Vatican II and the Word of God Part 3: Tradition and Magisterium

Vatican II and the Word of God: Part III

Marcellino D’Ambrosio, a theologian and popular speaker, explains the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Word of God as expounded in the Vatican II document “Dei Verbum”. (part three of a series of four articles based on his talk at the Celebrate conference, Easter 2002).

Ecumenical Stumbling Block
One of the big problems that many of our evangelical brothers and sisters have with the Catholic Church is that it appears to have and endless number of traditions that seem to get in the way of the simple word of God in the Scriptures. In addition to this, Catholics uphold the Teaching authority of the Church (“Magisterium” being the Latin word for this) which seems to compete with the authority of the Bible. Interesting enough, though prior Church Councils such as Trent (16th century) had affirmed the importance of extra-biblical traditions and the teaching authority of the Church, no official document had ever really attempted to explain the exact nature of Tradition and Magisterium and how they relate to Scripture. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council, understanding the strategic importance of this issue, were determined to address all this in Dei Verbum, their Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.

Tradition and traditions
For many Catholics, the concept of tradition brings to mind various practices and customs passed down through the ages such as the rosary, the stations of the cross or genuflecting before the Blessed Sacrament. Rather than dwelling on such individual “traditions,” the Second Vatican Council preferred to examine the larger reality of “Tradition” with a capital “T.” Note how inclusive the reality of Tradition is considered to be in this key text from DV paragraph 8: “Now what was handed on by the apostles includes everything which contributes to the holiness of life, and the increase in faith of the People of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life, and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.”

Actually, this simply echoes the way Paul uses the word tradition in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 “Hold Fast to the traditions which we gave you whether by word of mouth or in writing.” In a certain way Paul uses traditions for the whole heritage both experiential and written.

“Tradition” is really the entire Revelation of God’s Word and all the abundance of life which this Word produces as it is lived out and passed on from generation to generation. It actually pre-dates the inspired text of Scripture, is the “source” from which the inspired writers draw in writing down the words of Scripture, and it forms the living context of Scripture as it is proclaimed and lived down through the ages.

Think about it. Most scholars agree that the earliest books of the Old Testament – the five first books of the Bible known as “the Pentatauch”– were not written in their final form until about 400BC. Yet Abraham lived in 1800 BC, Moses 1200 BC and David 1000 BC. So how did people get to hear about the wonderful stories about God’s dealings with these figures? How did the Jews first learn of the 10 commandments? Before the Bible was written in its final form, the Words and deeds of God were passed down orally. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the stories about the deliverance in the Red Sea, the words of the prophets–all this would all have been shared orally for hundreds of years before assuming the written form we now know as the Old Testatment.

The process of Tradition, of picking up a great and ancient heritage by living in it, is something we experience in a natural way. When you think of how we learn English, we don’t study grammar until we go to school. We simply pick it up by living in it and hearing it spoken around us. That’s the way a lot of things are in life, we learn through natural tradition. Actually, many things cannot be learned entirely by reading a book. That is why a physician spends years as an intern and resident after formal classroom studies.

Scripture and Tradition

Maybe this is why Jesus lived with the Apostles for 3 years and never wrote anything, except in sand. They heard not only his words, but the tone in his voice, the smile on his face, the anger when he was driving out the money changers from the temple. They absorbed a whole lot more than written words could ever convey.

In a similar way, Paul went to live the people in Ephesus for 2 ½ years. Later he wrote a letter back to them. Think about it – which had more impact on the Ephesians, the years they heard him teach and observed his example, or his letter of 6 chapters? That short letter is inspired by the Holy Spirit but is nonetheless limited in what it is able to transmit to us. Tradition is the larger reality of Paul living among them and passing on all that he had received from the Lord and the Apostles.

So Tradition, according to Vatican II, is everything involved in the living experience of the Word of God, passed from Jesus to the Apostles and then from one generation to the next down to us. Scripture was birthed out of this living experience which forms, as it were, Scripture’s “native habitat.” And if Scripture is to be truly understood, it must be viewed in its native habitat.

The Church in Dei Verbum was trying to show us that Scripture and Tradition are not two separate things. They are not in competition with each and we certainly don’t use Tradition to get round Scripture as the pharisees did. But Scripture is never intended to be taken apart from Tradition. It shines and only becomes fully understandable within Tradition. Tradition is meant to support and interpret the inspired Word of God. Thus for Catholics the Word of God is always Scripture in Tradition not Scripture alone.

The Scriptures are unique, however and no other Church writing – either documents or papal encyclicals are called the Word of God like the Scriptures are. They are not inspired in the way Scripture is. But it is only within that whole body of life and experience and writing called Tradition that the Scriptures take on their intended meaning for us.

Bad Traditions
How do you square this glowing description of Tradition with the harsh words both Jesus (Mk 7:1-13) and Paul (Col 2:8) had for traditions? In both cases, what comes in for criticism is traditions of human origin that get in the way of God’s commandments. “Tradition” which is spoken about by Vatican II, goes back to the Lord and the Apostles. Tradition is not about getting round or adding to the Word of God in Scripture, but helping to interpret and understand it better. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, adding a precision not specifically present in the documents of Vatican II, note that “Tradition” should be distinguished from various “traditions” which are arise over the course of the ages and are passed down. These traditions can express the Tradition and serve it, but they can also outlive their usefulness.

So who determines which traditions go back to the beginning and, as part of Tradition, are essential? Who determines which traditions of later origin may be changed? Catholics can differ even violently about such questions of tradition, as illustrated by the debate on women priests, for example. And for that matter, who determines the proper interpretation of Scripture? Different people reading the same passage of Scripture can have different opinions as to what it means (that’s why there are thousands of Christians denominations who claim to be under the authority of the same Bible!).

The Magisterium
That’s where the Magisterium comes in. This Latin word simply means teaching authority of the bishops, successors of the apostles, who teach in union with the Pope, who is the successor of Peter. It was the Magisterium of the Catholic Church in the 2nd through 4th centuries that discerned which books were inspired and were to be recognized as Scripture. It was the Magisterium of the successors of the apostles that guided and guarded the process of the handing on of apostolic tradition. Yet Vatican II makes abundantly clear that this Magisterium is not “over the Word of God, but under it. It was instituted by Christ there to serve the revealed Word of God, not to change it or add to it. Thus the Pope can’t suddenly decide to declare, for example, that there are four persons in the Blessed Trinity. He doesn’t have any such authority. That is in fact essentially what the dispute about women priests is about. The reason the Pope is against it is not to do with his personal feelings on the matter but because theologically he doesn’t have the authority to do go against Christ’s choice in Scripture for men as his apostles, and the continuous, universal tradition of the Church to admit only male candidates to the priesthood and episcopacy. Though many theologians disagree, the successor of Peter has ultimate authority to interpret Scripture and Tradition, and has decided the question in a definitive way.

The Magisterium of the Church is ultimately about having the authority to determine finally what the Word of God says through Scripture and Tradition. In the US government, the Constitution of the nation is not supposed to be changed by the Supreme Court. Those judges are supposed to be under the authority of the Constitution. Their particular authority is to determine definitively, when push comes to shove, how to interpret and apply that Constitution. In similar fashion, the Magisterium of the Catholic Church interprets, guards and preserves the teaching of the Word of God for us with one very important difference: the successors of the apostles receive a charism of truth from the Lord that aids them in their task (note the revelation Peter received in Mat 16:17). Unfortunately, there is no such guarantee of divine assistance for the US Supreme Court! When the successors of the apostles together with the successor of Peter fully engage their doctrinal authority on a matter of the Word of God, they speak definitively and with God’s authority.

Like a Three-legged Stool
God, then, has provided for us three gifts that together guarantee we can always know with confidence the truth about God and his plan for us. It is not a question of which gift is more important than the others–rather Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium together form a three-legged stool that is stable and reliable. Upon this stool, the Church can rest. If any of the legs is taken away, however the stool collapses, the Church falls, and is fragmented. The council fathers sum it up well in Dei Verbum paragraph 10 “It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.”

Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio

From a colorful and varied background as a professor of theology, a father of five, business owner, and professional performer Marcellino D’Ambrosio (aka “Dr. Italy”) crafts talks, blog posts, books, and videos that are always fascinating, practical, and easy to understand.  He is a TV and radio personality, New York Times best-selling author, and speaker who has been leading people on a journey of discovery for over thirty years.  For complete bio and video, visit the Dr. Italy page.