The Unwritten word of God
By Fr. Henry A. Brann, D. D.
Besides the written Word of God Catholics believe also the unwritten Word of God, called in Holy Scripture The Word of God spoken (Acts iv. 31) ; The Word of Faith preached (Romans x. 8); The Gospel heard and preached (Colossians i. 23) ; The Word of God received, heard, believed (1 Thessalonians ii. 13) ; the Word of Christ heard. (Romans 10. 17.)
Whenever in the New Testament the Word of God revealed by Christ, or through His Apostles is spoken of before it was committed to writing, it always refers to the unwritten Word of God. Even after the Word of God was in part committed to writing, some passages evidently refer to the Word of God unwritten; as, for instance, where St. Peter says : "But the word of the Lord endures for ever, and this is the word which hath been preached unto you." ( 1 Peter. 1. 25.) Therefore, whenever the Word of God, without any qualification, is mentioned in Holy Scripture, it should not be taken as referring exclusively to the written Word, for it generally refers both to the written and unwritten Word of God.
By Tradition we do not mean a mere report, a hearsay, wanting sufficient and therefore merely human, as were those traditions of the Pharisees condemned by our Lord ; but we mean a Tradition first coming from.
God, continually taught, recorded, and in all desirable ways kept alive by a body of trustworthy men successively chosen in a divine, or divinely appointed manner, and well instructed, and who are, moreover, protected by God as a body from teaching what is wrong, or handing down unfaithfully to others the doctrine committed to them.
St. Paul gives us an idea of how this Tradition should proceed when he says: "For I delivered unto you first of all, which I also received." (1 Corinth, 15. 3.) And again, when writing to St. Timothy, he says : "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 St. Timothy ii. 2.)
Holy Scripture and the Tradition just described are both the Word of God : the first, inspired by God to some chosen one, who wrote it out ; the other, taught by His own divine lips on earth, or inspired by the Holy Spirit in the mind of one man, or body of men, to be continually handed down and perpetuated successively under His divine protection to their
legitimate successors ; neither therefore of these divine Words can be rejected
without the guilt of unbelief.
St. Ephrem says : "Be firmly persuaded of this, not as an opinion but as a truth, that whatsoever has been transmitted, whether in writing only or by word of mouth, is directed to this end, that we may have life and may have it more abundantly." (Vol. 3. Serm. lix.)
St. Basil says : " Of the dogmas and teachings preserved in the Church, we have some from the doctrine committed to writing, and some we have received transmitted to us in a secret manner from the Traditions of the Apostles ; both these have the same force in forming sound doctrine, and no one who has the least experience of ecclesiastical laws will gainsay
either of these. For should we attempt to reject, as not having great authority, those customs that are unwritten, we should be betrayed into injuring the gospel even in primary matters, or rather in circumscribing the gospel into a mere name." (De Spiritu Sanct., Vol. iii. cxxvii.)
This divine Tradition is not liable to failure either from human fraud or infirmity, because it has the security of divine guardianship, that is to say, because those whose office it is to keep alive this tradition, are divinely protected from teaching what is false. This appears from that passage of Isaias, which even Protestants admit refers to the Church, and in which
God says :
" This is my covenant with them. My Spirit that is in thee, and my words that I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed's seed, from henceforth and for ever." (lix. 21.) This appears also from those passages of St. John, where it is recorded that Christ said : "And I will ask the Father, and he shall give you another Paraclete [or Comforter] that he may abide with you for ever, the Spirit of truth. ... But when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will teach you all truth." (14. 16, 17; and 16. 13.)
Hence St. Irenaeus says: "For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God, and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace ; and the Spirit of Truth." (Against Heresies, vol. iii. c. xxiv.)
The necessity of believing the unwritten living Word of God appears also from the fact that the fundamental virtue of faith, without which no adult is a Christian, is an assent to the Word of God preached by men sent by God, and charged by Him to preach the truths revealed to them by Him who is infinite knowledge, greatness, and truth, and who can neither deceive nor be deceived.
Hence St. Paul says : " Faith cometh by hearing" (Romans x. 17), and therefore by the Word of God preached by the Apostles, or by their legitimate successors to the persons who hear and believe it. Hence the same Apostle also says : " And how shall they hear without a preacher?
and how shall they preach unless they be sent?" (Romans x. 14, 15.) And to be sent by legitimate, divinely established authority, is to be sent by God. (See Acts xiii. 4.)
So long as there are nations to be taught, the command of Christ to His Apostles to teach "all nations," indeed, "every creature," will never cease to be in force ; and divinely authorized teaching will never cease to be the Word of God. Whether this Word is preached without being committed to inspired writing, as was the case during the twelve years which elapsed between the ascension of our Lord and the writing of the first Gospel, the Gospel of St. Matthew,—whether preached by the Apostles and their successors during the progressive formation of the New Testament,—whether preached after the death of St. John (101), that is, in the second, third, and fourth centuries, when only very few possessed all the books of the Old and of the New Testament, and the inspiration of some of them was uncertain (for the canon or authorized list of the inspired books of the Old and the New Testaments was only finally settled in the Council of Carthage in the year 397)—whether preached after the fourth century for the space of a thousand years, during which time no printed Bible existed, but only Bibles written by hand, which consequently were very voluminous, costly, and rare,—or whether preached after the year 1450, when the art of printing began to come into use, and printed Bibles could be obtained; that Word of Christ, I say, entrusted by Him with His own divine lips, or by inspiration to the Apostles, and by the Apostles transmitted in a divinely appointed manner to the whole chain of their legitimate successors, is always the Word of God, firmly to be believed by every Christian.
Hence St. Paul, in his Second Epistle to the Thessalonians (2. 14), could say :
" Brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions [that is to say, the entrusted Word of God], which you have learnt whether by word [that is, by my preaching] or by our epistle" [that is, by my inspired writings].
When Jesus Christ said to the Apostles : " He that hears you, hears me" (St. Luke 10. 16), He did not limit this duty of hearing the Apostles even as Himself to the time when the inspired writings of the New Testament did not exist, but extended it to subsequent times ; and the duty of preaching applies not only to the twelve Apostles, but also to their legitimate successors, for through their successors alone were the Apostles to teach all nations, and their apostolic office was to last until the end of the world. This we see from the following words of Christ to the Apostles : " Go ye into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature." (St. Mark 16. 15.) "Going therefore teach ye all nations . . . 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." (St. Matthew 28. 19, 20.) And no one is exempted from the duty of believing their teaching, for Christ subjoined : " He that believeth not, shall be condemned." (St. Mark 16. 16.)
Hence any legitimate bishop upholding the Tradition of the Church could say what St. John the Evangelist said in his old age, when nearly all the books of the New Testament were written : " We are of God. He that knows God, hears us. He that is not of God heareth us not.
By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error." (1 St. John 4. 6.)
And St. Irenaeus could say, concerning the heretics of his time : "We challenge them to that Tradition which is from the Apostles, which is preserved in the churches through the succession of the presbyters." (Against Heresies, book iii. chap, ii.) And Origen said: "We are not ... to believe otherwise than as the churches of God have by succession transmitted to us." (Commentary on St. Matthew, Book iii.)
St. Chrysostom gave out as an axiom :
" It is a tradition [of the Church], seek nothing further." (Commentary on the passage, 2 Thessalonians 2. 14, book xi. homily 4.)
To suppose that Tradition has lost its authority from having been (in part) committed to writing, would be as unreasonable as to say that the natural law was made void from the moment that the Ten Commandments were laid down in writing on Mount Sinai.
Some might ask : Which of these two divine Words is the more useful to us ?
This question may be considered as answered by the fathers already quoted. I will, therefore, make only one more citation. The holy bishop of Hierapolis (Papias), the hearer of St. John and friend of St. Polycarp referring to Tradition, says :
" If any one came to me who had accompanied the elders, I questioned him concerning their words, what Andrew and Peter said ; for I did not think that what is in the books would aid me as much as what comes from the living and abiding voice." (Eusebius, I, iii., p. 39.)
I will here make a supposition which may perhaps enable the inquirer to see better the import of this answer. Suppose two rivers run side by side, both abounding with precious stones, which persons standing on the banks of either river were most anxious to obtain and know the name and value of, that knowledge being of vital interest to them. On one of the rivers floats a noble ship, having on board trustworthy men, able and willing to impart this knowledge to these people. On the other river, however, we will suppose to be no such vessel, no such guide. The people who stand on the shores of this second river, who refuse to have recourse to the well-informed guides that are on the ship on the other river, and who in the valuation of the precious stones which they may find, only trust themselves, would be liable to make great mistakes in valuing each stone, and would have widely different opinions among themselves about them. If some of those self-guided men should happen to set a right value on any of the jewels, it would only be by chance ; no one of them could feel sure of not being mistaken about it, whilst those who sought the experienced men on board the ship could easily learn with certainty the right value of each of the jewels found in both rivers.
Like two sacred rivers flowing from Paradise, the Holy Bible and divine Tradition both contain the Word of God; both are full of the precious jewels of revealed truths.
Though these two divine streams are in themselves, on account of their divine origin, of equal sacredness, and are both full of revealed truths, still, of the two, Tradition is to us more clear and safe. And why ?
1st, Because Tradition can testify in its own behalf through the many authorized witnesses who carry this Tradition in themselves, whilst Holy Scripture cannot make good its authority without referring to Tradition to testify to its inspiration and preservation.
2nd , Because a word may have two or more different meanings, and an expression may be true in one of these meanings and not in another. Again, as an expression may be true, for example, if taken figuratively, and not true if taken literally; true if applied to some particular person, and not true if applied to all ; true if taken in its plain sense, and not true if taken in a strained or fanciful sense ; true if taken in a sense that does not exclude other things, and not true if taken in an exclusive sense ; true if taken to act through the medium of other things, and not true if taken to act without a medium ; true if taken to mean a counsel, and not true if regarded as a precept ; true if taken permissively, and not true if regarded as the active cause of a thing ; the Bible, which is a mere letter needing an interpreter, cannot by itself set the mistaken interpreter right.
But Tradition being a living word because carried in the mind and on the lips of divinely appointed living teachers, can say with regard to each of its own expressions, and also as to the expressions in Holy Writ itself, in what sense exactly those expressions are true, and in what sense they are not true ; and, if wrongly interpreted by any one, Tradition can set that person right, and explain the true meaning of it ; and all this it can do with an authority which, by a privilege granted to her by Christ, is infallible, and, owing to the unfailing promised assistance of the Holy Spirit dwelling in the Church, is divine.
The ark of old, when in the hands of the sacerdotal and Levitical order, and carried or preserved by them in the midst of the chosen people of God, was a source of blessings. If carried off to another nation, and kept in the hands of unauthorized or self-authorized persons, it was to them a source of scourges. (1 Kings vi.) So likewise the Holy Scripture, when separated from Tradition, which is its support and lawful expounder, and thrown into the hands of unauthorized interpreters, instead of being a source of blessing, becomes a cause of endless contention and division, an occasion of doubt, fanaticism, and ceaseless wrangling, as sad experience proves.
Tradition, without Holy Scripture, Old or New, sufficed for many years, and could still suffice. But Holy Scripture has never sufficed by itself; it. always stood in need of divine Tradition: for it is only by this divine Tradition that we learn that Holy Scripture is an inspired book.
It is only Tradition that can give with authority and certainty the right meaning of Holy Scripture. Without Tradition the Holy Scripture may be made to speak in many discordant ways, thus destroying its authority altogether.
To use an illustration : A court of a never-interrupted body of judges might, by the help of a living, well-known, and well-established tradition of orally enacted laws, suffice for the guidance and welfare of a people ; but no code of written laws could suffice without a court to testify to the genuine nature of them, to their being still in vigor, and to give with authority the right meaning of them in all cases of dispute.
St. Irenaeus testifies that in his time many nations had salvation written in their own hearts without paper and ink, and were diligently guarding the ancient Tradition. (Book iii. chap, iv.)
After Tradition had been in full and successful operation for several years, God added the written Word, but it was not for the purpose of superseding Tradition, a thing which neither our Lord nor His Apostles ever said ; but it was rather to strengthen Tradition itself ; for in this very written Word He left recorded repeatedly and forcibly, as we have already seen, that Tradition or the successive oral teaching of the body of teachers instituted and empowered by Himself for that purpose, was to have its full authority and vigor whilst there existed a nation, or even one creature to be taught the gospel ; that is, until the end of the world.
Hence the ancient and successive fathers of the Church always recognized the necessity of appealing to Tradition, the unwritten Word of God, in order to confute heresies, to settle controversies about religion, and to establish with authority and certainty what, according
to the revelation of God, we ought to believe and to do in order to be saved.
The fathers of the Church plainly expressed their belief that the Written Word of God by itself, without the help of Tradition, would always leave disputes unsettled, points of belief and morals undetermined, and true religion a problem unsolved.