Our culture has acquired a certain comfort with Christianity that at times blinds us to facts about the Catholic faith that may be peculiar to the unevangelized. One such fact is that Jesus never wrote a book. This seems particularly odd, given that many Christians, especially Evangelicals, hold that the primary way of coming to know Jesus is through a book, the Bible.
Yet Christ never wrote anything down. It isn’t recorded that he ever asked his disciples to write anything down. This raises a question: if Jesus didn’t write a book, how did he intend to communicate his revelation to the people of his day and the generations to come?
In the St. Matthew’s Gospel, we find a summary of Christ’s intent:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?”
And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (16:13-19).
Although this passage and its many layers are central to a proper understanding of Catholicism, the most important for our inquiry is this: the concept of “church” isn’t a later development of the Christian faith; it’s the primary vehicle by which the truth of Our Lord is to be known and passed on. Note this emphasis on the Church alongside how Scripture speaks about Scripture. The last verse of the Gospels reads:
But 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).
Scripture does not contain the full account of Christ’s ministry. It is only part of the story, a story that takes a tragic turn for those who attempt to come to know Christ by Scripture alone. We want to experience the fullness of Jesus Christ. It seems ill-advised to hold that God came to Earth and then gave future generations no means by which to know him with certainty.
In order to understand Christ and how we can come to know him with certainty, let’s examine three preliminary questions about how Christ intended his Church to proclaim the gospel to all ages.
1. How has God revealed himself?
Understanding how we come to know Jesus Christ is part of the larger question of how we come to know God at all. Catholicism offers many insightful terms and phrases, and one central to this inquiry is divine pedagogy (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 53). In ancient Greece, the paidagogos was a slave who would take a child by the hand and lead him to and from school. The slave helped educate the child, and this educative aspect gives us English words such as pedagogue, meaning “teacher,” and pedagogy, meaning “the manner in which one teaches.”
When we speak of a divine pedagogy, we are referring to how God takes humanity by the hand and teaches us about himself. As the Church notes, “It pleased God, in his goodness and wisdom, to reveal himself and to make known the mystery of his will” (CCC 51).
In the Old Testament, God’s pedagogy was to reveal himself gradually over time. Abraham comes to understand God has a chosen people; Moses receives the name of God, the “I AM”; David is told that his descendent will sit on his throne for all eternity; and the prophets speak of a Messiah and “the expectation of a new and everlasting Covenant intended for all” (CCC 64).
In the New Testament, with the coming of Christ comes a change in how God reveals himself to humanity. Jesus Christ is not simply another gradual revelation but is “the Father’s one, perfect, and unsurpassable Word” (CCC 65). St. John of the Cross reflects: “In giving us his Son, his Only Word (for he possesses no other), [the Father] spoke everything to us at once in his sole Word . . . because what he spoke before to the prophets in parts, he has now spoken all at once” (quoted in CCC 65).
Christ is not another gradual truth about God. He is God, and he is Truth. Today, man does not come to a better understanding of God through new revelation but by contemplating the inexhaustible revelation of Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of the Father.
2. How is the fullness of Christ passed on to all people?
At his Ascension, Christ tells his apostles:
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-21).
Known as the Great Commission, this command makes clear that the apostles must preach the totality of what Christ has taught them—that is, the gospel—to all nations throughout all time. “God graciously arranged that the things he had once revealed for the salvation of all peoples should remain in their entirety throughout the ages and be transmitted to all generations” (CCC 74). The vehicle by which the fullness of Jesus Christ is transmitted is Sacred Tradition.
Sacred Tradition is an apostolic tradition, meaning it is rooted in the apostles and their relationship with Christ, and comes to us in two ways: oral and written. The oral tradition is exemplified
. . . by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received—whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 76).
Recall that last sentence of the Gospel of St. John: “But 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” (21:25). It is the oral tradition, rooted in apostolic teaching, that ensures that which was not reduced to writing in Scripture is not lost.
St. Paul, who St. Thomas Aquinas calls “the Apostle,” tells the Church in Thessalonica to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (II Thess. 2:15). In fact, St. Paul’s letters themselves are indicative of the importance of the oral tradition. They are not theological textbooks; they’re supplements to the apostolic preaching that has already occurred. The letters, called epistles, are in fact someone else’s mail that encapsulates only part of a larger conversation.
This is not to denigrate the written apostolic tradition, Sacred Scripture, but rather to place it within the context of the larger apostolic teaching. Again, Christ’s intention was not focused on the writing but on the proclamation of the Gospel by his apostolic community, the Church.
3. Who tends to the development of Sacred Tradition?
In his famous An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, St. John Henry Newman wrote that Jesus Christ is to Sacred Tradition what an acorn is to an oak tree (University of Notre Dame Press 2007 edition, 73-74, 190-91, 363). The acorn contains the fullness of everything the oak tree may become. The growth of the trunk and its branches is organic and ordered, never contradicting itself and never adapting something alien or artificial. The development of Sacred Tradition blossoms from a fidelity to and a contemplation of Jesus Christ.
In contrast, modern man often views Christianity as a bubbling mountain brook (Newman, ibid., 40). Like the brook, Christianity may have been pure at its source, but over time it has been intermixed with the various sediments and residues of the ages. By the time the water comes to us, it is an opaque, muddy mess, and humanity must recover whatever elements of truth it may.
The latter analogy denies the reality of the divine pedagogy by denying that God gave us any way to know him after the coming of his Son. However, Newman’s acorn analogy allows the truth of Jesus Christ to branch through the ages and provide a consistent understanding of Christ the Eternal Word to all peoples in all times.
It is the bishops, the successors to Christ’s apostles, who tend and nurture Sacred Tradition. The Church teaches:
In order that the full and living gospel might always be preserved in the Church, the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority.” Indeed, “the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time” (CCC n. 77).
It is a claim of both history and fidelity. Scripture testifies to Christ’s intent to start a Church; therefore, the true Church of Jesus Christ must be able to demonstrate its historical connection to Christ. Yet apostolic succession is not reducible to a historical argument but rather encompasses a fidelity to Christ and his teachings—a mandate to pass on the fullness of Jesus Christ without invention or compromise. While the doctrine of bishops (and priests and deacons) merits its own study, here Sacred Tradition provides a quality introduction to the necessity of such a role within Christianity. It also provides a preliminary glimpse at the role of the papacy.
The pope has been called the “advocate of Christian memory” who holds the Church to the teachings of Christ regardless of the challenges and trends of the age (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Values in a Time of Upheaval, Ignatius Press, 95). The pope, the successor to St. Peter, is the rock upon which the Christ built his Church, because it is the papacy that carries a special vocation to ensure the Church adheres to the fullness of Jesus Christ in all places and times.
Two objections to Sacred Tradition
Let us consider two objections: first, that history demonstrates that bishops are sinners and relying on them to transmit the fullness of Jesus Christ is unwise; and second, that Christianity has no need for such a role in order for a Christian to experience Jesus Christ.
1. If bishops are sinners, how can we have certainty in the Gospel they transmit? Bishops, including popes, are sinners in need of the mercy of God. If bishops are capable of sin—even great sin—how can we have certainty in the gospel they transmit?
Jesus teaches that it is the Holy Spirit who ensures that the gospel the Church proclaims is the fullness of the gospel proclaimed by Jesus Christ. Our Lord taught:
I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 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. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you (John 16:12-14; cf. 14:25-26, CCC 79).
The certainty of the gospel proclaimed by the Church hinges not on the holiness of bishops but on the holiness of God. This is not to imply the holiness of the Church’s ministers is inconsequential but rather that it is the Holy Spirit that leads the Church into the truth of Jesus Christ. Our Lord prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane for his Church to remain unified, and it is the soul of the Church, the Holy Spirit, who animates it as the one body of Christ (John 17; CCC 813).
The Holy Spirit works through fallen men to pass on the fullness of divine revelation. Our Lord promised the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church, but a Church that cannot proclaim the fullness of Jesus Christ, the means of our salvation, has failed; thus, it is the Holy Spirit who ensures the Church stays true to its mission for the glory of God and the salvation of all men.
2. Why does Christianity need Sacred Tradition? Christianity could not exist in any recognizable form without the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity nor without the Creed or the canon of Scripture. Even in the landscape of modern Protestantism, where the very contours of the religion are subject to the personal opinion of the individual, there still exists a strong notion that to bear the descriptive title of “Christian,” one must believe that Jesus is God and God is triune.
Yet the origin of the doctrines and their terms rests in the Catholic Church. It was the pope and the bishops gathered together in the Holy Spirit who proclaimed the orthodox understanding of who Jesus Christ was and gave us the Creed and the doctrine of the Trinity (Council of Nicaea, A.D. 325, and Council of Constantinople, A.D. 381, respectively). Moreover, it was the Church that decided to promulgate a New Testament as a collection of apostolic writings, to determine that such writings were inspired by the Holy Spirit, and to select which apostolic books met that standard (Council of Rome, A.D. 382; ratified at Hippo 393, Carthage 397 and 419, II Nicaea 787, Florence 1442, and Trent 1546).
To wit, the Bible is a Church document. Even seeking to understand the bare minimum of belief to which one must adhere to bear the title of “Christian” runs contrary to the divine pedagogy that seeks to pass on the fullness of Jesus Christ to all ages.
There exists an irony that those who protest against the authority of the Church would attempt to do so by adhering to doctrines and canons set by that same authority. If the individual Christian has the ability to determine when the Church acted with divine certitude and when it did not, then it is not the Church but the individual who determines the religious beliefs of Christianity. Such an autonomous relativism runs contrary to the divine pedagogy and the intent of Jesus Christ—especially in his words to St. Peter (Matt 16:13:19), on the role of the Holy Spirit (John 16:12-14), and in his prayer for Church unity (John 17).
We must ask ourselves as Christians: are we living the Christianity Christ intended? A Christianity without the Church, without Sacred Tradition, is fragmented. A Christian may spend his whole life wondering what true Christianity is when he should have the freedom to simply live it. To recreate the faith through personal discernment is exhausting and ultimately impossible, and simply reducing the faith to its bare minimum denies the fullness of Christ given to the apostles.
We were meant to receive Christ, the fullness of Christ—not to wonder who Christ is but to spend our days being Christ to others. In a 2018 pastoral letter, Bishop David Konderla of the Diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma, wrote:
As faithful Catholics, we are called to regular self-examination to protect us from lives of sin and complacency. We are called daily to repentance and conversion to Christ. We are called to measure ourselves against the teaching of Christ and His Church, not our own imaginations or standards. We must receive the Jesus Christ who came 2,000 years ago, not create a “Jesus” who meets the fashions and fads of this age (God Builds a House, 6).
It is often said that Christianity is not a buffet. One cannot pick and choose which doctrines to accept. Yet the analogy is flawed. It is not we who elect to choose anything. Rather, the Church is like a loving mother who sets the plate for her children. It is ours to receive what Christ has intended for us from that which he has given us: the Church.
Why didn’t Jesus write a book? Because he gave us the gift of his Church and its Sacred Tradition.