-duds" whose beliefs "don't matter a hill of beans".

My point with regard to Papias, which I've explained often, is that God provides His people with different modes of revelation at different times in history, and there are transitional phases between such periods. For example, Adam and Eve had a form of direct communication with God that most people in human history haven't had. When Jesus walked the earth, people would receive ongoing revelation from Him, and could ask Him questions, for example, in a manner not available to people who lived in earlier or later generations. When Joseph and Mary could speak with Jesus during His childhood and early adulthood, but the authority structure of the New Testament church didn't yet exist, a Catholic wouldn't expect Joseph and Mary to follow the same rule of faith they had followed prior to Jesus' incarnation or would be expected to follow after the establishment of the Catholic hierarchy. Catholicism doesn't claim to have preserved every word Jesus spoke or everything said by every apostle. A person living in the early second century, for example, could remember what he had heard the apostle John teach about eschatology and follow that teaching, even if it wasn't recorded in scripture or taught by means of papal infallibility, an ecumenical council, or some other such entity the average modern Catholic would look to. Because of the nature of historical revelation in Christianity (and in Judaism), there isn't any one rule of faith that's followed throughout history. And different individuals and groups will transition from one rule of faith to another at different times and in different ways.

These complexities can be made to seem less significant by making vague references to "oral tradition" or "the word of God", for example, but the fact remains that what such terms are describing changes to a large extent over time and from one individual or group to another. I could agree with the vague assertion that we're to always follow "the word of God" as our rule of faith, for instance, but that meant significantly different things for Adam than it did for David, for Mary than it did for Ignatius of Antioch, for Papias than it does for Dave Armstrong, etc.

To accuse me of "relativism", "minimalism", and such, because I've made distinctions like the ones outlined above, is unreasonable and highly misleading. The average reader of Dave's blog probably doesn't know much about me, and using terms like "relativism", "minimalism", and "fetish for uncertainty" doesn't leave people with an accurate impression of what a conservative Evangelical like me believes.

In some other comments about Papias, Dave writes:

"Jason will have to make his argument from Papias, whatever it is. J. N. D. Kelly says little about him, but what he does mention is no indication of sola Scriptura...When we go to Eusebius (III, 39) to see what exactly Papias stated, we find an explicit espousal of apostolic succession and authoritative tradition. He even contrasts oral tradition to written (as superior): 'I did not think that what was to be gotten from the books would profit me as much as what came from the living and abiding voice' (III, 39, 4)."

I didn't cite Papias as an advocate of sola scriptura. And we have much more information on Papias than what Eusebius provides. See here.

I referred to Richard Bauckham's treatment of Papias in Jesus And The Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006). See, particularly, pp. 21-38. Bauckham goes into far more depth than J.N.D. Kelly did in the work Dave is citing.

Contrary to what Dave claims, there is no "explicit espousal of apostolic succession" in Papias. And the "living and abiding voice" Papias refers to is a reference to proximate and early testimony that was soon going to die out. The theme Papias is referring to is taken from, among other sources, the historiography of his day. As Bauckham notes, Jerome's rendering of the passage in Papias indicates that he understood Papias as Bauckham does (pp. 27-28). Here are some of Bauckham's comments on the subject:

"Against a historiographic background, what Papias thinks preferable to books is not oral tradition as such but access, while they are still alive, to those who were direct participants in the historical events - in this case 'the disciples of the Lord.' He is portraying his inquiries on the model of those made by historians, appealing to historiographic 'best practice' (even if many historians actually made much more use of written sources than their theory professed)....What is most important for our purposes is that, when Papias speaks of 'a living and abiding voice,' he is not speaking metaphorically of the 'voice' of oral tradition, as many scholars have supposed. He speaks quite literally of the voice of an informant - someone who has personal memories of the words and deeds of Jesus and is still alive....Papias was clearly not interested in tapping the collective memory as such. He did not think, apparently, of recording the Gospel traditions as they were recited regularly in his own church community. Even in Hierapolis it was on his personal contact with the daughters of Philip that he set store. What mattered to Papias, as a collector and would-be recorder of Gospel traditions, was that there were eyewitnesses, some still around, and access to them through brief and verifiable channels of named informants." (pp. 24, 27, 34)

Bauckham goes into much more detail than what I've quoted above. He gives examples of Polybius, Josephus, Galen, and other sources using terminology and arguments similar to those of Papias. He emphasizes that Papias is appealing to something more evidentially valuable than, and distinct from, "cross-generational" tradition (p. 37). As he notes, the sources Papias was referring to were dying out and only available for a "brief" time. The historiography of Papias' day, from which he was drawing, was interested in early oral tradition, the sort we would call the testimony of eyewitnesses and contemporaries, not an oral tradition three hundred, a thousand, or two thousand years later. He got it from individuals and his own interpretation of their testimony, not mediated through an infallible church hierarchy centered in Rome. It wasn't the sort of oral tradition Roman Catholicism appeals to. Modern Catholics aren't hearing or interviewing the apostle John, Aristion, or the daughters of Philip and expecting such testimony to soon die out. That's not their notion of oral tradition.

And it won't be sufficient for Dave to say that he doesn't object to that other type of oral tradition that we find in Papias. He's accused me of "relativism" for making such distinctions. (It's not as though Papias would disregard what he learned about a teaching of Jesus or the apostle John, for example, until it was promulgated in the form of something like papal infallibility or an ecumenical council. Rather, the oral tradition Papias appeals to makes him the sort of transitional figure I referred to above. He didn't follow sola scriptura, but he didn't follow the Catholic rule of faith either.) And Dave's appeal to "oral tradition" in a dispute with an Evangelical is most naturally taken to refer to the common Catholic concept of oral tradition, not the form of it described by Bauckham. If Dave agreed all along that Papias' oral tradition was of the sort Bauckham describes, then why did he even bring up the subject? It's at least misleading to refer to Papias' view as "oral tradition" in such an unqualified way in a dispute with an Evangelical. How many of Papias' oral traditions, such as his premillennialism, does Dave agree with?

In response to my citation of Bauckham in my article in 2008, Dave wrote:

"I'm not gonna go read all that. I've spent enough time on this as it is. Whatever Jason's argument is involving Papias, can be presented anew, if he thinks it is worthwhile to consider."

Yet, in his articles responding to me he frequently links us to other articles he's written, without "presenting anew" what he said previously.


  1. Jason wrote:
    ...I don't suggest that they're "old fuddy-duds" whose beliefs "don't matter a hill of beans".

    Although that does describe Dave Armstrong....

  2. A remarkable charitable response with some scholarly discipline and depth and all I had to do was come to this blog and read!


  3. Great work Jason!

    The closeness of sola scriptura to Papias' rule of faith would be clearer if you stated explicitly the principle of canonicity you eloquently defended in your thread on the NT canon last year.

    I.e., the Prot rule of faith is the prophets and apostles while exercising their teaching authority. Insofar as Papias was listening to oral tradition because it connected him directly with those individuals, he's using the same rule of faith, just as we use copies of copies of their letters to do the same thing. The fact that he is not seeking to verify his information via the Bishop of Rome or the Church universal is at least not helpful for RCC/EO claims, if not more damning.

  4. Good job Jason. Once again it is demonstrated that all Dave's bluster about good ecumenical dialog is hogwash. Dave reads you in the worse possible light and uses all kinds of poisonous language in the process. You initial post and this response has been very respectful in tone even where you disagree. Dave has failed to live up to you in tone and quality so far.

  5. Jason,

    I don't know if you're still reading this, but in case you are:

    have you addressed somewhere the suggestion that Papias is making his oral sources more authoritative than apostolic documents like the Gospels, etc.?

  6. Andrew,

    See Richard Bauckham's discussion, part of which I quoted above. Papias seems to be referring to a common historiographic principle of his day. The preference is related to books in general, within a specific category, not scripture in particular. Within a Christian worldview, scripture has attributes that books in general don't have. Elsewhere, Papias defends the gospels, even referring to how Mark "committed no error" and was "careful" (Eusebius, Church History, 3:39:15). Papias put his own comments in writing. That's why later sources, like Eusebius, were able to read and quote what he had written. He didn't leave the preservation of his own words to oral tradition. Apparently, the context in which Papias generally prefers oral tradition is one in which witnesses to an event are involved. He'd rather interview a witness than merely read what the witness wrote. It doesn't follow that he prefers oral tradition from non-witnesses to written accounts by witnesses. Papias was living at a time when eyewitnesses of Jesus and the apostles were still alive. We're not. See Bauckham's comments, some of which I've cited above, regarding how the value of the testimony Papias appeals to decreases over time. Papias wasn't referring to some sort of oral tradition that remains just as significant in the twenty-first century as it was in the first century. Rather, its value depended on the living status of witnesses relevant to an event. Those witnesses are all dead today.