Is Tradition an Adequate Standard for Religious Practices? (part 1)

In the past few weeks we have examined, in these bulletin studies, some religious beliefs of Catholicism. Perhaps the most fundamental difference between Catholicism and other religions claiming Christ is our attitudes toward scripture and tradition. During the protestant reformation movement one of the things that was emphasized was the need to base our religious practices upon scripture alone as opposed to the long standing Catholic doctrine of religious tradition. This body of religious tradition in the Catholic Church is known as the magisterium; it is a body of literature that Catholicism holds as authoritative for the practices of the church. They consider this body of literature to be on equal footing with the Old and New Testament scriptures. They also believe that it is a body of information that is living in the sense that it changes and grows through time and circumstance. The Catholic Encyclopedia states regarding “Tradition and the Living Magisterium:”

“Catholics, on the other hand, hold that there may be, that there is in fact, and that there must of necessity be certain revealed truths apart from those contained in the Bible; they hold furthermore that Jesus Christ has established in fact, and that to adapt the means to the end He should have established, a living organ as much to transmit Scripture and written Revelation as to place revealed truth within reach of everyone always and everywhere.” (Tradition and Living Magisterium)

Moreover the article states:

“Holy Scripture is therefore not the only theological source of the Revelation made by God to His Church. Side by side with Scripture there is tradition, side by side with the written revelation there is the oral revelation. This granted, it is impossible to be satisfied with the Bible alone for the solution of all dogmatic questions.” (ibid)

As to the infallibility of this teaching, the article states:

“The prerogatives of this teaching authority are made sufficiently clear by the texts and they are to a certain extent implied in the very institution. The Church, according to St. Paul’s Epistle to Timothy, is the pillar and ground of truth; the Apostles and consequently their successors have the right to impose their doctrine; whosoever refuses to believe them shall be condemned, whosoever rejects anything is shipwrecked in the Faith. This authority is therefore infallible. And this infallibility is guaranteed implicitly but directly by the promise of the Saviour: ‘Behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world.'” (ibid)

In these three statements the Catholic doctrine of the authority of tradition is summarized. The Bible, they say, is not the sole source of God’s word. There is also the oral tradition of the church. This oral tradition, they claim, is equally as authoritative as God’s word and infallible. From where does this information come? It comes from the successors to the apostles whose teaching, if not believed will condemn a person to hell. Who holds this authority? According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, it is the bishops. “The bishops have, therefore, a general power of order, jurisdiction, and magisterium, but not the personal prerogatives of the Apostles.” (The Apostles) What ought we to make of this doctrine that tradition is equal in authority to scripture?

First, Jesus made it clear that tradition was not equal to scripture. In Mark 7:3 the Pharisees asked Jesus why his disciples didn’t keep the tradition of the elders. Like the Catholic church, these Rabbinical traditions were originally oral teachings, but over time they became encoded into written documents. These traditional teachings then took on an air of authority superior to the scriptures themselves. The Catholic Encyclopedia states regarding these traditions: “Under this parasitic vegetation of traditional teaching the Law itself came gradually almost to be entirely lost sight of and stifled” (Rabbi and Rabbinism). It states further regarding the same: “What has been said above of its theological basis may suffice to show the two radical errors which lie at the bottom of it: infinity of the Scriptures, and necessity of interpreting them in every detail in accordance with that severe precision which alone is worthy of God.” (ibid) It is a shame that what the Catholic Encyclopedia correctly points out as erroneous, Catholicism embraces today, namely, the “infinity of the Scriptures” through their living magisterium, and claiming divine authority for such things through their magistrates, “which alone is worthy of God.”

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and their traditions applies with equal force to the traditions of the Catholic Church today. In Mark 7:6-13 we read:

“He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.� Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.”

Jesus was opposed to the traditions of men becoming the strainer through which scripture was understood. To Jesus, scripture was clear and stood on its own without need for additional clarification because of change in times or circumstances. And this is indeed the position of the inspired apostles in the early church as well. Paul wrote in Colossians 2:8, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” And the Hebrew writer proclaims regarding Christ’s doctrine, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever” (Hebrews 13:8). In fact, Paul was adamant about the fact that he didn’t receive his teaching via the medium of men, and not even that of other apostles, when he stated in Galatians 1:11,12 “But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Paul received his teaching from Jesus’ Spirit himself and not through any human tradition.

To be continued….

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