In 1971, Irish band the Dubliners had a hit with “Hand Me Down My Bible” about a hard-living sinner who repents. The refrain of the song is:
Oh oh glorio,
Now I’m the Lord’s disciple
Oh oh glorio,
Now hand me down my Bible
That’s a good jumping-off point to talk about Sacred Tradition, which is all about “hand-me-downs.”
The word comes from the Latin tradere, to deliver or hand over, which is itself a compound word made up of dare, “to give,” and the prefix trans, “over.” (That’s also the origin of the word traitor, which was used to describe Christians who cooperated with the Romans in handing over sacred things—or other Christians). Of course, the New Testament word for tradition isn’t from Latin but Greek, but it’s remarkably similar. The Greek word paradosis also means to hand on, and the verb form also has the secondary meaning of betrayal.
In both Latin and Greek, it’s handing something on . . . or handing someone over.
I mention all of this because something gets lost in our English word tradition. Both the Latin and Greek nouns come from verbs, but English doesn’t have a verb form of the word. So we end up thinking of a tradition as “the way we tend to do things,” when it actually is a thing handed on.
With that understanding, you see why Catholics and Protestants often talk past one another on this topic. Protestants tend to hear “custom or rule,” whereas Catholics mean “something passed on.” And it’s too bad, because you simply can’t have Christianity without Tradition.
Think about it this way. How do we:
- Have the biblical texts?
- Know that the Bible is trustworthy?
- Know which books belong in Scripture?
- Understand how they’re to be interpreted?
- Know information about Jesus, Mary, and the apostles that isn’t spelled out in Scripture?
The answer in every case involves trusting those who came before us: those who handed down the words of Scripture, handed down which books were inspired, and handed down how to interpret them. Each part is Tradition.
Jesus didn’t place a leather-bound New Testament directly into your hands. He created a Church, in which these texts were written, preserved, and passed on, under the ongoing guidance of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Jesus transmitted divine revelation via Tradition, so if you can’t trust Tradition, then you can’t trust the revelation.
Since Sacred Scripture is part of Sacred Tradition, that means Tradition is bigger. It tells us things about the Bible that the Bible doesn’t say about itself (for example, there’s nothing in the Bible that tells us which books belong in the Bible). The apostles recognized this about their own writings—that they were part of a broader transmission of the Faith.
That’s why, in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, St. Paul instructs his readers to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” The mode of transmission—written or unwritten—is irrelevant. It’s all Tradition.
The Second Vatican Council describes this relationship between Scripture and the rest of Tradition beautifully:
The apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (see 2 Thess. 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (see Jude 1:3). Now, what was handed on by the apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.
This tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. [….] The words of the holy fathers witness to the presence of this living tradition, whose wealth is poured into the practice and life of the believing and praying Church. Through the same tradition the Church’s full canon of the sacred books is known, and the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her; and thus God, who spoke of old, uninterruptedly converses with the bride of his beloved Son; and the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel resounds in the Church, and through her, in the world, leads unto all truth those who believe and makes the word of Christ dwell abundantly in them (see Col. 3:16).
As “one sacred deposit of the word of God” and “flowing from the same divine wellspring,” Scripture and Tradition “merge into a unity and tend toward the same end”—the reliable handing-on of the Faith.
Of course, not every theological hand-me-down is divine revelation traceable to Jesus through the apostles. Some things come from other sources, and these “man-made traditions” are fine if they help us understand the gospel, but they become a problem when they interfere with it. In Mark 6:7, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of abandoning God’s commandments in favor of the tradition of men. Some cite this verse as anti-Tradition, but it’s not. Rather, it’s against man-made tradition . . . when it interferes with the commandments of God.
The New Testament uses the word paradosis in exactly this dual way. In some cases, like 2 Thessalonians 2:15, it’s used for revealed, apostolic Tradition, and there it’s treated as sacred and binding. In other cases, like Mark 7:8, it’s used to refer to things handed on from other sources—and there it’s condemned if and when it interferes with adherence to the gospel. But a lot of Protestants don’t understand that Sacred Tradition is good, or even that there’s a difference between Tradition and man-made traditions.
One reason is the Protestant bias against the word tradition that is reflected in some Bible translations. The popular NIV, for example, translates paradosis as “tradition” any time it’s used negatively. But when paradosis is used positively, the NIV tends to change the word to “teachings” (even though that’s not really what paradosis means). So, for example, it renders 2 Thessalonians 2:15 as “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.”
And in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, where Paul warns the Thessalonians to “keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us,” the NIV again changes the word to “teaching.”
It’s important to realize and, when discussing Tradition with Protestants, to point out to them, that the biblical word to describe good hand-me-downs that we should accept is the exact same word used in all the places where bad, man-made hand-me-downs are rejected (when they obstruct the gospel).
The Bible doesn’t reject Tradition as inherently evil. Some Bible translations seem to, but that’s because translators put their own theological tradition over faithfully translating the sacred texts.