Editor’s note: This is the second essay in a three-part series on “Reading Scripture during Lent”. Part One was “A Catholic Understanding of the Bible”.
Which comes ﬁrst, the chicken or the egg? That question can touch off an endless debate because it is largely irresolvable. In the realm of theology, some questions have a similar effect. For many, the question “Which comes ﬁrst, Scripture or Tradition?” is equally impossible to resolve. A careful analysis of the question, however, yields a very clear and satisfactory answer.
Some deﬁnitions are in order at the outset. Sacred Scripture, or the Bible, is that collection of works written under divine inspiration. Sacred Tradition is the unwritten or oral record of God’s Word to His prophets and apostles, received under divine inspiration and faithfully transmitted to the Church under the same guidance. Tradition differs from Scripture in that Tradition is a living reality passed on and preserved in the Church’s doctrine, life, and worship, while Scripture is a tangible reality found in written form (CCC 81–82). Since the Protestant Reformation, a sticking point in ecumenical dialogue has been the perceived rivalry between Scripture and Tradition.
The way Dei Verbum handles the problem, the conﬂict is more apparent than real, as the Council Fathers declare that “sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church” (n. 10; CCC 80, 84). Thus the focus of the debate is shifted from one of “Scripture versus Tradition” to a discussion of the Lord’s desire to reveal Himself to His people, a process carried forward by both Scripture and Tradition.
From the temporal point of view, Tradition precedes Scripture (CCC 83), and the Church precedes both, in that the writing of the New Testament did not begin until some ﬁfteen to twenty years after the Pentecostal formation of the Church and was not completed until perhaps as late as A.D. 120. The Gospel message, then, was imparted through oral tradition ﬁrst, and only later was it committed to written form. The means (whether oral or written), however, is in many ways secondary to the goal (revelation) and to the receiver of the revelation (God’s people, the Church).
An example from American government might be instructive. The law of the land is found in the Constitution of the United States; it is normative for American life. However, it is not a self-interpreting document. On the contrary, it calls for detailed, professional interpretation from an entire branch of government dedicated to that purpose. Furthermore, when conﬂicting views do emerge, standard procedures of jurisprudence call for a return to the sources, in an effort to discover the mind of those who produced the document.
With appropriate allowances made for the divine workings in the case of Scripture, Tradition, and the Church, one ﬁnds many parallels that are useful. First, the Scriptures did not descend from Heaven in ﬁnal form but took shape in and through the community of the Church, responding to and working under divine inspiration. Second, the Scriptures are not self-explanatory documents but require “an authentic interpretation,” which task “has been entrusted to the living, teaching ofﬁce of the Church alone” (CCC 85), according to the Second Vatican Council. The bishops at Vatican II conclude these considerations by asserting:
. . . in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way under the action of the Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.(Dei Verbum, n. 10).
Is this explanation mere wishful thinking to justify Catholic theology and practice? Not at all, for the historical record bears out all these points. The canon of the Bible (the ofﬁcially accepted list of inspired books) is the clearest proof of the validity of this approach (CCC 120). We know with the utmost certitude that no authoritative list of scriptural books existed until the fourth century. And who then produced this canon? None other than the Church meeting in ecumenical council. Therefore, the value and even, one could say, the validity of the written Word is established only after its inspiration and inerrancy are assured and attested to by the Church.
The process of Divine Revelation thus began with the Church, through Tradition, and subsequently passed into Scripture, and not the other way around. Interestingly, Saint Augustine of Hippo – one of the greatest commentators on Holy Scripture, an eminent preacher of the Word, and highly regarded by Protestants as well – made this astonishing comment in “Against the Letter of Mani” (397 A.D.): “I would not believe in the Gospel myself if the authority of the Catholic Church did not inﬂuence me to do so.” In other words, the Church serves as the guarantor of the Scriptures.
Can it happen, though, that Scripture and Tradition will at times contradict each other? Impossible – because they are just two sides of the same coin, whose purpose is the same and whose origins are the same. Since God wishes to reveal Himself to us, He has guaranteed the process in both its oral and written expressions (and not one more than the other). Furthermore, God cannot contradict Himself. Saint Paul apparently had this very concept in mind when he urged his readers at Thessalonika to “stand ﬁrm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Th 2:15).
This very passage, however, raises a secondary but related problem. Some Christians tend to confuse “Tradition” with “traditions” (CCC 83). Having already deﬁned Tradition, we need to consider the meaning and place of traditions (customs or practices). Sacred Tradition is divine in origin and, so, unchangeable; traditions are human in origin and therefore changeable. Some examples that come to mind are various devotions to the saints, processions, acts of penance, and the use of incense or holy water. No Church authority has ever held that these practices are divinely mandated; at the same time, no one can demonstrate that they are divinely forbidden (even the Protestant Reformers saw this and referred to certain things as “adiaphora” or theologically neutral). Traditions exist to put people in touch with Almighty God. To the extent that they do, they are good; to the extent that they do not, they are bad and should be modiﬁed or abolished.
Certain deﬁned dogmas, on the other hand, cannot be found explicitly in Scripture (for example, Mary’s Assumption or Immaculate Conception), yet the Church binds her members to an acceptance of these teachings. How so? First of all, because nothing in Scripture contradicts these dogmas. Second, because they have been a part of the Tradition (or oral revelation) from the very beginning. Third, because they can be implicitly located in Scripture, waiting, in a sense, to be uncovered by the Church’s prayerful reﬂection over the centuries. Scripture comes alive only in the life of the community that gave it birth and has ever since preached and proclaimed it (CCC 94).
To remove Scripture from its moorings in the Church is to deny it genuine vitality. Scripture provides Tradition with a written record against which to judge its ﬁdelity and thus serves as a safeguard. In the “balance of powers” (to resort once more to the governmental analogy), Tradition is a defense against an unhealthy individualism that distorts the Bible through a private interpretation at odds with the constant Tradition of the Church.
For Christians, the Bible is not revelation in itself; for us, revelation is a Person, not a book – no matter how holy. To worship a book is bibliolatry. A truly accurate and truly Christian view of revelation takes all these seriously: God, the Church, the Church’s Tradition, and the Church’s Scriptures. The focus of our attention, however, is not the Church, the Scriptures, or Tradition, but God. The other three are means given us to arrive at our end – union with God (CCC 95).
In Part Three, we shall review how pervasive is the presence and influence of Sacred Scripture in the life of the Church.
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