Scripture, Tradition, and the Church

As promised, the post for this afternoon is about a critique of Catholicism which Keith Mathison offers from his book The Shape of Sola Scriptura, available in full here. On page 183, he lays out a pretty concise summary of his general thesis:

The typical evangelical view, Tradition 0, does not allow for any real ecclesiastical authority. The Church as a communion of saints has no more authority than any individual. Scripture is described not merely as the sole final and infallible authority, but as the sole authority altogether. Tradition I – the view of the early Church and of many of the classical Reformers, on the other hand – sees the Church as a subordinate authority with the responsibility of interpreting the sole final and infallible authority – Holy Scripture. The older Roman Catholic view, Tradition II, describes the Church as the infallible authoritative interpreter of two sources of revelation and standards of truth – Scripture and tradition. The newer Roman Catholic view, Tradition III, sees the present Church as infallible and as the real authoritative standard of truth. According to Tradition III, whatever the Church teaches today is the Tradition whether evidence from Scripture or tradition can be found or not.

On page 210, he claims that Tradition II and III “co-exist” within Catholicism. I’ve said earlier I agree with Mathison on Tradition 0. On Tradition I, he’s dead wrong, just as he’s wrong that this the view of the early Church, but I’ve addressed that elsewhere. Today, I’m interested in his analysis of Tradition II and III, which he imputes to the Catholic Church.


I. What the Catholic Church Teaches About Scripture, Tradition, and the Church

First, the actual position of the Church. Dei Verbum would be the sensible place to start to understand the Church’s understanding of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, since it’s the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution addressed to this very subject. Mathison is clearly aware of Dei Verbum, since he cites it on page 161 on an unrelated issue; this makes it all the more disappointing that he doesn’t seem to rely upon it at all before instructing Catholics as to what they believe. Had he read it, he would have seen that the Church teaches something very different than what he claims She teaches:

9. Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.(6)

10. Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort. (7)

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, (8) has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, (9) whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

So the actual Catholic belief, explicitly stated, is that Scripture and Tradition are distinct but interrelated and unified, forming a single Deposit of Faith. The Church’s role is to interpret that Deposit of Faith, and draw only upon that Deposit of Faith for divine revelation.

II. What the Church DOESN’T Teach About Scripture, Tradition, and the Church

Now compare that to what Mathison claims we believe. For Tradition II, he alleges that we believe that Scripture and Tradition are two separate “standards of truth.” This is the opposite of what the Church teaches. We have a single standard of truth, the Deposit of Faith entrusted “once for all” to the Apostles (Jude 1:3). It’s not as if Scripture says “don’t do X,” Tradition says “ignore Scripture,” and Catholics have to choose which to follow. That may seem to an outsider what’s going on, but it’s not.

But this so-called Tradition III is what blows me away. Mathison makes three claims, all of which are horribly incorrect. He argues:

  1. The Magisterium is the a source of revelation — in fact, the sole source of revelation (that is, no Catholic belief comes from the Bible or Tradition… it all comes from the Church.
  2. The Magisterium can declare dogma regardless of whether or not there is support form Sacred Scripture and/or Sacred Tradition.
  3. Papal infallibility means that even if every bit of Scripture and Tradition openly opposed what the pope claimed, Catholics would have to believe the pope.

All three of these arguments aren’t just wrong, they’re absurd. Anyone who’s read anything by Catholics with an eye towards understanding what they believe (rather than simply reading the über-Lutheran Heiko Oberman’s spurious claims about Catholics) should know they’re wrong. Catholics believe things derived from Scripture all the time, and the number of areas on which the Magisterium has spoken (particularly spoken infallibly) is comparatively minuscule. By this reasoning, no Catholic would have believed in the Assumption of Mary until 1950, yet virtually all Catholics did. These three arguments are also explicitly contradicted by Church teaching. So had Mathison taken the time to check his sources, he would have seen that Oberman’s entire “Tradition III” claim is just a farce. Here’s a basic chart I made comparing what Mathison and Oberman claim that the Catholic Church teaches, and what the Catholic Church actually teaches:


What Mathison Claims the Catholic Church Teaches What She Actually Teaches
Argument One

Within Tradition III, the “single source of revelation is the present Roman Magisterium” (p. 134).”In recent centuries Rome’s position has begun to develop into a Tradition III view in which the real source of revelation is neither Scripture nor tradition but instead is the living magisterium. Whatever Rome says today is the apostolic faith. Scripture and tradition are then interpreted by Rome to support whatever Rome teaches.” (pp. 151-52).

The single source of revelation is the word of God, revealed in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

As Dei Verbum 10 notes, “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God,” that is, one single source of revelation.The Magisterium is not a source of revelation at all.While the Deposit of Faith has been “entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church,” the Magisterium is “not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission.” That’s Dei Verbum 10 again.

Argument Two

For Tradition III, “whatever the Church teaches today is the Tradition whether evidence from Scripture or tradition can be found or not” (p. 183).

The only things which the Church can declare as divine revelation are those things which come from the word of God.

From Dei Verbum 10 (yet again), we hear that with the aid of the Holy Spirit, the Magisterium “draws from this one deposit of faith, everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.” That “one deposit of faith,” as noted above, is the word of God expressed in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

Argument Three

Even if every father and council explicitly contracted Rome’s current claims, they would have to be dismissed in order to maintain the current claim of infallibility” (p. 185).

Mathison argues specifically that the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, is Tradition III in action. He then proceeds to argue that:
It goes without saying that this view of tradition is a virtual declaration of autonomy on the part of the Roman church, and when it is combined with the doctrine of papal infallibility, it amounts to a Church for whom Scripture and tradition are essentially irrelevant.” (p. 135).

The Pope cannot claim new inspiration from the Holy Spirit, or from any other source, for any binding dogma.

Dei Verbum 10 would lead to this conclusion, obviously, but using a single paragraph to dispel all three arguments might give the appearance that this teaching was hard to find. Instead, let’s go to the sources Mathison refers. He references in Argument Three both papal infallibility (defined at Vatican I), and the dogmatization of the Assumption of Mary (declared ex cathedra in Munificentissimus Deus).

As the First Vatican Council explained in Pastor Aeternus, and as Venerable Pope Pius XII reminds us in Munificentissimus Deus, “the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter in such a way that, by his revelation, they might manifest new doctrine, but so that, by his assistance, they might guard as sacred and might faithfully propose the revelation delivered through the apostles, or the deposit of faith.

In other words, the very documents he claimed virtually declared autonomy from Scripture and Tradition, instead were absolutely clear that infallibility didn’t trump Scripture or Tradition. Put more simply, had Mathison read the documents he’s criticizing, he’d have seen they said the opposite of what he thinks they say.


If tomorrow, Mary appears to Pope Benedict with an important new doctrine which She wants binding on all Christians, She and Benedict are plum out of luck. Nor can the pope claim that the Holy Spirit has inspired him to promulgate some new dogma, heretofore unknown. He might just as well try and dogmatically define that the Red Sox will win the World Series forevermore. Now, a pope can certainly encourage, as pastor, that Catholics pray the rosary, or believe in Our Lady’s appearance at Lourdes, and so on, but those things are not divine revelation, and therefore are not dogma. Catholics can freely disagree, and the pope’s not considered infallible on these issues.

Despite being completely contrary to Catholic teaching, this notion that the pope can just think up some bold new dogma and force Catholics to believe it isn’t limited to Mathison. No less than C.S. Lewis is said to have argued to Catholics in his essay, “Christian Reunion”:

“The real reason why I cannot be in communion with you is not my disagreement with this or that Roman doctrine, but that to accept your Church means, not to accept a given body of doctrine, but to accept in advance any doctrine your Church hereafter produces. It is like being asked to agree not only to what a man has said but also to what he is going to say.”

Perhaps an ounce of good sense will go further than a pound of logic. If Protestants are so paralyzed with fear that, one day, the Church will declare something which is explicitly against the Scriptures and Sacred Tradition, why not point to any time in the last two thousand years that’s happened? You won’t find any such a time. The pope never introduces anything new. Certainly, the pope will declare something true which part of the Church questions or denies: if they didn’t, there’d be no reason to dogmatically define it. But every single time the Church has spoken on dogma, it’s had a massive tome of evidence from Scripture and/or Tradition to support Her. You may disagree with Her interpretation of that evidence, but you can’t in good faith deny that She’s produced, and relied upon, evidence from the very early Church. And as for disagreeing with Her interpretation, that’s exactly the point: when your reading of Scripture and Hers differ, who wins? If you say “you,” you’re in the same position as the Tradition 0 folks, which Mathison rightly condemns.

At the very least, can we chuck this “the Church might chuck Scripture and Tradition, and declare something new tomorrow” business?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *