I was recently inspired to compose this hopefully short post on what Tradition is. Generally Catholics say that one must take both Scripture and Tradition with equal weight, a claim which causes scandal if not confusion among Protestants. Here I will try to briefly explain what Catholics mean.
First, we must make a distinction between what is regularly called tradition with a small ‘t’ referring to Christian history, Church Fathers and the like, and Tradition with a capital ‘T’ which is what the Church refers us to. It is only with the later that Catholic doctrine is concerned about. Sometimes Protestants think of this numinous ‘Tradition’ as a list of propositions communicated as divine revelation which aren’t themselves in scripture, and I cannot put it more plainly than to say that this is entirely wrong. First off, Catholics do believe in a Patristic ‘Sola Scriptura’ if by that one means what the Church Fathers meant: that the Scriptures are materially sufficient, containing, if read correctly and exhaustively, all of the truths of the Christian faith (from the Trinity to Purgatory, to contraception, to the Papacy, and the list goes on). What Catholics do not believe is that the Scriptures are themselves, in combination with private readings of it, sufficient for formal orthodoxy – and for this Catholics look to an infallible Magisterium (a teaching ministry set up by Jesus to lead us into all truth, and by which Christ himself should remain the teacher of his Church unto the ending of the age). Having made that much clear, one can now turn to the role of Tradition in Catholic theology. Tradition is a wide concept which includes the immediate oral teaching of the Apostles, but Tradition also includes both the canon of the Bible (not to mention the fact that there is any Bible at all) and also the Scriptures themselves. St. Paul, for instance, in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 says:
So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.
Here, Paul calls Christians to hold fast to the παράδοσις (traditions) which they were taught, and he seems indifferent about the medium in which it was taught – whether by word of mouth or else by Epistle (Greek word for letter: ἐπιστολή). In other words St. Paul did not think that what he taught in writing had more or less authority than what he taught orally. Moreover Paul see’s the body of ‘Tradition’ as encompassing the entire Apostolic teaching.
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.
~2 Thessalonians 3:6
I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.
~1 Corinthians 11:2
One might replace the word ‘Tradition’ in these translations with the word ‘teaching’ (though that would actually be less accurate, as I will make clear further down, but the point needs to be made that tradition here implies ‘teachings’). In other words, one might conceive for a moment that ‘Tradition’ here means something like ‘the meaning of the Scriptures’, such that if some clever heretic found a way to read all the verses which are typically taken to imply the Trinity in such a way that they are read coherently according to another interpretation, the Catholic could respond that the Trinity is part of Tradition (meaning it is what the Scriptures actually mean, despite mis-interpretations). A Protestant might then want to ask how we have access to the teachings of the Apostles if we weren’t there ourselves, and may expect the Catholic to answer “by looking to what they wrote down”, but the surprising answer is “by looking to the scriptures and the Magisterium” or “by reading the Scriptures with the mind of the Church“.
Even having said as much as this, it often isn’t so clear to protestants what Catholics mean by Tradition. The Catechism puts it well when speaking of Tradition, and it may be a good place to start:
“Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal.” Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own “always, to the close of the age”.
. . . two distinct modes of transmission
81 “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.”
“And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching.”
82 As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”
One can, hopefully, begin seeing their way to a meaningful semantic distinction. Obviously Tradition is going to accompany the Scriptures since Tradition is simply the entire Apostolic teaching itself. However, that teaching includes some things which are not propositional truths about God. For example, the Apostles handed on by Tradition (Paradosis) certain ways of praying and celebrating God and Christ, for instance by changing transforming the Sabbath into the Resurrection day (Sunday), or more significantly by teaching Christians how to properly celebrate Christ: by praying what is called the ‘Eucharist’ or the ‘Mass’ or ‘Divine Liturgy’. Teaching a community how to pray is not the same as teaching them what to pray (substitute the word ‘believe’ for ‘pray’ if you must). Tradition includes both. The reason Catholics continue to make a distinction between Tradition and Scripture is that the Catholic Tradition/tradition recognizes that the Scriptures not only contain, but in a special way re-present the word of God. In other words, it is the Church’s belief that the Scriptures are completely authoritative by their very nature, and are preserved from error by the Holy Spirit, being specially inspired, that leads the Church to treat the Scriptures themselves as the object of Tradition (rather than Tradition being the object of the Scriptures).
Since the nature of both the Scriptures and Tradition is Divine Revelation, and since each one has its origin from the same source, and since they were intended to work together in order to present one with the fullness of the Christian faith, the Catholic Church is adamant about observing both – observing either in company with the other.
As a final observation, for clarity’s sake, the reason why Catholics are so keen on looking to the Church Fathers is not because they are infallible, but because they constitute some of the best witnesses to this Tradition which is preserved among them having been handed on to them from the Apostles. They had, as Irenaeus put it, the words of the Apostles still ringing in their ears.