Sacred Tradition is an indispensable and vital necessity in the life of the Christian for accessing the fullness of divinely revealed truth.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
22 November 2011
One point of contention between Catholics and many Protestants is the subject of Tradition. Protestants maintain that the Bible alone (sola scriptura) is the sole rule of faith; neither the authority of the Catholic Church nor the existence of Sacred Tradition should play any role in determining what Christians believe. Simply, if an aspect of faith or morals is not explicitly defined in Scripture, then it does not apply—it is an “invention.”
Catholics see things differently. While we acknowledge the primacy of Scripture, we too insist on accepting Tradition with equal reverence. For Catholics, the Christian is to fully assent with intellect and will to all God has revealed to his people—which includes Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Catholic Church as a divinely willed and founded, definite and specific, infallible institution of authority on matters of faith and morals. Catholics understand the fullness of truth revealed by the Person of Jesus Christ to the apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit—the deposit of faith—subsists in the Catholic Church. The fullness of truth is thus safeguarded by the threefold pillar of Tradition, Scripture and Magisterium (teaching authority of the Church).
It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. (Catechism of the Catholic Church § 95)
What Is Sacred Tradition?
Perhaps the brunt of misunderstanding regarding Tradition common to Protestantism flows from the notion that Tradition is something “man made.” Thus it is often viewed by Protestants as something outside of God’s revelation, as an intrusion on Scripture. This view is most likely due to a failure to properly distinguish between customs and Tradition. There are, of course, customs which have developed over time in the Church which are utilized by Catholics. An example is the vestments worn by priests and deacons during the Liturgy of the Mass. There are many other customs that could be listed. Catholic apologists often refer to these customs as “small ‘t’ traditions.” Nevertheless, Sacred Tradition is distinct from customs or small “t” tradition, since it is God’s revelation deposited within the living body of the Church. Tradition is God’s word to his people, just as surely as is Scripture. Tradition is God’s self-disclosure, it therefore matters and is vitally important to the life of the Christian.
Thus the Catholic Church professes the indispensable necessity and importance of Tradition. In fact, apart from Tradition, the threefold pillar of truth that upholds the one, true Christian religion transmitted by the Catholic Church in its fullness cannot stand. This is so for several reasons. Among them is the fact that Tradition existed before the New Testament as God’s revelation to his people, the living body of the Church. That is, the apostles transmitted to the people and to the nations the revelation of Jesus Christ under the guidance of the Holy Spirit before the N.T. existed. Hence, the revelation of Jesus Christ was initially transmitted as oral Tradition. Some of that public revelation (most of it), which again flowed from the font of Tradition as its source, got written down in the N.T. by the evangelists. Thus Tradition and Scripture are a twofold source of the same oneness of truth. Both are God’s revelation. However, historically speaking, Tradition is the first born of the two.
Therefore we can accurately say that Scripture is not the totality of God’s pubic revelation. Rather, it is that portion which is written. But that part of revelation which was not written in the N.T. nevertheless remains God’s revelation. It does not cease to be simply because it is unwritten or outside of Scripture. God is not the God of a book only; nor is the Christian religion the religion of a book. God does not reveal himself in the written word only. To hold that he does, is entirely contrary to history as well as to reason. For instance, in O.T. times God revealed himself to his People Israel, then the sacred authors wrote down what was held as a matter of oral tradition within that same People. Stated another way, what is written of God first has to be revealed to a people by God. It is not the other way around. From here it is easy to see that if one is concerned with the whole of God’s revelation, one must be concerned with Tradition as it is held and guarded in the living body of the Catholic Church.
Another element involved in the Tradition and Scripture equation is the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, as mentioned above. While it is beyond the scope of this article to go into detail regarding the Magisterium, it is enough to know that it is the teaching authority of the Church.
Some might question why such an authority is important. The Magisterium is necessary in order to safeguard from corruption the fullness of truth revealed by Christ. For instance, it is plainly obvious that, in contemporary Christendom, there are thousands of different interpretations on the meaning of Scripture. However, the Holy Spirit is not divided; nor does the Spirit first say this and then that. The Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. The multiplicity of contradictory scriptural interpretations present in contemporary Protestantism is not the work of God. It is only through the authority of an infallible Church guided by the Holy Spirit that the true meaning of Scripture as well as Tradition can remain uncorrupted and therefore transmitted in its fullness. It is in the Catholic Magisterium guided by the Holy Spirit, which consists of the Roman pontiff and the bishops in communion with him, in which we are insured of access to the objective truth.
In practical terms, this means that if Christians are reading from Scripture alone, embracing a position of isolation from or rejection of the living Tradition and authoritative Magisterium of the Catholic Church, they are removing themselves from the fullness of God’s Revelation. A Christian removed from Sacred Tradition is a Christian removed to some degree from the fullness of truth.
Why Scripture is Insufficient
How can we know with certainty that not all of God’s revelation is written in Scripture? One answer is that Scripture itself tells us so: “Not everything Jesus said is recorded in Scripture” (Jn 21:25). Also, as mentioned above, it is easy to see that God first revealed himself to his People who, then, wrote down some of that same divine revelation—it is, however, inconceivable to think that all of God’s revelation was written in a book of limited size. But chronologically, it was Tradition first, Scripture after. So it is impossible to have Scripture without Tradition. The Bible did not drop from the heavens, nor can it, since it is a product of both man and God, of human authors who wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Let us also not forget that the Person of Jesus Christ is the totality of God’s revelation, for he is the perfect image of the Father (Jn 14:9). The Bible cannot fully contain the revelation of Jesus Christ due to the fact that the written word has its limitations. Thus again we see the importance of Tradition and the living body of the Catholic Church.
Further, those human authors—the evangelists—who wrote the N.T. were members of the one and only Church in existence at that time: the Catholic Church, which today dates two-thousand years to Christ himself. Therefore the entire N.T. is a Catholic document. It was in the womb of mother Church that the revelation of Jesus Christ was deposited; it was the Church who discerned which books and epistles circulating in the apostolic age were authentically the inspired word of God and thus deserving of canonization into the N.T.; it was in mother Church that the whole of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments was formally canonized; and it continues to be the Church who guarantees the deposit of faith recorded in Scripture remains uncorrupted, transmitted in its fullness as a beacon of light in a darkened world. For these reasons and others we can truly say that the Catholic Church “is the mother of the Bible, not its child” (Rev. O’Brien).
Pope Paul VI wrote, “It is right to say, therefore, that if it was the Word of God that summoned and brought forth the Church, it was the Church, for its part, that was in a certain way, the womb of the holy Scripture, . . .”
Tradition Transmits the Word of God in Its Entirety
We can say that the Catholic Church is the mother of the Bible by virtue of the successive events which played out in the history of the Church: a) the Catholic Church was first founded by Christ upon St. Peter, the Rock, who was given the keys to the kingdom and the power to bind and loose (see Mt. 16:17-19; note also that the power to bind and loose was later given to all the apostles in Mt. 18:18); b) Christ sent forth his apostles to preach whatsoever he had commanded them (see Mt. 28:18-20); c) the apostles transmitted the faith to the nations through oral teaching; d) the N.T. was written by the apostles and their immediate successors.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.
And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles that, enlightened by the spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound, and spread it abroad by their preaching. (CCC 81; Dei Verbum 9)
Note that Sacred Tradition transmits the Word of God in its entirety. Why is this so? Simply, Scripture is a product of Tradition. They are not two separate things as if one can fully exist in isolation without the other. The whole Gospel is the divine word of revelation deposited in the Church. As a result, Sacred Tradition is a foundational element of the wholeness of the Christian religion as Christ so revealed it. Scripture alone is partial.
Consequently the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence” (CCC 82).
As Reverend Thomas McGovern points out in Magisterium, Scripture and Catholic Exegetes, the written word contained in the Bible has limits:
The Bible, like any other written text subject to the limitations of human language, is open to a variety of interpretations, since the written word cannot encapsulate the whole of reality; this is particularly the case when human language is used to articulate the unfathomable mysteries of the triune God. The salvific truths of divine Revelation, culminating in the Person and life of Christ, constitute a reality which surpasses the historical dimension of the redaction of the books of Scripture. Consequently, it is to be expected that some aspects of the totality of Revelation would not be expressed clearly, with all their implications, in the biblical text. Thus it is necessary to have recourse to the living and total reality of Revelation, of which the [Catholic] Church is in possession by divine design, in order to clarify and explicate the deep riches of the written word.
The Bible Itself Tells Us to Adhere to Tradition
Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. (2 Tim 1:13)
But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us. (2 Thess 3:6)
I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold fast to the traditions, just as I handed them on to you. (1 Cor 11:2)
Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours. (2 Thess 2:15)
Sacred Tradition is Integral to The Fullness of Truth
Christ the Lord, in whom the entire Revelation of the most high God is summed up, commanded the apostles to preach the Gospel, which had been promised beforehand by the prophets, and which he fulfilled in his own person and promulgated with his own lips. In preaching the Gospel, they were to communicate the gifts of God to all men. This Gospel was to be the source of all saving truth and moral discipline. (CCC 75)
Note that Christ commanded the apostles to “preach” the Gospel, not write it down. It was first oral preaching of divinely revealed truths (Tradition) and, second, the New Testament. Further, in order for the Gospel to remain a source of “all saving truth and moral discipline,” it is imperative that all the truth revealed to the apostles be passed on to future generations, not simply what was written in the N.T. This is accomplished through apostolic succession in the Catholic Church, which allows the authority and teaching office entrusted to the apostles to be passed on to their successors, the bishops, that future generations of the faithful would receive the fullness of God’s Revelation.
[T]he Church, in her doctrine, life, and worship perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes. The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer. (CCC 78)
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.