It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of the mob. […] Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.– G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, “The Ethics of Elfland”
I have, in my finite wisdom, decided to begin with one of the most challenging topics for any Protestant trying to understand the Catholic perspective. Well, I say “any Protestant”; what I really mean is anyone from the evangelical denominations. The challenge is this: to set aside the sola in sola Scriptura and recognize the authority of sacred Tradition and sacred Church.
I have chosen to start here because acknowledging Tradition (and, by extension, the Church) is crucial to grasping the entire Catholic faith. Catholicism hinges on understanding that Tradition and the Church are just as much rules of our faith as Scripture. But before I delve into that reasoning, let me start where I, personally, started: not just sola Scriptura, but something like solissima Scriptura.
The sola Scriptura of the Reformers placed Scripture first, as the primary rule of faith, but allowed for the introduction of ideas and understandings from Tradition and the Church, provided they did not conflict with Scripture. I began in a place more like John Wesley’s position. He wrote, in the first section of a tract titled Popery Calmly Considered (calmly indeed!), “In all cases, the church is to be judged by Scripture, not the Scripture by the church. And Scripture is the best expounder of Scripture. The best way therefore to understand it is, carefully to compare scripture with scripture, and thereby learn the true meaning of it.”
At first glance, this seems delightfully succinct and self-enclosed. What need is there of Tradition or the Church? We have Scripture. Scripture will interpret Scripture, and all things will be made clear. I held to this view for more than twenty years, perfectly happy in my belief that “Scripture alone” could answer any question of faith. But one thing perturbed me, and ultimately led to the fracturing–and crumbling–of my adherence to this doctrine: if Scripture alone can answer all questions of faith, why didn’t all Protestants agree on questions of doctrine?
Protestant responses to this vary. First, some will say, Protestants all agree on soteriological doctrines: man is saved sola gratia per solam fidem in solo Christo (that is, man is saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone). Right? Well, what about Unitarians (those who deny the Trinity)? Or universalists (those who say that everyone is saved)? They’re Protestants, too. They have the same Bible as everyone else (well, except Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, but I’ll get to that later). Why are they so wrong?
Well, I would have said back in the day, they just are. The Holy Spirit isn’t showing them the true interpretation, or they’re allowing their own biases to interfere with the Spirit’s influence. And that was fine, as I said, for a while. But why would the Holy Spirit exclude anyone who earnestly pursues their faith? Or fail to convict someone who idolizes their own ideas? And beyond that, other doctrines matter, too. In fact, sola Scriptura suggests that all Christian doctrines work together to support our understanding of God, and they all stem from Scripture. And the mere existence of thousands of Christian denominations (not all of them Protestant, as one randomly selected website is careful to point out) suggests disunity of understanding.
And of all the sorrows of Church history, disunity is the greatest. On the night Our Savior was betrayed, he repeated in prayer four times his desire for the unity of the Church (John 17:11, 21-23). And I have never been satisfied by the claim, “But we are one! We all believe in Jesus. Isn’t that enough?” No, said I–it really isn’t. Even if that were enough for salvation (James 2:19 tells us it isn’t), it is a weak marker of unity. I agree with most Jewish faithful that Abraham and Moses existed and were who they claimed; does that make me Jewish? I agree with most atheists that Jupiter and Apollo and Juno are not gods; does that make me an atheist? If not, then why does my mere admission that Christ existed and spoke honestly make me a member of the very Body of Christ, the Church herself, in communion with all the saints and the faithful?
But the deepest problem of using Scripture as the ultimate authority is that it simply isn’t possible. Scripture has nuance, culture, and a deeply ingrained mythos isolated to a culture we do not share, and indeed is spread across hundreds, even thousands, of years of national history. Even if you take every passage literally, you will inevitably encounter passages that must be reconciled–was there one angel at the tomb or two? Were there five thousand men being fed, or only four? Am I still not allowed to get tattoos (Leviticus 19:28), or is that a part of the Law, like circumcision and uncleanness, that “doesn’t really apply anymore”? Is baptism necessary for salvation (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38), or is it, too, like circumcision, an imposition of weak men? Is Peter the foundation of the Church (Matthew 16), or must it not be so on account of Luke 22 and I Corinthians 3:11? Like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), how can I understand unless someone shows me what it means? And when I go to that person of authority, I must choose who my authority is. It could be my local pastor, or the theology professor at the nearest seminary, or my friend who happens to read Greek and Hebrew, or my parent, or my spouse. But if I don’t like what that person says, I will go to another. And another. Eventually, I may take it upon myself to interpret the passage. Of course, I will pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance; but what assurance do I have that I am not using my bias to interfere with the Spirit’s influence? Or that I am aided by the Spirit at all?
But if, rather, I go to the Church, and the sacred Tradition that has been handed down within the Church from the apostles, who received it from Christ himself, have I not gone as close to the source of all truth as I can in this physical realm? And while, yes, it is possible for God to speak directly into the ear or the mind, it is likewise possible for the devil; and not everyone has the gift of prophecy, and those that are so blessed do not always have the gift of discerning spirits. Reasoned self-doubt is appropriate here; we’re talking about not just my soul, but your soul–all souls. Understanding the Word of God is essential not only to my temporal well-being, but to the eternal well-being of myself, my family, and all those whom I might evangelize. This is too much responsibility to lay on the sinful and finite judgment of one man, who lacks even the auspices of God’s ordination. I am no one; who am I, then, to be the final arbiter of Scripture in my life and the lives of those around me?
These, then, were my thoughts as I approached at last the universal Church, bedecked in glory. She has those auspices. She was ordained by Christ himself, and he promised that the gates of hell would never overtake her. Here, certainly, I could find assurance in my faith.
It was not that simple, of course. I had objections. I said, “II Timothy 3:16-17 tells us that the Scriptures are of utmost importance.” St. Francis (see the introductory post of this series for a link to the relevant work) replied, “The Scriptures are indeed most useful, and it is no little favor which God has done us to preserve them for us through so many persecutions, but the utility of Scripture does not make holy traditions useless, any more than the use of one eye, of one leg, of one ear, of one hand, makes the other useless” (translated by Fr. Mackey, OSB, 103).
He goes on to remind me of John 20:30-31 and Romans 10:14 (especially, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book,” and, “How are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”). When I refute with Galatians 1:8, which warns against false proclamations, St. Francis replies that Paul expressly declares that the Gospel has been preached, not merely written; so the gospel is both what was taught and what was written, and anything taught contrary to the traditions of the apostles, that which was taught but not written, should be accursed! And the good saint went on to remind me of II Thessalonians 2:14, II John 12; III John 13-14; II Timothy 1:13-14; 2:2; and more still.
By the standard of Scripture itself, I cannot, in good conscience and sound mind, reject the Tradition of the apostles.
What, then, of the third rule of faith for Catholics: the Church? It goes back to my first point, which I took so long to make: we have need of a judge when there is disagreement over the interpretation of Scripture. On any subject, any theological point, when we disagree, we say, “Let us look to Scripture!” But St. Francis reminds us of Matthew 5:13 and asks, “If the Scripture be the subject of our disagreement, who shall decide?” (ibid, 111)
Catholics, then, have this authority in the Church. From the Church extend all other rules of the faith–the ecumenical Councils (some of which some Protestants accept, and others not), the early Church fathers (some of which are accepted and others are not, though, I think, very few are accepted in toto), the papacy (which all Protestants reject, hence the name), the miracles and the saints, and the harmony of faith and reason. (I will touch on most of these topics, including the Church herself, in later posts.)
Thus can Catholics be assured of a right understanding of Scripture and holy Tradition, in sum, the Gospel of Christ–not when they, like Protestants, make their own judgments and apply their own opinions, but when they turn to the “awful authority of the mob,” the great unity of the Church and her doctrine, her understanding, handed down from the apostles, who themselves received it from Jesus Christ in the flesh.
These are the other great rules of the faith, and though I have paid them but little explanation, I hope I have summed up my own conversion. Next time, on Swimming the Tiber, I hope to address the specific relationship between Scripture and Tradition, especially the establishment of the canon of Scripture.
Introduction and Definitions
Whence Cometh Scripture, Thither Go I