Traditions (2)

In continuing to defend against the biblical attacks presented in 21 Reasons to Reject Sola Scriptura, the attention is now turned to a very important issue: Tradition. Rome denies the Bible is alone sufficient as a rule of faith for Christian life. The additional standards Rome requires are the Church and her sacred Tradition.

The idea of the infallibility of the church will be dealt with further, and has already been dealt with throughout this series. However, this is the first time Tradition is being dealt with isolated.

Reason #2 in the article states:

“The Bible Indicates that In addition to the Written Word, we are to accept Oral Tradition”

Before examining the biblical evidence cited, the first refutation of this position is that Rome cannot even decide what she means when speaks of “tradition.” What is Tradition?

Partim-Partim versus Material Sufficiency

The Protestant claim is that all of the traditions Paul taught to the church in Thessalonica, which God holds His Church accountable to, are contained within the finished Scriptures. That is why it was suggested that the burden of proof is on the Papist to provide sufficient proof of a Tradition tracing back to a sermon from Paul at that church. Rome has not infallibly defined every single thing Paul taught to the church in Thessalonica, thus, they need to show Protestants where these Traditions come from and how they know them to be apostolic.

Many Catholics claim this is not possible because Scripture is materially sufficient (M.S.). This is a kind of qualified sufficiency rather than the formal sufficiency claimed by Protestants. Material sufficiency is the idea that all of Rome’s Traditions are either explicitly or implicitly contained in the Sacred Scriptures. Thus, they would not seek to demonstrate these traditions outside of Scripture.

Not all Catholics have agreed that the Scriptures are even materially sufficient, which is the basis for the very need of Tradition. They argue Tradition is, in and of itself, a separate deposit of the faith, a separate authority; it is a different mode or source altogether which contains apostolic tradition. Thus, if something is found in the Tradition, it does not need to be found in Scripture because it is found in something equally authoritative and infallible. This view is known as the Partim-Partim view of Scripture (from the Latin for Partly). Thus, the term “partly” is important. Of all of the theology God expects us to know, those who hold to the Partim-Partim view of Scripture and Tradition would say part of God’s revelation is in the Bible, and part of it is found elsewhere, and many of their Roman Catholic counterparts would disagree.

The author of the article itself subtly brought these contradictory opinions up,

“The Catholic Church teaches that Sacred Tradition contains nothing whatsoever that is contrary to the Bible. Some Catholic thinkers would even say that there is nothing in Sacred Tradition which is not also found in Scripture, at least implicitly or in seminal form. Certainly the two are at least in perfect harmony and always support each other.”

The challenge to the Partim-Partim position stands: prove it. Prove these traditions come from an apostle. Typically, the way they do this is by appealing back to the church. They believe these Traditions are Traditions because the church says so (Sola Ecclesia), which is of course begging the question. No attempt can be made to infallibly demonstrate these Traditions and their apostolic lineage.

The M.S. position has an entire host of problems, primarily the particular exegesis of passages its adherents claim contain “seeds” of Tradition. However, their main issue seems to be that they have just conceded the Protestant position of the passage in question. When Paul tells the Thessalonicans to “hold fast” to both the oral and written traditions, the Protestant argues that, today, all the necessary oral are now written. That is our argument, and it seems the M.S. view is forced to give us a hearty “Amen!”

The problem for both of these positions is that these positions even exist. Where is the great infallible church to come in and decide between the two? Isn’t that the job? Doesn’t this entire article argue against Sola Scriptura because there is no final authority to decide on differing interpretations? What good is the authority of Rome if it can’t bring about the consistency Rome requires Protestants to have? This led Eric Svendsen, in his book Evangelical Answers to say,

“The disagreement about the nature of Tradition within Catholicism, as well as the absence of concrete examples, leaves Catholic Tradition open to legitimate questions about its validity” (Svendsen, 86).

Tradition VS tradition

An additional point in regards to Rome’s Tradition that needs to be addressed is that the article only serves to validate some of the claims made earlier in these blog posts, particularly, Sola Ecclesia.

“Of course one must differentiate between Tradition (upper-case “T”) that is part of divine Revelation, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, Church traditions (lower-case “t”) that, although good, have developed in the Church later and are not part of the Deposit of Faith…Anything that is part of Tradition is of divine origin and hence unchangeable, while Church traditions are changeable by the Church. Sacred Tradition serves as a rule of faith by showing what the Church has believed consistently through the centuries and how it is always understood any given portion of the Bible. One of the main ways in which Tradition has been passed down to us is in the doctrine contained in the ancient texts of the liturgy, the Church’s public worship.”

And that ladies and gentlemen, is Sola Ecclesia.

There is a difference between Tradition and tradition. How could one know this? How does a mere, fallible, lay peasant possibly go about discerning between Tradition and tradition? The answer is the church. The church gets to define Tradition, and the church alone has the power to change tradition. Tradition is insufficient in and of itself to reveal itself and differentiate between the Sacred and the subjective. That power belongs to the church. Thus, as it stands, Rome claims that in order to know what the Bible is and how to interpret it, one needs the church. They also claim that in order to know what Tradition is, and how to change other traditions, one needs the church. The church is necessarily supreme; it is functionally their highest authority.

This especially becomes a problem for the MS crowd. The MS adherents essentially demote Tradition to holding the purpose of interpretation. Their view of Tradition is that, rather than being a body of revelation, it simply serves in rightly interpreting and applying particular biblical passages. MS essentially makes “interpretation” and “Tradition” synonymous. In this view, Tradition is a lens, a guide, not information. Peters, who holds to M.S., says this,

“Sacred Tradition complements our understanding of the Bible and is therefore not some extraneous source of Revelation which contains doctrines that are foreign to it. Quite the contrary: Sacred Tradition serves as the Church’s living memory, reminding her of what the faithful have constantly and consistently believed and who to properly understand and interpret the meaning of Biblical passages. In a certain way, it is Sacred Tradition which says to the reader of the Bible ‘You have been reading a very important book which contains God’s revelation to man. Now let me explain to you how it has always been understood and practiced by believers from the very beginning.'”

Clearly, according to the author, Tradition is just another tool the church uses to explain the Bible (even though many modern and historical Catholics would vehemently disagree with this definition of Tradition). Rome has actual theological dogmas which are justified on the basis of Tradition, while simultaneously treats Tradition as an interpretive grid. It’s very inconsistent.

What I find astonishing is how the M.S. view of Scripture has become the predominant position among Roman Catholics, when the alternative view is far more consistent within their worldview. M.S. logically turns Tradition, not into separate doctrine, but into a mere interpretational guide. Why claim Tradition is in and of itself an authority when it is subservient to Scripture? Why not just claim Scripture is the authority, and thus, all the traditions contained within would become secondarily authoritative (i.e. the Protestant position)? It’s difficult to see how Material Sufficiency is just Sola Scriptura adorned in the garb of catholic vocabulary. It allows Rome to interpret the Bible however she wants, while still claiming to hold it above Tradition. It is illogical to call Tradition an authority, and not render Tradition as an actual body of doctrines.

I also find it more consistent with 2 Thessalonians 2:15. If Paul is really commanding us to follow his oral Traditions, then Paul is not speaking about some interpretative grid for Scripture, but actual, stand alone doctrines.

As a protestant, I agree that there are “Sacred Traditions” which I should follow. For example, the Lord’s Supper (communion) is a tradition for me. That is an often repeated, pious practice I take part in regularly and believe to be an important aspect of Christian living. How do I know this tradition is from God and is binding on the Christian soul to practice? The Bible teaches it (Matthew 15: 1-9).

My church has other traditions which I don’t consider inspired. For example, we do baby dedications. That is nowhere prescribed in the Bible, but we believe it compliments biblical precepts. However, is this practice binding on the soul? Is it a sin to do it another way? No, and I know this because the Scriptures do not teach this.

The Material Sufficiency view would be forced to admit that same confession: all traditions are subservient to and contained in the Bible. The difference arises when traditions, which are clearly not biblical, are then forced into the text of the Bible.

The M.S. view of Scripture and Tradition remind me of a John Owen quotation about people who claim personal revelations,

“If private revelations agree with [the] Scriptures, they are needless; and if they disagree, they are false.”

Obviously, John Owen was not speaking of Rome’s Traditions, but the point remains. If the Traditions claimed are contrary to Scripture, Rome and Protestants alike (in theory) would disregard them. However, the M.S. view states they are all contained within and agree with the Scriptures, and so I ask the question: why do we need them? This view renders Tradition totally meaningless; they are a redundancy.

Hold Fast to the Traditions

Excluding all of that, what is the biblical evidence used by the Roman Catholic apologist to demonstrate we must adhere to an oral Tradition? As any good Roman Catholic would, the article turns the reader’s attention to 2 Thessalonians 2:15,

“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by spoken word or by our letter.”

As has been stated throughout this series, since the apostles were living during the time of inscripturation, Sola Scriptura was not the rule of faith for the church (and neither was what Rome currently holds to). Protestantism affirms that while the apostles were living, after the outpouring of the Spirit, whatever they taught was binding. If they spoke it or wrote it, it was authoritative. For this reason among others, books of the Bible not written by an apostle directly (Mark, Luke, Acts, and Hebrews possibly) have been canonized. They contain apostolic teaching.

The question is not whether or not Paul’s 1st century congregations were obligated to hold fast to all of his teachings. The question is how does a 21st century congregation have infallible access to the teachings of a man who has been dead 2,000 years? Where are those traditions found? Paul commanded the Thessalonicans to hold fast to Paul’s teaching in both forms. How do we have access to Paul’s teaching is where the debate is relevant. The protestant answer is that these oral traditions are in the Scriptures.  We have access to the oral form from the written.

If the apostles were alive today, certainly Protestants would sit at their feet and listen. There would still be an oral and written divide. They aren’t here though, and that is why conversations around this verse so often miss the point. The oral communicators are gone, thus, their oral teaching is too. That is why we hold to their preserved writings.

Paul is commanding his fallible congregants (his “brothers”), to hold fast to his oral traditions. That is not the same thing as Paul promising the infallible, perfect transmission of his oral Traditions in an exclusively oral way. The people Paul wrote to were fallible. Therefore, how can we know and trust they have passed these things on correctly? I don’t want the 1st century believer’s theology, I don’t want the edited forms of the 1st century believer’s theology; I want Paul’s theology.

The article quotes John 16:3 to justify relying on the faithful transmission of the oral commandments, but this seems to be an incorrect citation. However, the attempted point seems to be that the Holy Spirit guides His Church. Protestants agree with that, but again, what does the text mean by “church”? The Holy Spirit guides His church, but that means the universal, corporate Body of Christ (Ephesians 5), not the Pope and his elected officials called the magesterium.

The burden of proof then is to demonstrate that these Traditions Paul refers to are in fact outside of the rest of the Canon of Scripture. That needs to be infallibly demonstrated to win the debate with the Protestant. As a matter of fact, Paul himself indicates that what he was writing was in fact a reiteration of what he told them (2 Thessalonians 2:5)!

Good Bereans

Paul commanded the Thessalonians to hold fast to his oral traditions (doctrines). To summarize, this is no issue for the protestant because:

  1. We affirm that during time of inscripturation the oral teachings of the apostles were inspired.
  2. Paul is not claiming any of these traditions remained outside of canonized Scripture.
  3. Paul affirms in the letter that what he was writing was a summary of what he orally spoke to them.
  4. Paul’s use of “tradition” in this text is not consistent with how Rome defines that word.
  5. Paul does not in that text command the Thessalonians to orally transmit these traditions.
  6. Paul does not promise an infallibly guided process to preserve these oral traditions.

However, it is ironic that Catholics point to this text written to the Thessalonians, because the book of Acts includes an interesting account of what happened after Paul first preached the Gospel to these people, which supports the Protestant position.

After Paul first reached Thessolanica with the Gospel (Acts 17: 1-9), he soon made his way to Berea (Acts 17:10). Many in Berea also accepted his message as the word of God, just as those in Thessalonica did (1 Thessalonians 2:13). However, Luke tells us those in Berea were actually “more noble” than the Thessalonians when hearing Paul’s message. What did the Bereans do which made them so emblematic?

Acts 17: 11, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”

Those in Berea refused to accept Paul’s message until it could be first proved by known Scripture. Even though Paul was speaking the oral word of God, they held it under the scrutiny of their highest standard, the written Word.

Paul and Luke do not rebuke them for this, but praise them. If even the inspired apostolic traditions much be examined in light of Scripture, how much more so should any non-apostolic authority today be held to the Scrutiny of the Bible? Clearly, the written Word has always had a unique chair among God’s people.

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