[This is how I came across the idea of apostolic tradition before I’d even heard of it.]
When I read Leo Tolstoy’s book on his religious, pacifist, anarchist ideas, ‘The Kingdom Of God Is Within You’, I noticed that at one point (perhaps more), he explicitly states that Peter and the apostles misunderstood Jesus’ teachings (particularly about submitting to rulers), and also added many superstitions to Jesus’ religion.
The claim that they added superstitions was interesting to me, and I didn’t take any offense from it (except, I think, for his denying Christ’s bodily resurrection). I was, however, shocked by his rejection of the apostles’ teachings.
I totally understood rejecting Paul, who often seems to focus less on important practical matters like Jesus and the twelve did, and far more on confusing matters of theology. The idea that he was the wolf who stole Christianity is appealing on many levels (mainly he’s an easy scapegoat for whatever you dislike in the religion; you don’t have to bother reading his more confusing passages; and by dismissing a nearly two thousand year history of the religion, you get to pretty much build your own).[I love Paul’s letters, but I don’t think they make much sense without the context of the Gospels and the Acts]. But to reject any of the twelve is a far more serious matter.
Firstly, Jesus Christ himself appointed the twelve, and gave them authority over his Kingdom. Or at least, that’s the story they passed on to us, which brings me to the second problem: they are the ones who gave us the whole religion. But we cannot believe the religion they gave us and believe they made up any part of it, especially something as important as their authority. And we cannot believe that Jesus gave authority to them, only for them to fail, and Jesus’ mission to fail with them.
Perhaps Tolstoy could because he didn’t believe in Jesus divinity in the orthodox way. Jesus could have made a mistake in ever suggesting they had authority. Or he could have chosen the wrong guys. Or his teachings may have been able to largely die, because someone else would come along soon and teach the same thing.
But the really strange part of Tolstoy’s suggestion, is that it suggests that the twelve, who lived and spoke with Jesus for years, misinterpreted him, while Leo Tolstoy, who had only heard of Jesus through the twelve and rejected much of that, understood Jesus’ teachings as he had meant them to be understood. It is a proud idea I am unable to accept. It is unacceptable, and it makes more sense to deny Jesus than to set myself up as an authority on his teachings even sufficient for my own beliefs.
I also noticed an interesting result of this reasoning: if I must accept the apostles because they were instituted by Jesus, and knew him better than I could; I must also accept their disciples, who knew the apostles better than I can and were instituted by them; and their disciples, and so on. Indeed this argument was used by the early Christians against the early heretics (but they didn’t need the “and so on”). It’s also used today, but in a different, more developed form, and called “apostolic tradition”.
This idea was confounding to me at the time, both because I was a protestant (though I didn’t like the word), and because I wondered if its validity would wear thin through the ages since the apostles. It seems intuitive that the more time passes, the less they will represent their founder, but on the other hand, they were still taught and instituted by those taught and instituted by… Jesus Christ himself. The need for apostolic tradition and authority (I didn’t know it was called that at the time) was awkward for my protestant beliefs, to say the least.
Now I believe in the Catholic Church’s apostolic teachings. One crucial last point in favour of still trusting the apostles’ successors and their delivery of the apostles teachings is this: at whatever point I stop trusting them, I will only interpret in my own way the works of their predecessors, who discipled and were read by their successors, so that once again they are more qualified than me.
As a side-note, ‘The Kingdom Of God Is Within You’ is an insightful and valuable book despite its many errors. I strongly recommend it. Leo Tolstoy was a count turned anarchist and a soldier turned pacifist, and he writes a lot worth reading on violence, government, exploitation and war. And from his strange (arguably distorted) perspective on religion he can still teach us a lot about Jesus. He takes Jesus and his own conscience seriously, and that’s worth a lot.
God bless you.
I just want to note, that while individuals can clearly misunderstand in this long process (that’s where heretics come from), the system holds for whole generations far stronger than individuals, especially since few have only one teacher, and heretics are regularly removed.
God bless you.