PROPOSITION TO BE CONSIDERED: Tradition exists as a source of Revelation distinct from Scripture and goes beyond the data of Scripture


Proof:       1. From Sacred Scripture (limitations of this proof);

                  2. From the testimony of the early fathers:

    a.       written testimony;

    b.      practical testimony;

    c.       objections based on some remarks of the fathers.



PROPOSITION: Tradition exists as a source of Revelation dis­tinct from Scripture, and goes beyond the data of Scripture

This is a dogma of faith from the Council of Trent as quoted above and from the Vatican Council I. [Constitution De fide catholica, ch. 2; DB 1787].

The first part of the proposi­tion states the existence of Tradition in general and consequently includes inherent Tradition; the second part refers specifically to constitutive Tradition. [1]



1. From Sacred Scripture.

a. The books of the New Testament furnish an adequate proof for the existence of Tradition in general by showing that written books were not to be the sole source of revelation.

■ Christ person­ally established a permanent living magisterium to be heeded by all and gave not the slightest intimation that books were to be written or that they would one day constitute an exclusive source of information:

- Teach ye all nations: baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.  Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.” (Matt. 28:19-20);

- Go ye into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature.  He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall he condemned.” (Mc 16:15-16);


- And he said to them [Apostles]: Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer and to rise again from the dead, the third day:  And that penance and remission of sins should be preached in his name, unto all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.  And you are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:46-48);

- But you shall receive the power of the Holy Ghost coming upon you, and you shall be witnesses unto me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the uttermost part of the earth. “ (Acts 1:8);


- And the Lord said to him [Ananaias]: Go thy way: for this man is to me a vessel of election, to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.” (Acts 9:15).

■ St. Paul refers the faithful to doctrines taught by word of mouth:

- I praise you, brethren, that in all things you are mindful of me and keep my ordinances [Vulg.: præcepta] as I have delivered [Vulg.: tradidi] them to you.” (1 Cor. 11:2).

- “Therefore, brethren, stand fast: and hold the traditions, which you have learned, whether by word or by our epistle.” (2 Thess. 2:15);

- Now I beseech you, brethren, to mark them who make dissensions and offences contrary to the doctrine which you have learned and avoid them.” (Rom. 16:17);


- The things which you have both learned and received and heard and seen in me, these do ye: and the God of peace shall be with you.” (Phil. 4:9);

- For the rest therefore, brethren, pray and beseech you in the Lord Jesus that, as you have received from us, how you ought to walk and to please God, so also you would walk, that you may abound the more. For you know what precepts I have given to you by the Lord Jesus.” (1 Thess. 4:1-2);


This same Paul advises the bishop Timothy to safeguard the “deposit,” “that noble trust,” and to “hold to the form of sound wordswhich he had heard from his teacher. And when he felt his last days drawing near, he commanded Timothy to hand on this oral teaching to trustworthy men who were fit to teach others:


- O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, [Vulg.: depositum custodi] avoiding the profane novelties of words and oppositions of knowledge falsely so called.” (1 Tim. 6:20);


- Hold the form of sound words which thou hast heard of me: in faith and in the love which is in Christ Jesus. Keep the good thing committed to thy trust [Vulg.: bonum depositum custodi] by the Holy Ghost who dwelleth in us.”  (2 Tim. 1:13-14).


- “And the things which thou hast heard of me by many witnesses, the same commend to faithful men who shall be fit to teach others also.(2 Tim. 2:2).

Here is proof first of all for the fact that in apostolic times oral Tradition was a source of faith, and indeed the chief source.


These texts show, secondly, that this arrangement continued into the immediately succeeding generation.

A final conclusion is certainly not unwarranted, namely, that the same rule was to retain its force permanently. Indeed, an arrangement honoured and sanctioned by the Apostles was by its very nature permanent, or at least could be altered only by apos­tolic authority. There is, however, not the slightest indication that the apostles ordered or ever foresaw any such change.


b. The existence of Tradition as a source distinct from Scrip­ture may be considered a proven fact.

The next question is whether this tradition is inherent only or constitutive as well. Admittedly the existence of constitutive Tradition (subsequent to the comple­tion of the Scriptures) cannot be proven positively and com­pellingly from Scripture. But it would be unfair of our adversaries to demand such a proof of this point. On the other hand, Catholics have every right, in view of the preceding considerations, to ask Protestants to prove from Scripture itself the non-existence of constitutive Tradition. It is consequently worth the trouble to show that neither the words nor the general tenor of Scripture lend sup­port to the Protestant position.


(i) Nowhere in the books of the New Testament is it said or intimated that the sum total of faith is contained or would be one day contained in Scripture.


(ii) The books of the New Testament were composed by hagiographers who did not consult one another on the matter, but who wrote as occa­sion demanded, for special reasons and to answer special needs. A general statement to the effect that the later books were written as supplements to the earlier would be, consequently, quite untrue. [2]


All agree that no single book contains the whole of Christian doc­trine, and so if in the ensemble they did cover it all, this would be quite accidental as far as the hagiographers were concerned.


But was such a rounding out of the record perhaps intended by the Holy Spirit, the principal author of all the books? An affirmative answer would have some foundation if the Sacred Books made up one organic whole. But in view of the fact that they reveal no such systematic unity, the supposition is really quite groundless. It fol­lows, then, that Protestants, who insist that nothing but Scripture must be believed with divine faith, thereby admit that their basic principle, the all-sufficiency of Scripture, at least lacks divine backing.


And it is of no avail to seek refuge in philosophical argu­ments and claim that it would be unworthy of God to write a Scripture which would not contain the whole of Revelation. What would be so unseemly about God’s providing for the needs of the Church partly by Scripture and partly by a Tradition safeguarded with the help of the Holy Ghost?


2. From the testimony of the early Fathers.


a. With reference to the first part of the proposition, i.e., the existence of Tradition, it is a solidly established fact that no one in the first centuries of the Church’s existence taught that the teaching arrangement set up by the apostles was altered shortly after their death. On the contrary, the earliest Fathers, though not treating specifically the question of a single or double source of revelation, held oral Tradition in the highest esteem and recom­mended it no less than they did Scripture.


     ■ St. Clement of Rome:

“The Apostles preached to us the Gospel received from Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ was God’s Ambassador. . . . And so, after receiving their instructions and being fully assured through the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, as well as confirmed in faith by the word of God, they went forth, equipped with the fullness of the Holy Ghost, to preach the good news that the Kingdom of God was close at hand. From land to land, ac­cordingly, and from city to city they preached, and from among their earliest converts appointed men whom they had tested by the Spirit to act as bishops and deacons for the future be­lievers . . . and afterwards laid down a rule once and for all to this effect: when these men die, other approved men shall suc­ceed to their sacred ministry.” (Ep. 1 ad Corinthios 42, 1-44. 2. The Rationalist Harnack said: “The whole Catholic notion of Tradition is rooted ultimately in that sentence formulated long ago by Clement of Rome” (Dogmengeschichte 1; 3rd ed.; p. 154).


      ■ Eusebius of Caesarea has this to say about St. Ignatius Martyr:

“Although he was being led through Asia under the unrelenting vigilance of guards, he nonetheless managed to urge the churches of each city he entered that they beware, above all else, of the vicious views of heretics, and he exhorted them to cling tenaciously to the traditions of the Apostles which, cor­roborated as they were by his testimony, should in his opinion be committed to writing that future ages might have more certain knowledge of them.” (Historia Ecclesiatica 3. 36)


      ■ St. Ignatius of Antioch insinuates elsewhere that it is characteristic, not of a true Christian, but rather of a heretic to insist on written testimony for his faith and to quibble about the meaning of Scripture. (Epistula ad Philadeiphenses  8).

      ■ Papias of Hierapolis (c. 150 AD.) wrote in the Introduction to his book on the Interpretation of the Words of the Lord:


“I shall not hesitate to set down for you, along with my inter­pretations, all the information I have ever carefully gathered from the presbyters. I carefully committed it to memory and vouch for its truth. In fact, unlike most people, I did not care for men who gave the longest accounts, but for men whose teachings were true; nor yet for men who reported the com­mandments of others, but for such as related those given by the Lord to be believed and stemming directly from the Truth. But when someone turned up who had been closely associated with the presbyters, it was the words of the presbyters that I would ascertain . . . I simply took for granted that book knowledge would not help me so much as a living or still surviving voice.” (Fragment 2, ACW trans.)


    ■ Hegesippus (c. 160 A.D.), when the Gnostic heresy was raging, with a view to learning the tradition of the churches, approached many bishops and finally the Bishop of Rome:

        “In each of the episcopal lines of succession and throughout each of the cities the same doctrine is held as that taught by the Law, the Prophets, the Christ.” (In Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiatica 4:22. 3)


St. Irenaeus and Tertul­lian, in their polemic against the Gnostics, quite frankly recognize Tradition as a distinct source of reve­lation, and indeed the chief source.

■ St. Irenaeus:

“When they are refuted by the Scriptures, they take to maligning the Scriptures themselves. . . . But when we refer them to that tradition which originates with the apostles and which is pre­served in the churches through the succession of the presbyters, they attack the tradition, claiming that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters but even than the apostles. [However] anyone who wants to see the truth can look to the tradition of the Apostles which is clearly manifested throughout the whole world; and we can list those who were set up as bishops in the different churches as well as their successors right down to our own time, men who neither taught nor knew anything like what these [Gnostics] are raving about. For if the apostles had known secret doctrines which they were in the habit of teaching to the “perfect” clandestinely and apart from the rest, 11 they would most certainly have communicated these things to those to whom they were entrusting the churches themselves.”


And he adds that it suffices to seek out the tradition held by the Church of Rome,


“…for with this Church, because of its more efficient leadership, all churches must agree. . . . Since therefore we have such weighty proofs [of apostolic tradition], there is no need to seek among others the truth which it is so easy to obtain from the Church: since the apostles, like a rich man depositing his money in a bank, entrusted to her in abundance everything pertaining to the truth. . . And if a dispute should arise over some point or other, should we not have recourse to the most ancient churches, in which the apostles were actively interested, and find out from them what is certain and clear with regard to the point at issue? What if, in fact, the apostles had left us no Writings? Would it not be necessary to follow the line indicated by the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they entrusted the churches? (Adversus haereses 3. 2-4)


■ Tertullian says that heretics “should not be admitted to any discussion of the Scriptures,” (De praescriptione 15) but that they should be admonished on the basis of Tradition:

“The Lord Jesus sent the apostles to preach. . . . Now what they actually preached can, as I must here likewise prescribe, be proved only by those very same churches which the apostles themselves founded by preaching to them both viva voce, as they say, and later by letters. Such being the case, it is conse­quently certain that any doctrine which agrees with [what is held by] these apostolic churches, moulds and original sources of the faith, must be considered the truth, undoubtedly contain­ing that which these churches received from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, and Christ from God; but any other doc­trine must be presumed false, since it smacks of opposition to the truth of the churches, of the apostles, of Christ, of God.” (Ibid., 21)


He considers it impossible for the tradition of the churches to have strayed from the truth, both because of the assistance of the Holy Spirit and because they never could have agreed together so to err:


“Come now! Would they all have fallen into error? Would the steward of God, the Vicar of Christ [the Holy Spirit] have neglected His duty by allowing the churches to understand and believe otherwise than what He Himself taught the apostles? Is it likely that so many and such outstanding churches would all have strayed into the one [false] faith? No chance happening ever has the same outcome in the case of many different in­dividuals. A doctrinal error in so many different churches would of necessity have taken different forms. But when unity exists amid diversity, this can be the result, not of error, but only of Tradition.” (Ibid., 28)


The Greek fathers are of like mind.

■ Origen:

“Since there are many who think they share the mind of Christ and yet some of them think differently from their predecessors, let the preaching of the Church be held fast, that preaching which has been handed down from the apostles through the ranks of succession and perdures in the churches to the present day. That alone is to be believed as the truth which varies in no wise from ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition.” (De principiis, preface 2)


■ St. Gregory of Nyssa:


“It suffices as proof of our thesis that we have a tradition coming to us from the fathers, like a legacy handed down from the apostles through the saints who followed them in succession.” (Oratio 3 contra Eunomium)


b. With reference to the second part of the proposition, i.e., that Tradition goes beyond the data of Scripture, theoretical testi­mony regarding oral Tradition’s surpassing Scripture objectively, i.e., from the point of view of the truth contained therein, does not exist, as far as I know, before the time of Tertullian.


The earliest fathers frankly acknowledge Tradition as a source distinct from Scripture and esteem it as a source more practically valuable than the latter. They thus offer not the slightest support for the Protes­tant principle of the self-sufficiency of Scripture (See, for example, Bavinck, op. cit., I, 405); but they do not seem to have touched on the question at issue from the theoretical angle.


The following fathers do not treat it specifically, either, but they do brush against it in other contexts:


■ Tertullian, writing on a matter of discipline (that a Christian should not wear a military decoration), has this to say:

“Let us inquire, therefore, whether tradition, unless it be written, should be accepted. Certainly we shall say that it ought not to be accepted if we can allege as precedent no cases of other practices which we justify without any written document, but solely on the grounds of tradition and because of the approval of subsequent custom.”


Then, after mentioning several Christian customs, he concludes:

“If you demand scriptural justification for these and other such practices, you will find none. Tradition will be held out to you as their author, custom as their consolidator, and faith as their observer.” (De corona militari  3-4)


Admittedly, Tertullian does not speak directly of traditions—either of theoretical traditions or of those concerned with dogmatic prac­tices. But since among examples of non-written customs he alleges the following:

“We make offerings for the deceased and in honour of the eternal birthdays (of the martyrs) on their anniversary days,” and since the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice for the dead and in honour of martyrs certainly involves a genuinely dog­matic Tradition, and an oral Tradition to boot, it is fair to conclude that he too recognized dogmatic traditions which were not con­tained in Scripture.”


■ Origen

“The Church received from the apostles the tradition that baptism is to be administered to infants, too.” (In epistulam ad Romanos 1:5, 9)


■ St. Basil:

“Of the beliefs and practices [disciplinary regulations] preserved in the Church, some we possess from teaching handed down in written form; others we have received as delivered to us in a mystery from the tradition of the Apostles, and both of these have the same force as far as religion is concerned.” (De Spiritu Sancto 27, 66; see also 29, 71: “Most of the mysteries are accepted by us without any written evidence.”)


It makes no difference that St. Basil immediately gives examples of disciplinary traditions (Furthermore, he alleges as an example, “also the very anointing with oil” [the use of chrism in Confirmation]), for in view of the fact that he expressly distinguishes “beliefs” and “practices,” the principal affirmation must be understood as applying to both.


■ St. Epiphanius:

“There is need of tradition also; for not everything can be found in Scripture. That is why the most holy apostles left some things in writing and others in tradition. Paul affirms this very fact as follows: “as I handed it on to you.” Likewise in another passage: This is my teaching and thus have I handed it on to the churches.” Similarly: “If you continue to cling firmly to it, as 1 preached it to you—unless your faith has all been for nothing.”(Haereses 61, 6; see also 75, 8)


■ St. John Chrysostom, in his explanation of St. Paul’s words “Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions which you have learned from us by word or letter,” says:

“It is therefore clear that [the apostles] did not teach everything in epistolary form, but that they taught many things besides in unwritten form, and these things, too, are worthy of acceptance. Wherefore we should consider the tradition of the Church also as worthy of belief. If there is a tradition, look no further.” (Homilia 4 in 2 Thess 2; see Homilia 3 in 2 Tim.)


■ St. Augustine appealed to apostolic Tradition in favour of the validity of baptism administered by heretics and of the efficacy of infant baptism. (See De baptismo II, 7, 12; IV 24 and 31; V 23. 31; De Genesi ad litteram  X 23. 39)


The heart of the question being considered exclusively here is not whether everything which individual fathers considered as apostolic Tradition actually belongs to apostolic or even divine­apostolic Tradition, but whether the testimony of these fathers really proves that they admitted the existence of some dogmatic traditions not contained in Scripture.


Far outweighing any theoretical testimony in both antiquity and in unmistakable universality is the practical testimony of all the fathers and of the whole Church, even in the earliest years. To mention only one example out of the many which could be alleged, the four Gospels and many other books of the New Testa­ment were accepted as inspired without any backing from Scripture and hence on the basis of Tradition alone.


c. By way of objection, our adversaries cite several passages in which the Fathers, by affirmative or exclusive statements, urge the completeness and self-sufficiency of Sacred Scripture.

Since it would take forever to treat each such passage indi­vidually, [3] it will be enough to give here the principles for the solution of this difficulty.


(a) The Fathers quite frequently mean not absolute but relative sufficiency, in the sense that Scripture suffices for a knowledge of those things which must be expressly believed by each and every one of the faithful, or that it sufficed to settle a particular case in which they were involved.


(b) When they rule out all other arguments except those based on Scripture, they have in mind only philosophical reasoning, apocryphal books, false prophecies, and spurious traditions; or if they rule out even the very Tradition of the Church, they do so only for reasons of methodology, led on by the exigencies of controversy to select a basis of argument common to themselves and their antagonists.


(c) At all events, the Fathers mean that Scripture is an adequate source only if one presumes the preaching and interpretation of the Church. But it is one thing to proclaim the complete self-sufficiency of Scripture all by itself, and quite another to affirm the adequacy of Scripture as received from the hands of the Church and clarified, not to say enriched, by the light of ecclesi­astical Tradition. The Fathers found many things in the Scriptures with the latter qualifications for which they would not have found sufficient backing in Scripture purely and simply. Recall the many instances in which they were satisfied with mere hints in the text and their readiness to admit the typical sense. There are really very few things which cannot be squeezed from Scripture by this method.


But (d) it should occasion no surprise if the Fathers, who were blissfully unaware of the Protestant error, but did have the deepest reverence for Scripture, now and then made statements which must not be taken with strict literalness. The following remark of St. Augustine may be applied in this case: “When engaged in discussion within the confines of the Catholic Church, he had no thought of his meaning being misconstrued.... When it was not yet you outsiders who were party to the debate, he could speak more freely.” [4]


[1] We can summarize the idea of Tradition compared with Sacred Scripture in this division:
1.        Constitutive Tradition: its object is NOT contained in Scripture; all Protestants deny its existence.
2.        Inherent Tradition: its object is explicitly contained in Scripture; some Protestants accept it;
3.        Declarative Tradition: its object is only implicitly contained in Scripture; most Protestants accept it.
[2] Bainvel was right when he said that the books of the New Testament were written rather “that the things which had been taught orally might be recalled to mind, that the absence of a living teacher might be compensated, and that errors and false teachers might be refuted when they arose.” (De magisterio vivo et traditione, Paris, 1905; p. 23).
[3] Several such passages are discussed by De San, De traditione et scrip­tura, p. 66; see also Franzelin, De traditione, thesis 19; Daniélou, loc. cit.; Salaverri, Sacrae theologiae summa, I, 755; Lercher, Institutiones theologiae dogmaticae, I, 319.
[4] Contra Julianum i.6, 22. Clearly the statements of the fathers on this point are not always to be pressed. Take the example of St. Vincent of Lerins, who says that “the canon of Scripture is perfect and is completely self-sufficient, indeed more than sufficient” (Commonitorium 2 and 29). And yet in the same work he records the fact that the validity of baptism administered by heretics has been upheld by Tradition alone. Bavinck himself writes that while the fathers extolled the completeness of Scripture, they nonetheless recognized Tradition as well and did in fact admit therein an element in­compatible with the Protestant view of the all-sufficiency of Scripture.— (op. cit. I, 409).