The Traditions of Men

Non-Catholics often take the Lord’s condemnation of the corrupt practices of the scribes and Pharisees to be a sweeping condemnation of all tradition (see Matthew 15:3 or Mark 7:8).

However, Jesus also said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:2 – 3).

Similarly, Saint Paul, who condemned the “human tradition” of pagan mysticism (see his Letter to the Colossians 2:8), wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians (11:2), “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.”

A Self-Contradictory Theory

Obviously, then, it is not tradition per se which Scripture condemns, but tradition that is contrary to Apostolic teaching. Note that Catholicism distinguishes between Sacred Tradition (or doctrine), which is infallible and constant, and lesser traditions (or disciplines), which can be changed or even discontinued to suit the needs of the time. Sometimes these are distinguished as “Big-T” and “little-t” traditions. Those traditions of the scribes and Pharisees which Jesus denounced were of the latter variety. They were practices which had to be discontinued because they were compelling the people to “transgress the commandment of God” (see Matthew 15:3, again).

Many non-Catholics see the Bible as the sole authority for Christians. However, if, indeed, the Bible were meant to be the sole authority, then that pronouncement or authority should be written in the Bible! Is it nowhere to be found!

Moreover, for Catholics, that makes the notion of the Bible alone, without tradition and according to its own dictates, itself a mere “tradition of men” (Mark 7:8). To be clear, if ones position is to dismiss tradition because Jesus denounces certain traditions in the bible and then rely solely on the bible, then one would hope that doctrine would be in the bible. Because it is not, the practice is a tradition, itself–the same pattern of behavior that such person is attempting to avoid. Consider it a dilemma, contradiction, or oxymoron if you will.

It Practically Fails, too

Likewise, it is unreasonable from a practical standpoint to say God meant for Scripture to be the sole authority because the written Word remained inaccessible to large numbers of believers for the first several hundred years of the Christian Era–in fact, for more than the first millennium.

In fact, it remained practically impossible for the average Christian prior to the 16th century to obtain a copy of one of a Scripture, let alone the full set. As Kevin Orlin Johnson explained, because of the enormous cost and effort that went into the production of a book, the Bibles which Churches provided for public use were

“chained down the way we chain down directories at public telephones now, and for similar reasons: so that anybody could use (them) and nobody could steal (them). … Remember that a new Bible would cost a community about as much as a new church building, and the finished book was easily worth a manor. Books in the Middle Ages were done on parchment or on vellum (made from the skins of young sheep or cattle) and lettered, gilded, and illuminated by hand. A whole Bible took maybe four hundred animals and years of work by a score of scribes and artists” (Why Do Catholics Do That?, New York, 1995, p. 24-25, n.).

Moreover, a host of other books claiming apostolic authorship were written around the same time period and there was widespread disagreement for many centuries over which books genuinely belonged in the Bible. Indeed, some of the Fathers disagreed to an extent on this issue. It should be remembered, however, that only the unanimous consent of the Fathers on a matter of faith and morals is held to be infallible; individually, they can and do err.

In fact, the first definitive list of the books of the Bible, or the Canon of the Bible (from the Greek, kanon, meaning “rule”), was finally formulated by the Council of Rome in 382, under the authority of Pope Saint Damasus. Shortly thereafter two other local councils, Hippo (393) and Third Carthage (397), upheld the decision, as have all subsequent councils through the centuries.

How Can One Read What Is Not Yet Written?

Not only did it take nearly 400 hundred years for Christians to agree upon the composition of the Bible, but the final books of the New Testament were not written until the latter years of the first century! That means that nearly two full generations of Christians lived and worshiped before the Bible enscribed!

What Does the Bible Say?

There are various allusions throughout the New Testament to the fact that a portion of the Gospel was not committed to writing. For example, Jesus said at the Last Supper, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12-13).

As Saint Luke wrote it in the Acts of the Apostles 1:3, the Lord spent forty days after His resurrection privately teaching the Apostles on matters pertaining to the Church, or “speaking of the kingdom of God,” yet what He said to them was not recorded.1

Saint Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians (11:34), that there were “other things” which he preferred to say in person rather than to put into writing, and in his First Letter to the Thessalonians 4.2, he remarked, “You know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.” Clearly, we have no way of knowing what exactly these instructions were because Paul neglected to write them down!

Saint John as well remarked in a letter, “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink, but I hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (See John’s Second Letter 1:12 and also his Third Letter 1:13-14).

Furthermore, that the Word of God was delivered by two equally authoritative means—Apostolic Tradition and Sacred Scripture—is confirmed by Paul, who in his Second Letter to the Thessalonians bids the brethren to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2:15; italics added). Paul further advises the faithful to “keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (3:6).

Not only were some of the Apostles’ teachings passed on outside of Scripture, but the writers of the New Testament regularly refer to extra-biblical traditions and texts. The saying, “He shall be called a Nazarene,” for instance, which Saint Matthew (2:23) attributes to “the prophets,” is not found in the Old Testament. Saint Paul refers to oral Jewish tradition in his First Letter to the Corinthians 10:24, when he mentions the rock that followed the Israelites through the wilderness, and his Second Letter to Timothy 3:8, and when he mentions Jannes and Jambres who opposed Moses.

In addition, Saint Jude refers to two apocryphal books, the Assumption of Moses and First Enoch in his letter (1:9, 14).

The Apostles chose successors—bishops, presbyters, and deacons—to whom they handed on the Deposit of Faith. Paul exhorts Saint Timothy in his Second Letter (1:13-14; 2:1-2) to him, “Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. … You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

Indeed, the New Testament emphasis on Apostolic Succession (see Acts of the Apostles 1:20; 14:23; Paul’s First Letter to Timothy 4:14; Paul’s Letter to Titus 1:5; Exodus 18:25) proves Christianity was not originally a Bible-only religion; for if it had been, then the authority of its leaders would have ultimately been irrelevant since the discernment of the truth would have rested in the heart and hands of each individual believer. More importantly, there would have been no medium for believers to be made aware of the Good Word!

  1. The Epistula Apostolorum, an early creed dating from around the middle of the second century, purports to be a summary of the teachings which Jesus divulged to the Apostles after the Resurrection. It reads, “In the Father, the Ruler of the Universe, And in Jesus Christ, our Redeemer, In the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, In the Holy Church, And in the Forgiveness of Sins” (John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches: A Reader in Christian Doctrine from the Bible to the Present (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982), p. 17.

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