Contemplating Tradition

Contemplating Tradition

Those of you who have had anything to do with Christian faith communities, other than those of the Catholic and the Orthodox, will know that a significant bone of contention amongst the various Christian denominations is the role of something referred to as ‘Tradition’. Put simply, Tradition (the capital ‘T’ is deliberate) refers to those teachings of the Apostles passed on to the Church that, while in keeping with Scriptural sources, may not be explicitly developed there.

This can seem odd (and even diabolical) to those who believe that the only source of truth is Scripture. So, in the interests of mutual understanding and learning something new, let’s work our way through it as much as we possibly can in this brief space.

The first thing to acknowledge is that the Scriptures, while undoubtedly the product of God’s inspiration on the various writers, were actually written by real human beings – people of faith like you and me. They didn’t just fall from heaven complete. In fact, the history of how they came to be in their current form is interesting and complex, as many of you would know.

This means we have to acknowledge that it is the people who were the recipients of the inspiration and, only secondarily, the text itself. The writings of the New Testament get their authority from the apostolic community that wrote the texts under God’s inspiration and, having been written, were assessed by that community for their authenticity. Not every text purporting to be authentic (e.g. the Gospels of Thomas or Judas) were accepted by the community as such. God works through his people.

If the source of Scripture’s authority comes from God working through the apostolic community, even those teachings that came from the apostles and their immediate successors but not written down, are considered potentially authoritative. We say ‘potentially’ as these teachings had to go through the same discernment and acceptance processes that the Scriptural texts underwent. Not everything that the apostolic fathers taught and did have come down to us as part of the Tradition.

So, held in balance with Scripture as a primary source of truth, Tradition is grounded in the same theological reality that grounds the Scriptures. That is to say, the same Holy Spirit that inspired the Scriptures is at work in the Christian community, and promises to lead that community to all truth (John 16:13), through that which is accepted by the community as authoritative teaching.  

This is not to undermine the significance of Scripture. In fact, it is to honour what Scripture itself teaches on the matter. For example, in his second letter to the Thessalonians (2:15) St Paul writes:

‘So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter’.

That is to say, it was not St Paul’s belief that his only teaching worth preserving could be found in his letters. He required the people to whom he was writing to pay attention also to what he said.

So now you know…

“To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”

 John Henry Newman

- John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845)

Newman’s often quoted maxim is not intended to be a “rule” that Protestants who become well-versed in Church history will automatically enter the Catholic Church. It is rather a general observation that Church history argues against the Protestant “Scripture alone” perspective. Many Protestants who study history deeply often come to realise that the Catholic Church contains the "fullness" of the faith, both Scripture and Tradition.

One early Christian writer who can convince us of the operation of Tradition in the early church is St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch. His mentor was St. John the apostle.

Writing from prison, Ignatius wrote these words in his letter to the Philadelphians:

Make no mistake, my brothers, if anyone joins a schismatic he will not inherit God’s Kingdom. If anyone walks in the way of heresy, he is out of sympathy with the Passion. Be careful, then, to observe a single Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and one cup of his blood that makes us one, and one altar, just as there is one bishop along with the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow slaves. In that way whatever you do is in line with God’s will.

Like the apostle Paul before him, Ignatius warned against breaking from communion with the existing authoritative structure of the Church—striking out on one’s own and dissenting from the Church’s teachings—was expressly condemned in the strongest terms.

The picture he paints is profound: just as there is one Eucharist—that is the flesh and blood of Christ—and just as there is only that one sacrifice, there is also only one bishop, and under him his appointed teachers and helpers.

He wasn’t writing to a loosely affiliated collection of house-churches! Instead, we are to be united, under one bishop, as under Christ. Or, through Christ in union with the bishop.

Ignatius was maintaining the handed-down apostolic Tradition, which is how the Catholic Church continues to operate to this day.

This article is part of Faith Journey, a newsletter from the National Centre for Evangelisation.