Sacred Tradition – An Overview

The well known Protestant and Reformed pastor R. C. Sproul had this to say about a Protestant understanding of sola-Scriptura:

“For the classic Protestant, though the individual believer has the right to the private interpretation of Scripture, he is capable of misinterpreting the Bible.  But while he has the ability to misinterpret Scripture, he does not have the right to do it.  That is, with the right of private interpretation comes the responsibility of making an accurate interpretation.  We never have the right to distort the teaching of Scripture.  Both sides agree that the individual is fallible when seeking to understand Scripture, but historic Protestantism limits the scope of infallibility to the Scriptures themselves.  Church tradition and church creeds can err.  Individual interpreters of Scripture can err.  It is the Scriptures alone that are without error.”

This quote accurately reflects the standard Protestant position that only Scripture is infallible.  But it also highlights the true flaw with sola-Scriptura.  If we accept Scripture alone is infallible, then as Sproul indicates it is necessary to accept “Church tradition and church creeds can err,“Individual interpreters of Scripture can err,” and the “individual is fallible when seeking to understand Scripture.”

The only logical conclusion therefore for those who hold to sola-Scriptura is no one can ever have any certainty as to the meaning of Scripture.  Nobody.  Individuals may sincerely believe they have interpreted Scripture correctly.  They may sincerely believe they have received special guidance from the Holy Spirit regarding the meaning of Scripture.  But they also have to accept they are fallible when seeking to understanding Scripture and can be in error.  When the authority of the Church is rejected as being infallible, then the authority of ALL must be rejected to be infallible. 

Catholics do not believe Christ gave us the gift of infallible Scripture without also providing us a way to know with certainty it’s been correctly interpreted.  Frankly, what would be the point to provide an infallible text without also providing a means to ensure it’s been infallibly interpreted?  In my last several posts I’ve reviewed the authority given to the apostles, and to the Church.  Through the gift of apostolic succession this authority continues in Christ’s Church from the time of Christ until the end of time.  Without this authority the value of Sacred Scripture is actually diminished, for if we can’t know its truths with certainty, we do not receive all Christ gave us. 

So now we come to the topic of Sacred Tradition, which is how the truth of Scripture, and of all that Christ and the apostles taught is preserved and handed on to us through the means of apostolic succession.  The Catechism explains the Catholic understanding of Sacred Tradition

CCC77 “In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors.  They gave them their own position of teaching authority.”  Indeed, “the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time.”

CCC78 This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it.  Through Tradition, “the 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.”

CCC81 “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 so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching.”

CCC82 As a result 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.”

Protestants are often quick to point out Jesus condemns the “traditions of men” as practiced and promoted by the Pharisees.  We see this for example in Matthew 15:1-6 “Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, ‘Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?  For they do not wash their hands when they eat.’ He answered them, ‘And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?  For God commanded, “Honor your father and your mother,” and, “He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die.”  But you say, “If any one tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is given to God, he need not honor his father.”  So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God.’We see a similar encounter recorded in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 7:1-7) which Jesus concludes by saying “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.”  (Mark 7:7)

St. Paul also warns of following man’s traditions when he writes in Colossians 2:8 “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.”

Protestants use these verses condemning “traditions of men” to denounce the Catholic understanding of Sacred Tradition, and to promote a doctrine of sola-Scriptura. 

However, when Jesus gives the apostles the great commission in Matthew 28:16-20, his instructions to them are to make disciples of all nations, and to teach them to observe all he had commanded them.  At this point in time, nothing he had commanded them had been written down.  The entire transmission of the Gospel in the early decades of the Church was by oral tradition, or in Catholic terminology “Sacred Tradition.”  So would Protestants assume this oral tradition is the same thing as the “traditions of men” condemned by Christ and the apostles?  I am sure not. 

I guess the point then would be that apostolic tradition, or Sacred Tradition is not by default the same thing as “traditions of men.” 

Scripture records the apostles “spoke the Word of God” (Acts 4:31, Acts 8:25, Acts 13:46, Acts 14:25, Acts 16:32, Hebrews 13:7).  It’s important for us to recognize the methods used to transmit the Gospel orally to the new Christian disciples.  In general, they lived among a community of believers an extended period of time.  We see for example St. Paul spent two years in Ephesus (Acts 19:8-10), eighteen months in Corinth (Acts 18:1-11), a year in Antioch, (Acts 11:25-26) and two years in Rome (Acts 28:30-31).  We then see he followed up with letters to often correct specific problems that occurred within the community.  But those letters in no way contained all he taught them during that extended period of time about the faith, how to live their lives, and how to worship.  Nor does it seem they were intended to.  This is why St. Paul tells the Thessalonians “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.”  (2 Thessalonians 2:15) We see in Paul’s view, the oral teaching of the apostles is just as important as those they commit to writing, and both what was written and taught orally are part of apostolic tradition.  He tells them later in the same letter “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6).  And he writes to the Corinthians “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.”  (1 Corinthians 11:2) These would have been the traditions Paul taught them during those eighteen months he lived among them, and are not recorded in Sacred Scripture. Paul’s writings clearly show us there is an apostolic “tradition” apart and different from the “traditions of men” that led Jesus to rebuke the Pharisees. 

Some of the newer Protestant translations (like the NIV) even go so far as to translate these verses that speak in favor of Sacred Tradition as “teachings,” while leaving those where Christ rebukes the Pharisees as “traditions” even though the exact same Greek word is used for both.  This fails to recognize while there are “traditions” that are truly of men, there are also valid traditions given to us by the apostles that we are to firmly hold. 

The most popular explanation given by Protestants for these verses that indicate there is a valid apostolic oral tradition is they were only intended to be needed until the New Testament was written, and then sola-Scriptura would prevail.  However, the Bible never provides any confirmation of that theory.  In addition, we see the apostles sometimes intentionally leave things unwritten, preferring to wait until they can speak to the faithful in person.  St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:33-34 “So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— if any one is hungry, let him eat at home—lest you come together to be condemned.  About the other things I will give directions when I come.”  St. John writes “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink, but I hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”  (2 John 1:12)

CCC95 teaches “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.  Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.” 

Often the analogy is given of a three-legged stool – Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church). The three “legs” maintain the necessary balance so the Truth can be preserved down through the centuries.  It becomes clear when Protestantism abandons both the authority of the Church and Sacred Tradition and professes Sacred Scripture is all that is needed, the stool can no longer stand.  The result is a fracturing of beliefs that have resulted in a multitude of different Protestant denominations with a variety of teachings.  And since sola-Scriptura requires that all interpretations of Scripture are fallible, there can be no certainty as to which of these differing beliefs actually reflect the teachings of the apostles and Scripture.  As Catholics we are blessed to understand we were not simply left with an infallible text that none can infallibly interpret.  Sola-Scriptura, from our perspective, is indeed a “man-made tradition.” 

My next post will speak to the reliability of oral tradition. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s