Thursday, August 12, 2010

Scripture and Tradition

One point of contention between Catholics and Protestants is the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. Most Protestants hold to the doctrines of Sola Scriptura, or "Scripture Alone." The reason I say "doctrines" rather than doctrine, is because like a great many other things, there is not a single position on Sola Scriptura in the Protestant world. On one end of the spectrum you will find those that hold that the Bible is the sole source for all matters of faith and practice. On the other end are those who say that doctrine can have other sources, but must not be contrary to the Scriptures (which is actually very close to the Catholic position). Rather than go through the myriad Protestant doctrines of Sola Scriptura, I think it would be much more useful to try to explain the Catholic position, that doctrine has three sources: The Holy Scriptures, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium, or teaching authority, of the Church. Using Scriptures, I will do my utmost to defend these teachings of the Church. By holding myself to the stricter standard of Sola Scriptura, I feel the defense of the Catholic position will be that much more compelling. I will close this post with an explanation as to why it is important to take all three into consideration.

  • The Holy Scriptures are a legitimate source of doctrine. Though some will try to claim otherwise, the Catholic Church does hold that the Holy Bible is a source of doctrine. The Scriptures speak highly of the usefulness of Scripture, and commends the study of Scripture:
    • All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable 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)
    • Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if things were so. (Acts 17:11)

Little else will be said of the Holy Scriptures as on this point all who call themselves Christian agree: The Bible is a legitimate source of doctrine.

· Tradition is not universally condemned in the Scriptures. It is a misunderstanding that tradition is universally condemned in the Holy Writ. In most cases, the individual Protestant layman should not be held accountable for this belief. In all likelihood, he or she is using one of two translations: the King James Version (KJV) or New International Version of the Bible. I am going to reproduce some verses from the KJV, the NIV, and the Revised Standard Version (RSV). Afterwards I will explain the significance of why these verses were chosen, and why it is germane to the discussion.





Mt. 15:6

So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God.

And honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.

he is not to 'honor his father' with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.


Mk 7:9

And he said to them, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition!

And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.

And he said to them: "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!


1 Cor 11:2

I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.

Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.

I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you.


Col 2:8

See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.


2 Thess 2:15

So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.

Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.


The reason I provided this chart was to show that all five of these verses, when tradition is spoken of in a negative light, the NIV substitutes the word “teaching.” If you dig you will find this is consistent in the NIV. If “paradosis” is used positively it becomes “teaching.” If used in a negative light, it becomes “tradition.” The RSV always translates “paradosis” as “tradition” and with the KJV, it is anyone’s guess. Most Protestants use one of these two translations. It becomes easy to understand why the average layman thinks tradition is universally condemned, when usually the word is used in a negative context in Protestant Bibles. Again the point I am trying to get at is that tradition is not universally condemned.

· The Scriptures establish the Church as a teaching authority. The third source of doctrine comes from the teaching authority of the Church. This, too is supported by the Scriptures:

o And I tell you, you are Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church, and the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:18-19)

o If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen take one or two along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)

o When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:13)

o I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:15-16)

Some explanation is in order. The first is this idea of “binding and loosing.” In the 21st century, the original meaning of this has been lost. In most cases, when examining Scripture, one can look at other passages with similar phraseology. The only other place this occurs is in Matthew 18:18, where the promise to Peter regarding binding and loosing is extended to the others. This does little to shed light on the meaning of the terms. It is in cases like this that we must reach outside of the Bible to understand what is meant. If one were to investigate the rabbinical traditions of the Ancient Near East, it would be discovered that “binding and loosing” is the authority to declare moral rights and wrongs. This is what was conferred to the Church, bolstered by the authority to discipline in Matthew 18:15-17, the guidance of the Holy Spirit in John 16:13, and reaffirmation of this authority in 2 Timothy. It is clear in the Scriptures that the Church has authority to teach.

As my final note, will give a brief explanation why it is important to not limit this. My Christology professor once said, “It is important to remember that every heresy can be backed up by Scripture.” This is why we must rely on the Church’s Tradition and Teaching authority to clear up disputes. As the Scriptures say, it is easy to misunderstand the Scriptures (2 Peter 3:16).


  1. I just wanted to remind readers where the Sacred Scriptures come from. It was not dictated [as the Koran] nor given already engraved [like the Commandments] was written by human hands.

    Who wrote it? Who compiled it?
    Who protected it?
    Who chose which books to include? [many more were preserved but not included]

    Yup...none other than the Holy Tradition...the people who follow His Voice...the Word.

    Holy Tradition is not a 'collection' of rules/dogmas/doctrines. It is a 'people' living & walking with God...following Him.

  2. Specifically, "Tradition" are those Truths which are revealed through the Liturgy.