False Extremes Part 2: Tradition and The Word

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In Part 1 of this series on false dichotomies and extreme positions, we reviewed the false idea of Sola Scriptura, and the question of “Who is the Church?” Now we continue the discussion by examining the question of so-called ‘Traditions of Men’ vs. Sacred Tradition, and the question of whether the Word of God is exclusive just to the pages of Scripture.

Traditions of Men vs. Sacred Tradition

In Matthew 23, Jesus lambastes the Pharisees for their hypocrisy of preaching one thing and doing another. This verse, and a long monologue in Matthew 15, are often used by Protestants to declare the extreme position that the traditions should not be authoritative in the Church. In other words, unless it’s written in Scripture, it has no authority. This is a false extreme.

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die.’ But you say, ‘If any one tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is given to God, he need not honor his father.’  So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God. (Matthew 15:1-6)
It’s interesting to note that non-canonical tradition played a big role in Judaism.  In fact, there are quite a few references that appear in the New Testament that aren’t written down in the Old Testament. One such example is hiding in plain sight in the example I gave above in which Jesus refers to Moses’ seat of authority. That’s a tradition found nowhere in the Old Testament.  Jesus’ participation in the sacrificial system of the Temple and St. Paul’s participation in worship at the synagogues are also other such examples.
So, from the perspective of Jesus and the New Testament writers, tradition isn’t the problem: it was the hypocrisy in which the Pharisees governed the people. The other problem presented is a presumably man-made novelty which utterly contradicts the Word of God, such as in the example given above.  The implication is that anything not written down is by definition man-made tradition, and thus not to be followed. That, too, is an extreme position not supported by Scripture itself.  Consider these examples which make it clear that oral Tradition is a legitimate, binding category of teaching in the New Covenant:

And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.  (1 Thessalonians 2:13)

 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.  (2 Timothy 1:13-14)

You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:1-2)

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)
For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” (1 John 3:11)
There are many other examples in which the spoken word of the Church—that is Sacred Tradition—is also an authoritative source of teaching. (Note: these passages and many more examples related to Sola Scriptura can be found in “101 Biblical Arguments Against Sola Scriptura” by Dave Armstrong.)

Teaching Came Before Writing

It’s interesting to note as well that all of these epistles were written some years before the oral tradition of the Gospels were written down.  It’s an example that the Church hierarchy was operating authoritatively and communicating both orally and in writing some years before the books that would become the heart of the canon were finished—and hundreds of years before the canon was definitively identified. We know that from the sheer existence of the epistles that were so instructive to the faithful. We know how the faithful lived out their lives from Acts 2:42: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
Scott Hahn also notes in his book, Consuming the Word:  The New Testament and The Eucharist in the Early Church, that the words “New Testament” aren’t even used in reference to the Scriptures until the early 400s. As indicated by Jesus’ only use of the word New Testament/Covenant, the use was exclusively reserved to the Eucharistic sacrifice.
So when it comes to Tradition, it’s the source and the teacher that counts. Some Tradition originates from God and is binding for the Church. Some of it is gratuitous and handled with hypocrisy. It’s in the hands of the Church as a whole to sort it out—first the gathering, then ultimately by the hierarchy, with Peter at the top.

What is the “Word of God?”

The Protestant apologetic, driven by Sola Scriptura, also relies heavily on the idea that the Scriptures are in fact the “Word of God,” to the exclusion of everything else. The Scriptures, of course, are the inspired “Word of God,” but again it isn’t exclusively the Word. To suggest otherwise almost denies the incarnational aspects of the Christian faith in which the Word became man and dwelt among us. The Catholic position accepts all of what Scripture has to teach, namely that the Word of God comes to us in prophetic utterances (Luke 2: 2-23), oral tradition (1 Thessalonians 2: 13), God’s creative Word (Isaiah 55: 10-11), apostolic teaching (Luke 8: 11-15, Acts 4: 31, 1 Thess 2: 13ff), the preaching of Jesus (Luke 5: 11), and especially the Word Made Flesh, Jesus Christ (John 1: 1, 14). (Thanks to Patrick Madrid for his treatment of this subject on EWTN.)
The Word of God is not just words on a page; it’s the living presence of God alive in his people and in his appointed teachers. It’s another example of the great Catholic “Both/And” that connects these truths together in a cohesive church that teaches objective truth. Sola scriptura, and all of the extreme positions that flow from it, is inherently divisive. No individual can privately interpret Scripture and maintain a single Church (2 Peter 1: 20-21). No individual has a promised charism that their private interpretation of Scripture is infallible. Only the Church has that guarantee, as we discussed in Part 1 of this series. Remove the hierarchical component and authority of the Church that Jesus founded, and the rest splinters. If God can inspire authors to write his Holy Word, He certainly is up to keeping his promise to lead His Church to all truth and teach in His name.
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