The online dictionary defines the word tradition to be “the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation.”
The Sacred Scriptures, the Old and New Testament, are a kind of tradition, a tradition handed down to us. The apostles who were taught by Jesus and whose followers wrote down what they learned of the apostles stories and recollections that we now call the New Testament writings put these writings together with the Old Testament writings in one collection of books which we now call our Bible, where the word ‘Bible’ originates from the Greek ‘biblio’, which means ‘book’.
The authors of these NT books ‘handed down’ these letters, and the information contained in them, to others who would benefit from reading them and they, in turn, copied them and handed it to others. This handing down is a form of tradition. Since we believe that these writings came to us through the divine inspiration of the authors by God Himself through the guiding of the Holy Spirit, and protected from corruption in its copying, we call these writings ‘Sacred Scripture.’
The difference between ‘small-t’ tradition and ‘capital-T’ tradition is its origin. If a tradition, that is, a belief, a custom or information, is known to have originated from Jesus Christ or the apostles while being inspired by the Holy Spirit to teach the truth then this tradition is properly called Sacred Tradition, or simply ‘capital-T’ Tradition and if it doesn’t originate from Jesus or the apostles in the same way, then it’s a small-t tradition. For example, the concept of three persons in one God, the Trinity is a capital-t Tradition while the tradition of crossing ourselves with Holy Water as we enter a church as a small-t tradition. The first is revealed by God and therefore the Truth, the other is simply a pious thing to do.
‘T’radition is the churches lived meaning of those texts. If we don’t have access to the meaning of those texts is when we come up all sorts of errant or even abhorrent theologies. Theologies which are inconsistent with what the Apostles received such as the Arian heresy where Jesus is believed to be human only and not divine. Or even the belief in a symbolic only presence in the Eucharist as opposed to a True Presence. In defending their belief in the human nature only of Christ and the symbolic presence only in the Eucharist, both groups defend their position using the text of the Scriptures and yet they were/are both wrong because they do not take into account the continuing understanding of those texts by those Christians through history.
WAIT A MINUTE….
Didn’t Jesus condemn all traditions of men? He seems to be very clear when He pronounces in Matt 15:6 “So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God.” or in Mark 7:13 “Making void the word of God by your own tradition, which you have given forth.”
To reject all traditions because of these verses demonstrate a severe lack of understanding. Jesus isn’t rejecting all traditions. He’s rejecting any tradition that voids the Word of God; traditions of the kind are often called ‘traditions of men’ because they do not originate from God but from man. With this in mind we can easily see that is what Jesus was condemning. He was condemning any tradition that make “void the word of God”.
Therefore some traditions are OK but some are not. So how can we figure out which ones to keep and which ones to reject, or more precisely, are there any traditions that we ought to reject as faithful followers of Jesus? Many will tell you that if a tradition does not line up with Scripture then it is man-made and to be avoided. Sounds reasonable right? Reasonable, maybe, but to do this means that we are rejecting beyond what Jesus was telling us to reject. Jesus told us to reject the traditions of men since He was talking about those traditions that made void the word of God. Just because a tradition is not found in Scripture doesn’t mean that it voids the Word of God. It could simply mean that this tradition was never explicitly written down in Scripture. Nowhere in Scripture will you find that all that’s needed for right-Christian living is to be found in Scripture. Equally absent will you find everything that was taught by Jesus and the apostles. The apostle John tells us that many things were taught by Jesus in His post-Resurrection appearances that were not written down (John 21:25).
As a matter of fact, we do find in Scripture the direct command to hold on to the traditions handed to us by the original followers of Christ in verse 15 of Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians. Paul tells us to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” Not only does Paul direct us to “hold on to the traditions” taught by him and the other elders but he also defines what was written to be a form of tradition as well. What was taught orally and what was taught through their writings were both defined as “traditions”. Therefore what was taught by the apostles, either through word of mouth or through inspired writings was to be accepted and believed.
Now, I guess the question will have to come up. How are we to know if what we call Sacred Tradition truly does originate with the apostles and is not a human invention inserted decades or even centuries later? Many will tell you to go to the Scriptures. But then we are assuming that the Scriptures are inspired in the first place. Remember that the Scriptures are a form of tradition as well. We are trying to determine if any specific tradition came to us from God directly or through the apostles. We are obliged to accept and agree with those that do originate from God directly or through the apostles, but no such obligation exists for those traditions that do not.
For a concrete example, let’s look at the Scriptures a little more closely. If the Scriptures are a form of capital-t Tradition then how did we as Christians come up with the collection of books in our Bible as thee collection of writings to accept as ‘God-breathed’, or inspired? Answering this question will also help make clear why the doctrine of Sola-Scriptura cannot be true.
At the turn of the third century many considered early writings to be ‘God-breathed’ that today are not in our Bible while others considered certain writings that are in our Bible today were rejected at the time. The confusion needed to be resolved and so a council was convened to determine which books were inspired and which were not. This ‘canon’ was agreed upon by a local council at Hippo and Carthage (393 and 397 AD) and ratified by the Pope in c. 400 AD. Once this was done there were no more disputes on the canon of the books inspired by God. Therefore, all those who agree and accept the books of the NT of our Bible, accept the authority of the Church to infallibly determine this list of inspired writings, whether they know it or not.
And so we find that the inspired writings found their way in our Bible through the Church by ordained men, bishops of the Catholic Church. To accept the authority of the Scriptures is to accept the authority of the Catholic Church. This means that the doctrine invented by men in the early 1500’s that Scripture Alone is authoritative is self-defeating because to believe that the Scriptures are authoritative is to accept that the Church is also authoritative since they infallibly discerned which books were Scripture. Both Scripture AND the Church are authoritative therefore Scripture is not alone, which is what Sola means in Sola Scriptura, Scripture Alone.