|You are here: Home >Catholicism Index >Tradition Index >Tradition in Catholic Thought||
(Last Updated: 07 Oct 2000 )
But "Tradition" per se is not condemned in
the Bible; only corrupt tradition. Tradition can also be good, as in the
Sacred, apostolic Tradition is something to be held and treasured just like Scripture. The apostles didn't just hand us a book (in fact, for almost the first four centuries of Christianity, there was little certainty as to just what such a book would even be composed of). Revelation was handed on "either by word of mouth or by letter". Catholic teaching is that "Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God" (Vatican II's Dei Verbum, 2.10).
Tradition is not a set of secret extra-Scriptural doctrines invented by some paganised clerics and then passed on from bishop to bishop in a mysterious secret-tradition-passing-on ceremony held in the crypts of the Vatican. It is the lived faith, teaching, life and worship of the Church, an interpretative grid which helps the Church understand and apply God's Word.
The Bible can be seen as materially sufficient to reveal the fullness of the Gospel (i.e. all the "stuff" of our faith is in Scripture), but it's not formally sufficient. A good analogy for explaining this distinction (borrowed from Mark Shea's essay in Not by Scripture Alone [Sungenis et al, 1997], as is much of the argument I am laying out here) is the difference between having a pile of bricks big enough to build a house, and having a house made of bricks. Since Scripture is not always clear, and some doctrines are implied rather than explicitly stated, there are other things besides Scripture that have been handed on to us from the apostles. These are things like Sacred Tradition (the mortar that holds the bricks together in the right position and order), and the Magisterium or teaching authority of the Church (the trowel in the hand of the Master Builder). These three things together are formally sufficient for knowing the revealed truth of God.
The Church's authority is clearly shown in Scripture, and is present in a line that goes from Jesus through the apostles to the bishops and elders they appointed, and then on into history through the following succession of bishops. This authority is delegated by Jesus to the apostles: "He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me" (Matt 10:40). The Church is the authority in disputed matters, and has the power of binding and loosing (see Matt 18:15-18), and this authority is exercised and passed on. We know from Ephesians 3:21 that the Church will exist for all generations (and from Matthew 16:19 that the powers of death will not prevail against it), and we also know from Eph 4:11 that the office of apostle continues. This office is passed down through apostolic succession as new bishops are ordained. The first example of this is in Acts 1, where Peter interprets one of the Psalms to indicate that Judas must be replaced. Similarly, St Paul in several places gives instructions about ordaining bishops, and about the type of man who ought to have that role.
A good example of the Church's authority, and of Tradition in action helping to develop a doctrine not formally presented in the Scriptures of the time, is the Council of Jerusalem, and the debate over whether believers needed to be circumcised. Acts 15 describes how the leadership of the Church, the apostles and elders, met in Jerusalem to discuss whether the flood of gentile converts to the Church needed to be circumcised. If the decision was to be based on the plain text of Scripture, they would have unrolled their Scriptures and seen that God gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision as an "everlasting covenant" (Gen 17:7, 10). They would have seen that circumcision, the sign of the covenant, applied not just to Abraham's descendants but to those who were "not of your offspring" (Gen 17:12), those who wished to join the covenant by conversion (Ex 12:48). They would have seen that all the Patriarchs were circumcised, that Moses was circumcised and the covenant renewed and reinforced in the Law (Lev 12:3), and that all the prophets, all the apostles, and Jesus himself were circumcised (Luke 2:21). They would also have recalled that Jesus said not one jot or tittle of the Law would pass away (Matt 5:18).
In spite of all this, the Council declares that Gentile converts did not have to be circumcised. The unwritten apostolic Tradition (paradosis, in Greek) plays a big part in determining how the Scriptural information is interpreted. There was the paradosis of Jesus' command to preach the Gospel to all nations (Matt 28:19), the paradosis of Peter's revelation from the Holy Spirit not to call unclean what God has made clean (Acts 10:15), the experience of Paul and Barnabas in their work with the Gentiles (Acts 15:12), and of Philip with the Samaritans (Acts 8:5-6) and with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:28-38). Peter stands up at the Council and appeals to the apostolic authority delegated to him by Christ and tells how God showed his acceptance of the Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit and purifying their hearts by faith. It's not until the end of the Council that James quotes from Scripture (Acts 15:16-18, cf Amos 9:11-12). Scripture is seen to agree with the Church's authoritative judgement ("with this the words of the prophets agree", Acts 15:15), but is not necessarily used to determine the Church's judgement.
The point of all this is that the Council of Jerusalem, just like the Catholic Church, views Scripture in the context of the Church's Tradition and magisterial, apostolic authority. All of the Church's doctrinal developments proceed in a similar fashion. Each development has a basis in Scripture, either explicit, or in implicit, "mustard seed" form, and the connection of the text to the doctrine is most clearly seen when the Bible is read in the light of the apostolic Tradition.
Finally, there is also the important distinction between "big-T" Tradition and "little-T" traditions. "Little-t" traditions are things like styles of prayer, devotional habits, songs, rituals like blessing the kids at bed time, disciplines like doffing one's hat when passing the Church or abstaining from meat on Fridays, things that may contribute to our piety but are not essential to the faith. "Big-T" Tradition, on the other hand, is stuff that cannot be changed and is fundamental. Examples include the Canon of Scripture; the fact that public revelation ceased with the death of the last apostle; and the fact that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour is "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, one in Being with the Father".
Except where specified otherwise, the contents of this website are © copyright KiwiCatholic.com. Articles may be downloaded or printed out for private reading, but may not be uploaded to another Internet site or published, electronically or otherwise, without express permission from the author.