Catholic Tradition is confusing to some non-Catholics, so I thought I’d briefly address the issue. Sacred Tradition is binding to Catholics, and for good reason: the Bible says it is.
In 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Paul instructs his readers to “stand firm, and cling to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.” If everything Paul wanted to say was written down, this would be unnecessary. In the next chapter (2 Thes. 3:6), he commands them “to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the traditions you received from us.” So those who abided by the written word but not the spoken word were to be shunned! Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 11:2, Paul says, “I praise you for remembering everything I told you and for holding to the traditions that I passed on to you.” But this is his first letter to the Corinthians – everything prior to this (which he expected to be followed) was oral instruction and tradition. He doesn’t bother to recap all of the things he told them, because he already told them, and they were following it. There was no reason to repeat himself, and thus, no reason to write it down.
Of course, the best reason to write it down would be for future generations to read it. But that’s not what St. Paul feels is the best mode of transmission. He decides that the oral teachings should be passed on through Church authorities. In 2 Timothy 2:2 he says, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” This isn’t just a Pauline teaching, either. St. John states a preference for oral teaching over written (2 John 1:12; 3 John 1:13-14), and in his Gospel, says, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
So anyone who declares that they believe in “The Bible Alone!” is ignoring some pretty direct teaching on the subject from the Bible itself: sola Scriptura isn’t a view that can be held by looking to Scripture alone, in one of life’s more ironic twists. And if you think about it, the only way to preserve the Bible is through Sacred Tradition. Here’s why.
Jesus never wrote a Holy Book – He is pretty unique in this regard. Instead, He left the task of spreading His mission up to the Apostles. Note: He didn’t say, “go, write this Book and send it out!” Rather, He said,
“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20
So He sends them out to teach and preach. The New Testament is a collection of their writings in the furtherance of the Gospel. In other words, it is the result of one of the means which they employed to achieve this task, a task which involved a lot of hands-on attention (teaching in person and baptizing). And how does He promise to perserve their message? By being with them always, until the end of time. This is the promise of a Spirit-protected Church, not a Book. We know that we can trust the successors to the Apostles because Christ is still guiding them, even if they make some ham-handed mistakes themselves, and sometimes live less than exemplary lives. (Remember that when Jesus makes this promise to the Apostles, there are still some embarassing gaffes to come, like Peter’s moral cowardice described in Galatians 2).
The second, and related, reason is that the Bible doesn’t come with a table of contents. This is further evidence that the Holy Spirit never desired a Bible detached from the Church. I was recently reading a book by a writer who was an Assemblies of God member (is there a better way to say that? Assembler of God?), and as part of his defense that the only real Baptism is Baptism-by-immersion, he says, “Imagine that you’re stranded on a desert island, and a Bible washes ashore…” This is very explicitly not what Jesus has in mind, and we’ve seen the problem of this approach in Acts 8 (see Acts 8:30-31, for example).
The fact is, to even get that Bible, in its assembled form, you have to first have the Catholic Church. There were a whole slew of candidates for the New Testament, almost all claiming to be of Apostolic origin (unlike the Book of Hebrews, for example). Even some of the early Saints disagreed about which ones should be considered canonical. A Protestant site describes some of the history here:
Very early on, some of the New Testament books were being recognized. Paul considered Luke’s writings to be as authoritative as the Old Testament (1 Timothy 5:18; see also Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7). Peter recognized Paul’s writings as Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16). Some of the books of the New Testament were being circulated among the churches (Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:27). Clement of Rome mentioned at least eight New Testament books (A.D. 95). Ignatius of Antioch acknowledged about seven books (A.D. 115). Polycarp, a disciple of John the Apostle, acknowledged 15 books (A.D. 108). Later, Irenaeus mentioned 21 books (A.D. 185). Hippolytus recognized 22 books (A.D. 170-235). The New Testament books receiving the most controversy were Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, and 3 John.
Fortunately, the Church stepped in to resolve this issue:
The first “canon” was the Muratorian Canon, which was compiled in (A.D. 170). The Muratorian Canon included all of the New Testament books except Hebrews, James, and 3 John. In A.D. 363, the Council of Laodicea stated that only the Old Testament (along with the Apocrypha) and the 27 books of the New Testament were to be read in the churches. The Council of Hippo (A.D. 393) and the Council of Carthage (A.D. 397) also affirmed the same 27 books as authoritative.
What that source fails to mention is that the Councils of Hippo and Carthage affirmed the “Apocrypha,” or Deuterocanon – the books of the Bible which the Reformers later rejected. Canon 24 of the Council of Carthage affirmed what the Synod of Hippo had already declared.
For Catholics, because there is an infallible Church interpreting infallible Tradition, we have an infallible list of infallible Books which constitute our Bible. Protestants often distrust the 4th century Church, disagree with the lists that the Church came up with at Hippo, Carthage, and finds Tradition fallible at best. The more extreme members of this camp believe in a Total Apostasy which occurred at some point, meaning that the books of the Bible were assembled by the Bible’s enemies (or at least, by those who weren’t orthodox Christians).
So far as I have been able to find, the modern Protestant canon simply didn’t exist prior to the Reformation. In fact, it doesn’t take its definitive form until well after the Reformation, as Luther’s own canon didn’t include books like James and Esther which modern Lutherans except. This is, to say the least, a fallible list of infallible books. So does the Catholic view of Tradition and the role of the Magisterium really undermine the Bible? Or is it perhaps the only assurance we have that the books we regard as canonical are the Bible which God intended, and the only books He intended?
In my next post, I’ll discuss another aspect of Tradition, distinguishing the role of continuing doctrinal definition from the idea of “new revelation.”