Originally written as a term paper for Catholic Distance University
Catholics and Protestants have argued over Tradition versus “the Bible alone” for the past few centuries with only limited progress. Whereas most Protestants believe that the Bible alone is sufficient in teaching us everything we need to know about the Christian faith, Catholics on the other hand believe that Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the teaching authority of the Catholic Church (the Magisterium) is the three-legged stool that is necessary in order to fully understand the Christian faith. As 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 so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching" (CCC 81).
“And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). Catholic apologists have used this quotation from the Book of John in order to defend the Church’s use of Sacred Tradition as part of divine revelation. God, through the Holy Spirit, has engaged mankind in various ways throughout history. From the moment of our creation, God has communicated with us the ways in which we are to live our lives in order to love Him and one another. Through the various covenants with man (such as with Noah and Abraham), God has reached out to man in order to offer us salvation if we heed His Commandments that were given to us through the Law. Through the prophets, man was once again reminded about how important it was for us to live lives most pleasing to our Lord. We were given warnings on how to live our lives, having the Law written in our hearts instead of on cold stone. God’s Revelation to man would then be climaxed through the Incarnation of the Word of God, the birth of the Savior Jesus Christ. Through His life and teachings, He passed on the Gospel message of salvation through His apostles, “who, by their oral preaching, by example, and by observances handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they had learned through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The commission was fulfilled, too, by those Apostles and apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing” (DV 7). Most Catholics and non-Catholics agree that this Divine Revelation closed with the death of the last Apostle, therefore no new revelation may exist (as is claimed by the Muslims and the Mormons, for instance).
All Christian faith traditions hold the Scriptures very close to their hearts. The Catholic Church codified the Canon of the Bible, translated the Bible, transcribed the Bible, defended the Bible, died to protect the Bible, has brought the Bible to the four corners of the world, interprets the Bible, kisses the Bible, incenses the Bible, spends half the Mass reading the Bible & then preaching on it - in fact, the Holy Mass and Divine Liturgy are Bible-based! The Church also carries the Bible through the church in every Mass, prays the psalms daily, and consistently encourages the faithful to read and meditate on the Bible every single day. But how exactly did we get the Bible? We got the Bible through the decisions by the Magisterium regarding the writings found in the Church’s Sacred Tradition. The current Canon (collection of books) of the Bible became finalized around 397 AD with the Counsels of Hippo and Carthage. This decision would be reaffirmed at the Council of Florence in 1493. When the Protestant faiths started to challenge the number of books in the Old Testament, the Council of Trent in 1546 once again reaffirmed the canonicity of the 46 books of the Old Testament.1 Because the Church believes that the Bible was written through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, “it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation” (DV 11).
Most, if not all, Catholics and non-Catholics would agree with these views about Sacred Scripture, but what about Sacred Tradition? “The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus' teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition” (CCC 83). The Apostles were witnesses to both Christ’s words and actions and they were instructed to preach the Good News. In several of St. Paul’s epistles, he explicitly instructs the Christian communities not to forget the traditions that have been passed onto them by the Church. We see in 1 Corinthians 11:2, “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.” St. Paul also says in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” Also in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, St. Paul tells the young church, “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.” Lastly, we are told in Philippians 4:9, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.” These are but just a few examples of the Biblical basis for Sacred Tradition. Logic dictates that no one writes down everything that is ever said or done and we would not assume that whatever Christ did or said that wasn’t written down was mere chit-chat or idleness. For example, take John 4: 40-43, “So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they were asking Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days. Many more believed because of His word; and they were saying to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world.’ After the two days He went forth from there into Galilee.” Are we to assume that for the two days that Jesus spent with the Samaritans, he said or did nothing that was worthy for our salvation? Of course He did, since we have the words of the Samaritans (Many more believed because of His word...“For we have heard for ourselves...”). Are we to assume that for two days Christ only repeated word-for-word what He already preached up to this point? There is always the chance, but it’s not likely. There are several places in the Gospels just like this, where it says that He stayed at a certain house or in a certain town for a length of time. We doubt he sat in silent contemplation, since He was sent to heal the sick, however in several of these cases we have no written record of what He said or did while there. Would anyone dare argue that what He said or did on these occasions aren’t important merely because they weren’t written down? And if we can trust the Apostles to write the Gospels, can’t we trust what they passed on orally, as well? For as we are reminded in John 16: 12-15, “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said that He takes of Mine and will disclose it to you.” It is with these words of Christ, that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church in all truth, that we have confidence in her teaching authority, or the Magisterium. It is therefore the role and obligation of the bishops united with the Pope to be the final interpreters of the faith. “For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God” (DV 12).
“Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Philip asked. ‘How can I,’ he said, ‘unless someone explains it to me?’ (Acts 8:30-31). Most of us know that if twenty people witness something, you’ll more than likely have twenty different versions of the same event; it’s human nature. However, when we are talking about something like the Truth of the Gospel, the last thing we need is a variety of interpretations. St. Peter, our first pope, gave us caution in 2 Peter 3:16 when he wrote, “There are some things in [the letters of Paul that are] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” Therefore, logic suggests that there needs to be an authority that is able to interpret the Scriptures (and Sacred Tradition) in order to assist us in our attempts to live the Christian lifestyle. For Catholics this is the Magisterium, “namely the bishops as successors of the Apostles collegially united among themselves and under the bishop of Rome.”2 Many non-Catholics misunderstand the Magisterium, thinking that the Church has the authority to change things about the faith on a whim. “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith” (CCC 86). In matters of faith and morals, the Church’s Magisterium has been entrusted to hand on the Christian faith and to teach this faith with Christ’s authority: “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me; and he who rejects me rejects the One who sent Me” (Luke 10:16). The Book of Acts 20:28 warns, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you bishops, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. “ Therefore, we have faith that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit in order to teach infallibly about faith and morals.
We can now see a little more clearly the intimate relationship between Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the teaching authority of the Catholic Church and why all three are necessary elements to living the Christian life. Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are influenced by the same source – the Holy Spirit – and this same Spirit infallibly guides the Church as she interprets and passes on the faith to all generations. As 1 Timothy 3:15 calls the Church, “the pillar and foundation of the truth” and “the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). This “three-legged stool of Divine Revelation” is essential for living the Christian life and learning the faith with confidence. “In Scripture, as today, the Bible is materially, not formally, sufficient to reveal the fullness of the gospel of Christ. In Scripture, as today, both written and unwritten Tradition are from Christ and made by him to stand inseparably united like hydrogen and oxygen that fuse to form living water or like the words and tune of a single song.”3 As a convert to Catholicism, I can sympathize with the confusion that abounds regarding Sacred Tradition, for at one point in my life I used to think that it was opposed to Sacred Scripture. However, we can see that there is a definite and intentional link between the two, as interpreted by the Magisterium. This link must remain forever unbroken, much like the unity of the Holy Trinity or the life-giving and love-giving aspects of human sexuality. To divorce Divine Revelation from any of its elements is to rob ourselves of the entire truth as presented by Christ and handed on by His Apostles through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
1. Augustine Club at Columbia University, Divine Tradition and Sacred Scripture, (1999, accessed 26 March 2012); available from http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/a/sola_scriptura.html
2. Fr. John Hardon, SJ, The Catholic Catechism, (New York: Doubleday, 1981), 48
3. Mark Shea, What is Sacred Tradition?, (2001, accessed 26 March 2012); available from http://www.mark-shea.com/tradition.html; Internet