Catholicism teaches that Jesus Christ revealed the Christian faith in all
its fullness to His twelve apostles. They in turn entrusted it to the
bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. Known as the Magisterium, the pope
and bishops are the guardians, interpreters, and authoritative teachers of
The Church refers to the body of beliefs and practices
entrusted to its pope and bishops as the sacred deposit of faith.
It says that the apostles passed on this deposit to the bishops in two
distinct ways. The first was through unwritten means, such as the
apostles’ preaching, conduct, prayer, and worship. The Church refers to
that portion of revelation received from Christ and passed on by the
apostles through unwritten means as Tradition. The second form in
which the apostles passed on the revelation received from Christ was in written
forms. The Holy Spirit moved men to record a portion of the deposit of
faith as inspired Scriptures. These are the writings of the New Testament.
The Church teaches that Scripture and Tradition together
form the Word of God. Together they preserve the entire sacred
deposit of faith and serve the Church "as the supreme rule of her
This explanation of revelation may sound reasonable to
some, especially when Rome describes Tradition as nothing more than the
apostles’ preaching and example. The Church even cites Scripture to
support its position. For example: "So then, brethren, stand firm and
hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or
by letter from us."—2 Thessalonians 2:15
But look more closely at what the Roman Catholic Church
means by Tradition, and you will find that it has little to do with what
Paul means by "traditions" in 2 Thessalonians 2:15. There Paul
is writing to his contemporaries, Christians living in Thessalonica, whom
he had personally taught. He tells them to hold fast to the
"traditions" they have received from him. The Greek word
translated "traditions" simply means something handed down.
Paul uses the word to stress that the truths that he had taught them did
not originate with him. He simply passed on that which he had received
from the Lord. The same is true of two other verses often cited by the
Catholic Church to support its view of Tradition: 1 Corinthians 11:2 and 2
Thessalonians 3:6. These verses also speak of truths that Paul personally
passed on to the first Christians in Thessalonica and Corinth.
Is this what the Roman Catholic Church means by
Tradition? Not at all. Catholic Tradition is not Paul’s oral teachings
recorded on some kind of first century audio device. Neither is it a
first-hand account of the apostles’ preaching, their conduct, or their
So what is Roman Catholic Tradition? It’s difficult to
say. The Church appears to be purposefully vague when describing it. Rome
is clear enough in its claim that the source of Tradition is the
unwritten teachings of the apostles. But source, as the Church well knows,
isn’t the issue. Transmission, how apostolic teaching has been
passed down in unwritten form for some 20 centuries without being
corrupted—that’s the issue. How has this supposedly happened? Where
does this unwritten sacred deposit of information currently reside? And
how can anyone today distinguish the authentic oral teaching of the
apostles from beliefs and practices introduced in later centuries by
others? These are the questions that reveal the true nature of Roman
In addressing these questions of transmission, Rome is
far less explicit, except to say that they each have their answer in the
Church—the Roman Catholic Church in general and the Magisterium in
particular. It says that the Church is the vehicle by which Tradition is
transmitted, the means by which it is kept from corruption, the abode in
which it resides today, and the final arbitrator as to what is authentic
Tradition. Indeed, the Church’s understanding of revelation is so
closely linked to the Church’s understanding of itself that the two
cannot be separated. According to the Second Vatican Council,
"…sacred Tradition, sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the
Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand
without the others."ii
In trying to grasp what the Church means by Tradition,
don’t think of it as something you can pick up in your hands and read.
Even today Tradition is unwritten; it is not contained in books. It
might be expressed in the writings of the early Christians, such as
the so-called "Church Fathers." Other "witnesses," as
the Church calls them, to Tradition include early creeds, ancient
liturgies, inscriptions on monuments, and the documents of various synods
and councils. These may express doctrines and practices derived from
Tradition, but they are not Tradition itself. Neither is Tradition the
result of scholarly research performed by historians and archaeologists
trying to reconstruct the faith of the primitive church. Roman Catholic
Tradition is not any of these things.
If you want to understand Tradition you must look to the
Church, for Tradition, says Rome, lives within the Church. It is a living
thing, the life experience of the Catholic people. The Catechism
of the Catholic Church says that revelation is "written
principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and
records."iii Catholic theologians describe Tradition as "the
word living continuously in the hearts of the faithful,"iv a
"current of life and truth coming from God through Christ and through
the Apostles to the last of the faithful who repeats his creed and learns
his catechism."v And since Tradition lives within the Church, only
the "living Magisterium" of the Church, the pope and bishops of
Rome, can define it with infallible precision.
This concept of unwritten divine revelation living
within the Roman Catholic Church is totally foreign to the Scriptures.
Nowhere does the Bible teach such a thing. Jesus identified Scripture as
the Word of God (John 10:35), but never Tradition. To the contrary, He
condemned the Jews for elevating their Tradition to the same level of
authority as God’s written Word (Mark 7:1-13). This is the very thing
that the Roman Catholic Church has done with its Tradition. According to
Rome’s bishops: "… both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted
and honored with equal feelings of devotion and reverence."vi
The Church is unmoved by criticism that its concept of
Tradition cannot be found in the Scriptures. It reminds its opponents that
Roman Catholicism holds that a belief doesn’t need to be established by
Scripture before it can be held as a doctrine of the Church. In the words
of the Second Vatican Council: "…the Church does not draw her
certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures
alone."vii Catholicism, says the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
is not a "religion of the book."viii In Roman Catholicism
beliefs and practices can be established from Tradition. This means, of
course, that Rome’s doctrine of Tradition doesn’t need to be
established by the Scriptures. It can be infallibly defined by the
Magisterium based on revelation passed on as—you guessed it—Tradition!
Such self-validation, of course, is meaningless circular
reasoning. Meaningless, that is, unless one is willing to first accept the
Magisterium’s claim to infallibility. In that case, Rome can’t go
wrong. The doctrine of infallibility itself, however, cannot be
established from Scripture. It must, therefore, also be established on the
authority of Rome’s second font of revelation—right
again!—Tradition. And so, we’re back to where we started, having
completed the circle one more time.ix
The bottom line is that Tradition is whatever the Roman
Catholic Church says it is. It’s a blank check that Rome can fill out
virtually as it desires. Examples of Roman Catholic doctrines based
primarily or wholly on Tradition include purgatory as a place to atone for
sin after death, the necessity of seven sacraments as channels of grace,
the worship of the Eucharist, the supreme authority and infallibility of
the bishop of Rome, the veneration of Mary, the Immaculate Conception of
Mary, and the Assumption of Mary.
In Roman Catholicism, if the Church’s pope and bishops
say that a certain belief or practice is part of the sacred deposit of
faith, no one can say otherwise. Not even opposing arguments founded on
Scripture will be heard, for in Roman Catholicism the teachings of the
Church determine the meaning of Scripture. The Bible, says Rome, must be
read within "the living Tradition of the whole Church."x
Tradition is the key to interpreting the Bible, and the Magisterium alone
holds that key. The interpretation of Scripture, says the Church, "is
ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church."xi
i. Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution
on Divine Revelation," no. 21.
ii. Ibid., no. 10, or see Catechism of the Catholic
Church, no. 95.
iii. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 113.
iv. The German Bishop’s Conference, The Church’s
Confession of Faith (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1987), p. 45,
quoting J. A. Mohler. See also the Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic
Constitution on Divine Revelation," no. 8; and the Council of Trent,
session 4, "First Decree: Acceptance of the Sacred Books and
v. Jean Bainvel, The Catholic Encyclopedia (New
York, NY: Robert Appleton Co., 1912), "Tradition," vol. 15, p.
vi. Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution
on Divine Revelation," no. 9.
viii. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 108,
quoting the Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine
Revelation," no. 11.
ix. Some have accused Christians of using similar
circular reasoning in arguing for the authority and inspiration of
Scripture when they say things such as: "I know the Bible is inspired
because it says it’s inspired." Such reasoning, critics point out,
The point is well taken.
Nevertheless, there are valid reasons for believing in the authority and
inspiration of the Scriptures. As others have demonstrated, ultimately it
is Jesus Christ who establishes the Bible as the inspired and
authoritative Word of God. The argument goes as follows: Textual and
historical evidence show the New Testament to be a reliable and
trustworthy document. In the New Testament is found a record of events
related to the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. These provide sufficient
evidence to believe with confidence that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
Jesus Christ as the divine Son of God is an infallible authority. He
taught that the Scriptures are the Word of God. As the Word of God, the
Bible in infallible, supremely authoritative, and utterly trustworthy.
x. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 113.
xi. Ibid., no. 119, quoting the Second Vatican
Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," no. 12.
Adapted from Conversations with Catholics by James G. McCarthy
(Harvest House Publishers: Eugene, 1997)
Mr. Mike Gendron
Mr. Greg Durel
Carlos Tomas Knott