Monday, September 27, 2010

tradition isn't Tradition

Catholics follow Scripture and Tradition with equal reverence. Evangelicals understand what Scripture is, of course, but Tradition is often misunderstood. What is it? Didn't Jesus specifically teach against following tradition?

Matthew 15.1-6
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked,"Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don't wash their hands before they eat!" Jesus replied, "And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, 'Honor your father and mother' and 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God, he is not to 'honor his father' with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.

First, Jesus is against upholding traditions that contradict the commands of God. Jesus no doubt followed many customs that were not explicitly commanded by God, the use of synagogues as an example (also, modes of speech, dress, etiquette, etc). All churches, evangelical or Catholic, have traditions like this. Maybe your church always sings Silent Night during their Christmas Eve Vigil service. Maybe your church always takes the collection after music worship but before the sermon. These are just customs of practice. They are not commanded by God, but neither do they contradict the commands of God.

Second, and most importantly, the 'tradition' that is being talked about in this passage is 'the tradition of the elders'. What's being referred to here is a custom or a way of doing things, that perhaps developed over time. No one here thinks this practice came from God, it comes from 'the elders'. And this is not what Catholics mean by Tradition. In other words, the above passage isn't even referring to what Catholics call Tradition. This is what Catholics mean by Tradition:

Catholics believe that the Word of God was definitively revealed to the world in the person of Jesus Christ. The deposit of faith has been fully given and nothing will be added to it. This Word of God has been passed on in two ways:

(1) It has been passed on in writing, which we refer to as the Sacred Scriptures. It "is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit." (CCC 81)

(2) The Word of God has also been passed on "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 whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit". (CCC 76) This is called Tradition.

The teachings of both Scripture and Tradition originate only from Jesus and the Apostles. If an idea originated from a time after that, it's not a part of either the Scriptures or the Tradition. The Church may better or more fully understand or find new ways to articulate what has been passed on, but nothing can be added to either the Scriptures or to Tradition.

So Tradition does not come from man, it comes from God himself. When the Catholic Church bases something on Tradition, she is basing it on the Word of God. And since both Scripture and Tradition pass on the Word of God, they cannot contradict.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes a very clear distinction between what the Tradition is and what it is often misunderstood to be by evangelicals:

"The Tradition here in question 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 yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition.Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church's magisterium." (CCC 81)

So we have traditions, customs that have sprung up here and there for various reasons. These originate from man and can be changed or abandoned, especially if they are found to contradict the Word of God. We also have Tradition, which is a means by which the Word of God has been passed on to us. It originates in God and cannot be changed or abandoned, nor can it contradict itself or Scripture since the Word of God cannot contradict itself.

tradition isn't Tradition.


  1. That's a really great way of explaining it. I think this is something I've learned before but forgot about. Thanks for posting!

  2. Brantly and Krista, we miss you. Come visit us!


  3. Hi! I'm a Protestant reading your blog and I'm unfamiliar with the distinction between big T Tradition and little t tradition. I understand what you mean by tradition but I want to further understand what you mean by Tradition in the Catholic sense. Does Tradition function like Scripture in that it is no longer being "written" so to speak, or is it still being set forth by the Church? So basically could you give an example of Tradition? Haha, not sure this makes sense but anyway I'm just hoping to learn more from the horse's mouth so to speak!

  4. Hey Anon,

    Great questions.
    By the way, I wouldn't quite call this coming from the horses mouth! That would be the Catechism. I represent Church teachings as best as I can, but I admit that I am imperfect.

    Here is how I understand things to be:
    Tradition, like Scripture, is no longer being created. However, unlike Scripture, it may still be made explicit. This is an important but fine point. Tradition is all that has been passed down from the apostles, explicitly and implicitly, in word and practice. Therefore, there cannot be new Tradition. It must come from what has been passed on from the Apostles. But there are some aspects of the Tradition that are brought out more clearly at certain points in history as they are challenged. Prior to that point, they were always a part of the Tradition, but not made explicit in the same way because there wasn't the need for it.

    For example, there is nothing in Scripture that lays on the doctrine of the Trinity as clearly as the Council of Nicaea in 325. But implicitly and explicitly the Trinity is what the Church had always believed in. It was challenged in a large way in the 4th century, and so the Church made very explicit and clear in the Nicaean Creed what had previously been less explicit and clear but no less always true.

    Here's another example of something passed on in Tradition: the use of icons in worship. There is no verse in Scripture that specifically talks about the use of icons in Christian worship. Nonetheless, it existed in the early church and had always been a part of the church. In the 8th century, the practice was challenged and a council was called over the issue (Nicaea II, 787). The council made this ruling: "we declare that we defend free from any innovations all the written and unwritten ecclesiastical traditions that have been entrusted to us," which included the production and use of icons.

    So Tradition is only what has been passed on from the Apostles. It cannot be added to. But it can be better understood, made more clear, made more explicit, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

    I hope this was helpful. Does any of the other Catholics out there have anything to add?


  5. Good explanation Brantly. Another thing I would add is the necessity of Tradition (big "T") for Scripture itself! This was the main thing that made me realize the Catholic Church either has to be what it claims to be, or we can really have no idea who Jesus of Nazareth really was/is.

    Like you said, crucial doctrines that people today would define as "essentials" to Christianity are actually results of Tradition and not Scripture alone. In my Early Christianity class, we're discussing all of the opinions the early church had about who God is--one or two? One or three? Is Jesus God? Or is he only the Christ? Did Jesus have a body like we do, or was he just a shadow? Is the Father greater than the Son and the Spirit? Tons and tons of questions and disagreements--and everyone got their ideas from Scripture. Before the councils defined the nature of God, that He is a Trinity, that Jesus is God, that the Son is not less than the Father, that the Holy Spirit is God... all of that was up for grabs. Scripture is not clear on it and we only think it is because we take for granted the councils, ignoring the centuries and centuries of debate over the question.

    Scripture is NOT clear on the matter. Today in class it became very apparent that if Tradition could be wrong, if the councils could be wrong...then we could be completely deceived about who Jesus is. Jesus very well could actually not be God. The idea that He is "God from God, light from light, true God from true God" is ultimately a Tradition.

    Scripture has to be interpreted. And all interpretation of Scripture is tradition. But only some interpretations can be right… the ones that are right are labeled Tradition. (The question is, who decides? Is the idea that God is a Trinity correct?)

    Another really important Tradition that Protestants take for granted is… dun dun dun... the canon of Scripture! The very Scriptures on which we base all of our ideas about God and the world and salvation were determined by councils of the bishops! There were TONS of debates about which books/letters should be authoritative for all Christians, until the bishops—those with apostolic succession—convened and solved the matter. Of course they did not "confer" authority on the books of Scripture, but had the role of "recognizing" which books were inspired by God. (This is a distinction I've heard a lot.) But, the question remains: could they have "recognized" incorrectly? What if they did make a mistake in determining which books would be considered canonical? What if Luther was right and James, Hebrews, Revelation and Jude shouldn't be in our Bible? Then we have a completely different Gospel.

    What we consider to be Scripture depends on which tradition we follow. It's not a secret that Catholics and Protestants have different books in their Bibles. Protestants don't believe tradition can be infallible, so logically they are forced to admit that the books in their canon might not be the right ones, that the councils (and Luther, Calvin, etc) could have made a mistake. The Catholic Church, by claiming that Tradition is also a means through which God infallibly reveals Himself and His will to the Church, is the only Church that can adequately account for the canon of Scripture, and thus can justify putting such faith in the written word of God.

    Before I came Catholic it was easy to write Catholics off as crazy for believing Tradition was on par with Scripture because the only Traditions I knew about were about Mary and things like that. But when I realized that the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, and the canon of Scripture are all Traditions… well. You all know what happened. ☺


  6. Capita T Tradition is what the Church had as its authority-based operating system before there was a New Testament to refer to. And as both Church and Tradition predate the NT, they are not, and have never been, inferior to it.

  7. Thanks guys! But couldn't capital T tradition continue though since y'all believe in apostolic succession? I mean couldn't the pope technically "write" new Tradition since what he says has the same amount of authority as Paul? Hope that makes sense...maybe I misunderstand the concept of apostolic succession and/or how it ties in w/ Tradition

  8. I'd say the Pope/Magisterium can clarify or refine tradition, but can't make new Tradition. A good example is JP2 saying the Church lacks the authority to ordain women. That's been a part of tradition for millennia, but it wasn't specifically commented on until now. Generally the Church doesn't like to define tradition unless obliged to do so by circumstance, which is essentially why the Church has called councils, all the way back to the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15.

  9. Anon -

    I would agree with kkollwitz here. Is there any particular doctrines you have in mind that might be captial T traditions?

    Adding onto the previous comment, a good example of a small t tradition would be mandatory celibacy for clergy. It is the current practice, but it is not a doctrine, and it could change one day (though I don't believe it should).

  10. Anon – (…)

    I understand your question. If the successors of the Apostles have the authority of the Apostles, can’t they say something new? Can’t they make up new Tradition?

    The answer is indubitably no, and that is because not even the Apostles could make up anything new! Paul says in Galatians 1, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be anathema. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be anathema.”

    This language of “received” that Paul uses is the language of Tradition. In other places Paul and the other Apostles urge the members of the churches to “hold fast to the traditions which they received” from the Apostles (1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, etc). Even the Apostles themselves do not have the authority to alter the Traditions. Why?

    Because the Apostles received it from Christ, who Himself received it from the Father. Jesus Himself said that He did nothing on His own authority, but only what the Father told Him (John 5:19, 8:28). Jesus gave His authority to the Apostles (Matthew 28:18-19, John 20:21-23). So if not even Jesus had the authority to do anything of His own accord, how much less do the Apostles and their successors!

    And this is exactly what the Church teaches. Here are a few quotes from Dei Verbum, the Church’s teaching on Divine Revelation (you should read the whole thing, actually, if you really want to hear it “from the horse’s mouth”. just look it up on google).

  11. Dei Verbum:

    “The Christian dispensation, therefore, as the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away and we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ (see 1 Tim. 6:14 and Tit. 2:13).

    But in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, "handing over" to them "the authority to teach in their own place."… Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (see 2 Thess. 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (see Jude 1:3)…

    This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.”

    So there you have it. Even the Pope cannot teach something new or make up a new “Tradition,” because he has not been given the authority to do so. He and all the Magisterium have only been given the authority to hand on what they have received.

    I think the example kkowlwitz used is brilliant. Women’s ordination, contraception, and homosexual marriage are perfect examples of doctrines the Church has been incredibly, incredibly persecuted for and pressed to change—even from within Her own walls!—and yet has remained immovable. Why? Because she has no authority to add something new to the Gospel, to the Tradition of the Church. Contraception had been universally considered on par with abortion and adultery by the entire Church—Catholic and non-Catholic—until less than a hundred years ago. The fact that every other church has crumbled and accepted it is evidence that they believe—whether they would articulate this or not—that God actually IS still giving new revelation, revelation that the Church for 2000 years did not have. What you believe about contraception and homosexuality affects your understanding of the Gospel, because marriage is the primordial sacrament of Christ’s relationship to His Church. If you suddenly change what you believe about these things, after 2000 years of unanimity in opinion, you’re subtly changing what you believe about the Gospel. New revelation. The Church has stood firm on all of these issues because she MUST stand firm; she has no authority to “preach any other Gospel than the one which she has received.”

    And people hate her for it!

    That’s a great question!