Why a discussion on Roman Catholic tradition? To fully understand Roman Catholicism, it is important to make clear the definition of tradition from the Catholic viewpoint versus the definition of tradition from the Protestant viewpoint.
Protestants believe that tradition is permissible in the church provided it is consistent with Scripture. The Scripture is to be the final authority on all matters related to faith and doctrine. In contrast Roman Catholicism views tradition as a second source of God’s revelation to mankind, and therefore both Scripture and tradition are to be held as equals.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches the following:
“This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, ‘the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.'” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 78
“As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, ‘does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.'” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 82
“There is a formula current in Christian teaching (and the formula is borrowed from St. Paul himself) that traditional truth was confided to the Church as a deposit which it would guard and faithfully transmit as it had received it without adding to it or taking anything away. This formula expresses very well one of the aspects of tradition and one of the principal roles of the living magisterium. But this idea of a deposit should not make us lose sight of the true manner in which traditional truth lives and is transmitted in the Church. This deposit in fact is not an inanimate thing passed from hand to hand; it is not, properly speaking, an assemblage of doctrines and institutions consigned to books or other monuments. Books and monuments of every kind are a means, an organ of transmission, they are not, properly speaking, the tradition itself. To better understand the latter it must be represented as a current of life and truth coming from God through Christ and through the Apostles to the last of the faithful who repeats his creed and learns his catechism.” – Catholic Encyclopedia, “Tradition and the Living Magisterium”
Is it possible to have two equally authoritative sources of truth? What if, perhaps, there was a contradiction between the two? Which source would have the final say: Scripture or tradition? This is a question that must be considered.
Inspiration of Tradition
Tradition is spoken of in Scripture in both positive and negative ways, but nowhere are we told that tradition is inspired. However, there is no question that the apostles taught oral truths. For several decades following the death of Christ, the New Testament canon had not been widely circulated. Without a copy of the apostles’ writings, the only way one could gain information would be to ask an apostle himself. The question is were these oral truths taught by the apostles extra-biblical? Or perhaps, were they ultimately preserved in their scriptural writings?
Authority of Tradition
In Roman Catholicism, Sacred Tradition is to be considered equally authoritative as Scripture. From where does this authority of tradition come? Biblically speaking, nowhere are we told that tradition is to be equally authoritative as Scripture. Throughout the pages of the Bible, tradition is always set against the standard of Scripture, not Scripture set against the standard of tradition.
But is there any biblical basis for Rome’s teaching on tradition? Is there any way to validate such teaching? Was oral tradition meant to be equally authoritative as Scripture? If tradition was to be held equal to God’s written Word, there would certainly be evidence in the pages of Scripture. Can we find evidence of the concept? Let’s take a look:
During the life and ministry of Jesus, the Scripture was the final authority for all matters of faith and doctrine. For example when Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, what authority did He invoke? He could have very well invoked His own authority as God. But what did He say to the devil?
“And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” – Matthew 4:3–10
In every instance of Jesus being tempted, Jesus did not invoke His own authority. Instead, He invoked the authority of Scripture. In fact in the New Testament alone, the phrase “it is written” is found 63 times. Not only did Jesus respond to the devil with Scripture, but even the devil himself attempted to use Scripture against Jesus. This speaks volumes about the inherent authority of God’s written Word. Not only was Scripture the final authority during the life and ministry of Jesus, but it was also during the lives and ministries of the apostles themselves.
Tradition in the Bible
The Scripture speaks both for and against tradition:
- Against tradition:
“But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; 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.” – Matthew 15:3–6
“For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.” – Mark 7:8–9
“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.” – Colossians 2:8
- For tradition:
“Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.” – 1 Corinthians 11:2
“Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” – 2 Thessalonians 2:15
“Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.” – 2 Thessalonians 3:6
Is Paul proposing that his spoken words, beyond what is written, are to be taken as authoritatively as Scripture? We have no evidence to suggest the truths Paul spoke were beyond what he wrote. In fact, what did Paul write in 1 Corinthians 4?
“And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another.” – 1 Corinthians 4:6
Paul himself instructed his audience in Corinth not to think of men above that which is written. Why? Because when men, even the apostles themselves, are thought of more highly than Scripture, it opens the door to boasting and pride. The bottom line is that oral tradition (i.e. oral truths passed from one person to another) is not to go beyond what is written.
There is no evidence to suggest that tradition is inspired by God. Furthermore, nowhere in Scripture is tradition found to be declared equally authoritative. So how does Rome justify its beliefs? If Rome appeals to Scripture to substantiate its tradition, then by definition Scripture is greater. If Rome appeals to the apostles’ oral teachings or its own magisterium to substantiate its tradition, then it is thinking of men above that which is written (1 Corinthians 4:6). Tradition cannot be considered equal with Scripture. There is a place for tradition and a place for Scripture, but we cannot nullify the commandment of God for the sake of tradition. Scripture checks tradition.