Catholicism: Traditions

Catholics reject “Sola Scriptura.”  That is, they reject the idea that authority should be derived from the Scriptures alone.  Kevin McQuaid has expressed their belief writing, “After having read the Bible cover to cover and listened to the whole of Scripture numerous times at Mass, I still have no idea where the Bible says, implicitly or explicitly, that it is the sole rule of the Christian faith” [(August 19, 2007, Letters to the Editor, Longview News Journal).  Note: McQuaid’s letter presents a dilemma.  On one hand, if one can read and interpret the Bible for oneself, then there is no need for anyone to rely upon a Magisterium interpretation.  On the other hand, if one cannot interpret the Bible for oneself, then how can he appeal to his reading of the Scriptures?  The best he should be able to say is that the Magisterium does not teach this].

The Catholics believe that authority should be derived  from “the Word of God,” and this means to them the Bible and Church Tradition. Catechism of the Catholic Church (Second Edition) states, “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God” (Paragraph 97).  Again, “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the church alone… This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome” (Paragraph 85).

Kerry Duke has described the situation in trying to study the Bible with a Catholic, saying, “If you argue, for example, that the New Testament says nothing about infant baptism, the Catholic will readily admit this.  He will add, however, that Sacred Tradition does speak of it – and this tradition is to him just a much the word of God as the Bible is.  In fact, when you cite any passage about the word of God (e.g. Matthew 24:35; John 12:48; 1 Thessalonica 2:13), the Catholic will immediately think not just of the written words of the Bible but also of the spoken word of the apostles handed down through the ages by the Catholic Church (‘tradition’).  Tradition, you see, is his trump card over any verse you quote.”  (Kerry Duke, Debate Charts on Roman Catholicism, pp. 1-2).  Moreover, “Catholicism also holds… that the Holy Spirit continues to guide the Catholic Church into truth.  This doctrine is the belief that the Pope and the Bishops (who are together called ‘Magisterium’) are guided by the Holy Spirit in defining dogma for Catholic Church” (ibid).  Again, Kerry Duke explains the frustrating situation one encounters in studying with a Catholic, “Can I know what the Bible teaches by reading it?  No, the Catholic Church  must officially interpret it for you… Will the official interpretation by all that I need?  No, you need the Sacred Tradition… Okay, then I’ll study the church fathers to learn this tradition?  Will that work?  Sorry, but you must have church  Magisterium to decide dogma… Well, I’ll go to the church to get that body of ‘Sacred Tradition’ so I can study all the apostles handed down to us.  Is that okay?  Not really, because the church  really doesn’t have this body of teaching written down somewhere.  The church only ‘extracts’ truths from it as they are needed… only the Catholic Church knows this tradition… And what is your proof of these claims? (ibid, p. 17).

Let us ask…

  1. What about their appeal to oral traditions?

The Pharisees of old also believed in the authority of oral traditions, which were supposedly passed down from Moses. Jesus scolded them “Why do you transgress the commandment of God because of your traditions? …You have made the commandment of God no effect by your traditions” (Matthew 15:3, 6; Mark 7:9, 13). Jesus made a distinction between “the word of God” and “your tradition” (Mark 7:13). Their tradition put them in conflict with God’s written word (Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13). It is in this context Jesus quoted Isaiah 29:13, “In vain do they worship Me teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9; Mark 7:7). Which of their oral traditions did Jesus tell the people to keep? Where is the evidence that God bound such?

It might be objected that the Pharisees were following “fake traditions” or “abusing traditions,” but that they are not. Asserting such is not the same as proving such. Proof is needed (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

In the Bible, we are told that it is the “Scripture” (that is – writing, inspired writing) which makes us “complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). Why do we need these traditions?

It might be objected that not all things which Jesus did and said are recorded in the Scripture. Such is true (John 20:30-31; 21:25). Moreover, the same could be said of the apostles. However, enough has been revealed (John 20:30-31; 2 Timothy 3:16-17).

  1. What about Moses’ seat?

Some have appealed to the fact that the Scribes and Pharisees are described as sitting in “Moses’ seat” as evidence that they were entrusted with the oral traditions. Such is an assertion, but not proof. “Moses’ seat” may simply mean that they were teachers of the Law of Moses (cf. John 3:10; Acts 13:27; 15:21; Romans 2:21-24). There is no passage which suggests that Jesus or God ever viewed the Pharisees oral traditions as from God, and thus binding.

  1. What about apostolic traditions which are mentioned in the Scriptures?

Let us consider: a) 2 Thessalonians 2:15, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” The traditions (teachings which were handed down) came unto those at Thessalonica in both word (oral inspired teaching cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:5-6; 2:13; 2 Thessalonians 2:5), and by way of epistle (written inspired teaching). Prior to the complete New Testament canon coming forth, there were inspired men who proclaimed the message. It is important to understand that the oral message did not differ in content from the written word which would come forth (see 2 Thessalonians 2:3-5; 3:10). Paul both spoke and wrote of the gospel (1 Thessalonians 1:5; 1 Corinthians 15:1-3; 2 Thessalonians 2:14-15). There is no evidence that salvation depends on our having knowledge of certain information not recorded in the scriptures. The Scriptures makes us “complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). b) 2 Thessalonians 3:6, “We command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us.” Paul had shown them how to behave (2 Thessalonians 3:6-9). He had taught them orally (2 Thessalonians 4:11-12). He had also written to them on this same subject (1 Thessalonians 4:9-12; 5:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:6; 3:14). Absolutely, nothing here suggests that this ‘tradition’ involved things that we should know, but which are not recorded in the Scriptures.

  1. Are all man-made traditions wrong?

No. The word “tradition” refers to something which has been “handed down.” Traditions fall into three categories. a) Some traditions are evil. I have heard of traditions which are in clear violation of the Scriptures. I have heard of traditions which add to or take from what God requires. These traditions should be avoided (Galatians 1:6-10; Acts 15:1-5, ff; Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32; Proverbs 30:6; Revelation 22:18-19; 2 John 9). b) Some traditions are good, such as teaching that respect is to be shown to the aged (Proverbs 16:31; 1 Timothy 5:1). This is in harmony with the Scriptures. It is good to keep such traditions. c) Most traditions are neutral, such as wearing solemn colors at a funeral. In general, it is good to keep such traditions lest one cause unnecessary offense.

However, man-made traditions are not our authority in religion. Marion Fox explains, “The first reason that traditions are to be rejected as proper authority in religion is they have led some men to sin (Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23). The second reason that traditions are to be rejected as proper authority in religion is they have caused some to wrongfully accuse others of sin (Matthew 15:1-9 and Mark 7:1-5). The third reason for rejecting traditions is people have engaged in vain worship as a result of traditions (Matthew 15:18-19 and Mark 7:6-7). The fourth reason for rejecting traditions is people have made void the word of God because of them (Matthew 15:4-6 and Mark 7:10-13). The fifth reason for rejecting traditions is they have made spoil of Christians (Colossians 2:8). The word ‘spoil’ (sulagogeo) means, “…to carry off as a captive (and slave), …Thayer” (The Work of the Holy Spirit, Vol. 1., page 98).

We should distinguish between optional matters (how the collection is taken up, whether by plate or hat… how many songs we sing before the first prayer… the hour on Sunday that we choose to assemble, etc.) and obligatory matters (things like what is ethically taught in the Bible… the plan of salvation… the organization of the church… how we worship, etc.).  Traditions in optional matters are acceptable, for God has not specified; though, we should be very careful not to treat optional matters as if they were obligatory matters.  However, obligatory matters must not be changed or interfered with by human tradition.

5.  What about their appeal to continuous revelation?

Why we should believe their claim over the claims of others? The Mormons have the Bible plus the Book of Mormon, The Pearl of Great Price, Doctrine and Covenants, and continuous revelation through the church today. The Seventh-Day Adventist have the Bible plus the writings of Ellen G. White. The Muslim have the Bible plus the Quran. Multitudes of protestants urge man to take the Bible and their creed book. The Jehovah Witnesses have the Bible plus their Watchtower writings. So, I would suggest that it is proper for us to press for an answer as to why we should accept their extra-Biblical traditions and revelations, and not these others.

Concerning the subject of continuous revelation: A careful study of 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 helps one to see that revelation wasn’t to continue to come forth forever. It is beyond our scope to study this passage in detail just here… But consider the words of Kerry Duke, “What is the ‘perfect thing’? The counterpart to that which is in part, the miraculous gifts. Since verse 8 and 9 refer to modes of revelation which are ‘in part’, verse 10 must refer to a mode of revelation which is complete (teleion). This complete avenue of revelation replaced these temporary, miraculous, and oral means of revelation. It is the New Testament, the written word of God which is the “perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25) and which furnishes a person to every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17)” [Debate charts on Roman Catholicism, p. 88].

Sometimes Catholics object that they are not arguing for continual revelation, but continual guidance. It is claimed that the organization of the Roman Catholic church was revealed by the dual authority of the Bible and oral tradition. No new revelation can come along to change this. However, now that it is in place the Holy Spirit guides the Roman Catholic church. Listen to Kerry Duke, “Strangely, Catholics cite John 16:13 in proof of this claim. Of course, this verse in context was spoken to the apostles, and it is the promise of the revelation of truth, not guidance to truth already revealed but not yet realized or perhaps needed as the Catholic church claims. This fact is evident from the preceding verse… (v. 12).   Also, verse 13… Jesus does not use the word ‘revelation’ here, but this is what is described, since revelation is a disclosure, a making known of things not previously known” (ibid, p. 22). Whatever they call it they’re speaking continuous revelation.

In the Bible, we’re told that it is the “Scripture” (that is writing, inspired writing) which is given “that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). It sounds sufficient.

Additionally, let us ask: “If we did what those in the first century were told was necessary for salvation (in passages like Acts 2:36-38; 3:19; 22:16, etc.). Would we be saved? If not, why not? What is written is said to be adequate for belief and eternal life (John 20:30-31; 1 John 5:13).

About Bryan Hodge

I am a minister and missionary to numerous countries around the world.
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