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Tradition, Bible, or Both?

Fundamentalists say the Bible is the sole rule of faith. Everything one needs to believe to be saved is in the Bible, and nothing needs to be added to the Bible. The whole of Christian truth is found within its pages. Anything extraneous to the Bible is simply wrong or hinders rather than helps one toward salvation.

Catholics, on the other hand, say the Bible is not the sole rule of faith and that nothing in the Bible suggests it was meant to be. In fact, the Bible indicates it is not to be taken by itself. The true rule of faith is Scripture plus Tradition, as manifested in the living teaching authority of the Catholic Church, to which were entrusted the oral teachings of Jesus and the apostles plus the authority to interpret Scripture rightly.

In Dei Verbum, Vatican II explained the relationship between Tradition and Scripture this way: "Hence there exist 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 know. 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."

The fundamentalist side usually begins its argument by citing two verses. The first is this: "So much has been written down, that you may learn to believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and so believing find life through his name" (John 20:31). The other is this: "Everything in the scripture has been divinely inspired, and it has its uses; to instruct us, to expose our errors, to correct our faults, to educate in holy living" (2 Tim. 3:17). These verses demonstrate the reality of sola scriptura, say fundamentalists.

Not so, reply Catholics. The verse from John's Gospel tells us only that the Bible was composed so we can be helped to believe Jesus is the Messiah. It does not say the Bible is all we need for salvation, nor does it even say the Bible is actually needed to believe in Christ. After all, the earliest Christians had no New Testament to appeal to; they learned from oral, not written, instruction. Until relatively recent times, the Bible was inaccessible to most people, either because they could not read or because printing had not yet been invented. All these people learned from oral instruction, passed down, generation to generation, by the Church. Granted, it would have been advantageous for them to have the Bible at hand also, but it was not necessary for their salvation.

Much the same can be said about 2 Tim. 3:17. To say that all inspired writing "has its uses" is one thing; to say that such a remark means that only inspired writing need be followed is something else. Besides, there is a telling argument against the fundamentalists' claim. It is the contradiction that arises out of their own interpretation of this verse. John Henry Newman explained it in an essay, written in 1884, titled Inspiration in its Relation to Revelation.

He said, "It is quite evident that this passage furnishes no argument whatever that the Sacred Scripture, without Tradition, is the sole rule of faith; for, although Sacred Scripture is profitable for these four ends, still it is not said to be sufficient. The Apostle requires the aid of Tradition (2 Thess. 2:15). Moreover, the Apostle here refers to the Scriptures which Timothy was taught in his infancy. Now, a good part of the New Testament was not written in his boyhood: some of the Catholic Epistles were not written even when St. Paul wrote this, and none of the Books of the New Testament were then placed on the canon of the Scripture books. He refers, then, to the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and if the argument from this passage proved anything, it would prove too much, viz., that the Scriptures of the New Testament were not necessary for a rule of faith."

The Bible actually denies that it is the complete rule of faith. John tells us that not everything concerning Christ's work is in Scripture (John 21:25), and Paul says that much Christian teaching is to be found in the tradition which is handed down by word of mouth (2 Tim. 2:2). He instructs us to "stand fast, and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word or by our epistle" (2 Thess. 2:15). We are told that the first Christians "were persevering in the doctrine of the apostles" (Acts 2:42), which was the oral teaching that was given long before the New Testament was written--and centuries before the canon of the New Testament was settled.

This oral teaching must be accepted by Christians as they accepted the written teaching that at length came to them. "He who listens to you, listens to me; he who despises you, despises me" (Luke 10:16). The Church, in the persons of the apostles, was given the authority to teach by Christ; the Church would be his stand-in. "Go, therefore, making disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28:19). And how was this to be done? By preaching, by oral instruction: "See how faith comes from hearing, and hearing through Christ's word" (Rom. 10:17). The Church would always be available as the living teacher. It is a mistake to limit "Christ's word" to the written word only or to suggest that all his teachings were reduced to writing. The Bible nowhere supports either notion.

After all, God, speaking through Isaiah, promised a living voice in the Church that Christ would establish: "This is my covenant with them, says the Lord: My spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, nor out of the mouth of your children, nor out of the mouth of your children's children, says the Lord, from now until forever" (Isa. 59:21). This prophecy must refer to a living Church, the culmination of Israel, and not to a book because no book, not even the Bible, is a living teacher.

The oral teaching would last until the end of time. "But the word of the Lord lasts forever. And this word is nothing other than the Gospel which has been preached to you" (1 Pet. 1:25). Note that the word has been "preached"--that is, it was oral. This would endure. It would not be supplanted by a written record like the Bible (supplemented, yes, but not supplanted), but would continue to have its own authority.

In this discussion it is important to keep in mind what the Catholic Church means by Tradition. The term does not mean legends or mythological accounts, nor does it mean transitory customs or practices which may come and go, as circumstances warrant, such as styles of priestly dress, particular forms of devotion to saints, or even liturgical rubrics. Tradition means the teachings and teaching authority of Jesus and, derivatively, the apostles. These have been handed down and entrusted to the Church (which means to its official teachers, the bishops in union with the pope). It is necessary that Christians believe in and follow this Tradition as well as the Bible (Luke 10:16). The truth of the faith has been given primarily to the leaders of the Church (Eph. 3:5), who, with Christ, form the foundation of the Church (Eph. 2:20). The Church has been guided by the Holy Spirit, who protects this teaching from corruption (John 4:16).

Paul illustrated what Tradition is: "The chief message I handed on to you, as it was handed on to me, was that Christ, as the scriptures foretold, died for our sins. ... That is our preaching, mine or theirs as you will; that is the faith that has come to you" (1 Cor. 15:3,11). He said also, to Timothy, who was a bishop, "You have learned, from many who can witness to it, the doctrine which I hand down; give it into the keeping of men you can trust, men who will know how to teach it to others besides themselves" (2 Tim. 2:2). In other words, Timothy, one of the successors to the apostles, was to teach what he had learned from his predecessor, Paul. The apostle praised those who followed Tradition: "I must praise you for your constant memory of me, for upholding your traditions just as I handed them on to you" (1 Cor. 11:2).

The first Christians "occupied themselves continually with the apostles' teaching" (Acts 2:42) long before there was a Bible. The fullness of Christian teaching was found, right from the first, in the Church as the living embodiment of Christ, not in a book. The teaching Church, with its oral traditions, was authoritative. Paul himself gives a quotation from Jesus that was handed down orally to him: "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). This saying is not found in the Gospels and must have been passed on to Paul. Indeed, even the Gospels themselves are oral Tradition which has been written down (Luke 1:1-4). What's more, Paul does not quote Jesus only. He also quotes from early Christian hymns, as in Eph. 5:14. These and other things have been given to Christians "by the command of the Lord Jesus" (1 Thess. 4:2).

Fundamentalists have objections to all of this, of course. They say Jesus condemned tradition. They note that Jesus said, "Why is it that you yourselves violate the commandment of God with your traditions?" (Matt. 15:3). Paul warned, "Take care not to let anyone cheat you with his philosophizings, with empty fantasies drawn from human tradition, from worldly principles; they were never Christ's teaching" (Col. 2:8). But these verses merely condemn erroneous human traditions, not truths which were handed down orally and entrusted to the Church. These truths are part of what is known as Tradition (with an upper-case T, to distinguish it from lower-case human traditions or customs).

Consider Matt. 15:6-9, which fundamentalists often bring up:

"So by these traditions of yours you have made God's laws ineffectual. You hypocrites, it was a true prophecy that Isaiah made of you, when he said, This people does me honor with its lips, but its heart is far from me. Their worship is in vain, for the doctrines they teach are the commandments of men." At first glance, this seems to undercut the Catholic position, but look at the context.

Jesus was not here condemning all traditions. He condemned only those that made God's word void. In this case, it was a matter of the Pharisees making a pretended dedication of their goods to the Temple so they could avoid using them to support their aged parents. By doing this, they dodged the commandment

to "Honor your father and your mother" (Ex. 20:12). Elsewhere, Jesus instructed his followers to abide by traditions that are not contrary to God's commandments. "The scribes and the Pharisees, he said, have established themselves in the place from which Moses used to teach; do what they tell you, then, continue to observe what they tell you, but do not imitate their actions, for they tell you one thing and do another" (Matt. 23:2-3).

He told the Pharisees that they were hypocrites who "will award to God his tithe, though it be of mint or dill or cummin, and have forgotten the weightier commandments of the law, justice, mercy, and honor; you did ill to forget one duty while you performed the other" (Matt. 23:23). In short, Jesus insisted we should follow all legitimate traditions. In all these cases he was referring to traditions in the sense of customs (lower-case tradition), not to Tradition in the sense of the Church's teaching authority (upper-case). The latter is wider than the former and includes it.

The big problem, no doubt, is determining what constitutes authentic Tradition. How do we know what had been handed down by the Catholic Church is correct doctrine and practice? We know it is correct because Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church (Matt. 16:18). The Church would be indefectible; its official teaching would be infallible. To it, through Peter, Christ gave his own teaching authority (Matt.

16:19, Matt. 28:18-20). "But the Bible itself says it is the sole rule of faith!" insist fundamentalists. They quote John 5:39, in which it is said, "search the scriptures," but they don't take the phrase in context. They imagine it to be a command to the reader: "Get your Bible and verify that all Christian truths can be discovered the plain sense of the text." But that isn't what Jesus was saying. He was rebuking disbelieving Jews, not claiming that the Bible is the sole rule of faith. Jesus was pointing out to the Pharisees that the messianic prophecies were fulfilled in him.

"If you read the Scripture, you can verify this for yourselves!" He was referring to a single theme. This verse can't be stretched to mean that all religious truth can be found on the surface of the Bible.

Fundamentalists also refer to Acts 17:11, which refers to the Bereans, who "welcomed the word with all eagerness, and examined the scriptures, day after day, to find out whether all this was true." Again, here is a verse taken out of context.

What really happened is that these people had first been taught Christianity orally and now checked to see if its claims matched the Old Testament prophecies. The verse does not at all mean one uses the Bible as a check-list for all Christian doctrines. (If it meant that, there would be, again, the problem Newman brought up, that the Old Testament alone would be sufficient as a rule of faith, the New Testament unnecessary.)

What fundamentalists often do, unfortunately, is see the word "tradition" in Matt. 15:3 or Col. 2:8 or elsewhere and conclude that anything termed a "tradition" is to be rejected.

They forget that the term is used in a different sense, as in 2 Thess. 2:15, to describe what should be believed. Jesus did not condemn all traditions; he condemned only erroneous traditions, whether doctrines or practices, that undercut Christian truths.

The rest, as the apostles taught, were to be adhered to. The notion of sola scriptura arose when the Reformers rejected the papacy. In doing that they also rejected the teaching authority of the Church. They looked elsewhere for the rule of faith and thought they found it in the Bible. Really, they had no place else to look. By default, the interpretation of the Bible would be left to the individual, as guided by the Holy Spirit.

In theory this may sound fine, but it has not worked well in practice, and that argues against the truth of the theory. Actually, both reason and experience tell us the Bible could not have been intended as each man's private guide to the truth. If individual guidance by the Holy Spirit were a reality, each Christian would understand the same thing from any particular verse since God cannot teach error.

But Christians have understood contradictory things from Scripture--even Christians whose "born again" experiences cannot be doubted. Indeed, fundamentalists often differ among themselves on what the Bible means. They may agree on most major points, but the frequency and vehemence of their squabbles on lesser matters, which should be just as clear if the Holy Spirit is enlightening them, prove the sacred text can't explain itself.

--Karl Keating
Catholic Answers
P.O. Box 17181
San Diego, CA 92117