What is Sacred Tradition?

Something wonderful is happening. Many of our Evangelical brothers and sisters are beginning to appreciate the ancient Catholic teaching that Sacred Scripture is the written portion, not the totality, of Sacred Tradition given to us by the apostles with the authority of Christ himself. Increasingly, they are beginning to grasp the idea that, though Scripture is sufficient (as Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16), there is a distinction between material and formal sufficiency.

What’s the difference between material and formal sufficiency? It is the difference between having a big enough pile of bricks to build a house and having a house of bricks. Catholic teaching says written Sacred Tradition (known as Scripture) is materially sufficient: all the bricks necessary to build its doctrines are there in Scripture. But because some things in Scripture are implicit rather than explicit, other stuff besides Scripture has been handed down from the apostles. This other stuff is unwritten Sacred Tradition (which is the mortar that holds the bricks of the written Tradition together in the right order and position) and the Magisterium or teaching authority of the Church (which is the trowel in the hand of the Master Builder). Taken together, these three things are formally sufficient for knowing the revealed truth of God.

But even though this paradigm shift away from a “Bible-only” view of revelation is happening, the shift is not without difficulty, for many confusions abound. Chief among them is simply the question of what, precisely, this unwritten Sacred Tradition is. What does it look like?

To begin answering the question, we should begin with ordinary human experience and first ask, what is tradition? Essentially, tradition is a thing handed down from one generation to the next. This is precisely the meaning of the biblical word for tradition: paradosis. Further, we make distinctions between large T and small t traditions even in secular and folk culture. Small t traditions express something of a culture (like turkey at Thanksgiving), yet can be done without and not irreparably damage that heritage (though the deprivation would sting-as every soldier who has had to endure a Thanksgiving turkey loaf with freeze-dried mashed potatoes in a mess tent will tell you). Some small t traditions (like toasting the bride and groom) are very ancient and widely diffused. Some (like Fourth of July fireworks) are fairly new and may be confined to only one culture. Some have religious significance (like Advent candles), some are just ingrained customs (like birthday candles). Human culture is immersed in an ocean of such traditions ranging from throwing wedding rice to saluting the flag to celebrating bachelor parties to gathering around the water cooler on Monday mornings. And, as such, nobody fears this profoundly human thing.

However, tradition is more than the mere cultural window dressing of small t traditions. It isn’t just little customs. It is also a way of being, thinking and seeing which powerfully (and often unconsciously) influences our lives and even our relationship with God. Americans, for example, have a long-standing Tradition of self-governance and a curious distrust of kings and princes which harks back to the Magna Carta and colors our outlook far more deeply than the mere tradition of fireworks on the Fourth of July. Compared to the small t tradition of sparklers, the Tradition of Liberty is Tradition with a capital T in the American psyche. It is the secret fuel of everything from the American Revolution to the Civil War to the Vietnam protests. Its powerful grip can hardly be overestimated, precisely because such a grip is largely unconscious. That is why our soldier above can endure the sting of turkey-loaf for Thanksgiving, but could only detest a Thanksgiving without representative government or freedom of speech.

Now this distinction between small t and large T tradition holds true in the realm of the sacred as well, according to Catholic teaching. That is, there are aspects of Christian life which, the Church teaches, are principally handed on to us, not so much through Scripture as through tradition. Some of this tradition, says the Church, is small t stuff: candles, favorite songs, styles of prayer, popular forms of devotion, beloved books, treasured old rituals like Christmas caroling, foods like St. Basil’s bread or Easter eggs, legends like the Little Drummer Boy and a billion other such adornments to the life of faith. All these are expressions of ordinary human culture. Yet, when push comes to shove, none of these small t traditions, vital and living though they are, is essential to the Faith. Rather than the Little Drummer Boy, mom and dad could just as easily have told us the story of the Other Wise Man and not have maimed the Faith thereby.

But if they neglected to tell us that Jesus Christ is God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, Begotten, Not Made, mom and dad would have failed to hand down not a tradition, but Tradition. For as the Church makes very clear, Sacred Tradition (as distinct from the human traditions noted above) can be neglected only at the cost of radically injuring the Christian Faith. And that is because, Catholics insist, Sacred Tradition (both written and unwritten) comes neither from human creativity nor from legend, but from the apostles themselves. It therefore must not be altered by addition or subtraction in any way. For the difference between tradition and Tradition is the difference between the customs of man and the revelation of God.

Now at this point we begin to confront a very touchy problem. For scarcely have the words “must not be altered by addition or subtraction in any way” died away from Catholic lips than Catholics appear to add novel doctrines to the Faith in broad daylight claiming “They’ve been there all along” (as, for example, the 19th and 20th Century definitions of the Immaculate Conception, Papal Infallibility and the Assumption of Mary).

In response, the baffled Evangelical recoils from his growing interest in Sacred Tradition as from an apple in the hand of Eve. “Waitaminnit!” he cries, “What’s going on here? Is this some kind of trick? If these doctrines have been there all along, then where the heck is the Immaculate Conception of Mary in Scripture and why did it not become a teaching of the Church until 1854!?”

When Catholics reply “this truth and teaching are contained in written books and in the unwritten traditions that the apostles received from Christ himself or that were handed on, as it were from hand to hand, from the apostles under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and so have come down to us” (Council of Trent, Decree on Sacred Scripture and Tradition: Denziger 783 [1501]) this does not do a lot to allay suspicion that one is being had. For such answers sound a lot like, “Okay, so the Immaculate Conception isn’t in Scripture. It’s in, uh… Tradition! Yeah! That’s the ticket! Tradition!”

And so, many people (even those who making the paradigm shift to a shaky belief in Sacred Tradition) still labor under the vague misperception that Catholic think Tradition is a separatesecret and parallel revelation transmitted from bishop to bishop at the Secret Tradition-Passing-On Ceremony all bishops go through in the dark chamber of Initiation in the Inner Mysteries beneath the Vatican (“Psst! Mary is Immaculate, Ever-Virgin and Assumed into Heaven, pass it on!”) and leaked to the Church when Rome feels the time is right to tell the ordinary schmoo in the pew.

The dissonance created by a) the initial logic of the Catholic argument for Sacred Tradition (arguments such as, for instance, the clear fact that we cannot know what the canon of Scripture is apart from Sacred Tradition), and b) this apparently absurd separate, secret and parallel “Tradition”, can often create a real spiritual crisis in the Evangelical soul that is looking at the Catholic Church. The wild fear can rise up in the Evangelical heart that The Whole Sacred Tradition Thing is a Huge Mistake-that some grave, primordial error has been made somewhere, perhaps in one’s own thoughts, perhaps extremely early in the history of the Church, perhaps in both places. Indeed, some of our Fundamentalist friends react to the dissonance by radically repudiating Sacred Tradition and positing instead a supposed “hidden, true Church of Bible Christians” that was driven underground by a mass apostasy at the end of the apostolic era. It was, they say, this “hidden Church” that preserved the gospel through a millennia and a half of pre-Reformation error in which the Church of writers like Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Polycarp, Basil and all the other Fathers appeared Catholic but really wasn’t. It is, so the theory goes, the documents of this fallen away “catholic” church that we read when we read their works. The true Christians were elsewhere, keeping the true flame alive.

The difficulty with this theory is that it makes “true Christianity” nothing other than the absurd separate, secret and parallel revelation it mistakes Catholic Sacred Tradition for. For, despite the many sins of its members, we at least know what the supposedly apostate Catholic Church was up to for 1500 years. Its paper trail clearly shows that it was busy defending Scripture from people who wanted to destroy it, preserving the doctrine of the Trinity against the assaults of Arianism, holding the Ecumenical Councils and settling crucial questions concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ, withstanding the onslaught of Islam and Viking invasions, establishing the rule of law in Dark Ages Europe, undertaking numerous evangelization missions throughout the world, ordering the reading of Scripture in all of its worship and prayer, renewing art and science and philosophy, inspiring saints like Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, and Teresa of Avila, building hospitals and universities, evangelizing the New World and working energetically to do the sorts of things commanded by the gospel.

Meanwhile, if any church existed in a separate, secret, and parallel universe, it is the supposed “hidden church of true Christians” who, for a millennia and a half, did, said, and accomplished absolutely nothing, not even the feat of showing up anywhere in the historical record. Some people will say this is because the record of the “hidden Church” has been obliterated by Catholics who won the battle and re-wrote the history books. But the problem with this assertion is that, unlike all the other groups the Church opposed (such as Gnosticism, Arianism, Sabellianism, Manichaeism, Modalism, Paulicianism, the Bogomils, the Albigenses and a host of other movements) we do not even find record of opposition to the “hidden Church” by the supposedly apostate Catholic Church. Out of all these groups against which the Church fought, it is only this “hidden Church” that never attracted the notice of any Catholic, not even to be called heretics. This is the City on the Hill that cannot be hid? This is the company of the saints “shining like stars” as they hold out the word of life?

Very well then, the “hidden Church” theory is neither biblical, historical nor even commonsensical. Are there other ways to account for the apparent contradiction of a Catholic Sacred Tradition which “never changes” and yet always seems to be changing?

Yes. And the first step is to realize that Sacred Tradition is not a separate, secret and parallel revelation. Indeed, it is precisely this view of Tradition which the Church has always condemned as the essence, not of Christianity, but of gnosticism. That is why Irenaeus writes in Against Heresies (c. 180 AD):

For if the Apostles had known hidden mysteries which they taught to the elite secretly and apart from the rest, they would have handed them down especially to those very ones to whom they were committing the self-same Churches. For surely they wished all those and their successors to be perfect and without reproach, to whom they handed on their authority.

So if the Church does not see Sacred Tradition as separate, secret and parallel to Scripture, then how is it understood?

Sacred Tradition is the living and growing truth of Christ contained, not only in Scripture, but in the common teaching, common life, and common worship of the Church. That is why the Tradition that does not change can seem to have changed so much. For this common teaching, life and worship is a living thing-a truth which was planted as a mustard seed in first century Jerusalem and which has not ceased growing since-as our Lord prophesied in Mark 4:30-32. The plant doesn’t look like the seed, but it is more mustardy than ever. And this is an entirely biblical pattern, as we discover when we consider the circumcision controversy in Acts 15.

The Church, of course, began as an almost totally Jewish sect. Its Lord was a Jew, the apostles were all Jews, the first thousands of converts were Jews and the only Bible it had when Gentiles began flooding into the Church were Jewish Scriptures. As delegates of the supposed Bible-only “hidden Church” attending the Council of Jerusalem, let’s try to resolve the question of whether to circumcise Gentiles who want to join the Covenant People. What does Scripture say?

It says the covenant of circumcision is “an everlasting covenant” (Gen 17:7). It says the Patriarchs, Moses and the Prophets are circumcised. It says that circumcision is enjoined, not only on descendants of Abraham, but upon every male who wants to join the Covenant People (Ex 12:48). Period. No exceptions. Moreover, looking around the room we note that the apostles and elders are all circumcised and that the Lord Jesus they preach was circumcised (Lk 2:21). And Jesus himself says that not one jot or tittle of the law would by any means pass away (Mt 5:18) while he is stone silent that Gentiles be exempted from the immemorial requirement of circumcision for all who wish to join the Covenant People.

And so, the Council meets and, in light of all this obvious scriptural teaching, declares….

….that circumcision for Gentiles is against the will of the God who does not change.

Suddenly the whole thing looks perversely Catholic, don’t it? So did apostolic Tradition change Scripture or what?

Nope. It simply acted as a lens and refocused the light of Scripture so that something which had been hidden there was now visible. For, despite appearances, the dogmatic definitions of the Church do not just pop up with absolutely no relation to Scripture. Rather, they assemble the materially sufficient revelation of Scripture using the mortar of Sacred Tradition. And that Tradition is not separate, secret and parallel to Scripture, but the common teaching, life, and worship of the Church. In the case of the Council of Jerusalem, the common teaching from the apostles included the then-unwritten command of Christ to preach the gospel to the whole world (Mt 28:19). It included the as-yet-unwritten common knowledge of Peter’s mystical revelation by the Holy Spirit (“Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” [Acts 10:15]). It included the experiences of Paul and Barnabas in preaching to the Gentiles (Acts 15:12). It is through this Sacred Tradition that James reads Scripture and sees in Scripture, not a judge or “final rule of faith” but a witness to the authoritative decision of the Church in Council. For he says not “we agree with the Prophet Amos” but rather that the words of the prophets “agree with” the Council (Acts 15:15). In short, the Council places the Church on the judge’s seat and the Scripture in the witness box, deriving its revelation not from Scripture alone but from Sacred Tradition and the magisterial authority of the apostles in union with Scripture. And so materially sufficient bricks of Old Testament revelation, which we thought were made to build into a synagogue are stacked and mortared with apostolic Tradition by the trowel of the Church’s magisterial authority, and turn out to make a cathedral instead.

The biblical Council, like the modern Catholic Church, places Scripture in the context of Tradition and magisterial, apostolic authority. The biblical Council, like the modern Catholic Church, speaks with apostolic authority and declares, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:29). And so, the biblical Council, just like the modern Catholic Church, develops a doctrine which, to “Bible-only” eyes, appears to flatly nullify Scripture yet which, upon closer inspection, turns out to uphold it (Rom 3:31).

“But doesn’t that mean that the Church believes in continuing revelation like the Mormons?” No. The Church believes in Sacred Tradition, not Sacred New Revelation. It is of the very essence of Sacred Tradition that it is a thing handed down from the apostles, not a thing fadged up later on. And one of the basic truths of Sacred Tradition is that “no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, 4). And that is the irony. For this dogma, which is at the heart of the Evangelical concern about ongoing revelation, is virtually invisible in Scripture apart from the common teaching, life and worship of the Church. After all, no verse in Scripture says revelation ends with the death of the apostles. Rather, a few verses (such as Paul’s command to Timothy to guard what has been entrusted to him) can be seen to bear an extremely oblique witness to this teaching in light of Sacred Tradition preserved in the Church.

This pattern of seeing Scripture in light of Sacred Tradition is absolutely crucial to understand, because failure to grasp it accounts for an enormous amount of misunderstanding. Evangelicals who have received (usually without realizing it) a pair of contact lenses colored by the Tradition of the Closure of Public Revelation can “see” that Tradition implied in Paul’s commands to Timothy. Yet we do not derive the doctrine from Scripture. Rather, we see it reflected there. But since Evangelicals have not received the contact lenses with the Tradition of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, they are unable to see it reflect there. Instead, they imagine that doctrine is arrived at by Catholics sitting down with a Bible and saying, “Let’s see. What is the most tortured and extreme reading I can get out of Matthew 1:25 today? Hey! Let’s say Mary remained a virgin perpetually!”

In reality, however, Catholics see the Perpetual Virginity of Mary reflected in Scripture in just the same way the Council of Jerusalem saw the Circumcision Exemption reflected in Amos and Evangelicals see the Closure of Public Revelation reflected in Paul’s command to Timothy. The Church does not sit down and derive the dogma from the tortured reading of a few isolated texts of Scripture. Rather, it places the Scripture in the context of the Tradition handed down by the apostles and the interpretive office of the bishops they appointed.

In this context, we discover not explicit, but implicit testimony to the doctrine, while those verses which appear to speak of Jesus’ siblings or Mary’s relations with Joseph after the birth of Christ can easily be understood in a way compatible with her perpetual virginity. We find, for instance, that mention of Jesus “brothers” can mean “cousins” in the first century Jewish milieu. We find that Matthew 1:25 need not necessarily imply anything about Mary’s subsequent sexual relations with Joseph any more than “Michal had no children till the day of her death” implies that Michal had children after her death. We also find Mary-a woman betrothed-is astonished at Gabriel’s proclamation that “You will bear a son.” This is an odd thing for a betrothed woman to be astonished about. After all, a betrothed woman could expect and hope to bear many sons… unless she had already decided to remain a virgin even after marriage. Then she would be astonished at the prophecy.

We find also the New Testament subtly but clearly identifies Mary with the Ark of the Covenant, wherein dwelt the Presence of God. Luke 1:35 speaks of the power of the Most High “overshadowing” Mary just as the Shekinah glory overshadowed the Ark (Numbers 9:15). John does the same thing in Revelation, juxtaposing the Ark (Rev 11:19) with an image of a woman clothed with the sun who gives birth to a “male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” (Rev. 12:5). The connection between Mary and the Ark, once it is made by with the help of Sacred Tradition, is hard not to see. Knowing the identity of Mary’s “male child” it would be an easy mental connection for any pious Jew to immediately think of her as a kind of Second Ark.

Well, one such pious Jew was a certain Joseph of Nazareth who, after his dream (Mt 1:23) did know the identity of Mary’s “male child.” He also knew, as a Jew steeped in the Old Testament, what happens to people who touch the Ark without authorization (2 Sm 6:6-8). So it becomes very psychologically probable that Joseph, knowing what he knew, also would have chosen celibacy in this rather unusual situation. And so, in short, the Sacred Tradition of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, like Sacred Tradition of the Closure of Public Revelation, turns out to illuminate Scripture in an unexpected and yet satisfying way. Which is why the Church of the sixth century knows and defines (at the Second Council of Constantinople), that Mary is Ever-Virgin even though it is not written explicitly in the New Testament any more than the words “After the apostles die, there will be no new revelation.” For the Second Council of Constantinople, knowing what the Council of Jerusalem knew, acts like the Council of Jerusalem did: operating in light of the apostolic Tradition that Mary was Ever-Virgin, the Church reads Scripture accordingly and sees its Tradition reflected there.

In summary then, Sacred Tradition is handed down “both by word of mouth and by letter.” In Scripture, as today, “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God” (Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, II, 10) so that the Bible is part, not the whole, of the apostolic paradosis. In Scripture, as today, the Bible is materially, not formally, sufficient to reveal the fullness of the gospel of Christ. In Scripture, as today, both written and unwritten Tradition are from Christ and made by him to stand inseparably united like hydrogen and oxygen that fuse to form living water or like the words and tune of a single song. In Scripture, as today, the unwritten aspect of Sacred Tradition is not some separate, secret and parallel revelation, but the common teaching, common life, and common worship of the whole Church. In Scripture, as today, this Tradition grows like the mustard seed and, as a result, gets more mustardy, not less. In Scripture, as today, the Church in council sits on the judge’s bench and listens to the testimony of Scripture in light of its Tradition in order to discern how best to define that Tradition more precisely.

And all this is because, in Scripture, as today, the Tradition, both written and unwritten, comes to us through the Body of Him Who is Truth: the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church Paul calls “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” and the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (Eph 1:22; 1 Tm 3:15). For in Scripture, as today, Sacred Tradition-the common apostolic teaching, life and worship handed down to us in written and unwritten form-and the magisterial authority of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church are as inseparably united as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


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