On the Usefulness of Tradition: A Response to Recent Objections

Feb 8th, 2013 | By | 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.

  1. There is also an updated Latin-English version. []

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  1. David,

    This is even more useful than it would seem at first glance. Allow me to explain three respects in which that is so.

    First, if the Church, the Body of Christ, is to be one, all Christians must have the same “formal, proximate object of faith” (FPOF). That consists in whatever ensemble of secondary authorities embody and present primary divine authority, in such a way as to transmit divine revelation clearly to us for the assent of faith as distinct from that of opinion. On the Catholic account, the FPOF is the triad Scripture-Tradition-Magisterium, whose elements are understood as mutually attesting and interdependent. Thus the first two transmit the content of divine revelation to us, and the last, by virtue of the charism of infallibility, ensures their correct interpretation. But the last does not interpret either of the first two in isolation from the other. For the reasons you cite, each of the first two serves as an indispensable interpretive context for the other. Thus neither the content nor the role of either is reducible to those of the other, even in principle. That relationship of mutual dependence-in-difference is what cries out for an interpretive authority. And so the popular conservative-Protestant notion that Scripture is formally, not just materially, “sufficient” for transmitting the content of divine revelation is false simply as a matter of historical and literary fact, never mind theology.

    Second, the authority of Tradition cannot be separated from that of its bearer, the Church. As CCC §78 implies, what is “handed down” as Tradition is “all that [the Church] is, and all that she believes.” Accordingly, one can identify what’s authoritative in what’s been “handed down” only with recourse to the authority of the Church herself, whose clearest verbal expression is magisterial teaching. That is still another reason why the three elements of the FPOF are mutually attesting and interdependent. Thus on the Catholic interpretive paradigm (CIP), it is a basic hermeneutical error to pit any one element of the FPOF against the other.

    That is precisely what so frustrates many thoughtful (and not-so-thoughtful) conservative Protestants. The essence of their position is the belief that the content of divine revelation as such can be reliably known independently of ecclesial authority, so that the individual believer can judge the deliverances of such authority in terms of such prior and independent knowledge. That not only eliminates the Magisterium as a trumping interpretive authority, but also blinds them to the role that Tradition itself plays in their interpretations. Yet it is only by virtue of Tradition, as interpreted by the Church, that we even have a biblical canon in the first place, and that it has the content it does. And the theological differences between conservative Protestants can largely be accounted for by the different weights they respectively, and often unwittingly, assign to other aspects of Tradition.

    Third and finally, the nature of Tradition as you describe it makes clear that the assent of faith must always remain “implicit” to a degree. That’s because the full content of what’s thereby “handed down” can never be adequately expressed in a finite list of propositions. Given how even confessional Protestantism functions, that should not be a problem for the sort of Protestant who criticizes the Catholic Church for lacking such a list. Even Calvin recognized the need for implicit faith rendered by trust in ecclesial authorities–as you yourself pointed out in another article..

    Best,
    Mike

  2. Wow, Mike, your statement here in comment 1 is helpful:

    That is precisely what so frustrates many thoughtful (and not-so-thoughtful) conservative Protestants. The essence of their position is the belief that the content of divine revelation as such can be reliably known independently of ecclesial authority, so that the individual believer can judge the deliverances of such authority in terms of such prior and independent knowledge. That not only eliminates the Magisterium as a trumping interpretive authority, but also blinds them to the role that Tradition itself plays in their interpretations.

    Tim Keller’s new book on Galatians [which comes out on the 11th but has a partial PDF file available on Monergism books] states on page 22:

    Paul is telling the Galatians to evaluate and judge both him as
    an apostle and his teaching with the biblical gospel. The Bible judges
    the church; the church does not judge the Bible. The Bible is the foundation for and the creator of the church; the church is not the foundation for or creator of the Bible. The church and its hierarchy must be
    evaluated by the believer with the biblical gospel as the touchstone or
    plumb line for judging all truth claims.

    This is a contrast–I would like to see how you would state the correct view.

    Thanks, Kim D

  3. Thanks, Kim.

    That’s too bad about Tim Keller; I once favorably reviewed a sermon of his. See here.

    I believe I stated the correct view here. Have fun!

    Best,
    Mike

  4. Mike (in comment 3),

    Ha, yes I have been following the link you gave. It just gets a bit complicated and bogged down when you get to 465 comments!

    Kim D

  5. David,

    Here’s an example that reveals the necessity of the Tradition recognized as authoritative, from Richard Beck, Professor and Department Chair of Psychology at Abilene Christian University. He argues for universalism, and on that topic says the following:

    The biggest objection to universalism involves the passages regarding hell in the bible. However, there is no doctrinal teaching that doesn’t have contradictory tensions within the biblical witness. Witness the hermeneutical and exegetical diversity within the Christian tradition. In short, universalists are not in any unique position. This is the way it is with just about any doctrine.

    The issue, then, ultimately boils down to which biblical texts will regulate doctrinal choices. For example, which of the two passages regulates your doctrine regarding female leadership in the church?

    1. “I do not permit a woman to teach, nor have authority over a man.” (1 Timothy 2.12)
    2. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3.28)

    If you are a Complementarian Passage #1 regulates your understanding of Passage #2. If you are an Egalitarian Passage #2 regulates how you understand Passage #1. And there is no way to resolve any debate between the two camps as these are meta-biblical choices.

    A similar thing holds for the soteriological debates. Universalists have regulating passages that frame how they understand the texts about hell. Here are four regulating texts for universalists:

    1. “God is love.” (1 John 4.8)
    2. “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1.19-20)
    3. “When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.” (1 Corinthians 15.28)
    4. “For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” (Romans 11.32)

    As with the gender texts one has to choose regulating texts about hell. And these are meta-biblical choices. People who believe in a classical vision of hell will read the four passages above through that lens. Universalists, by contrast, will read the texts on hell through the lens of these four passages. That is, they will teach that hell must:

    1. Be a manifestation that “God is love.”
    2. Be a means to “reconcile all things” to God
    3. Allow God to be “all in all”
    4. Provide a way for God to “have mercy upon all”

    Keith DeRose, of Yale, has a similar page in which he chooses and argues from certain “regulating texts” that the Bible teaches universalism. And this same problem of choosing “regulating texts” comes up in the debate between Calvinists and Arminians; this is what makes that debate interminable and insoluble, because apart from the Tradition and the Magisterium, nothing authoritatively directs the ‘choosing’ of “regulating texts.”

    Even if one acknowledges that one interprets Scripture according to some tradition or other, if one does not recognize that Tradition is authoritative, and binding us to a particular (even if broad) way of understanding and interpreting Scripture, then one can simply ‘switch interpretive traditions’ as one pleases. And in that case, Scripture becomes in effect something of a wax nose, saying whatever one wants to it say, in the way that Beck describes (in his description of choosing “regulating texts”).

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  6. This is a great explanation. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was part of Tradition (evidenced by the devotion of the faithful, universally) before being declared dogmatically.

  7. Regarding the Tim Keller quote about Paul telling the Galatians to judge his words by the biblical Gospel, he may be slightly misconstruing what Paul said. The reference (I presume) is Galatians 1:7b-9; 11-12: “…there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed…For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”

    Paul says here that the Galatians are not to accept any other gospel than the one *he* preached to them, by the revelation he received. Paul makes no reference in his letter to the Galatians to testing his revelation by Scripture; rather he speaks of ultimately being accepted by the other Apostles and being given the right hand of fellowship. The “biblical gospel” in this instance would refer back to the gospel that Paul himself preached as revealed to him, not an independent “biblical gospel” that the Galatians could evaluate him by.

    Luke, in Acts, does praise the Bereans for accepting the gospel and searching the Scriptures daily “to see if these things were so.” (Acts 17:11). But I believe that it stands to reason that the Bereans could only affirm that Scripture supported what Paul was saying; they could not derive the gospel independently by searching the Scriptures, as Paul said that it was given by revelation (and when Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the Christ, Jesus told him that it was given to Peter by revelation as well), and also because if the gospel were able to simply be deduced from the Hebrew Scriptures, there would have been no need for the special revelation given to Peter and Paul, or for the Apostles to go out preaching–everyone would have already understood what they were saying.

    I do find it interesting, though, that Paul bound himself by the gospel that he preached and not by his own authority. Paul pointed continuously to that same gospel as the test of the true versus the false. This relates, I think, to the point brought up by Michael in the first comment about the necessity of the Church having *one* formal, proximate, object of faith. The necessity is clear, but what really constitutes the *one object*? I think the answer to this question contains much of the tension between Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants regarding what constitutes the “Church”. I believe the Protestant notion (practically if not formally) is that the “one object” is that One Person, Jesus of Nazareth, both God and man, born of Mary, a virgin, who suffered, died, rose, and is coming again. And God is one in three Persons. I’m not sure that there’s much more that would be considered a part of that one object of faith. If we, like Paul, make continuous reference back to the gospel that we first received, what elements are essential to it? Is there a point at which the Tradition of the Church encumbers communion?

  8. Denise (#7):

    You wrote:

    This relates, I think, to the point brought up by Michael in the first comment about the necessity of the Church having *one* formal, proximate, object of faith.” The necessity is clear, but what really constitutes the *one object*? I think the answer to this question contains much of the tension between Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants regarding what constitutes the “Church”. I believe the Protestant notion (practically if not formally) is that the “one object” is that One Person, Jesus of Nazareth, both God and man, born of Mary, a virgin, who suffered, died, rose, and is coming again. And God is one in three Persons. I’m not sure that there’s much more that would be considered a part of that one object of faith.

    Two points. First, I believe I’d already answered the question you raise in that paragraph. Here’s my answer, from #1:

    That consists in whatever ensemble of secondary authorities embody and present primary divine authority, in such a way as to transmit divine revelation clearly to us for the assent of faith as distinct from that of opinion. On the Catholic account, the FPOF is the triad Scripture-Tradition-Magisterium, whose elements are understood as mutually attesting and interdependent. Thus the first two transmit the content of divine revelation to us, and the last, by virtue of the charism of infallibility, ensures their correct interpretation

    The FPOF, then, is whatever “secondary” authorities are to be trusted as the embodiments of that infallible divine authority by which revelation has been given us. It is from those authorities that we learn specific doctrines to believed as articles of faith.

    The primary such authority, of course, is God himself, incarnate in Jesus Christ. God is the ultimate, not the “proximate” authority; his authority is only encountered in its embodiments in the FPOF. All Christians agree on that. It’s not what the dispute is about. The dispute is about the precise composition and identity of the FPOF. Without agreement on that, there will never be agreement about what is binding, revealed doctrine and what is only provisional theological opinion.

    Best,
    Mike

  9. Mr. Anders,

    Your write, “we don’t know with certainty which canonical books are inspired.”

    My question is this: Can you show me any statement of the Roman Catholic magisterium
    contained in Denzinger-Schonmetzer that contradicts the assertion that the Four Gospels,
    for example, are self-authenticating–a conviction that is common among confessional
    Lutheran and Reformed Christians.

    Regards,
    Keith Fredrickson

  10. Hi Mr. Fredrickson,

    Thanks so much for writing.
    In answer to your question, the 4th Session of the Council of Trent addresses the canon of Scripture. If you read the statement, I think you will agree – It presumes that we know the canon by ecclesial authority and tradition, not by internal-witness or self-authentication. However, the doctrine of self-authentication is not addressed directly.

    Personally, I find the doctrine of self – authentication to be deeply problematic for many, many reasons. One of them is the subjectivism that it inevitably entails. Another is that I don’t think the doctrine itself is biblical. And finally, even if it were true, it can still not account for a CANON of Scripture understood as the final and sufficient rule of faith. Let me illustrate:

    Assume that you had only the Gospel of Matthew, but knew (via self-authentication) that it was the inspired word of God. Would you assume that Matthew (and only Matthew) would suffice for the Church’s Rule of Faith? How would you know (from the text itself) that it was sufficient? It surely doesn’t address every conceivable topic or problem the Church might face? Now imagine that you added Mark to your list. and then Luke, and John, and so on, all the way to Revelation.

    Even if you could know with certainty that each book is inspired, at what part of that process of successive addition could you know, “Ah, now I’ve got a completed canon, sufficient for the needs of the church?” Nothing in the texts themselves indicates this.

    You could only know this because of something external to the texts. You need some authority outside the texts to say, “This list is complete,” and “God intends this list to serve as the final authority for matters of Christian faith and practice.” But only a divine authority could give you that information. And, no Protestant I know of wants to claim that those doctrines come immediately by way of inspiration or revelation. Hence, the need for Catholic tradition.

    Thanks,

    David

  11. Dave Anders,

    Thank you for your article. I have a question on how to respond to Evangelicals who respond to arguments you have given with arguments along the lines of, “How did the church of Ephesus distinguish Paul’s inspired letters from any other writings from a pastor or missionary, if they did not have an infallible interpretive paradigm?”.

  12. David (#10) – this comment of yours was very helpful to me. One important consideration for me in my becoming a Catholic was the canon issue, but I had thought of it in terms of something like: given this book’s claim to be in the canon, can I be sure? (like Luther’s negative comments on James). I had never thought of the other side of it: can I be sure there are not missing books? How could I know the Book of Mormon ought not to be part of it?

    No doubt one could reply to the latter challenge by reading it and declaring that it doesn’t have sufficient self-authentication (although the Mormons believe otherwise) – but I would have to know about every conceivable candidate and read them as well.

    Not a huge practical deal for most people, I am sure – but a real logical conundrum. Was it Sproul who referred to a fallible collection of infallible books?

    jj

  13. Dear GS (#11),

    But I believe that the Church in Ephesus DID have access to an infallible interpretive paradigm. They had the Church’s tradition and Magisterium. Specifically, they began with the first-hand testimony of Paul (who wrote to them and visited them), John, who lived among them, and those who knew the apostles that these books had come down by divine authority. Next, they had the agreement of all the churches in communion with Rome and the Patriarchates that received these books. Then, when the question of canonicity was officially raised some years later, they had the authoritative decision of the Church’s magisterium.

    -David

  14. Hi Dave,

    Thank you for your response. I’m just thinking what a protestant might think, just as a way to be prepared to answer, what if they respond in this way ”all they had was knowledge that Paul sent the letter. But his would they infallibly know the second of the reception of the letter, infallibly, that this was even Paul’s letter? To my knowledge there has been no gift of infallibility installed in Ephesus, and so how could an infallible interpretive principle be in operation to authoritatively pronounce Paul’s letter, infallibly, to he the word of God or even that it was Paul who wrote it. It would seem as if, since the conditions for infallibility is only claimed to be installed in the bishop of Rome, that the Ephesian elders could not have infallibly known the letter from Paul was inspired, and. That o ly such conditions could have been on operation in Rome, and nowhere else”.

    Also does the church teach that the apostles had the unique gift of infallibility? Or was it just peter

  15. GS (#14),

    There are a few questions here.
    1st – You are mistaken about the Catholic dogma on infallibility. You wrote, “since the conditions for infallibility is only claimed to be installed in the bishop of Rome.”

    This is not true. The Charism of infallibility belongs not uniquely to the Bishop of Rome, but to the Church. This includes the Pope, the Bishops, and the faithful. However, this charism is not exercised in the same way by each of these. Only the Pope has the Power and authority to define dogma alone, by virtue of his supreme office. But that is not the normal or ordinary way in which the charism of infallibility operates. To cite the Catechism,

    “All the faithful share in understanding and handing on revealed truth. They have received the anointing of the Holy Spirit, who instructs them and guides them into all truth.
    “The whole body of the faithful. . . cannot err in matters of belief.” (CCC 91-92)

    Infallibility also adheres to the ordinary teaching of the Pope and Bishops as they hand on the deposit of faith, regardless of whether or not it has been defined by an infallible definition. Thus, we believe – we have faith – that the deposit of faith has been faithfully transmitted to the Church through the ages by this ordinary means, because Christ promised that it would be.

    Also, you ask if the Church in Ephesus can “know infallibly.” But infallibility is not a characteristic of my knowledge, but of the guarantee of the Church’s teaching. Thus, we do not say, “I infallibly know these things to be true.” Rather, we say, “Because the Church teaches these things infallibly, I can know with certainty that they are true.”

    So, to return to your main question – we can consider the Church in Ephesus. Or the Crowds at Pentecost, or to any body of lay faithful in the apostolic age. And ask, “How could they have certainty regarding the content of the deposit of faith? How could they know that what was proposed to them was true?” Is it necessary that they receive the faith only by means of “dogmatic definition?”

    By no means. They received it the way the faithful almost always do – by the ordinary and universal magisterium of the church – the teaching of the bishops and pastors, the traditions (especially the liturgy), and the consent of the faithful. It was a proclamation confirmed by miracles, holiness, and martyrdom.

    From time to time, doubts about this or that teaching did arise. How were they resolved? Paul appealed to his own apostolic authority, attested by miracles. The apostles met in council. They also appealed to the consensus of the churches, to the antiquity and apostolicity of a teaching, and to dominical tradition. In other words, to the various organs of the Church’s universal and ordinary magisterium.

    In the case of Ephesians, I am not aware of any substantial doubts about the letter’s authenticity in the apostolic age. It was clearly well attested as apostolic by the earliest Church Fathers. St. Paul, St. Johh, and Timothy all dwelt there. The church presumably knew the author and bearer of the letter. They trusted its authenticity on the authority of these. As soon as the letter was circulated, it was accepted by the fathers as genuine and authoritative. Of what need was there for a dogmatic definition?

    To take an analogy, when Paul preached the resurrection at Athens, did he need to establish the dogma by means of a dogmatic definition in order for it to be received as certain? No, this dogma has always been received as part of the deposit of faith – on the authority of the universal and ordinary magisterium of the church – transmitted by tradition, witness, apostolic authority, and episcopal proclamation.

    Does this help?

    -David

  16. Hi Dave,

    That is quite a bit to swallow. I believe, having read your comment, I understand what you are saying. Coming from the protestant standpoint, which is becoming something farther and farther from my own thankfully, it is tempting to view the Catholics as always questioning “Well, on what authority do you say this or that, or understand this or that”, and so it would seem like Catholics believe that we need an infallible proclamation on every little thing before we give it the assent of faith.

    This would lead one to question how this necessary mechanism, namely, the need to have an infallible interpretive principle for every little detail, down to the very question of whether the epistle which just arrived was actually written by Paul or some fake apostle. It would seem as though the Ephesians had access to infallible truth by ordinary means, which is what the Protestant argues when he approaches, say, the text of Romans or Colossians or whatever. For a Catholic to say that there are ordinary ways to ascertain what it is infallible teaching and what is not seems to be a contradiction when a protestant points out that certain of the faithful, including the Popes, have taught something which was later contradicted and the Catholic just resorts to the small and unique conditions for infallible dogma in the Pope, which is in attempt to demonstrate that even if this was the case, it does not fall under the category of dogma, and therefore does not blemish the acclaimed authenticity of the Catholic Church. The Catholic, in this case, is challenging the Protestant to find a contradiction in the teaching which falls under the unique category of infallible dogma as the only acceptable way of proving that the Catholic Church’s claims to itself are false. This would make it seem that Ephesus could not really pronounce dogma, but yet you are saying that they have access to infallible truth through ordinary means which are not even close to the unique conditions of Ex-cathedra. This is probably what is adding to the confusion.

    Another example would be the issue of binding and loosing. The Catholic Church understands the promise of Christ, namely, when Christ says “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16 & 18), as necessitating the Church’s freedom from error, and thus a proof-text for infallibility. But then, Jesus seems to universalize this promise to a local situation anywhere, at the small limits of just 2 people in dispute. In other words, one person sins against another, and the offended confronts the sinner to bring him to repentance, this fails, and then the offended brings just 2 or 3 along with him to, once again, try to bring the sinner to repentance, but this also fails, and then the Church is told, and if the sinner does not listen to the Church, then he is to be left bound in his sin. This seems to be a general situation which can occur anywhere in the world at anytime with just a local Priest or Bishop as the representation of “Church”, and yet the supposed “gift of infallibility” is promised to have been in operation, at this local, universal, and spontaneous level. But, in truth, unless I’m mistaken, infallibility, or the promise of binding and loosing, is only in the hands of ex-cathedra or in the proclamation of already held truths of the entire Church by the Bishops, Priest, and faithful. But as far as an infallibility granted in terms of a local Bishop in Miami, FL when he excommunicates a fornicator from the Church, the Church is not willing to ascribe infallibility to this situation and yet this is precisely what Jesus had in mind as a practical application of his promise to heaven’s ratification for binding and loosing. This seems to be a bit off balance, but I’m sure there is an explanation.

    Similarly, when Paul says that the Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth, he is not speaking of the Papacy or an Ecumenical Council, but is speaking of the local Church of Ephesus where Timothy was presiding. I’m curious to know how this would intersect with your article on the usefulness of Tradition. In other words, somehow this function of being “pillar” and “bulwark” of the truth has application to the local church of Ephesus with Timothy presiding. Now how can this be? For we know many Bishops in apostolic succession, with valid orders, became Arian. What exactly does Paul mean when he attributes to the Ephesian Church the function or attribute of “infallibility”, for what else could it mean that it is the “pillar” and “bulwark” of the truth?

    Lastly, there was many beliefs in the Early Church, more prominently within the time of the first 6 centuries, which are simply not accepted today, but were considered very essential disciplinary truths in the past. For instance, in the Catholic Church during the 3rd or 4th centuries, if a member of Christ’s body was found in the practice of fornication, he was publicly excommunicated and given years of penance before restoration to the blessed Sacrament. There were all kinds of canons issued which many of the “faithful” today would simply be appalled at. The reasoning for such rigorous ecclesiastical discipline was in the motives to purify the Church and to properly restore the offender to a holy life in Christ Jesus. And this happened many times. Today, without intending to insult the Church, you can have local members of local parishes who openly live in sin and not even if the Bishop or priests know about it is anything done. The Church viewed the holy practice of excommunicating lapsed members of the Church as part of the holy tradition, hence the reasoning of the Bishop who initially wish St. John Chrysostom deposed. There were Canons and traditions which must be upheld, and allowing a fornicator to simply continue to access the blessed sacrifice was a reason to mourn over the state of the Church. I see a grave difference in the way the Church treats this issue of ecclesiastical discipline in the early centuries of the Church versus what goes on today. You hear many of the “faithful”, which you say participate in the gift of infallibility, simply saying “Don’t judge lest you be judged” or “Only God can see the heart” or “Christ said let the wheat and the tares grow together”, etc,etc,etc……somethings which you would never hear coming out of the mouth of the “faithful” back in the day.

    These issues and others are a concern, especially in this whole discussion on holy tradition.

  17. #10

    David,

    Thanks much for your thoughtful response.

    Actually, I don’t have in mind at this point the sufficiency of Scripture or sola scriptura.
    I am simply thinking of its inspiration and the evidence for it.

    Take the Gospel of John for example–since I view it as the most glorious book in the Bible.
    When I say that it is self-authenticating, I am saying that there is conclusive evidence
    of its divine authority and that this evidence is the testimony of God in the text. This
    means that, whenever I read it or hear it read, God speaks it to me and implicitly
    identifies Himself as the Speaker. Thus, the inspiration of the book is 100% certain.

    God also speaks the words of John to an unbeliever when he is exposed to it and in
    this case also, in spite of his unwillingness, this living voice of God constitutes
    absolute proof and leaves him without excuse.

    Upon further reflection and doing the reading of Trent that you recommended,
    I think that this idea of the Bible as self-authenticating is at least implicitly
    inconsistent with the teachings of the RC magisterium. It seems to me that
    Rome teaches that the evidence is such that the probability of the Bible being
    inspired is significantly greater than 50% (thus ruling out “fideism”) but signif-
    icantly less than 100%–so as to deny “rationalism” and leave room for the need for
    “faith.”

    Regards,
    Keith

  18. Keith,

    You wrote:

    I am simply thinking of its inspiration and the evidence for it.

    Take the Gospel of John for example–since I view it as the most glorious book in the Bible.
    When I say that it is self-authenticating, I am saying that there is conclusive evidence
    of its divine authority and that this evidence is the testimony of God in the text. This
    means that, whenever I read it or hear it read, God speaks it to me and implicitly
    identifies Himself as the Speaker. Thus, the inspiration of the book is 100% certain.

    God also speaks the words of John to an unbeliever when he is exposed to it

    But that is, at best, a private and subjective evidence for the divine inspiration of St. John’s gospel. It can in no way serve as a public basis for establishing that the Gospel of St. John should be held by Christians as formally “inspired” by God (of course, we Catholics believe it is so inspired, but on other grounds). Putting forward your subjective experience (or that of any other person) associated with the reading of St. John’s gospel, as a basis for recognizing its divine inspiration (and by extension its inclusion within the canon), appears fideistic in the fullest sense of that term. Persons can, and often do, get similar senses when reading works such as Oswald Chamber’s “My Utmost for His Highest” or “The Imitation of Christ”; yet Christians are in no way bound to recognize such works as formally “inspired” by God, however inspiring they may be for their readers – even to the point that reading such works may be the occasion of someone’s conversion to God. You seem to be confusing the public question of “inspiration” with the private experience of being inspired. Such a basis for canon determination would reduce to little else than a table pounding match between persons claiming varying degrees of subjective experience in relation to various religious writings.

    Pax Christi,

    Ray

  19. Ray (re: #18),

    I think Keith’s approach to determining the canon also presupposes that the contents of the canon merely must be inspired by God. I think that is problematic. I do not see how such a view provides for a closed canon.

    As a Catholic, I think many holy men and women in the history of the Church have had private revelations from God and have authored texts that could be said in some sense to be inspired by God. However, those “inspired” texts do not belong in the canon because the Church definitively teaches that public revelation ended with the death of the last apostle. The canon is closed. I wonder, though, without the authority of the Church, how can a Protestant exclude such writings if the criteria for the Protestant canon is mere inspiration? It seems the Protestant has no principled means to determine that the canon is closed.

    Pax,
    Brian

  20. Keith (#17):

    Take the Gospel of John for example–since I view it as the most glorious book in the Bible.
    When I say that it is self-authenticating, I am saying that there is conclusive evidence
    of its divine authority and that this evidence is the testimony of God in the text. This
    means that, whenever I read it or hear it read, God speaks it to me and implicitly
    identifies Himself as the Speaker. Thus, the inspiration of the book is 100% certain.

    I, on the other hand, do not find, when I read the gospel of John, any evidence of its inspiration – indeed, I am not sure what would count as evidence of its inspiration that would not count as evidence for the inspiration of, say, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which moves me to tears. Does the fact that I don’t find evidence of John’s gospel’s inspiration mean that it is now 0% certain that it is inspired? Could there be any useful meaning to something being inspired for you but not for me?

    jj

  21. #19 jj

    The resurrected Christ speaks the content of the Gospel according to John–in all
    of its unparalleled weight–to all who read or hear it. What is this weighty content?
    The God-man on earth in glorious self-sacrificing righteousness which transcends
    all of the sins of mere humans. Jesus’ glorious action is self-revealing and His speech
    is a central part of His action on earth. And, when He says, for example, “I lay down
    My life,”we hear (the voice of the resurrected Jesus quoting) the voice of His self-sacrificing
    heart in the midst of His stupendous, work–which shatters our egos. This is utterly
    unique–and self-evidencing. And we are deaf to it only to the extent that our wicked
    selfishness makes us deaf to it.

    This writing could not possibly be the work of human wishful thinking, largely because
    it says that we are, in ourselves, infinitely less than nothing. As a matter of fact, the
    Gospel according to John, particularly when seen in combination with the Epistle
    to the Romans, exposes every contrary religion and philosophy as the fruit of dishonest,
    self-excusing wishful thinking. This is what the book itself implicitly claims for
    itself.

    BTW, the attachment of “Gospel” to the work, which attributes inspiration to it,
    is actually original, as the great mass of manuscript evidence attests. By this
    word, together with statements in the writing itself, the author claims inspiration.

    Regards,
    Keith Fredrickson

  22. #18
    Ray,

    You write, “we Catholics believe it is so inspired, but on other grounds.”

    Would you please help me by specifying the grounds for your belief that John
    is inspired?

    Thank you.

    Regards,
    Keith

  23. Keith

    You have made many assertions here – ‘This is utterly unique – and self-evidencing’ ‘This writing could not possibly be the work of human wishful thinking, largely because it says that we are, in ourselves, infinitely less than nothing.’ And so forth. You haven’t given me anything to show your assertions are true.

    What you have done – which, I fear, is inevitable, given your view – is to say that if I don’t think that simply reading the Gospel proves it is inspired, then I must be ‘wicked[ly] selfish’ and am therefore ‘deaf’ to it.

    jj

  24. Keith (#20):

    You write:

    This is utterly unique–and self-evidencing. And we are deaf to it only to the extent that our wicked selfishness makes us deaf to it.

    I must echo JJ here. If you are correct, then “…if I don’t think that simply reading the Gospel proves it is inspired, then I must be ‘wicked[ly] selfish’ and am therefore deaf to it.” In other words, people who disagree with you are not merely wrong, but culpably so. But since there is no independent evidence for such a harsh judgment of others, your stance on the self-attestation of Scripture is ad hoc, not principled. It has no authority other than that of opinion.

    You write:

    This writing could not possibly be the work of human wishful thinking, largely because it says that we are, in ourselves, infinitely less than nothing. As a matter of fact, the Gospel according to John, particularly when seen in combination with the Epistle to the Romans, exposes every contrary religion and philosophy as the fruit of dishonest, self-excusing wishful thinking.

    In addition to sharing the defect of the first statement of yours I quoted, that paragraph suffers additionally from the defect of starting with a statement that is a non-sequitur–one whose antecedent is itself literally false. It is literally false that anything could be “infinitely less than nothing,” for no thing can be less than what is nothing at all. And if even we interpret that phrase as poetic license, it does not follow from such a bit of poetry that a document containing it is divinely inspired. Buddhism and some strains of Hinduism say something quite similar, but you’d be the last to say they’re divinely inspired.

    Finally, you claim we may infer, from an authentic autograph of the Gospel of John, that the author is claiming inspiration. Even supposing that inference is correct–which would be anachronistic, given all the subsequent disagreement about what the concept of inspiration entails–t does not follow that the author’s claim is true.

    Best,
    Mike

  25. #22

    Dear jj,

    Please allow me to qualify (and possibly revise somewhat) my admittedly sketchy and imprecise words.

    My main point concerns the main theme of John rather than the Book in its entirety. It
    is that if we do not acknowledge the divine glory of Jesus’ self-sacrifice and therefore His deity upon reading the Gospel according to John, then this unbelief is due to our wicked selfishness (cf. 7:17).

    I did not intend to focus on the lesser error of failing to acknowledge the infallibility of the Book itself in its entirety.

    And I only intend to say that the teaching that John is self-authenticating is true. Disagreeing with this, in my view, is at worst an error that is significantly lesser yet.

    Question #1: If a person reads through the Gospel according to John and does not believe that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,” is his unbelief possibly completely innocent?

    Question #2: What are the specific grounds for your belief that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God”?

    Thank you for kindly interacting with me concerning this matter.

    Regards,
    Keith

    P.S. I do not wish to defend myself against the charge of circular reasoning. I admit that, even if I am not advocating circular reasoning, I am mighty close to doing just that. I believe that whenever God truly speaks to a person, He in effects says, “I, the Lord, am speaking” and that settles it.

  26. #23
    Dear Mike,

    Please consider #24 as also my response to some of your concerns.

    As for “infinitely less than nothing,” I am referring to our guilt before God. I speak here from a Reformational perspective. I am not aware of Buddhism or Hinduism having any such doctrine.
    What would such words or similar words mean to them?

    I also would be interested in your answers to the two question I posed in #24.

    Thanks for the interaction.

    Regards,
    Keith

  27. Dear Mike and jj,

    I would particularly value your thoughts on these words of mine (in #17), which
    I am gathering you would agree with:

    “I think that this idea of the Bible as self-authenticating is at least implicitly
    inconsistent with the teachings of the RC magisterium. It seems to me that
    Rome teaches that the evidence is such that the probability of the Bible being
    inspired is significantly greater than 50% (thus ruling out “fideism”) but signif-
    icantly less than 100%–so as to deny “rationalism” and leave room for the need for
    “faith.”

    Regards,
    Keith

  28. Keith (#17 and 20):
    I completely agree with you on the Gospel of John being a glorious testimony to Christ, and in no way do I doubt its divine authorship. We are both 100% in that regard. The difference is that you can’t be 100% committed to what it means, because you have veto power if you don’t like part of it. For example, if you don’t like the part about eating the Body and Blood of Christ, you can make it into a less offensive metaphor. I won’t attribute that to any wicked resistance on your part, but you surely perceive that you have put yourself into a position where you yourself are not helpless before the Word of God, even though you commend John for teaching this.

    Let me suggest that you can’t possible abandon yourself to John, because you can’t abandon yourself to the messengers he and his brother Apostles chose to bring it to you. If it weren’t for them, you wouldn’t have it in the first place, not because the canon was or wasn’t dogmatically defined bit because it never would have reached you in the first place. This Gospel that you read is a gift, entrusted by John himself to people to pass it on to you and to protect it from heretics and corruptors. When.the message is the Good News, does it make sense to kill the messenger? I wouldn’t think.of it in terms of not having the list of books, although that is important, but not having the books at all.

  29. Keith,

    You wrote:

    Would you please help me by specifying the grounds for your belief that John is inspired?

    Certainly,

    A Catholic believes that the 73 books of the Catholic canon, including the Gospel of St. John, are inspired by God because the Catholic Church, founded by Jesus of Nazareth, and speaking with His divine authority, have defined them to be so. That Jesus of Nazareth was from God, possessed divine authority, and founded the visible society of the Catholic Church constituted by the successors of Peter and the apostles to whom Jesus bequeathed His divine authority, can be reasonably established through a great number of historical evidences (or motives of credibility), including the records of the 73 books of the Catholic canon, taken strictly as reliable historical sources and prescinding entirely from any prior claim about their divine inspiration. In this way, the divine inspiration of the 73 books of the Catholic canon can be reasonably established in a non-circular way, and with appeal to historical and public motives of credibility open to all men and, therefore, free of the charge of fideism.

    Very briefly, a sketch of the historical and public argument might run something like this:

    Suppose one begins as an agnostic might (as I once did). Perhaps I become convinced on philosophic grounds that theism, or at least deism, is true (sic Aristotelian/Thomistic natural science proofs for a First Cause, or metaphysical proofs for Subsistent Being Itself). Or perhaps I come to a similar position based on evidence from the modern emperiological sciences (such as the anthropic principle, or inference to best explanation with regard to the singularity of the big bang; or, like Einstein, just in view of the beautiful correspondence of the natural world with mathematical models such as special relativity). Or perhaps I am moved to belief in God by arguments from morality or rationality, such as were championed by C.S. Lewis.

    In any event, given the existence of an intelligent being of some sort, a logical question that might follow such a conviction is this: “Is there any indication in human history that ‘god’ (whatever He/She/It may be) has communicated with the human race?” Given that question, there are only a handful of world religions, living or dead, which have ever claimed to possess such a positive, special communication from a deity. Most Asiatic religions, except perhaps for a small segment of Hinduism, do not claim to be the bearers of a special, yet public, revelation. There are a number of theistic religions which originate with an individual who claims to have been granted a personal, direct, revelation from God; yet, where the pivotal founder’s revelatory encounter was not open to public witness or verification. This would include, not only modern religious sects such as Jehovah’s Witness and Mormonism, but Islam as well. In short, the motives of credibility attached to such claims are minimal (I realize I am glossing many objections which such theists would surely raise).

    That leaves Judaism and Christianity (which generally claims to be the historic continuum and fulfillment/transformation of Hebrew monotheism). One can first note that the historical record of the Hebrew peoples in both secular written/archaeological sources, as well as the sacred writings of the Hebrews themselves, stretches backward into the very dawn of human history among the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. This fact lends a note of credibility to Judaic theism, for one might expect any God which both exists and cares to communicate with man, to begin doing so from the very dawn of man’s experience on earth.

    Note: There is no difficulty, as a matter of history, determining which set of texts belonged to the Hebrew/Jewish nation, for these were formed and maintained as the literary heritage of an ethnic people despite intra-mural disagreements about the precise authority of any given text. One can simply survey all the texts which the Hebrew people venerated, as the total data set from which to assess the content of their historical claims and religious beliefs – without first making a judgment concerning the truth of those claims, much less a judgment concerning their divine inspiration.

    Proceeding forward: from a purely historical examination of these books one can note that Hebrew religion was the first clear purveyor of monotheism in human history. Its account of creation, conception of deity, and moral prescriptions being distinct and unique in any number of ways, as most secular historians admit. All of this lends credibility to the claim, explicitly contained in the Hebrew texts, that God had selected the Hebrews from among the other peoples of the earth as a conduit, pipeline, or cradle for a divine communication to mankind. As one reads the texts in their historical chronology (as assessed by secular standards), one sees quite clearly a progression in the Hebrew understanding of the universality and spirituality of God, morality, afterlife, judgment, resurrection and more. Given that any communication by God would have to be understood by humans in human terms; it stands to reason that such communication could only be given and received according to the conceptual development of the people and culture of a given epoch. Hence, the claim that God choose a specific ethnic people with a prolonged concrete history as a theological cradle – as it were – for the progressive reception (and cultural protection and preservation) of an ever clearer understanding of divinity is quite credible (think, for instance, of God dropping the Nicene creed from heaven into the hands of Hebrew sheep herders in 2000BC. They would lack the mental categories with which to comprehend the fine metaphysical distinctions in the creed – even if translated into their own dialect – for those categories required the later development and refinement of Greek thought).

    Moreover, prominent within the writings of the various Hebrew sacred texts are constant references (even in the early texts) to a future messiah or king, many of which are given by authors claiming to have received such information in prophetic ecstasies or communications of some kind. They increasingly refer to an every broadening understanding of a coming messianic kingdom into which all the nations of the earth – not only the Hebrews – would be gathered. Some of these alleged “prophetic” references are given with what seem to be rather concrete historical indicators, such as those in the book of Daniel which refer to a stone cut without human hands, which will, after the rise and fall of several historic empires, enter the world, destroying the fourth of these, and itself become a great mountain that fills all the earth. Indeed, like the theological doctrines mentioned above, this peculiar notion develops, increases in repetition, and generally intensifies throughout the chronological physical and textual history of the Hebrew nation. By the 2nd or 3rd century BC, it has become a dominant theme and expectation among the Hebrew remnant.

    Following the Hebrew history forward, one encounters the life, works, and extraordinary claims of a 1st century rabbi, who presents Himself as the long awaited messiah-king which the entire cultural and textual history of the Hebrew people had been tending toward. His existence as a human historical figure in the first century AD is attested to by secular sources, and most especially by the extra-biblical textual corpus of the early religious movement of which he is said to be the founder (i.e. the early Church). Indeed, Western civilization divides the dating of human history according to his birth. The documentary account of his life, history, teachings, and claims is perhaps more extensive and well attested according to the rubrics of documentary evaluation that Plato, Aristotle, or any other ancient figure. Scholars acknowledge the gospel accounts as generally reliable history.

    Moreover, there is abundant attestation to the historical reliability of these texts from many 1st and 2nd century sources. The members of the movement which traced their origin to Jesus of Nazareth constantly referred to these texts as faithful accounts of Jesus’ life and times. No doubt, such early witness to the origin, authorship and reliability of the gospels by the early Christian community is one of the primary reasons why historians generally accept them as authentic first century accounts of the Jewish rabbi’s life. Hence, knowing that the gospels, or the ethnic texts venerated by the Hebrews are historically reliable, requires absolutely nothing in the way a commitment to their inspiration or the truth of their religious claims, much less to their status as divine revelation. Further, the fact that a wide array of prophetic utterances concerning the messiah, found within the Hebrew textual corpus, happen to align with the historical events and circumstances surrounding the life of Jesus, says nothing about the inspiration of that corpus generally.

    To sum up so far: there is an entire ethnic nation whose history reaches back into the dawn of civilization and which claims to have been selected by God as the bearer of a divine revelation for mankind. Central to the content of this alleged revelation is the claim that God will send a messiah-king that will teach and rule and bless all the nations. Specific prophetic utterances are given concerning this event, which include historical signs or future indications. A first century rabbi seems to uniquely fulfill, in a profound and integrated way, the cumulative predictive content of these utterances. In addition, from the gospel texts – as history – we learn that this rabbi audaciously claimed to be the promised messiah-king; and more radically still, to be the son of a transcendent God. The gospels relate the historical claim that he carried out a multitude of miraculous actions to evidence this claim, the most staggering being his own, post-mortem, bodily resurrection.

    Finally, the gospel texts indicate that he was intent upon choosing 12 followers in imitation of, and continuity with the ethnic structure of the Hebrew nation. Moreover, he established one of these as his prime minister, endowed with the keys of dynasty and authority, harkening back to the Hebrew kingdom structure at the time of the Solomonic hegemony as can be noted in Isaiah chapter 22. Hence, he appears to be launching a new Israel, a new society. He is portrayed in the historical texts as investing these officers with his own divine power, commissioning them to teach in his name, and promising to send them divine help to carry out this task. Nowhere does he tell any of the twelve to write, nor does he write anything himself. In fact only 3 or 5 of the 12 actually do write anything (depending on scholarly debates). Instead the one and only earthly program he seems to have set in motion is the founding of a Church: “upon this rock I will build my Church”. In keeping with the divine pedagogical strategy of cradling revelation within a unified historic society (the protective womb of the Hebrew society & culture), he transforms old Israel; not by commencing a religion of the book, but by founding a worldwide universal society by which the divine communication might travel to the ends of the earth while retaining its identity and integrity by developing within the sacramental bonds of the Church.

    But are there grounds for thinking the claims that Jesus made about himself, and about the invincibility of his Church (the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”) are true? Historically he is known to have made the claims; but are they true? From the historical records immediately following the writing of the gospels (including, but not limited to, the 23 additional NT documents considered inspired by Christians) one does indeed find a new organized society within the Roman Empire whose leaders and members cling to the historical claims concerning Jesus’ divinity, miracles and resurrection, to the point of suffering persecution and death. Moreover, the earliest documentary evidence (both within and without the 23 non-gospel NT documents) attests that the first leaders clearly understood that the authority they allegedly received from Christ was to be passed on through a specific religious rite.

    The new movement bursts upon the 2nd & 3rd century organized around ecclesial bishops and Eucharistic worship, and characterized everywhere by proto-Catholic doctrine. Despite vicious persecution, and with zero military or political resources, this new society led by the successor of Peter and the successors of the apostles, grows with astounding speed and success until the very empire which persecuted it, eventually succumbs to its doctrine. As the centuries march on, this society (identifiable across time through unity with the successors to Peter and the apostles) spreads out across the world and the centuries. After two millennia of the most trying internal and external trials (which, given the historical fate of other institutions, ought to have sealed her demise), she now fills every part of the globe, speaks every language, and re-presents the central religious sacrifice instituted by her founder every hour of every day for the sake of the human race. She is the oldest living institution on earth. Despite a history plagued by the weakness of human nature in some of her members and leaders, she has been the greatest source of charitable activity in the history of the world. Today she remains the largest, most active, charitable organization on the planet.

    Most pertinent to this current discussion, she clearly and doggedly insists upon a controversial body of truths which make her the most radically subversive institution in the modern world: a message of life to some and a stumbling block to others. A body of truths she has fought for and defended as the very message of God to the human race. Like her founder, she unabashedly claims not only to teach divine things, but to be of divine origin. Most daring of all, she purports to possess the authority to speak infallibly, in the name of God, in the here and now! Her claims are so staggering that she forces one to make a choice as to her identity. Accordingly, for someone generally convinced that some kind of God exists, such a person might reasonably conclude that if any religious institution or society upon the face of the earth has a credible claim to being the bearer of a communication from that God, it is the Catholic Church.

    Something like the above reflective integration of the various motives of credibility leads to a cumulative case for the divine origin of the Catholic Church, and by extension, for the divine sanction of her teaching, including her definitive teaching with respect to the identification and inspiration of her 73 book canon. I note that the case I have just laid out does not depend, a wit, on a prior affirmation of any set of documents, or any one document, as being divinely inspired. If you carefully consider the matter, you may find that the above method accords with how most thinking persons come to a conclusion in favor of Christ’s divinity. Protestants simply fail to follow the motives of credibility forward (and to a degree, backwards, as relating to the prophecies concerning the Messiah’s world wide kingdom) so as to capture a vision of the majesty of that supernatural society which Christ launched upon the waters of human history.

    Finally, it is the embrace of this conclusion regarding the identity of the Catholic Church as true which alone gives grounds for thinking that some set of codexed documents, spanning 4000 years of human history, are a unified work of divine inspiration. Since, besides the fulfillment of specific prophecies, there is nothing in the texts, taken alone, that establishes that each word or document is inspired, much less that inspiration attaches to the selection of some whole collection. The Church comes first, knowledge of the scriptures as inspired, depends on it.

    Pax Christi,

    Ray

  30. Michael Liccione,

    Just out of curiosity, I am not sure how the Catholic IP would have been in operation say when Philemon received his epistle from Paul, or when the Thessalonians received their Pauline epistle, or Corinth, or any other place immediately when one of the letters of the apostles were sent to them? I am sure that I am unaware of some principle in the Catholic Interpretation here that explains it. However, it would seem to me that only Rome could make the declaration that anything written was in fact infallible, and until then they were only to be viewed as helpful and authoritative teaching from Paul, but not the level of inspiration.

    With all the questioning put over Protestants from Catholics which try to push the protestant into a corner to realize that he has no infallible standard by which to judge anything as authoritatively and divinely true, it would seem the Protestant can push back with questioning how the early Church came to judge any of it’s theology as authoritative if one of Peter’s successors (or Peter himself) was not there to ratify it. It would seem that the Catholic IP rests alone on the Papacy, and therefore any person outside of workable communication with the Papacy cannot be sure that his conviction that Paul’s epistle is inspired is either his own opinion or that of divine revelation.

    Unless there is a way for the Catholic IP to be in valid operation outside workable communication with the Bishop of Rome (or wherever St. Peter’s successors reside for that matter), which I have not been informed of yet, there doesn’t seem to be a way for the churches which were planted far away from Rome to have been able to make up their minds over what is divine or their own opinion, or even the opinion of those who planted the Church. I think of the various “Canon’s” that people had in various parts of the world, some included some books and other rejected them. It would seem that the Catholic IP could not have been in operation at all times everywhere by each valid church, otherwise each church would have, pragmatically, had the same canon. And even after the death of the apostles, when issues came up in Africa and other areas where re-baptism was a requirement if one was coming from a heretical sect, how could the Catholic IP be in operation, say, in the councils held by St. Cyprian in Carthage, when they all agreed that re-baptism is the way to go. At that moment in time, Cyprian attributed some kind of divinity to the councils he held, unless I’m mistaken. And yet Rome and the western churches held to the tradition of not re-baptizing. Which region was operating under the Catholic IP? If it was Rome, and if this is because of the Papacy, then how could regions where no workable communication with the Papacy actually know what is opinion versus divinity?

  31. Ray Stamper,

    Don’t mean to give you a reason to boast, but I’m sitting here very edified by what you wrote. That was at worst spectacular. Very convincing. Could you maybe read my previous post addressed to Michael liccione, who I’m sure will answer later, and see if you can help?

  32. GS (#30):

    You write:

    Just out of curiosity, I am not sure how the Catholic IP would have been in operation say when Philemon received his epistle from Paul, or when the Thessalonians received their Pauline epistle, or Corinth, or any other place immediately when one of the letters of the apostles were sent to them?

    Just to be clear, let’s note that you are not raising this issue “just out of curiosity.” You are raising it as a difficulty for the CIP. I shall now consider and meet that difficulty as you proceed to raise it.

    You write:

    …it would seem to me that only Rome could make the declaration that anything written was in fact infallible, and until then they were only to be viewed as helpful and authoritative teaching from Paul, but not the level of inspiration.

    From the fact–if it is a fact–that “only Rome could make the declaration that anything written was in fact infallible,” it does not follow that “until then they were only to be viewed as helpful and authoritative teaching from Paul, but not the level of inspiration.” The historical evidence indicates that the particular churches to whom Paul’s letters were addressed, and the Church as a whole too, viewed those letters as inspired well before “Rome” made any formal declaration to the same effect. And on the CIP, those churches and the Church at large were justified in doing so. For when Rome does issue a dogmatic declaration about any belief B, she is not thereby making B true, or even making B a belief of the Church, but is merely acknowledging that B always was true, as part of the apostolic deposit of faith the Church has always held and taught. On the CIP, the Church as a whole always and infallibly professes that faith; even according to Vatican I, papal infallibility is merely a special case of the Church’s. The papal charism of infallibility is given to the Church and occasionally exercised only so that some individual members of the Church can understand more clearly what belongs to the apostolic deposit the Church has always preserved and infallibly professed.

    That largely answers the rest of your comment as well. I say “largely” because a bit of further explanation is necessary. The purpose of the dogma of papal infallibility is the same as the purpose of any other formally defined dogma: to make explicit what had always been the faith of the Church, but which many heretics had contradicted, thus giving many the mistaken impression that the belief in question had not always been the faith of the Church. Thus, for example, Rome’s response to the Marcionite heresy in the mid-2nd century indicated clearly enough what the biblical canon was, and that Roman judgment was readily accepted by the Church as a whole–partly because it had already been the belief of the Church as a whole, and partly because, as St. Irenaeus indicated a few decades later, Rome’s authority was in any case regarded as “pre-eminent” in the Church. The fact that Marcion and his followers, who were many, were excommunicated from the local Church of Rome itself over this issue does not show that the contours of the canon had been a doubtful matter in itself, as opposed to one about which many experienced doubt. There will always be heretics galore, including disputes about the precise contours of the inspired biblical canon, as is shown by the Protestant rejection of the Church’s Septuagint canon of the OT in favor of the Masoretic canon established by the Jews after they had expelled the Christians from the synagogues. All the latter-day dogma of papal infallibility does is make explicit what was always implicit in Rome’s historic exercises of authority over the whole Church. That is useful, but not always necessary. And the fact that the Orthodox churches reject the idea that papal infallibility can be unilaterally exercised casts no more doubt on the dogma’s function than Marcion’s rejection of the canon had cast doubt on Rome’s authority to define it.

    You close your comment with a pair of questions about the 3rd-century controversy over the re-baptism of repentant apostates:

    Which region was operating under the Catholic IP? If it was Rome, and if this is because of the Papacy, then how could regions where no workable communication with the Papacy actually know what is opinion versus divinity?

    Cyprian was mistaken, and could be known to be mistaken because he contradicted Rome’s definitive judgment. It is of course quite true that North Africans not in direct communication with Rome could not be sure he was mistaken until such a judgment had been rendered and made manifest to them. That was because the question was a new one that could not be settled by mere logical deduction from the previous practice of the Church as a whole. But the fact that a papal judgment is sometimes necessary to settle issues like that, because some can’t figure things out correctly on their own, is not a difficulty for the CIP. It is rather further evidence of the CIP’s necessity as the way to supply a principled means of distinguishing between what is and is not a matter of opinion.

    Best,
    Mike

  33. David – As I was thinking about this article it suddenly dawned on me that it is incomplete. There is one key aspect you didn’t clearly explain. Not only is Tradition “useful” for establishing and maintaining unity today. It is essential for maintaining unity in the Church across time. Tradition allows us to have fellowship – deep communion, even – with Christians who have gone before us and Christians who will come after us. Tradition (and if taken in its broadest sense, only tradition)pulls us into communion with the entire Church extended through time.When Christ prayed to the Father that his disciples would be one, he didn’t limit it to people living in one time or place.

    And this is demonstrably true in the Catholic Church! Sacred Tradition actually has a deep effect on my experience of Church. As a Catholic – and I’m sure Orthodox Christians would experience the same thing – we actually experience real unity with Christians of previous epochs. We believe that they are present with us when we gather to celebrate Mass, we remember their lives during the liturgical year, we ask them to pray for us(!) and we share their wisdom rather freely. Its just part of who we are!

    I don’t know of any denomination operating through sola scriptura who would even claim any of these things. So, if you are a protestant who believes in sola scriptura, this is your chance to educate me. Do you experience unity (communion, fellowship) with Christians who lived 500, 1000, or 1500 years ago? How so? If not I can honestly tell you that you’re missing out on a very fruitful and joyous aspect of the Christian life!

  34. Keith (#25
    Too many things here for me for the moment. Let me say that there are different things going on here – the question of Jesus’s status, the question whether the Gospel of John ought to help you to believe in Him as a unique divine messenger (not the same as believing that He is God incarnate), and the question whether the inspirational status of the Gospel of John is self-testifying.

    Very briefly:

    1) The Gospel of John – and the remainder of the early Christian writings – ought, as history, to bring an honest enquirer to see that Jesus is uniquely a messenger from God.

    2) That, coupled with more knowledge of history as seen in the New Testament writings – again, read as history, without prejudice in favour of their inspired status – should lead one to see the fact that the Church is God’s intended agent of Christ after His Resurrection.

    3) These two, with the testimony of the Church, should lead you to see that the Gospel of John is inspired – and that Jesus is God Incarnate.

    You see, the notion of ‘inspiration’ is precisely something that can only be known by revelation. No test can prove the inspiration of something – including the test of reading it and finding some self-testimony in it. The Qur’an may, for all I know – I have not read it – say that it is inspired. The Book of Mormon certainly does. Those who follow those religions tell me that they can tell, just by the effect on them, that these works are inspired. Neither their self-testimony nor the effect on the reader can prove it.

    jj

  35. Michael Liccione,

    Thank you for taking that on. So when you speak concerning the Catholic IP versus the protestant IP, are you not essentially contrasting the papacy versus solar scriptural? Unless I’m mistaken. How would any of the faithful know for sure something is divine and not just opinion if the church has never stepped in and made it dogma. In other words, how does the Catholic IP operate in an ordinary setting when discussing doctrines which have not yet had the papal intervention?

  36. Fr. Bryan (#33),

    A very good point. I have experienced just what you are saying. In fact, one of the most refreshing things about becoming Catholic was the sense that I was no longer cut off from 1,000 years of the Church.

    -David

  37. God Seeker,

    You wrote:

    How would any of the faithful know for sure something is divine and not just opinion if the church has never stepped in and made it dogma. In other words, how does the Catholic IP operate in an ordinary setting when discussing doctrines which have not yet had the papal intervention?

    The Catholic Magisterium composed of the bishops in communion with the pope is a publicly recognizable instrumental authority capable of differentiating between the “de fide” content of the “deposit of faith”, and mere human theological opinion. This in principle capability to distinguish between the “de fide” content of divine revelation and human theological opinion serves as a focal point for all Catholics, including bishops. Catholics, including bishops, subjectively possess their current understanding of the content of divine revelation with greater or lesser degrees of comprehension based on the effectiveness of the catechesis which they have received, and in accord with their individual intellectual gifts. Catholics admit variations in individual interpretation, even of the relevant dogmatic sources (ecumenical councils, ex cathedra statements, encyclicals, etc), due to both the subjective nature of interpretation, as well as the variant levels of authority attached to such sources.

    However, within the Catholic IP, these individual subjective grasps of the content of divine revelation are held as revisable by or with reference to a recognized infallible teaching authority – the Catholic Magisterium. That is the crucial relational hinge. This disposition, or orientation of docility, has – from the very beginning – been an essential trait of the faithful who attended to the “teaching of the apostles”. It amounts to an “assent of faith” in a dynamic God-authorized instrument which tends toward the unity of the Church, since persons direct their “assent” (or should, barring poor catechesis) at the same locus of final authority in the Church. Such an orientation explicitly acknowledges that same instrument’s ability to resolve disputes and divisions within the Church should they rise to a level requiring pastoral intervention (as they have and will).

    As Michael wrote, the doctrinal definitions which the Catholic Magisterium promulgate (whether respecting the canon or any other doctrine), are not the cause of a truth being the truth that it is. But they are the cause of our knowing such truths in an explicit way which secures unity in the faith with respect to the truths defined. The Gospel of St. John was inspired by God from the moment it was penned (or quilled or what have you), even if its definitive inclusion within the canon was not promulgated until several centuries later. The precious gift by which Christ protects His Church from teaching falsity in His name, is the very cornerstone of the Church’s unity in faith across the centuries. The Catholic Church, through this orientation of the faithful, existed, retained unity, and flourished for several centuries despite lacking any definitive knowledge of exactly which books had been inspired by God (as well as any definitive treatment of Christ’s divinity, dual nature, etc); because such definitive, explicit, knowledge was not a necessary requirement for the Church’s mission until challenges surrounding these issues threatened the unity of the Church and her progress. It was, and is, precisely the role of the successors of St. Peter and the apostles, to lead the Church with the authority of Christ when she is threatened or is for some other reason in need of clarity respecting some revealed truth. When threats are abated, men may flourish in grace and union with God without need for a daily promulgation from the Magisterium. Yet, as I consider the attacks against the faith leveled in times past and think about generations to come (my own children and grandchildren); the importance of this disposition of submission to those whom Christ authorized to teach in Hs name, takes on a very practical importance. It is the common thread which insures our common unity and purpose through the vicissitudes of history until the true King returns. It is a magnificent gift.

    Pax Christi,

    Ray

  38. GS (#35):

    You asked:

    …when you speak concerning the Catholic IP versus the protestant IP, are you not essentially contrasting the papacy versus solar scriptural?… In other words, how does the Catholic IP operate in an ordinary setting when discussing doctrines which have not yet had the papal intervention?

    The papacy-sola scriptura contrast is certainly among the essential differences between the two IPs, but it is not the only or even the primary difference. As I I’ve said already, on the CIP papal infallibility is just a special case of the Church’s infallibility, and is rarely exercised unilaterally.

    As Ray has so well explained, the Magisterium consists of the entire college of bishops in communion with the Bishop of Rome. Ordinarily, the infallibility of the whole Church is expressed when the members of the episcopal college agree “on one position as to be definitively held” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium §25). That agreement can be synchronic, diachronic, or both, but it requires only consensus, not unanimity, on matters directly pertaining to the deposit of faith. This is called the infallibility of the “ordinary and universal magisterium” (IOUF), as distinct from the infallibility of the “extraordinary” magisterium by which ecumencial councils, or popes unilaterally, define dogmas formally. It was by means of the IOUF that the Church maintained the apostolic deposit of faith whole and entire for nearly three centuries before there ever was either an ecumenical council or a unilateral definition by a pope meant to bind the whole Church.

    Moreover, the IOUF is still the primary means today by which the faithful are enabled to recognize the difference propositions expressing divine revelation as such from what is only a matter of theological opinion. That’s because the full content of the deposit of faith, which is transmitted to us by Scripture and Tradition, can never be exhaustively expressed in a finite list of formally defined propositions, even though some such propositions are needed when responding to heresy with the greater clarity and explicitness required. This is why, as Blessed John Henry Newman argued, the “sense of the faithful” is also indispensable for understanding what the inerrant faith of the whole Church is.

    Of course there is sometimes debate among Catholic theologians about just which non-dogmatic propositions have been infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium. The most recent examples of that are the Church’s teachings on women’s ordination and contraception. In 1994 and 1995, Pope John Paul II and then-Cardinal Ratzinger, as head of the CDF, together made clear to the whole Church that the former’s statement “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women” has been “infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium.” Such a ruling, as far as I know, was the first of its kind, and it settles the matter definitively, despite what heretics and the ignorant believe. As to contraception, the Vatican–including the last few popes–has indicated sotto voce that the long-established teaching is “definitive and irreformable.” I have no doubt that it is, but most Catholics don’t know that, because no pope has made such a statement with the same degree of authority as JP2’s statement on women’s ordination. That’s probably because the Vatican is not ready to handle what would undoubtedly be the most massive wave of outrage the Church will have seen in centuries. But the time will eventually be ripe.

    Best,
    Mike

  39. Ray Stamper and Michael Liccione,

    I appreciate your helpful comments. I find it totally plausible that the college of Bishops, which is exactly what the early Christians believed to be the locus of the Church of Christ, not excluding the laity of course, who are in communion with the Successor of St. Peter can and do exercise the power of infallibility and the Catholic interpretive principle would be in operation.

    At the moment, I am currently still challenged by the historicity of the modern Vaticanal understanding of the Papacy. For instance, when Victor, bishop of Rome, decided to order the Asian Churches to celebrate Easter so that if falls on the Lord’s day each year, he was responded by the leader of the Bishops (his name I forgot but I can retrieve if necessary) responded by explaining the apostolicity of the episcopate in Asia, that St. John, St. Polycarp, and others worthy of Christ all held to what they believed, and that they must “obey God rather than man”. This last quote was exactly what he wrote back to Victor in Rome.

    This kind of scenario tempts someone to really question whether the modern Vaticanal understanding of it’s historicity is really paying attention to situations like this from the very beginning. This bishop who wrote to Victor said he and all the bishops whom he met with around the world did not see fit to submit to Victor’s orders. It would seem that something so grand as the unique authority of Christ to be vested in the successors of Peter would be something fundamental and easily communicated in Catechesis. But something like this makes one scratch his head.

    How should we digest situations like this?

  40. The issue of contraception just mentioned by Dr Liccione is another very good example of the role of Tradition. I recently realized that the only scriptural passage dealing with contraception, that of Onan in Gen 38:6-10, did not provide sufficient foundation for the catholic doctrine on the subject. Because from the passage it is not clear what was exactly that “was displeasing in the sight of the Lord”, whether the fact itself that Onan “wasted his seed on the ground” or the fact that by doing that he was defrauding Tamar by not giving her offspring after having promised her to do that when taking her as wife, (and which Tamar wanted vehemently, as we know from the rest of chapter 38). Thus it is not clear from the passage whether the sin was contraception itself or the fact that it was non-consensual.

    Then I found that an article on the subject in this site said just as much:

    http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2010/07/contraception/

    Many argue that Onan’s sin was not spilling his semen per se, but rather the avoidance of his vowed duty to produce heirs for his sister-in-law. This does seem to be the case and for that reason I think the passage is not capable, on its own, of providing Christians with an air-tight ban on contraception. But, fortunately, the passage is not on its own.

    To note, the actual quotes from the fathers that attest what Tradition teaches on the subject are not in the article itself but in a link within a comment:

    http://www.catholic.com/library/Contraception_and_Sterilization.asp

    In contrast, we can see an example of the logical outcome of the Sola Scriptura approach here:

    http://www.christian-marriage-today.com/christian-marriage-question-self-pleasure.html

  41. God Seeker,

    Although there was resistance, and although it might be argued that Victor acted imprudently and with excessive harshness (which seems to be St. Irenaeus’ position), no one denied Victor’s ability to excommunicate the Asian churches. The teaching of Vatican Council I does not entail that the pope may never act in rash or overbearing ways. Only that what he does teach as binding with his full authority is “bound in heaven”, or protected from error by Christ for the sake of Christ’s Church. In fact, the strident quest for peace undertaken by Irenaeus and others shows very clearly how seriously they took Victor’s power to effect a very real excommunication. The fact that some Asian bishops, in the face of what they perceived (perhaps rightly) as a heavy-handed intrusion upon their liturgical traditions, initially thought the matter so serious that in entailed a choice between God or man: seems to have been quickly moderated since within several decades of the controversy, all the Asia churches had altered their liturgical practice in accord with Victor’s prescription.

    Here are some quotations respecting these events from Eusebius:

    “A question of no small importance arose at that time [A.D. 190]. For the parishes of all Asia [Minor], as from an older tradition held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Savior’s Passover. . . . But it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world . . . as they observed the practice which, from apostolic tradition, has prevailed to the present time, of terminating the fast [of Lent] on no other day than on that of the resurrection of the Savior [Sunday]. Synods and assemblies of bishops were held on this account, and all, with one consent, through mutual correspondence drew up an ecclesiastical decree that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be celebrated on no other but the Lord’s day and that we should observe the close of the paschal fast on this day only. . . . Thereupon [Pope] Victor, who presided over the church at Rome, immediately attempted to cut off from the community the parishes of all Asia [Minor], with the churches that agreed with them, as heterodox. And he wrote letters and declared all the brethren there wholly excommunicate. But this did not please all the bishops, and they besought him to consider the things of peace and of neighborly unity and love. . . . [Irenaeus] fittingly admonishes Victor that he should not cut off whole churches of God which observed the tradition of an ancient custom” (Church History 5:23:1–24:11).

    “Thus then did Irenaeus entreat and negotiate [with Pope Victor] on behalf of the peace of the churches—[Irenaeus being] a man well-named, for he was a peacemaker both in name and character. And he corresponded by letter not only with Victor, but also with very many and various rulers of churches” (ibid., 24:18).

    If you wish to delve deeply into exactly how the exercise of the ancient papacy, in case after case, accords with the teaching of Vatican Council I, I cannot recommend highly enough “The Church and Infallibility” by Dom Butler, as well as Adrian Fortescue’s “The Early Papacy To the Synod of Chalcedon in 451”.

    Pax Christi,

    Ray

  42. GS (#39):

    In addition to Ray’s fine reply, I want to note the broader lesson about how the charism of papal infallibility can sometimes work in the Church. Pope Victor was mistaken to think that the tradition of certain Eastern churches on the proper date of Easter was “heterodox.” But even though the more common practice he advocated prevailed decades later in those churches, he himself had been prevailed upon by St. Irenaeus and others not to excommunicate them for heresy. Thus popes are not personally infallible; rather, the Holy Spirit always finds a way to ensure that they do not bind the Church to doctrinal error. When they do use their authority to bind the Church to a doctrine, either unilaterally or, more often, by ratifying the decrees of a general council, the doctrines so propounded are truths.

    There have been other, relevantly similar examples of how the Holy Spirit works in this regard. In the mid-4th century, Pope Liberius was coerced by a cruel, imperially enforced exile into excommunicating St. Athanasius and signing a semi-Arian confession of faith. He revoked those actions when, the Arian emperor having died, he returned triumphantly to Rome. Those actions could not have fairly been seen as binding on the whole Church, and everybody knew it. In later cases, such as the “Three Chapters” controversy in the 6th century involving Pope Vigilius, and the “monothelite” heresy freely endorsed by Pope Honorius in the 7th century, it was also clear that the popes in question were not binding the Church to their errors. In the 14th century, Pope John XXII wanted to define his heretical view about the “beatific vision” as dogma, but was prevented from doing so by the clever machinations of the canonists.

    The Fathers of Vatican I framed their definition of papal infallibility with just such cases in mind. Protestant and Orthodox apologists have noted that, and accordingly accused the Catholic Church of writing that dogma retrospectively, as a transparent rationalization of a position that cannot be presented as the historic belief of the whole Church. What they fail to take account of, however, is that heretics have often said the same about many other doctrines rightly held by some Protestants and all Orthodox as well as by Catholics. This is why the “development of doctrine” is so important for a proper understanding of Tradition.

    As Vatican II says:

    This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her. (Dei Verbum §8; footnote omitted, emphasis added)

    That passage makes Orthodox and conservative-Protestant hair stand on end, but it applies just as well to many doctrines of that “mere Christianity” which confessional Protestants, Anglicans, and Orthodox hold in common with Catholics, as to distinctively Catholic doctrines. So granted, as a matter of historical fact, that doctrine does develop in the way indicated, the question is only how we are to distinguish between legitimate developments of doctrine and corruptions. The dogma of papal infallibility is part of the Catholic answer to that question, and I haven’t seen a truly workable proposal from those who oppose that answer.

    Best,
    Mike

  43. Thank you both for your comments. They are plausible consistencies with how God may have worked things out at this early state of development.

    However, I have a but of a doubt about the “same” nature of development existing amongst Protestant circles as do Catholics. First of all, there are so many groups out there that are all under the umbrella of Protestants, but I am going to restrict my reference to the real modern protestants, of the most applied, reformed baptist or evangelical non-denominational. All these groups seek to go back to the early Church and how they did things and believe what they believe. They ensue upon interpreting the revelation of the Old and New Testaments alone, with the aid of helpful theologians of all ages who agree with their interpretation of the Scriptures. Now, this is an embarrassingly difficult position to justify, and one must appeal to subjective claims to revelation from God to sustain it. However, I question whether these groups have any sort of relation with Catholics in how they understand “doctrinal development”. In the first place, I think it is reasonable to say that the divinity of Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Father are attested in the Scriptures, and I think St. Athanasius is one of mind with me on this. The Trinity was a doctrine which was held, maybe in not so much of a robust fashion, from the very beginning of the Church of Jesus Christ. As to the Canon of the NT, this was no so much of a needed function in the early Church because the apostles preached mostly from the Old Testament, this being the corpus of reference with which Christ Himself revealed the plan of God which must extend to all nations until the end of the world. Therefore, in reality, a proper interpretation of the Old Testament is sufficient for the evangelism of the world, since it is in the Old Testament that Christ instructed the apostles. Be that as it may, there still needs to be a mode of transmission so that this “proper interpretation” would exist throughout the duration of the world. Be that also as it may, the development of the Canon does not parallel in anyway the development of the Papacy. The doctrine which became promulgated more and more clearly towards the times of Stephen and Cornelius, both Bishops of Rome, was neither a universal or essential truth of Catechesis. How can I say that? Because the relevant writings of the Early Church, and I mean the earliest writings, do not show a consciousness of the Pope’s primacy and supremacy of jurisdiction over the world-wide body of Christ. You have Ignatius speaking of the Church “presiding in love”, and many Catholic scholars (to my amazement) take this as a component of the modern day Vaticanal Papacy. Similarly, Ireneaus is believed to have supported a “developing process”, as infant the process may have been, by saying the Church of Rome has pre-eminent authority. But Ireneaus attributed this authority to the preaching the Prime Apostles Peter and Paul, and so the unique order of Petrine successors is proven to have been conscious in the mind of Ireneaus. This does not prove that it was not, but to omit such a quality in the bishops of Rome would have been a much useful tool in his argument that he simply left unmentioned. Moreover, the claims of Pope Stephen and Pope Cornelius do not just get received as a matter of Catechetical truth, among the most basic doctrines of the Christian Church, but are rather rough for the bishops to accept. This cannot be overlooked. St. Cyprian, despite St. Augustine’s argument that he would have been orthodox given more time, does not demonstrate, out of the whole life lived, an easy submission to the doctrine of the Papacy as a matter of Catechetical truth, something which was delivered to him from the beginning and/or on par with the authority of any other essential Christian truth.

    A doctrine which speaks to the effect that Christ will be uniquely guiding His Holy Church through the universal college of Bishops under the singular headship of the Petrine bishop is, if undoubtedly true, is as important, essential, foundational, and elementary as the teaching of Christ’s Virgin Birth, His crucifixion for the sins of mankind, His bodily resurrection from the dead, His heavenly ascension to the right hand of God, His being of one substance with the Father, before all worlds, His true and complete existence as a human being formed in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the teaching of Baptism, the Holy Spirit, the Lord the giver of life, the necessity of repentance and conversion for inclusion into the Church, and the most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist.

    For all the following to have been believed and accepted from the beginning, and yet to have a rough acceptance of this unique Petrine ministry, is no doubt going to have an effect on the thinking mind. I have yet to read the book by Cardinal Newman on the Development of Doctrine, and I will soon be going through it, but even this book will at least have to counter some of these fundamental suspicions.

    But we must confess that this foundation began to be rapidly pronounced over the Church with the ensuing of the 4th,5th, and 6th centuries. And there is just as much difficulty with seeing how Christ allowed His mission to be stormed over by damning heresy, if the Papacy be so.

  44. @Dr Liccione’s #42

    ” In later cases, such as … the “monothelite” heresy freely endorsed by Pope Honorius in the 7th century, it was also clear that the popes in question were not binding the Church to their errors.”

    Pope Honorious did not directly endorse the monothelite heresy. Rather, the problem with him is that he did not endorse the orthodox doctrine either. Quoting from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07452b.htm

    “It was now for the pope to pronounce a dogmatic decision and save the situation. He did nothing of the sort. His answer to (the Patriarch of Constantinople) Sergius did not decide the question, did not authoritatively declare the faith of the Roman Church, did not claim to speak with the voice of Peter; it condemned nothing, it defined nothing. Honorius entirely agrees with the caution which Sergius recommends. He praises Sergius for eventually dropping the new expression “one operation”, but he unfortunately also agrees with him that it will be well to avoid “two operations” also; for if the former sounds Eutychian, the latter may be judged to be Nestorian. Another passage is even more difficult to account for. Following the lead of Sergius, who had said that “two operations” might lead people to think two contrary wills were admitted in Christ, Honorius (after explaining the communicatio idiomatum, by which it can be said that God was crucified, and that the Man came down from heaven) adds: “Wherefore we acknowledge one Will of our Lord Jesus Christ, for evidently it was our nature and not the sin in it which was assumed by the Godhead, that is to say, the nature which was created before sin, not the nature which was vitiated by sin.””

    The “one Will” was not an endorsement of the monothelite heresy because he was referring only to the human will of Jesus, Who had not two contrary human wills, such as are found in our fallen nature.

    Interestingly, I had just pointed out in another discussion combox that this episode gave rise to a case of the Lord fulfilling his promise to keep a Pope (not Honorius) from officially teaching error by “any means necessary”. Quoting from an article by late Fr William Most:

    http://www.ewtn.com/library/SCRIPTUR/2THOMIST.TXT

    Another Pope had died at the right time centuries earlier. The General Council of Constantinople in 681 had drafted a condemnation of Pope Honorius for heresy – which was untrue – Pope Agatho had intended to sign it. But he died before being able. The next Pope, Leo II, having better judgment, agreed only to sign a statement that Honorius had let our doctrine become unclear, in his letters to Sergius, which did not teach the Monothelite heresy, but left things fuzzy.

    So it seems if there be need, God will take a Pope out of this life if needed to keep him from teaching error.

  45. God Seeker,

    I disagree with your assessment of the early data for a wide array of reasons. Newman will argue in his “Development of Christian Doctrine” to the effect that if any doctrine of the early church were ever to be described as clear and almost universally recognized it was the doctrine of papal authority. From a purely biblical perspective, I think the explicit passages with respect to Peter’s authority and role, as instituted by Christ, are actually clearer than the cumulative passages which must be integrated to get something like a Nicene exegesis of Trinitarian doctrine. Moreover, given the biblical data of Peter and the keys in relation to Isaiah 22 and the preeminence of Peter in the gospels and Acts, followed immediately upon the close of the apostolic era, by Pope St. Clements’s letter to the Corinthians (which seems to be written as if he had the right to correct the Corinthian church as a matter of course – and while St. John was quite likely still living no less), in conjunction with the statements by St. Ignatius and St. Irenaeus; the notion that papal authority was always understood seems very much in the cards.

    Moreover, when one becomes aware of the sparseness of the documentary data set in the first 200 years of church history (due to persecution), as compared to the explosive richness of the documentary evidence as one approaches the beginning and middle of the 3rd century; it is hardly surprising that the explicit statements which, in any way, refer to the role of St. Peter’s successor are few. If the documentary data were even remotely as extensive and rich in the first 200 years as it was thereafter, I would pay moiré heed to your concern. But as the documentary facts stand, your reluctance to recognize the organic link between Christ’s authorization of Peter and his prominence in the new testament with the early indications of Clement, Ignatius, Irenaeus, and onwards to the powerful and explicit testimonies to papal authority which well-up in the 200’s and 300’s (and only expand from there); that reluctance, I say, seems to rest largely upon an argument from silence. In other words, you seem to be arguing that if papal authority were known all along as Christ’ established reality, then there should be as much explicit evidence for it in 110AD as in 330AD. But that is false for the reason I have given – namely; that such an argument does not account for the substantial difference in the pre-versus-post persecution data set. Not to mention that we have repeated lists (albeit in later centuries other than that of Irenaeus) by various father and historians recounting the names of the successors of Peter down to their own time. This would be a strange ancestry to preserve and recount, were it not understood as crucial to the Church’s ancestry itself.

    In fact, I would argue that given the difference in richness of the two data sets, it is actually more amazing that we have the early indications that we do. Once the data set becomes richer, we find affirmations of papal authority everywhere in the 300’s, 400’s and beyond; not simply affirmations by popes themselves (which might seem self-serving), but by bishops throughout the Church both East and West. I am aware of very few cases in which there is any serious denial or resistance of papal claims outside of heretical circles in the first 4 centuries of church history. In fact, one of the most telling and convincing arguments for the Catholic position is the apparent lack of outcry in the face of a claim so bold.

    More important still, is to recognize that no early writer set out to pen a thesis on Catholic ecclesiology in the first centuries. Indeed, any number of theological matters which all Christians generally embraced were never dealt with in a systematic way in the first several centuries of the Christian era. Hence, while there is plenty of explicit and implicit documentary evidence for papal authority by way of direct statements made by various fathers; the real apologetic for early papal authority is had through study of the various ways in which that authority was exercised, and the way in which bishops and the faithful understood papal authority as evidenced by their actions in relation to its exercise.

    But again, please consider reading the works I mentioned. Newman’s “Development . . .” is good also, but not nearly as detailed on this matter as the works I have referred you to. In fact, simply peruse the reading list for the papacy in the “Suggested Readings” index of this site will provide you with resources providing full and systematic treatment of the issues. My common experience is that most folks who have doubts about the authenticity and antiquity of papal authority have developed the view they hold based only a small sample of the evidence. When the full weight is brought to bear, the perspective alters.

    Pax Christi,

    Ray

  46. #28, #29, #34

    Dear Jonathan, Ray, and jj,

    I simply wish to thank each of you for your thoughtful and intelligent responses.

    Ray, yours (#29) was especially informative. Thanks for honoring the humble
    efforts of this confessional, Reformational Christian with such a diligent response.

    Regards,
    Keith

  47. #33

    Dear Kind Sir,

    You write,

    “So, if you are a protestant who believes in sola scriptura, this is your chance to educate me. Do you experience unity (communion, fellowship) with Christians who lived 500, 1000, or 1500 years ago? How so?”

    As a confessional Protestant, I believe in sola scriptura, but not in an individualistic, me-and-my-bible sense.

    As I read “Thou shalt not lust” in Romans 7:7, I sense a great distance between myself and Trent–and a strong bond with Augustine.

    I refer you to my latest posting in the thread entitled “Aquinas and Trent: Part 7 ” on this site.

    Sincere regards,
    Keith

  48. GS (#43):

    I want to point out something in addition to what Ray just wrote.

    You wrote:

    The doctrine which became promulgated more and more clearly towards the times of Stephen and Cornelius, both Bishops of Rome, was neither a universal or essential truth of Catechesis. How can I say that? Because the relevant writings of the Early Church, and I mean the earliest writings, do not show a consciousness of the Pope’s primacy and supremacy of jurisdiction over the world-wide body of Christ.

    Beyond the fact, which Ray noted, that you’re making an argument from silence, I think you’re here making an assumption which characteristic of the conservative-Protestant IP (CPIP): namely, that a given doctrine D can only be presented as belonging to the deposit of faith if D either (a) appears in the written sources from the early Church that have come down to us, or (b) can be logically deduced from them. But when one is actually comparing the CPIP with the CIP, so as to determine which better attains the general purpose of theological IPs, making that assumption merely begs the question against the CIP.

    The general purpose of theological IPs is to supply and deploy a principled distinction between divine revelation as such and merely human opinions about the content and meaning of the sources thought to transmit it to us. Merely gathering data about what the early Church believed and making inferences therefrom, while important for that purpose, by no means suffices for achieving that purpose. For such a procedure, whatever its degree of success, does not tell us which sources, on which interpretations thereof, record what are actually authentic conveyances of divine revelation and thus binding on the consciences of believers, as distinct merely from what some or many Christians happen to have believed but which might not be inerrant. On the CIP, however, we can and do affirm that it was for just such a reason that the papal claims become steadily more explicit during the first millennium. As controversies racked the Church, and some councils’ conclusions opposed others in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries, the need for somebody to have the last doctrinal word in the Church became more and more apparent. For that reason, we would argue, the papal claims that make their first documented appearance in Stephen and Cornelius, and become more explicit and detailed in Pope Leo the Great in the 5th century and Pope Hormisdas in the 6th, are just what was needed to resolve doctrinal controversies in the episcopal college itself. Thus the development of doctrine about papal authority is just what one should expect on the CIP, even granted the relative sparsity of data from the first few centuries of the Church.

    It is often argued, of course, that such considerations do not themselves establish the rational superiority of the CIP. And that’s fair enough. But at least they do show that the CIP has a way of establishing what’s normative in the sources and their interpretation. Limited to its characteristic assumption, the CPIP does not.

    Best,
    Mike

  49. David said:

    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.

    Before I put in my two cents, let me quote the Catechism as well:

    83 The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition.
    Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium.

    What Protestants don’t understand is that Sacred Tradition has been written down. It is called the New Testament.

    Jesus Christ did not write anything down. He established a Church and commanded that Church to pass down His Teachings. Another word for Teachings is Traditions.

    That Church then wrote down the Traditions and called that the New Testament.

    This is why valid Doctrines are found in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. And invalid doctrines are found neither in Sacred Tradition nor in Sacred Scripture.

    Take for instance, Sola Scriptura. You will find it neither in Sacred Tradition nor in Sacred Scripture.
    But the Doctrine of Purgatory is taught by the Catholic Church from the earliest times and is taught in several places in Scripture but more explicitly in 1 Cor 3:15.

    Any Protestant doctrine which contradicts the Sacred Traditions taught by the Catholic Church also contradicts the Sacred Scriptures.

    Sincerely,

    De Maria

  50. Hello,

    Thank you for your well-considered article on tradition. My own problems with the concept of “Tradition” certainly accord with our description of the two most common Protestant objections. You definitely hit the nail squarely on the head when you say:

    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?”

    I think you did an admirable job trying to answer both of these objection, but would still maintain that both objections still stand, at least for me. Here is why:

    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)

    I hope you can see why your definition of Tradition, thus far, reads (to me anyway) as a slightly bigger nutshell for “whatever the Magisterium says.” Further, keeping in mind these words from Dei Verbum 10: “But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church,” it seems the Word of God (whether Scripture or Tradition) not only means whatever the Magisterium says it means, but also is whatever the Magisterium determines it to be.

    My question, at this point is this: If the Word of God is not only Sacred Scripture, but also Sacred Tradition, and if Sacred Tradition includes all those touchstones you mentioned (liturgy, sacraments, canons, devotions etc.), then does it not follow that, say, a canon from Ecumenical Council is every bit as much the Word of God as scripture? And if I may have a follow up, if all these “components” (for lack of a better word) of Tradition are in some sense “the Word of God,” would it be fair to say they are the non-inspired Word of God? Or does inspiration extend even beyond the Sacred Page?

    It is absurd to say that we only knew this doctrine [male-only priesthood] when the Popes finally decided to pronounce upon it. Therefore, Tradition and the Magisterium are not redundant.

    No quibble here except to say that history shows that doctrines, until defined, have been disputed. Take, for instance, the Immaculate Conception. I don’t think you can plausibly infer from history that this doctrine was “always” believed (even though Pius IX said precisely that). Nor do I think you can plausibly infer from history that belief in this doctrine was always understood as required. Now perhaps it belonged to the “ordinary magisterium” all along, but certainly this wasn’t universally recognized for most of church history. Aquinas and Bernard, just to name two, certainly didn’t see themselves as obligated to believe in it, right? But if that is the case, then certainly we can say that this doctrine wasn’t known, with the certainty of faith, until the pope had defined it.

    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.

    Again, I’m sympathetic to the objection. Speaking for myself, I am not motivated by the desire for a “neutral data set”; rather I am motivated by a desire to model my understanding of the Word after Jesus’ understanding of the Word. I don’t see Jesus appealing to a catch-all category like Tradition that would put things like devotions, canons, liturgy, (or their Biblical equivalents) on par with what was “written.” Further, the desire to pin down “Tradition” emerges precisely because it is (or at least can be) so vague. I realize that the demand for an exhaustive list may seem pedantic. But surely you can appreciate the desire for definitions. Appeals to “Tradition” as an authoritative category surely justify the question, “Okay, but what is it?” The motivation for asking such a question in the first place cannot be explained solely in terms of desire for a neutral data set; rather it is motivated by the justifiable fear that we may be adding something to the Word of God that ought not be added to it.

    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.

    I wonder, however, if many who cross the Tiber (or cradle Catholics seeking to explain their beliefs) do in fact approach Scripture and the Church Fathers this way. In some arguments for church authority and/or the inspiration of scripture (the “spiral” argument, for example), there does indeed seem to be a place when the would-be Catholic does conclude, *independently,* that the Bible and history conspire to suggest that the claims of Roman Magisterium are indeed convincing.

    Furthermore, it is just not true to say that we don’t know the contents of Tradition.

    Well of course Rome knows the contents, at least to some degree. But does Rome know it exhaustively? At almost any point in history we can point out those who either had no idea what the church would go on to “develop,” or we can find those whose opinions would now have to be considered out of step with Rome’s. When Cyprian of Carthage at the Council of Carthage implicitly denounced the Bishop of Rome (Stephen) for setting himself up as the bishop of bishops, I wonder if Cyprian’s remarks would belong to “Sacred Tradition.” When Aquinas said, “we believe the successors of the apostles and prophets only in so far as they tell us those things which the apostles and prophets have left in their writings,” (De Veritate, Q10, art. 14, a. 11), I also wonder if these words would belong to “Sacred Tradition.”

    Michael A. Taylor

  51. Hi Michael,

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. I’ll try to address the questions you raised.

    1. My question, at this point is this: If the Word of God is not only Sacred Scripture, but also Sacred Tradition, and if Sacred Tradition includes all those touchstones you mentioned (liturgy, sacraments, canons, devotions etc.), then does it not follow that, say, a canon from Ecumenical Council is every bit as much the Word of God as scripture? And if I may have a follow up, if all these “components” (for lack of a better word) of Tradition are in some sense “the Word of God,” would it be fair to say they are the non-inspired Word of God? Or does inspiration extend even beyond the Sacred Page?

    There are a few distinctions to be made here.
    First, there is the concept of tradition as something transmitted immediately by word or deed from Christ to the apostles and then perpetuated in the life of the Church. This is what the Council of Trent refers to in Session 4. The paradigmatic case of such tradition would be the Liturgy. This is what Paul has in mind in 1 Corinthians 11: “The tradition I received from the Lord and handed on to you …”

    But, it would obviously also include everything Christ said and did which was to become the heritage of the Church and the source of its kerygma – before the first word of the New Testament was ever written and to which Scripture and history both serve as a witness. This tradition simply is the deposit of faith delivered “once for all,” and to which no one can add.

    This tradition is infallible, because it was given to us by Christ. It possesses divine authority. But it is not inspired, because inspiration is the process by which the Holy Spirit moves human authors to write infallibly and inerrantly what He wants. Thus, Inspiration is one mode of infallible revelation. It is not the only mode of infallible revelation.

    Then there is the broader concept of tradition that I have given above which includes its authoritative interpretation and its application. The authoritative interpretation is infallible under certain circumstances, but is not inspired. It could be considered revelation in an extended sense, but obviously in a derivative way.

    Then, there is the application of this dogma to the practical life of the faithful. You mentioned conciliar canons, for example. As legal applications, canons can and do change. They reflect the dogmatic teaching of the Church but they are not the word of God in the same sense that we speak of sacred scripture or the traditions that come to us immediately from Christ. And, no, they are not inspired either. But they are binding.

    2. “No quibble here except to say that history shows that doctrines, until defined, have been disputed.”

    Not sure what your question is here. Clearly, we agree that neither Scripture alone, nor Scripture plus tradition alone have ever been sufficient to clarify all matters of faith and practice. Dogmatic definition is a necessary part of the development of doctrine.

    3. “Speaking for myself, I am not motivated by the desire for a “neutral data set”; rather I am motivated by a desire to model my understanding of the Word after Jesus’ understanding of the Word. I don’t see Jesus appealing to a catch-all category like Tradition that would put things like devotions, canons, liturgy, (or their Biblical equivalents) on par with what was “written.”

    Yes! That is exactly right. We want to model our understanding of the word, the deposit of faith, on the teaching and example of Christ. And what provision did Christ make for the authoritative transmission of the Christian faith? I think I addressed The second half of your question above. We don’t want to put devotions and canons on a par with the Sacred Tradition delivered immediately by Jesus. You’ll find that the Catechism distinguishes these. (See paragraph 83)

    4. ” surely you can appreciate the desire for definitions. Appeals to “Tradition” as an authoritative category surely justify the question, “Okay, but what is it?””

    Sure. I appreciate it. And i felt this objection myself very strongly when I was Protestant. But I think the objection really loses its force once you make the conceptual distinctions I drew above. Once I began actually to read Catholic doctrine and theology with these in mind, it stopped being problematic. It’s just not necessary for me to have an exhaustive list of all the “little t-traditions.” Whereas, the “Big T-traditions” are very, very clearly defined. Furthermore, the broad sweep of worship, devotion, teaching, canon, etc. is really a very effective witness to the integrity of the faith, as I illustrated in the article above. Can you think of some reason why I would need to know the contents of “little t-tradition” with more specificity? Say, for example, that we discovered a lost letter of Cyprian that proved to be genuine. This would be part of the little tradition and would, presumably, witness to the Big Tradition. How would my previous ignorance of this letter have any bearing on the integrity of the faith?

    5. “rather it is motivated by the justifiable fear that we may be adding something to the Word of God that ought not be added to it.”

    If you believe in the authority of the Sacred Magisterium, then this fear has no bearing. By contrast, why does R.C.Sproul not get up terrified every morning that he might actually preach from a non-inspired book? Mistaking it for Holy Scripture? Without the teaching authority of the Church, how can you know with certainty that the Epistle of Jude is inspired? Or Esther? Or, . .. you get the point.

    6. “I wonder, however, if many who cross the Tiber (or cradle Catholics seeking to explain their beliefs) do in fact approach Scripture and the Church Fathers this way.”

    Bryan Cross has written extensively on this in his article on the Tu quoque objection. I would direct you to his article on this site.

    7. “But does Rome know it exhaustively? At almost any point in history we can point out those who either had no idea what the church would go on to “develop,” or we can find those whose opinions would now have to be considered out of step with Rome’s.”

    Are you asking if we know in advance the future decisions of the magisterium? The whole point of the Magisterium is that it is a Living Guide – in real time – if you will. Catholic are not primitivists. The fact that there are doctrinal disputes is the very reason there is a Magisterium. I don’t see why this counts against the Catholic concept of authority.

    Anyway, thanks for writing. I hope these responses. Help,

    David

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