Bible and Tradition: Maintain the Tradition . . .

Introduction and Definitions

Catholicism and Protestantism differ fundamentally with regard to the relationship of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition: the Bible on the one hand, and the historical doctrines and dogmas of the Christian Church on the other. Protestantism tends to see a certain dichotomy, or divide, between the pure Word of God in the Bible and the Tradition of the Catholic Church, which is considered to be too often corrupted by "arbitrary traditions of men" (in this vein Matthew 15:3-6, Mark 7:8-13, and Colossians 2:8 are cited).(1) For Protestants, Scripture alone (or, sola Scriptura, as the Reformers cried) is the source and rule of the Christian faith. As such, it is superior to, and judges all Tradition. It is sufficient in and of itself for a full exposition of Christianity and for the attainment of salvation.(2)

The concept of sola Scriptura, it must be noted, is not in principle opposed to the importance and validity of Church history, Tradition, ecumenical Councils, or the authority of Church Fathers and prominent theologians. The difference lies in the relative position of authority held by Scripture and Church institutions and proclamations. In theory, the Bible judges all of these, since, for the evangelical Protestant, it alone is infallible and the Church and popes and Councils are not. (3)

In actuality, however, this belief has not led to doctrinal uniformity, as the history of Protestant sectarianism abundantly testifies. The prevalence of sola Scriptura, according to Catholic thinking, has facilitated a widespread ignorance and disregard of Church history among the Protestants in the pews. (4) Protestantism is clearly much less historically-oriented than Catholicism, largely for the above reasons. Recently, several evangelical scholars have frankly critiqued the weakness of either sola Scriptura itself, (5) or else the extreme version of it which might be called Bible only (a virtually total exclusion of Church history and authority).(6)

Whereas Protestantism takes an either/or approach on this issue and many other theological ideas, Catholicism has a both/and perspective. Thus, Scripture and Tradition are inextricably linked: twin fonts of the one spring of revelation.(7)

Tradition is defined as the handing on of beliefs and practices by written as well as oral means.(8) The Bible is part of a Tradition larger than itself, of which it is an encapsulation or crystallization, so to speak.(9) The first Christians preached; they didn't hand out New Testaments (most of which was not yet written, much less established in its final form). Catholicism claims that its Tradition is neither more nor less than the preserved teaching of Christ as revealed to, and proclaimed by, the Apostles. Development occurs, but only in increased understanding, not in the essence of this apostolic Tradition. Catholicism claims to be the guardian or custodian of the original deposit of faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).(10)

It must also be pointed out that the written word and mass literacy have only been widespread since the invention of the movable-type printing press around 1440. Thus it could not have been the primary carrier of the gospel for at least fourteen centuries. Christians before the time of the Protestant Reformation learned mostly from homilies, sacraments, the liturgy and its year-long calendar, Christian holidays, devotional practices, family instruction, church architecture, and other sacred art which reflected biblical themes. For all these Christian believers, sola Scriptura would have appeared as an absurd abstraction and practical impossibility.

New Testament Evidence For Tradition

Tradition, even in the extensive Catholic sense, permeates Scripture. Only an antecedent prejudice against such a notion or an undue concentration on Jesus' rejection of corrupt, human pharisaical traditions, could blind one to the considerable force of the scriptural data. Put another way, Scripture does not teach sola Scriptura, a concept which constitutes the use of a document (the Bible) contrary to the same document's explicit and implicit testimony. Or, to express it in yet another form, Scripture alone should lead the impartial seeker to Tradition and the Church, rather than to a disdain of Tradition. G.K. Chesterton called tradition the "democracy of the dead." It's foolish for any Christian to disregard what God has taught millions of other Christians throughout the centuries.

We must all do our best to avoid approaching Scripture with a philosophy itself not at all biblical, and to not force Scripture (and Christianity) into our own mold. The Bible itself has plenty to say about its own authority vis-a-vis that of Tradition and the Church.

The Bible is Not All-Inclusive

In the New Testament, first of all, we find clear-cut testimony to the effect that Scripture does not contain the whole of Christ's teaching. Probably no one would deny this, but Protestants usually deny that any of His teachings not recorded in Scripture could possibly be faithfully transmitted orally by primitive apostolic Tradition. Reflection upon the closeness of Jesus to His disciples, and on the nature of human interaction and memory makes quite dubious any such fancy. Who could make the claim that the Apostles remembered (and communicated to others) absolutely nothing except what we have in the four Gospels?

One might compare the Bible to the U.S. Constitution, which is not coterminous with the constitutional law that derives from it (and ultimately from the natural law alluded to in the Declaration of Independence). Nor is the Constitution workable in practice apart from judges who interpret it. The analogy is not perfect but close enough to make the point.

None of the commentary in this chapter, it should be emphasized, is intended to denigrate Scripture in the least, but rather to set it in its proper context within the living Christian community (the Church), and to accept it on its own terms. It seems that whenever the Catholic argues that the Bible is not the be-all and end-all of the Christian faith, he is accused of disrespecting God's Word, etc. This is one of many unfortunate Protestant false dichotomies which will be dispelled in the course of our examination of Scripture.

Mark 4:33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them . . .

In other words, by implication, many parables are not recorded in Scripture.

Mark 6:34 . . . he began to teach them many things.

None of these many things are recorded here.

John 16:12 I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.

Perhaps these many things were spoken during His post-Resurrection appearances alluded to in Acts 1:2-3 (see below). Very few of these teachings are recorded, and those which are contain only minimal detail.

John 20:30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book.

John 21:25 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.

Acts 1:2-3 . . . the apostles . . . To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God. {see also Luke 24:15-16,25-27}

Paradosis ("Tradition")

The most important Greek word in the New Testament for the subject under consideration, is paradosis, or literally, "tradition." It is used four times of Christian tradition. We shall examine each of these passages.

1 Corinthians 11:2 I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.

Colossians 2:8 See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.

Paradosis simply means something handed on or passed down from one person to another. This "tradition" might be bad (Matthew 15:2 ff., Colossians 2:8) or opposed to the will of God (Mark 7:8 ff.), or entirely good as in 1 Corinthians 11:2 and many other passages below. This distinction must be constantly kept in mind in the debate over the utility and propriety of Tradition.

2 Thessalonians 2:15 . . . stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth, or by letter.

2 Thessalonians 3:6 . . . keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.

Tradition in the Bible may be either written or oral. It implies that the writer (in the above instances St. Paul) is not expressing his own peculiar viewpoints, but is delivering a message received from someone else (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 11:23). The importance of the tradition does not rest in its form but in its content.

"Word of God" / "Word of the Lord"

When the phrases word of God or word of the Lord appear in Acts and the Epistles, they are almost always referring to oral preaching, not to Scripture. The Greek word usually used is logos, which is the title of Jesus Himself in John 1:1 (. . . the Word was God). Indeed, this holds true for the entire Bible, as a general rule. Protestants, unfortunately, tend to think "written word" whenever they see word in Scripture, but even common sense tells us that the English "word" refers also to spoken utterances. The latter is a more common and dominant motif in Scripture than the former. Much of scripture is a recording of what was originally oral proclamation (for example, the Ten Commandments, Jesus' entire teaching - since He wrote nothing Himself, St. Peter's sermon at Pentecost). Thus there is no avoiding the oral component of Christianity, and a position which attempts to do so is self-defeating from the outset.

Tradition According to Jesus Christ & St. Paul

Colossians 2:8 (see above) has often been used by evangelical Protestants (especially fundamentalists) to condemn both philosophy and tradition, but offers no support for either position. For St. Paul is herecontrasting the traditions and philosophies of men with that of Christ. He isn't condemning things in essence, but rather, in corrupt form. We've seen how St. Paul uses the same word for "tradition" positively in three instances.

Likewise, Jesus uses paradosis in condemning corrupt human traditions of the Pharisees (Matthew 15:3,6, Mark 7:8-9,13), not apostolic Tradition per se, since to do so would contradict St. Paul's use of the same word, as well as His own upholding of true Jewish teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere. Notice too that in the instances above, Jesus qualifies the word "tradition" in every case by saying your tradition or traditions of men, as does St. Paul in Colossians 2:8. When St. Paul speaks of apostolic Tradition, he doesn't qualify the word at all.

Paradidomi ("Deliver")

A related word, paradidomi, is used with reference to Christian tradition, in the sense of "deliver," at least seven times:

Luke 1:1-2 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses . . .

St. Luke is saying that these traditions handed down, or delivered, are not mere fables, legends, myths or suchlike, but were dependable eyewitness accounts. Here also we have both oral and written sources, with the former predominant at this point.

1 Corinthians 11:23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread,

{see also 1 Corinthians 11:2 above, Romans 6:17}

1 Corinthians 15:3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,

It is striking here how Tradition and Scripture are one unified Revelation, as in Catholic teaching. True Tradition can never contradict Scripture, but rather complements, explains, and expands upon it.

2 Peter 2:21 For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.

Jude 3 . . . contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.

Paralambano ("Received")

The word paralambano ("received") appears also at least seven times with regard to Christian or apostolic Tradition. Thus, there are three related concepts: the tradition or doctrine which is given or, literally, "handed down," and the acts of delivering and receiving the tradition:

1 Corinthians 15:1-2 . . . I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast - unless you believed in vain.

{see also 1 Corinthians 11:23 and 15:3 above}

Note the reference to memory: the whole drift of the passage is an oral gospel and tradition transmitted by preaching and preserved by memory.

Galatians 1:9,12 . . . If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed . . . For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

This sounds rather like the anathema statements of the Council of Trent which are so objectionable to many. Here St. Paul completely dissociates the gospel he received (which he elsewhere equate withtradition) from traditions derived from men. The true Tradition originates wholly from above - this is the Tradition of which Catholicism claims to have been merely the Custodian for nearly 2000 years. The next passage reiterates this:

1 Thessalonians 2:13 . . . when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as what it really is, the word of God . . .

{see also 2 Thessalonians 3:6 above}

"Tradition" / "Gospel" / "Word of God" Synonymous

It is obvious from the above biblical data that the concepts of tradition, gospel, and word of God (as well as other terms) are essentially synonymous. All are predominantly oral, and all are referred to as being delivered and received:

    • 1 Corinthians 11:2 . . . maintain the traditions . . . even as I have delivered them to you.
    • 2 Thessalonians 2:15 . . . hold to the traditions . . . taught . . . by word of mouth or by letter.
    • 2 Thessalonians 3:6 . . . the tradition that you received from us.
    • 1 Corinthians 15:1 . . . the gospel, which you received . . .
    • Galatians 1:9 . . . the gospel . . . which you received.
    • 1 Thessalonians 2:9 . . . we preached to you the gospel of God.
    • Acts 8:14 . . . Samaria had received the word of God . . .
    • 1 Thessalonians 2:13 . . . you received the word of God, which you heard from us, . . .
    • 2 Peter 2:21 . . . the holy commandment delivered to them.
    • Jude 3 . . . the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.

In St. Paul's two letters to the Thessalonians alone we see that three of the above terms are used interchangeably. Clearly then, tradition is not a dirty word in the Bible, particularly for St. Paul. If, on the other hand, one wants to maintain that it is, then gospel and word of God are also bad words! Thus, the commonly-asserted dichotomy between the gospel and tradition, or between the Bible and tradition is unbiblical itself and must be discarded by the truly biblically-minded person as (quite ironically) a corrupt tradition of men.

Oral Tradition According to St. Paul

In his two letters to Timothy, St. Paul makes some fascinating remarks about the importance of oral tradition:

2 Timothy 1:13-14 Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me . . . guard the truth which has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.

2 Timothy 2:2 And what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

St. Paul says that Timothy is not only to receive and follow the pattern of his oral teaching, in addition to his written instruction, but to teach others the same. The Catholic Church seeks to do this with regard to the entire "Deposit of faith" (or, the apostles' teaching - Acts 2:42), in accordance with St. Paul.

Church, Not Scripture, Pillar & Ground of Truth

Almost any informed evangelical Protestant, if asked to define the pillar and ground of the truth according to the Bible, would surely reply, "the Bible itself, of course." Yet Scripture does not so pronounce; it states, in perfect accord with Catholicism and in opposition to sola Scriptura:

. . . the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:15)

Other Bible translations render bulwark alternately as ground, foundation, or support.

Two Sola Scriptura Proof Texts Debunked

2 Timothy 3:16-17 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.

This is the most often-used supposed proof text for sola Scriptura - yet a strong argument can be put forth that it teaches no such thing. John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), the brilliant English convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism, shows the fallacy of such reasoning:

It is quite evident that this passage furnishes no argument whatever that the sacred Scripture, without Tradition, is the sole rule of faith; for although Sacred Scripture is profitable for these ends, still it is not said to be sufficient. The Apostle requires the aid of Tradition (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Moreover, the Apostle here refers to the Scriptures which Timothy was taught in his infancy. Now, a good part of the New Testament was not written in his boyhood: some of the Catholic Epistles were not written even when St. Paul wrote this, and none of the books of the New Testament were then placed on the canon of the Scripture books. He refers, then, to the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and if the argument from this passage proved anything, it would prove too much, viz., that the Scriptures of the New Testament were not necessary for a rule of faith. It is hardy necessary to remark that this passage furnishes no proof of the inspiration of the several books of Sacred Scripture, even of those admitted to be such . . . For we are not told . . . what the Books or portions of inspired Scripture are. (11)

In addition to these logical and historical arguments, one can also differ with the Protestant interpretation of this passage on contextual, analogical, and exegetical grounds. In 2 Timothy alone (context), St. Paul makes reference to oral Tradition three times (1:13-14, 2:2, 3:14). In the latter instance, St. Paul says of the tradition, knowing from whom you learned it. The personal reference proves he is not talking about Scripture, but himself as the Tradition-bearer, so to speak. Elsewhere (exegesis), St. Paul frequently espouses oral Tradition (Romans 6:17, 1 Corinthians 11:2,23, 15:1-3, Galatians 1:9,12, Colossians 2:8, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 3:6). The "exclusivist" or "dichotomous" form of reasoning employed by Protestant apologists here is fundamentally flawed. For example, to reason by analogy, let's examine a very similar passage, Ephesians 4:11-15:

Ephesians 4:11-15 And his gifts were that some should be apostle, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are able to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,

If the Greek artios (RSV, complete / KJV, perfect) proves the sole sufficiency of Scripture in 2 Timothy, then teleios (RSV, mature manhood / KJV, perfect) in Ephesians would likewise prove the sufficiency of pastors, teachers and so forth for the attainment of Christian perfection. Note that in Ephesians 4:11-15 the Christian believer is equipped, built up, brought into unity and mature manhood,knowledge of Jesus, the fulness of Christ, and even preserved from doctrinal confusion by means of the teaching function of the Church. This is a far stronger statement of the perfecting of the saints than 2 Timothy 3:16-17, yet it doesn't even mention Scripture.

Therefore, the Protestant interpretation of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 proves too much, since if all non-scriptural elements are excluded in 2 Timothy, then, by analogy, Scripture would logically have to be excluded in Ephesians. It is far more reasonable to synthesize the two passages in an inclusive, complementary fashion, by recognizing that the mere absence of one or more elements in one passage does not mean that they are nonexistent. Thus, the Church and Scripture are both equally necessary and important for teaching. This is precisely the Catholic view. Neither passage is intended in a exclusive sense.

1 Corinthians 4:6 . . . that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favour of one against another.

The clause emphasized above, which is used as a proof for sola Scriptura, is thought to be difficult in the Greek, so much so that one Protestant translator, James Moffatt, considered it beyond recovery and refused to translate it! Yet the meaning seems fairly clear when the whole context is taken into consideration (at the very least verses 3-6). This basic principle of biblical interpretation (context) is often neglected, even by good scholars, presumably due to presuppositional bias. For example, the great evangelical theologian G.K Berkouwer, who says many insightful and edifying things about Scripture, falls prey to this tendency repeatedly, in using this portion of a verse to imply the notion of sola Scriptura, in his magnum opus on Scripture.(12)

One simply has to read the phrase following the "proof text" to see what it is to which St. Paul is referring. The whole passage is an ethical exhortation to avoid pride, arrogance and favoritism, and as such, has nothing to do with the idea of the Bible and the written word as some sort of all-encompassing standard of authority over against the Church. St. Paul's teaching elsewhere (as just examined) precludes such an interpretation anyway. One of the foundational tenets of Protestant hermeneutics is to interpret less clear, obscure portions of Scripture by means of more clear, related passages.(13) St. Paul is telling the Corinthians to observe the broad ethical precepts of the Old Testament (some translators render the above clause as keep within the rules), as indicated by his habitual phrase, it is written, which is always used to precede Old Testament citations throughout his letters. Assuming that he is referring to the Old Testament (the most straightforward interpretation), this would again prove too much, for he would not be including the entire New Testament, whose Canon was not even finally determined until 397 A.D.

To summarize, then, 1 Corinthians 4:6 (that is, one part of the verse) fails as a proof text for sola Scriptura for at least three reasons:

1) The context is clearly one of ethics. We cannot transgress (go beyond) the precepts of Scripture concerning relationships. This doesn't forbid the discussion of ethics outside of Scripture (which itself cannot possibly treat every conceivable ethical dispute and dilemma);

2) The phrase does not even necessarily have to refer to Scripture, although this appears to be the majority opinion of scholars (with which I agree);

3) If what is written refers to Scripture, it certainly points to the Old Testament alone (obviously not the Protestant "rule of faith"). Thus, this verse proves too much and too little simultaneously.

All "proof texts" for sola Scriptura are demonstrably inadequate and run up against biblical (and Catholic) teachings of Tradition and Church, as well as the insuperable difficulty of the Canon of the Bible, and how it was determined (by the Catholic Church).

Cardinal Newman, bristling with insight as always, gets right to the core of the issue in the following critique of Protestants' allegiance to sola Scriptura:

That Scripture is the Rule of Faith is in fact an assumption so congenial to the state of mind and course of thought usual among Protestants, that it seems to them rather a truism than a truth. If they are in controversy with Catholics on any point of faith, they at once ask, Where do you find it in Scripture? and if Catholics reply, as they must do, that it is not necessarily in Scripture in order to be true, nothing can persuade them that such an answer is not an evasion, and a triumph to themselves. Yet it is by no means self-evident that all religious truth is to be found in a number of works, however sacred, which were written at different times, and did not always form one book; and in fact it is a doctrine very hard to prove . . . It [is] . . . an assumption so deeply sunk into the popular mind, that it is a work of great difficulty to obtain from its maintainers an acknowledgment that it is an assumption.(14)


  • 1. Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559 ed., Book IV, ch.10; Berkouwer, G.C., Studies in Dogmatics: Holy Scripture, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975, tr. from Dutch ed. of 1967 by Jack B. Rogers, pp.299-300,306; Marty, Martin, A Short History of Christianity, NY: Meridian, 1959, p.216.
  • 2. Calvin, ibid., Book I, ch.6-9; Pinnock, Clark, Biblical Revelation, Chicago: Moody Press, 1971, pp.113-17.
  • 3. Luther, Martin, On the Councils and the Churches, 1539; Sproul, R.C., "Sola Scriptura: Crucial to Evangelicalism," in Boice, James Montgomery, ed., The Foundation of Biblical Authority, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978, p.109; Brown, Robert McAfee, The Spirit of Protestantism, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961, p.67.
  • 4. Pinnock, ibid., pp.118-119; Brown, ibid., pp.215-216.
  • 5. Berkouwer, ibid., pp.268-271,286,305; Brown, ibid., p.171; Marty, ibid., p.206.
  • 6. Ramm, Bernard, "Is 'Scripture Alone' the Essence of Christianity?," in Rogers, Jack B., ed., Biblical Authority, Waco, TX: Word Books, 1977, pp.116-17,119,121-2.
  • 7. Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), Liguori, MO: Liguori Pub., 1994, #80; Hardon, John A., The Catholic Catechism (CC), Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975, pp.47-48.
  • 8. CCC, #81,83; Hardon, John A., Pocket Catholic Dictionary, NY: Doubleday Image, 1980, p.437.
  • 9. CCC, #82.
  • 10. CCC, #84; Hardon, CC, pp.41-43.
  • 11. Newman, John Henry Cardinal, "Essay on Inspiration in its Relation to Revelation," London: 1884, Essay 1, section 29. Emphasis in original. In Newman, On the Inspiration of Scripture, ed. J. Derek Holmes and Robert Murray, Washington, D.C., Corpus Books, 1967, p.131.
  • 12. Berkouwer, ibid., pp.17,104-5,148.
  • 13. See, e.g., Ramm, Bernard, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 3rd ed., 1970, pp.104-106.
  • 14. Newman, John Henry Cardinal, Grammar of Assent, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1955 (orig. 1870), p.296.