“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem,” a second-century church father famously prodded. And by this, he explains, “Our instruction comes from the Porch of Solomon.” Those familiar with this passage from Tertullian will recall that his crosshairs are not fixed on pagan ideas, but rather on the trend of interpreting Biblical/Christian ideas in pagan ways.
Tertullian’s world saw the increasing threat of the Bible and teachings of Jesus being viewed through pagan glasses. Notice, the alternative to the pagan tradition by which some were interpreting the Scriptures was not contemporary insight, majority consensus, or even his own teachings – it was the Apostolic witness. The ‘Porch of Solomon’ references the preaching of Peter and John in Acts 3. Tertullian clarifies a few sentences earlier,
“In the Lord’s apostles we possess our authority; for even they did not of themselves choose to introduce anything, but faithfully delivered to the nations (of mankind) the doctrine which they had received from Christ.”
Strangely, even the word ‘tradition’ (if not the concept entirely!) has become a catchword to reference a host of negative ideas related to the insincere or self-righteous practice of ‘religion without relationship’ within the Western church. Tertullian, like the rest of the early church fathers, associated it with safety.
The word behind the English word tradition in the NT is the Greek word paradosis. While the Gospel writers portray Jesus with a somewhat (though not entirely) negative view of the ‘tradition of the elders (Pharisees)’ (Mt 15:3, Mk 7:13), the Apostolic teachings were viewed as traditions which were reliable, and which led to everlasting life. Paul was encouraged and thus commended the Corinthians that they had ‘maintained the traditions’ (I Co 11:2) just as he handed them down to them. The Thessalonians were to, ‘stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.’ (II Th 2:15), and to keep away from others who were not living, ‘according to the tradition which they received from us.’ (II Th 3:6)
Closely related to this idea in the Apostolic writings is ‘the didache’, ‘the teaching’. John’s second epistle exhorts,
9 Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. (2 Jn 9)
Please note that none of John’s audience listening to the passage above relates the ‘teachings of Christ’ with the red letters from their daily reading of the New Testament that morning. Living prior to wide circulation of any of the written Gospel accounts, the earliest disciples of Jesus depended on the Apostles to tell them about Jesus’ teachings.
41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Ac 2:41–42)
Once for All Handed Down
Tertullian’s view of the apostolic tradition is merited because if the death and resurrection of Jesus, as true historical events, have informed how we must live before God, then faithful eyewitnesses of the events are essential to the message. Their faithful testimony is essential because eternal life does not lie merely in the belief that these events took place in history, but in interpreting these things correctly. Tertullian’s concern wasn’t with those who were indifferent or disbelieving about the death and resurrection of Jesus, but with those who interpreted those events in a foreign way. Tertullian’s opponents also called themselves ‘Christians’.
The teaching that was ‘once for all handed down to the saints’ (Jd 3) came to us via the Apostles. They seemed to have understood their unique apostleship in this way. In nominating a replacement for Judas, Peter,
21 Therefore, it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, 22 beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” (Ac 1:21–22)
The impartation of ‘the mystery’ of the Gospel clearly has its beginning in the teaching ministry of Jesus. However, it also appears to culminate in the days prior to his ascension. Luke concludes his first volume with an explanation of what the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets have said.
27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself…45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. (Lk 24:27, 45)
Luke’s second volume commences with what is likely the same event. It appears this is a validation in Luke’s mind for the Apostolic mission. These forty days of instruction about the Kingdom of God were the headwaters from which the Apostolic tradition grew.
3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. (Ac 1:3)
Tradition and Heresy
In contrast to the tradition of the Apostles were the different heresies which arose in the various local assemblies. Often, incorrectly, used as an insult or to express the height of one’s disagreement with a religious idea, ‘heresy’ simply means a divergent tradition (or group) for interpreting the truth. The English word comes from a Greek word, most often translated ‘sect’ in our English translations of the New Testament. The Pharisees were a sect (lit. ‘heresy’) ‘the sect of the Pharisees’ (Ac 15:5). The Sadducees were also a sect or heresy (Ac 5:17). The early followers of Jesus were known as a Jewish sect or heresy (Ac 24:5, 14). These were ‘sects’ or ‘heresies’ in that they each presented a different tradition for interpreting the Law and the Prophets. (As we saw in the reference to Luke 24 above, this was exactly what Jesus handed down to Apostles – a tradition for interpreting the Law and the Prophets.)
Heresies were also teachings or traditions which separated the listener from the teaching or tradition of the Apostles. Schisms developed in Corinth (I Co 11:18) as a result of these alternate traditions or heresies (I Co 11:19). ‘False teachers’, warned Peter, would come in the future in order to ‘introduce destructive heresies’ (II Pe 2:1).
The Continuation of the Tradition
It is unfortunate that the Gospel has become muddled to the point that the Apostolic testimony has been reduced to the common denominator of belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In contrast to this, we have the pattern of growth and eldership of the early church. The post-apostolic leaders were appointed exclusively due to their acceptance of the apostolic testimony (II Tim 1:13), their ability to repeat it (Tit 1:9), and the conformity of their lives to it (I Co 4:16-17).
Paul’s priority in appointing the first generation of leaders is seen clearly in the sending of Timothy to Corinth.
16 Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me. 17 For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church. (1 Co 4:16–17)
Timothy was not only faithful himself, but able to impart the ‘ways which are in Christ’. Paul appeared to envision this as a perpetual leadership pattern. His words to Timothy, who was in Ephesus at the time,
1 You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2 The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Ti 2:1–2)
Similarly, to Titus in Crete,
7 Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. 8 Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. 9 He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. (Tt 1:7–9)
New Ideas about the Gospel
The fact that the phrase above – NEW Ideas about the Gospel – is of little concern to most modern readers is very alarming. The fact that no historically discernable connection can be made between what the Apostles taught and the way that they lived, and many of the most popular teachings in the Western church right now merits a response like Tertullian’s, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”
Here are a few modern ways in which these new ideas are communicated. Again, ‘new’ to you is not necessarily of concern. ‘New’ to Paul and Peter, on the other hand, is by definition a heresy.
- The Kingdom Now/Dominionist movement: Let’s start with an easy one. Not only do we have an alien teaching, but the New Testament records no such agenda being received from Jesus. The Apostles clearly did not see a takeover – whether militarily or merely by influence – of Roman territories as being connected to the mission which they received from Jesus.
- The Cessationist movement: An unfortunate example of attempting to correct modern error with a man-made tradition that has no connection to the Apostles of Jesus. A handful of passages from I Corinthians obscurely applied to the close of the season of the gifts of the Holy Spirit with the canonization of NT texts is one of the most widely accepted ‘new’ doctrines out there. No one in the early church viewed these passages this way – most notably, the author.
- The Prosperity Gospel: This one is far too easy to pick on, so I’ll say little on it. This one is not only novel chronologically, but also geographically restricted. If the message still can’t work in the region where the Gospel was first preached…well, you know the saying, ‘If it looks like a duck…’ This is a heresy folks.
Some of the teachers within these novel streams actually propose that novel theology is a good thing. Others have proposed that their insights into the real nature of the Gospel were too much for the primitive Apostles. It often takes many words and special insights to present yourself as a follower of Jesus in the way Paul and Peter were if you don’t teach the same things or live in the same way. Don’t fall for it. Friends, what makes the Gospel message relevant to this generation is the same thing that made it relevant to Peter’s and John’s. The Gospel is the power of God for salvation, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. That is enough.
I hope this has brought some clarity both on the Gospel message, but also how we approach the holy subject of the Gospel of God. Grace to you all.
 Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics, Ch. 7
 Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics, Ch. 6