The Bible and Tradition
by John Harden
A discussion of whether or not the Bible is all we need to know God must first begin with a discussion of what the Bible is and what it is not. Though there are many subtle differences in understanding and interpreting the Bible itself, nearly all Christians believe that the Bible is the written word of God. It was written by men under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But, for what purpose?
The Purpose of Scripture, According to Paul
St. Paul, speaking of the Old Testament Scriptures, says that they “were written for our instruction” (see Romans 15:4, 1 Corinthians 10:11). Speaking still of the Old Testament, he says, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). So Sacred Scripture is for our instruction, not only about God, but about how we are to act as the people of God. This, too, is affirmed by the majority of Christians. But the various interpretations of this passage is also one of the things that has unfortunately divided us as Christians. Many Protestants take St. Paul to mean that Scripture is all that is needed for us to be “taught” and “equipped for every good work.”
However, this conclusion does not follow from what was said. St. Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy was written long before the Bible existed as we know it. He was, without a doubt, referring to the lessons of the Old Testament, as he had previously in Romans and First Corinthians. Without any reasonable exceptions, biblical scholars agree that the Bible, including all twenty-seven books of the New Testament, was completely unknown in St. Paul’s day. It is possible that certain letters of Paul may have been circulated and perhaps even considered inspired, but there would have been no biblical canon. It would be an anachronistic stretch for us to claim that St. Paul was referring to a future Bible, of which he had no knowledge.
The Purpose of John’s Gospel, According to John
This is made even more clear when we consider John’s stated purpose for his own Gospel. “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name … But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 20:30-31; 21:25). John’s stated purpose of his Gospel is not dissimilar from St. Paul’s purpose of Scripture, namely, for instruction so that we might believe, and in believing, we may have life in Christ Jesus. What is different is the recognition that it would be impossible for him, or even “the world itself” to contain the necessary books that it would take to record the life of Christ, let alone the nature of God and our relationship with him.
The Fullness of Divine Revelation
God cannot be contained in a single book. Nor can our knowledge of him. In fact, St. Paul tells us that God is beyond our understanding. “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor’” (Romans 11:33-34). But God has nonetheless condescended to us, to reveal himself to us. Scripture is most certainly a part of Divine Revelation, but it is not the fullness of it. Hebrews tells us that, “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son … He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature” (Hebrews 1:1-3). The fullness of Divine Revelation is not found in a book, it is found in the Person and revelation of Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God.
It is because of this that as Catholics we do not limit our experience, knowledge, understanding, and most certainly our relationship with God to Sacred Scripture. We affirm the truth that Scripture is the inspired word of God, but we do not believe that it is the entire word of God. While God’s word is present in the pages of Scripture, his word cannot be confined to them.
Christ himself gave us what we need to come to know and love him. He did not write a single word of Scripture with his own hand. He never compiled a canonical list of books. Nor did he ask us to believe only the things that are said about him in a particular list of books. What he did was found a Church. This is made explicitly clear when he says to St. Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19).
What is the Church?
Simply put, the Church is the continuation of Christ’s ministry on earth. It was founded upon Peter and the other apostles to whom Christ said, “All authority 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 lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). The Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and in virtue of the authority bestowed on her by Christ, continues to teach us all that Christ has commanded. Christ sent the Church into the world to carry forth his saving word. He did not confine his teachings to a book, but he did send forth his teachings through the ministry of those whom he chose, saying in Luke 10:16, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (see also John 13:20).
The first Christians did not have a Bible; but they did have the Church, and “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). This is what we as Catholics continue to devote ourselves to today.
“Hold to the Traditions”
We recognize that the apostles’ teaching is indeed found in Scripture, but it is not limited to it. The fullness of the apostles teaching is found in Sacred Tradition. Consider these words of St. Paul, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). And later, “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you … for I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you” (1 Corinthians 11:2, 23). Here he was referring specifically to the tradition of the breaking of the bread, the Eucharist (see 1 Corinthians 11:23-34). For Paul, Sacred Tradition included the spoken word, the written letter, and the breaking of the bread.
Sacred Scripture should then be seen as a part of Sacred Tradition, and as a part of Divine Revelation as a whole, but not the fullness of it.
The apostolic ministry, and therefore the apostolic teachings, did not end with the death of the first apostles. Paul himself is called an apostle (see Galatians 1:1), though he was not a disciple or eyewitness of Christ as the original Twelve were. We also see how one of the Twelve, Judas Iscariot, was replaced. St. Matthias took “the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside … and he was enrolled with the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:25-26). By doing so, he took up the ministry of “teaching all that Christ commanded them.” These original apostles and their successors even met together for the very first Church council, as recorded in Acts 15:6-29, where they concluded that it was not necessary to retain the practice of circumcision, a practice that was itself a tradition handed down by Abraham, Moses, and the people of Israel.
The Church continues her apostolic ministry to this day, teaching all that Christ has commanded us by word and deed, by written letters and by creeds, by ecumenical councils and by holy icons. The successors to the apostles, the bishops in union with the pope in Rome, continue to preserve, protect, and proclaim the fullness of Sacred Tradition which was given to the first apostles by Christ. God’s revelation of himself is indeed present in Sacred Scripture, but it is not confined in its entirety to it. And it is for this reason that we as Catholics continue to “hold to the traditions” which were handed down to us.
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