Scripture and Tradition

Biblical and patristic studies about the Scripture and TraditionThe apostolic proclamation, that is, Tradition is necessary to enter the understanding of Scripture and capture in it the voice of Christ. Following the Protestant Reformation, Protestantism under the banner of sola Scriptura and private judgment rejecting the Tradition of the Church and its authority as the definitive interpreter of it. In this section consistent such meditates and it analyzes consequences.

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Talking with my evangelical friends about Tradition

By José Miguel Arráiz

You can read it in Spanish, English and Portuguese.

DiálogoWe reproduce excerpts of conversations between Catholics and Evangelicals from the book "Talking with my evangelical friends", very useful in helping our fellow Christians understand the Catholic faith.

Michael: This has been very interesting, and although we have used the Bible to discuss all the topics that we have dealt, I still don’t understand why the Catholics give so much importance to tradition. Isn’t the Bible, the Word of the Lord, the only real standard of the Faith?  

Pauline: Yes, I don’t understand why you give so much importance to it, and with all the respect that you deserve, I think this is one of the reasons why you have been turning away from the truth.

Joseph: Can you explain that a little more?

Pauline: The Bible talks about the risk that the traditions can take more importance than the word of God to the point of displacing it. Jesus warned the priestly class of that time, the Pharisees as this happened to them: “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, hypocrites; as it is written: These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain, their teaching are merely human rules. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”(Mark 7,6-8). The apostle Paul also prevented us about this: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Col 2,8). If this happened to the priestly class of the time, don’t you think that this could happen to the Catholic Church today?

Joseph: If you carefully read these texts, you can see that they refer to traditions with a human origin that contradict the Word of God, but when we talk about Tradition, we refer to that which comes from Christ and the apostles[1] and the Bible also talks about them and they are ordered to keep: “I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you” (1 Cor 11,2), “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us” (2 Thess 3,6)  o “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess 2,15). Do you remember these texts?

Michael: I really don’t remember having read them in my Bible[2], but do they not refer precisely to the teachings contained in it? After all, the teaching that they received from the apostles remained in the Bible. St. Paul, for example, testifies that he always wrote the same things to them: “Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord… It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.” (Phil 3,1)

Joseph: Look, the last text that I mentioned clearly says that he doesn’t refer only to the things that he left written to them, because he talks about keeping “the teachings we passed on to you, whether by WORD OF MOUTH or by LETTER” (2 Thess 2,15). If St. Paul had meant to imply that only the traditions written in the Bible were the ones that we had to keep, he wouldn’t ask to keep the traditions that were transmitted orally or by “word of mouth”. The text that you mention can be used to prove that St. Paul was insistent with the Churches, but that doesn’t mean that he would give a full explanation of all revealed truths in his letters[3]. If we read carefully, we’ll see that he assumes that Christians already knew many things and he doesn’t give them a detailed written explanation.

Pauline: But when a message passes from mouth to mouth, it’s vulnerable to being distorted, because every person can add or remove something as we can see in daily life. Instead, what is written can’t be altered so it remains intact. The traditions can be misrepresented and changed throughout history, and this doesn’t happen with the Bible which is the Word of God. Remember Jesus ’words: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” (Matt 24,35; Mark 13,31; Luke 21,33).

Joseph: The Tradition, just like Scripture are forms of transmission of the same message that comes from the same source: Divine Revelation. We don’t think that the tradition has survived only orally, but it was transmitted in that way in the first moment[4], but then it has been attested in the writings of the early Christians, the fathers of the Church and in the decisions of the Councils.

Michael: Yes, Joseph, but the Fathers of the Church didn’t always agree on everything and they used to contradict each other. How do you find the truth among all this discordant opinions?

Joseph: Because to find the correct interpretation of the Revelation, the Church doesn’t come to them individually but to what we call the unanimous consensus of the parents[5]. The Councils, for instance, are a perfect example to understand how the early Christians came to this consensus and it is precisely one of the ways in which the Christian Church solved its differences in some important doctrinal problem[6].

Michael: Yes, but today as we don’t have living apostles, is it not wiser to just keep what the Bible teaches? After all, the apostle Paul was very clear in warning us that “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” (Gal, 1,8)

Joseph: The authority conferred by Jesus to his apostles didn’t die with them, and we can talk about that later. Regarding the text that you mention, it is precisely not to separate us from the gospel that was originally announced, that the Church uses Tradition, and to understand its importance, we must know how the Church, from its beginnings, formulated the Christian doctrine. For this reason, it was based on three pillars that can’t be separated from each other: Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium. Scripture and Tradition are means of transmission of the Revelation that serve as the material principle of theology, and the Magisterium is the authority instituted by Jesus Christ to interpret truthfully the things that are transmitted, and is for us our formal principle of theology.

If we only had a written text that could be interpreted in so many ways[7]. It is not the same thing to read a text a few centuries later and to interpret it, than to have been there and to have the apostles nearby to explain everything in detail. In this way, the Tradition has not only allowed the transmission of the biblical texts[8] but also the safeguard of its correct interpretation. The intention of doing this in that way is very clear in the Pauline texts, “and the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim 2,2). With this, even if someone inside of the Church departed from some important doctrine for the Faith, thanks to the Tradition, it could be detected that this wasn’t the original meaning of the message.

On the other hand, it is not a biblical model where the believer defines for himself each doctrine by his subjective interpretation of the Bible. Remember that St. Peter warned us: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things; for prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit”(2 Pet 1,21)

Michael: But Joseph, the Bible doesn’t mention any “magisterium” either.

Joseph: When we talk about the Magisterium, we refer to the office that was commissioned to the apostles and their successors (the bishops) that was teaching in an authorized way. The term “Magisterium” comes from the Latin magisterium, that designates the quality of the magister, “the one who teaches, the teacher”, and we know that the teaching was one of the offices instituted by Jesus Christ in the Church: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers; to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph 4,11-12).

This office was performed by the apostles and later by their successors[9], and they knew that they had the authority of Christ to exercise it.“This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed.” (1 Cor 4,1), “Instead, we were like young children among you. Just as a nursing mother cares for her children” (1 Thess 2,7)

Pauline: But if it is like you say, why does God gives us the Holy Spirit if we can’t interpret the Bible by ourselves? The apostle James says that “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (Jas 1,5). And there are so many texts like these: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14,26), “as for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit” (1 John 2,27)

Joseph: I didn’t want to say that we can’t interpret the Bible by ourselves with the help of the Holy Spirit. That is a good and healthy thing to do, but we don’t have an absolute right of doing a private judgment about those points where the Church has made a definitive decision by the power of its Magisterium. 

We can find an example of this in the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), where the first important conflict was resolved in the early Church. On the one hand, there were those of the Judaizing tendency that believed that Christians should be circumcised (Gen 17,9-12), on the other hand, there were the apostles and presbyters that determined to be assisted by the Holy Spirit when it was no longer necessary[10].

According to 1 John 2,27, if we read the context of the text, we can see that the apostle doesn’t mean that the Church doesn’t need teachers, an office that was instituted by God’s will (Eph 4,11-12) and was always present in the early Church, because the Christians “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2,42). It talks specifically about apostates who denied that Jesus was the Messiah (1 John 2,18-26) and that they had nothing to teach to the believers.

Michael: I think our conversation is very interesting, but maybe we can discuss about the traditions that come from the early Church in another time.

Joseph: With pleasure.


[1] The Catechism of the Catholic Church distinguishes between what is called the Apostolic Tradition of particular “traditions” born in the course of time: “The tradition of which we talk here is the one that comes from the apostles and that conveys what they received from the teachings and the example of Jesus and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. In fact, the first generation of Christians didn’t have the New Testament, and the New Testament testifies the process of living Tradition.” (CEC 83)

It is necessary to distinguish from it the theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional “traditions” that were born in the course of time in the local Churches. These constitute particular forms in which is adapted the great tradition in diverse places and to diverse epochs. They can only be maintained by the light of the great Tradition and they can be modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Magisterium of the Church” (CEC 83)

[2] The reason why many evangelicals and Protestants in general don’t remember the texts where tradition is commanded is that many Protestant translations (like the Reina-Valera in its various versions) replace the word παράδοσις (para-dose) which literally means tradition with synonyms like “instructions”, “doctrines”, etc., and they do it precisely in those texts where there is said that we have to maintain the apostolic traditions. The result is that every time readers find the word “tradition” in their Bibles, they only find it associated with human traditions. However, not all Protestant translations have the same problem. One of the most respected by English-speaking evangelicals is the King James version and this one correctly translates those passages.

[3]The fact that St. Paul says the he wrote the same things all the time doesn’t mean that he wrote about everything. If this was the case, we would see that his letters would contain the teachings of the gospel (sermon of the mount, our father, etc. etc. and this is not like that).

[4] Bishop St. Irenaeus (disciple of St. Polycarp, disciple of the apostle St. John) in the second century testifies how even in some regions the gospel spread only in an oral manner: “Then, if you find any divergence in anything would it not by wiser to turn the eyes to the oldest Churches where the Apostle lived, in order to take from them the doctrine to resolve the question, which is clearer and more certain? Even if the Apostles had not left us their writings, would it not have been necessary to follow the order of Tradition which they bequeathed to those to whom the Churches entrusted?

Many barbarian people give their assent to this ordination, and believe in Christ, without paper or ink in their hearts because they have written salvation by the Holy Spirit, who carefully guard the old Tradition” (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses III, 4, 1-2)

[5]  The Unanimous Consensus of the Parents (unanimous consensum Patrum) refers to the unanimous teaching of the Fathers of the Church in certain doctrines as revealed by God, and interpretations of Scripture as received by the universal Church. The Fathers are not individually infallible, and the discrepancy of some patristic testimonies doesn’t harm the collective patristic testimony. The word “unanimous” is derived from two Latin words: unus, one + animus, mind. “Consensus” in Latin means consent, agreement and harmony; share the same idea or opinion. Where the Fathers speak in harmony, with a general mind - not necessarily one and each agreeing in every detail, but being in consensus and general consent - we have the “unanimous consensus”. The teachings of the Fathers provide us with a true testimony of the apostolic tradition, as St Irenaeus of Lyon explains in the second century in his work against heresies:

“As we have said before, the Church received this preaching and this faith, and, spread throughout the earth, carefully guarded as if it were living in one family. It preserves the same faith, as if it had only one soul and one heart, and preaching teaches and transmits with the same voice, as if it had but one mouth. Certainly the languages ​​are different, according to the different regions, but the force of the Tradition is one and the same. The churches of Germania do not believe differently or transmit another doctrine different from that preached by Iberia or Celts, or those of the East, such as those of Egypt or Libya, nor of the churches constituted in the center of the world; But just as the sun, which is a creature of God, is one and the same in the whole world, so also light, which is the preaching of truth, shines everywhere and enlightens all human beings who they want to come to the knowledge of the truth. And not one who stands out for his eloquence among the heads of the Church preaches things other than these - because no disciple is above his Master, nor the weakest in the word cuts the Tradition: being one and the same faith, not much Can explain it increases it, nor can it lessen it.” (Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses, I, 10, 2)

[6] The early Christians recognized the authority of the Ecumenical Council, as Saint Augustine of Hippo testifies: “All that we observe by tradition, though not written; All that the Church observes in the whole world, is understood to be kept by recommendation or precept of the apostles or of the plenary councils, whose authority is indisputable in the Church.”

(St. Augustine, Letter 54,To Jenaro, 1 -3;

Traslated from Obras Completas de San Agustín, Volume VIII, BAC, Madrid 1986, p. 338)

[7] This is precisely what happens between the different Protestant denominations, which differ from one another in innumerable doctrines, because they interpret the Bible differently.

[8] We can’t forget that even the Canon of the Scriptures was transmitted by the Tradition, since in the Bible doesn’t appear the list of the canonical books.

[9]This uninterrupted succession in the ministry of the apostolate, which passed from the apostles to the bishops to this day, is called apostolic succession, a subject that we will discuss later.

[10] We don’t know all the details that were discussed in the Jerusalem Council, but the Judaizers could have turned to the Bible to claim that circumcision was a work of the instituted law “as a covenant everlasting for the generations to come” (Genesis 17,12; Leviticus 12,3) and alleged that Jesus didn’t come to change the law: “Don’t think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matt 5,17-18). Although biblical arguments could have been used in both senses, the decision of the Council was the one recognized like the authentic interpretation of the Revelation.