Traditions (2)

In continuing to defend against the biblical attacks presented in 21 Reasons to Reject Sola Scriptura, the attention is now turned to a very important issue: Tradition. 

Since Rome denies the Bible is alone sufficient as a rule of faith for Christian life, she presents her additional standards: the church and sacred Tradition. 

The idea of the infallibility of the church will be dealt with further, and has already been dealt with throughout this series. However, this is the first time Tradition is being dealt with. 

Reason #2 in the article states: 

The Bible Indicates that In Addition to the Written Word, we are to accept Oral Tradition

What is the biblical evidence used? As any good Roman Catholic would, the article turns the reader’s attention to 2 Thessalonians 2: 15,

“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by spoken word or by our letter.”

Surprisingly, there is little disagreement originally here. As has been stated throughout this series, while the Apostles were living, during the time of inscripturation, Sola Scriptura was not the position of the church (and neither was what Rome currently holds to). Protestantism affirms that while the apostles were living, after the outpouring of the Spirit, whatever they taught was binding. If they spoke it or wrote it, it was authoritative. For this reason among others, books of the Bible not written by an apostle directly (Luke, Hebrews possibly) have been canonized; they contain apostolic teaching. 

The question is not whether or not Paul’s 1st century congregations were obligated to hold fast to all of his teachings. The question is how does a 21st century congregation have access to the teachings of a man who has been dead 2,000 years? Where are those traditions found? Paul commanded the Thessalonicans to hold fast to Paul’s teaching in both forms. How do we have access to Paul’s teaching is where the debate is relevant. The protestant answer is that these oral traditions are in the Scriptures. 

2nd Thessalonians is not the only book in our Bible. It wasn’t even the last one to be penned. Therefore, God has preserved infallibly all teachings that He wanted His Church to have.

We have access to the oral from from the written. 

If the Apostles were alive today, certainly Protestants would sit at their feet and listen. There would still be an oral and written divide. They aren’t here though, that is why conversations around this verse is so often miss the point. The oral communicators are gone, thus, their oral teaching is too. That is why we hold to their preserved writings.

What is important here is Paul is commanding his fallible congregants (his “brothers”), to hold fast to his oral traditions. That is not the same thing as Paul promising the infallible, perfect transmission of his oral Traditions in an oral way. The people Paul wrote to were fallible. Therefore, how can we know and trust they have passed these things on correctly? I don’t want the 1st century believer’s theology, I don’t want the edited forms of the 1st century believer’s theology, I want Paul’s theology. And any authority outside of Scripture has no way of definitively demonstrating how one today could separate those two things: Paul’s theology from the 1st century church’s understanding of Paul’s theology. 

The article quotes John 16: 3 to justify relying on the faithful transmission of the oral commandments, but this seems to be an incorrect citation. However, the attempted point seems to be that the Holy Spirit guides His Church. Protestants agree with that, but again, what does the text mean by “church”? The Holy Spirit guides His church, but that means the universal, corporate Body of Christ (Ephesians 5), not the Pope and his elected officials called the magesterium. 

The burden of proof then is to demonstrate that these Traditions Paul here refers to are in fact outside of the rest of the Canon of Scripture. That needs to be infallibly demonstrated to win the debate with the Protestant. 

Some would argue that the Traditions are not in fact outside of Scripture, therefore do not need to be proved outside of Scripture. That brings us to out next problem: what is Tradition? 

Partim-Partim VS Material Sufficiency

The Protestant claim is that all of the traditions Paul taught to the church in Thessalonica which God holds His Church accountable to are contained within the finished Scriptures. That is why it was suggested that the burden of proof is on the Papist to provide sufficient proof of a Tradition tracing back to a sermon from Paul at that church. Rome has not infallibly defined every single thing Paul taught to the church in Thessalonica, thus, they need to show Protestants where these Traditions come from and how they know that.

Many Catholics claim this is not possible because Scripture is materially sufficient (MS). This is a kind of qualified sufficiency rather than the formal sufficiency claimed by Protestants. Material sufficiency is the idea that all of Rome’s Traditions are either explicitly or implicitly contained in the Sacred Scriptures. Thus, they would not seek to demonstrate these traditions outside of Scripture. Not all Catholics have agreed that the Scriptures are even materially sufficient, which is the basis for the very need of Tradition. 

Others argue Tradition is in and of itself a separate deposit of the faith, a separate authority; it is a different mode or source altogether which contains apostolic tradition. Thus, if something is found in the Tradition, it does not need to be found in Scripture because it is found in something equally authoritative and infallible. This view is known as the Partim-Partim view of Scripture (from the Latin for Partly). Thus, the term “partly” is important. Of all of the theology God expects us to know, those who hold to the Partim-Partim view of Scripture would say part of it is in the Bible, part of it is found elsewhere, and many of their Roman Catholic counterparts would disagree. 

The author of the article itself subtly brought these contradictory opinions up, 

“The Catholic Church teaches that Sacred Tradition contains nothing whatsoever that is contrary to the Bible. Some Catholic thinkers would even say that there is nothing in Sacred Tradition which is not also found in Scripture, at least implicitly or in seminal form. Certainly the two are at least in perfect harmony and always support each other.”

Here are the issues with both: The challenge to the Partim-Partim position stands: prove it. Prove these traditions come from an apostle. Typically the way they do this is by appealing back to the church. They believe these Traditions are Traditions because the church says so (Sola Ecclesia), which is of course begging the question. No attempt can be made to infallibly demonstrate these Traditions and their apostolic lineage. 

The MS position has an entire host of problems, the main ones being the particular exegesis of passages it’s adherents claim contain “seeds” of Tradition. However, their main issue seems to be that they have just conceded the Protestant position of the passage in question. When Paul tells the Thessalonicans to “hold fast” to both the oral and written traditions, the Protestant argues that, today, all the necessary oral are now written. That is our argument, and it seems the MS view is forced to give us a hearty “Amen!”

The problem for both of these positions is that these positions even exist. Where is the great infallible church to come in and decide between the two? Isn’t that the job? Doesn’t this entire article argue against Sola Scriptura because there is no final authority to decide on differing interpretations? What good is the authority of Rome if it can’t bring about the consistency Rome requires Protestants to have? This lead Eric Svendsen, in his book Evangelical Answers to say, “The disagreement about the nature of Tradition within Catholicism, as well as the absence of concrete examples, leaves Catholic Tradition open to legitimate questions about its validity” (Svendsen, 86). 

Tradition VS tradition

The final point in regards to Tradition that needs to be addressed is that the article only serves to validate some of the claims made earlier in these blog posts, particularly, Sola Ecclesia. 

“Of course one must differentiate between Tradition (upper-case “T”) that is part of divine Revelation, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, Church traditions (lower-case “t”) that, although good, have developed in the Church later and are not part of the Deposit of Faith…Anything that is part of Tradition is of divine origin and hence unchangeable, while Church traditions are changeable by the Church. Sacred Tradition serves as a rule of faith by showing what the Church has believed consistently through the centuries and how it is always understood any given portion of the Bible. One of the main ways in which Tradition has been passed down to us is in the doctrine contained in the ancient texts of the liturgy, the Church’s public worship.

And that ladies and gentlemen, is Sola Ecclesia. There is a difference between Tradition and tradition. How could one know this? How does a mere, fallible, lay peasant possibly go about discerning between Tradition and tradition? The answer is the church. The church gets to define Tradition, and the church alone has the power to change tradition. Tradition is insufficient in and of itself to reveal itself and differentiate between the Sacred and the subjective. That power belongs to the church. Thus, as it stands, Rome claims that in order to know what the Bible is and how to interpret it, one needs the church. They also claim that in order to know what Tradition is, and how to change other traditions, one needs the church. The church is necessarily supreme; it is functionally their highest authority.  

This especially becomes a problem for the MS crowd. The MS crowd essentially demotes Tradition to interpretation. Their view of tradition is how to rightly interpret and apply particular biblical passages. MS essentially makes “interpretation” and “Tradition” synonyms. Peters, who holds to MS, says this, 

“Sacred Tradition complements our understanding of the Bible and is therefore not some extraneous source of Revelation which contains doctrines that are foreign to it. Quite the contrary: Sacred Tradition serves as the Church’s living memory, reminding her of what the faithful have constantly and consistently believed and who to properly understand and interpret the meaning of Biblical passages. In a certain way, it is Sacred Tradition which says to the reader of the Bible ‘You have been reading a very important book which contains God’s revelation to man. Now let me explain to you how it has always been understood and practiced by believers from the very beginning.'”

Clearly, according to the author, Tradition is just another tool the church uses to explain the Bible (even though many modern and historical Catholics would vehemently disagree with this definition of Tradition). Thus, if Tradition is necessary for interpreting Scripture, it now has superseded the Scriptures as well. Thus, for the MS adherent, Scripture has just been demoted yet another position on the totem pole of authorities. The most authoritative resources for the Catholic are as follows and in this order:

  1. Church
  2. Tradition
  3. Bible

Which is More Consistent?

To conclude, I offer thoughts about which of the two understandings of Tradition I respect most. And it turns out, I believe Partim-Partim (PP) to be the far more a consistent Catholic view and the harder view to challenge. 

This may seem odd to some, because the MS view is clearly much closer to Sola Scriptura than PP. However, MS turns tradition not into separate doctrine, but into mere interpretation. Why claim Tradition is in and of itself an authority when it is subservient to Scripture? Why not just claim Scripture is the authority, and thus, all the traditions contained within would become authoritative (i.e. the Protestant position). Material Sufficiency is just Sola Scriptura adorned in the garb catholic idolatry and vocabulary. 

As a protestant, I agree that there are Sacred Traditions which I should follow. For example, the Lord’s Supper (communion) is a tradition for me. That is an often repeated, pious practice I take part in regularly and believe to be an important aspect of Christian living. How do I know this tradition is from God and is binding on the Christian soul to practice? The Bible teaches it. I know this tradition is sacred and mandatory because the Bible teaches. 

My church has other traditions which I don’t consider inspired. For example, we always sing spiritual songs to God prior to the sermon. We believe the music appropriately prepares our hearts to hear the sermon. Thus, we practice that tradition. However, is this format binding on the soul? Is it a sin to do it another way? No, and I know this because the Scriptures do not teach this. 

The Material Sufficiency view would be forced to admit that same confession: all traditions are subservient to and contained in the Bible. The difference arise when traditions, which are clearly not biblical, are then forced into the text of the Bible. 

The MS view of Scripture and Tradition remind me of a John Owen quotation about people who claim personal revelations,

“If private revelations agree with [the] Scriptures, they are needless; and if they disagree, they are false.”

Obviously John Owen was not speaking of Rome’s
Traditions, but the point remains. If the Traditions claimed are contrary to Scripture, Rome and Protestants alike
(in theory) would disregard them. However, the MS view states they are all contained within and agree with the Scriptures, and so I ask the question: 
why do we need them? This view renders Tradition totally meaningless and exalts the Bible, and that seems like an inconsistent practice for a religion which formally denies the idea that we don’t need Tradition.  

Ultimately, the Material Sufficiency view is trying to ride the fence; it is trying to honor and not disparage the Bible, while also not holding it in supreme honor. And as has been demonstrated time and time again, any position outside of Sola Scriptura will eventually disparage the Bible in some way or another. 

Just ask the Mormons, Muslims, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. 

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