Monday, September 24, 2007
A Defense of Sacred Tradition
I originally wrote this for Amy at Blessed Motherhood, but it seems to be a good time to post it here.
Catholics believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. We believe that the Bible is authoritative, but that Sacred Tradition is also authoritative, and can help us to interpret (not contradict) scripture, in cases where the words of scripture may be able to have more than one meaning.
Let us journey back to the first time God gave his Word to his people. God gave the Law to Moses. But God gave Moses the Law in two forms, both written and oral. The oral Law was eventually written down, as the Talmud, in the two parts of the Mishna and Gemara.
Jews consider both the oral and the written Law as authoritative. From Judaism 101:
"When did the Jewish People receive the "Oral Torah?" They received it at Sinai, along with the Written Torah. What else do you think Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher, was doing up there for forty days and forty nights, neither "eating bread nor drinking water" according to the testimony of the Bible. If not studying the "Oral" Part of the Torah from the Master Teacher, G-d Himself? The Oral Torah is required because without it, its counterpart, the Written Torah, would be incomprehensible."
This is why Jews interpret a prohibition on cooking a calf in its mother's milk to refer to a prohibition on any mixing of meat and dairy products.
Jesus studied the Talmud with the Rabbis in the Temple. The Jews of his time, as the Jews today, would have considered Sacred Tradition as authoritative as the written Scripture. To say that the Bible alone (Sola Scriptura) was authoritative is a serious breech with Judaism.
Now, Christianity departs from Judaism in many ways. But we see in the New Testament that any serious changes are discussed. We read in the New Testament that we are no longer bound to obey the Law, including the dietary restrictions. Men are no longer bound to be circumcised. But no where in the New Testament is it written that ONLY the written Scripture is to be considered authoritative.
On the contrary Paul writes in 2 Thess. 2:15 that we are to stand firm and hold to the traditions which we were taught, either by word of mouth or letter. If Paul wants us to stand fast to traditions which we have been taught, then clearly not all traditions are "traditions of men."
If Jesus meant to build a foundation on Scripture alone, then why did he not command his apostles to immediately write down his Word, as Moses did upon leaving the mountain? Over and over you read in the New Testament that Jesus commanded his apostles to preach, and preach they did. Only three apostles wrote any scripture. Most were written by disciples of the apostles, which means that they were writing down oral tradition, not the words that they heard from Jesus himself.
Thus, the authority of the written New Testament is based on oral tradition. Sacred Tradition is not reliance on the words of others or the traditions of men, but on the Word of God, and the traditions left to us by the apostles, who certainly did not leave an abundance of written words behind.
The New Testament does not claim to be complete of itself. John 20:30; 21:25 writes that Jesus did many other things not written in the Scriptures.
Sola Scriptura claims that the Bible is complete, and that every man can interpret scripture for himself. There is to be no other authority, including oral tradition, to help in interpreting scripture. If that were the case, then why would you have so many books published to help you to understand scripture? Why do you have sermons at Church to help you to interpret scripture? Shouldn't Church then consist of one person reading aloud from scripture, then everyone adjoining to share a meal because everyone exactly agrees on what that scripture meant?
If the Holy Spirit will help us all to interpret Scripture correctly, then why is there not one united protestant church against the Catholic and Orthodox churches? The early reformers could not even achieve unity, but quickly broke into groups, which have broken into more and more groups with each generation.
Acts 8:30-31: And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest? And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him.
Why didn't Philip explain to the Eunuch that all he had to do was pray to the Holy Spirit to help him interpret the Bible, and he would receive the correct meaning?
1 Tim 3:15 says that the Church is "the pillar and ground of the truth," not scripture.
Col. 4:16 shows that a prior letter written to Laodicea is equally authoritative but not part of the New Testament canon.
There are many, many places in the New Testament that show that Sacred Tradition exists, and that we should not rely on the Bible alone. I have quoted several, but I strongly suggest you go to http://www.scripturecatholic.com/ and read through the sections on Scripture Alone and Oral Tradition to read them all.
Another great resource for understanding that the Catholic Church really teaches about Sacred Tradition is Mark Shea's What is Sacred Tradition?
Of course, Catholic Answers is always a good read, too.