Sacred Tradition and the Reliability of Oral Tradition

In his conversion story, Casey Chalk, a convert to Catholicism from a background of evangelical Christianity provides this perspective of sola-Scriptura and Sacred Tradition:

“However, I would like to add a few of my own reflections on the inadequacy of sola scriptura.  First, Reformed and other Protestants will often argue that it is better to trust in the authority of Scripture alone as opposed to the Magisterium and Sacred Tradition.  However, I found that as a Protestant I trusted the authority of historians, biblical scholars, and theologians to provide me with the most reliable texts, the most accurate translations, and the most historically and culturally faithful interpretations of those texts.  And yet I had never met any of these individuals, had only indirect access to how they had gone about their research, and was largely ignorant of the biases they may or may not have brought with them in their work.  I started to realize that as a Protestant I was just as much trusting in a ‘magisterium’ of Protestant historians, scholars, and theologians as the Catholic who trusts in the Church.

On a more psychological level, I came to realize that no Christian can possibly approach Scripture without a host of predetermined data points that inform his or her interpretation.  There can be no ‘Scripture alone,’ because our interpretive lens will be inherently defined by the sermons we’ve heard, books we’ve read, or theological concepts we’ve been taught.  The Reformed Christian, in essence, believes in Scripture plus whatever interpretations he inherits from Calvin plus Warfield plus Bavinck plus whomever has informed his interpretive paradigm.  The same can be said for the Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, and even Catholic.  However, only the Catholic’s interpretive paradigm allows him to reply to such a charge by saying ‘yes, exactly, that IS how I interpret Scripture; how could I do any other?’”

So as Catholics, yes we do acknowledge our understanding of Sacred Scripture and the Christian faith are formed by Sacred Tradition.  But is it reliable?

The reliability of Sacred Tradition in its oral form has long been challenged by Protestants.  Often a comparison is made to the child’s game of telephone.  A story is given to one child to relate to another, and the retelling continues in a circle until it reaches the first child.  Then everyone gets a good laugh as to how much the story has changed.  Unfortunately, this line of thinking has been picked up by prominent Bible critics like Bart Ehrman and used to attack the validity of Scripture itself.  He rightly points out the entire Gospel was transmitted in oral form for decades before the New Testament was completed, and makes the case the story would have invariably been altered prior to its being committed to writing because oral transmission is not reliable.

I think a common response to Ehrman’s claim from a Protestant perspective would be it wasn’t simply a matter of people committing to writing what had been in oral circulation for years, but rather God inspired the writings of the New Testament. They are inerrant texts for that reason.  Catholics would not necessarily disagree with that view either.  But the question remains, what about those first Christians in those decades before the New Testament was written?  And even after it was written it was another three centuries before it was actually compiled and recognized as what we today know as the New Testament.  Was the oral proclamation of the Gospel available for those early Christians reliable, or were they left without an inerrant presentation of the Gospel for decades or even longer?

Archeologist Stephen Nash points out the basic problem with comparing the oral history of ancient societies with the child’s game of telephone:

“When I entered graduate school as an archaeologist in the late 1980s, I was told in no uncertain terms to discount the narratives from Native American oral history.  Why?  Largely because of the children’s game of telephone!  (If case you’ve forgotten: Get a bunch of kids in a circle.  Tell one a secret.  Tell her to tell the person next to her.  Repeat until you come all the way around the circle.  By the time the secret gets back to you, it’s totally changed, if not unrecognizable.) Though it is a compelling and seductive argument-by-analogy, it’s overly simplistic and belies a fundamental misunderstanding of how oral history actually works in human societies.  History is not kept by children playing games.  It’s kept by specialists.

If you are the keeper of history in a society that does not have a written language, your job is to preserve the story verbatim.  You have to apprentice and train for many years, and you have to go through tests and approval processes before you are deemed qualified to serve as keeper.”

St. Paul tells Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:1-2 “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”  We need to certainly recognize this was not a “child’s game” for the apostles.  They had devoted their entire lives to the Gospel, and they indeed trained specialists to take over the role to maintain and pass on what they had heard.  Throughout the last 2000 years within the Church, from our bishops we have indeed had “specialists” who have been trained and preserved the apostolic teachings down through the centuries.  This understanding continues and is able to be sustained in spite of language and cultural changes over time.  Sacred Tradition is the Church’s lived understanding of the deposit of faith, handed on faithfully and completely from one generation of Christians to the next. It allows us to understand the Scriptures as written within the historical context of the language and time, as well as the heart of their meaning. 

And even though the apostles had the Old Testament texts, oral tradition was not something new or different for them to embrace.  We see in the New Testament writings aspects of oral tradition that are not found in the Old Testament.  Some examples:

Matthew 2:23 in speaking of Christ – “And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’” This prophecy is not recorded in the Old Testament. 

1 Corinthians 10:1-4“I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink.  For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”  While the Old Testament tells us about the Rock the Israelites drank from, it nowhere records it followed them.

Jude 9“But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, disputed about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a reviling judgment upon him, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you.’”– This story is not found in the Old Testament writings.

Jude 14-15“It was of these also that Enoch in the seventh generation from Adam prophesied, saying, ‘Behold, the Lord came with his holy myriads, to execute judgment on all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness which they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against him.’” This prophecy is not found in the Old Testament.

2 Timothy 3:8-9“As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith; but they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.”  The Old Testament records this story but not the names of the two men.

The apostles were confident to include these stories in the New Testament from Jewish oral tradition.  They had not grown up in a world of sola-Scriptura, and gave ample evidence in the New Testament that the authority of the Church, Sacred Tradition and the training of “specialists” through apostolic succession were all needed to work alongside Sacred Scripture to accurately preserve the faith.

The quote from Casey Chalk at the beginning of this post identifies the reality that all groups rely on their own tradition and read Scripture through that lens.  What many also do not realize is they all rely on Catholic Sacred Tradition for the compilation of the Bible itself.  My next post will look at the role of Sacred Tradition in the development of the New Testament canon. 

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