The Sources of Revelation




Monsignor G. Van Noort. S.T.D.



The Church and Sacred Tradition




I.    1. Definition: Objective Oral Tradition Is that Collection of Speculative and Practical Truths Communicated viva voce to the Church by Christ and the Apostles as Organs of Revelation, to be Safeguarded Until the End of Time

2. Further Specifications:

a.  dogmatic;

b. divine or divine-apostolic;

c.  ecclesiastical vs. mundane;

d. apostolic vs. post-apostolic.


II.  The Protestant Position


III. The Catholic Dogma on the Origin, the Preservation, and the Value of Tradition


IV. 1. The Precise Question at Issue in the Controversy with

Protestants:   Does the Church Draw the Christian Rev­elation which It Must Teach from Scripture Alone?

2. This Question Divisible Into the Two Following:

a.  Are the truths actually contained in Scripture known by the magisterium from this source alone?

b. Is all of Christian revelation to be found in Scripture?


V.   Some Necessary Distinctions:

1. inherent Tradition;

2. declarative Tradition;

3. constitutive Tradition.


VI. All Agree, More or Less, on the Existence of Inherent or Declarative Tradition, but Not on that of Constitutive Tradition. The Controversy, then, Centers on Two Issues:

      1.   Is Tradition to be considered a distinct source even for those truths formally contained in Scrip­ture?

      2.   Does Tradition go beyond the data of Scripture?




I.   Notion and Division of Tradition

We turn now to the other source of Christian doctrine, Tradition in the strict sense, or oral Tradition. It may be defined as that collection of speculative and practical truths communicated viva voce to the Church by Christ and the apostles, acting as organs of revelation, to be safeguarded until the end of time. The precise designation of this tradition is objective oral Tradition.1

Tradition as studied in the following pages is called dogmatic from the point of view of its subject matter, and divine or divine-apostolic from the point of view of its origin.

It is called dogmatic because the truths it contains, whether practical or speculative, constitute the object of divine and Catholic faith.

It is called divine or divine-apostolic to distinguish it, on the one hand, from ecclesi­astical traditions, which are precepts and customs long observed in the Church but post-apostolic in origin, and, on the other, from human-apostolic traditions, which trace their origin to the apostles indeed, but not in their capacity as channels of revelation, but rather as the Church’s first pastors.2

Note, however, that divine tradition is sometimes called ecclesiastical in contrast to merely mundane traditions, and apostolic in contrast to those which are of later vintage.


II.  Protestant Viewpoint on Tradition


All Protestants, claiming as they do that Scripture is perfect by itself and all-sufficient, deny the existence of Tradition in the Catholic sense.

They grant, of course, that the first Christian communities got their faith by the oral preaching of the apostles and of their fellow­ workers, and that the immediately following generations had a very high regard for oral tradition, at that time easily accessible, and even that they had little notion of the need for the New Testament Scriptures. They grant, too, that not everything Christ and the apostles did and taught was recorded in Scripture.

But they insist

(1) that once Scripture was completely written, it contained every­thing necessary for salvation, and

(2) that the other things, a knowledge of which would be interesting from an historical rather than a religious point of view, passed into oblivion after a short time, to such an extent that it was impossible to ascertain their apostolic origin. In apostolic times, then, the genuine apostolic Tradition was joined with what was written down so as to form one body of Scripture, and so, soon after the apostolic era, Scrip­ture took its permanent place as the one source of Christian revelation.3

Still, there are some Protestants who do not spurn all tradition. They admit that the religious teaching of the Scriptures is pre­served also in the works of the fathers, in the practice and the liturgy of the Church, and in the living convictions of generations of Christians.

But this tradition

(a) is really inherent in Scripture and only explanatory of Scripture, since it contains the same truths as Scripture and at most expresses them more clearly and ex­plicitly. Besides, this tradition

(b) is founded in its entirety on Scripture and flows from it. These people refuse absolutely to admit a Tradition distinct from Scripture, a so-called “constitutive” Tradi­tion, one which discloses teachings not contained in the Sacred Books.4


III.       The Catholic Dogma on Tradition

The Catholic doctrine was defined by the Council of Trent in these words:

The council is aware that this [Christian] truth and teaching are contained in written books and in the unwritten traditions that the apostles received from Christ himself or that were handed on, as it were from hand to hand, from the apostles under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and so have come down to us. The council follows the example of the orthodox Fathers and with a loyalty and reverence equal to that with which it accepts and venerates all the books both of the Old and the New Testament, since one Cod is the author of both, it also accepts and venerates traditions concerned with faith and morals as having been received orally from Christ or inspired by the Holy Spirit and continuously preserved in the Catholic Church.... Moreover, if anyone does not accept the books [of Sacred Scripture] . . . and knowingly and willfully spurns the traditions previously mentioned: let him be anathema.5


This definition states the origin, the preservation, and the value of traditions.


1. The origin of traditions: The apostles received them either from the very lips of Christ or at the dictation of the Holy Spirit. This “dictation” is not to be understood in a crassly mechanical sense, but as including all the ways in which a truth can be revealed to men by God. These traditions are said to have been received “from the apostles themselves,” in contradistinction to the apostles’ successors in the pastoral office. To these latter “the Holy Spirit was promised not that they might make known new doctrines revealed to them by Him, but that they might with His help reverently safeguard and faithfully teach the revelation handed down through the apostles, that revelation which makes up the deposit of faith.”6 Furthermore, the truths which the apostles received at the dictation of the Holy Spirit are included under the term “Christian doctrine” or “revelation,” both because they form the complement of what Christ personally taught, and because Christ Himself said: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, has come, he will conduct you through the whole range of truth.7 What he will tell you does not originate with him; no, he will tell you only what he is told . .. for he will draw upon what is mine and an­nounce it to you.”—(John 16:13—14).

2. The preservation of the traditions: “. . . have come down to us . . . continuously preserved in the Catholic Church.”—Ibid.

3. The value or dignity of the traditions: “. . . with equal loyalty and reverence . . . it also accepts and venerates traditions. . . Ibid. Although traditions, from the point of view of the words or the form in which they are expressed, are inferior to Scripture, they are, from the point of view of their subject matter or content, equal to Scripture as the word of God.

Tradition may be defined as follows: the collection of revealed truths which the Church has received through the apostles in addi­tion to inspired Scripture and which it preserves by the uninter­rupted continuity of the apostolic teaching office.


IV.  The Precise Point at Issue in the Controversy with Protestants


The state of the question.

A few preliminary remarks will contribute to a clear under­standing of the controversy with Protestants on the subject of Tradition.

1. The question is not primarily whether everything which one must know in order to be saved is contained in Scripture as we now have it, but whether the magisterium of the Church draws the Christian revelation which it must preach from Scripture alone, whether it could and should draw upon this source exclusively.

Attention is focused on the magisterium of the Church” be­cause it was established in the treatise on the Church that the preaching of the Church’s magisterium is the proximate rule of faith for each person in the age in which he lives. Consequently, Scripture—setting aside the question of its being the only source of revelation—is at any rate only the remote rule of faith.

The question is concerned with that Christian revelation which the Church must preach.” In addition to what is necessary for each of the faithful to order his life aright or for the Church to carry out its mission successfully, Christian revelation contains much that is only useful. Now it has never been proved that our Lord wished the Church to preserve only what is necessary. He willed that it should faithfully safeguard His whole doctrine. “Initiate all nations to discipleship: . . . and teach them to observe all the com­mandments I have given you” (Matt. 28:20). “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything” (John 14:26). “There is still much I might say to you; but you are not strong enough to bear it at present. But when he, the Spirit of truth, has come, he will conduct you through the whole range of truth.”7 “And I will ask the Father, and he will grant you another Advocate to be with you for all time to come, the Spirit of Truth” (John 14:16).

Note, however, that “the whole doctrine of Christ,” in the sense explained above, i.e., inclusive of those things which the apostles learned through the Holy Spirit, does not include every single word and deed of Christ and the apostles. In fact, many words and deeds of our Lord Himself, and, even more so, of the apostles, could have passed into oblivion without the loss of anything taught, commanded, or instituted by Christ or by the Holy Spirit.8

Granted, then, that those things which everyone must explicitly believe are to be found in Scripture, it does not at all follow that the rest are matters of historical, rather than of religious, interest. For

(a) many of these other things are necessary for the Church to be able to carry out its mission successfully, and

(b) whatever Christ revealed, even things which are merely useful, must be faithfully treasured by the Church and believed implicitly by all and explicitly by those who have knowledge of them.


V.    Some Necessary Distinctions


The question of whether the Church’s magisterium draws rev­elation from Scripture alone is divisible into two others.

The first would be: Whether those things which are actually contained in Scripture are drawn or known by the Church’s magisterium from Scripture alone.

The second would be: Whether all of Christian revelation is to be found in Scripture.

The former question has to do with the relationship to Scripture of inherent and declarative Tradition (in the Protestant sense). The second is concerned with the existence of declarative Tradition (in the usual Catholic sense) and of constitutive Tradition.

It must be pointed out that “declarative Tradition” can be understood in two ways. Protestants admit declarative Tradition only to the extent that it expresses in a clearer and more distinct manner a doctrine rather vaguely or implicitly but still formally contained in Scripture. In this view, declarative Tradition contains nothing which, when one comes right down to it, cannot be known and proved from Scripture alone. Catholics, on the other hand, understand by the term “declarative Tradition” also, and, in fact, especially, that tradition which objectively or materially comple­ments the teaching found in Scripture, i.e., in all the passages containing matter pertinent to a specific subject. It complements Scripture by offering more information than the latter does on the same subject. As a result, one and the same point of doctrine which in Scripture is either only hinted at or only partially taught may, thanks to this Tradition, be known with certitude and completeness.

When all is said and done, declarative Tradition, in the sense admitted by Protestants, is, strictly speaking, the same as inherent Tradition. And, to the extent that it actually goes beyond the data of Scripture without proposing a doctrine altogether foreign to it, it is as a matter of fact constitutive. Accordingly, nothing is lost by replacing the threefold distinction with this twofold one of inherent and constitutive Tradition.

With regard to the former question: Protestants conceive of inherent Tradition as completely dependent on Scripture as on’ its origin. It “flows from Scripture,” they say, and consequently they do not consider it a separate source. Catholics look upon Scripture and inherent Tradition as two distinct sources for the same truths. In fact, they affirm not only that the primitive Church generally 9 received from Christ and the apostles those truths which are con­tained more or less clearly in Scripture in two ways: primarily by oral preaching and secondarily in inspired Scripture. But, conscious of the fact that, in preserving the doctrine of Christ, the Church enjoys the gift of infallibility, they hasten to add that these truths are drawn from a twofold source and are known in two ways by the present-day magisterium as well. These two sources, these two ways, are the safely preserved oral preaching of the apostles and inspired Scripture. They admit, of course, that the inspired books did in fact contribute a great deal, indeed a very great deal, to the safeguarding of apostolic preaching, just as, from another point of view, Tradition played a most important role in the preservation and understanding of the Scriptures. But they do not agree that inherent Tradition is so dependent on Scripture that the truth it contains today must be traced back ultimately to Scripture alone.

With regard to the second question, one fact must be heavily underscored. The controversy between Catholics and Protestants on the matter is by no means limited to those points of doctrine of which Scripture has nothing to say. For there are really very few such points, as one can easily verify by looking at any handbook of Theology. He will not find therein many theses which take their proof from the data of Tradition alone without an appeal to Sacred Scripture for at least the first steps of the demonstration.


VI.  Controversy Has Two Facets

The controversy about Tradition, then, comprises two issues:

(1) whether Tradition is to be considered a distinct source even for those truths formally contained in Scripture;

(2) whether Tradition goes beyond the data of Scripture by giving more information than Scripture about some matters contained in the latter, or even by teaching some points of doctrine about which Scripture is completely silent.

With the ground thus broken,

Article I will treat of the exist­ence of Tradition in the sense already explained;

Article II will discuss the various media and documents in which Tradition is preserved;

Article III will take a closer look at some specific records of Tradition.



1.  See above, no. 3.

       2. See the treatise on Christ’s Church, no. 33.

3.  See, for example, Bavinck, Gereformierde Dogmatiek I, 401—415.

4.  The writings of such men as Bultmann and Cullmann have sparked an increasing awareness in Protestant circles of the weighty role which Tradition played in the early development of Christian doctrine. The discussions carried on in various Ecumenical Movement congresses have deepened this awareness. This is at least a step in the right direction, but the issue is still confused to a great extent. Protestants are apparently afraid of falling into the Orthodox extreme of equating Tradition with traditions, of putting liturgical and disciplinary customs on a par with genuine revealed truths. And, of course, both Protestant and Orthodox theologians still shy away from any notion of a divinely established magisterium as the organ of Tradition. For a good review of the situation as it stands today, see J. Daniélou, art. cit.

5.  DB 783—784; see the Vatican Council, constitution De fide catholica, CH. 2, DB 1787; and the Second Council of Nicaea, sess. 7: “. . . accepting everything whatsoever the holy Catholic Church has accepted from antiquity, written or no” (DB 302—304).

6.  See the Vatican Council, constitution De ecclesia, ch. 4, DB 1836.

7.  “The whole range of truth” does not signify all possible truths of any kind whatsoever, but the whole body of truths which God had determined to reveal to His Church on earth. Since, however, all those truths are con­ducive to salvation, although in different ways and degrees, “the whole range of truth” is usually interpreted to mean “all salutary truths.”

8.  One may judge from this the sense in which the following Protestant claim may be admitted and in what sense it is to be rejected: “The revelation of Christ was richer than the doctrine of the Church in a quantitative, not in a qualitative sense.

9.  Note the qualification, “generally”; for it is not certain that the apostles handed down to the Church no truth by means of Scripture alone.


Special Bibliography


BAINVEL, J. V. De magisterio vivo et traditione. Paris, 1905.

BILLOT, L. De sacra traditione contra novam haeresim evolution­ismi. Rome, 1904.

BOUYER, L. The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism. Translated by A. V. Littledale. Westminster, Md., 1956.

BURKE, E. “The Scientific Teaching of Theology in the Seminary,” CTSA Proceedings. New York, 1949.

DANIELOU, J. “Ecriture et Tradition dans le dialogue entre les chré­tiens séparés,” La documentation catholique, LIV (1957), 283 ff.

DEJAIFVE, C. “Bible, Tradition, Magistère dans la théologie cath­olique,” NRT, 78 (1956), 135—151; see TD, 6 (1958), 67ff.

DIECKMANN, H. De eccelesia. Friburgi. Br., 1925.

DIEKAMP, F. Theologiae dogmaticae manuale. Tournai, 1949.

CEISELMANN, J. “Das Missverständnis fiber das Verhaltnis von Schrift und Tradition und seine Überwindung in der kath­olisehen Theologie,” Una Sancta, 2 (1956), 131—150; see TD, 6 (1958), 73ff.

LERCHER, L. Institutiones theologiae dogmaticac. Innsbruck, 1951.

PARENTE, P. Theologia fundamentals. Rome, 1950.

SALAVERRI, I. Sacrae theologiae summa. I, Madrid, 1952.

SCHRADER, C. De theologico testium fonte deque edito fidei testi­monio seu traditione commentarius. Paris, 1878.

SMITH, G. (ed.). The Teaching of the Catholic Church. New York, 1949.

TANQUEREY, A. Synopsis theologiae dogmaticae. Paris, 1949—1950. WINKLER, M. Der Traditionsbegriff bis Tertullian. Munich, 1897.


Article I




PROPOSITION: 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.




This is a dogma of faith from the Council of Trent as quoted above and from the Vatican Council.1 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. 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.2

St. Paul refers the faithful to doctrines taught by word of mouth: “I praise you because you bear in mind all that I taught you and cling to the traditions precisely as I passed them on to you” (1 Cor. 11:2). “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions which you have learned from us by word or letter.” 3

This same Paul advises the bishop Timothy to safeguard the “deposit,” “that noble trust,” and to “hold to the form of sound teaching” which he had heard from his teacher. And when he felt his last days drawing near (2 Tim. 4:6), he commanded Timothy to hand on this oral teaching to trustworthy men who were fit to teach others: “0 Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, and keep free from profane novelties in speech and the contradic­tions that come from so-called knowledge” (1 Tim. 6:20). “In the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus, hold to the form of sound teaching which you have heard from me. Guard that noble trust with the aid of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in us” (2 Tim. 1:13—14). “And what you have heard from me in the presence of many wit­nesses, commend to trustworthy men who will be competent in turn to teach others” (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 honored 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 nonexistence 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.4 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 Cod 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 Spirit?


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 spirit, 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.—ACW trans.5


    Eusebius 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.6


    St. Ignatius 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.7 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 8 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. 9


    When the Gnostic heresy was raging, Hegesippus (c. 160 A.D.), 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.” 10


In their polemic against the Gnostics, St. Irenaeus and Tertul­lian 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? 12


Tertullian says that heretics “should not be admitted to any discussion of the Scriptures,” 13 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.14

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. 15


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.16


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.”17


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;18 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.19


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 honor of the eternal birthdays (of the martyrs) on their anniversary days,” and since the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice for the dead and in honor 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.”20


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.21


It makes no difference that St. Basil immediately gives examples of disciplinary traditions,22 for in view of the fact that he expressly distinguishes “beliefs” and “practices,” the principal affinnation 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 not hing.”23


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.24


St. Augustine appealed to apostolic Tradition in favor of the validity of baptism administered by heretics and of the efficacy of infant baptism.25


The nub 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,26 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 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.”*


* 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 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).



1.   Constitution De fide catholica, ch. 2; DB 1787.

2.   See Matt. 28:19—20; Luke 16:15—16; Acts 1:8; 9:15.

3.   2 Thess. 2:15; see Rom. 16:17; Phil. 4:9; Col. 2:7; 1 Thess. 4:1—2;

1 John 2:21—24.

4.   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 (loc. cit., p. 23).

5.   Epistula 1 ad Corinthios 42, 1—44. 2. Harnack: “The whole Catholic notion of Tradition is rooted ultimately in that sentence formulated long ago by Clement of Rome” (Do gmengeschichte 1 [3rd ed.], 154).

6.   HE 3. 36.

7.   Epistula ad Philadeiphenses 8.

8.    In the Greek: kai hósa; it may be supposed that Papias had treated in an earlier section the utterances of our Lord which are recorded in Scripture. See Funk, Patres apostolici, II (2nd ed.), 351; or perhaps the kai merely reinforces the preposition syn in synkatataxai, ef. Klcist in ACW 6 (West­minster, Md., 1948), 206, n. 7.

9.   Fragment 2, ACW trans.

10. In Eusebius, HE iv. 22. 3.

11. The Gnostics, of course, appealed to a secret tradition.

12. Adversus haereses 3. 2—4.

13. De praescriptione 15.

14. Ibid., 21.

15.  Ibid., 28.

16. De principiis, preface 2.

17. Oratio 3 contra Eunomium.

18. See, for example, Bavinck, op. cit., I, 405.

19. De corona militari 3—4.

20. In epistulam ad Romanos i. 5, 9.

21. De Spiritu Sancto 27, 66; see 29, 71: “Most of the mysteries (tà pleîsta tôn mystikôn) are accepted by us without any written evidence.”

22.  Furthermore, he alleges as an example, “also the very anointing with oil” (the use of chrism in Confirmation).

23. Haereses 61, 6; see 75, 8.

24. Hoinilia 4 in 2 Thess 2; see Homilia 3 in 2 Tim.

25. See De baptismo ii, 7, 12; iv. 24 and 31; v. 23. 31; De Genesi ad litteram x, 23. 39.

26.  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.


Article II




I.    PROPOSITION 1. The Chief Means or Organ for the Preser­vation of Tradition Is the Unbroken Continuance of the Apostolic Teaching Office

a. This is the means clearly willed and directly established by Christ.

b. This means offers absolute certitude of the safe preserva­tion of the whole deposit of faith and hence of Tradition also.

c. In any particular case, for a complete theological solution of the question whether a doctrine is part of divine-apostolic Tradition, it is enough to show that this doc­trine is clearly and explicitly taught by the Roman Catholic episcopate as one which much be believed with divine faith.


Scholion.            The merely natural value of the Catholic magis­terium as a factor in the preservation of Tradition.


II.  PROPOSITION: 2. Ancient Documents of Various Kinds Help the Living Magisterium in Striking Fashion to Preserve Tradition

a. Apostolic Tradition found its way into writing from earli­est times.

b. The documents of Tradition are the following:

1. creeds and definitions of faith;

2. acts of the councils and of the supreme pontiffs;

3. liturgical books;

4. acts of the martyrs;

5. writings of the fathers and of theologians;

6. records of Church history;

7. works of Christian art.


Scholion.            The theological value of documents of Tradition in general. The canon of St. Vincent.


Oral tradition, say the Protestants, is very susceptible to cor­ruption, and so after the charism of truth had accompanied the apostles to the grave, Scripture stood alone as a reliable source of revelation. This raises the question of how traditions could have been safeguarded and passed along to us.

The most important fact to remember in this discussion is that when all the apostles had died, the charism of revelation did indeed die with them, but not the charism of truth, the gift of infallibility. Furthermore, the preservation of Tradition does not deserve to be painted in such dark colors as an almost impossibly difficult feat.

Really, Tradition must not be thought of as a long, confused conglomeration of statements which depend on human memory for continued ex­istence, but rather as a compendium of Christian faith and living which is included for the most part in the day by day profession of that faith, in liturgical and disciplinary custom, and in Christian practices themselves and finds varied and gradually clearer expres­sion as the needs of times and locales demand.

Furthermore, the search for the means by which the apostolic Tradition was safely preserved will involve a simultaneous search for the criteria in the light of which genuine traditions are dis­tinguished from their counterfeit.


PROPOSITION 1. The Chief Means or Organ for the Preservation of Tradition Is the Unbroken Continuance of the Apostolic Teaching Office


The unbroken continuance of the apostolic teaching office in concrete terms is nothing other than the living and enduring magisterium of the Church.

This is the means clearly willed and directly established by Christ. For He arranged for the unending continuance of the Petro­apostolic College upon which He laid the duty and the authority to preach His entire doctrine, and He saw to it that there would always be at hand in the Church a body of authoritative teachers hierarchically interrelated: the Roman Catholic episcopate. He saw to it, too, that the Holy Spirit would always assist this enduring magisterium by steering it away from error and by guiding it to the truth.

This means offers, in the light of Catholic principles, absolute certitude of the safe preservation of the whole deposit of faith and hence of Tradition also. This certitude is based on what was said elsewhere about the Church’s infallibility. Still it is worthwhile to recall that both Irenaeus and Tertullian, who insisted specifically on the Church’s Tradition in their polemic against the Gnostics, appealed directly to the assistance of the Holy Spirit joined with apostolic succession. 1 Protestants, therefore, have no right to say that the early fathers acknowledged just the historical and not the dogmatic authority of tradition.

In any particular case, then, for a complete theological solution of the question whether a doctrine is part of divine-apostolic Tradition, it is enough to show that this doctrine is clearly and explicitly taught by the Roman Catholic episcopate as one which must be believed with divine faith. * It makes no difference at what point in history a proposition of this sort achieved full clarity of expression, whether in the fourth or only in the twelfth century, for the charism of truth is perennial, like the magisterium itself. How it can happen that the Church’s magisterium clearly and dis­tinctly proposes certain things as objects of faith only after several centuries will be explained in the Treatise on Faith, in the section dealing with the development of the Christian faith, i.e., dogmatic progress.

The same treatise will explain the various ways in which a proposition is made clear and explicit by the Church. Meanwhile, we should like to mention here one way which is sufficient to pro­duce the above effect: an ex cathedra pronouncement of the Roman pontiff alone, who enjoys the absolute fulness of supreme jurisdic­tion over the whole Church. 2 As things stand, in virtue of the fact that the assistance of the Holy Spirit has been promised both to the Supreme Pontiff both as head of the bishops and to the college of bishops when they are united with that head, it is impossible for a majority of the bishops to disagree with a pronouncement of the Roman pontiff. Irenneus had expressed this clearly enough in the second century: “For with this Church, because of its more efficient leadership, all churches must agree, that is to say, the faithful of all places, because in it the apostolic tradition has been always pre­served by the [faithful] of all places.” 3

Furthermore, the clear and distinct preaching of the Roman Catholic episcopate necessarily strikes a responsive chord in the common faith of the churches, which is, as it were, an echo of its voice. It was not to the magisterium alone, but to the universal Church that the privilege of infallibility was promised, although not to both in the same way, for the churches are infallible in their belief for the reason and to the extent that they follow the teaching of the infallible magisterium.4

It follows that the common faith of the churches is also a touchstone of genuine tradition—not an independent touchstone, it is true, but still certain and, in fact, infallible.**


Scholion. The merely natural value of the Catholic magisterium as a factor in the preservation of Tradition.


The unbroken succession of the Catholic episcopate is an ab­solute guarantee of the safe preservation of Tradition because it can count on God’s promise of infallibility. But if that organization established by Christ be considered inadequately, i.e., from the point of view of its external element alone and prescinding from the assistance it gets from the Holy Spirit, it must still be acknowl­edged as a very apt and morally safe means of preserving Tradition.

For the Catholic episcopate

(a) has always been made up—for by far the most part—of mature men, outstanding for holiness and learning, who have consistently safeguarded the original deposit of faith with unflagging solicitude and have always had a horror of heresies. Now

(b) they have never treated any part of our sacred doctrine as a secret, esoteric tradition, but have taught all of it publicly and openly, with the result that any change would have been immediately detected by the people and would have been an affront to their common faith. Furthermore,

    (c) the individual bishops and their churches have always religiously cultivated mutual union and intercommunication, both among themselves and especially between themselves and the Church of Rome.5 As a consequence, any doctrinal corruption which might sneak in here or there could not go unnoticed for long, but was soon corrected or was punished by the excommunication of those who insisted on fostering it. Finally,

    (d) the living magisterium has never been without various aids connatural to its needs, as will be pointed out in the next proposition. Anyone who gives all these factors the consideration they deserve will find it hard to deny that the agree­ment of the Catholic episcopate or, what amounts to the same thing, the agreement of the individual churches on a point of doctrine as revealed, even from a merely natural standpoint, proves the ap­ostolic origin of this doctrine with moral certitude, or at least furnishes the basis for a most valid presumption in favor of such origin.

Notice, too, that the early fathers themselves, even back in their times, either explicitly or at least in practice, indicated the agree­ment of the churches as the sure criterion of a genuine tradition. Irenaeus uses the agreement of the churches to put dissident sects to shame:


The Church, although scattered throughout the whole world, still carefully preserves the faith as if she were gathered under one roof. She likewise believes these points [of doctrine] as if she had but one soul and one heart, and she preaches them and teaches them and hands them down with perfect harmony, as if she had but one mouth. 6


Tertullian insists on the impossibility of agreement in error:

Come now! Would they all have fallen into error? . . . 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. 7


PROPOSITION 2: Ancient Monuments of Various Kinds Help In Striking Fashion the Living Magisterium to Preserve Tradition


When Protestants say that oral Tradition cannot help becoming corrupt, they not only deny the charism of infallibility, but in addition they apparently suppose that oral Tradition as understood by Catholics leaves no room for aid from written records. They are mistaken, In the early ages the Church’s authoritative teachers taught Christian doctrine not only by word of mouth, but when the occasion presented itself, they also set that doctrine down in writ­ing. Other Christians did the same, moved by a desire to explain or defend in writing the Church’s teaching or to describe Christian institutions, rites or customs. They gave expression to their faith not with paper and ink alone, but in inscriptions, sculpture, and paint­ing. The heretics themselves and other of the Church’s antagonists sometimes outlined her doctrine in their works. Clearly, then, all these things, to the extent they have been preserved, furnished subsequent ages with a valuable means for ascertaining and spread­ing the tradition of the Church more easily.8

The monuments of tradition are, for all practical purposes, the following:


(a) creeds and definitions of faith;

(b) acts of the councils and of the supreme pontiffs;

(c) liturgical books;

(d) acts of the martyrs;

(e) writings of the fathers and of theologians;

(f) records of Church history;

(g) works of Christian art.


Now these means were not furnished directly by God, but

(a) they do follow connaturally upon the existence of the Church as a visible society. In every society carefully composed documents of this sort are put in permanent form and are consulted by men of later ages with a view to preserving the bond of unity linking them with those who have gone before. The more important documents had as authors those who in their day were members of the Church’s official teaching body. Such documents are

(b) morally necessary because, when God promised the aid of the Holy Spirit, He had no intention of dispensing the beneficiaries of this promise from using the natural means at their disposal. On the contrary, He sees to it that such means are at hand and are not neglected.9 However,

(c) they are only aids, since they are at the service of the living magisterium in much the same way as a book is at the service of a professor or as a document is at the service of an historian.


Scholion. The theological value of monuments of tradition in general. The canon of St. Vincent.


1. On the basis of the foregoing remarks, it is easy to solve the question of the value of ancient monuments as a whole for the identification of a genuine tradition. Their value is proportionate to the proof they offer for the fact that at one time or other the ecclesi­astical magisterium was in morally unanimous agreement on some doctrine or other as revealed. They constitute a compelling argu­ment, then,

(a) whenever they bear witness to a solemn definition of the infallible magisterium concerning a revealed truth;

(b) whenever they offer sure proof for the morally universal agreement of the world-wide magisterium on a doctrine as revealed. To secure this effect it is enough at times to have monuments which may be few in number but which are known, because of special circum­stances, to represent the belief of the universal Church.

On the other hand, when the available monuments are not of sufficient weight to prove the agreement of antiquity, or when they positively show that this agreement did not exist at one time, one may not immediately jump to the conclusion that this doctrine does not belong to apostolic Tradition. In the first case, there could have been a quite explicit and clear agreement without its being proved in written documents, since not everything found its way into writing and not everything which was ever written has been pre­served. As for the second case, it must be pointed out that not everything which is formally contained in apostolic Tradition was always clearly and explicitly taught in the Church. There is a very real progress in the knowledge and formulation of Christian revela­tion, a point which will be taken up expressly in the Treatise on Faith. Again, a full explanation of matters contained in the deposit of revelation only rather vaguely or implicitly is not usually worked out without some discussion, and such discussion can sometimes go on for quite a while, In the case of truths like this, the one sure and reliable criterion of Tradition is the gradually growing and, finally, perfectly harmonious agreement of the living magisterium, to which the Holy Spirit was promised not only for the material safeguarding but also for the explanation of Tradition. The documents of an­tiquity then, are of value to the extent that they show that the luxuriant tree of present-day belief grew to its present estate, under the tender care of authorized gardeners, from the seed of the ancient faith.

2.  It is in the light of the above that judgment must be passed on the canon drawn up by Vincent Lerins (434 A.D.), which came in for a great deal of abuse at the hands of our adversaries, especi­ally at the time of the Vatican Council, The canon reads as follows:

"Great care is to be taken that we hold that which has been be­lieved everywhere, always, and by all, for this is truly and properly Catholic.” 10 Vincent’s intention was to give private individuals a criterion for discerning the truth in the case of a controversy which had just arisen and had not yet been solemnly decided by the magisterium.

He enunciated the following principles:

(a) if only a few disagree, one must follow the morally unanimous agreement of the churches as currently expressed: agreement of totality”; but

(b) if quite a few disagree (so that at the present time no morally unanimous consent is discernible), one ought to stand by the agree­ment which obtained before the controversy arose: agreement of antiquity.” 11

Now this rule of thumb, while it is sometimes hard to apply, is quite all right in the affirmative sense: when agreement on a doc­trine as revealed either exists at present or existed formerly, it must certainly be followed. But it is not valid in the exclusive sense: it is not antecedently impossible to have a “truly and properly Catholic,” i.e., a revealed, doctrine on which explicit agreement does not exist at the present time and did not formerly exist. St. Vincent himself certainly did not mean his canon to be taken in the exclusive sense, since in the same work he clearly acknowledges and, in fact, praises highly the development of faith by a progressively more distinct and lucid teaching of age-old truth.

It should be noted in addition that Vincent did not understand his canon, even in the affirmative sense, as requiring absolutely unanimous agreement, 12 and even less did he propose it as a norm for the acceptance or rejection of the living magisterium’s doctrinal decisions. Any appeal to his authority on the part of the Old Catholic sect is, accordingly, misguided and pointless.

It may of course seem surprising that St. Vincent did not refer his readers to the judgment of the Roman pontiff. But it must be remembered, in the first place, that he was dealing with the case of a fresh controversy about which no solemn decision had as yet been issued. Recall, too, that at that time the doctrine of the infallibility of the Roman pontiff had not yet received the full and brilliant scientific treatment which later ages were to give it. Present-day Catholics are quite familiar with the fact that this prerogative belongs to the pope himself as distinct (but not sepa­rate) from the episcopal college; but those of an earlier age were more inclined to consider the supreme pontiff as he is conjoined with the body episcopal. 13 It is largely a question of emphasis.




*   “For a complete theological solution” or, if you prefer, for a full dog­matic solution. It is one thing to solve a question by the principles of faith, and quite another to solve it from those of history.

** Note: “the common faith,” not just any common persuasion. Whether or not a common persuasion is really divine faith, i.e., the assent to truth based on the authority of God revealing, is more readily ascertained from the fact and the manner of the magisterium’s teaching than from the simple fact of the common agreement of people. Hence, even from this point of view, the criterion of clear and actual teaching is worth more than the criterion of the common faith of the churches.

1.  St. Irenaeus: “Wherefore one should obey the presbyters who are in the Church, those who enjoy apostolic succession; those who, along with apostolic succession, have received the sure charism of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father” (Adversus haereses iv. 26, 2; see iii. 24, 1). For Tertullian, see above, no. 147.

2.  Protestants, of course, draw from this the following conclusion: there­fore the Roman pontiff is the master of tradition, and can foist his whims on all Catholics under the false title of divine Tradition. Not at all! Catholics believe that matters of faith are defined by a solemn pronouncement of the supreme pontiff because they are divinely certain and that a pope speaking ex cathedra is preserved by the assistance of the Holy Spirit from all error in recognizing and in explaining the truth (whether he does so in writing or orally).

3.   Adversus haereses iii. 3, 2.

4.   See Christ’s Church, no. 77.

5.  Hamack testifies to the fact that such intercommunication was not lacking even in the first centuries:

The journeys of leading Christians teach us how active personal com­munication and contact were in the first centuries. Because of this the Roman community stepped into the foreground in startling fashion: it was the destination of most Christians whom we know as travelers. . . . Here, too [in the exchange of letters], the Roman community stands in the foreground. . . . In fact, up until the time of Constantine, at any rate until about the middle of the third century, the centripetal forces became stronger than the centrifugal, but Rome was the center of those forces: the Roman community was the Catholic community. It was not only the symbol and representative of unity, but to it above all others do we owe thanks for that unity—Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderte, pp. 269-72.

6.   Adversus haereses 1. 10, 2.

7.   De praescriptione 28.

8.  Even Holy Scripture itself is a great help to the Church’s magisterium; in fact it renders boundlessly outstanding service to the preservation of Tra­dition (inherent and declarative in both senses). But since this fact is obviously clear and beyond all cavil, theologians usually do not mention Sacred Scripture in this context, lest they appear to put divine books and human documents on the same level.

9.   See Christ’s Church, no. 99.

10. Commonitorium 2; see W. Reilly, Etude sur la règle de foi de s. Vincent de Lerins (1902).

11.  But this will so happen only if we follow totality, antiquity, agreement [later, in his summation, he explains: “We have said that the agreement of totality as well as that of antiquity should be taken into account” (ch. 29)1. But we shall follow totality in this way, by confessing that this one faith is the true one, which the whole universal Church confesses (ch. 2). What if some new contagion should try to infect the whole Church at once? In that case it will be similarly prudent to stick to antiquity, which is altogether secure from seduction by any novel deceit (ch. 3).

12. See ch. 2 and 28.

13.  Hence Vincent writes in the following strain about the resistance shown by Pope St. Stephen to St. Cyprian:

Then the holy martyr Pope Stephen, bishop of the Apostolic See, together with the rest of his colleagues indeed, but even more than all of them, put up stiff resistance, considering it justified, I suppose, if he outstripped all the others in devotion to the faith as much as he surpassed them in authority of position.—Ch. 6.



Article III




I.    The Symbols of Faith:

1. The Apostles’ Creed;

2.  The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed;

3.  The Athanasian Creed.

II.  a. The Writings of the Fathers:

1.  What is a “father of the Church”?

2. What is a “doctor of the Church”?

3. What are “ecclesiastical writers”?

b. The Authority of the Fathers:

PROPOSITION: The unanimous agreement of the fathers on a doctrine as revealed is a sure argu­ment for divine Tradition.

Proof: 1. from the conviction and practice of the infallible Church;

2. theological argument. Corollaries.

Remarks on the interpretation of the fathers’


c.  The Fathers and Secular Matters

Scholion. The authority of theologians.



Since space does not permit a treatment of each of the several documents, we shall have to rest content with a few brief remarks about the symbols of faith (creeds). This will leave room for a somewhat more detailed study of the writings of the fathers and theologians.


     I. The Symbols of Faith

Symbols of faith 1 is the term generally used to indicate brief summaries of the truths of faith; more developed formulae are called not symbols but professions of faith. The name seems to have originated in the fact that the faithful were distinguished from other people by such a formula as by a sign (sýmbolon) or mark of identification.

There are three symbols which the Greeks, too, and several Protestants share with Catholics: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed (or, more exactly, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan), and the Athanasian Creed.


1.  The Apostles’ Creed.

There is no doubt that all the doctrine contained in this symbol is apostolic, but there is some question about the formula itself. 2

On the testimony of Ambrose, 2 Jerome, 3 Rufinus, 4 and Leo the Great, 5 there was a strong opinion about 400 A.D. that the baptis­mal symbol which the Roman Church kept inviolate and to which other western churches made some additions, had been composed by the apostles. Rufinus bases his view expressly on the tradition of the ancients: “our elders tell us”; 6 and his subsequent remarks are of such a nature that they could easily have given rise to the idea that each of the apostles contributed a single phrase to the formula.7

However, the fathers just mentioned were speaking, not of the text in common use today, but rather of the older text which read as follows:

I believe in God, the Father almighty; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary; crucified under Pontius Pilate and buried, He arose from the dead on the third day; He ascended to Heaven; He sits at the right of the Father; from here He will come to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Spirit, the holy Church, the remission of sins, and the resurrection of the body.



The commonly accepted text, called also the Gallican, turns up first in a sermon of Caesarius of Arles (d. 543). 8 It is the common opinion of scholars that it took form in southern Gaul in the fifth century. The Roman Church took it over in the seventh or eighth century.

The older text, called also the Roman, certainly goes back to the middle of the second century in substance (i.e., in its over-all structure and in all the articles except perhaps the last three). 9 Many think it probable that it goes back to the beginning of this century, right back to the apostolic age itself. But, for lack of documentary evidence, this cannot be proven positively. This older Roman text is certainly the archetype of all western creeds and probably of all oriental ones as well.

But the opinion which attributes the composition of this for­mula to a joint council of the apostles is today rejected by many, even Catholic, critics, on the grounds that it finds no sufficient proof in the testimony of the ancients, and especially because no trace of a uniform creed can be found among the ancient eastern churches. The nucleus of the whole formula, however, the profession of bap­tizing in “God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” is justifiably con­sidered apostolic.

Whatever one may think of the origin of the verbal formula, the authority of the creed as such is unshakable in the face of its approbation and centuries-old use in the universal Church.


2.  The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.

The basis of this symbol is the old text of the Apostles’ Creed, which

(a) the Nicene fathers (325 A.D.) elaborated in order to give more distinct ex­pression to the consubstantiality of the Word. 10 Later,

b) the fathers of Constantinople (381 A.D.) accepted with little change 11 a creed which was very much like the Nicene, but in which the divinity of the Holy Spirit was more plainly indicated.” It had the approval of the universal Church from at least the sixth century on.

This creed began to be used in the Mass during the sixth cen­tury in the east and shortly thereafter (589 A.D.) in Spain, where the phrase “and from the Son” was added to the words “who pro­ceeds from the Father.” Gaul and Germany followed suit in the eighth century. The Roman Church adopted this custom along with the phrase “and from the Son” only in the time of Benedict VIII



3. The Athanasian Creed, 13 or the “Quicumque,” composed in the style of a psalm, contains a more accurate exposition of the mysteries of the Trinity and of the Incarnation.

Scholars have ascertained that this symbol was not composed by Athanasius and was not completely Greek in origin; the Greeks became acquainted with it quite late. It seems to have been com­posed in Gaul in the fifth century and somewhere in the region of Aries. Künstle has attempted to demonstrate that it was an exposi­tion of the true faith aimed at the Priscillian heresy.

“The Belief of Athanasius,” as it once used to be called, began to be used in the Divine Office around the end of the eighth cen­tury, came to be known as a symbol in the tenth, and was consid­ered a solid rule of faith in the universal Church from at least the thirteenth century on.

The chief professions of faith are

(a) the profession of Trent, prescribed by Pius IV, to which Pius IX made a few additions after the Vatican Council;

(b) the profession prescribed for the Greeks by Gregory XIII;

(c) the profession prescribed for Oriental Cath­olics by Urban VIII and Benedict XIV;

(d) the profession of faith and the oath against Modernism, prescribed by Pius X. 14


II. a. The Writings of the Fathers

1.  What constitutes a father of the Church?

The title fathers in the broad sense indicates ecclesiastics who, in the early ages of the Church, recorded Catholic doctrine and explained and de­fended that doctrine by their writings. Thus it embraces the fathers strictly so called, the doctors of the Church, and those who are generally referred to as ecclesiastical writers.

1. In the strict sense, the fathers of the Church are those who are outstanding for orthodoxy, holiness, and antiquity, and are acknowledged as such by the Church.

Their orthodoxy is not destroyed by a few errors in matters

which at the time they wrote had not yet been worked out clearly, as long as they had a truly Catholic attitude and generally treated Christian doctrine correctly.

     Their holiness of life won for them the special illumination of the Holy Spirit, and resulted in their edifying the Church not by their words alone, but by their example as well. Final judgment on soundness of doctrine and on holiness belongs to the Church. Consequently no one must be considered a qualified and, as it were, authoritative witness to Catholic tradi­tion if the Church does not acknowledge him as such. This acknowl­edgment is made in different ways, as for instance, when they are cited as fathers by councils or by a supreme pontiff, or when they are praised in the Roman Martyrology as “eminent for holiness and learning,” or when the Church agrees in practice that they are worthy of the title. It is customary to call fathers of the Church only those who stand out as witnesses of Christian antiquity. The limits of this antiquity are not rigidly fixed. They are usually ex­tended in the Greek Church to include John Damascene (d. 754), and in the Latin Church to take in Gregory the Great (d. 604) or, better, Isidore of Seville (d. 636).

But if the title of “father” is used in a little wider sense to indicate a group other than the Scholastic theologians, then Bernard of Clairvaux has the distinction of being called “the last of the fathers.”

Several fathers were bishops, but not all. Ephraem the Syrian (d. 373) was a deacon; Justin Martyr (d. c. 165) and Prosper of Aquitaine (463) were laymen.


2.  The title “doctors of the Church” applies to those who were outstanding for orthodoxy, learning, and holiness, and have been honored with this title by the Church.

Since the work of a doctor is more directly concerned with explaining doctrine than with merely witnessing to it, antiquity is not required in this case but rather an outstanding erudition in the field of theology. The title of doctor, at least in recent centuries, is bestowed upon certain men in very explicit fashion, either by pontifical decree or by the granting of the liturgical Office of Doctors to be used on their feasts by the universal Church.

The great doctors of the Latin Church are customarily listed as four: Ambrose (d. 397), Jerome (d. 420), Augustine (d. 430), and Gregory the Great (d. 604). 15

The great ecumenical doctors are listed in the liturgical books of the Greeks as three: Basil (d. 379), Gregory Nazianzen (d. 390), and John Chrysostom (d. 407).

The other doctors are: Hilary of Poitiers (d. 366), Athanasius (d. 373), Ephraem (d. 373), Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444), Peter Chrysologus (d. 450), Leo the Great (d. 461), Isidore of Seville (d. 636), Venerable Bede (d. 735), John Damascene (d. 754), Peter Damian (d. 1072), Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109), Bernard (d. 1153), Anthony of Padua (d.      1231), Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), Bonaventure (d. 1274), Albert the Great (d. 1280), John of the Cross (d. 1591), Peter Canisius (d. 1597), Robert Bellarmine (d. 1621), Francis de Sales (d. 1622), Alphonsus Liguori (d. 1778).

3.  Ecclesiastical writers, in the technical sense of the term, are those who once brilliantly illumined the Church with their writings, but are not classed among the saints or may even have left the Church—in a word, all those whom the Church does not recognize as authoritative witnesses to its tradition. Such are, for instance, Tatian, Athenagoras, Minucius Felix (towards the end of the second century), Tertullian (d. after 220), Clement of Alexandria (d. 215), Origen (d. 254), Arnobius (d. after 304), Lactantius (d. about 320), Eusebius of Caesarea (d. about 320), Rufinus (d. 410), Theo­doretus (d. 458), Dionysius, called the Areopagite (d. about 500), etc. 16


b.  The Authority of the Fathers

In this discussion, the term “fathers” will be taken in its broad sense. Still, real fathers and doctors will be accorded more weight than ecclesiastical writers, and of the latter group those who left the Church will be considered only to the extent that they are in agreement with genuine fathers.


PROPOSITION: The unanimous agreement of the fathers on a doc­trine as revealed is a sure argument for divine Tradition.

The agreement must be morally unanimous. But the fact of such agreement may be determined indirectly as well as directly, for example,

(a) when all subsequent fathers are in accord, those, namely, who lived after a doctrine began to come under attack or to receive more specific attention; or

(b) when many fathers of different times and countries agree, with no opposition from the others; or

(c) when only a few fathers come to the defense of a doctrine, but in such circumstances as to make it clear that they speak, as it were, in the name of the whole Church, as in the case of Augustine against the Pelagians or of Sophronius against the Monothelites.

The agreement must be about a doctrine as revealed. The fathers can assert this not only explicitly but also in equivalent terms, as, for example, when they use the formula, “we believe with the Catholic Church,” or when they propose a doctrine as one which must be believed by everyone or openly declare an opposite opinion heretical, etc. As long as they unanimously teach some­thing as a doctrine which must be believed, it makes no difference whether they are acting as witnesses only or as doctors as well, by declaring what is the authentic meaning of ancient tradition. For then when they teach and clarify as well as give witness, they are the spokesmen of the Church and can be said to be acting as authoritative teachers. On the other hand, when they are carrying on research, suggesting opinions or hesitating, they are clearly speaking as private teachers.

This proposition is certain and, in fact, is partially defined by the Councils of Trent and of the Vatican in what they have to say about the interpretation of Scripture. 17



1. From the conviction and practice of the infallible Church, which has always proclaimed the teaching of the fathers to be its own, and has always consulted them when there were controversies to settle. The fathers and doctors themselves give historic proof of this fact, for when they were alive, they consistently taught that the teaching of the fathers who had preceded them must be followed. 18

2. Theological argument. The agreement of the fathers reflects the agreement of the ecclesiastical magisterium. During their life­time they were the Church’s spokesmen: many of them held authoritative positions in that very magisterium and the rest wrote at least under the watchful eye of the Church and with its ap­proval. After their death they were acknowledged by the Church as qualified witnesses of Catholic tradition.

It is frequently objected that the Antenicene fathers were in sympathy with the error of Chiliasm (the more subtle type) and with Subordinationism. This objection will not hold water.

(a) Many did look with favor on Chiliasm, but by no means all—not even a moral majority. Besides, its chief supporters did not propose this doctrine as a matter to be believed by all with the sureness of faith.


I admitted to you formerly that I and many others are of this opinion, but on the other hand, I indicated to you that there are also many Christians of pure and pious mind, who are not of the same opinion.19


       (b) It is simply not true that all or even many Antenicene fathers were Subordinationists, although some of them, while holding to the essentials of the true doctrine, did stray somewhat from the truth in secondary points, and were not quite accurate especially in the matter of terminology. More about this in the Treatise on the Trinity.

In developing this thesis, we have been speaking of the theolog­ical authority of the fathers when they are in agreement. But from a merely historical point of view as well, the agreement of the fathers, especially if it can be established not indirectly and by inference but directly, must be taken as a morally certain criterion of the truth. 20



1. If the fathers are in common accord in defending some doc­trine which, by the nature of its subject matter, can be classed with doctrines of faith or morals, and if they propose it to be held as true without making it sufficiently clear that they consider it revealed, their agreement must be taken as a sure criterion of at least its theological truth, although perhaps not of its revealed truth. 21

2. The authority of one or of a few fathers is not compelling, even in a strictly theological matter, for as individuals they were not infallible. And no one of them has received such approval from the Church as to make every single statement of his an object of obligatory belief. In fact, there can be found hardly one who did not err at one time or other, at least in less important matters. 22

But if some of them spoke in such fashion that in the circumstances they can be said to have spoken in the name of the Church, then they must by all means be followed as far as the substance of their teaching on the point is concerned. But as far as their treatment of accessory questions or their more detailed explanations are con­cerned, the words of Pope Celestine I may serve as a guide: “The deeper and more difficult parts of secondary questions which they who combated heretics treated in great detail we do not dare brush aside disdainfully, but neither do we consider it necessary to assent to them.” 23

Still, in matters of faith and morals, the authority of even indi­vidual fathers is to be held in high regard, and all the more, the more outstanding they are for learning, holiness, antiquity, and especially for the approval and commendation they have received from the Church.

A few remarks on the interpretation of the fathers.

(a) Since in the light of theological principles it is antecedently impossible that there be agreement in favor of a matter of faith in one age and against it in another, and since what is theologically impossible cannot be critically true, we must rule out, first of all, any interpre­tation according to which all or many fathers of an earlier age could be said to disagree with those of a later age in a matter of faith or morals.

(b) Even in the case of individual fathers or doctors, no real error is to be admitted in matters which have been explicitly taught by the Church right from the beginning or at least from a very early age. How could the Church have recog­nized a man as a witness of its tradition if he had subscribed to heretical doctrine? Still, if he had a substantial understanding of the true doctrine, he may quite possibly have expressed confused concepts, scientific explanations which were not quite correct or consistent, and especially he may have used inaccurate or careless terminology which may at times seem to lend support to a heresy of a later age.

(c) In matters which were not clearly and explicitly contained in the Church’s articles of faith until much later, it is even easier to admit error on the part of individual fathers. But since on Catholic principles later agreement could not have been reached if the seeds of the same doctrine, anticipations of it, as it were, had not been in existence earlier, it is quite reasonable to expect that vague, indecisive passages in earlier works will be cleared up in the light of later agreement.

(d) In the case of the fathers as in the case of all other authors, and this is especially true of some of them, attention must be paid to the rhetorical or polemical emphasis of their writings. As is often the case in litera­ture in general, their real meaning must at times be gleaned not from their words alone, but also from the attendant circumstances:

the people they are addressing, the error they are attacking, and the like. Often, too, a puzzling passage must be cleared up by reference to other passages where they treat the same subject more clearly.

It follows from this that a truly scientific interpretation of the fathers is not merely a matter of following the rules of philology and lexicography, and that those “critics” who shun the light fur­nished by the common conviction of the Church of the father’s day or of later ages quite often risk missing the author’s meaning by sticking too exclusively to the letter. On the other hand, those theologians who, by failing to take sufficient account of human foibles and of the obscurity to be expected in questions not yet thrashed out, are determined to defend every statement of the fathers, difficult or no, come hell or high water, show little respect for the rights of truth and bring discredit on their science.


c.   The Fathers and Secular Matters

4. In merely secular matters the fathers have no special author­ity. No matter how staunchly unanimous their agreement may be on such points, the conclusion reached by Melchior Cano still holds good: “The authority of the saints, be they few or many, when brought to bear on matters which fall within the province of natural reason, does not furnish certain proof, but is only as valid as the reasoning process on which it is based.”24


Scholion. The authority of theologians.

The term “theologians” signifies those writers of the post-patris­tic period and especially of the period following the twelfth cen­tury who produced more systematic works on sacred doctrine under the aegis of the Roman Catholic episcopate. More systematic works, indeed, for the theologians “undertook a task of great mag­nitude, namely, to harvest with reverent care the abundantly rich sheaves of doctrine from the extensive writings of the holy fathers, to bind them together and to store them in one place for the use and convenience of later ages.” 25

In addition, they strove to clarify, to recommend, and to defend revealed doctrines with the aid of philosophical reasoning to a greater extent than the fathers had done. The theologians succeeded the fathers as witnesses of revela­tion although they did not enjoy the same authority. In the first place, by far the majority of the fathers were bishops, but this is not true of theologians. Again, the Church, which gave its official approval in at least general fashion to the fathers and doctors, even as individuals, does not recognize individual theologians as witnesses of its tradition, but reserves this recognition rather for schools of theologians (Thomists, Suarezians, Scotists, Salmanticenses, etc.).

However, the unanimous and constant agreement of theologians on a doctrine as revealed is a sure criterion of divine tradition.

This fact is established

(a) by the authority of Pius IX: “The actual submission which must be given to divine faith” is not restricted to matters which have been solemnly defined, but “must be extended to those matters also which are proposed as divinely revealed by the magisterium of the universal, world-wide Church, and which are consequently maintained as part of the faith by Catholic theologians in universal and constant accord.” 26

(b) By theological reasoning (hinted at in the words of Pius IX). The bond between theological schools and the Church’s magisterium is so intimate that those things which theologians with morally universal unanimity—and not during just a short period but over a considerable span of time—teach as matter calling for the firm assent of faith could not but coincide with what is taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church. Would not the Catholic episcopate be clearly derelict of duty if it winked at an error in faith taking root and growing apace throughout Catholic schools? Would not an error tacitly approved by the protracted silence of the Church’s pastors end up by poisoning that Church quite thoroughly? On the other hand, how explain the constant unanimity of so many sincere and learned men if not by the fact that they follow either the Church’s public, day-to-day teaching or at least the mind of the Church, the “Catholic sense”?

Whenever theologians, with this same unanimity, teach a doc­trine belonging by its subject matter to faith and morals as true and as demanding the assent of everyone, but without calling it a revealed doctrine, their teaching is a reliable criterion of theological truth. Care must be taken, however, not to confuse such decisive and solid agreement with conjectural agreement, i.e., agreement on an opinion as such. This latter is not very common, and can be recognized by its very fluidity.



1.   See Bardenhewer, Geschichte der altkirchlichen Literatur, I, 68; DTC,

1, 1660 if.; Vacandard, Etudes de critique (1905), p. 3; 1. Quasten, Petrology, I, 23 if.

2.   Epistula 42, 5.

3.   Contra Joannem Jerosolymae 98.

4.   Commentarium in Symbolum, 2—3.

5.   Sermo 96, 1; Epistula 31 ad Puicheriam 4.

6.   Loc. cit.

7.   See the sermon of Pseudo-Augustine 240 (ML 39, 2189).

8.   Sermo de symboli fide et bonis operibus (244, one among the spurious sermons of Augustine, loc. cit., p. 2195), where, however, the following words are still wanting: “Creator of heaven and of earth.” The older text clearly consisted of twelve articles. In the presently accepted text St. Thomas pre­ferred to distinguish fourteen articles (S.Th 2—2ae, q. 1, a. 8).

9, In the opinion of some, the creed which was in use in the Roman Church around the year 150 is to be reconstructed as follows:

I believe in one Cod, Father almighty, and in Jesus Christ His Son, our Lord, who was born of a virgin, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, rose from the dead on the third day, ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of the Father, whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead; and in the Holy Spirit.

10. See Hefele, Conciliengeschichte, I (2nd ed.), 314.

11. Ibid., 11(2nd ed.), 10.

12. This can be found in Epiphanius Anchoratus 121.

13.  See DTC, I, 2178; K. Kunstle, Antipriscilliane (1905).

14. DB 994, 998, 1459, 2145.

15. In 1298 Boniface VIII extolled these men as “outstanding doctors of the Church” (in the decretal Gloriosus 3, 22).

16. For information on these writers see the recognized works of patrology, like Fessler-Jungman, Institutiones patrologiae; Bardenhewer, Geschichte der altkirchlichen Literatur; Patrologie (2nd ed.); Battiffol, La littérature grecque (3rd ed.); Rauschen, Grundriss der Petrologic; Cayré, Manual of Pat rology; Quasten, Patrology; Kihn, Patrologie; Altaner, Patrologie (2nd ed.).

17. See above, no. 103.

18. Some examples of this can be found in Pesch, Praelectiones dogmaticae, I, no. 576 if.

19. Dialogue with Trypho 80; see De San, De traditione, pp. 183 if., where there is a discussion also of those fathers who were of the opinion that the beatific vision would be postponed until the time of the general judgment (p. 194).

20.   See Augustine Contra Julianum ii. 10, 37.

21.  See Christ’s Church, and especially the Treatise on Faith, in the article entitled “Theological Truths.”

22.  And so Augustine writes: “I do not accept Cyprian’s views on the baptism of heretics because those views are not accepted by the Church for which St. Cyprian shed his blood” (De baptismo 2, 3). St. Thomas: “One must stand by the authority of the Church rather than by that of Augustine or Jerome or any doctor at all, because the very teaching of Catholic doctors gets its authority from the Church” (S. Th., 2—2ae, q. 10, a. 12). In this connection the following condemned proposition also could be cited: “When­ever anyone finds a doctrine with clear backing in the works of Augustine, he can hold and teach it unconditionally, without the slightest regard for any pontifical Bull” (DB 1320).

23.  Epistula 21 ad episcopos Galliae; DB 142.

24.  De locis theologicis, VII, 3.

25.  Encyclical Aeterni Patris

26.  Epistula ad archiepiscopum Monaci, 1863; DB 1683.