OBJECTOR: So explain what you mean by “Tradition.”
CATHOLIC: The Catholic Church believes that, in addition to the Bible, we need oral Tradition to know what the Bible teaches and to know the doctrines of the Christian faith that are not in the Bible, such as the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
OBJECTOR: That’s contrary to the Bible, which says that Scripture is sufficient for life and godliness. Take 2 Timothy 3:16–17, for example: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
CATHOLIC: Yes, it’s normal to cite 2 Timothy 3:16–17 in arguing that Scripture alone is sufficient for the Christian today. Let me explain why the Catholic Church does not agree. But before doing so, let me also clarify something about the nature of Tradition. We believe that the oral traditions passed down through the history of the Church are necessary, but it is important to distinguish between two uses of the word tradition.
On the one hand, there are many traditions in the church that are not binding on its members, such as praying the rosary. A good Catholic could choose not to use these traditions his whole life and still be a good Catholic (although one could not be a good Catholic without praying in some form). There are other traditions that are temporary and changing even though they are binding as long as they are in force. For example, there was a change in the requirements for fasting before receiving Holy Communion. It used to be all night from midnight to the time when one received Communion. This was then reduced to three hours before reception and finally shortened to one hour. The time of the fast has changed, but it is binding for Catholic s to follow the rule as long as it is in force. These traditions are with a little t.
OBJECTOR: So what’s the other kind of tradition?
CATHOLIC: It’s doctrinal or dogmatic Tradition—tradition with a big T—which every Catholic is required to believe because it is part of the deposit of faith. It includes things like the Immaculate Conception of Mary and the infallibility of the pope. If you can agree to focus on this doctrinal Tradition for a moment, we can discuss its grounding in Scripture and history.
OBJECTOR: Sure. Even though I think the first kind of tradition is also detrimental to a Christian’s faith.
CATHOLIC: Well, look at it this way: If you can show that this dogmatic Tradition is false or harmful to the Christian, it follows by implication that the lesser traditions should go by the wayside too.
OBJECTOR: Okay, I see your point. This last kind—Tradition as you call it—is an unwarranted addition to the simplicity of the gospel as found in the Bible. And God’s word gives very stern warnings to those who would add their own traditions to the gospel. Take Revelation 22:18, for example: “I warn every one who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If any one adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book.” And 2 Timothy 3:16–17, which I quoted above, shows that it is Scripture that builds up the man of God, not human traditions, whether with a big T or and a little t.
CATHOLIC: I don’t think that passage says exactly what you want it to say. Scripture certainly has the power to do all the things that this verse says. But look more closely at what Paul is saying. You will agree, I am sure, that the writings we call the New Testament were not yet collected together as Scripture when Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy. So when Paul speaks of Scripture in this verse, he is certainly referring to the Old Testament and not the entire Bible as we now have it. In fact, in verse 15 he refers to the “sacred writings” with which Timothy has been acquainted from childhood. This can mean only the Old Testament.
But if we read his words as implying that Scripture is sufficient with no need of Tradition, then he would be saying that the Old Testament is sufficient. I don’t think any conscientious Christian would want to say that we don’t need the New Testament to have the kinds of teaching and reproof that Paul says in verse 16.
OBJECTOR: Oh, I agree. But we can legitimately extend Paul’s words in verses 16 and 17 to the New Testament as well. Such a step is not too far of a stretch. If Paul views the Old Testament as Scripture sufficient for the purpose he enumerates in verse 16, we can certainly say that the apostle would agree with applying these same words to the New Testament.
CATHOLIC: Sure. Such an extension wouldn’t be much of a leap. But the word that Paul uses here is profitable, not sufficient. The normal word for “sufficient” in Greek that Paul uses elsewhere is hikanos. In 2 Timothy 3:16, he uses the word ophelimos, which is closer to the meaning of “profitable” or “useful.” Something can be profitable without being sufficient. In other words, it can be a necessary condition without being a sufficient one. In fact, that is what the Catholic Church would say. Scripture is necessarybecause it is the written revelation of God himself. But that does not mean that it is sufficient for every purpose.
OBJECTOR: You need to attend to the context more carefully. Verse 17 says, “that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” If a man is to be complete, he must have available to him all that is necessary for his work. Don’t you agree that this is what Paul is saying?
CATHOLIC: Your logic is sound, but the word translated in verse 17 as “complete” is artios, a word that can also be translated as “prepared.” Now, you will concede that there is a difference between being prepared and being complete. In light of the next word used in verse 17 (equipped), I would take Paul’s meaning to be that the Scriptures are useful and profitable for equipping the man of God for God’s work, not that they were intended to be sufficient for every purpose.
OBJECTOR: Certainly Scripture is not sufficient for every purpose such as biology or astronomy, but it is sufficient for faith and morals. Isn’t this what Paul is speaking about?
CATHOLIC: Yes, that’s probably the scope of his reference. But there is an even more telling reason why we should not pit Scripture against Tradition by appealing to this passage in Timothy. In these pastoral epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), Paul actually appeals to the notion of Tradition as a necessary and valuable supplement to the Old Testament, which he referred to in 2 Timothy 3:16–17.
OBJECTOR: I don’t see anywhere in the pastoral epistles where Paul appeals to Tradition. There isn’t even the slightest suggestion that we should add something to Scripture.
CATHOLIC: No, we shouldn’t add anything to God’s revelation. But again, understand that Tradition (with a big T) is not an addition to the pure word of God. It is God’s word handed down in verbal form from generation to generation. Some of this was then put into what we call the Bible today.
OBJECTOR: Well, I don’t see Paul pointing Timothy and Titus to any verbal transmission. My biblical concordance does not list any occurrences of the word tradition (paradosis) or the cognate verb for “to hand down” (paradidomi) in the pastoral epistles. So how can Paul be referring them to Tradition?
CATHOLIC: The words for “tradition,” whether noun or verb, do not occur in these letters, but the concept of Tradition certainly does. Seeing this requires a careful reading of the pastoral epistles. If we limit ourselves to quoting selected verses, we will probably miss the deeper meaning of Paul’s words. Inevitably, we must point to specific verses, but they must be understood in the context of the whole.
OBJECTOR: Agreed. A careful biblical interpreter must pay attention to context.
CATHOLIC: A slow, attentive reading of the pastoral epistles reveals that Paul is exhorting Timothy and Titus to hold fast to that which they received verbally from Paul. The word for “teaching” (didaskalia) occurs many times in these letters. Sometimes, the emphasis seems to fall on the activity of teaching, and at others on the content of what is taught. In particular, 1 Timothy 1:10 seems to emphasize the content when it speaks of “whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.”
OBJECTOR: Yes, and in 1 Timothy 4:13, Paul says, “Till I come, attend to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching, to teaching.” You see how Paul emphasizes the importance of Scripture in connection with that teaching.
CATHOLIC: Absolutely—Scripture is important in Paul’s teaching. I want to show only that Paul also emphasizes the importance of his hearers holding to what was passed down verbally. Read 2 Timothy 1:13–14 carefully: “Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.” Now the phrase “sound words” or “sound teaching” occurs seven times in the pastoral epistles (cf. 1 Tim. 1:10; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9, 13; 2:1, 2).
OBJECTOR: I am afraid that I don’t see the relevance of these verses to your doctrine of Tradition.
CATHOLIC: Ask yourself what the content of these “sound words” or “sound teaching” was. Was it the same as the Scripture that Paul and his hearers had available to them at that time (i.e., the Old Testament)? If it was, then the equation between these “sound words” and the Bible seems justified. But a close examination of the context suggests that it is not the Bible that Paul is referring to.
OBJECTOR: What else could it be?
CATHOLIC: Look at 1 Timothy 1:10–11 again. The last phrase of verse 10 is further defined by the first phrase of verse 11: “whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.” In other words, the content of these “sound words” is the gospel—the good news about Jesus that Christ himself had entrusted to Paul. Even though Old Testament Scripture predicted the coming of Christ, the fullness of the gospel came to Paul by revelation, as Paul says explicitly in Galatians 1:12: “For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
So the “sound words” that Timothy and Titus are to hold to is the verbal transmission of the gospel that Paul had taught them. He calls them “the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me” (2 Tim. 1:13). Paul exhorts them to hold on to his verbal teachings. This is exactly what the Catholic Church believes we Christians should do. We should hold on to all that the apostles taught, whether it came in writing or in verbal form. This is exactly the same thing that Paul urges in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, “So, then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.”
Paul is telling Timothy and Titus the same truth. He is telling them to hold and teach the truths that they heard from Paul’s mouth—things that were not yet contained in Scripture, but were passed down orally.
OBJECTOR: I have no problem with the verses you cite because they were very applicable in a time when the New Testament was not yet completed. But now that Scripture is complete, that “pattern of sound words” is found in the New Testament and we no longer need oral Tradition.
CATHOLIC: So would you say that Paul’s exhortation to hold to his verbal teaching no longer applies?
OBJECTOR: The exhortation applies to the content of Paul’s teaching, not to the process of verbal transmission. Now that the content of the verbal transmission is embodied in Scripture, we no longer need the verbal teaching that took place in the time before the formation of the New Testament. Thus, today, all we need is Scripture.
CATHOLIC: Your distinction between the content of the gospel and the process by which it came down to us is curious. Isn’t it an arbitrary distinction to say that one thing (content) applies while the other (process) does not? That distinction results in an ironic turning of the tables. For you to maintain your position that Scripture is sufficient, you are forced to say that part of Paul’s exhortation in Scripture no longer applies. Catholic s, on the other hand, take Paul’s exhortation in Scripture with the utmost seriousness and accept that both the content of the gospel and the process by which it came still apply today. That is why we insist on the importance of oral Tradition. The inspired apostle says in essence to hold to the oral Tradition of the gospel that we have received.