Question; Sacred Tradition 

Full Question by Ruth:

Good Day! Why do we Catholics have Sacred Traditions which is not found in the Bible? Thanks

Answer: 

As Catholics we do not hold to the Protestant reformation idea of Sola Scriptura (The Bible Alone), we believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and as such should be revered, respected, obeyed, thoroughly studied, and implemented in our daily lives. But we don’t look to the Bible as the sole rule of faith. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that only the Bible should be used as a rule of faith, in fact as we will see St. Paul instructs his readers to obey both his written letters and unwritten Apostolic Tradition.

An often used text to defend sola scriptura is from 2 Timothy,

All Scripture is inspired by God andprofitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

A Catholic response to this verse would be “absolutely!” You will not find a Pope or Church Council that would disagree that scripture is important or even the infallible Word of God. What a Catholic would disagree with is the inference that this means “only scripture”, it doesn’t say this in the text and can’t be extracted from the text without some major leaps and twists.

What Sacred Tradition Is

Sacred tradition is the traditions of the Church that were handed down by the apostles. These traditions are never contradictory of the Bible, the compliment and enhance our understanding of the Word of God.

The Apostles didn’t write everything down, they probably didn’t even write most of it down, but they taught wherever they established churches. The Apostles were bishops and it’s the bishops job to teach and shepherd his flock, and this is exactly what they done. St. Paul even instructed the Thessalonians’s to hold on to the Apostolic traditions,

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’s 2:15

Why was adhering to Tradition so important to St. Paul? These letter were written 10-15 years before even the first Gospel was written (Gospel of Mark was written in the late AD60’s). So St. Paul was passing on the teachings of Christ in oral form, and then writing letters back to these churches to remind them of what he instructed.

An example of early Christian belief that wasn’t written down is the assumption of the Virgin Mary, this was taught and held from the earliest days of the church but was never defined as a dogmatic doctrine until the 1950. That isn’t because it was “invented” by Pope Pius XII, but because he was inspired to codify what had been taught since the early days of the church.

The best defense for this idea of unwritten tradition comes from St. John’s Gospel,

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;  but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:30-31

The purpose of the Gospel is to introduce us to the person of Jesus Christ, His teachings, and His Good News. We are introduced to these things so that we may believe and have eternal life.

The Bible is not a systematic manual of theology, Jesus gave us the Good News and the way to salvation and set up a Church to teach and lead us in this new way of life.

The question of scripture and tradition was addressed by the Vatican 2 document Dei Verbum:

And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (see 2 Thess. 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (see Jude 1:3) (4) Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes. This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. (5) For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her. The words of the holy fathers witness to the presence of this living tradition, whose wealth is poured into the practice and life of the believing and praying Church. Through the same tradition the Church’s full canon of the sacred books is known, and the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her; and thus God, who spoke of old, uninterruptedly converses with the bride of His beloved Son; and the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel resounds in the Church, and through her, in the world, leads unto all truth those who believe and makes the word of Christ dwell abundantly in them (see Col. 3:16).

Dei Verbum paragraph 8


Didn’t Jesus condemn tradition?

Yes and no. Jesus condemned the traditions of man, traditions that ran counter to principles laid out in scripture, but He also affirmed certain traditions that didn’t conflict with scripture.

Jesus said that He respected the teaching authority of the Pharisees because they occupied “Moses’ seat”, even though this was a tradition and found nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. This “seat” may have been a literal chair in the temple, or a figurative position, but Jesus respects it nevertheless,

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.

Matthew 23:2-3

There are several verses used to attack the traditions of the Church,  some are from the mouth of Christ and a couple from St. Paul, but when these verses are cited they usually lack context.

Colossians 2:8 is sometime cited against tradition, but this is about those who insisted that new Christians must adhere to Jewish customs to be Christian, and also ignores St. Paul’s other mentions of tradition (both times saying we should hold onto it).

Why Tradition 

Getting back around to your question, the reason we have tradition is because it helps us live out the words of Christ.

I believe the council fathers, at the second Vatican council, sum it up better than I could. Once again I’ll defer to Dei Verbum the council tells us about how related scripture and tradition really are, and how they interrelate and compliment each other:

Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit. To the successors of the apostles, sacred Tradition hands on in its full purity God’s word, which was entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit.  Thus, by the light of the Spirit of truth, these successors can in their preaching preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same devotion and reverence.

Dei Verbum paragraph 9

Thank you for your question and I hope this answer is satisfactory.

(This question was asked on my site by Ruth. If you’d like to ask a question yourself, please visit this page Questions about Catholicism )

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2 thoughts on “Question; Sacred Tradition ”

  1. Hi Charles. Thanks for putting the time in on explaining what tradition means to you. I am not assuming that you speak for the Catholic magisterium but you seem to have done a very good job at explaining what the official position is. Still, I address these comments to you individually, in case the Catholic position might vary slightly, and because you do not claim to speak for the Catholic church.

    If I may, I’d like to talk about your reference to 2 Thessalonians a bit. This is a very frequent citation to justify or explain how Catholic tradition is justified. And indeed the text contains the word “tradition”. But what does this text say?

    Let’s look at the church at Thessalonica, and indeed what Paul was facing here when he was inspired to write this letter.

    The apostles had taught, as Jesus had, that Jesus would be coming again to establish His kingdom on earth. (see Matthew 24 and other places, and of course this is reflected wholly in Revelation). As they taught this, there were some who thought that this second coming was imminent, as regular folks would naturally. What isn’t so well known is that there were some who were teaching that Jesus had ALREADY come again. And people were hearing this (false) teaching and thinking “hey, I missed it!” which of course didn’t bode well for them. But Jesus had said, in Mark 13:21-27:

    “21 And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23 But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.

    The Coming of the Son of Man
    24 “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

    That’s so powerful! This theme is repeated in multiple places, but Jesus told us that false prophets will arise, and the beast (Satan) will attempt to deceive people, but when Jesus comes again, there will be no missing Him.

    But, the Thessalonians had been told just this, that Jesus had already come again and they missed it. It was an attempt to deceive them. We do not know how they were told, if it was in person, by letter, or other means, but the deceivers made it clear that it was coming from Paul (which of course it wasn’t). So here we have Paul attempting to calm the Thessalonians and correct them on the truth, that he didn’t spread this false teaching (and mostly, he was telling them that it was false).

    That’s why we see in 2 Thess 2:1-3:
    “2 Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers,[a] 2 not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. 3 Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness[b] is revealed, the son of destruction,”

    Paul is telling them “what you heard, however it was communicated, didn’t come from me, and remember it isn’t time yet, since the signs are not there.”

    Paul then goes on to talk about the beast, the deceiver, and the false teachings he brings to earth. Satan spreads false teachings, and leads people astray, so that they fail to believe and be saved, as Jesus had taught (see John 6:40 and about 100 other texts).

    “9 The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, 10 and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. ”

    Paul here warns against a false gospel, a deceiving gospel that was being passed around.

    So now we get to the text you cited. Following along in the chapter, we see this (2 Thess 2:13-15)

    “13 But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits[d] to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. 14 To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”

    Paul concludes this section (on false teaching and second coming of Christ) by thanking God for saving through faith the people of the church (remember, only believers were in these churches, unlike today), and FOR THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST (sorry for caps, emphasis very important here). What was the gospel? The gospel that Jesus taught, that belief in Him, who was sent by the Father, was the only road to eternal life.

    Paul then finishes by telling the Thessalonians that they should not be dissuaded from the gospel that Jesus taught (and Paul taught after Him) but to hold on to these “traditions” (the gospel) that the apostles passed on.

    There is nothing in this text that implies, let alone requires, some secret teaching that isn’t part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Quite the opposite, Paul warns (as does Jesus in Matthew, Paul in other letters, Peter and others) that false teachings will arise, in an attempt to deceive, but that Christians (believers) should hold fast only to those things that Jesus taught, which were passed down by the apostles, and also were captured wholly (inspired by God) in the Bible.

    I hope this helps.

    I have a question for you on the Catholic definition of tradition, as you passed along above. If there are teachings of the apostles that were not captured in the Bible (therefore not the inspired or “God-breathed” infallible truth), how do you know that something that someone teaches you is true? Remember that false teachings were prevalent in the early church, and also during history, and very much so today. How do you, Charles, decide if a teaching that you get from a bishop is actually true or not? Do you believe them because of their position? (despite biblical warnings to test teachers) Do you compare what they say to scripture and make sure it is true, like the Bereans did with Paul? If the magisterium claimed that apostolic tradition, however they define it, mandates that Catholics must give up 50% of their possessions in a “tithe” to be able to go to heaven (silly example, but stay with me on this), how do you respond? Since it sounds silly, do you reject it? You cannot and remain a Catholic if it’s official. Do you immediately sell half of your stuff and send it in? What’s your response? I”m curious, and yes it is a silly example, but the principle is vitally important.

    God bless. Please let me know if you haven’t studied Thessalonians before and would like to hear some very good sermons on it. It’s fascinating!

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    1. John,
      I don’t mean to be rude but I’ve actually heard all of these arguments before, I even made some of them myself. I was an evangelical Protestant that was raised as a Presbyterian before I became Catholic. I didn’t join the Catholic Church blindly, especially after hearing for years from the pulpit who it is the “whore of Babylon.” It took me over 10 years of studying to finally come to see the truth. All of your questions deserve honest and thorough answers but I just don’t have the time to do so right now. This is a conversation best had in person, or on the phone, because writing a detailed response to each of your many questions would require me to take a week off from work lol and then I’m sure you’d have 30 rebuttals to my 10 answers. But like I said you do deserve answers to your questions so may I suggest trying Catholic.com or calling into the Catholic answers live radio show.
      Also if I may recommend a couple books to you. The Protestant’s dilemma by Devon rose, and Born Fundamentalist Born Again Catholic by David Currie.
      God bless

      Like

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