The authority of Tradition

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is No. 8 in the series. Please read my introduction and explanation here.

Tradition in the Catholic Church is nothing like your family’s annual Thanksgiving turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, pumpkin pie, and flag football in the backyard. And it’s nothing like the Jewish familial roles and customs that Tevye sings about in Fiddler on the Roof. Tradition in the Catholic Church is something very different indeed.

The Bible says that, “Faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”1 God uses his word, in one form or another, whether read on a page or heard spoken by a preacher or friend, to reveal truth of himself that convicts and convinces a soul to believe. Now that this soul belongs to God, he or she will naturally want to know more about him . . . what he has done, what he has promised, and how one should live. That is one reason why God divinely inspired men throughout the centuries to record his thoughts, words, and deeds and his plan of reconciling a lost world to himself, in what we know as the Old and New Testaments . . . the Bible . . . Holy Scripture.

But that was a long time ago. How does one know that a collection of books, the latest of which is almost 2000 years old, is really God’s word to us?

I think the first thing we would want to do is establish the accuracy of the text we now have in relation to the originals. And we can do that, as I outlined in my previous post here. Our confidence that we can read virtually the exact words that were penned in the first century is what leads us to believe that they were God-breathed. And in a nutshell, here’s why. The evidence for Jesus life, death, and resurrection is so strong that we can believe he is who he said he was, i.e. God in the flesh. As God, he quoted and witnessed to the inspiration of the Old Testament. And as God, he taught and empowered selected men who walked faithfully with him to accurately spread the Gospel to their contemporaries, and to record it in writing for future generations, promising them that his Spirit would guide them as they spoke and wrote. Some of these men wrote it down themselves, some used a secretary of sorts, and others relayed the truth to personal associates who then wrote it down.

As these New Testament texts began to be distributed and collected, the early church recognized their inspiration, partly because they were so close in time to the events recorded. And they recognized the importance and uniqueness of that inspiration, rejecting documents that didn’t meet the criteria. Though the earliest list of New Testament books considered to be in the canon of Scripture, from AD 175, does not include Hebrews, 1 or 2 Peter, James, and one of John’s letters, and does include two books that are not in the list of canonical books from AD 340, which is the same as we have today, it’s important to note that the early church distinguished between what was inspired and what was not.

Now back to tradition. Because of her claim to apostolic succession, which I addressed in my last post, the Catholic Church asserts that, in the same way that Scripture is inspired by God, so too is her doctrine and teaching, which she calls Tradition. It is a separate body of truth that has the same weight, validity, and divine authority as Scripture. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “’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.’ This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it.” (77-78)

So through this doctrine of a body of ever-continuing, newly-revealing, inspired truth separate from but equal to Scripture, the Church claims the right and authority to teach whatever she wants as the word of God. But this is in direct opposition to what the early church did in taking care to distinguish as inspired only those writings which were from the first century authored by Jesus’ selected apostles or their close associates. Even the early church fathers made distinctions between their own writings and the inspired works of Scripture.

What’s more, the church fathers did not agree on all doctrinal issues, so how can they all have been writing with the same teaching authority as the New Testament writers?

The doctrine of sacred Tradition in the Catholic Church has contributed to a host of distorted teachings and unbiblical practices, many of which I have or will address in this series. And it depicts Scripture as incomplete and ineffectual by itself. The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum states, “It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others.” And we are to understand from paragraph 77 of the Catechism which I quoted above that “the full and living Gospel” is not preserved without it.

But it is preserved, and complete, in what all Christians recognize as the authoritative word of God, the Bible. This word is the “sword of the Spirit,”2 “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”3 This word, through which we are born again to eternal life, is sufficient, and the only dependable inspired word of God we have.

Everything else should be treated as what it is…the word of man.

1 Romans 10:17
2 Ephesians 6:17
3 Hebrews 4:12