Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
"Tradition" as Viewed by Popular Roman Catholic Apologists... and a Response
06/07/2009 - James SwanIn the written disputes and published propaganda between sixteenth-century Protestants and Roman Catholics, the mass-marketing victory clearly lay in the hands of Rome's detractors. Protestants out-published Rome's apologists winning the popular opinion. Catholic works were unlikely to sell, and therefore not sought out by printers. Rome exasperated the loss by not supporting her apologists in their written endeavors.(1)
Now five hundred years later, current popular Protestant writing produce more self-help tomes, fictional entertainment, and end times forewarnings than theological treatises specific to exposing Roman Catholic error. Roman Catholic writers though have consistently produced popular works specifically geared toward evangelizing Protestants.(2) One need only visit a big-chain bookstore and scan the shelves to notice apologetic works from Roman Catholic authors typically outnumber Protestant works geared toward defending Reformation principles. Producing works distinctively for laymen, Rome's apologists have hammered away specifically at sola fide and sola scriptura. In the popular Catholic convert book, Surprised by Truth: 11 Converts Give the Biblical and Historical Reasons for Becoming Catholic,(3) almost all of those recounting their swim across the Tiber mention that a rejection of sola scriptura was key in their subsequent rejection of sola fide.
Indeed a historical irony, Protestants defending the faith against Rome's popular writers now find themselves in a similar plight as the sixteenth-century Catholic apologist. More often than not, works specifically directed to defending the solas of the Reformation are least likely to find their way to the bookstore shelf, while Rome's champions have thoroughly penetrated the mass market.(4) These Catholic apologetic works have ready and confounding answers to counter the sole authority of Scripture. A Protestant unfamiliar with Catholic authority argumentation can easily be befuddled and silenced quickly.
Papal apologists often have an eager Protestant audience. It is often the draw of Tradition (5) that so intrigues many Protestants. Catholic polemicists offer it as an historical and / or interpretive solution for Protestants lacking any connection to those generations of Christians who came before. Tradition is put forth as that vehicle which connects an evangelical with a two thousand year old historical church. With the acceptance of Tradition, the notion of an historical hierarchical authority finds easier acceptance. With these other authorities standing beside sacred scripture, Catholic apologists seek to establish a basis for promoting a gospel of infused righteousness obtained through faith, sacraments, and works, in essence another gospel (Galatians 2:6-9).
Defusing the Catholic apologetic use of Tradition causes the fall of the entire system. It needs to be exposed as an incoherent authority, fraught with double standards, and unable to meet the qualification of theopneustos (God breathed) revelation. If the scriptures truly are the believers infallible sole rule of faith, it should follow necessarily that any other rule claiming a similar pedigree will be exposed as a counterfeit. Any other infallible rule of faith will not be consistent with either the facts of the Bible or history. If the Bible is the only infallible rule, any other alleged infallible rule will fail as a template to accurately size reality. While Protestants committed to Reformation principles may currently lack a voice in the public market, the first step to reversing this trend is to understand and counter the lynchpin of Catholic argumentation, Tradition.
What is Tradition According to Rome?
The official Roman claims for Tradition are found in statements from the councils of Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II. Trent states the gospel truth and instruction are contained in the written books and in the unwritten traditions which have been received by the apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the apostles themselves.(6) While Vatican I and II reaffirmed Trent's statements, Vatican II adds,
Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move toward the same goal. 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 entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching. Thus it comes about that the Church does not draw her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Hence both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal feelings of devotion and reverence.(7)
These statements, while giving the appearance of clarity, are in actuality the exact opposite, being oft debated by Catholic scholars as to what exactly they imply. There is not a consensus opinion as to the exact content of Tradition, the precise relationship between scripture and Tradition, and exactly how the vehicle of Tradition functions and becomes known by the church. Rome's official statements do not explicitly define whether Tradition is the second of a two-part revelation (known as partim-partim), or if both forms of revelation contain the entirety of God's revealed truth. Does Tradition function as the interpreter of scripture, or is it interpreted by scripture, or do they interpret each other? Is the content of Tradition confirmed by historical scrutiny, or is it an unwritten opinion only confirmed by a movement within the developing church? Vatican II commands Catholics to accept and honor something quite ambiguous. One wonders if individual Catholics attempting devotion and reverence toward Tradition actually have the same or a differing concept in view. While dogmatic statements from official Roman Catholic councils are put forth to clarify truth, their statements on Tradition have done quite the opposite. II.
Current Popular Explanations of Tradition
The ambiguities of these official statements on Tradition have not been a hindrance to Catholic apologetical works. Rather, this lack of clarity allows Rome's popular writers to use the concept to their advantage depending on the situation or context. For instance, one of the most popular and groundbreaking recent Catholic works is Karl Keating's Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on Romanism by Bible Christians. Keating's goal was to counter fundamentalist attacks against Catholicism. In analyzing the charge that Roman Catholics logically believe in continuing revelation because some of her dogmas find no evidence in the Bible, Keating explains this false argument is based on a misunderstanding of Tradition. Keating states: "It is true that Catholics do not think revelation ended with what is in the New Testament. They believe, though, that it ended with the death of the last apostle. 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 ..."(8) Here, the partim-partim view of Tradition allows Roman Catholics a basis for their distinctive views. One need not seek proof for every Christian belief in the Bible, for Tradition is the second part that completes the whole of God's revealed truth. Keating goes on to state this follows Paul's injunction to stand firm, then, brethren, and hold by the traditions you have learned, in word or in writing, from us (2 Thes. 2:14).
Contrary to Keating, another leading Catholic apologist, Patrick Madrid, affirms "It may surprise you to learn 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."(9) Madrid stated this during a debate against sola scriptura in an attempt to limit the scope of his opponents argumentation. In his writings, Madrid explains Tradition: the norm St. Paul wants Timothy to go by is not Scripture alone, but also the oral teaching he delivered to Timothy personally and through others. This oral teaching, the faithful and accurate handing down of the gospel of Christ in the Church, which includes the correct interpretation of the Scriptures is Sacred Tradition.(10) For Madrid, Tradition functions as the act of handing down the gospel and also as the interpreter of biblical revelation, rather than revelation proper. That interpretation is the property of the papal magisterium. The papacy is able to infallibly determine that the gospel was accurately handed down, and also what the apostles meant. The papacy can determine extra-biblical clarifications of the gospel passed down through history.(11)
Catholic apologist Mark Shea approaches Tradition similar to Keating by noting the Bible refers to positive extra-biblical revelation handed down.(12) Similarly to Madrid, he affirms a form of material sufficiency, "all the bricks necessary to build doctrine is there in Scripture."(13) "Build doctrine" is a key element in his understanding of Tradition. It is not only the correct interpretation of the Bible given by the apostles (As Madrid holds), but is rather also the correct interpretation of revelation that grows and develops through history: "Tradition grows like a mustard seed and, as a result, gets more mustardy, not less."(14) A Protestant that would charge a Catholic as holding to an extra-biblical tradition not traceable through history is answered that Tradition is "the living and growing truth of Christ contained, not only in Scripture but in the common teaching, common life, and common worship of the Church."(15) For Shea, a current dogma has grown to its particular state, and Tradition functions as a tool to determine which acorn became what oak tree.
Here lies one the major weaknesses in Rome's appeal to Tradition. With each of these Catholic apologists, Tradition finds a different, and if not in some aspects contradictory meaning. Roman apologists may claim to provide converts with a Tradition that connects one to a two thousand year old church, but they cannot tell you exactly what they are giving you, making one question if they are giving anything at all. They cannot tell you with any infallible clarity exactly what is meant by Tradition, or exactly what Rome's definitive statements mean. They can only provide you with their particular private interpretation of Tradition, typically doing so while chiding Protestants for relying on private interpretation. All would claim harmony with Trent and subsequent infallible statements, yet would be unable to prove that harmony as Romes official position.
Biblical Argumentation Supporting Tradition Used By Catholic Apologists
Luther chided the early Catholic apologists for their lack of Scripture in response to him. Now, such books as The Scriptural Roots of Catholic Teaching, The New Catholic Answer Bible, and Where Is That in the Bible are typical of the materials geared toward converting Protestants to the Roman Catholic Church. Rome's apologists have learned the best way to convert Protestants is to use not only their language, but also their paradigm of proving doctrine by the Bible. They are steadily producing works training Catholics to answer Protestant biblical argumentation with counter biblical argumentation. Tradition is one such topic that is no longer defended by simply appeals to dogmatic pronouncement. Rather, popular Catholic apologists have attempted to ground their concept of Tradition in the Biblical text. Catholic apologist Mark Shea argues vigorously "Scripture says a great deal about Sacred Tradition- all of it agreeing perfectly with the picture of the Catholic Church drawn by the Second Vatican Council." (16)
Even though sola scriptura does not deny that there was a period of inscripturation in which the word of God was oral, Roman apologists typically use 2 Thessalonians 2:14-15, John 20:30, and John 21:25 in defense of the Catholic understanding of Tradition. These verses are offered as proof of an oral tradition functioning during the New Testament period, and therefore prove the existence of Rome's concept of Tradition. Catholic apologists never explain why the notion of a period in which the gospel was oral necessarily means God intended extra-biblical revelation to be passed on via Tradition. They simply conclude that if at some time God's word was oral, God intended more than what was inscripturated.
The New Catholic Answer Bible states "Paul commands Christians to hold fast to the traditions he has passed on to them, both those that were written down (and were later recognized as Scripture) and those that were not written down (see 2 Thes. 2:15)."(17) Chantel Epie states, "In [the Gospel of John] we read, There is much else besides that Jesus did; if all of it were put in writing, I do not think the world itself would contain the books which would have to be written... So it appears clearly that there was a considerable part of the Lord's teachings, later taught in turn by the Apostles, that was not written down and cannot therefore be found in the Bible. These teachings, however, were faithfully transmitted to the Christian communities."(18)
The Catholic assumption in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 is that the unwritten traditions referred to are different than those which were written. Such cannot be proven from this verse. The Catholic must be pressed to prove that both categories contain different information. 2 Thessalonians 2:14 speaks of the gospel, not doctrines like papal infallibility, indulgences, or the assumption of Mary. If these Traditions indeed exist, the act of producing them should be an easy task. However, Rome's apologists can only point to highly debatable vague inferences from Scripture on such doctrines, further impaired by any lack of infallible biblical definition from the papacy. Note what Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:5, after writing on the man of lawlessness, Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things? The content being told matched that being written.(19)
Those Roman Catholics using 2 Thessalonians 2:15 whose views imply partim-partim must be pressed to produce what they claim to have. If they claim the use of church history as that which provides proof for their particular extra-biblical dogmas, let these peculiar dogmas be traced through two thousand years of history. Such dogmas like the assumption of Mary and papal infallibility find their journey back through the pages of history meet dead ends long before they arrive in the first century.
Are John 20:30 and 21:25 solid scriptural proofs for authoritative non-biblical oral tradition? Catholic apologetic works never provide evidence of any other things Jesus did later handed down via infallible Tradition. They cannot produce extra-biblical information on any miracle Jesus performed or teaching imparted. John asserts, if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written. Exactly how much of this content and depth of detail of this content does the Roman Catholic Church have? If Scripture + Tradition = a complete rule of faith, one must press the Catholic use of these verses to provide that complete rule of faith. It appears the Catholic position must borrow capital from the Protestant position. Protestants hold a sufficient authority does not need to be exhaustive in every detail. By implication, the Catholic must also adhere to this, unless they can provide the complete content mentioned in John 21:25.
John says earlier, Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name (John 20:30-31). That of which John wrote was for a purpose: that one may believe Jesus is the Christ and Son of God. He doesn't say the rest was left as infallible Tradition so that one may believe Jesus is the Christ and Son of God.
An Example of Historical Argumentation Supporting Tradition Used By Catholic Apologists
In the popular Catholic work Not By Scripture Alone: A Catholic Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura, appeals are made to the church fathers as proof for Tradition as another equally authoritative source of divine revelation. For instance, Patrick Madrid cites Basil of Caesarea stating, "Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or enjoined which are preserved in the Church, some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have delivered to us in a mystery by the apostles by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force "(On the Holy Spirit, 27).(20) Madrid states, "Basil's appeal to an authoritative body of unwritten apostolic Tradition within the Church is frequent in his writings."(21) Was Basil referring to an unwritten apostolic Tradition that held contents like the Marys assumption or papal infallibility, passed down from the apostles? Was Basil the recipient of unwritten God-inspired Traditions, passed down from the apostles, able to infallibly decide between disputing parties? Was Basil simply referring to Tradition as interpretation of revelation, or the development of Tradition?
Many of the Church fathers cited by Catholic apologists did embrace a form of tradition that was independent of Scripture (like Papias, Tertullian, Epiphanius, John Chrysostom, Augustine and Basil the Great). What Basil and these others meant in no way supports Madrid's position. Basil, in using the term tradition is describing mysteries of the Christian faith that were allegedly communicated in an unwritten form. These refer to liturgical rites of practices like baptism or the Eucharist. Basil was not teaching two sources of infallible revelation, with Tradition functioning similarly to scripture, but rather referred to a tradition of ecclesiastical practices or customs. Most often, doctrine was not in view. After discussing Basil and other Early Church Fathers, the great patristic scholar J.N.D. Kelly noted, "Indeed, all the instances of unwritten tradition lacking Scriptural support which the early theologians mention will be found, on examination to refer to matters of observance and practice (e.g. triple immersion in baptism; turning East for prayer) rather than of doctrine as such, although sometimes they are matters (e.g. infant baptism; prayers for the dead) in which doctrine is involved."(22)
Madrid shuffled Basil around just enough so that one is left unsure of what exactly Basil held to. Madrid did not define what contents make up Tradition for either himself or Basil, or even if they together believe the same content of Tradition. Basil though did define the contents of the Tradition he was speaking of. William Webster points out, "Basil's teaching primarily had to do with customs and practices such as triple immersion in baptism and turning to the East in prayer, practices of secondary importance."(23)
Whereas once the conversion story was the unspoken property of Evangelicalism, Roman Catholics now are highly successful in using them in there own evangelism efforts. They serve as a vehicle in which to persuade others to accept Rome's paradigms of authority. In the popular book Surprised by Truth: 11 Converts Give the Biblical and Historical Reasons for Becoming Catholic, Al Kresta stated of his conversion to Catholicism, "In reviewing the beliefs of the primitive Church, I noticed that the Church Fathers didnt hesitate to invoke biblical authority, but they never tried to prove their case by the Bible alone. They also appealed to an authoritative Church tradition handed down through a succession of bishops that could be traced all the way back to the apostles themselves."(24) He then goes on to note such Biblical doctrines as the Trinity and the divinity of Christ are not self-evident in Scripture, but are rather "the result of centuries of deep reflection on the Scripture and the oral tradition of interpreting Scripture that had been handed on to the Church by the apostles."(25) This sentiment is typical of many Roman Catholic conversion stories. The appeal of being plugged into a two thousand year old visible, ecclesiastical body holds quite a sway for many Protestants whose particular Protestant church may be at best, five hundred years old, or at worst less than a decade old.
But have these converts really engaged what either Rome or her apologists mean by Tradition? As was demonstrated, Rome's statements on Tradition are vague and open to multiple interpretations. In two thousand years, none of Rome's popes, clergy, or apologists has infallibly and exhaustively defined or produced the doctrinal content of oral tradition.
Roman Tradition claims need to be pressed for definition and clarity. By doing so, Rome's claims to a secondary binding authority are exposed as a counterfeit. If they were legitimate, one would find Rome's view of Tradition consistent with the Bible. Rome's apologists are correct that there is indeed a binding authority of apostolic tradition given by the apostles. This tradition was inscripturated and serves as the sole authority for a believer. Rather than the Scriptures serving as a foundation for extra-biblical revelation from God, the scriptures stand as a verifiable body of truth. One need not guess what constitutes God's word. The scriptures exist as the only record of God's voice. If Rome claims another record of God's voice exists, they bear the burden of proof. If Rome's Tradition is theopneustos, they need to demonstrate this is the case. So far, they have not.
In regard to history, if Rome's claims were true, the concept of Tradition would find unifying themes and content throughout history. Recent Catholic apologists may refer to Tradition as a body of truths not found in Scripture, but these same apologists struggle to trace these through history back to the apostles. Add in the fact that there are Traditions alluded to by the Church Fathers that claim to come from the apostles, yet today's Roman Catholic would deny their veracity. One such example would be that, according to Irenaeus, Jesus was more than fifty years old when He died. Irenaeus claimed this information came from those who knew the apostles.
Others refer to Tradition as interpretation, yet until a dogma is infallibly defined, Roman Catholics are granted freedom to privately interpret. The history of Roman Catholic theology is replete with multiple private interpretations on virtually every aspect of theology. Even after an infallible definition, Roman Catholics are granted freedom to interpret infallible pronouncements, as long as they do not contradict that infallible pronouncement. Therefore, in terms of certainty, Tradition does not provide what her apologists claim- they are not reproducing a body of truth from the apostles, but rather are invoking anachronism by claiming her recent developments were held by the apostles, when in fact they are the result of the movement of private interpretation within the church.
Protestants can counter Roman Catholic argumentation effectively by beginning with a dismantling of Tradition. While Protestants may be losing the publishing war in the market place, they need not lose the argument. Even though Catholics are now using the Bible and are doing so effectively by combining it with the conversion story, Protestants can still point to and provide an extant body of revealed sacred truth, the Holy Scriptures, which are profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (1 Tim 3:16-17). There is no divine statement recorded that Tradition will thoroughly equip the man of God. Rather than seeing Rome's triumph in the market place as Protestant failure, Protestants need to cling even more steadfastly to that which thoroughly equips, and view Rome's success as an opportunity to share the contents of the sole rule of faith and expose the counterfeit.
1. David V.N. Bagchi, Luther's Early Opponents: Catholic Controversialists 1518-1525 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 218-219. Catholic apologists were often provoked to bitterness from lack of papal support. Cochlaeus, one of Rome's most zealous defenders complained to a high Roman Catholic official, "If I am ignored by you any longer, I shall wash my hands of the Catholic cause and denounce all bishops and prelates before God and before men" (Bagchi, 219). Cochlaeus, devoted to defending the Roman Church despite no help from her, went on to publish vigorously against the reformers, maintaining his own printing press. Johann Eck, perhaps the leading sixteenth century Catholic apologist, complained throughout his career over a lack of sufficient or sustained material help from Rome (Bagchi, 218).
2. Throughout this blog article, I will be referring to popular Catholic apologetics, as opposed to scholarly Roman Catholic theology. I have found that Catholic works currently with the most impact in the United States are those produced by layman apologists. Such popular writers would include Patrick Madrid, Scott Hahn, Karl Keating, Steve Ray, Tim Staples, and Robert Sungenis, to name only a few. Organizations like Catholic Answers (with a yearly budget over a million dollars) have promoted and popularized layman apologists, many of whom are ex-Protestants.
3. Patrick Madrid, ed., Surprised by Truth: 11 Converts Give the Biblical and Historical Reasons for Becoming Catholic (San Diego: Basilica Press, 1994).
4. As proof, visit any large chain bookstore like Borders or Barnes and Noble. In the religious section of books, many Catholic works are typically apologetic in nature, while Protestant works typically have little to do with a Reformation distinctive, or an apologetic against Rome.
5. Throughout this blog article I will use Tradition with a capital "T" as Romes apologists do. Catholic apologists generally use Tradition to refer to either a sacred body of truth, sacred interpretation, or an historical development of sacred truth, as distinguished from tradition with a small "t" which refers to non-essential customs throughout church history. Catholic apologist Mark Shea explains this distinctionin his article, What is the Relationship Between Scripture and Tradition? found in Robert Sungenis, ed., Not By Scripture Alone: A Catholic Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Santa Barbara: QueenshipPublishing, 1997), 170-173.
6. Philip Schaff, ed., The Creeds of Christendom: With a History and Critical Notes, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 80.
7. David T. King, Holy Scripture: The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith Volume I (Battle Ground: Christian Resources Inc., 2001), 64.
8. Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on Romanism by Bible Christians (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988) 151.
9. James White, Does the Bible Teach Sola Scriptura? Available from: http://vintage.aomin.org/SANTRAN.html..
10. Patrick Madrid, Answer Me This! (Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 2003) 42.
11. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church can determine that when the Lord said "This is my body" he meant that the bread was to be the transubstantiated essence of his body, rather than the words being figurative.
12. Robert Sungenis, ed., Not By Scripture Alone: A Catholic Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Santa Barbara: Queenship Publishing, 1997), 176-181. Mark Shea notes Jannes and Jambres, the dispute with Satan over the body of Moses, and the seat of Moses as examples of Tradition operating within the Bible.
13. Ibid., 181.
14. Ibid., 209.
15. Ibid., 198.
16. Ibid., 208.
17. Paul Thigpen, ed., The New Catholic Answer Bible (Wichita: Fireside Catholic Publishing, 2005), N2.
18. Chantal Epie, The Scriptural Roots of Catholic Teaching (Manchester: Sophia Institute Press, 2002), 6-7.
19. Catholic apologist Robert Sungenis sees 2 Thes. 2:5 as proof for unwritten oral tradition because no reference to the man of lawlessness can be found in 1 Thessalonians. However, Sungenis never produces the extra-biblical content allegedly taught by Paul and passed on via Tradition. See Sungenis, 259.
20. Sungenis, 7.
21. Ibid., p.8.
22. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1960), 47.
23. William Webster, Holy Scripture: The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith Vol. II (BattleGround: Christian Resources Inc., 2001), 144.
24. Madrid, Surprised by Truth, 261.
25. Ibid., 261-262.