On the Usefulness of Tradition: A Response to Recent ObjectionsFeb 8th, 2013 | By David Anders | Category: Blog Posts
I have often heard Protestants object that the Catholic concept of Tradition is practically useless. There are usually two arguments for this position. First, Tradition allegedly reduces to “whatever the Magisterium says,” in which case it is redundant. Alternately, the concept of Tradition is supposedly too vague to be serviceable. On this view, there is no good answer to the questions, “What exactly counts as Tradition? Where is the official list of Traditions?”
Both these objections misunderstand what Catholics mean by Tradition. In the broadest possible sense, Tradition is simply everything that the Church has and does to transmit the faith from generation to generation. This includes her liturgy, sacraments, canons, devotions, teaching, and preaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains Tradition this way: “Through Tradition, the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.” (CCC 78)
From this definition, it should be clear that Tradition and Magisterium are not redundant. Tradition is the ordinary vehicle for transmitting the faith. The Magisterium is its authoritative interpreter. We could not eliminate Tradition and rely only upon the Magisterium for many reasons.
First, the content of Tradition is broader than the dogmatic pronouncements of the Magisterium. Tradition conveys a great deal of positive content that may never have been treated by way of dogmatic pronouncement. A good case in point would be the doctrine of male-only priesthood. For millennia, Tradition effectively transmitted this doctrine through Scripture, liturgy, sacramental practice, canon law, the patrimony of the fathers, and so forth. Only in recent years have the Popes found it necessary to teach specifically on this topic. It is absurd to say that we only knew this doctrine when the Popes finally decided to pronounce upon it. Therefore, Tradition and the Magisterium are not redundant.
Second, Tradition offers an important witness to the integrity and antiquity of the faith that may not be conveyed by magisterial pronouncements alone. To illustrate, the weight of Tradition was a strong motive for me to accept the Church’s dogmatic teaching on the communion of saints. I saw that devotion to Mary and the saints was both very ancient and very widely attested. This prompted me to investigate the reasons that Catholics have given for the practice. Thus, Tradition served a function in my life that could not have been served by the dogmatic statements of the Magisterium.
Third, Tradition conveys the faith in a manner that the Magisterium alone could never replace. Christian faith is not reducible to creedal formula. The experience of the faith is far richer than simply a list of teachings, but includes the life of liturgy, catechesis, preaching, charity, and prayer. Even if the Magisterium pronounced on every conceivable theological topic, we would still need Tradition as the normal mode of conveying the faith.
Protestant Christians, I think, implicitly understand this distinction between message and medium. No Presbyterian would be content simply to email the Westminster Confession to all professed Christians and then consider that he had “done Church.” He would not reduce his faith to the pronouncements of teaching authorities, or even to the contents of Scripture. Why else did the Reformers think so deeply about the reform of the liturgy? They understood that the medium is, itself, part of the message.
What about the charge that Tradition is too vague to be workable? I have sometimes heard Protestants say that Tradition is of no use unless the Church can produce an exhaustive list of Traditions in the same way that she has produced an exhaustive list of inspired books. I think what motivates this objection is the belief that Scripture and Tradition must form a sort of neutral data set, from which we exegete the content of the faith. Unless I know that I have the whole set, I cannot possible draw reliable conclusions about the content of the faith.
Ironically, I think this objection works better against the Protestant doctrine of Scripture than it does against the Catholic doctrine of Tradition. On the view of someone like R.C. Sproul, we can only make a definitive account of the faith in terms of the inspired books. However, we don’t know with certainty which canonical books are inspired. (According to Sproul, we must be content with “a fallible list of infallible books.”)
Catholics, however, don’t view Scripture or Tradition this way. They do not form a neutral data set from which we independently exegete the content of the faith. Rather, they transmit the content of revelation within a community endowed with authoritative interpreters. Only within such a community could you ever know with certainty that you possessed a definitive account of the faith.
Furthermore, it is just not true to say that we don’t know the contents of Tradition. If you would know the Church’s Traditions, look to her liturgies, devotions, canons, the writings of the fathers, architecture, art, music, catechesis, and doctrinal pronouncements. Heinrich Denzinger composed a nearly exhaustive list of the latter that is widely available.1
The substantive dispute between Protestants and Catholics is not over the usefulness of Tradition, therefore, but over its authority. Does Tradition transmit the deposit of faith in a way that authoritatively conditions my interpretation of Holy Scripture and of the faith? Or, does my interpretation of Scripture stand in judgment of Tradition? We can only answer this with reference to two other questions: “What provision did Christ make for the transmission of the Christian faith? And with what authority did he invest it?”
Christ gave very specific instructions concerning the transmission of the Christian faith. First, He instituted the Church’s liturgy, and ordered that it be handed on in perpetuity. (Luke 22: 19-20; John 20: 21-23). Second, He committed His body of oral teaching, including instructions about baptism, to the disciples (the eleven), and commanded that they teach it to all nations. With this command He included a promise of divine assistance. (Matthew 28:18-20) Third, He assigned the Church the responsibility of rendering binding decisions, and promised that heaven would confirm those decisions. (Matt 16:18; 18:18)
When it comes to the apostles, we find that they transmitted each of these elements to posterity. Paul includes the elements of the liturgy as part of the deposit of faith. (1 Corinthians 11:23-24.). The elders at Jerusalem considered their disciplinary decisions to reflect the central doctrines of the faith, and to be guaranteed by the Holy Spirit. (Acts 15) And, the apostle entrusts the charge of handing on the faith to successors. Again, this charge is accompanied by the promise of divine assistance. (2 Timothy 1:6; 2 Timothy 2:2).
There is only one part of Tradition that the apostles do not mention. They completely ignore the formation of the New Testament canon. The closest they come is the reference to “Paul’s Letters” in 2 Peter 3:16, but this hardly constitutes a doctrine of the Canon. As far as we know, neither Jesus nor the apostles had any concept of a New Testament Canon serving as the primary vehicle for the transmission of the Christian faith. Anyone who says otherwise depends neither on Scripture, nor ancient Tradition, but upon modern innovation.
How, then, can Scripture and Tradition relate usefully? Justin Martyr (d.165) gives one of the best answers in chapter 67 of his First Apology. Normally, they relate liturgically:
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought . . .
In this scenario, neither element is useless. The Scriptures inspire us as God’s very words. The Sacrament brings us Christ, in his very flesh. Tradition, by the authority of Christ himself, conveys the deposit of faith (and Christ himself) in multiple ways.
What about the question of a norma normans? If Tradition conditions our reading of Scripture, then can Scripture be a norm for Tradition? Scripture norms Tradition in the sense that Scripture provides the primary subject matter for theology, dogmatic discourse, and the Church’s kerygma. Crucially, Scripture contains the very words of Christ. There can be no question of teaching or preaching contrary to Scripture.
But, ironically, the one who places his interpretation of Scripture over Tradition destroys the authority of both. It is only through Tradition that Scripture can even be a final authority. This is because there is always an interpretive gap between the words of Scripture and the understanding of the reader/hearer. How do I know that my interpretation of Scripture is what God really meant? I can only know if I rely on the interpretive method established by Christ, if I rely on an interpretive method that possesses divine authority.
Let me illustrate. Consider the exception clause in Matthew 19: 9. Christ permits divorce in the case of πορνείᾳ. What exactly does Christ mean by “πορνείᾳ?” And, how am I to understand “divorce” in this passage relative to the parallel passages in the synoptics, and in the teachings of St. Paul? Scripture cannot possibly rule my behavior, it cannot be an authority, if I do not know what it means. How, then, do I proceed. Do I rely on my own lexical, exegetical skill to interpret this difficult passage? Do I rely on experts? Or do I defer to Tradition?
The Fathers of the Church gave a clear interpretation of the teaching on divorce and that interpretation has been confirmed by the canonical Tradition of the Church for millennia. If I rely upon Tradition as a divine authority established by Christ, then I can clearly, and unambiguously obey the unique authority of Scripture. If I reject Tradition, however, can I be certain that my interpretation possesses divine authority? It is only Tradition that allows Scripture to be a final authority.
In conclusion, Sacred Tradition is very useful. Christ established it for the authoritative transmission of the faith and the sanctification of the Church. He also made us a promise of His divine assistance, to accompany the transmission of the faith and to guarantee its integrity. Tradition is an important witness to the antiquity, unity, and Catholicity of the faith. It conveys content that Scripture and the extraordinary Magisterium may not have addressed. Finally, reliance on Tradition does not diminish the unique authority of Scripture. Scripture alone contains the inspired words of God. Therefore, we reverence Scripture and accord it a unique place in our faith and worship. But Tradition is what allows Scripture to guide me, to rest assured that I have understood it aright.