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Is Tradition Reliable?

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It seems like Scripture is so solid, and Tradition is so ephemeral. Why should we trust that God has revealed himself to us in Sacred Tradition? And which traditions, exactly are revealed truths? Catholic Answers’ newest apologist, Joe Heschmeyer, explains.


Is Catholic tradition really trustworthy? Joe Heschmeyer is next.

Cy Kellett:

Hello and welcome to Focus, the Catholic Answers podcast for living, understanding, and defending your Catholic faith. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. One of the things we Catholics have to defend is this idea that we’re taught almost from the beginning of our catechism, that God reveals himself to us in both scripture and tradition. The scripture one feels really solid, and the tradition one, well what are we supposed to make of that? That’s why we asked Joe Heschmeyer to come in and explain to us the Catholic understanding of God’s revelation of himself in tradition and why you should trust it. Here’s Joe.

Joe Heschmeyer, a new apologist here at Catholic Answers, welcome. Thanks for being with us.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Thanks. It’s good to be here.

Cy Kellett:

I mean you’re not a new apologist, but it’s new to call you a Catholic Answers apologist.

Joe Heschmeyer:

It’s true. It definitely feels like I got my start. I got a little promotion to be-

Cy Kellett:

Oh, good.

Joe Heschmeyer:

… given that part of the title.

Cy Kellett:

This is the first time I’ve ever worked with you as a Catholic Answers apologist. So let’s do our best. Okay, Joe?

Joe Heschmeyer:

We’ll give it a shot.

Cy Kellett:

All right. I want to talk to you about tradition. We Catholics, we have that tradition, scripture tradition thing. We have magisterium. It’s all much more complicated than sola scriptura and it actually feels a little rickety sometimes even to Catholics, especially Catholics who maybe have grown up in a Protestant country like the United States where most of public religion is more Protestant than Catholic. So I got some concerns I want to throw out at you. I’ll be kind of taking the Protestant side at least at the beginning of this, and I want you to help me understand the Catholic understanding of why we think tradition is reliable.

Joe Heschmeyer:

That sounds good. Let’s do it.

Cy Kellett:

All right. all right. So first of all, I see the attraction of sola scriptura in this sense. I have to trust fewer people and they lived longer ago. If I take sola scriptura, all I got to do is trust that first generation that they got it right when they wrote it down. If I go with tradition as a source, I got to trust pretty much everybody who’s lived between … I mean everybody’s who’s led the church at least between then and now. That’s a lot more people to trust.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Yeah, and the caliber of people. I don’t think we’re besmirching anyone by saying-

Cy Kellett:

Yeah.

Joe Heschmeyer:

… most people since the time of the apostles-

Cy Kellett:

Haven’t quite been apostles.

Joe Heschmeyer:

… aren’t of the caliber of the apostles. Right. So yeah, I think it’s a totally valid place to start and to say yeah, but ultimately we’re not trusting even the apostles. We’re really trusting the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit can move through the apostles as unworthy as they are as the New Testament makes abundantly clear-

Cy Kellett:

Oh, okay.

Joe Heschmeyer:

… then He can work through their successors because here’s the thing. Even a person who takes sola scriptura, to avoid falling into the trap that ends you up in something like Mormonism or Islam, you have to still believe that the overall process is guided by God. What I mean by that is this. Even if you say all of the interpretations of scripture for the last 2000 years were wrong … And that would be an extreme position even by Protestant standards, right? But even if you were to take that position, to be able to say the interpretations of scripture were wrong, you’re still assuming there is this known thing called scripture and that we can access it. How do we know even what the scriptures are? Well because they were faithfully handed on generation after generation-

Cy Kellett:

Oh, yeah.

Joe Heschmeyer:

… by these same guys. You just can’t cut off the line of transmission because the exact line of transmission that is where we get tradition is one in the same place as where we get scripture. Now, sometimes when Catholics say that, Protestants hear us saying something like, “Oh, yeah. These guys randomly chose which books are in the Bible and which books aren’t.” That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying no, no, the Holy Spirit protected the corpus of scripture, protected the body of written divine revelation through something that wasn’t written, through this generational succession of human beings, preserving it from any kind of material error.

Cy Kellett:

Okay.

Joe Heschmeyer:

So once you can trust that, then the idea that yeah, yeah, but also the interpretation of it and the way it ought to be understood, those kind of things, it’s not that much more to believe once you realize what you’re actually believing. It’s not like-

Cy Kellett:

I see.

Joe Heschmeyer:

… you just have the 1st century copy of all of the gospels. You’re trusting the intervening 20 centuries.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. All right. So fundamentally then, trust in tradition, if I’m gathering from what you said right at the beginning of your answer, is trust in the Holy Spirit. That’s where we’re-

Joe Heschmeyer:

Amen.

Cy Kellett:

Okay.

Joe Heschmeyer:

I would say one of the ways we get this wrong is we think of it as is revelation scripture alone or is revelation scripture plus tradition. It’s like no, no, the New Testament answer is that revelation in the fullest sense is the person of Jesus Christ. He is the image of the invisible God. Revelation literally is unveiling. How does God unveil himself most fully? Well in the life and person of Jesus. So then the question becomes is the only way we know about Jesus from the things that were written down and in the actual New Testament, and the answer is no. John even tells us if all of the things that Jesus did were written down, there wouldn’t be enough books in the world. So when the 1st century, for instance, they’re saying Jesus did this, this, this, and this, they’re attesting to the one and the same revelation as the inspired authors are in the New Testament.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. So however, let me give you a couple more objections. The Catholic way of thinking about tradition seems more Euro and the Protestant way of thinking about scripture seems more American. So I’m saying that your tradition thing is … Here’s what I mean. Europe does a great many things by tradition and the American thing is no, we have a written constitution. See? We don’t have … So even the British, they don’t have a written constitution. They have common law and then they have judicial rulings and so they didn’t … So we think in our mind the American constitutional system is an improvement on all of that. Isn’t it better to think of the Bible like a constitution and that’s our constitution and by having that written constitution, we don’t have to do all this European common law tradition stuff?

Joe Heschmeyer:

Yeah, I like the way you put that. I’ve never thought about that analogy.

Cy Kellett:

All right.

Joe Heschmeyer:

I get it. On an emotional level, yeah, that makes sense. I was a lawyer and common law is way more confusing than civil law-

Cy Kellett:

Right.

Joe Heschmeyer:

… except that when you read a really confusing bit of civil law, you really have to look to the courts and say, “Well how has this been understood? How has it been interpreted?” So you start to see the role of common law when you try to understand a statute. You start to see the role of it. Just to throw out a bomb, take the Second Amendment of the Constitution, right?

Cy Kellett:

All right. There you go. You decided not to do an easy one. Oh, okay.

Joe Heschmeyer:

People get different interpretations and the grammar in it is such that there have been multiple interpretations taken even by Supreme Court justices, by leading legal theorists, by people who I’m assuming are acting in good faith, come out differently as to what it means and how to understand it. Well that shows why there’s a need for some kind of interpretive body to understand the revelation, but this is also … If you will, think about the logic of revelation. It’s God revealing himself to us, but if we don’t understand what He’s saying, if we can’t make heads or tails out of it, if it’s just like He’s speaking a foreign language to us, then He’s not really revealed. He isn’t really revealed if we don’t get the revelation. So the whole point of scripture being revelatory is that we have to actually understand it. So the Protestant who says, “No, no, nobody understood it for 2000 years,” okay, then you didn’t have revelation for 2000 years. Then Jesus didn’t reveal himself. He didn’t reveal the Father.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah.

Joe Heschmeyer:

You’ve revealed the Father by your latest interpretation of him. That’s the logical kind of consequence of it. We have to believe just by virtue of the theology of revelation that God really can reveal himself in such a way that his people can understand it. Now, that’s his people broadly, right? That does not mean every individual Christian gets every doctrine correct. It just means Christianity is understandable. It just means it’s possible to be orthodox. It’s possible to understand. That’s a much lower bar than you or I are without doctrinal error or you or I are without-

Cy Kellett:

Right.

Joe Heschmeyer:

… parables that confuse us or something like that.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. Here’s my more slam dunk argument. Doesn’t Jesus himself condemn the traditions of men and following the traditions of men?

Joe Heschmeyer:

Yeah, He does in a way. He says it’s wrong to put the traditions of men over the written revelation of God, and the Pharisees were doing that. They were nullifying the written word of God by interpreting it away, by taking these interpretations where they created loopholes on their own without any kind of scriptural authority just to kind of structure society the way they wanted it structured. But there’s a couple things to notice here. First, He doesn’t say all tradition is bad. He specifically refers to manmade tradition or tradition of men. Even in that distinction, there’s implied the idea that not all tradition is traditions of men. Well when we get into what the word in Greek actually means, it means a thing handed on.

So for instance, St. Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, “So then brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you are taught by us either by word of mouth or by letter.” That’s sometimes translated as or by epistle. In other words, Paul very explicitly is saying the divine revelation is handed on in two modes, in letter, we know the written revelation, scripture, but also word of mouth. You have to hold to both. You can’t just say, “I’m going to follow it if it appears in writing, but I’m not going to listen if it is something that is orally proclaimed.” So that’s an important part of this idea. We don’t get to kind of pick and choose. Unfortunately, it’s not a total slam dunk.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. I have heard, however, and I have this on good authority that there are some Bibles that will translate what you just said as teaching and they’ll translate the one that Jesus said as tradition, but in Greek, it’s the exact same word. It does seem to me-

Joe Heschmeyer:

Yes.

Cy Kellett:

… that there’s a little bit of ideology in that translation.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Yeah. I think that’s a very fair way of saying it. The NIV, the New International Version, does this where if they like the tradition in question, they’ll call it a teaching. If they don’t like it, they’ll call it a tradition.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah.

Joe Heschmeyer:

They’re not faithfully translating the Greek. They’re creating a distinction that isn’t there because what Jesus is actually saying and what the New Testament is actually saying is that there are some traditions that are apostolic or divine in origin and there are some traditions that are manmade. Now, even among the manmade traditions, it doesn’t mean they’re automatically bad.

Cy Kellett:

Right.

Joe Heschmeyer:

They’re just not the same level as divine tradition. They’re not something handed down by God. They’re not something handed down authoritatively by the apostles. They’re something handed down by individual men. So to take a Protestant example, the sinner’s prayer if you’re familiar with this idea that there’s a form prayer you can pray to give your life over to Jesus, that’s not coming from the Bible, that’s not coming from the apostles, and no one really thinks it is. It’s a manmade tradition. It’s fine. It’s not a bad thing, but we should just recognize if someone takes that and holds it above scripture, now they’re out of whack.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. All right. So then let’s dig in a bit then because I think you’ve responded to the objections that I could come up with. So let’s get into the kind of the meat and potatoes of tradition then. Can you give me an example of something that is tradition and not scripture? Also, help me out if I’m making an unfair distinction because maybe it’s like well … Because you said there’s one revelation of God in Jesus Christ. So you’re really not looking for things that are separate from one another. They would have to be mutually reinforcing or they couldn’t be the revelation of God. Maybe I’m answering my own question here. Give me an idea of a tradition that-

Joe Heschmeyer:

Yeah. So I want to just say what we’re in now is deeper theological waters on which-

Cy Kellett:

Ah, finally.

Joe Heschmeyer:

… you’ll find Catholic theologians taking two different views. The technical distinction is called material sufficiency and formal sufficiency. So formal sufficiency says scripture is self-interpreting, you don’t need the church, you don’t need tradition outside of scripture itself, you don’t need any of that stuff. The church rejects that view-

Cy Kellett:

Okay.

Joe Heschmeyer:

… formal sufficiency, and you can look literally at 500 years of Protestantism and see yeah, when you just hand people a Bible and say, “Hey, figure it out yourself,” it’s not going to work and we know it’s not going to work. Even Protestants know it’s not going to work, that just handing people a Bible and go figure it out on your own, most Protestants would say that would be insane. That’s spiritually suicidal. They realize the need for an interpretive tradition. They just don’t know how authoritative that interpretive tradition should be treated.

Cy Kellett:

Okay.

Joe Heschmeyer:

So the other view is called material sufficiency which says divine revelation is contained in scripture, but the understanding of those scriptures takes the church, takes the role of extra-scriptural tradition. So in that view … And the most prominent advocate of that, I would say, is Pope Emeritus Benedict, the idea that like everything in tradition is contained in scripture in some form, but it just takes the explication of the early Christians on through the ages and in the role of the magisterium to explain, to teach what’s in the book in the same way that like if you’ve got a math class, you’ve got the book and you’ve also got the teacher because probably you’re going to need a little help understanding what’s in the book. That’s not a fault of the book. The book was never meant to stand alone. The book is meant to be taught. You see that within scripture itself.

Now, the other view Catholics can take is to say there’s not even material sufficiency, meaning God doesn’t intend to reveal everything, even everything meant for belief within scripture itself. The most obvious example of something that would probably fall in this category that’s held as de fide, as something worthy of belief, is the assumption of Mary because the assumption of Mary is kind of hinted at, it’s maybe implicit in Revelation 12 where we see Mary enthroned in heaven. Well she got there somehow.

Cy Kellett:

Right.

Joe Heschmeyer:

There’s kind of an implicit assumption there, but we don’t see just the black-and-white here you go, here’s Mary going into heaven-

Cy Kellett:

Right.

Joe Heschmeyer:

… partly because all but one of the books of the New Testament were probably written before her death. The only one that’s written afterward is Revelation and there we see her.

Cy Kellett:

Oh, yeah.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Maybe John’s gospel and Revelation, but John’s gospel, sorry, is describing the life and ministry of Jesus.

Cy Kellett:

Right. Yeah.

Joe Heschmeyer:

So everything is either before the death of Mary or it’s describing a period before that point. So in other words, there’s reasons why we wouldn’t expect to see the assumption very clearly laid out outside of Revelation and that’s what we find.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. So help me distinguish then between just a pious belief and a tradition of the church if we’re talking about something like the assumption of Mary because there’s many things that have been said about Mary and some of them believed for hundreds of years by large percentages of Christians that today, we would say, “No, that was a pious belief that persisted for a time, but that’s not part of the deposit of faith.” So how do I know that this tradition that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven and is there physically resurrected now, how do I know that that’s tradition?

Joe Heschmeyer:

Well ultimately because the church says, clarifies by saying authoritatively and infallibly-

Cy Kellett:

Okay.

Joe Heschmeyer:

… yes, this is to be believed. Before that point, you would have some Catholics how said, “I don’t know if this is true.” Certainly there’s a foundation for believing it from the scriptural evidence and from the way it’s been understood by the earliest Christians and from their own testimony about this and from the fact nobody claimed to have Mary’s body even when relics were in high demand. There’s all of this stuff that seemed to point to it, but you couldn’t say all Catholics have to believe in the assumption until the church dogmatically defined it. Now, before that, it was still widely believed, right? It’s still the fifth glorious mystery or the fourth glorious mystery. So you know that for centuries before it was dogmatically defined, it was treated as this is a for sure part of the faith.

Cy Kellett:

Right.

Joe Heschmeyer:

So we don’t want to take kind of a legalistic view as I believe nothing until the church tells me I have to, but if you want to say-

Cy Kellett:

Right.

Joe Heschmeyer:

… when do I have the authority to get to tell my neighbor like, “No, no, you have to believe this,” well that’s when it’s dogmatically defined.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. But let’s take another one that seems to me is obvious in scripture. There’s just robust overwhelming evidence for it in scripture, and that’s the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Okay. Even if I picked up the Bible and just read it cover to cover, unless I have some kind of, I don’t know, divine kind of downloading into my brain, I can’t go from that, what’s in scripture directly to what happens in mass every Sunday. So what I’m saying is even the things that are obvious, I mean it’s pretty hard to get around. I know people do get around the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, but I mean if He says to you over and over again, “Unless you eat my body and drink my blood, you shall not have life in you,” and He says it in a way that’s almost manic. I mean I’m not accusing the Lord of being a maniac, but it’s very heightened the way He says this over and over again. Okay, but even with all that, I need tradition even on the obvious things, it seems to me.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Yeah. So from Ignatius of Antioch written in 107, we see him talking about how the Eucharist is a litmus test for orthodoxy. So in his letter to the [Smyrnian 00:19:13] Christians, he talks about the gnostics. Now, the gnostics denied the incarnation. They denied the resurrection. You would think that’s where he would really hone in, but he doesn’t. So I think it’s chapter six or chapter seven, he says, “Have nothing to do with them because they deny that the Eucharist is the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Of course they do. If you don’t believe Jesus had a body, then you definitely don’t think the Eucharist is his body.

Cy Kellett:

Right.

Joe Heschmeyer:

So they had gotten themselves into this corner where they couldn’t affirm the real presence and he points to that and says, “Okay. We can’t touch them. We can’t have anything to do with them. We can’t treat them as part of our group because of that,” and he says, “Because they attack this, they’re endangering their own salvation,” because there’s this idea that you have to believe in this in order to rise again with Christ which if you read John 6, all of that’s there. Whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood will have everlasting life. So to reject that, in 107, this isn’t just Ignatius saying, “In my opinion, we should start-”

Cy Kellett:

No.

Joe Heschmeyer:

“… treating the Eucharist …” He’s saying everybody knows this about the Eucharist except these crazy heretics like the gnostics

Cy Kellett:

Right.

Joe Heschmeyer:

… who are so far afield that Protestants don’t want to claim them. They’re so far out to lunch that Protestants aren’t like, “Oh, yeah. They’re our spiritual forebears.”

Cy Kellett:

No, right. Yeah.

Joe Heschmeyer:

So when you have something like that, that leaves us with just two options. Either the church had already fallen into a universal apostasy by by 107, that John the apostle’s students, Polycarp and Ignatius, already misunderstand this most basic element of the theology of the church, of the theology of the sacraments, of the nature of Jesus and what his words meant. You’d have to say, “Okay. We can’t trust anything by 107,” or you’d have to say, “Yeah, the early church couldn’t be wrong on this.”

Cy Kellett:

Yeah, right.

Joe Heschmeyer:

So that’s where tradition really draws out that plain meaning of scripture.

Cy Kellett:

Yes, right. You can understand scripture as a thing that’s received into a community that’s doing the life of the church already so that when Jesus talks about baptism in the scripture, this is not the first time this has come up for the Christians. Even if they are the very first people to hear Mark’s gospel being read, they know what baptism is already. It’s received into a community that’s already doing what Jesus has commissioned it to do.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Yeah, that’s the thing that is so often missed in this conversation. So I will regularly hear Protestants say, “Well where’s the list of traditions?” It’s like that’s totally misunderstanding the way tradition works. It’d be like saying, “Where’s the list of every custom in your culture?” It’s like there isn’t a list.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah.

Joe Heschmeyer:

It’s a lived experience. It’s a lived manifestation of the gospel. So when you see the gospel being lived out and when everybody is baptizing, when everybody is saying, “Okay …” For instance when Peter says on Pentecost, “If you want to be converted, you need to be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins,” he’s showing in practice what baptism means. Now, that’s true even if it isn’t something written down. That one’s written down in Acts 2. Even if it hadn’t been written down, that would still have been true. There were presumably innumerable speeches and sermons and homilies given by the apostles articulating and fleshing out what all of this means in practice and how to live it, and very few of those are recorded in the New Testament because, again, there’s not an infinite number of books in the world. You got to-

Cy Kellett:

Right.

Joe Heschmeyer:

… have a certain number of things that you include and then you publish. So it’s that kind of idea. The interpretive tradition is something that’s lived out and experienced. So we have evidence of it from the writings of the early Christians, but it would be a mistake to reduce scripture or excuse me, to reduce tradition just to what’s written down. It’s what they lived. It’s the air they breathed. It’s how they lived and that is an ongoing thing in the life of the church.

Cy Kellett:

Yes.

Joe Heschmeyer:

To kind of reiterate a point I said before, it really comes down to could everybody screw it up. So if everybody is doing X-

Cy Kellett:

Right.

Joe Heschmeyer:

… either God’s church failed or we can trust X. That’s it. Those are the choices.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. Fair enough. We can … It changes the way you read the sixth chapter of John’s gospel in my view. If you realize the first time this was read publicly people were doing this, you see what I’m saying?

Joe Heschmeyer:

Yeah.

Cy Kellett:

It was read on the first day of the week while they were breaking the bread and blessing the cup and they were saying the body of the Christ and they were saying amen and all that. The scripture has a whole different meaning if you understand the community to whom that scripture was first read.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Yeah, I had kind of a light bulb moment similar to that with the road to Emmaus because I was going to mass at the cathedral in Washington, DC, the Cathedral of St. Matthew, and right above the tabernacle, it says, “He was known to them in the breaking of the bread,” which is from Luke’s account of the road to Emmaus. When you read it liturgically, when you see Jesus is walking with them, He preaches to them the Old Testament scriptures, He then tells them about his own life and explains how these things fit together, i.e. the homily, and then they gather around and He is made known to them in the breaking of the bread and that’s when they see him body and blood, soul and divinity-

Cy Kellett:

Yeah.

Joe Heschmeyer:

… and then He disappears leaving behind just the Eucharist and then they’re sent forth to go back to proclaim this to the apostles, that’s the mass.

Cy Kellett:

I know. Right. Yeah.

Joe Heschmeyer:

That’s the liturgy. It’s like, “Oh, I’d never read it.” I was like beautiful resurrection appearance and then it’s like no, no, no, there’s so much more going on there.

Cy Kellett:

The first time it’s read and for the first million times it’s read, it’s read in the context of people doing exactly what it’s describing. So they know it. They know what they’re receiving.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Yeah, Revelation 1 includes blessings for the person proclaiming the message and for the people listening to it. In other words, it’s presupposing a liturgical context-

Cy Kellett:

Right.

Joe Heschmeyer:

… for the proclamation of scripture. It’s presupposing everyone’s not just walking around with their pocket copy of the KJV. This is the time when you have massive scrolls and you have everything else. No, no, no, if you want scripture in the early days in the 1st century, you’re probably going to gather together in church and read it and pray or gather together with the one copy your local church has-

Cy Kellett:

Yeah.

Joe Heschmeyer:

… and read it together and pray. So it’s in these liturgical contexts. So it totally gives a different idea than when we read it out of context and try to make sense of it kind of backwards.

Cy Kellett:

Okay, but now let’s talk about the problem of a kind of lineage from … Because I think a lot of people will go, “Yeah, the 1st century people who first heard Luke or John or Mark or Matthew read, they knew what they were reading because they were in the apostolic context,” but we’re not in the apostolic context anymore and we can’t even talk to those people. We can’t call them up and say, “What did you think this meant in the context of what you were living?” Okay. So I draw this line forward and you’ve probably seen this where various Christian churches will do the timeline of Christianity and if it’s an orthodox church, you’ll see around 1054, the Catholic Church branches off in one direction and then later the Protestants will branch off or some other orthodox church that’s not in this. So the timeline gets you directly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church or the timeline gets you directly to modern Methodism or … Do you see?

Joe Heschmeyer:

Oh, yeah.

Cy Kellett:

So how do I know that the Polish Catholic Church or the old Catholic Church is not the Catholic Church or how do I know that Lutheranism is not that church and that the timeline doesn’t go from Jesus straight through Luther to the present day?

Joe Heschmeyer:

I think there’s a few ways.

Cy Kellett:

Okay.

Joe Heschmeyer:

One, the Reformers, basically by definition, admit that they’re doing something new. They might think of it as restoration, but they admit they’re not keeping continuity. They admit that there’s a break. Luther at one point calls himself a schismatic, but says his schism is justified. They aren’t really pretending to be in continuity with what came immediately before them. They’re claiming continuity with the imaginary past. They’re claiming that they’re living out what the early church really would have wanted or how it really would have lived. So there’s kind of a vague history they’re trying to reconnect to. They’re not in continuity with the real historical Christianity. They’re not …

A more radical example, Mormons do the same thing. They’re explicitly a restorationist movement. They say, “Yeah, the early Christians had it right for about maybe the first 200 years, and at some point it went wrong and then Joseph Smith has to restore and resurrect it.” Okay. So in all of that, I think the first thing you’re seeing is all of those are arguments that early Christianity failed. Now, why does that matter? Well within the New Testament if you remember Gamaliel, he gives a speech before the Sanhedrin and his argument is like have nothing to do with persecuting the apostles. Why? Because he says there have been plenty of messianic movements going on.

The messiah was supposed to come sometime in the 1st century at least during the reign of the Roman Empire. So there was really a messianic kind of spirit in the air. There had been pretenders, like fake messiahs, that had come along. He said if this is not of God, it’ll burn out. It’ll corrupt. It’ll collapse. If it is of God, you can’t destroy it. So the Protestant or the Mormon or the Muslim who says it did burn out is actually saying Gamaliel was right, it’s not of God. Basically, it’s saying Jesus failed Gamaliel’s test.

Cy Kellett:

I got you.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Which the Holy Spirit inspired to be included in the acts of the apostles. The Catholic and the Orthodox view is like no, no, no, no. You can’t believe in an global apostasy. You can’t believe in a great apostasy. You can’t believe-

Cy Kellett:

Yeah.

Joe Heschmeyer:

… that the whole church got it wrong. So that’s the first thing I’d say kind of at a macro level, that any of those beliefs cannot be right. The second is that in the lived tradition of the church, you can read what people said, what they believed. In other words, go to 200. Tertullian talks about apostolic succession and he mentions in there that all of the churches, all of the apostolic churches meaning all of the churches that were founded either by the apostles or by the followers of the apostles directly. So like Mark the Evangelist, he is the translator for St. Peter and then he goes and founds the church in Alexandria. Each of those churches keeps a list of every successive bishop. That’s what he says. Now, that’s the kind of thing at the time he’s saying it anyone could have gone out and fact-checked.

Cy Kellett:

Right.

Joe Heschmeyer:

So he’s just making this up? That’s ridiculous. It’s a crazy thing to make up. Irenaeus 20 years earlier says almost the exact same thing and he adds that … He even gives us the list from Rome and he explains the reason he’s giving us the Roman list is it’s a matter of necessity that every church should agree with that church. Well if I’ve got those pieces, then I either have to say somehow they screwed it up and lied about it … You’d have to say all of these apostolic churches didn’t just misunderstand a teaching but doctored their own records, made up their own imagined pasts and just all of them were preaching lies. Well if that’s the case, Christianity’s a bust, right? If you can’t trust them not to just lie en masse, then revelation’s hopelessly gone because you can’t say, “Yeah, I bet these liars kept the scriptures and kept them without corrupting them.”

Cy Kellett:

Right. Right. Yeah.

Joe Heschmeyer:

So if you accept that on the other hand and say, “Okay. I’ll accept that,” and accept what Irenaeus is saying about Rome being the first of these, I think you have the pieces you need even by 180 to 200 to really answer the great schism, the really answer all these other break-off groups, orthodox or Protestant or otherwise.

Cy Kellett:

Well before we conclude, my main sympathy here is with our fellow Catholics actually because often when a Protestant person realizes the truth of tradition, that person is the greatest Catholic for the rest of their life. They’re like the person that everyone’s like, “Really? I’ve had this my whole life and I’m kind of mediocre compared to you,” but among us Catholics, I think there’s a growing kind of … It seems to be growing in the modern period, but I don’t know. A growing kind of casualness about tradition as if it’s really a very malleable thing and we’ve lost sense of reverence for it. There’s much more of a sense of revolutionary sense, I suppose, that all modern people, we’re all afflicted with this idea that revolutions are how you get to the truth and it’s an affliction sincerely. You should never think that way, but we do. So I would just like to get you to talk to our fellow Catholics on this, not so much to try to persuade the Protestant but to say to that fellow Catholic why should you be reverent of the tradition and not just slightly revolutionary about it and waiting for it to reform itself.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Yeah, I love that. Let me speak into that. I think there’s two things. One, we often screw up the distinction between big T tradition in the sense of apostolic tradition, things handed down by God, things handed down authoritatively by the apostles, and small T traditions, the church does things this way but isn’t pretending to have gotten this from the 1st century, isn’t pretending to have … So the obvious example is meatless Fridays. Now, there is a practice of fasting on Friday going back to the 1st century. We see it in the Didache, but the idea that being a binding tradition on all Christians, the church has never said the apostles said we can never relax this, never said that.

So I mean literally today, I was reading [inaudible 00:33:36] Catholics saying, “Well how could this have been required in 1950 and okay in 1980?” It’s like well because the church can change the way we live. Just like how could we have mass at 9:30 and then next week it’s at 10 o’clock? Well because that’s the kind of thing that’s left up to us. How do we interpret how to live this out concretely? Those are small T traditions. There are a bunch of those, but because we often conflated small T traditions with large T traditions, when the church relaxed some of the small T traditions, this kind of accidentally almost created this idea that well maybe they can relax the large T traditions.

You see this all the time with conversations about ordination. Well maybe the church will start allowing married priests and women. Well okay, the idea of married priests, that’s in the realm of small T tradition. Sometimes we have it, sometimes we don’t. It’s up to the church to decide. The idea of women priests, the prohibition against that is big T tradition. Jesus chooses all men. Jesus sets up this thing and so JP2 is very clear the church doesn’t have the authority or the ability to change that. That’s a capital T kind of tradition. The danger we can run into out of a misguided understanding of tradition is to either treat the big T traditions as small T ones or the small T traditions as big T ones. We got to watch out for that because on the one hand, you can become kind of legalistic about other people saying, “Well …”

If someone says, “I want married priests,” we can have that conversation. That’s fine. It’s totally cool. There’s no one right answer in that, right? But if someone says, “I think we should have women priests,” okay, now we’re having a different kind of conversation about the authority and the nature of the church. That’s the kind of thing I’d point to. The second is what you call, I think rightly, the revolutionary spirit. So I think it kind of works backwards. What the church has universally done is guaranteed to be orthodox by God. You see what I mean? We can’t have a situation where the universal belief of the church is wrong. Some people have taken that almost as an invitation like, “Well if we can just convince everyone of this new doctrine-”

Cy Kellett:

Yeah, right.

Joe Heschmeyer:

“… then we’ll know the Holy Spirit must be protecting it.” Don’t mess with God like that. Don’t play. I want to repeat Gamaliel’s challenge. Have nothing to do with that because you could find yourself contending against God. When you think you can be the living manifestation of tradition and change teachings yourself, you’re on really, really dangerous kind of spiritual territory and you’re not going to win. If what we believe about tradition is true, you’re going to lose, you’re going to shipwreck your faith, and you’re probably gong to do a lot of damage to the church in the meantime.

So the appropriate response is what you already alluded to. We should treat tradition reverently. We should have a great esteem especially for capital T traditions, but even, I would argue, for a lot of the smaller T traditions because they’re probably related to the capital T traditions in ways we just don’t quite get. If you strip everything to the bare minimum of what must be believed, that’s like shooting for what’s the lowest grade I can get and still pass. That’s not a … Don’t be like that. Don’t be that guy.

Cy Kellett:

I needed you in college, man, to tell me that. It’s too late now. I’m not going back to school. I achieved my goal. I passed.

Joe Heschmeyer:

There you go. Hopefully, he wouldn’t mind me sharing this story, but Bishop [Baron 00:37:01] was the rector of [inaudible 00:37:03] and he was walking on campus and two seminarians who didn’t realize he was there were talking. One of them says to the other one, “What do you call a seminarian who gets all Ds and then gets ordained?” The answer is supposed to be Father, but Bishop Baron, overhearing this, interjects, “An idiot and that’s why the Reformation happens.” So don’t be like that.

Cy Kellett:

Bishop Baron is so mean. I am so tired of how mean he is. Well Joe, thanks very much. I appreciate you helping us talk about tradition.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Absolutely. My pleasure.

Cy Kellett:

All right. God bless you and I’m glad you’re here at Catholic Answers.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Thanks. I’m glad to be here.

Cy Kellett:

Main takeaway for me, you can trust tradition for the same reason you can trust the scriptures, because you can trust the Holy Spirit. I’m going to keep that one in my back pocket next time somebody tells me, “Isn’t that scripture idea kind of flimsy?” By the way, Joe Heschmeyer is the latest hire here at Catholic Answers and we’re delighted. He’s one of the world’s best apologists and we’re just delighted to get a chance to work with him. So if you get a chance, maybe send him an email and say, “Welcome, Joe, to Catholic Answers.” You can send us an email. [email protected] is our email address. [email protected] Maybe you want to propose a future program.

If you would like to subscribe to Focus, please do so wherever you get your podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Apple. Give us that five-star review. That will help to grow the podcast. Maybe write a word or two about why you like Catholic Answers Focus. You can support us by going to givecatholic.com. Give any amount you want from $1 to $1 billion. No donations over $1 billion please and put a little note in there to say it’s for Catholic Answers Focus. That way, we know the money will get to us. If you’re watching on YouTube, right down here, don’t forget to like and subscribe. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. We’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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