Putting Traditions in their Place


In the last two decades, Catholic apologetic has received a steroid boost. Roman Catholics are now being trained to answer Evangelical biblical argumentation with counter biblical argumentation.

Books like The Catholic Verses: 95 Verses That Confound Protestants, The New Catholic Answer Bible, The Scriptural Roots of Catholic Teaching, Where is That in the Bible? or Not By Scripture Alone, have been published by lay Catholic apologists utilizing Evangelical approach.

Interestingly, this is coming at a time when majority of Christian bookstores are filled with self-help books and motivational tomes, with only a handful of well-researched works specifically aimed at responding to Rome’s onslaughts.

Against this backdrop, serious Christians need to be prepared with the right answers to nail off the lynch pin of modern Catholic arguments. One of these, is Rome’s teaching on the binding authority of Tradition.

Catholics present Tradition (they spell the T in upper case) as the historical landmark linking the Catholic Church to the Apostles of Christ 2,000 years ago.

The Catholic salesman line goes thus:

How did you know Matthew wrote the gospel of Matthew or Luke wrote the gospel of Luke? You only know this through the Traditions of the Catholic Church!”

But this argument can only be tenable when Rome shows us the tradition that proves who wrote Hebrews, Job, Esther or the various Psalms.

The Vatican II Council states:

“Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And Tradition transmits in its entirely the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ … both Scripture and Traditions must be accepted and honoured with equal feelings of devotion and reverence” (p. 784).

As simple as the above definition sounds, its ambiguity has led to different understanding and mutually exclusive positions within Roman Catholicism. There are two main views of traditions in Catholic theology:

1. The concept of two modes of revelation.

This holds that oral traditions were passed down to the Apostles and their successors and have been guarded and passed down to the Catholic episcopate (bishops) till date.

This view, proposed at the Council of Trent, says that God’s revelation is partly in written Scripture and partly preserved in unwritten traditions, so the Bible is materially insufficient and incomplete. It is also called the partim-partim view (from the Latin word for “partly”).

The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907, 14:228) says:

“In a series of articles (Greg, 1959-61) H. Lennez, S. J. vigorously defended the partim…partim theory and opposed it to the Protestant scripturistic principle. Neither tradition nor Scripture contains the whole Apostolic tradition. Scripture is not materially (i.e. in content) sufficient, requiring oral traditions as a complement to be true to the whole divine revelation.”

Some Catholic apologists like Karl Keating adhere to this. In his book, Catholicism and Fundamentalism (1988, p. 151) he wrote:

“The part of revelation that was not committed to writing – the part that is outside the New Testament and is the oral teaching that is the basis of Tradition – that part of revelation Catholics also accept…”

The gaping hole in this view is, historical evidence proves that Roman Catholicism is replete with novelties such as the Assumption of Mary or Papal Infallibility which were cooked up later in the centuries. These dogmas cannot be supported with a shred of an early church record.

2. The concept of material sufficiency.

This view affirms that divine revelation is contained entirely in Scripture and entirely in tradition (totum Scriptura totum traditione).

This is not sola Scriptura; what it says is that all Catholic doctrines are present, at least implictly, in Scripture. Thus tradition is a system of apostolic interpretation developed over the centuries.

This view is hinged on Cardinal Newman’s development hypothesis (that Catholic doctrines, like seeds, have developed through the process of time into their modern forms).

This position is a convenient tool for modern Rome’s apologists to portray Catholicism as “Biblical.”

In a debate with Dr. James White, Catholic apologist, Patrick Madrid, said:

It may surprise you to note that the Catholic position allows for what we call the material sufficiency of Scripture. This means that Scripture contains everything necessary for Christian teaching. All doctrines can be found there, implicitly or explicitly, but they’re all there.”

This position is an attempt to mimic Evangelical theological framework, because in the final analysis, it is Rome – not the Bible – that is the final authority of Catholic doctrines.

The ‘material sufficiency’ tune is only meant to draw Protestants to Rome the same way moth is drawn to a flame.

Other Catholic authorities define tradition in another way. Josef Ratzinger (retired Pope Benedict XVI), wrote about the controversy over the Assumption of Mary belief being based on tradition which he defined in his own terms:

This argument is compelling if you understand ‘tradition’ strictly as the handing down of fixed formulas and texts… But if you conceive of ‘tradition’ as a living process whereby the Holy Spirit introduces us to the fullness of the truth and teaches us to understand what previously we could still not grasp…then subsequent ‘remembering’ (cf Jn 16:4 for instance) can come to recognize what  had not caught sight of previously and yet was handed down in the original Word” (Milestones, Ignatius Press, 1998, 58-59).

So, it’s obvious that Catholic tradition is like a theological putty that can be moulded into whatever form Catholic leaders want in order to fit into their constantly changing system. But there are insurmountable problems with this teaching:

1. What exactly is this oral tradition? Are they early traditions? The consent of the Fathers? The consent of the Doctors of the Church? The consent of the faithful? The charism of the Magisterium?

Why did its definition change from “a body of unwritten teachings of Christ to the Apostles” to a “process of living traditions?”

The most intriguing aspect of this is that in the last 2,000 years, none of Rome’s pope, clergy or apologist is yet to infallibly or inexhaustibly define or produce the doctrinal content of oral tradition!

2. That a teaching is ancient or can be traced to the early church doesn’t make it orthodox.

Catholics accuse Evangelicals of rejecting the traditions of the church fathers who allegedly were discipled by the apostles. In fact, we are selective on which tradition we accept and reject (just as Catholics do). We accept traditions that have a Biblical warrant and reject the ones that oppose or contradict the Bible.

The appeal to tradition cuts in two ways. Both heresy and orthodoxy can be traditional. For example, Docetism dates back to New Testament times. Apostle John contended against it in his first epistle.

A modern Docetist can claim historical continuity like Catholics and say “Our doctrine has been around for 2,000 years!” Does that make it right? Absolutely not.

A falsehood in the 1st century is still a falsehood in the 21st century. The passage of time doesn’t change the nature of a lie.

A tradition might have impacted generations, yet it could have been an error. If antiquity equals truth, then Spiritism would be more factual than Christianity.

3. As noted earlier, there is absolutely no Catholic tradition which can be traced back to the apostles. None! Catholic traditions were made up over the centuries.

Even Vatican II acknowledges that “Tradition that comes from the apostles makes progress … there is a growth in insight into realities and words that are being passed on” (p. 754).

Again, this exposes the unreliability of eclesiastical traditions.

  • Oral statements leave no permanent record that can be verified. Unless you have a tape recording of what the apostles taught 1900 years ago, you can’t claim you have their oral tradition.

Even if someone in the second century, 50 or 90 years after the apostles, wrote down what he claimed was their oral teaching, that would still leave a gap of oral transmission without verification.

Papias was, according to Ireneaus, a younger student of apostle John. Despite his proximity to that period, his gleanings of Christ’s teachings were meagre, and they seem to have been written much later.

  • Oral transmission suffers from a high decay rate. Aside this, human memory is also too untrustworthy for one to rely on oral transmission over a long period of time, therefore, oral traditions can’t be a substitute for a permanent record.

4. Even written traditions can be falsified and devolve into tools for moral and intellectual freeloaders. Indeed, some traditions give us a picture of past practices or doctrines, but it’s highly dubious to give them a binding authority.

Fraudulent Traditions

The Catholic Encyclopedia admits the existence of thousands of forged traditions, and even divides the works of nearly every church father into:

(a) genuine (b) dubious and (c) spurious. The earliest texts written by Cyprian (d 258) who ridiculed papal supremacy reads:

“The other apostles were indeed what Peter was; endowed with the same share of honor and jurisdiction.” Now, there are texts which reads: “The other apostles were indeed what Peter was, but the primacy was given to Peter” (4:585).

A Catholic historian admits that, “Towards the end of the fifth and beginning of the sixth century, the process of forgeries and fictions in the interests of Rome was actively carried on there. Then began the compilation of spurious acts of Roman martyrs, which was continued for some centuries, and which modern criticism, even at Rome, has been obliged to give up…” (Ignaz von Dollinger, The Pope and the Council, London, 1860, p. 78)

Unlike the Word of God which is unchanged and endures forever, Catholic traditions are being constantly modified.

The Lord Jesus told the apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” The deposit of faith was handed to them and they were never to alter or add to it, but to teach everything He taught (Matt. 28:19-20). This is “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” (Jude 3)

There is no acorn seed growing into an oak. As Jesus has handed it down, so it must remain unaltered. But Catholicism has for centuries added to God’s Word all in the name of  its “traditions.”

5. If we may ask, how are Catholic traditions “handed down” from one generation to the next? How does a huge volume of material pass from one generation to another?

Does it pass mystically through laying of hands or through a spiritual “bluetooth?” Where are these traditions even stored?

Are they stored up in the subconscious mind of the bishops (and brought to their remembrance by the Holy Spirit)? Or how can a person memorize such a huge deposit of oral teaching?

These questions are crucial, because, if the Catholic hierarchy possess these huge mass of unwritten teachings for 2,000 years, why do they dish them out in snippets? For instance, why wait till the 19th century to declare the immaculate conception or papal infallibility?

Traditions in the Bible

Three Bible texts are usually cited by Rome’s apologists.

(a) 1 Cor. 11:2 “I congratulate you for remembering me so consistently and for maintaining the traditions exactly as I passed them on to you.” (NAB)

The Greek word for “tradition” is paradoseis which mean doctrine or teaching. In the Catholic Douay-Rheims translation, it’s rendered “ordinances.”

While the New Testament was being written, the early church relied on the oral teachings of the apostles, who were eyewitnesses of Christ. After their death, there was no longer a living apostolic authority, but their teachings which God deemed necessary for the faith and practice of believers down through history were preserved in writing.

Not all they said were recorded, however, that’s because not all they said were inspired. So only inspired, permanent teachings were written down.

In vs. 23, Paul stated that he is presenting in writing what he had previously taught them orally: “the tradition … I handed on to you [earlier]…” The traditions being referred to here are not Catholic traditions which were developed later – because the church was just starting at this point.

(b) 2 Thess. 2:15 “Stand firm, then, brothers, and keep the traditions that we taught you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” (NAB)

The Catholic (and the Eastern Orthodox) use of this verse is self-refuting because to maintain their claim, they will have to trace their oral traditions back to the “one, true, holy, apostolic Thessalonian church.”

Are we to suppose the “tradition” Paul had in mind was prayers to saints? Purgatory? Marian dogmas? The Mass? Let Rome produce the documentation of all the oral teachings Paul taught the Thessalonians 1900 years ago or an infallible interpretation of this text. Problem solved.

Verse 5 says: “Surely you remember my telling you about this when I was with you?”

Paul was writing what he had previously taught them in person and he was telling them (and us) to hold to the faith – the gospel of Jesus Christ – which the Thessalonian believers were privileged to learn from him in person at that time of apostolic ministry and by his epistle to us.

(c) 2 Thess. 3:6 “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we urge you, brothers, to keep away from any of the brothers who lives an undisciplined life, not in accordance with the tradition you received from us.

The official Catholic position is that traditions were received by bishops, but this verse indicates they were received by the individuals being written to.

Verse 10 says: “We urged you [orally] when we were with you not to let anyone eat who refused to work.” The traditions Paul taught them were the same he wrote down.

This is why we have every reason to reject Catholic traditions because they contradict the Bible (and even history and logic in several cases).

At no point did the Lord Jesus appeal to oral traditions or bring them on the level of the Scriptures, rather He corrected even the traditions the Jews claimed to have received from Moses with the Scriptures (Mk. 7:1-13).

Catholics also cite 3 John 13, but John wasn’t comparing oral and written tradition in the past, but a written as opposed to a personal communication in the present. Who wouldn’t prefer a face-to-face talk with a living apostle over a letter from him?

It is argued that the Bible writers appealed to oral Jewish traditions (such as in Jude 9). Definitely, they appealed to them because they were true, but to use this to validate Catholic traditions which they didn’t appeal to is a giant leap.

The last time I checked, the church fathers never claimed their teachings were infallible or inspired, so this analogy falls apart. There is a difference between canonically sanctioned tradition and extra-canonically sanctioned tradition.

God laid down the principle of preserving His revelations by inscripturation for succeeding generations. He told Moses: “Write this for a memorial in a book and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua…” (Ex. 17:14) “Moses then wrote down all the words of the Lord” (Ex. 24:4) and this book was preserved in the Ark (Deut. 31:26).

“Joshua made a covenant with the people that day and made statutes and ordinances for them…which he recorded in the book of the law of God” (Josh. 24:25-26)

“Samuel next explained to the people the law of royalty and wrote it in a book, which he placed in the presence of the Lord” (1Sam. 10:25).

“And Hilkah the high priest said unto Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD. And Hilkah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it.” (2 Kings 22:8)

This shall be written for the generation to come: and the people…shall praise the LORD” (Psalm 102:18)

God told Isaiah to “take a large cylinder seal and inscribe on it in ordinary letters” and to “inscribe it in a record that it may be in future days an eternal witness” (Is. 8:1, 30:8).

Daniel had a collection of “the books” of Moses and the Prophets right down to Jeremiah, his contemporary (Dan. 9:2).

There were no oral tradition passed down OT times from Moses, David, or Israel, so why would there be for the church? God had intended from the beginning that His revelation be preserved in Scripture, not in established tradition.

It is a serious heresy to elevate uninspired words of men into inspired words of God. If a doctrine is not in the Bible, then it’s not Biblical and if it’s not in the Bible, then it’s not inspired. And if it’s not inspired, then it’s not binding as our final authority.

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