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What is the Relationship Between Scripture and Tradition?

Mark P. Shea March 16, 2010 No Comments

While Catholics are worrying about what will happen if you subtract from Tradition handed down in both written and unwritten form, Christians who are committed to Sola Scriptura, or Scripture-alone, are worrying about what will happen if you add to it.

The big question for them is “What if essentially human things get muddled with essentially divine things?  As the Pharisees with their rules and regulations (and their cancerous religious pride) make clear, when such muddling happens it is quite possible for human beings to become so obsessed with observing their own traditions that they set aside the commands of God.” 

The truth is at the bottom, both the Scripture-only Christian and the Catholic Christian have the same concern:  the corruption of revelation.  And that is precisely the core of the biblical denunciation of certain traditions:  they are “traditions of men” (Mark 7:8), “rules taught by men” (Mark 7:7), not the commands of God but “your tradition” (Matthew 15:3).  In a word, “human traditions” (Colossians 2:8) masquerading as revelation from God.  It is this, and only this, which the Bible, like Catholic teaching, condemns.

But the Catholic faith, in its wariness of human tradition usurping divine revelation, sees a bit further.  For it knows the ironic truth that fear of human tradition can itself become a human tradition and set aside the commands of God.  How?  By ignoring the rest of what Scripture has to say about Tradition and assuming that all Tradition, simply because it is Tradition, must therefore be merely human—a claim the Bible never makes.  Thus, some people feel justified in adopting the Scripture-only perspective that revelation can only be in the form of written Scripture.

But is this what Scripture itself says?  Does Scripture condemn all Tradition as necessarily human tradition? To answer this, let us begin by looking at two passages from 2 Thessalonians.  Paul tells the Thessalonians:

So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:15—RSV)

Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. (2 Thessalonians 3:6 —RSV)

If all tradition without exception is the nemesis of Scripture, Paul does not seem to be aware of it here, despite what he has said elsewhere.  For he specifically commands the Thessalonians to “hold to the traditions” (Greek: paradosis) they were given “by word of mouth”.  Indeed, he specifically warns them to steer clear of those who don’t hold to the Traditions they have received from him.  If the formula is Scripture=Revelation; Tradition=Human Corruption, what are we to make of this command and this warning?

Many believers propose the following solution to the problem:  “The New Testament,” they say, “had not yet been written when Paul said this (the letters to the Thessalonians being two of the earliest Christian documents).  Therefore, it was necessary for the Church to rely on the oral teaching of the apostles until the Bible was complete.  Once the Bible was complete,  however, it said everything that had constituted the paradosis Paul mentions.  So apostolic ‘tradition’ means, for us, Scripture and only Scripture.”  The Evangelical New Bible Dictionary puts it this way:

Apostolic tradition was at one time oral, but for us it is crystallized in the apostolic writing containing the Spirit-guided witness to the Christ of God.  Other teaching, while it may be instructive and useful and worthy of serious consideration, cannot claim to be placed alongside the Old Testament and New Testament as authoritative without manifesting the same defect as condemned Jewish tradition in the eyes of our Lord.

So, the argument goes, when perfection comes, the imperfect will disappear (1 Corinthians 13:10).  When Scripture came, it swallowed up the paradosis of which Paul spoke so that there is no revelation passed on to us anywhere but in Scripture.

This seems, at first glance, to be a reasonable theory for reconciling Scripture’s endorsement of Tradition with current denial of it in Scripture-only Christianity.  But upon closer examination the theory reveals some very significant flaws.

First, where in the biblical text is the basis for the Scripture-only belief that Scripture swallows Tradition?  Certainly it is not in 2 Thessalonians or 1 Corinthians 13.  Nor is it made clear anywhere else that the paradosis of which Paul spoke would someday be “crystallized” in Scripture alone.  On the contrary, Paul’s command in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 gives no sign whatsoever that he regards the Tradition he had given them as being in any special need of “crystallization.”  Granted, Paul clearly regards his writings as invested with apostolic authority and therefore as the word of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13), but he nonetheless speaks, not of some future complete New Testament, but of “the teaching you received from us” as the one and only source of revelation—a teaching which was almost entirely oral and which 1 and 2 Thessalonians are written to underscore, not replace.  Thus, in contrast to the New Bible Dictionary, Paul refers the Thessalonians to the oral paradosis of the past, not to the completed canon of the future; to what they have already heard, not merely to what he is writing or will someday be written by him and others.  He does not think of the Tradition as “imperfect” and of the written as “perfect”.  Rather he thinks of the whole thing, both spoken and written, as apostolic and therefore as authoritative.

And Paul is not alone.  Luke also writes to underscore, not replace, the apostolic Tradition Theophilus has already received.  Thus, he begins by saying, “It seemed good to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught [that is, the paradosis ‘by word of mouth’]” (Luke 1:3-4).  In other words, Luke also offers his writing in union with, not in replacement of, the paradosis.  He too thinks Theophilus should hold fast to the Traditions that he was taught, either by word of mouth or by letter.

Likewise, John twice acknowledges that his written record of Jesus does not deny other extrabiblical traditions (John 20:30; 21:25), so long as these traditions do not oppose his teaching and that of the other apostles (cf. 1 John 2:18-19; 4:1-3; 2 John 7-9).  For John, as well as Luke, the test for authentic Christian teaching is not “Is this written?” but “Is this apostolic?”

In short, there is no New Testament evidence that the apostolic paradosis was an “imperfection” designed to be “crystallized” in writing.  Neither Jesus (who never wrote any Scripture) nor the Twelve (who were never commanded to commit anything—much less everything—to writing, except for the book of Revelation (Revelation 1:19)), nor any other New Testament author, provide an ounce of support for the idea that the biblical writings swallowed apostolic Tradition and completely “crystallized” or “perfected” the entirety of the paradosis once handed on by word of mouth.

That is the first problem with the Scripture-only theory.  The second is this:  Exactly how, on the basis of the Bible alone, do we know that the content of the paradosis handed on by letter and the paradosis handed on by word of mouth are absolutely identical? Paul does not tell us what he said to the Thessalonians “by word of mouth.”  Therefore, any claim to know that the content of his oral paradosis is identical to the content of his written paradosis is just whistling in the dark.  The fact is, we can’t know, based on the text of Scripture alone.  The theory is simply a bold guess, and thus a very weak support for Scripture-only revelation.

The third and most glaring problem with the Scripture-only theory lies hidden in the five little words “once the Bible was complete.”  For, of course, the question which eternally dogs sola scriptura is the question of how, based on Scripture alone, we know what books constitute a complete Bible.  Apart from Sacred Tradition and the authority of the Church as the basis for knowing what a complete Bible looks like (the validity of which are denied in Scripture-only circles), we find ourselves simply arguing in a circle, saying, “We know Scripture is the totality of revelation because we know the totality of revelation is Scripture.”

Thus, rather than explaining away this problem of Paul’s endorsement of Tradition, we have simply lost sight of it momentarily in a bit of fog.  But when the fog clears, the question remains, if Scripture condemns all Tradition as merely human, why does Paul commend and even command our faith in it?  To find out, the best thing to do is begin by placing Paul’s comments about Tradition (both the positive and the negative) in the context of the rest of Scripture.  Let’s begin with the Old Testament.

Extrabiblical Tradition in the Old Testament

When we begin to examine the Old Testament  with a view to its treatment of Tradition, we discover a curious thing.  The Old Testament seems to have the same odd view of Tradition that the New Testament does.  Sometimes the Old Testament fiercely condemns tradition (for example, from false prophets in Jeremiah 28). It is not for nothing that Jesus’ condemnation of tradition is borrowed from the words of Isaiah (Isaiah 29:13).  The prophets, like our Lord, are quite ferocious in their opposition to those who “call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20) and who replace the word of God with the words of men (cf. Isaiah 13:10; Jeremiah 14:14; Micah 2:6-11).  In this, they are also like Moses, who opposed Korah and his merely human assertions of authority (cf. Numbers 16; Jude).  For the Old Testament writers, like the New, vehemently oppose substituting the word of God with the traditions of men.

Like Paul, however, they do not therefore conclude that all Tradition is, ipso facto, human tradition.  How do we know?  Because the Old Testament writers received enormous amounts of extrabiblical (or more precisely prebiblical) Tradition as revelation.

How, after all, does the author of Genesis know about the Adamic, Noahic and Abrahamic Covenants if not from Sacred Tradition?  All these events occur centuries before the birth of Moses and none of them are written down till the book of Genesis is composed.  Similarly when God reveals himself in the Burning Bush, Moses knows who God is talking about when the Voice declares, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6).  How do Moses and all the rest of the children of Israel know about these figures from Israel’s remote past?  Because the stories preserved in Genesis were quite obviously passed down in Tradition, and neither Moses nor the children of Israel saw anything inherently unsatisfactory or evil about this.  In short, they recognized that tradition can be a vehicle not only of human opinion, but of divine revelation as well.

The same applies to much of the Old Testament.  The writer of Joshua makes it clear that the events he relates are stories separated from his own day by a long period of time (Joshua 4:9; 6:25) . Likewise, whole books such as Judges, 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles are clearly composed many years (sometimes centuries) after the events they describe.  How then do the authors know of the things they are recording?  The same way Moses knows of events hundreds of years before his birth: Sacred Tradition.  And again, we have no hint that the Tradition recorded by the authors of Scripture is somehow dubious.

A Scripture-only advocate may declare “No, but then neither are they still traditions.  For as we have just noted, the traditions were preserved in Scripture alone, not in Scripture and Sacred Tradition.  That is why Christ and the apostles never say ‘it is said’ or ‘it is in our tradition…’  Rather, they always say ‘it is written.’  For whatever may be the case with the Old Testament, the fact remains that the New Covenant is superior to it.  And under that New Covenant, there is no revelation handed down in Sacred Tradition along with the books of the Old Testament.  Christ and the apostles refer their hearers exclusively to Scripture as the authoritative source of revelation.”

But is this claim substantiated by the New Testament writers?

Extrabiblical Tradition in the New Testament

It is, of course, quite true that the New Covenant is superior to the Old.  Paul makes this clear in, among other places, the epistle to the Galatians when he describes the provisional and temporary nature of the Old Covenant, saying, “What, then, was the purpose of the law?  It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.” (Galatians 3:18).  The Seed, of course, is the Messiah, the Seed of Abraham, the Incarnate Word.  And one of the signs that his covenant is superior is that it is a covenant made through the Son of God himself and not merely through a creature as the law of Moses was.  For as Paul points out, the law was put into effect, not by God directly, but “through angels” (Galatians 3:19). The author of Hebrews concurs with Paul and warns, “For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (Heb 2:2). Likewise Stephen, the first martyr, makes precisely the same claim just minutes before he is martyred.  Speaking to the Jews of Jerusalem, he cries out “and now you have betrayed and murdered him—you who have received the law put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it” (Acts 7:53).

So it is quite clear:  the New Testament does indeed teach the New Covenant to be greater than the Old.  And one of the principal signs of this superiority is that the Old Covenant was put into effect through angels while the New Covenant was put into effect by the Incarnate God himself.  However, this faces the advocate of Scripture-only revelation with a serious problem. For there is no place in the entire Old Testament which teaches the Mosaic Covenant was given through angels.

Where then do these New Testament figures get this teaching?  From extrabiblical Tradition known, not only to these writers, but to other Jews as well.

Nor is this New Testament citation of Tradition an isolated incident.  Paul, for instance, also writes to Timothy this warning concerning deceivers in the Church:

Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these men oppose the truth—men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected.  But they will not get very far because, as in the case of those men, their folly will be clear to everyone.  (2 Timothy 3:8-9)

Who are Jannes and Jambres?  Well, the Old Testament doesn’t mention them, but if you consult a handy Bible reference work, you find they are the Egyptian magicians who opposed Moses.  So… if these gentlemen are not in the Old Testament, how do Paul (and Timothy) know their names?  The same way thousands of their contemporaries knew.  For, in fact, Paul is again drawing on (and assuming Timothy will draw on) a widely known extrabiblical Tradition, and treating it as authoritative revelation.

Jude does the same thing—twice!  First, he speaks of the time the Archangel Michael disputed with Satan over the body of Moses (v. 8-9).  His Old Testament reference?  There is none.  For it is a Tradition found only in the non-canonical book, the Assumption of Moses. Evidently both Jude and the author of the Assumption of Moses regard this extrabiblical Tradition as important.  Then, a few verses later, Jude again draws on extrabiblical Tradition and refers (v. 14-15) to a prophecy of Enoch recorded, not in the Old Testament, but in the book of Enoch, another non-canonical book.   The book of Enoch was composed about a century or two before Christ.  However, according to Genesis 5:18-24, Enoch himself lived long before Noah.  Thus for Jude to quote a prophecy of Enoch’s as inspired revelation is Jude’s acknowledgment that Tradition—in this case the Tradition of Enoch’s prophecy—is revelation.

Then there is the epistle to the Hebrews.  The author writes of the suffering Old Testament prophets:

Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison.  They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword.  (Heb 11:36)

Again the advocate of Scripture-only revelation is faced with a problem.  For nowhere in the Old Testament is any hero or prophet martyred by being sawed in two.  What, then, is the author of Hebrews talking about?  He is talking about a Tradition preserved, not in the Old Testament, but in the Ascension of Isaiah 5:1-14, another piece of late Old Testament-era literature which was never canonized. For it was a well-known Tradition that Isaiah met his end this way—a Tradition preserved both by the author of Hebrews and by the author of the Ascension of Isaiah.

But most striking of all (for the Scripture-only advocate) is our Lord himself.  For like the apostles, he too, turns out to be perfectly willing to accept Tradition as a vehicle of revelation. For he tells his disciples:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must obey them and do everything they tell you.  But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. (Matthew 23:2-3)

As with all the other aspects of Tradition cited above, nowhere in the Old Testament do we find reference to “Moses’ seat” as the title for the teaching authority in Israel. Like all the other facets of New Testament teaching we have seen above, it too is found only in Tradition! Yet Jesus honors and even exalts such a position of authority and its traditional name, and even binds his followers to honor it.  In short, our Lord, too, acts just the way Paul says we should: he condemns only human tradition, but honors authentic divine paradosis whether it comes by word of mouth or by Scripture. It is not the Tradition of God, but the tradition of men, that is condemned.

Very well then, the Tradition of God is handed down “both by word of mouth and by letter” all through the Christian revelation.  And there is no indication that the reliance on that Tradition which characterizes huge stretches of the Old Testament, is abrogated in the New.  On the contrary, in book after New Testament book, and author after New Testament author (not to mention our Lord himself), there remains a very clear awareness that revelation is sometimes handed down in writing, but is also sometimes handed down by the Tradition of God preserved in the life of the Old Israel and then in the life of the New Israel.

Mark P. Shea

The preceding was an excerpt from Mark P. Shea’s essay “What is the Relationship Between Scripture and Tradition?” from Not By Scripture Alone:  A Catholic Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Robert Sungenis, ed., [Queenship: Santa Barbara] 1997).  Shea is also the author of By What Authority?:  An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition (Our Sunday Visitor: Huntington, 1996) and This Is My Body:  An Evangelical Discovers the Real Presence (Christendom: Front Royal, 1993).

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