Scripture and Tradition
In order to reveal himself to men, in the condescension of his goodness God speaks to them in human words: “Indeed the words of God, expressed in the words of men, are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like men.” Through all the words of Sacred Scripture, God speaks only one single Word, his one Utterance in whom he expresses himself completely.
CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH 101-102
What is Tradition?
When a Catholic refers to “Tradition” or “Sacred Tradition,” he is referring to a specific body of unchanging divine revelation. This is different from the “traditions” that include legends, customs, disciplines, or practices that may change from time to time or region to region—for example, to pray facing East or to fast on certain days or to immerse three times during baptism.
Every community has traditions of this latter sort. A family, for example, might have a tradition of not cutting the Thanksgiving turkey until all the relatives arrive. Yet if one year a distant uncle shows up late and people are already seated and enjoying the meal, he may be upset, but he can hardly accuse the family of violating divine revelation.
In a similar way, it’s customary for the President of the United States to take his oath of office surrounded by his family and all living presidents. But again, this is a custom, not a matter of divine law. His presidency is not invalidated if he decides to change the tradition. Sacred Tradition is not simply “doing it the way we’ve always done it.”
Sacred Tradition, in contrast, is the Word of God. It is divine revelation in both its written form in Scripture and its oral form as teachings passed on from the apostles and carried out in the life of the Church through the centuries. Sacred Tradition, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church say, “comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not have a written New Testament and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition.”
In the New Testament, the Greek word for “tradition” (paradosis) is used by both Christ and the apostles with both positive and negative connotations. Christ castigates the traditions of the scribes and the Pharisees that made void the Word of God. On the other hand, he distinguished between true and false tradition and instructed his followers to adhere to the interpretive traditions that did not counter God’s revelation (see Mt 15:13; 23:2,3). The apostles typically used “tradition” in a positive way, referring to what they had received from Christ and the Holy Spirit.
The apostles did not plan on passing along divine truth through Scripture alone. When they were faced with conflicts within the local churches, they urged Christians to consult more than the written word. “So then, brethren,” insisted St. Paul stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thes 2:15; see also 3:6; 1 Cor 11:2; 15:2,3). Writing was not the only reliable way of passing along the Word of God.
A tremendous amount of material related to the life and teachings of Jesus was contained in the apostles’ teaching but didn’t make it into the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. John, for instance, writes: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you many believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:30, 31).
John selected the events and sayings from the life of Jesus that would achieve his literary purpose in composing the gospel. But he hadn’t exhausted the material. In fact, he declared that the whole world could not contain the books that could be written describing Jesus’ life (see Jn 21:25).
When Paul delivered his farewell address to the Ephesian clergy, he noted that he had spent three years with them declaring the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Yet we have just a minute portion of this teaching in his letter to the Ephesians, which runs to only six small chapters. During the course of his speech in Acts, St. Paul quoted Jesus saying that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” This quote, however, appears nowhere in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. St. Paul was drawing upon the oral apostolic tradition. The apostolic tradition thus extends beyond what the apostles wrote and was orally passed along by the ordained teachers of the Church. For that reason, the Fathers of the early Church often appealed to “a tradition received from the apostles” to justify certain practices and beliefs.
What is an example of Sacred Tradition not found in the Bible?
The designation of which books are Scripture—what we sometimes call the “canon of Scripture”—is one example. “Canon” is from a Greek word simply meaning “measuring rod or rule.” It’s easiest to think of the canon as a ruler or yardstick.
Have you ever wondered why certain books are included in the Bible? Why not others? Who decided? Who had authority to distinguish God-inspired texts from those that were merely edifying, that were doubtful, or that were just plain forgeries? Where did that authority come from? Can it be trusted?
Without an authoritative teaching community, there could have been no closing of the “canon of Scripture”—no one to say decisively, “No other books can be counted as Scripture.”
This is significant because people often want to add to or eliminate certain books from the Bible. One of my seminary classmates wanted to replace the Old Testament readings with more contemporary writers such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Thomas Merton. (As committed Christians, King and Merton would have been appalled.) She found these modern writers more meaningful and inspirational than 2 Kings and Leviticus.
For her, a text’s inspiration was determined by its relevance and meaning to the individual. The Protestant reformer John Calvin, in his magisterial Institutes of the Christian Religion, seemed to hold a similar view: “The word will never gain credit in the hearts of men till it be confirmed by the internal testimony of the Spirit.” In other words, we know what is divine Scripture because it attests to itself in our hearts. We feel its power and inspiration over us.
The problem with this view is twofold: First, how many of us feel moved by the Spirit while poring over the animal sacrifice minutiae of Leviticus or tabernacle construction plans in Exodus?
Second, what about the chaos produced when every one follows his own subjective feelings in pursuit of establishing some public standard of Scripture? Why not include the writings of the “Ascended Masters” channeled by New Age guru Elizabeth Clare Prophet? Why not incorporate the Muslim Quran and the Hindu Bhagavad Gita? Good heavens! In the 1960s I suppose Khalil Gibran’s writings would have been inserted right between the Psalms and Proverbs!
While the Catholic Church teaches the full inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, inspired Scripture isn’t recognized by the mind of the individual but by the mind of Christ operating through his body, the Church.
During the Protestant Reformation a weightier challenge was mounted than that offered by my classmate. Martin Luther rethought the entire canon. He reevaluated seven books of the Old Testament as non-canonical and placed them after the books he considered genuinely “inspired.” Among the New Testament books, he criticized Hebrews, James, Jude, and the Apocalypse, and removed them from their traditional order, placing them at the back of the New Testament.
He even considered omitting the Epistle of James from the New Testament. “I do not regard [James] as the writing of an apostle,” he insisted, because he believed it “is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works … [it is] an epistle of straw … for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.” Nevertheless, he relented and eventually included James in its traditional place in the canon.
In our own generation, a group of scholars associated with the “Jesus Seminar” have published a volume called The Five Gospels, in which they added the Gospel of Thomas to the New Testament. Such actions press us to ask: Who speaks for the Church? How did we arrive at a closed list of books called Scripture? Who has authority to determine what books should be included in the Bible?
The historical turning points in determining the canon are well known and clear. During the first century the Jews still had an open canon but when some of the apostolic writings came to be recognized as Scripture along with the Hebrew canon (2 Pet 3:15,16; 1:21) Jewish leaders began closing their list of books. The Church, however, didn’t find it necessary to begin composing lists of Scripture until the late second century when certain heretics created their own lists and carved up the books commonly read in the local churches. We’ll discuss this later.
What is a form of sacred Tradition recognized by all Christians? The very table of contents in our Bibles is a part of Sacred Tradition passed on from the apostles through the Church fathers and to us. The Church did not confer divine inspiration on these books; it was simply recognizing it. And the Church alone was given the authority to grant such recognition formally and definitively.
An evangelical Protestant friend of mine said to me: “I don’t know how you can do it. But if you can come up with the Catholic Church by reading the New Testament, more power to you.” My response was, “If you can come up with a New Testament without trusting in the Catholic Church, more power to you!” In other words, the argument from Sacred Scripture made against Sacred Tradition saws off the very limb it’s sitting on.
Why does the Catholic Bible have more books than the Protestant Bible?
Most simply: Catholics and Orthodox rely on a pre-Christian Jewish list of inspired books. Protestants rely on a post-Christian Jewish list of inspired books. This requires some explanation.
First, we should note that this is unfamiliar territory for a lot of us. When we pick up a Bible we usually want orientation to the great plan of God and to locate our place in it. We hope for a message of love, guidance, encouragement, and consolation. We want sure teaching about life and sturdy standards for living it. In short, we want a Word from the living God.
Few of us spend time asking whether St. Paul really wrote Ephesians or whether Job is historical narrative or artful, instructive legend. We rarely ask what criteria the Church employed when it recognized particular books as “inspired”—that is, “God-breathed”.
We just accept the volume in our hands, in our pews, or in the top drawer of the Motel 6 bedside shelf as the Bible. We don’t check to see if all the books are in there or if some are added. We are rightly assured that any responsible version of the Bible contains the written Word of God and can lead to salvation in Christ (2 Tim 3:16).
Second, all Christian communities agree on the “canonical” twenty-seven books of the New Testament. But what criteria did the Church use to include some books and exclude others?
- Did the writing conform to the “canon of faith”? Here’s an important, if little know, historical detail: the word “canon” was never used in the early centuries to mean a closed list of books. “Canon” referred to a way of believing, belonging, and behaving based on the Word of God, which came from the apostles’ oral and written teaching.
We can summarize this criterion simply: we know that this writing is true because this is what we do! We don’t do these things because they are in these writings; we are already doing these things, thus the writings must be apostolic.
- Was the writing genuinely associated with an apostle? This is the most commonly mentioned test among the early Church Fathers.
- Has it been used in the churches from the beginning?
Arriving at the canon of the New Testament was a communal test of life and experience rather than a formal bureaucratic procedure. Only with Athanasius’ Easter letter of A.D. 367 do we finally have a New Testament list that fully corresponds with our current list.
Imagine the two-century-old United States not knowing the full extent of its Constitution and Bill of Rights throughout its entire history. Yet for over 330 years, there was no text that functioned as a “constitution” for the Church. Its “Constitution” was and is the ongoing, living apostolic authority that Jesus anchored within the community. Other issues aside, Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants all agree on the extent of the New Testament canon.
Third, Christian communities disagree about the extent of the Old Testament. Protestant Bibles omit at least seven books from the collection of sacred writings that are hallowed by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
The omitted seven books are called the “Apocrypha” or the “Deuterocanonicals,” meaning “second canon,” as opposed to “Protocanonicals,” meaning “first canon.” The Deuterocanonicals are considered “second” because they are, for the most part, written later than the Protocanonicals and include Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), and Baruch. Catholic Bibles also contain an additional six chapters (107 verses) in the book of Esther and another three (174 verses) in the book of Daniel.
At the birth of the Christian movement, there was no one volume called the “Old Testament.” When I was an undergraduate at Michigan State University, the rabbi who taught the Old Testament course regularly elicited chuckles from students when he told them on the first day of class that he didn’t believe in the Old Testament. “How can there be a ‘Old’ Testament,” he asked, “when I don’t agree there was ever a ‘New’ Testament? I’m a rabbi. Just let me call it the ‘Hebrew Bible.’”
A debate over the number of books in the Hebrew Bible heated up after the rise of Christianity and the split between church and synagogue in the late first century. There was a debate because neither the Hebrew nor Christian Bibles contained a “table of contents.” For most Christians and Jews, ”The Book” wasn’t finished. Even the growing writings of the New Testament didn’t set hard boundaries for the extent of the Hebrew Scripture.
Roughly, we had a threefold division: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. The “Law” (Torah) was fixed and foundational: Genesis through Deuteronomy. The Prophets were less fixed, since the Jews believed that God had temporarily ceased sending prophets to Israel as a judgment (see 1 Mc 9:27; 14:41). When Messiah would come, a new age of prophecy would begin. The “Writings” portion of Scripture was open, and debate continued over what books really belonged in that collection.
The first Christians were Jews who saw the coming of Christ as the climax of divine revelation. The giving of the promised Holy Spirit generated a final burst of prophecy that became “Scripture” (see 2 Pt 1:21; 3:15, 16; 2 Tm 3:16).
Jews who did not regard Jesus as Messiah understandably rejected these “new” Christian writings. They even cast a jaundiced eye toward those earlier accepted “Writings” used by this new sect as they argued their case for Jesus.
For instance, the time New Testament writers frequently quote from the Septuagint, a third-century B.C. Greek translation of the Old Testament that includes the Deuterocanonicals. While the New Testament never directly quotes the Deuterocanonicals, it often mirrors their thought. Thus the Septuagint grew suspect among many Jewish leaders.
Some argue that since Jesus and the apostles don’t directly quote the Deuterocanonicals, they aren’t “inspired,” that is, “God-breathed,” Scripture. But the argument proves too much, for Jesus and the apostles never directly quote from many of the Protocanonicals either. Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Ezekiel, Lamentations, Jonah, Obadiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, and Haggai are never quoted, yet all Christians accept these books as “God-breathed.”
From the end of the first into the third century, the rabbis debated the status of the Deuterocanonicals as well as some of the Protocanonicals, such as Ruth, Esther, Proverbs, Ezekiel, and the Song of Songs. When they finished, they had rejected the Septuagint and the Deuterocanonicals.
The Church, on the other hand, continued to esteem the Septuagint and used the Deuterocanonicals as Scripture. This is clearly reflected in the Church’s ancient practice. For instance:
- From the fourth century until the sixteenth-century Protestant reformation, the Church used Jerome’s Latin Vulgate as its Bible. It included the Deuterocanonicals just as the Septuagint had.
- Church councils at Hippo (393) and Carthage (397, 417) confirmed the consensus of the early Church that the Deuterocanonicals were Scripture.
- In 405 Pope Innocent I reaffirmed the judgment.
- Our earliest Greek manuscripts of the Old Testament contain the Deuterocanonicals.
So how did the Deuterocanonicals get excised? In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther became the first person in history to extract the Deuterocanonicals from their traditional order in Scripture and cluster them after the Protocanonicals. He reasoned that since they supported prayers for the dead and purgatory, they could not be inspired. The Council of Trent, however, reaffirmed the Tradition of the early Church and taught that Christians should venerate, love and obey the Deuterocanonicals just as they did the other Scriptures, for God had authored them.
Why do Catholics believe some doctrines that are not found in the Bible?
We plead not guilty. To the contrary, Catholics do believe that all their beliefs are rooted in Scripture. Some are explicit; others are implicit. Some are obvious; others are obscure.
The Bible is like a nursery garden with plants in varying degrees of maturity. Some biblical truths are like fully developed apple trees ripe with fruit. Everybody can recognize them. Others are like rosebushes just ready to bud. Still others are tiny shoots just breaking through the soil. People may disagree over what will eventually blossom.
Some portions of the Bible are germinating seedbeds whose kernels are barely detectible without a good deal of digging and reflection. But over the course of history, the Holy Spirit rains on this garden, and as the Church continues to tend the plot, it discovers and cultivates some doctrines that may have just started to sprout on the pages of Holy writ.
One of the glories of the Catholic Church as the Holy Spirit guides it into all truth (John 16:12,13) is its capacity to grow in knowledge of Scripture and discover truths that previously may have been present on the pages of Scripture but obscured. All formal Catholic beliefs, however, are grounded in the soil of Scripture, and Catholics reject any doctrines that are contrary to Scripture.
Sometimes this growing reflection on the meaning of Scripture is called “development of doctrine.” Just as in Scripture we see what theologians call “progressive revelation,” we might say development of doctrine is a “progressive understanding of revelation.”
For instance, the seed of a doctrine of atonement is planted in Genesis immediately after humanity’s original sin. God slays some animals for their skins in order to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness—something of which they’ve become aware because of their transgression (see Gn 3:8-11; 21). Later the Hebrews are saved from the plague of the death of the firstborn in Egypt when they kill a lamb and cover their lintels with its blood (see Ex 12:1-13). The Law of Moses details further priestly instructions for animal sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people (see, for example, Lv 1:1-14).
Later, the prophets of Israel and Judah begin emphasizing sacrificial obedience as superior to animal sacrifice (see 1 Sm 15:22). They aren’t calling for the end of animal sacrifice, but for developing its real intent: Sin is costly, and without the shedding of blood there can be no atonement for sin (see Heb 9:22). When Jesus begins his public ministry, St. John the Baptist presents him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He is obedient to the point of a sacrificial death (see Jn 1:29; Phil 2:8).
In this way, the doctrine of atonement had developed, but it was still true to its origin. You might say that the oak of Jesus’ sacrifice was contained in the acorn of animal sacrifice. What was embryonic in Genesis emerged maturely in the Gospels and epistles.
Another way of conceiving how the Church derives doctrines that may at first glance not appear in Scripture is to think in terms of logic. The Scripture is a collection of books rich with all kinds of declarative statements that can be divided up between premises and conclusions. Sometimes conclusions are affirmed, but the premises are left unstated. Sometimes the premises are stated, but the conclusions are not drawn or explicitly stated in the Scripture. As the Church ponders such statements, however, it is fully justified in identifying their logical premises or conclusions and then teaching these as doctrines.
The word “Trinity,” for instance, is nowhere used in the Bible. In fact, the Bible is insistent that there is but one God. The New Testament, however, presents to us three Persons with intelligence and will who are called “God.”
The Church grappled with this problem and concluded that there could not be both one God and three gods. This would be a logical contradiction. Therefore, the three divine Persons must subsist as the one God just as one might say six squares subsist as a cube. Of course, God doesn’t really have parts and is a Being in a class by himself. Nevertheless, the analogy is useful in demonstrating that six of one thing can be one of another. The Three Persons are the one God.Thus we refer to the Triune God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Development of doctrine is not a compromise with later conceptions. It simply brings to fruition and maturity what was latent and pregnant. To borrow a phrase from Wordsworth, when it comes to the history of doctrine, “the child is father to the man.”
G.K. Chesterton wrote: “When we talk of a child being well-developed, we mean that he has grown bigger and stronger with his own strength; not that he is padded with borrowed pillows or walks on stilts to make him look taller. When we say that a puppy develops into a dog, we do not mean that his growth is a gradual compromise with a cat; we mean that he becomes more doggy and not less.”
The Second Vatican Council taught:
The Tradition that comes from the apostles makes progress in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts (see Lk 2:19, 51). It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth. Thus, as the centuries go by, the Church is always advancing towards the plentitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in her.”
Were Catholics ever forbidden to read the Bible? Didn’t the Church try to keep the Bible from people in the Middle Ages?
The simple answer is no. The Cambridge History of the Bible answers the charge: “No universal and absolute prohibition of the translation of the Scriptures into the vernacular nor of the use of such translations by clergy or laity was ever issued by any council of the Church or any pope.”
It would be nice to just move on with the rest of this book, but I know from long experience that this question is asked because someone has innocently been infected by a bug of half-truth coughed up over a few centuries. I’m sorry you got caught in the spray of an anti-Catholic polemical sneeze. So here goes the unsimple answer.
“Ignorance of the Scripture is ignorance of Christ”, resounds the Catholic Church. Thus the Catholic Church has preserved, defended, copied, translated, circulated and “venerated the Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord…For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the Word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life.”
Did the Church during the Middle Ages suppress access to and knowledge of the Scripture? No! Latin was the universal language of the literate, and those who could read at all could read the Latin Vulgate, which was the “vulgar”—that is, the common—translation encouraged and authorized by the Church. For those who couldn’t read, there was no pressing need for a vernacular translation. When literacy increased, however, translations quickly emerged in Spanish, Italian, Danish, French, Norwegian, Polish, Bohemian, and Hungarian even before the invention of the printing press.
Translating the Bible into the language of the people did not begin with Martin Luther. Before Luther’s monumental German Bible of 1522, Mentelin of Strassburg’s translation appeared in 1466. By 1522, fourteen High German and four Low German editions had appeared. Italy and France also had strong traditions of vernacular printing. By the end of the fifteenth century, both Latin Vulgate and vernacular Bible printing had quickly spread through the trade routes.
Scripture in the language of the people has a long Catholic history. In England, Caedmon (died c. 680) and others rendered portions of Scripture into the vernacular. Aelfric (c. 955-c. 1020), the greatest of Old English prose writers, paraphrased Scripture portions into English.
In the sixteenth century, St. Thomas More testifies to this longstanding translation tradition: “The whole Bible long before Wyclif’s day [1330-1384] was by virtuous and well-learned men translated into the English tongue, and by good and godly people with devotion and soberness well and reverently read.” Even the Protestant translators of the Authorized (“King James”) Version of 1611 appealed to the common practice of the past in order to justify their own efforts at translation: “So that, to have the Scriptures in the mother tongue is not a quaint concern lately taken up … but hath been thought upon, and put in practice of old, even from the first times of the conversion of any nation.”
Various vernacular versions, then, were available well before the Protestant Reformation.
An oft-repeated charge is that Church leaders went so far as to chain the Bible to the altars so the people couldn’t read it. The Church did chain Bibles in this way—but to keep them from thieves, not from the people! Bibles were as valuable as houses, and thieves loved them. We chain telephone books to ensure availability, not restrict access. The Church guaranteed access to the Bible by protecting it.
Certain translations undertaken without the approval of the Church have occasionally been prohibited. The Church was, and is, duty-bound to prohibit incompetent translations. Scripture is not an individual’s possession, so “understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation. … So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you. … There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Pt 1:20; 3:16).
Love requires that more-educated Christians look out for the less-educated, so the Church must exercise a “quality control” over Scripture translation.
Civil government guards the currency by regulating the mint. When counterfeit bills begin circulating, we expect government action to stop the spread of bogus money. The Church guards the deposit of faith and has a stewardship similar to that of a modern publisher who holds the copyright on a given author’s work. She must fulfill her responsibility to insure that the Divine Author’s book is not twisted by incompetent or malicious translators.
Great and authoritative voices in the Church have always urged Catholics to intimacy with Scripture.
St. John Chrysostom (344-407): “To become adult Christians you must learn familiarity with the Scriptures.”
Pope St. Gregory I (c. 540-604): “Learn the heart of God in the words of God, that you may sigh more eagerly for things eternal, that your soul may be kindled with greater longings for heavenly joys.”
St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153): “The person who thirsts for God eagerly studies and meditates on the inspired Word, knowing that there, he is certain to find the One for whom he thirsts.”
Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903): “The solicitude of the apostolic office naturally urges and even compels us … to desire that this grand source of Catholic revelation [the Bible] should be made safely and abundantly to the flock of Jesus Christ.”
Pope St. Pius X (1902-1914): “Nothing would please us more than to see our beloved children form the habit of reading the Gospels—not merely from time to time, but every day.”
Pope Pius XII (1876-1958): “Our predecessors… recommended the study or preaching or… the pious reading and meditation on the sacred Scriptures … Christ, will men more fully know, more ardently love and more faithfully imitate… as they are more assiduously urged to know and meditate on the Sacred Letters, especially the New Testament.”
Over the centuries, Christ working through his Church has preserved the canon of Scripture, hand-copied the manuscripts, insured the accuracy of translations, and encouraged its reading. So to all people of good will, heed the instruction of Christ—and “take up and read.”