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Sacred Scripture Depends on Sacred Tradition

Jesus spoke to his disciples long before the things he taught were written down

It is historical fact that man communicated orally before he wrote things down. Whether one puts the beginning of mankind at 5000 B.C. or 5,000,000 B.C., there is no archeological evidence of any written communication earlier than 4000 B.C.

The outside date any Scripture scholars are willing to give for the beginning of the writing down of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, is approximately 1450 B.C. Yet the Torah conveys facts relating to God’s creating the universe and events that happened as far back as circa 1850 B.C., when God brought Abram “from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan” (Gen. 11:31). Obviously, unless we were to dismiss the validity of the entire Bible, we must admit the Jews had an accurate oral tradition (from the Latin traditio, meaning “handed or passed down”) centuries prior to its being recorded in writing.

The life of a human being works similarly. Once born, it learns to speak long before it can write. It learns what is right and wrong from what its parents say and do. Only after years of upbringing does a child can learn to read and write. And so the life of a human being parallels that of Sacred Scripture: Oral tradition necessarily precedes the act of writing.

The same is true for the New Testament. Jesus spoke to his disciples long before the things he taught were written down. While tradition means a “handing down,” Sacred Tradition means the handing down of divine revelation from one generation of believers to the next, as preserved under the divine guidance of the Catholic Church established by Christ.

The Second Vatican Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), defines Sacred Tradition as what “the apostles who, by their oral preaching, by example, and by observances handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with him, and from what he did, or what they learned from the prompting of the Holy Spirit” (DV 7). Sacred Tradition, of which Sacred Scripture is a part, is a deeply penetrating, living reality. It is transmitted to us through the practices of the Church since apostolic times. These include official professions of faith, from the Apostles’ Creed (circa A.D. 120) and Nicene Creed (325) to the Credo of the People of God by Pope Paul VI (1968); the official teachings of the 21 ecumenical councils of the Church, from Nicea I (325–381) to Vatican II (1962–65); the writings of Church Fathers and doctors; papal documents; sacred Scripture; sacred liturgy; and even Christian art that portrays what we believed and how we worshiped over the centuries.

Many non-Catholics today claim to base their faith on the Bible alone, a doctrine known as sola scriptura. This was a phrase coined by the Reformation Protestants who broke away from the Church in the 1500s. In addition to rejecting papal authority in all matters, daily governance, teaching authority, et cetera, the Protestants reject Sacred Tradition.

But where did the Bible come from? It came from the Church, not vice versa. In apostolic times most people were illiterate. So what Christ said and did was passed on orally. Christ instructed the apostles were to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). How could Our Lord order them to “preach the gospel” at a time when the gospels themselves did not exist in written form? Unless one is to accuse our Lord of being unreasonable, the only answer is that the gospel (“good news”) already existed in oral form as a part of the Sacred Tradition of the Church, “handed on . . . from the lips of Christ” (DV 8).

From the year of Christ’s Resurrection until roughly 100, the New Testament itself was not completely written. And in the view of many nothing was written prior to the year 50. Yet this was a period of tremendous growth for the Church. How could it have grown intact, with the same teachings being passed on orally and consistently, unless the Holy Spirit was safeguarding the transmission of Sacred Tradition? How were so many converted without the aid of Sacred Scripture, if not with the aid of Sacred Tradition?

Many Protestant churches, in order to circumvent the Sacred Tradition issue, maintain that the Catholic Church fell into error at some point before the Reformation. And they are somehow in a position to judge where God and his Church have gone wrong.

But Sacred Scripture contains many of Christ’s promises to protect and safeguard his Church until the end of time. He tells the apostles, “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Again he promises, “I will pray to the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16–17). Jesus promises, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13). And Paul calls the Church “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). These verses are quite clear: The one, true Church Christ founded cannot err because God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived, protects it for all time.

Another place Sacred Scripture is quite clear is the divine origin of the papacy and therefore its divine authority. Our Lord says to Peter, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matt. 16:18–19).

A common Protestant argument against the Catholic interpretation of this passage is that our Lord’s words refer only to Peter and nobody after him. But would the Creator of the universe, who took the awesome trouble to become man in order to save us from our sins, leave us without a competent guide after Peter? Did God not have enough foresight? Do not human families, governments, and even corporations institute appropriate structures to insure smooth transitions of power? Could our Lord have somehow forgotten this or not be concerned enough with the man’s welfare?

If, when left on his own, man had ruined and perverted life since the fall of Adam and Eve, made things worse at the tower of Babel, killed God’s prophets, and ultimately crucified God himself, do you think he would leave us without a clear succession of vicars on earth? I doubt it. In denying the clear meaning of Matthew 16:18–19, Protestants actually reject some of what they propose to accept completely and entirely: namely, Sacred Scripture.

Sacred Scripture positions itself as a part—albeit a very important part—of a much bigger picture: Sacred Tradition. At the end of his Gospel, John tells us that not everything taught by Christ was written down: “There are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

The things Paul taught orally he considered Sacred Tradition: “Follow the pattern of the sound words that 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” (2 Tim. 1:13–14). Then he elaborates further, “And what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). Paul describes—in Sacred Scripture—exactly how Sacred Tradition is passed on: by hearing—in another word, orally.

At another time, Paul writes that Sacred Tradition may be handed on orally or by writing. “To this he called you through our Gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:14–15).

God, out of the sheer, gratuitous goodness of his heart, has guaranteed the full integrity of divine revelation being simultaneously preserved and transmitted from one generation of believers to the next. Its fullness is embodied in his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the teachings he passed on to his apostles by his words and deeds. The apostles in turn communicated this deposit of faith to others by their words and deeds. Only some of what our Lord said and did they wrote down. “The apostles entrusted the ‘sacred deposit’ of the faith (the depositum fidei), contained in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, to the whole of the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 84). To this day, divine revelation is transmitted by two sources: Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. Therefore, “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God committed to the Church” (DV 10).

These two sources of divine revelation which make up this one “sacred deposit” are safeguarded and defended by the Sacred Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church), whose job it is to guarantee the authenticity of the message while at the same time remaining its servant:

“The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or spoken, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously, and explaining it faithfully. In accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed” (DV 10).

The Sacred Magisterium is embodied in the living teaching office and authority of the papacy. Immediately after declaring Peter the first pope, our Lord gives him the “keys to the kingdom of heaven,” so that whatever the papacy declares “bind[ing] on earth shall be bound in heaven,” and whatsoever the Papacy declares “loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” It is here that Sacred Scripture confirms the reality and power of the Sacred Magisterium.

The subject of purgatory provides a clear-cut example of how Sacred Tradition works. Protestants object that purgatory is unbiblical. The Catechism explains the doctrine of purgatory in this way: “All those who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (1030). The Catechism cites Sacred Scripture (1 Cor. 3:15, 1 Peter 1:7, Matt. 12:31, and 2 Macc. 12:46); it cites Sacred Tradition (three ecumenical councils—Lyons, Florence, and Trent); it cites a papal encyclical (Benedictus Deus by Pope Benedict XII); and it cites two Church Fathers who are also doctors of the Church (Gregory the Great and John Chrysostom). Or we can quote just the Scripture passages: “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only through fire” (1 Cor. 3:15). Or, “Therefore, he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Macc. 12:46).

Or, quite firmly, with full certitude because of Sacred Tradition, we can say we believe the doctrine of purgatory simply because that is what the Catholic Church teaches.

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