Tradition, pt. 3: When did the Church add THAT?

For part 3 of this segment on Tradition, I thought I’d answer one of the Church’s critics. I was reading an article by someone named Reese Currie for something called Compass Distributors (who charge themselves with “Distributing Christian Truth to all points of the compass”). The article was called, “Can Catholic Tradition Be Valid?” The author’s conclusion was that no, it can’t. Because the article is relatively brief, and doesn’t say anything that anti-Catholics haven’t been saying for a long while, I figured it would be a good article to respond to here. Feel free to open the article in another window if you want to read what I’m responding to in context – I tried to leave enough context in so it would misrepresent what he was saying.

I’m putting Currie’s arguments in red, and my responses in black:

The Roman Catholic Church excuses its multitude of unscriptural doctrines on the basis of something they call “tradition.” In the many areas in which their teachings contradict the Bible, they believe that their tradition overrules the Scriptures. This is just factually untrue. Dei Verbum (“Word of God”), is the Apostolic Constitution created in 1965 at Vatican II on this very issue. It was approved by 2,344 of the 2,350 bishops assembled, and promulgated by Pope Paul VI. From a Catholic standpoint, it’s an authentic teaching of the Magisterium, and of the highest level of authority shy of an infallible ex cathedra declaration. Even from a non-Catholic standpoint, this was something that all by 6 bishops in the world vote for. Anyways, it state unambiguously that “Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence,” a phrase which the Cathechism cites to for its own discussion on this issue. I suppose I shouldn’t expect Currie to have read Dei Verbum, although if he wanted to know the Catholic stance on the word of God, it might be a good place to start. But I do think he should at least see what the Cathechism says about the claims he’s making.

In any case, if you try to find a case where the Church says, “the Bible says x, but we’re going to oppose that, because … Tradition!” you’re going to be looking for a long time. The Church has never taken the stance that the Bible can be opposed because of Tradition. We don’t see the two as ever in opposition to each other, even if a casual observer might think they do (this is no different than the great lengths that Christians of all stripes go to in answering supposed “Bible Contradictions” – it’s strange that these same people think Catholics are obfuscating when they do this with Tradition as well).

So Currie’s major premise – that the Church will replace “Bible teachings” with Catholic dogmas – is totally wrong. The Early Church Fathers would be a great place to go to find out what these original “Bible teachings” actually were. These are, after all, the people who brought us the Bible, perserving the Sacred Word even at the expense of their lives. These Christians converted the Roman Empire through the force of love, an event unreplicated in human history. One of the major problems Currie’s arguments have are that they are relieant upon data provided by the Church’s enemies. Instead of finding out what the Catholic Church believes, he’s content to oppose what he’s heard She believes.

Catholic tradition is certainly not just oral teaching that comes down from the original twelve apostles that was never written down. To quote a Catholic source, “Tradition comes from many things: the Church’s creeds, the records of the Church’s worship, the writings of scholars and Church leaders, the decrees of popes and councils, the prayers of the Church’s people, and so on…Tradition is also continuing and developing today. It is the way the Church here and now understands and lives Christ’s teaching. It is going on now, in the writings of scholars, the decrees of Church authorities, the practices of the liturgy, and the Christian practices and devotions of the people” (p. 186, Christ Among Us). Therefore Roman Catholic tradition includes the concept of “continuing revelation” held also by Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons.

I think that I responded to this sufficiently in my last post. Tradition is “continuing and developing,” certainly, but not with any new revelations unavailable to previous generations. Defining God as one God and three persons, is a perfect example of post-Biblical doctrinal definition, so you don’t hear the word “Trinity” until 180 A.D., even though the doctrine of the Trinity is described, in not so many words, throughout the Bible and early Church sources.

What we’ve been doing for the past 2000 years is: defining more precisely what it is we already know, as with the Trinity; and building upon the work of those who have come before us. Ss. Augustine and Aquinas had some pretty amazing insights into the faith – not new revelation, but really powerful insights into texts we already read and believed. We stand now on the backs of giants. This also means, however, determining when those who have came before us are wrong on an issue. Often times, there are multiple views on an issue (such as “which books belong in the Bible?”), and the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit in rendering a decision.

The Bible has good and bad things to say about tradition. Jesus was adamant that Scripture should not be “transgressed” by man’s tradition.
This is the standard which I wish that opponents of Catholicism would apply. Even if you don’t think that a teaching is required by the Bible, does it follow that it automatically transgresses the Bible? This seems to ignore any room for church discipline. Say that a local church says, “We want all pastors to be at least 35.” Does that transgress the Bible? By this logic, yes. Or at least, if it’s the Catholic Church, and the rule is, “We want all pastors in the Latin Rite to be celibate.”

First, the brethren were told to hold fast to the traditions they were taught by the apostles. Any tradition not taught by the original apostles, then, is illegal and invalid.
This doesn’t make any sense. You could reasonably say that any tradition not taught by the Apostles is therefore not binding. But to say that just because we’re not ordered by St. Paul to hold fast to it, it is therefore illegal and invalid” is an enormous logical leap. In any case, the experience of the early Church demonstrates pretty strongly that these traditions were taught by the Apostles themselves. I’ll address them more specifically below.

The point is, there is absolutely no reason to even consider that all of the truth necessary and delivered to the apostles was not also delivered to us in writing in the Bible. Paul’s statement in 2Thessalonians speaks of a time before the whole of New Testament Scripture was completed.
I think that the very fact that Paul speaks of the need to obey something beyond the written word means that “absolutely no reason” is an exaggeration. Look at how he uses the dating of 2 Thessalonians to try and make a point – he’s claiming that Paul’s demand in 2 Thessalonians to hold fast to traditions is outdated by the time he writes 2 Timothy. But this argument works just as effectively against him, as we’ll see in the next segment:

Later in his ministry, Paul wrote of the sufficiency of Scripture, “And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:15-17).
If the Scripture is “able to make thee wise unto salvation” then Scripture is indeed sufficient in and of itself, as loyal Protestants of past generations maintained.
This is the standard sola scriptura argument, and it is (in my own opinion) a bad one. I don’t mean that to offend anyone, but why in the world would the standard be, “what’s the very least I can know and still get by?” On the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), Jesus was able to demonstrate to the two sojourners that the Old Testament lays out innumerable Christological predictions. Why bother with a New Testament at all, then, by this standard? Most likely, a majority of Christians throughout history have been illiterate. Yet we think that at least some of them are saved, do we not? Yet they acquired their knowledge of God in large part due to the preaching of the local Catholic priest when they went to Mass. A devout faith, they had. A strong understanding of the Bible, probably not. So this argument, intended to prove sola Scriptura, can just as easily prove the opposite, because it relies on the absurd premise that “if it’s possible to get to Heaven without x, x should be rejected!” You might as well say, “My car might be able to make it from here to California without anti-lock brakes, A/C, and windshield wipers (in fact, the early cars didn’t have these things – they’re later traditions!), so I’m going to rip them out.”

The second (glaring) problem with this argument is the same one that Currie tries to employ above. When St. Paul writes 2 Timothy, the New Testament isn’t assembled – like 2 Thessalonians, it was a passage written “before the whole of New Testament Scripture was completed,” particularly if you take into account the process of canonization of the text (which is still a few centuries away). Most of the sources I’ve read say 2nd Timothy was written in the mid-60’s. This site has a list of possible dates of when NT books are written: 2nd Timothy is one of the few where there’s a large degree of scholarly unanimity. This passage possibly predates the writing of any of the Gospels, but more likely is written after the Synoptics but before John. Why is that important? Well, some of the epistles are recognized as Scripture, some aren’t (yet), and some books (like Revelation and the Gospel of John) haven’t even been written yet. And note: these books contain lots of information not found elsewhere in the Bible. John’s Gospel includes lots of stuff not found in the Synoptics (which is why he’s not considered a Synoptic), and Revelation is one-of-a-kind for the NT. So if Paul is declaring “sola Scriptura,” he’s closing the canon before it’s fully baked.

Bob Sungenis explains it better than me:

“If 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is teaching Sola Scriptura today, then it had to be teaching Sola Scriptura in the first century, since there cannot be two diametrically opposed interpretations of the same verse. But if 2 Timothy 3:16-17 was teaching Sola Scriptura in the first century, then that would mean that St. Paul is contradicting himself, since in the first century he was also promoting inspired oral tradition as another source of divine revelation to the Bible.”

Any attempt to solve the problem (as Currie has) by saying that Paul switched positions after he got done writing his epistles cuts the Gospel of John, the Book of Revelation, and who knows what else, out of the canon.

What Catholic Traditions Differ From The Traditions of the Apostles?
The Roman Catholic Church has changed its doctrine as a result of its tradition on many occasions. In fact, many of the distinct doctrines we associate with Roman Catholicism did not even exist during the first 1000 years of their history. In order from most recent to most ancient, some of these doctrines are:
I don’t have the expertise or the time (it’s finals season) to address the history of each Catholic doctrine, and show where it was taught by the Apostles, and how the early Church’s practice demonstrates that this was their understanding of the teaching, but I’ll at least disprove all of his assertions for late additions.
He claims that none of these teachings are found in the first 1000 years of Catholicism, so all I’m going to do is provide proof that they were. By no means are the texts I provide the oldest. You’re welcome to find older ones. Like I said, finals season. Here goes:

The “Assumption of Mary” doctrine about her body having been taken into heaven without seeing decay was only made official in 1950.
That “made official” is a big caveat. On June 26, 2008, the Evangelical Free Church of America adopted a new statement of faith declaring, amongst other things, “We believe in one God, Creator of all things, holy, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in a loving unity of three equally divine Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Shall we conclude that prior to that, EFCA was non-Trinitarian? The Nicene Creed tells us more about the role of the Holy Spirit than the Apostles’ Creed. Does that mean that the Apostles didn’t believe that the Holy Spirit “has spoken through the prophets”? I’m reminded of a statement by N.T. Wright at a 1996 lecture, where he quotes Anglican Bishop Stephen Sykes as saying, “the trouble with theology is that you have to say everything, all the time, otherwise someone thinks you don’t believe it.”

Anyways, addressing the idea that the Assumption is some 20th Century creation (or at least a creature of the 2nd millenium), here’s the first of three sermons which St. John Damascene delivered. Seeing as he died in 787 A.D., I think this squarely places the Catholic belief in the Assumption in the 1st millenium, disproving Currie’s point. If you want it from CCEL, a Calvinist site with a good stock of writings of the Early Church Fathers, here ya go. Just in case you thought we Catholics were just forging sermons.

The infallibility of the pope was only made official in 1870.
Again with the “made official.” If you haven’t read it, I included a really on-point passage from St. Irenaeus c. 180 A.D. in a previous post. In addition, St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, is quoted on this Calvinist site as saying, “After such things as these, moreover, they still dare—a false bishop having been appointed for them by heretics—to set sail and to bear letters from schismatic and profane persons to the throne of Peter, and to the chief church whence priestly unity takes its source; and not to consider that these were the Romans whose faith was praised in the preaching of the apostle, to whom faithlessness could have no access.” He wrote that about 256 A.D. In both of these cases, Calvinist footnotes are included to try and mitigate the obvious meaning of the passage, but the fact still remains: St. Cyprian held that the faith held by the Roman Church admitted no faithlessness, and St. Iraneus held that “it is a matter of necessity that every church should agree with this Church.”

If you’re not aware, 181 A.D. is the first time we see the word “Trinity” being used. So papal infallibility and Petrine authority can be traced back at least as far as the Doctrine of the Trinity. Which is to say, a lot further back than 1870. Had the Church never spoken infallibly on this issue, Catholics would still know it to be true, as they did for the nearly two millenia preceding the First Vatican Council.

Mary’s “immaculate conception”, the notion that she was personally born sinless, was only made official in 1845.
“Made official.” See a pattern yet? St. Augustine acknowledged that Mary may have been sinless in 415 A.D. He wrote a long work called “Nature and Grace,” dealing extensively with the idea of original sin. He’s careful, however, in chapter 42 (or 36, depending on which numbering system) to note, as the chapter title suggests, that “The Blessed Virgin Mary May Have Lived Without Sin,” noting that:

We must except the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honour to the Lord; for from Him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear Him who undoubtedly had no sin. Well, then, if, with this exception of the Virgin, we could only assemble together all the forementioned holy men and women, and ask them whether they lived without sin whilst they were in this life, what can we suppose would be their answer?

Others go much further. Iraneus, in the aforementioned Against Heresies, calls Mary the new Eve, stating that “For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” Read section 4, because it pretty clearly paints a Catholic picture of Mary… in 180 A.D. Better yet, if you’ve got the time: Tim Staples gives a pretty solid history of the Immaculate Conception here if you’ve got the time. Seriously. It’s worth your time. He’s got a great knowledge of Scripture, and solidly backs up the IC with the teachings of the Early Church Fathers.

The apocryphal books (deuterocanonical to them) were added into the Roman Catholic official canon in 1546.
As I mentioned in the first post, the Catholic canon, including the deuterocanon, predates the Protestant one by well over a millenium. Council of Carthage is unambiguous on this point by 393 A.D., and it cites to the Synod of Hippo before it. The Council of Laodicea, which even the Protestant source I cited in pt. 1 acknowledged considred the DC canonical, predated Carthage by 30 years. Beyond that, the early Church Fathers cite to all of the different DC books as canonical. The Council of Trent declared the DC canonical only when the Reformers decided to remove it. It wasn’t “adding” books at all – it was perserving them from assault.

Church tradition was officially declared equal in authority with the Bible in 1545 (in fact, Church tradition is really treated as superior to the Bible in practice).
Pt. 1 shows that St. Paul viewed both Scripture and Tradition as binding – sola Scriptura is a product of the 2nd millenium.

“Baptism” by sprinkling was only made official in 1311.
The Didache, also known as “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” says this:

If you do not have running water, baptize in some other.  If you cannot in cold, then in warm. If you have neither, then pour water on the head three times “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

The Didache is almost certaintly older than much of the New Testament, and was a candidate for canonization. (Even though it wasn’t canonized, it’s still doctrinally accurate – it just wasn’t deemed to have been itself inspired by the Holy Spirit). It’s been held in high regard in Christianity for over 1900 years. There can be no serious doubts that it opposed the teachings of the Twelve Apostles, because when it was written, they were still alive.

It was only made official that priests were given power of absolution of sins in 1268.
In my opinion, John 20:21-23 closes the door on this matter (with plenty of reinforcement from James 5:16). But Currie claims that confession to priests was occuring as far back as 1215, so this view doesn’t even make sense. Why would confession be required if absolution wasn’t possible? Anyways, see my response two below for more info. on this.

The idea that the Mass is a re-offering of Christ’s original sacrifice and consequently conveyed the remission of sins was only made official in 1215, necessarily the same year that transubstantiation was made official.
This is two issues rolled into one. First, on the Mass being a Sacrifice:

On every Lord’s Day—his special day
—come together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure. Anyone at variance with his neighbor must not join you, until they are reconciled, lest your sacrifice be defiled. For it was of this sacrifice that the Lord said, “Always and everywhere offer me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is marveled at by the nations.”

That’s the Didache again, and citing to Malachi 1:11, 14. So the Mass was being called a sacrifice while the Apostles were still alive. As for transubstantiation, St. Ignatius of Antioch, in his Epistle to the Smyrnæans (110 A.D.), warns of the Gnostics, that “[t]hey abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.” Note that he doesn’t bother proving the Real Presence. He assumes his readers already share his views on the Eucharist, and uses that as proof that the Gnostics are heretics – like “how can you trust them? Look at their Eucharistic views!”

Also in 1215, auricular confession to a priest was made official.
Fr. Herbert Thurston destroyed this claim when it was made by G.G. Coulton in the 1930s, but apparently it keeps popping up again. If you’re interested, his conflict with Coulton can be found here: blunders 1-2, and blunders 3-15. It’s an engaging read, and in the process, he thoroughly documents auricular confession dating back much further the 1000 A.D.

Indulgences became official doctrine in 1190.
This is obviously wrong. Anti-Catholics love pointing out the fact that the pope gave plenary indulgences to the Crusaders in 1095. The Catholic Encyclopedia does a good job of describing the history in-depth, along with its relation to penance generally. In 2 Corinthians 2:5-7, St. Paul suggests that a particular penitent’s punishment is sufficient, so they should “forgive and encourage him instead.”

The celibacy of the priesthood was made official in 1123.
Celibacy in the priesthood isn’t a doctrine. It’s a discipline, just like a church requiring that all its pastors be over the age of 35. The Church doesn’t claim that the Bible requires all priests to be celibate – flatly, it doesn’t. The Church just says that it will only employ those willing to do something additional to the Bible’s requirements. In this, they’re enforcing as a rule what St. Paul suggests as a practice

The rosary became an official doctrine in 1090.
The rosary isn’t “an official doctrine,” because it’s not a doctrine at all. It’s a prayer. I’m not even sure how to address this issue. Certainly, it has some doctrinal underpinnings – the Lord’s Prayer is ordained by Christ (Matthew 6:9-13), the Hail Mary includes Gabriel’s Angelic Salutation (Luke 1:28), the Glory Be proclaims the glory of God. But the rosary itself? Not a doctrine.

Penance became an official doctrine in 1022; in fact, the onerous penances were so difficult that indulgences as an alternative way to make restitution became necessary in 1190.
See the bit about 2 Corinthians 2:5-7 from above, because this, along with the Catholic Encyclopedia article, are sufficiently covered. There is no serious question that the early Church imposed harsh penances upon the lapsis, those Christians who renounced the faith during the Roman persecutions. This was widespread and systemic, and is easily documented to long before the Nicene Creed.

This is St. Cyprian again:

For although in smaller sins sinners may do penance for a set time, and according to the rules of discipline come to public confession, and by imposition of the hand of the bishop and clergy receive the right of communion: now with their time still unfulfilled, while persecution is still raging, while the peace of the Church itself is not yet restored, they are admitted to communion, and their name is presented; and while the penitence is not yet performed, confession is not yet made, the hands of the bishop and clergy are not yet laid upon them, the Eucharist is given to them; although it is written, “Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.”

In other words, the early Church faced some of the same problems with spineless priests giving the Eucharist to the unrepentant inappropriately – those who hadn’t received absolution from priests, with the laying on of hands.

The concept of holy water was made official only in 1009.
Numbers 5:17 “And he shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and he shall cast a little earth of the pavement of the tabernacle into it.” I’ll give to Currie, though. He said that he was going to do them in reverse chronological order, and his final example is from the Old Testament.

*The Cathechism, if you’re unaware, compiles the various teachings of the Church into a handy reference guide so that a non-scholarly individual can quickly find out the Church’s position on an issue. It’s not binding teaching itself, but is usually based on binding teachings. It’s a great resource.

1 Comment

  1. I’m definitely a fan. You write: “Instead of finding out what the Catholic Church believes, he’s content to oppose what he’s heard She believes.” Isn’t this truly the case with every protestant opponent of Catholicism? I have spent time in Scripture forums where a non-Catholic will use some obscure explanation of the Catechism and call it doctrine, and then object when he’s told that the document he used isn’t doctrine. VERY frustrating.

    It’s why I leave apologetics to others.

    Great article.

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