Jeff Cavins – Scripture is Tradition

Why do you Catholics add all those traditions to the Bible? Jesus told the Pharisees, “You nullify the word of God in favor of your traditions that you have handed on” (Mark 7:13). This is a typical question posed to Catholics by Protestants. When a Protestant objects to a Catholic teaching, such as purgatory, the Eucharist, or infant baptism, the typical question he asks the Catholic is, “Where is that taught in the Bible?”

Tragically, many Catholics leave the Church as a result of questions like these from well meaning but misguided “Bible Christians.” These questions presuppose that the scope of divinely revealed, infallible truth is confined to Scripture alone. Usually without realizing it, Protestants, who hold this presupposition, are basing their arguments against particular Catholic teaching on three untenable presuppositions: “The Bible alone is the means of divine revelation”; “The Bible alone tradition is the way the Church has received revelation from the beginning”; and “The individual Christian, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the authoritative interpreter of the Bible.”

In discussions with Protestants, if the Catholic allows these erroneous presuppositions to go uncorrected, he will not be very successful in explaining his positions and, as often happens, he may well end up adopting those presuppositions as his own.

Perhaps the greatest difference between Catholics and Protestants is in the way that the two groups view the means of receiving divine revelation. The typical Protestant view is that the only reliable, infallible source of divine revelation is the Scripture. This tradition of relying on the Scripture as the sole means of receiving Gods revelation is fairly recent, only being introduced in the 16th century by the Protestant Reformation.

Catholicism, on the other hand, is not a “religion of the book.” Rather, it is the religion of the “Word” of God (CCC 108). The Catholic Church teaches that both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the Word of God (Dei Verbum 10). The gospel (the good news) of Jesus Christ is the source of all saving truth and moral discipline, and as such it must be conveyed to all generations. Therefore, Jesus commanded His apostles to preach the gospel.

In the apostolic preaching, the gospel was handed on in two ways. The first way was orally: “By the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received, whether from the lips of Christ, from His way of life and His works, or by . . . the prompting of the Holy Spirit.” The second way was in writing “by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing” (CCC 76).

This means that Scripture itself is tradition and it is part of the greater category of Tradition (cf. 2 Thess. 2:15). Both means of transmitting the deposit of faith, Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, are bound closely together and communicate one with the other. They both flow from the same divine source, and share a common goal; to make present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ (CCC 80). I like the way Mark Shea put it in his recent book By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition. He describes the relationship between Scripture and Tradition as one, but not the same: “They were the hydrogen and oxygen that fused to form living water. They were the words and the tune of a single song. They were two sides of the same apostolic coin” (p. 120). The English word “tradition” comes from the Latin “tradere,” meaning “to hand on.” When the Church refers to Tradition she is speaking of the “handing down” of the sacred deposit of faith.

But one might wonder how the full deposit of faith could remain intact and free from the corruption of human error and tampering. This is a particularly important issue, since there was no formal New Testament to guide the Church until 393 A.D. Who would preserve and teach with authority the gospel as it spread into various cultures and continents? To safeguard the gospel, the apostles appointed bishops as their successors, giving them “their own position of teaching authority” (CCC 77). In the process of apostolic succession, we see the continuation of Jesus’ delegated authority down through the ages. For it was Jesus who said to Peter, the first pope, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19). And to His apostles Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples . . . teaching them to observe all that I command you” (Matt. 28:18-20) and “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me” (Matt. 10:40).

This idea of a living, continuing authoritative presence did not begin with the Catholic Church. In the Old Testament we see an ongoing authority in the Mosaic priesthood, as well as the royal dynasty of David and the Sanhedrin established just prior to Jesus’ birth.

Today, the bishops around the world in union with the bishop of Rome, the pope, constitute the teaching authority of the Church. This authoritative body is often referred to as the Magisterium. The Magisterium, Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are so closely “linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others” (DV 10). This is the living Tradition of the Church. This means that Tradition is the lived interpretation of Scripture and the preaching of Christ and the Apostles. In defining what apostolic Tradition is, we must first distinguish between social traditions, traditions of the Church and The Tradition. When the Church speaks of apostolic Tradition, she is not speaking of it in the sense that people traditionally open their gifts on Christmas Eve as opposed to Christmas day. Frankly, this is your own business and can be modified upon Grandmother’s approval. Nor is apostolic Tradition the numerous theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions developed in the local churches over the years. These traditions, (often referred to as small “t” traditions) can be modified or entirely dropped under the guidance of the Magisterium. The apostolic Tradition, however, comes from the apostles as they received it from Jesus’ teaching, from His example, and from what the Holy Spirit revealed to them. It is this apostolic Tradition that is referred to when the Church speaks of Scripture and Tradition making up the deposit of faith. This apostolic Tradition must be preserved and taught by the Church.

Jesus’ criticism of the Scribes and Pharisees in Mark 7:13, “that you have invalidated the word of God by your tradition,” is not a blanket condemnation of all tradition, but rather, a correction regarding a particular tradition of man (the Corban), a bad tradition that had circumvented a commandment in Scripture. According to this tradition, a son could declare that what he had intended to give his parents was considered “Corban” (ie. a gift devoted to God). Once a gift was considered “Corban” it could technically (though not actually) be no longer available for the care of his parents. Wouldn’t you condemn a tradition like that? Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger points out that the “traditions were criticized in order that genuine tradition might be revealed” (Principles of Catholic Theology, p. 95). It comes as a big surprise to some that at no time in the history of the people of God was the concept of the “Word of God” bound only to the written page. From Adam and Eve to Moses (1400 BC), oral tradition was the only means of passing on the Word of God. And from Moses to the birth of the Catholic Church on the day of Pentecost, it was clearly understood by all in God’s covenant family that the “Word of God” was made up of Tradition that was handed down both orally and in writing. St. Paul exhorted us to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours” (2 Thess. 2:15).

Cardinal Ratzinger explained that “Jesus did not present his message as something totally new, as the end of all that preceded it. He was and remained a Jew; that is, He linked His message to the tradition of believing Israel” (Ibid. 95). Receiving and handing on the Word of God in oral and written form is part of the ancient tradition of Israel.

Just weeks after the children of Israel were freed from Egypt, they settled for one year at the base of Mt. Sinai. It was there that Moses received the written Torah (the first five books in the Bible), and during the forty year period following the Exodus, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Moses put the Torah into writing.

The fact that God put His will into writing does not come as a surprise to most Christians, but what does cause surprise, particularly to Protestants, is the fact that the Jewish community of the Old Testament, as well as the people of Jesus’ time, all recognized that God gave Israel an oral law (oral tradition) in addition to the written law.

Rabbi Hayim Donin in his book entitled To Be A Jew explains that “we believe that God’s will was also made manifest in the Oral Tradition or Oral Torah which also had its source at Sinai, revealed to Moses and then orally taught by him to the religious heads of Israel. The Written Torah itself alludes to such oral instructions. This Oral Torah which clarifies and provides the details for many of the commandments contained in the Written Torah was transmitted from generation to generation until finally recorded in the second century to become the cornerstone upon which the Talmud was built” (p.24-25).

Jacob Neusner points out in his introduction to the Mishnah (the codified oral tradition of Judaism) that the oral Torah “bore the status of divine revelation right alongside the Pentateuch.” The Jewish community, from which Christianity sprang, has always understood the Torah to be both written (Sefer Torah) and Oral (Torah She-Bal Peh). Along with the written Torah, the Oral Torah which Moses received at Sinai was “transmitted to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly . . .” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:1). In nearly identical fashion, the Catholic Church has continued in this tradition of the Word of God coming to His people in both written and oral form. It is fair to say that the new concept of God’s Word coming only in the written form (Sola Scriptura) was a foreign idea to the Jews both in Moses and Jesus’ day. The Catholic teaching that “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God” (DV 10) is not some new, cleverly devised system, but is a continuation of that ancient stream our forefathers stood in. The very idea of the Word of God being both written and oral flows from our Jewish roots. It is part of the nourishing sap of the Olive Tree (Israel), and those who stand outside of this tradition stand on the shores of the still flowing ancient current.


This article by Jeff Cavins originally appeared in Envoy Magazine and is reproduced here with the permission of the author.

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