Grappling with Sola Scriptura, Part 3: An Authoritative Church

The third and last part of my reflections on grappling with sola scriptura as a Protestant journeying to the Catholic Church. Part 1. Part 2. Part of my ongoing conversion story. This part proved to be really long, but the pieces were so dependent on each other that I wanted to post the rest of it whole; please bear with me.

An authoritative Church

Rome from the dome of St. Peter's.

Rome from the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.

The idea that the scriptural interpretations of the Church could have inherent authority was an epiphany to me. It was the catalyst that started the chain reaction, the push that started the dominoes falling, that would ultimately bring down the last vestiges of my faith in sola scriptura. But it was perhaps not the biggest hurdle. Recognizing that the Church Fathers are authorities in interpreting Scripture does not translate to accepting that the Catholic Church is the authority in interpreting Scripture.

Yes, an interpretation that is constructed from and founded on a sack full of authorities is generally going to be more authoritative than one based solely on one’s own unaided reasoning. A student who makes an argument from his own interpretation of a single primary source stands on shaky ground, while one who stands on the authority of learned men who have written on the matter in the past has a reasonable claim to credibility. As I have written before, this by itself gave me compelling reason to put stock in the claims and interpretations of the Catholic Church. Following those claims and the arguments made for them, I generally found the Church’s witness to be credible.

But accepting that the Church’s scriptural interpretations are authoritative and credible — a factual claim — is a far cry from accepting that the Catholic Church has the exclusive authority to interpret Scripture authentically — a doctrinal claim. My visceral inclination as a Protestant was to balk at such extravagance. But my willingness to consider and credit the scriptural, interpretive claims of the Church brought me, at least, to examine this one more closely.

What does it mean for the Church to claim “exclusive authority in interpreting Scripture“? What did the Church actually claim? And what was my objection? I had already admitted that the Church could authentically interpret Scripture. What I balked at, I realized, was the thesis that the Church could have authority at all — over believers, over me.

St. Ambrose, by Francisco de Zurbarán

St. Ambrose, by Francisco de Zurbarán (c. 1627) (Wikimedia)

The truth is, I had never even encountered such an argument, that a church could have authority. It may be a commonplace for Protestants of more traditional denominations, but for me, steeped in such a free, independent, individualistic tradition, it seemed entirely foreign. The church, in my mind as a Protestant, was a voluntary social association. Our pastor was the man who preached every week at church, who had little or no personal involvement in our lives or faiths. Our deacons were little more than a board of directors for the corporation. The district council of our denomination, if we ever heard about it, seemed to exist mainly for cooperating in missions and youth activities. I don’t remember ever hearing of a national body (there actually is one). None of these bodies had any authority over our church; and I didn’t consider the church, or even the pastor, to have authority over me.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, claims to have authority. This was a novel and fairly stunning concept, one that had never even occurred to me. Was the Church something more than just the people? Were its leaders something more than just public speakers, something more than business administrators? The Catholic Church claims to have some authority over its faithful. In what way was I supposed to understand this? On the surface, once again, I balked, imagining a tyrant, standing over believers, telling them what they could believe and do.

The Magisterium

Four Doctors of the Western Church

The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome.

When I first encountered the idea of the magisterium of the Catholic Church, I envisioned something like a formal council of robed and hoary bishops meeting weekly or daily, to which every interpretation of Scripture, every homily and every teaching, had to be submitted for approval. The magisterium, after all, claimed “exclusive authority of interpreting Scripture.” I supposed Catholics were forbidden from reading and interpreting Scripture on their own. Naturally, this conception was something to balk at.

But this isn’t, I soon discovered, what the Church was claiming at all. The magisterium of the Church refers to the Church’s teaching authority — her role as a teacher. The magisterium is not literally a formal body of men at all (although it can be said that the pope and the bishops in communion with him make it up); it does not meet (aside from the couple of dozen times over the whole history of the Church that all the bishops of the Church have met in ecumenical council); it does not stand over the scriptural interpretation of the faithful as any sort of regulatory authority. So what actually is being claimed?

The Good Shepherd, Bernhard Plockhorst

The Good Shepherd, by Bernhard Plockhorst (19th century) (Wikimedia)

Scripture presents that God Himself appoints preachers and teachers (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11, 2 Timothy 1:11) in the person of the bishops (1 Timothy 3:2, 5:17, Titus 2:24), men charged with passing on the truth of the faith (2 Timothy 2:2, 4:2) and keeping watch over the souls of the faithful (Hebrews 13:17). A pastor is a shepherd, one with authority over God’s flock (1 Peter 5:1-5). If we accept these teachings of Scripture, that God gave pastors and bishops the authority to teach and to guide His flock, then the notion that the magisterium of the Church, made up of all the bishops, should have the authority to teach the truth is not so far fetched.

With just a little reading, I soon came to see that what the Church really means when she claims that the magisterium of the Church has the authority to give the authentic interpretation of Scripture is mostly this: that the whole body of bishops, giving the very interpretations over all the ages that I had already come to hold as authoritative, does in fact have the authority to give that interpretation. The Church is a teacher, not a tyrant. Like a teacher, the Church offers teaching, the authoritative interpretation of Scripture, for the benefit, edification, and guidance of the people of God.

Not a Tyrant

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

Augustus Caesar as Pontifex Maximus (Wikimedia).

One point I alluded to before is the misconception and fear I had that the Church could dictate whatever interpretations she pleased, no matter how contradictory they actually were to Scripture: that she could teach believers to believe Scripture meant something completely other than what it actually says. Well, the first thing that was clear to me, as I began to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the documents of the Second Vatican Council, even the Council of Trent, is that this hasn’t actually happened. When the Church speaks as a teacher, she bases her teachings on Scripture and on the interpretations on the past: each of these documents is rife with scriptural quotations and citations, quotations and citations from the Church Fathers, from prior councils and documents; a modern edition has footnotes. Each reflects the didactic method of a teacher and not the bald pronouncements of a dictator.

Jesus said that “the [leader of the faithful] must be as one who serves” (Luke 22:26). Peter taught that a pastor must shepherd the flock not by constraint but willingly, leading not by force but by example (1 Peter 5:2-3). This is the kind of authority that the Church offers as a teacher. In the very same statement as the one that I once took to be so troubling — the claim that the Church has “exclusive authority to interpret Scripture authentically” — she also says this:

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office [magisterium] of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office [magisterium] 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. (Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum [Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation] 10).

The Church cannot teach something that has not been handed down as truth. The Church does not “invent” teachings; she passes them on. It is plain for any student to see the truth of this, to see the support offered for every teaching, the foundations and precedents in traditional and time-honored interpretations of Scripture and in the teachings of the past. These teachings, these traditions, everything that makes up the deposit of faith — none of it is hidden, secret, or unknown, but all of it is available to be studied by the faithful.

Too Many Teachers

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1533), by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

And why is the Church’s authority exclusive? Does this imply that individual believers are not authorized to interpret Scripture for themselves? Or that no one other than a bishop is capable of interpreting the meaning of the Scriptures truthfully? Not at all. It means only that God gave His teaching authority to the office that came (by the end of the first century) to reside in the bishop alone. And why? As someone who has spent most of my life involved in education, I can attest that when everybody thinks they are the teacher, nobody learns anything. Scripture is very clear that God appointed shepherds over us with the authority to teach.

The Church with authority over scriptural interpretation and doctrine is evidenced again and again in history. In Acts 15, when the controversy of the Judaizers arose, it was not individual believers, interpreting Scripture on their own, that decided the matter, but a council of Apostles and bishops. When the great heresies such as Arianism arose, the matter was not left to the consciences and private interpretations of individual believers, but the orthodox way was ultimately defined by a council of all the bishops through interpreting Scripture.

Sola scriptura presents the problem of “too many teachers” writ large. If every person’s interpretation is considered authoritative, if an individual believer’s opinion has just as much value as the whole teaching tradition of the Church, then we see in the history of Protestantism exactly what we should expect to see: thousands of separate churches. Everyone having authority ultimately means that no one has authority at all. And this is what I felt as a Protestant; this was the source of my paralysis.

And yes, it’s true, that Protestants insist that sola scriptura is not the giving of interpretive and doctrinal authority to every individual believer. They insist that the Church still has doctrinal authority, and to greater or lesser extents, some Protestants churches actually implement that. Some churches, such as the P.C.A., do enforce the orthodoxy of their confessions, and bring censure or even excommunication to those who depart from it. But then, if anyone disagrees with the confessions of the P.C.A., he is free to depart and start his own church, and feels the moral and doctrinal mandate to do so. Church authority is of no authority at all if the individual believer has the authority to challenge it. The church really does become a voluntary association. Sola scriptura, I argue, does necessarily result in the implication that every believer is his own teacher: even the most submissive Protestant can pick and choose what teachers he submits to; he can embrace the one whose teachings agree with his own private interpretation, and reject the one whose don’t. I think it is very telling, in comparing the history of the Catholic and Protestant churches, how comparatively rare real and substantial doctrinal schism — the actual breaking away of a significant number of believers to form their own churches, on account of some doctrinal dispute — is in the Catholic tradition, versus how commonplace splits of the local church or of whole denominations are in the Protestant world.

“Other Things”

Infant baptism by immersion

Baptism.

Several times in the course of this series, I’ve alluded to my acceptance of other authorities, other sources such as historical documents, as instrumental in my eventual rejection of sola scriptura. I opened the series, provocatively, with the statement that “Protestants hold as authoritative the Bible alone, while Catholics deny this and add other things.” This was my understanding as a Protestant. It is not a very accurate statement of what Catholics believe.

First, do Catholics deny that Scripture is authoritative? That it is the Word of God? Absolutely not. For Catholics, just as well as for Protestants, Scripture is the highest, most eminent authority, the very and absolute Word of God in written form. Scripture cannot be denied, dismissed, or contradicted, by the magisterium of the Church, by the pope, or by anyone else. I very often hear the charges that “the Catholic Church makes her teachings equal with Scripture,” or places herself “above Scripture”: this is not true. The Church teaches about Scripture, from Scripture; she is not and cannot be above Scripture. Scripture is part of the deposit of faith and truth from which she teaches; she cannot add to, take away from, or alter that deposit.

What else is part of this deposit of faith? What “other things”? The other component of the deposit of faith is Sacred Tradition. No, this does not mean that the “traditions” of the Catholic Church are held to be authoritative, on the same level of Scripture. What does the Church mean by “Sacred Tradition”? Sacred Tradition is a technical term: it does not refer to “traditions” or to just any tradition in the Catholic Church, but very specifically to only one thing: to the oral teachings of Christ and the Apostles that have been handed down [traditae sunt] in the Church. If Christ spoke it, then it is the Word of God.

Juan de Juanes, Última Cena

Juan de Juanes, Última Cena, c. A.D. 1562 (Wikipedia).

Protestants complain that this idea of “Sacred Tradition” is inherently amorphous and undefined, that at any point the Church can declare some novel doctrine on the basis that it is part of this unseen body of “Sacred Tradition.” Because it is not written down, it can be abused, or even invented whole cloth. But the “traditional” aspect of it is essential: every part of this “Sacred Tradition” has been handed down in the Church, and is visible, and practically, has been written down by the Church Fathers. The Church applies the same standard for Tradition that the most ancient Church applied: we know it is part of the deposit of faith, handed down from the Apostles, because it was taught in all the Churches (cf. Irenaeus, etc.).

So in the end, the statement that the Catholic Church adds “other things” to Scripture, that she believes “other things” in addition to the Word of God, is misleading. No, the Catholic Church does not indiscriminately hold “traditions” or “other things” to be divinely authoritative in addition to Scripture. Nothing the Church believes can contradict Scripture. Once I began to understand the truth of what the Church actually holds and teaches about Scripture and revelation, it seemed entirely reasonable and consistent with what I was was already coming to believe — and I readily let go of the notion of sola scriptura.

I have heard many Protestants, too, complain about the “tripod” of the Church’s teaching, with its three legs being Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the magisterium — which seems to imply that the Church considers all three to be equal. This is an analogy, it’s true, that some Catholics have used, and Vatican II itself stated that “sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the magisterium … are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others,” implying this image of the tripod. But the Church does not consider the three equal. The statement is only that “one [of the three] cannot stand without the others”; the illustration of the tripod, if it be drawn, is only meant to convey this interdependence, not the three components’ equality or even their relative positions. Neither Scripture nor Tradition interprets itself: a teacher is also necessary, but is a servant to the deposit of faith, not above it.

Conclusion

John Calvin, by Titian (16th century) (Wikimedia).

John Calvin, by Titian (16th century) (Wikimedia).

I had struggled for many years to arrive at some authoritative interpretation of Scripture. I believed, as a Protestant, that finding such an authoritative interpretation was my initiative; I was told that Scripture “perspicuous,” and such an authoritative interpretation should be plain, and that it was “self-interpreting,” that it ought to be findable without depending on my own understanding. Such plainly did not happen: The more I studied Scripture, the more paralyzed I became in coming to any sort of authoritative interpretation.

This was where I stood when I stumbled into the antechamber of the Catholic Church. I did not fully understand my problem — I could not have articulated what my paralysis was or what it stemmed from — and I had not even an inkling that the solution to it lay ahead. How could I move past my logjam? I needed a teacher. Protestants who espouse developed theology and doctrines point to “Scripture alone” as the origin of their teaching, but in truth they too are relying on an interpretive tradition, the fruit of teachers — the pastors, theologians, and Reformers who developed the doctrines that they hold. It is easy to point to a collection of doctrines already held and already exposited and claim they are clear on the face of Scripture, that Scripture can interpret itself, but in truth this is not historically and intellectually honest. Were these doctrines “perspicuous” and “self-interpreting” for the fifteen centuries before the Protestant Reformers developed and espoused them?

I had no teacher. I came from a background mostly bereft of concrete doctrine or theology or meaningful exegesis. I had not the benefit of an already exposed system of doctrine. I had the tools to exposit Scripture, but not the guidance. Thus, it gradually became clear to me over the years that the claims of sola scriptura were false: Scripture was not “perspicuous” in any meaningful way, apart from the barest outlines of the gospel. Scripture was not “self-interpreting.”

Scripture is a collection of texts. They do not “self-interpret.” Interpretation is the activity of a person, and Scripture is not a person. The Holy Spirit is a person, who can and does aid us in understanding the truth of Scripture — but His guidance is necessarily filtered through our own human perceptions; Scripture is necessarily understood through our own human interpretations. Over the years, developing in my consciousness as a Christian and as an academic, I had come to realize these things, more or less concretely, by the time I encountered the Church.

I needed a teacher; and where Protestants, especially the ones I was familiar with, tended to limit their interpretation of Scripture to their own understanding, or to teachers in the past who had done the same, the Catholic Church that I discovered strove to base her interpretation of Scripture on the whole context of Scripture and the whole body of received, authoritative tradition. I accepted this authority at first academically, but was troubled by the Church’s theological claims to have exclusive authority to interpret Scripture, perceiving them to be extravagant and somehow tyrannical. Over time, though, I came to see the truth: In interpreting Scripture, the Church is a teacher, not a tyrant. And I, at long last, had found my teacher.

Some Early Testimonies to the Authority of Apostolic Tradition

Part of an ongoing discussion at Reformation500.

The Sermon on the Mount (1877), by Carl Heinrich Bloch

The Sermon on the Mount (1877), by Carl Heinrich Bloch (Wikimedia).

As I’ve been arguing, I think Protestants, in thinking about “Tradition,” fail to see the forest for the trees. You (and I presume these historians) are looking for “traditions,” “hidden doctrines,” something concretely novel or different from the Word of God in Scripture — but given that, according to the proposition, this “Tradition” came from the very same source and same revelation as Scripture, that isn’t something we should expect to see. You are looking for some separate, concrete body of knowledge which the Early Church hailed as authoritative — some esoteric, “secret” store of privileged revelation — which frankly reeks of Gnosticism. But that isn’t the sort of thing I am talking about at all.

Christ Preaching (1652), by Rembrandt.

Christ Preaching (1652), by Rembrandt.

What I’m talking about is simply the whole teaching of Christ to His Apostles, and of the Apostles to their disciples, and henceforth. In the main, this would have been no different than the content of the New Testament; and yes, we can have faith that God caused the most important points to be written down. But no document of the New Testament purports to be a catechism or compendium of Christian doctrine. In the teaching of the faith, from Jesus to the Apostles, from the Apostles to their disciples, and with each successive generation, even to today, Christian teachers do not simply hand the Bible to new converts and expect them to learn from it alone; Christian discipleship is accompanied by instruction in how to understand Christian Scripture and doctrine and how to live the Christian life; how to do the things Christians do. By nature of what it is, this teaching carries content not found in Scripture. And the Apostles would have passed on as fully as they could the teaching they received from the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:23), and instructed their own disciples to do likewise (1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 2 Timothy 2:2). Thus, this body of “Tradition” (παράδοσις [paradosis], lit. teaching that was handed over) was immediately apostolic in origin, if not from the very mouth of God Himself.

Baptism, Catacomb of St. Callixtus

A third-century representation of Baptism from the Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome.

I’ve been pointing out a few visible examples of this. Arguably, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the sacramental efficacy of baptism — i.e. baptismal regeneration; the understanding that the water of baptism washes away sins and gives rebirth in Christ — are clear enough from Scripture itself; but the fact that many Protestants have disputed these doctrines demonstrates either Scripture’s lack of perspicuity or the necessity of Apostolic Tradition: because from the earliest times, as witnessed by diverse Church Fathers, these understandings were universal and unambiguous throughout all the Church, evidently from the teaching that all the churches had received. Likewise, from the earliest times, universally, even in most Protestant traditions, the Church has transferred the Old Testament Sabbath observance to Sunday, the Lord’s Day, in honor of His Resurrection; and the annual commemoration of the Resurrection has been kept in conjunction with the Passover — but neither is taught by Scripture. The outlines of the liturgical celebrations of baptism and the Eucharist in all churches everywhere appear to stem from the same apostolic tradition. Likewise the testimony to a successive, singular episcopal office is universal. These things complement and guide the practice of the Church, and inform and fill out her doctrine, confirming and supporting the Word of God in Scripture, not contradicting it.

The Four Doctors of the Western Church

The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome.

I could cite numerous testimonies to this παράδοσις of the Apostles from the Church Fathers, but I will pick out only a few of the earliest. I hope these examples will indicate the kind of doctrines and practices which the Church has always held by Tradition. Some of the earliest unambiguous references, appropriately enough, appear in the context of combatting the teachings of heretics, who twist the Scriptures to their own interpretations, arguing that they had received an esoteric tradition of secret knowledge (γνῶσις) — a charge not unlike Protestant caricatures against Catholic teachings about Apostolic Tradition. These people, Irenaeus argues, reject Scripture:

Irenaeus

Irenaeus of Lyon (ca. A.D. 120–200).

When, however, [the heretics] are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but viva voce: wherefore also Paul declared, “But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world” (1 Corinthians 2:6). And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be the fiction of his own inventing … (Against Heresies III.2.1)

On the other hand, Irenaeus says, the same heretics also reject apostolic tradition:

But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the Apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the Apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. … (Against Heresies III.2.2).

The key for Irenaeus, therefore — the only sure means by which the heretics can be refuted — is not by Scripture alone, but by Scripture informed by Tradition, verified by Apostolic Succession:

It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the Apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the Apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. (Against Heresies III.3.1).

This tradition is demonstrated clearly, he continues, by the continuous testimony of all the churches of the world in agreement with one another (Against Heretics III.3.2). And as a personal testimony of this tradition, Irenaeus shares:

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by Apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by Apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departing this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the Apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time,—a man who was of much greater weight, and a more stedfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics (Against Heretics III.3.4).

Tertullian

Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160 – c. 225).

Tertullian actually speaks to the impotence of Scripture alone in refuting heresies:

But with respect to the man for whose sake you enter on the discussion of the Scriptures, with the view of strengthening him when afflicted with doubts, (let me ask) will it be to the truth, or rather to heretical opinions that he will lean? Influenced by the very fact that he sees you have made no progress, whilst the other side is on an equal footing (with yourself) in denying and in defence, or at any rate on a like standing he will go away confirmed in his uncertainty by the discussion, not knowing which side to adjudge heretical. For, no doubt, they too are able to retort these things on us. It is indeed a necessary consequence that they should go so far as to say that adulterations of the Scriptures, and false expositions thereof, are rather introduced by ourselves, inasmuch as they, no less than we maintain that truth is on their side. (The Prescription against Heretics I.18)

Rather, one should ask, “With whom lies the very faith to which the Scriptures belong?” And how is this rule of faith known?

Our appeal, therefore, must not be made to the Scriptures; nor must controversy be admitted on points in which victory will either be impossible, or uncertain, or not certain enough. But even if a discussion from the Scriptures should not turn out in such a way as to place both sides on a par, (yet) the natural order of things would require that this point should be first proposed, which is now the only one which we must discuss: “With whom lies that very faith to which the Scriptures belong. From what and through whom, and when, and to whom, has been handed down that rule, by which men become Christians?” For wherever it shall be manifest that the true Christian rule and faith shall be, there will likewise be the true Scriptures and expositions thereof, and all the Christian traditions. (ibid, I.19)

It is this tradition, Tertullian argues, that distinguishes the true Apostolic Churches:

[The Apostles] founded churches in every city, from which all the other churches, one after another, derived the tradition of the faith, and the seeds of doctrine, and are every day deriving them, that they may become churches. Indeed, it is on this account only that they will be able to deem themselves apostolic, as being the offspring of apostolic churches. … Therefore the churches, although they are so many and so great, comprise but the one primitive church, (founded) by the Apostles, from which they all (spring). In this way all are primitive, and all are apostolic, whilst they are all proved to be one, in (unbroken) unity, by their peaceful communion, and title of brotherhood, and bond of hospitality,—privileges which no other rule directs than the one tradition of the selfsame mystery. (ibid, I.20)

Tertullian again speaks, presciently, to the situation so often separating Catholic and Protestant churches: Why should anyone accept practices not found explicitly in Scripture?

And how long shall we draw the saw to and fro through this line, when we have an ancient practice, which by anticipation has made for us the state, i.e., of the question? If no passage of Scripture has prescribed it, assuredly custom, which without doubt flowed from tradition, has confirmed it. For how can anything come into use, if it has not first been handed down? Even in pleading tradition, written authority, you say, must be demanded. Let us inquire, therefore, whether tradition, unless it be written, should not be admitted. Certainly we shall say that it ought not to be admitted, if no cases of other practices which, without any written instrument, we maintain on the ground of tradition alone, and the countenance thereafter of custom, affords us any precedent. To deal with this matter briefly, I shall begin with baptism. (De Corona 3)

I gave the same example above before I’d even discovered this passage. He elucidates:

When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel. Then … we are taken up (as new-born children)… (ibid.)

This description very much resembles the rite of baptism in Catholic, Orthodox, and even Protestant churches, to this very day — thus is the authority and staying power of Tradition. And yet the details of this rite are not described in Scripture. Tertullian goes on to enumerate a number of other traditions, several of which are still very familiar in the Catholic Church, including the Sign of the Cross. Regarding these practices, Tertullian continues:

If, for these and other such rules, you insist upon having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and faith as their observer. That reason will support tradition, and custom, and faith, you will either yourself perceive, or learn from some one who has. … If I nowhere find a law, it follows that tradition has given the [practice] in question to custom, to find subsequently (its authorization in) the apostle’s sanction, from the true interpretation of reason. (Ibid. 4)

Origen

Origen (184–254).

Origen, to add the voice of Alexandria to those of Gaul and Asia Minor (Irenaeus) and Africa and Rome (Tertullian), concurs:

Since many, however, of those who profess to believe in Christ differ from each other, not only in small and trifling matters, but also on subjects of the highest importance, as, e.g., regarding God, or the Lord Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit, … it seems on that account necessary first of all to fix a definite limit and to lay down an unmistakable rule regarding each one of these, and then to pass to the investigation of other points. … So, seeing there are many who think they hold the opinions of Christ, and yet some of these think differently from their predecessors, yet as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles, and remaining in the Churches to the present day, is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition. (De Principiis, Preface, 2).

A few more brief quotes from later Fathers, in both the East and the West:

Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330 – c. 395).

Let no one interrupt me, by saying that what we confess should also be confirmed by constructive reasoning: for it is enough for proof of our statement, that the tradition has come down to us from our fathers, handled on, like some inheritance, by succession from the apostles and the saints who came after them. (Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius IV.6)



Basil of Caesarea

Basil of Caesarea (329–379).

Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us “in a mystery” by the tradition of the Apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay;—no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? (Basil of Caesarea, On the Spirit 66)

Basil proceeds to name, like Tertullian, a great list of authoritative traditions held by the whole Church.

John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom (c. 347–407).

Hence it is manifest, that [the Apostles] did not deliver all things by Epistle, but many things also unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore let us think the tradition of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a tradition, seek no farther. (John Chrysostom, In 2 Thess. hom. IV.14, commenting on 2 Thess. 2:15)

[The Scriptures] need examination, and the perception to understand the force of each proposition. But Tradition must be used too, for not everything is available from the Sacred Scripture. thus the holy Apostles handed some things down in Scriptures but some in traditions. (Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion LXI.6.4)

Saint Augustine in His Study, by Botticelli.

Augustine of Hippo (354–430).

[I believe that this custom (i.e. of not requiring the rebaptism of heretics)] comes from apostolical tradition, like many other things which are held to have been handed down under their actual sanction, because they are preserved throughout the whole Church, though they are not found either in their letters, or in the Councils of their successors. (Augustine of Hippo, Contra Bapt. Donat. II.7.12)

So I’ve shown that the Church did possess an Apostolic Tradition, “passed down and preserved by all the churches” — and it is their agreement that makes it manifest. But of what authority was this tradition? Was it “infallible”? As John [Bugay] rightly pointed out — “infallibility” is not a concept or category that anybody in this age of the Church would have understood or thought about, and I’m not sure it’s helpful for this conversation. Certainty Christians considered Scripture of the highest authority — there’s no disputing that. But if a doctrine came from the very same source as Scripture, from the mouths of Jesus and the Apostles, would they have accepted it with any less authority, simply because one was written down and the other wasn’t? No less than Paul himself suggests that this distinction wasn’t so important as Protestants have sought to make it (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Why, within living memory of Paul, would anyone have drawn a distinction between what Paul taught by word of mouth or by letter? It is plain that the Early Church did not. Certainly Tradition is not Scripture, which is the very, written Word of God; but with legitimate evidence of its apostolic origin and belief throughout the ages, in all the churches, we can see by the testimony of these Fathers that the Church accepted it as authoritative. Several of them even declare that Tradition is held as of equal weight as Scripture. The fact that with regard to so many of these traditions, the Church everywhere has maintained them to this day, testifies to the authority in which they have been held.

The Prior Authority of Tradition

This originated as an off-the-cuff reply this morning, in this thread. I thought it came out rather well.

James Tissot, The Lord's Prayer, 1896

The Lord’s Prayer (1896), by James Tissot (WikiArt.org).

I think you’re overlooking the very crux of the matter. “Sola scriptura” is more than just a claim that Scripture is an infallible standard: it’s a claim that it is the only infallible standard. And if we stand back at A.D. 50 — there is then no New Testament to hold as any sort of infallible standard. What is this “Scripture” and what is this “Tradition” we are referring to? “Scripture,” to the earliest Christians, was the Old Testament. And the message of Christ was entirely oral. And Christians accepted this message as infallible — because it was the Word of God — the word of the Word Made Flesh Himself.

So from the very beginning, Christians accepted a message and teaching in addition to Scripture. And this is “Tradition” — what was handed down by Christ to His Apostles and by the Apostles to their disciples — and it was infallible, and it preceded the New Testament. Why were the writings of the Apostles and their disciples enshrined as “Scripture” in the first place? Because they preserved in writing the word and teachings of Christ and His Apostles, the literal Word of God, that had been preserved and passed down orally for several decades. Why were the letters of Paul considered infallible and held as Scripture? Because the teachings of Paul himself, orally and in person, were first considered infallible. The very authority of the New Testament depends on the prior authority of the word of Jesus and the Apostles, and on this authority continuing as that word was communicated to the next generations of Christians orally — otherwise why should the Gospels of Mark and of Luke — who are believed to have been disciples of the Apostles who did not witness the earthly life and ministry of Christ firsthand, but who recorded their accounts from the teachings of their teachers — be held as authoritative?

James Tissot, The Sermon on the Mount, 1896

The Sermon on the Mount (1896), by James Tissot (WikiArt.org).

So the claim that “there was no infallible ‘Tradition’ for the Early Church” fails on its face: there was, and must be. Yes, we believe the New Testament was “God-breathed” by the authority of the Holy Spirit, much as God spoke through the Old Testament prophets. But if we believe that Jesus Christ was God Incarnate, that He, the Word of God, walked among us and gave His Word to men, and that the authors of the New Testament were firsthand and secondhand witnesses to this Word — then we must believe that that Word itself, spoken by God Himself, was authoritative and infallible, and that it did not cease to be authoritative and infallible when it was the Apostles and their disciples repeating it and setting it to writing. The alternative is absurd: Did the Word of Jesus carry no authority until decades later, when it was “God-breathed” by the Holy Spirit to men who did not even know Him? Did Paul, and Peter, and John, and James, not teach by the authority of the Holy Spirit in their oral teachings, but only have His authority when they set those teachings to writing?

Fra Angelico, St. Peter Preaching in the Presence of St. Mark

St. Peter Preaching in the Presence of St. Mark, by Fra Angelico (c. 1433) (Wikipedia)

So the Protestant claim of “sola scriptura” is not merely a claim that “Scripture is an infallible standard”: it must somehow explain how Scripture became the only infallible standard; how the Word of God spoken by Jesus and passed down by the Apostles ceased to be the Word of God except in the parts of it that were put to writing. We have in the New Testament Church an advantage that the Old Testament people of God never had: where the Old Testament prophets spoke and wrote only by the revelation of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles and writers of the New Testament spoke and wrote from their personal encounters of the Word of God Made Flesh. To limit the Word of God to only what is written is to call into question the essentially public witness of the Church: to say that only those writers, in their writings, could speak with the authority of God, who experienced a private revelation of words “God-breathed” by the Holy Spirit.

Le Sueur, The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus

The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus (1649), by Eustache Le Sueur.

So no, once again, the onus is on Protestants to demonstrate why anyone in the Early Church would have reverted to “Scripture alone” as an infallible standard, after the Word of God Made Flesh had lived among them and taught them, and after His Apostles and their disciples continued to pass on those teachings. We see no note of “Tradition” in the earliest of the Church Fathers because they took such teachings for granted: what we see instead is the personal testimony that “Peter and Paul gave their witness among us and “I sat at the feet of the blessed Polycarp as he recalled hearing John share stories of Our Lord”. This, though it was not called by that name until late in the second century, is “Tradition”; and it is up to Protestants to demonstrate why the Early Church should no longer have held it as authoritative (for it is plain that they did).

Baptism in the Early Church: Proof of Extrascriptural Tradition

The Baptism of Infidels, by Gustave Dore

The Baptism of Infidels, by Gustave Dore (WikiPaintings).

[Part of a series on Baptism in Depth]

One of the clearest evidences to me of the existence of Sacred Tradition — of the idea that the Divine Revelation of Christ is not contained wholly and exclusively in Sacred Scripture, and that essential elements of Jesus’s teachings were not written down explicitly by the Apostles but continued to be passed down by their own oral teaching — is this: Despite only a few, arguably ambiguous statements from Jesus regarding Baptism in the canonical gospels — despite no recorded teaching of Christ stating clearly what Baptism is and how and why Christians should practice it — on the Day of Pentecost, upon the first proclamation of the Christian Gospel to the multitude, Peter knew just exactly what to do: “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

The Baptism of Cornelius, by Francesco Trevisani

The Baptism of Cornelius (1709), by Francesco Trevisani (Wikipedia).

The conclusion that Peter knows something we don’t know is inescapable: He knows that (1) Baptism is an imperative that should be carried out immediately, now rather than later, upon believing in Christ; it is the answer to the question “what must be do?” to become a follower of Jesus; (2) Baptism in Jesus’s name is “for the forgiveness of your sins,” rather than merely “for repentance” as John the Baptist’s baptism was (cf. Matthew 3:11, Acts 19:4); (3) after Baptism, believers will receive the Holy Spirit. Not only does Peter seem to have a fuller understanding of what is happening in Baptism than the gospels indicate, but neither is a detailed explanation of this forthcoming in the remainder of the New Testament. The reader is left to infer Baptism’s meaning from context. In fact, the New Testament’s apparent lack of perspicuity on this matter is manifest enough that various Protestant sects proceeding from a basic reading of Scripture alone, shorn from Christian tradition, have come to widely differing and contradictory understandings of the doctrine — a doctrine of primary enough importance to the Gospel as to mentioned more than twice as often as “justification” (some 170 instances in 75 verses of “baptism” or “baptize”, as compared to only about 80 instances in 40 verses of “justification” or “justify”).

On the other hand, where Scripture is less than clear, Tradition, from the earliest times, evinces the same, full understanding of Baptism and its importance that the Apostles displayed in Scripture. There are no theological or exegetical debates or contradictory claims regarding Baptism found among the orthodox writers of the early Church. As a received doctrine, instructed and passed down by the Apostles themselves to their own disciples, and thence to each succeeding generation of Christians, the meaning and urgency of Baptism were completely understood:

Let us further inquire whether the Lord took any care to foreshadow the water [of baptism] and the cross. Concerning the water, indeed, it is written, in reference to the Israelites, that they will not receive that baptism which leads to the remission of sins, but will procure another for themselves. … [The words of another prophet] imply, Blessed are they who, placing their trust in the cross, have gone down into the water; for, says He, they shall receive their reward in due time. … Further, what says He? “And there was a river flowing on the right, and from it arose beautiful trees; and whosoever shall eat of them shall live for ever” (Ezekiel 47:12). This meaneth, that we indeed descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up, bearing fruit in our heart, having the fear [of God] and trust in Jesus in our spirit. “And whosoever shall eat of these shall live for ever.” This meaneth: Whosoever, He declares, shall hear thee speaking, and believe, shall live for ever. [Epistle of Barnabas XI (ca. A.D. 120)]

Then [the catechumens] are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:5). … And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. …[In order that we] may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe… [Justin Martyr, First Apology LX (ca. A.D. 155)]

On the fifth day the living creatures which proceed from the waters were produced, through which also is revealed the manifold wisdom of God in these things; for who could count their multitude and very various kinds? Moreover, the things proceeding from the waters were blessed by God, that this also might be a sign of men’s being destined to receive repentance and remission of sins, through the water and laver of regeneration,—as many as come to the truth, and are born again, and receive blessing from God. [Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus II.16 (ca. A.D. 170)]

Baptism, which is regeneration to God, was instituted by Jesus for the remission of sins. [Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies I.21 (ca. A.D. 180)]

Giving to the disciples the power of regeneration into God, He said to them, “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. [Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies III.17 (ca. A.D. 180)]

The sins committed before faith are accordingly forgiven by the Lord, not that they may be undone, but as if they had not been done. … It ought to be known, then, that those who fall into sin after baptism are those who are subjected to discipline; for the deeds done before are remitted, and those done after are purged. [Clement of Alexandria, Stromata IV.24 (ca. A.D. 200)]

Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life! [Tertullian, On Baptism I (ca. A.D. 200)]

From the very fact, that with so great simplicity, without pomp, without any considerable novelty of preparation, finally, without expense, a man is dipped in water, and amid the utterance of some few words, is sprinkled, and then rises again, not much (or not at all) the cleaner, the consequent attainment of eternity is esteemed the more incredible. … What then? Is it not wonderful, too, that death should be washed away by bathing? [Tertullian, On Baptism II (ca. A.D. 200)]

What Sacred Tradition Is and Is Not: 7 Answers to Common Misconceptions

Saints Peter and Paul, by El Greco

Saints Peter and Paul (between 1605 and 1608), by El Greco.

This started out as a response to someone’s blog, but I got carried away. Here are some answers to some common misunderstandings regarding the Sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church, especially with reference to the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. Pardon me for just dumping it here with so little introduction or conclusion, but I hope it will be helpful to someone.

1. Sacred Tradition — including Sacred Scripture — started out as oral tradition.

Of course, all Christian teaching started out as oral tradition. Until the Gospels were written, decades following Christ’s Ascension, the sayings and teachings and doings of Jesus were transmitted solely by word of mouth. Over the course of the first century, that was recorded in the books of Sacred Scripture we now call the New Testament. As you admit yourself, not everything Jesus did was recorded. There’s no doubt that not everything Paul preached was recorded; he often refers in his letters to teachings he gave in person, the content of which we are left to infer. Paul was a gifted writer, but we have from him only a handful of letters written for specific purposes, handling local business or offering correction or rebuke to specific situations and problems. None of the authors of the New Testament set out to write a compendium of the Christian faith or a catechism for teaching everything there was to know.

You believe, as the Catholic Church affirms, that Sacred Scripture is the heart of Divine Revelation, the very, infallible, written Word of God. But what do you suppose happened to all the stories of the other things Jesus said and taught and did, all the other things that Paul and the Apostles taught? Did people just forget them? And did these things somehow become less valid or less real because they weren’t written down? Everything that came from the mouth of Jesus was the Word of God. Did it cease to be the Word of God, cease to be Divine Revelation, because it was among those “many other signs Jesus did”?

Codex Vaticanus

A leaf from Codex Vaticanus, one of the earliest extant manuscripts of the Greek New Testament.

2. Sacred Tradition is the Word of God.

No, of course it didn’t, and the early Christians did not forget. They cherished every word that issued from the mouth of God through Christ, every word taught to them by the Apostles. Did the words of Jesus cease to be Divine Revelation because it was the Apostles repeating them and teaching them? Did they cease to be Divine Revelation after the Apostles died, and their disciples taught them to the next generation of Christians? No, the Word of God spoken orally was and still is just as much the Word of God as the Word of God written in Scripture — just as much as when we memorize and recite Scripture, we are speaking the Word of God. Memorizing and reciting the teachings of Jesus taught from one generation of Christians to the next is no less the Word of God — in fact, we depend upon it. You do, too. This is how the teachings of Jesus were transmitted for the generation or two before they became Scripture. Proclaiming the Gospels as the Word of God depends on the oral tradition of Christ’s teachings being and remaining the Word of God.

You believe that at the death of the Apostle, Divine Revelation was closed. We, the Catholic Church, go even further than that: Jesus Himself, the Word spoken by God, was the ultimate revelation. The New Testament is the New Testament not just because it was written by the Apostles, not even solely because it was inspired by Holy Spirit (which it was), but because it records the words and teachings of Jesus, the words of Divine Revelation Himself. What distinguishes the documents accepted into the New Testament canon as Scripture, versus the ones from only a generation later, such as the Didache or the Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians (1 Clement) — which were both among those documents considered for inclusion in the New Testament — was the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but also the fact that the canonical books were written by the Apostles or their associates, witnesses to the life of Christ Himself, or who were taught immediately by such witnesses — and above all that they consisted almost purely of the word and teachings of Jesus carried on and taught by the Apostles.

But did the words of the Word of God cease to be Divine Revelation because they weren’t written in Scripture? Did they cease to be the Word of God at the death of the last Apostle? Why the arbitrary cutoff at the death of the Apostles?

St. Thomas the Apostle

St. Thomas the Apostle.

3. Sacred Tradition was all most of the Apostles left us.

Most of the Apostles were too busy preaching to the ends of the earth to do much writing. That in itself, by the way, is an argument against sola scriptura: if the Apostles had any anticipation that only their written teachings would remain the Word of God after their deaths, wouldn’t you think they’d have done a lot more writing? What about St. Bartholomew, who preached in Armenia, or St. Thomas, who brought the Gospel all the way to India? Or St. James the Greater, who is traditionally held to have preached in Spain? Would they have given their lives as martyrs for the Lord so eagerly, never having written down their teachings, if they believed that all their preaching and suffering was worth smack — that after they died, their teachings would bring no one else to salvation, their deaths would turn no hearts, but that their mission fields would have to wait for someone else to write and compile and disseminate the New Testament? In any case, most of the Apostles, common men of Galilee, were probably barely literate if at all, as were the people they preached to.

But as for the rest of the Word of God — that that didn’t get written in Scripture: People didn’t just forget it, or dismiss it as no longer necessary now that they had the New Testament, which was “sufficient to lead a person to eternal life.” They didn’t decide, at the death of the last Apostle, that “nothing else was needed” and that the other teachings they had received from the Apostles and their followers were extraneous and no longer to be preserved or believed. Yeah, that story about St. Veronica wiping the bloody face of the suffering Savior? That’s not in Scripture; we don’t need that anymore. That liturgy you’ve been developing? No longer necessary; we have the New Testament now. Early Christians were even more excited than you are to preserve the Word of God, to learn and pass on the teachings of their Savior, the Son of God! They received no instruction from Scripture that they should discard and no longer believe the rest of the deposit of faith they had received. Not only did they receive no such instruction, but the fact is plain that they did not, since without a doubt these traditions continued to be transmitted by the earliest Christians. And if you suppose they had received such teaching to reject unwritten traditions about our Lord from the mouths of the Apostles themselves — then the idea of sola scriptura depends on an extrascriptural tradition and is self-contradictory.

St. Augustine

St. Augustine (c. 1645-1650), Philippe de Champaigne.

4. Sacred Tradition didn’t stay “oral tradition.”

Many Protestants speak of Catholic “traditions” — as you do above — as if the teachings of the Catholic Church consist of and depend solely on “oral traditions,” the kind of folklore American Indians tell around a powwow — passed down from pope to pope for 2,000 years like a tragic game of telephone. Protestant critics complain that “tradition” is something nebulous and undefined that Catholics can say is whatever they want it to be. “You made that up!” “No I didn’t, it came from tradition!”

But that is a fundamental misunderstanding. I’ve been writing about the first generations of Christians who faithfully preserved and passed down the words and teachings of Jesus, eventually recording them in Scripture. I’ve shown, I hope, that the other teachings of Jesus and the Apostles, those that were passed down (that’s all “tradition” means, by the way, is “that which is passed down”), didn’t cease to be Divine Revelation just because it was spoken and not written. They didn’t forget — it was crucial not to forget. Paul exhorted Timothy, “What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2) — and that’s exactly what the early Christians did. They taught to others these teachings, and ensured that they were passed on intact, just as carefully — even more carefully — than the bards passing on the epics of Homer, who memorized the whole of those vast poems and carried them for centuries.

But unlike Homer, the Church didn’t have to carry them for centuries. Over the first few centuries, thankfully, the Christian faith found its way to learned and literate men who, bit by bit, set these remaining teachings of Jesus and the Apostles — the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) — to writing. We call these men the Church Fathers.

St. Cyprian of Carthage

St. Cyprian of Carthage

5. Sacred Tradition is just as much Divine Revelation as Sacred Scripture — but not the same.

I’ve often heard it charged from Protestants that the Catholic Church “places Scripture and Tradition on the same level” or “equal authority.” Well, in a sense, yes. But I would dispute the claim that the two have “equal authority” — as if the two are “equal” to each other. They are not. Both Scripture and Tradition form one deposit of faith, but the two have very different characters.

Sacred Scripture is, the Catholic Church teaches and affirms just as much as any “Bible Christian,” the very written Word of God, inspired (“breathed out”) by the Holy Spirit. As such, it is infallible, inerrant, and indisputable in matters of faith, doctrine, and morals. God has spoken. We do not believe that Scripture is “perspicuous” or “self-interpreting” — a ridiculous claim to anybody who has spent time or energy laboring in scriptural translation or textual criticism or exegesis. Scripture is thousands of years old, written in languages and idioms no one speaks anymore, in ancient cultures and contexts very different than our own. The act of translation is itself an act of interpretation, so anyone claiming that their English Bible is “self-interpreting” is already mistaken.

Sacred Tradition, on the other hand — not “oral traditions” — is a very different animal. The writings of the Church Fathers are not infallible; they are not even inspired. The Church Fathers are not Sacred Tradition, but they do contain Sacred Tradition. They contain Divine Revelation not as Sacred Scripture — which is “pure silver, seven times refined” (Psalm 11:7), the pure, unadulterated Word of God — but more as unrefined silver ore — which contains pure silver, but also a lot of dirt and rock. The Church Fathers record the precious teachings of Jesus and the Apostles that they received from their teachers, who received them from their teachers, who received them from the Apostles themselves (in some cases, as with St. Clement of Rome or St. Ignatius of Antioch or St. Irenaeus of Lyons, as close as a generation away) — but they also have a lot to say that is merely their opinion or reflection. And sometimes they are plain wrong. Sometimes, many times, the Church Fathers even disagree with each other! But it is the things they agree upon, the core of apostolic teachings, that we receive as Sacred Tradition.

It is only the pure silver that is absolute and authoritative. If we could obtain the pure, undiluted Sacred Tradition in the form that came directly from the mouth of Jesus, it would be just as absolutely authoritative and divinely inspired as Scripture — since Scripture, too, originated as words from the mouth of Jesus. But the dirty ore of the Church Fathers is not that. The Sacred Tradition contained especially in the Church Fathers, but also in the ancient liturgy of the Church, in the pronouncements of Church councils, or even in the works of other writers, has to be refined in order to be authoritative. In the sense that Sacred Tradition comes from the exact same source as Scripture, the very words of Jesus — it is absolutely equal in authority. But practically speaking, since we don’t have that pure Tradition, it functions as a secondary authority — no less authoritative, but dependent on and supported by Scripture — which Tradition also supports.

Guido Reni, Assumption of the Virgin (1580)

Assumption of the Virgin (1580), by Guido Reni.

6. Sacred Tradition cannot contradict Scripture.

Protestants complain that Catholic Tradition “contradicts Scripture.” Such is, to begin with, patently impossible: if the two come from the same source, how can they contradict? Catholic teaching does not contradict Scripture. Perhaps it contradicts Protestant interpretations of Scripture — but such interpretations have little grounding in history or tradition. The fact is, even speaking practically, the Church Fathers, as the earliest recipients of Scripture and Tradition and of all Christian teaching, know how to interpret Scripture and Tradition in light of each other better than anyone else. Catholic teaching, coming both from Scripture and from the Tradition received from the Church Fathers, is in agreement with the Church Fathers: both what they believed, and how they interpreted Scripture. If these ancient interpretations contradict Protestant interpretations, then the Protestants have a much greater problem of contradiction than Catholics do.

It is the Magisterium of the Church — the teaching authority — that puts the pieces together; that reads and interprets Scripture authoritatively, and that gleans and refines from the Church Fathers and other sources the silver of Tradition. Protestants often complain that this places the Magisterium “above the authority of Scripture,” but such is also impossible. The Magisterium is constrained by what Scripture and Tradition say — what we have received in the deposit of faith. The Magisterium is not free to “make stuff up,” or pull Blessed Virgins out of hats, or any other such. Everything the Magisterium pronounces must be contained in Scripture and Tradition and in accord with both. The Magisterium cannot pronounce, say, that adultery is now perfectly moral and legal and okay in God’s sight, since such plainly contradicts the direct word of Scripture, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and since this contradicts the unbroken teaching of the Church for 2,000 years.

What about some of the doctrines that Protestants claim “contradict Scripture”? What about the big one, the veneration of Mary? First, Scripture plainly demonstrates the beginnings of devotion to the mother of our Lord: “My soul magnifies the Lord, / and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, / for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. / For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:46–48) — by all appearances an early liturgical prayer or hymn, which we today call the Magnificat. There is nothing in Scripture to demonstrate that we shouldn’t honor our Lord’s mother, for Jesus Himself loved her and honored her. And as for pulling Virgins out of hats — the tradition of honor given to Mary dates to the earliest centuries of the Church, found among the earliest Church Fathers and ecclesiastical writers. There is nothing in the Church’s doctrines regarding Jesus and Mary that isn’t well attested to in the writings of Tradition. The Church doesn’t “make stuff up.”

Pope Paul VI

Pope Paul VI, who re-called the Second Vatican Council following the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963.

7. Sacred Tradition is transparent and open.

I have heard Protestants complain that the Tradition of the Church is something closed and unknown, a well-guarded secret that only the prelates of the Church are privy to, with the result that the Church can proclaim anything as “Tradition” that she wishes, and no one will be the wiser. But such, again, is patently false. Every bit of the body of material that comprises Sacred Tradition is readily available, much of it online. I have never seen an organization go to greater lengths to be open and transparent as to the content and basis of its doctrines. Front and center, the Church publishes the Catechism of the Catholic Church in a dozen or so different languages, available free on the Vatican website, which not only lays out clearly and succinctly the doctrines of the Christian faith, but gives exhaustive references to Scripture, Church documents, and the Church Fathers to locate where and on what each doctrine is based. Many if not most of those Church documents (certainly the recent ones) are available for free on the Vatican website. Many of the most important writings of the Church Fathers are readily available online, both from Catholic and Protestant websites. (For what it’s worth, even New Advent, the Catholic site, reproduces a Protestant edition of the Church Fathers, the same one as on CCEL, since that is the most extensive English edition of the Church Fathers readily available in the public domain, and it’s generally a pretty fine one.) A distillation of the doctrinal sources of most important Catholic doctrines is readily available in the Enchiridion Symbolorum or Sources of Catholic Dogma. So, no, the idea that the Tradition of the Church is closed and unknown is without foundation.

Ending abruptly, because I don’t seem able to wind this down: I hope this clears up some confusion.

Going to the source: Some light on the Assumption of Mary from Munificentissimus Deus

Assumption of the Virgin, by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758-1823)

Assumption of the Virgin, by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758-1823) (WikiPaintings)

I don’t have a lot of time for an update today, and am in no mood for argument; but this is an important day: the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the celebration of our Blessed Mother being assumed body and soul into heaven at the end of her earthly life, as a sign of the promised resurrection for each of us. For me it is especially meaningful: for on this day seven years ago, I received in my own body a foretaste of that resurrection.

I made a meaty post last year which expounded some of the scriptural and patristic testimonies to the Assumption; it is worth a read. Today I took a few minutes to read and reflect on Munificentissimus Deus, the Apostolic Constitution by which Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption a dogma of the Catholic Faith on 1 November 1950. If any one is doubtful or insecure about the Catholic Church’s promulgation of a dogma that is not spelled out explicitly in Scripture — if any one feels that the Magisterium of the Church is free to pull fanciful doctrines out of hats, to invent and declare to a gullible public whatever is expedient or profitable for the prelates of the age — he need only read this document, to understand the prayer, caution, and deliberation that goes into such a declaration; the certainty and unanimity in a doctrine that is required; the research and reasoning and support from the deposit of faith that must form its foundation.

Venerable Pope Pius XII.

Venerable Pope Pius XII.

Here I’ll give a few quotations that stood out to me in particular. I would encourage anyone who is curious to learn more to read the whole thing (it’s not a very lengthy document), and read my post from last year.

Pope Pius XII, in a 1946 encyclical letter to all the bishops of the Church, Deiparae Virginis Mariae, asked what they thought of the notion of promulgating the Assumption (which has been held since the earliest centuries of the Church) as a dogma — if it could or should be done. To this he received a nearly unanimous response in favor (§16):

But those whom “the Holy Spirit has placed as bishops to rule the Church of God” (Acts 20:28) gave an almost unanimous affirmative response to both these questions. This “outstanding agreement of the Catholic prelates and the faithful” (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus [1854]), affirming that the bodily Assumption of God’s Mother into heaven can be defined as a dogma of faith, since it shows us the concordant teaching of the Church’s ordinary doctrinal authority and the concordant faith of the Christian people which the same doctrinal authority sustains and directs, thus by itself and in an entirely certain and infallible way, manifests this privilege [the Assumption] as a truth revealed by God and contained in that divine deposit which Christ has delivered to his Spouse to be guarded faithfully and to be taught infallibly (First Vatican Council, Dei filius [1870]).

In other words: the near-unanimous response in favor proved that the teaching authority of the Church was in agreement with the faith of the Church.

Certainly this teaching authority of the Church, not by any merely human effort but under the protection of the Spirit of Truth (John 14:26), and therefore absolutely without error, carries out the commission entrusted to it, that of preserving the revealed truths pure and entire throughout every age, in such a way that it presents them undefiled, adding nothing to them and taking nothing away from them. For, as the Vatican Council teaches, “the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter in such a way that, by his revelation, they might manifest new doctrine, but so that, by his assistance, they might guard as sacred and might faithfully propose the revelation delivered through the apostles, or the deposit of faith.” (First Vatican Council, Pastor Aeternus [1870]).

Assumption of the Virgin (c. 1550), by Tintoretto

Assumption of the Virgin (c. 1550), by Tintoretto (WikiPaintings)

This is where it leapt out at me: To the mind of the Church, to all the faithful who petitioned for the dogmatization of the Assumption, to all the bishops who affirmed it, this was not the promulgation of a “new doctrine,” but the protection of the Divine Revelation handed down by the Apostles, that had been a part of the deposit of faith for time immemorial.

Pope Pius then went on to lay out many testimonies and evidences from both Scripture and Tradition which affirm the truth of the Assumption. Noting that the Church had celebrated the Assumption in her liturgy since ancient times, he declared (§20):

However, since the liturgy of the Church does not engender the Catholic faith, but rather springs from it, in such a way that the practices of the sacred worship proceed from the faith as the fruit comes from the tree, it follows that the holy Fathers and the great Doctors, in the homilies and sermons they gave the people on this feast day, did not draw their teaching from the feast itself as from a primary source, but rather they spoke of this doctrine as something already known and accepted by Christ’s faithful. They presented it more clearly. They offered more profound explanations of its meaning and nature, bringing out into sharper light the fact that this feast shows, not only that the dead body of the Blessed Virgin Mary remained incorrupt, but that she gained a triumph out of death, her heavenly glorification after the example of her only begotten Son, Jesus Christ — truths that the liturgical books had frequently touched upon concisely and briefly.

We today are so fixated on primary sources, on declaring proofs for everything we do; but Pope Pius here makes an important point: that ancient Christians based their liturgy on the faith revealed to them, and that the Fathers who expounded on the Assumption did so from that very tradition handed down from the Apostles, not from the surviving liturgical texts which now we look to as proofs.

The Assumption of the Virgin (1650), by Nicolas Poussin

The Assumption of the Virgin (1650), by Nicolas Poussin (WikiPaintings).

Since the universal Church, within which dwells the Spirit of Truth who infallibly directs it toward an ever more perfect knowledge of the revealed truths, has expressed its own belief many times over the course of the centuries, and since the bishops of the entire world are almost unanimously petitioning that the truth of the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven should be defined as a dogma of divine and Catholic faith — this truth which is based on the Sacred Writings, which is thoroughly rooted in the minds of the faithful, which has been approved in ecclesiastical worship from the most remote times, which is completely in harmony with the other revealed truths, and which has been expounded and explained magnificently in the work, the science, and the wisdom of the theologians — we believe that the moment appointed in the plan of divine providence for the solemn proclamation of this outstanding privilege of the Virgin Mary has already arrived.

Pope Pius concluded (§41) that the overwhelming weight of evidence supports this declaration of the Assumption: not only its basis in Scripture, but the certainty in the minds of the faithful, in its celebration in liturgy since the most ancient times, in its harmony with all other revealed truths (something I wanted in particular to point out to critics), and in the extensive and learned exposition by all the theologians of the ages. This, truly, was not a case of “making stuff up”: it was a setting down of what was already known and believed.