Today comes the verse that is often bandied about in the never ending debate about whether our faith should be based on “Scripture Alone” v. “Scripture and Tradition”. But there really is no debate; tradition is part of the puzzle. Paul says plainly:
15 So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.
The real debate is what does this passage mean? Context is key.
In the first part of the chapter Paul says that a false, “letter purporting to be from us” is being circulated. Paul challenges them, saying, “5 Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you this?” In other words, the Thessalonians should be able to spot this forgery because it is inconsistent with what Paul had previously taught them.
And that is the key to understanding verse 15. Paul is telling the Thessalonians to interpret his letters in light of what he has previously taught them. He is saying if I previously taught you X you will not get a new letter from him that teaches something different from X.
Thus, TRADITION is our guide in how to interpret scripture. If there are two possible interpretations of a verse of scripture and you want to know which is the correct one Paul says that to do so you have to interpret it the way He first taught it. But how do we know what that teaching was?
Luckily for us it was recorded. As Christianity spread and grew people started recording explanations of the teachings. Works like the Didache, the 1st and 2nd Apologies of Justin Martyr and the works and letters of Ignatius of Antioch are just some of early works that describe in more detail how the Gospel was understood. People from this early time period are called the Church Fathers. Reading their works is like reading a modern bible commentary, except these are written by the people who learned the Gospel directly from the Apostles.
So if you want to understand something then read what the Christians of the 1st and 2nd century said about it. Want to know if the Eucharist is really the Body and Blood of the Lord or ‘just a symbol’? Consult the First Apology of Justin Martyr that gives a detailed explanation of the Christian faith to the Roman Emperor and discuss the subject of the Eucharist in detail. Want to know how to Baptize? Then read the Didache, a 1st century unattributed writing, which gives baptism instructions. Compare what is written there with the archeological evidence from the Roman catacombs showing paintings of baptism and stone baptismal fonts and you have your answer.
By knowing that the first Christians did and what they believed, we can know what we should do and believe. We can know that we have and teach the same faith of the Apostles. We don’t have to have a “blind faith” like the secular world accuses us of. Rather, we can have a ruddy, rich, historical faith. By knowing the traditional interpretation of scripture our faith can be rational and spiritual. By studying the Church Fathers and knowing the traditional interpretation of Scripture we build a bridge back to the Apostles. We don’t have to hope that a particular pastor is inspired or that a certain commentator is sincere in his writings. We can know that Peter and Paul taught because their students wrote it down. And if we can know what Peter and Paul and the other Apostles taught then we can know, with great certainty, what the Lord wanted us to know.