Just for Catholics

Sacred Tradition

Question: As a Catholic I was always taught that God's Word is in Scripture and apostolic Tradition. Tradition is God's Word that has been handed down orally. The apostle Paul says: "Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle" (2 Thessalonians 2:15, KJV).

Answer: This issue is one of the fundamental differences between Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Christianity.

Evangelicals believe in the sufficiency of Scripture. "The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men" (Westminster Confession).

In addition to Scripture, Catholics also regard Tradition as the Word of God. "Both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence" (Dei Verbum).

What is Tradition

The word "tradition" has several meanings; so let's define from official Catholic writings what is meant by Tradition.

"The Council (of Trent) clearly perceives that this truth and rule are contained in the written books and unwritten traditions which have come down to us, having been received by the apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the apostles by the dictation of the Holy Spirit, and have been transmitted as it were from hand to hand." Further, the Second Vatican Council adds, "Sacred Tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its integrity."

In other words, Tradition is a body of undefined teachings, apart from the Holy Scriptures, allegedly of apostolic origin, that is passed on from generation to generation through the church, and especially through Catholic bishops.

Hold the Traditions

You quoted 2 Thessalonians 2:15 to support this concept of "Tradition" but a closer look reveals that the apostle Paul has something different in mind. Writing to the believers in Thessalonica, among whom he had personally laboured, he says:

But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. (2 Thessalonians 2:13-15).

The apostle Paul had preached the Gospel to the Thessalonians, and they believed the truth for their salvation. Now that he was absent, Paul exhorted them to hold on to the "traditions" he had passed on to them. These traditions, or teachings, are simply the truths of the Gospel which the apostle Paul had "handed on" to them by two means: by preaching ("by word") and by writing ("our epistle"). There is nothing here about the perfect transmission of an undefined body of teachings through a succession of bishops.

The argument for the Catholic concept of Tradition based on 2nd Thessalonians is erroneous - it is a logical fallacy of ambiguity. The same term, the word "traditions", is used with two different meanings. In Paul's epistle it means one thing (the divine doctrines handed on personally by an apostle to the church); it means something entirely different in Catholic theology (namely the transmission of God's Word from one generation to another by the church).

Our situation is radically different from that of the Thessalonian Christians in the first century. They had the privilege of welcoming a living apostle among them. They heard the apostle speak to them; we cannot do the same, simply because there are no apostles today.

Tradition Nullifies God's Word

How then can we learn the Word of God since we are living so many centuries after the apostles? The Lord has preserved and transmitted the apostolic message in the New Testament. Therein we find an infallible record of the apostolic traditions, their message, the gospel. In the same manner, the prophets of old preached God's Word to the Jewish people in their generation. Later generations had access to their message only in the books of the Old Testament Scriptures - and nothing else. The Jews were not supposed to find the Word of God in the Holy Scriptures as well as some form of oral tradition. In fact the Lord Jesus warned them about this very thing in Mark 7.

Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?”

He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:

    ‘This people honors Me with their lips,
    But their heart is far from Me.
    And in vain they worship Me,
    Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men — the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.” He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban” ’ (that is, a gift to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

How serious are these words of our Lord; how we ought to give them our full attention! We are bound to repeat the same mistakes of the Pharisees unless we take heed. Christ warns us plainly of the tendency of man's religious inventions to supplant the Word of God. Three times he charged the Pharisees: "Laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men." "You reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition." "Making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down." The origin of their traditions was lost in antiquity, but these old traditions came to be regarded as authoritative. The Pharisees expected everyone to obey, and they were offended because the disciples did not keep these regulations. The Scriptures were interpreted by their traditions, and so, in practice, tradition superseded the written Word. The end result was disastrous. Like the addition of a small amount of poison to a glass of water, so is the addition of human tradition to God Word. The Word of God is rendered "of no effect" -- void and useless to true spirituality.

Human or Divine Origin

"But," the Catholic apologist protests, "Sacred Tradition should not be confused with mere traditions of men. Jesus condemned traditions if they were contrary to God's commands, but He never condemned Sacred Tradition."

He never commended Sacred Tradition either! Jesus often referred to the Scriptures as the Word of God, but He never promoted tradition of any sort to an equal status of the written Word. If effect the Roman Catholic magisterium is repeating the same error of the Pharisees; they have exalted certain doctrines and practices which had their origin in the post-apostolic period, and pronounced them as authoritative and binding on all believers.

Go back to 2nd Thessalonians for a moment. What evidence do you have that Paul's "oral" traditions refer to doctrines other than the Gospel truth he mentioned in the previous verse? Can the Catholic bishops give us one single sentence Paul said in any one of his sermons? What evidence do you have that Paul's oral teaching included such things as papal universal jurisdiction, the Marian dogmas, veneration of statues and auricular confession? The words of the holy fathers are claimed to witness to the presence of Sacred Tradition -- well, what solid evidence is there from the early fathers of those doctrines?

The Pharisees censured the disciples of Christ because they ignored their venerated "tradition of the elders." Today Roman bishops do the same to Christians because we would not follow their "Sacred Traditions" -- they curse us for not saluting their images; sternly warn us that we stand condemned and have fallen away from the divine faith because we do not believe their novel Marian dogmas, and exclude our communities from the universal church because we do not submit to the bishop of the capital city of the old Roman Empire.

It would be much better for you as a Catholic to question whether your church has fallen into the same trap as the Pharisees of old. For if "Sacred Tradition" is nothing but doctrines of human origin rather than the holy Word of God, the consequences are dreadful. Remember God's warning: "In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men."

Copyright Dr Joseph Mizzi. Updated Mar 2012.
Permission is given to copy and distribute this article without textual changes.

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