Which Traditions Are Authentic?

First things first, if you haven’t read Fr. Andrew’s latest post, or heard his recent homily, they’re very much worth your time.  There’s a tag at the bottom of his posts that says “Fr. Andrew,” so if you ever want to skip my stuff and get right to his, I won’t be offended!

A blogger named Andre Rook wrote a blog post on sola Scriptura and Tradition back in January, and I’ve been telling myself for the last couple of months that it deserves a thought-out response. It’s a thoughtful post from a blogger who comes across as intelligent, irenic, and full of love for both God and his fellow man.  The post is here, and I’ll quote from him in red, with my responses in blue.  I’ve cut some of his block quotes down a bit, but I’ve tried to preserve all the necessary context to see his point.

His first argument is against a Catholic argument he’s heard, that “Scripture is infallible inasmuch as those who canonized were themselves infallible; therefore, these men, operating from within the Holy Tradition, bear the weight and authority of Tradition onto the canonized Scripture.”:

As I have said, this can sound very convincing at first, but there are some big problems with this reasoning. The biggest error that I can see is the lack of objectivity given to God’s Word, the Scriptures. The way I see it, if we can give math the benefit of objectivity, we should do likewise for God’s Word. […] Most certainly math exists outside of our knowledge of it. Two and two make four, quite regardless of whether I acknowledge that or not. This objective view of math can be very helpful when searching for the authority of Scripture. Just as the objective principles of math can be acknowledged by men, so those who helped to canonize Scripture recognized its authority outside of themselves, or objectively.

As I understand it, Andre is saying that there are two forms of truth.  There’s law-by-decree, where the king individually creates a law, and it’s binding by his individual or official authority; and there’s Divinely created law, from the law of gravity to the wages of sin, which exist whether we acknowledge them or not.  This is a helpful distinction.


In the realm of Catholicism, the pope can dictate something like law-by-decree in the realm of discipline.  He can say, “we’re all going to celebrate Christmas on December 25th,” and we follow it.  That’s a legislative fiat.  But for dogma, which is the sort of Tradition we’re talking about, the pope can’t just say, “we’re now going to believe something new about Jesus!”  He doesn’t have the power to do that.  Dogma is only Divinely-created and revealed law.  And that binding revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle.  So for newer things, like the apparitions of Mary at Lourdes or Fatima, the Church authorities can say, “these things seem to be true,” but they can’t say, “…and therefore, you must believe them.”

But let’s look to Scripture, specifically.  Clearly, the Truths described aren’t simply done by fiat, with a few possible exceptions (like some of the Pauline rules for worship, the Pauline privilege, etc.), but there at least don’t conflict with Divine Truth.  It seems like Andre is saying, “Scripture is True because it describes true things, rather than because it is written by the Apostles.”  In a sense, I agree.  But the way that we know that it is written about true things is because it is written by the Apostles and their followers.  We don’t trust Luke’s Gospel because Luke’s a doctor, and doctors are smart.  We trust Luke’s Gospel because we believe that the Holy Spirit inspired him.  And we believe that in part because his Gospel accords with what we know from all the other sources (the other books, early non-written sources, the reception his Gospel had in the early Christian community, etc.), and partly because of who he was: a student of Paul’s.  Mark Shea calls this the “roots and fruits” test – Luke’s roots are in the Pauline camp, and the fruits are an orthodox Gospel in accordance with the rest of Scripture and Tradition. He describes it on page 164 in his book By What Authority?, like this:

The Church said, in essence, “Does the book have a widespread and ancient tradition concerning its apostolic origin? Check.  Does the book square with the total paradosis we all learned from the apostles and the bishops they gave us? Check.  Then it is to be used in public worship and is to be regarded as the word of God.”

We need a starting out point to even judge whether a book is orthodox.  I think Andre’s logical stumbling block here (and elsewhere) is that he starts with the Bible fully assembled, and thinks, “does this book fit with the rest of the books in the Bible?”  But that’s not the way it occurred, historically.  The people preceded the books.  If there wasn’t an authentic and binding paradosis being proclaimed orally, the Scriptures when written wouldn’t have been recognized as authentic by the early Christians.  The problem with his logic is that if you just say, “Is the Gospel of Luke authentic?” you’re left with what standard of comparison?  It agrees with the other two Synoptics, it’s compatible with John, and it disagrees with the Gnostics’ “gospels.”  If you start with the assumption that Matthew, Mark, and John are true, and the Gospel of Thomas is false, then Luke makes sense.  But you can’t get to that assumption using Andre’s test, because it’s only half-right.  He’s looking at the fruits, but imagining you can’t judge that detached from its roots.  You can’t.  The early Church judged the Gospels against what the Apostles (and their students) had taught them orally.  So the written Scriptures rely upon the already-established oral and written Tradition (paradosis) for authority.
His second argument is the one that I thought really warranted a response:

No Roman Catholic would argue with the fact that there have been false, or bad traditions that have disguised themselves as tradition in the past. Many have not even been disguised. Now, I acknowledge that many bad or false traditions have been purged from the Roman Catholic church over the years, and that is a good thing. What I find contestable are the words good and bad, when applied to Tradition. Now, if it is true that Roman Catholic’s place the Holy Tradition as their highest degree of authority, then how in God’s Name can subjective terms such as bad or good be applied to it? If the Holy Tradition is the yardstick by which we must measure everything else, then how is it even possible that it can be questioned or deemed bad? […] Likewise, if Holy Tradition is the highest authority, how then would it begin to make sense to question it? If it is, in fact, the highest authority, then we should conform ourselves to it, no questions asked. But once we begin the nonsense of saying there is good absolute authority, worthy of our devotion, and bad absolute authority, then we have begun to hold Tradition up to a higher standard, a standard objective to it’s subjectivity. Now what would be the candidate for Tradition to be subject to? Men, who are creatures prone to change? I shouldn’t think so. Then what? Why, the Holy Scriptures of course.

Two major flaws here. First, he claims that “No Roman Catholic would argue with the fact that there have been false, or bad traditions that have disguised themselves as tradition in the past.” I will argue that.  No capital-T binding, taken-as-revealed-from-God Tradition has ever been revoked or recanted.  They work harmoniously with one another, and are attested to from very early ages.  Some practices, like simony or the sale of indgulences, have been discredited, but no one ever claimed that God commanded these as Traditions.  Nothing which we’ve ever held to be dogma do we now hold not to be dogma, although it’s true that some non-dogmatic beliefs were likely wrong (like geocentrism).  On the other hand, there are lots of beliefs whose origins are primarily in Tradition.  These range from many of our beliefs about Mary to the contents of the Bible – which leads right to my second point.  He says, “there’s good tradition and bad tradition, and we need something that’s not tradition (Scripture) to sort those two out.”
But since he’s starting with a compiled Bible, he’s missing the obvious.  There were good books which claimed to be Scripture, and bad books which claimed to be Scripture.  His argument against having Tradition determine what is and isn’t Tradition is an equally valid argument for letting Scripture determine which Scripture is Scripture.  In both cases, the Church (relying upon the teachings of the Apostles, both written and oral, see 2 Thessalonians 2:15) separated the Holy Traditions and Holy Scripture from the non-inspired traditions and scriptures.  Some of this second category were still worth keeping around (like the Didache, and certain pious practices), while others were evil in origin (like the Gospel of Thomas and simony).
So this is really an argument for a visible and identifiable Church with the authority (and thus, necessarily, the guidance of the Holy Ghost) to separate wheat and chaff, and bind and loosen.  This is also the standard which both Scripture and Tradition point to (see 1 Timothy 3:15, Acts 15, etc.).
 Finally, he writes:

The last argument that many Roman Catholics like to raise goes something like this: both Tradition and Scripture are subject to divine revelation, which comes from God and empowers both equally. Now, this is perhaps the best of their arguments so far, but it remains unconvincing. One must ask this crucial question: How do we receive divine revelation? Of course, this is the key point where Protestants and Roman Catholics answer differently, Roman Catholics answering that they receive divine revelation from the papacy, Tradition, and Scripture, while Protestants answer only the Scriptures. Personally, in reference to the Catholic argument, I can think of nothing more circularly problematic. Maybe I just need to ask the Lord to increase my faith…for when receiving divine revelation from the papacy, Tradition, and Scripture, which have all erred in the past, sans Scripture, then I’d consider myself in deep doodoo if I placed my foundation upon something that has failed, and is certainly prone to fail again.

Of course, on issues where they claim to have inspiration from God, neither the papacy nor Divine Tradition have erred.  But there have been pretenders, like he says.  Still, “Scripture,” which just means “writings,” is equally fallible, in the sense that there are true and untrue Scriptures – just as anti-popes and false traditions have existed, so have false scriptures.  So it’s Andre’s approach (Scripture tells us which Scripture is Scripture) which seems to be circular.  Trusting the early Christian community to have the best grasp on who was put in charge, which traditions come from the Apostles and which don’t, and which Scriptures are authentic isn’t circular, it’s logical.  So look to the early Church:
  • Do they read the Deuterocanon?  Yup.  So they have the full Catholic Scriptures, not the limited Protestant ones.  
  • Do they believe in the sinlessness of Mary? Yup.  So they have the full Catholic Traditions, not the limited Protestant ones.  
  • Do they believe in top-down authority governed by a bishop who is a higher rank than a presbyter? Yup.  So they have the full Catholic ecclessiology, ont the limited Protestant one.
I’m over-simplifying here, of course (there are lots of other issues which could be raised for my point, and some more interesting ones on the Catholic/Orthodox side), but my point is that the eyewitnesses seem to harmonize with what the Catholic Church believes.

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