Saturday, March 14, 2009

Scripture and Tradition

If there is a foundational element of the Catholic faith that many struggle with it begins with Scripture and Tradition. Often people will look at something the Catholic Church teaches or believes and ask, "Where is that in the Bible?". This is a valid question but the reality is the Catholic Church is not simply a Biblical Church, but instead it is, as the Nicene Creed teaches, an apostolic Church. Here is an attempt to lay out the argument for Scripture and Tradition from a Catholic standpoint.

The Bible (Scripture) is a compilation of books (thus the name bible - biblos which means books) inspired by God to help us as St. Paul says to Timothy in his second letter 3:16, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” It doesn’t say that this is the only means of God working in our world, but it is definitely one of the main ways. As Catholics we believe that there is one source for Divine Revelation, God, but there are two streams from which that source pours forth, Scripture and Tradition. It is important to know that not all traditions are the same. Thus, we speak of Tradition and tradition. The “T”radition is that which has been handed on to us by the Apostles and their successors, which is inspired by the Holy Spirit and important for our salvation. The “t”radition is anything that we do in a particular way but not necessarily inspired by God or necessary for salvation. Examples of each: Tradition - God is trinitarian. You will not find in Scripture the word nor the actual concept of God as three Persons, one Nature. tradition - wearing a medal of a saint around one’s neck.

If you read John 14:25-6 you will see that Jesus intended to send the Holy Spirit to guide the apostles in making sure they recount correctly what Jesus said and did during his time on earth. Was this simply for them to write scripture or was it for their ability to guide and lead the church on earth? As Catholics we would say both, for Scripture is the inspired and inerrant Word of God, but only because God is the primary author.

Also from a purely logical point of view it doesn’t make sense to hold that the Bible is going to be the only way in which God will transmit the truth about our salvation. We do not hear Jesus commanding the Apostles to write everything down. In fact John says at the end of his gospel that it would be impossible to write everything down. When we look at the command of Jesus in Matthew 28:19 “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” He doesn’t tell them to necessarily write everything down and pass it out, but instead to teach, which was a combination of oral and written information.

Second, we realize that what exactly the Bible was was not decided on right away but it took time not only for the authors to write the letters, but also for the Church to decide which were authentic. Thus, we see that it isn’t until around 393 that the Church called a council in Hippo and Carthage to address this issue. So, what did people do before that?

Third, what if you couldn’t read Scripture or couldn’t afford a copy of it? Were you still bound to know it and live by it? Literacy is not a common thing throughout most of history and books were expensive and hard to come by. One would think God would provide another means of handing on the information.

Fourth, why didn’t Jesus write anything? If this was going to be the means by which everything is determined you would think He would see to it that He wrote something for them. Now, one could say that the Gospels are His writings, but they still required someone else to remember and decide what to put down. How is it that we know what they wrote is true and can the same means by which we claim the authenticity of the Scriptures be present in other ways?

What Catholics see in Scripture is as Paul said to Timothy, that Scripture is important but not that it was the only way of knowing the Truth or finding salvation. St. Jerome said that ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ. Thus, we see an important emphasis put on knowing scripture, but not because it is the only means God used, but that it is one of the ways He speaks to each and everyone of us.

Also notice in the Nicene Creed we say one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The Church is not mentioned as being scriptural but apostolic in nature. Which by the way is what we read in Acts 2:42 “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.” Again we see that they looked to the teaching of the apostles, which is what our Traditions ultimately turn out to be. The idea that the Bible is the only thing a person needs for their salvation really was only possible after the 16th century when literacy and the printing press were common. This made scripture easy to access, but again not the only way.

Also look at how the Council of Jerusalem is conducted. Acts 15 - How from scripture can you prove that circumcision is no longer necessary for salvation? Where do you see them reading from Scripture to find the answer to their question? Why call a council in the first place? Why not let everyone read their own Scripture and decide for themselves whether or not it is necessary to circumcise the men?

I start here because this is the foundation upon which we must come to an agreement on why the Catholic Church does not see the Bible as the only source of transmitting God’s information to us. Thus, you will find things that are not explicitly in the Bible but taught by the Church because it has been handed on to us by the apostles and their successors.

Also, remember that many of the early Christians thought Christ would be back soon. It wasn’t until they realized it might be a while that they really began to write. Also, the letters written were just that, letters to encourage, convict, reprimand and explain to the Christians around the area. It isn’t until they are put into the Bible that they take on a second meaning. Thus, today our Church still writes letters from bishops and the pope to the people

Councils that are important are as follows:
  • Council of Rome 382 - Pope Damasus declares the official listing of the books of Scripture, both OT and NT.
  • Council of Hippo 393 - reaffirms the list “It has been decided that besides the canonical Scriptures nothing be read in church under the name of divine Scripture.”
  • 3rd Council of Carthage 397 - reaffirms the list and the importance of reading only approved books under the name of divine Scripture.
  • 4th Council of Carthage 419 - same thing.


sethz3 said...

Nice explanation! A must read for Christians seeking truth about the Church.

Anonymous said...

Really good explanation! I just have one question...

What happens if tradition and scripture contradict? Which one has more authority over the other?

I never knew that our belief of God being trinitarian wasn't in the bible. That is really interesting.

Joel Haubenreich said...


As we think Scripture and Tradition are from God, they cannot by nature contradict. I completely agree that there may be apparent contradictions, but as with apparent contradictions within the pages of the Bible, they only require a proper explanation.

That said, if you have some specific issues in mind, it might be helpful to address them here, both for you and for anyone else with the same or similar questions.

Matt Heltzel said...

It's a tradition in my church and many other churches to dress up nice for Church... that's not in Scripture. There are plenty of traditions in churches that aren't in Scripture... Ultimately, it only makes sense for Scripture, which is God-breathed, to be our final, sole authority on all matters. Sure, early church tradition should be included, but not at all or in any way equal to Scripture.

Joel Haubenreich said...

In the second paragraph Padre makes the distinction between "big-T" Tradition and "little-t" tradition. The latter is what you're talking about: ought women to wear skirts or slacks to worship? etc. Those traditions can be good and helpful, but if misunderstood easily trip people up.

Tradition in the "big-T" sense is very different. We ignore it at our mortal peril. Ultimately, though, even those who reject Tradition unconsciously hold on to it, unable to let go of what they feel to be right. Scripture, for example, is actually a part of Tradition. The reason we have a set canon of inspired books is the Tradition which tells us the Gospel of John is very good whereas the Gospel of Judas is not.