Just for Catholics

Tradition and the Trinity

Question: I assume you deny the Catholic idea that Holy Tradition and the Bible are equal. Well, I can be pretty sure that you follow a little bit of Tradition. For instance, I assume you believe in the Trinity. Show me where the word Trinity is in the Bible, or where it specifically says that God is three in one, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Of course there are scriptural undertones that back up the Trinity, but the Bible never mentions the word or the doctrine of the Trinity.

Answer: If I follow you correctly, you are arguing in the following manner:

  1. You, a Protestant, follow tradition

  2. The Roman Catholic church also follows Tradition

  3. Therefore Protestants should accept the Roman Catholic notion of Holy Tradition.

Your argument illustrates a logical fallacy, which we may call a fallacy of ambiguity, or a fallacy of equivocation. The same word is used with two different meanings. That’s like the guy who protested, “The sign said ‘fine for parking here’, and since it was fine, I parked there!” Similarly, you are using the word "tradition" with two different meanings. The "traditions" that I follow have nothing to do in principle with the Roman Catholic “Holy Tradition.’

Tradition is a word that can be used in a variety of ways. I can say that it is the tradition in our church to meet twice on Sunday. In this case, tradition simply means an established custom. It can also mean an inheritance or the handing down of information and beliefs from one generation to another. Protestants believe in this "tradition" (2 Thessalonians 2:15). We spare no effort to pass on the faith to others, and to the next generation, by our verbal and written instructions.

But the Catholic theologian has something entirely different in mind when he speaks of Holy Tradition. This is the definition given by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 81): “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...” Holy Tradition is not some custom that arose in the church during history, or something that we do as a habit. It is supposed to be the pure Word of God given to the apostles by Christ and the Holy Spirit, and which came to us through the Catholic bishops.

So, when you tell me that I follow a bit of tradition, you confuse the Catholic concept of Tradition with the ordinary meaning of the word. The theological term "Trinity" was coined by the church Fathers, and you can justly say that it is a tradition, or an inheritance, which we accept. But the word "Trinity" does not originate from the apostles themselves. It is not "the Word of God entrusted to the apostles." Therefore it has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic "Holy Tradition."

I think you can see the logical fallacy, but allow me to add something else. It is amazing that in order to attack the doctrine of sola Scriptura (the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith) you are willing to undermine the Biblical evidence for the cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith. I am dismayed by what you wrote about the doctrine of the Trinity. We are not speaking about a theological term, or a creedal formulation, but about the doctrine itself. The Watchtower Society would be very glad to publish your letter! Do you really believe that there are only “undertones” to back up this doctrine, and indeed that the Bible “never mentions” it? Athanasius and Augustine would turn in their grave if they could hear such nonsense!

Here's what Athanasius has to say about this matter:

Vainly then do they (the Arians) run about with the pretext that they have demanded Councils for the faith's sake; for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a Council be needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers, for the Nicene Bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrines so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly, cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ announced in divine Scripture (De Synodis, 6).

The "divine Scripture is sufficient above all things" - including ecumenical Councils. Moreover the teaching of the Nicene Council (and any other Council) is useful and true because it is consistent with "the religion towards Christ announced in divine Scripture."

Augustine adds:

If anyone preaches either concerning Christ or concerning His church or concerning any other matter which pertains to our faith and life; I will not say, if we, but what Paul adds, if an angel from heaven should preach to you anything besides what you have received in the Scriptures of the Law and the Gospels, let him be anathema (Contra litteras Petiliani).

There is no part of the Christian faith that is not written in the Holy Scriptures! We do not need Tradition to supply some essential doctrine that is missing in the Bible.

Copyright Dr Joe Mizzi. Permission to copy and distribute this article without textual changes. < BACK TO Q&A