Sacred Tradition:

Definition of Terms:

  • Septuagint: the earliest extant Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible 
  • Deposit of Faith:  The entirety of the teachings, commands, traditions, and examples left by Christ with the Apostles.

The word tradition is taken from the Latin trado, tradere, meaning “to hand over”.  Sacred Tradition refers to the body of beliefs, teachings, practices, and customs that have been passed down by the Church from generation to generation. Sacred Tradition contains the entire deposit of faith given by Christ to the Apostles, which have been preserved and transmitted through oral tradition and then later codified in various writings, including Scripture. It thus complements written Scripture, known as the Bible, which is only a part of the greater Tradition handed on by Jesus Christ, the apostles, and the early Church. When reading the writings of the Church Fathers from the early centuries, it quickly becomes evident that they understood Sacred Tradition as the foundation of the doctrinal and spiritual authority of the Church. Thus, while the Bible holds a special place in the life of a Christian, it must be interpreted within the context of Sacred Tradition. Sacred Tradition serves as an authority and guide for interpretating scripture and developing doctrine while maintaining continuity with the teachings handed down by the Apostles.

This was not original to Christianity. In Judaism, Sacred Tradition encompasses the Oral Torah, which consists of teachings, interpretations, and legal rulings transmitted orally from Moses and subsequent generations of Jewish sages. According to Jewish tradition, when Moses received the written Torah, he also received additional instructions and explanations from God that were not recorded in the written text. Over time, the Oral Torah was passed down orally through a chain of sages and scholars. It was eventually codified and compiled in written form in several works, most notably the Mishnah and the Talmud. The Mishnah, compiled around the 2nd century CE, is a systematic collection of Jewish laws and teachings. The Talmud, which consists of the Mishnah and subsequent commentaries and discussions, further expands and elaborates on the teachings of the Mishnah. The Oral Torah is believed to complement the written Torah, which includes the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (the Torah).

Among the earliest examples of Christian theological appeal to tradition comes within the Bible itself in verses such as 2 Peter 3:16, where Peter warns;

“There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures”

Acts 8:30-31 illustrates this where the Ethiopian Eunuch states that he cannot understand Scripture without Philip’s instruction. In addition, Paul makes frequent counsel to keep and maintain Tradition;

1 Corinthians 11:2
“I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.”

2 Thessalonians 2:15
“So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.”

2 Thessalonians 3:6
“Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.”

2 Timothy 2:2
“What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

The Bible itself is a product of Tradition (see Early Biblical Canons). Christ never wrote anything down nor instructed the Apostles to write anything down. He never made a reference to a “Bible” nor stated that it would be the rule of faith in determining essential Christian Doctrines. Rather, He founded a Church, which He instructed to go and make disciples, teaching them everything that He had commanded. The Bible itself states that all the books in the world could not contain everything Jesus said and did (John 21:25). It was only after the Apostles had gone out into the world and established churches that any of the Apostles (or their followers) wrote down anything at all. It was 30 to 40 years after Christ that the first letter of the New Testament was written and another 40 years after that before the last book of the New Testament was written. Even then, there is nothing in their writings to indicate they intended to create a catechesis explaining the entire faith to new converts. Neither is there any indication that any of the books of the New Testament were a cohesive effort of any kind. Rather, they were occasional letters, written as needed to address particular situations within communities that were already Christian and had already been taught directly by the Apostles or their disciples.

Following the Apostolic Age, the Church Fathers were instrumental in preserving, articulating, and transmitting Sacred Tradition within Christianity. They recognized the importance of both Scripture and Sacred Tradition as sources of divine revelation. By emphasizing the continuity of the teachings and practices handed down from the apostles, they sought to defend and transmit this tradition faithfully, distinguishing authentic teachings from false ones. They addressed doctrinal controversies and defended the faith against heresies by providing theological insights, explanations of Scripture, and teachings on various aspects of Christian belief and practice. One of the earliest examples of this was Irenaeus’ response to Gnosticism, (a heresy that used some scripture as the basis for its teachings). Irenaeus of Lyons held that ‘rule of faith’ (‘κανών της πίστης’) is preserved by a church through its historical continuity of teaching with the Apostles. This perpetual handing on of the tradition, called the “Living Tradition“, can never be in conflict with sacred scripture and contains the the entirety of divine revelation, called the Deposit of Faith. It was these same early Christians who preserved the books and letters that would eventually compose the New Testament and handed them on. They would eventually compile them and determine which ones were universally accepted and preserved original Apostolic teaching. They then referred to these books as the New Testament. In short, without the Church and Tradition, we would have no Bible.

The Protestant Reformation:

For the first 1500 years following Christ, Christians considered Sacred Tradition to be the Deposit of Faith given to the Apostles by Christ, of which the Bible is only a part (although an important part with its own special place as the inspired Word of God). The principle of the “Bible alone” as the sole rule of faith was a novel idea first introduced by Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation. Luther first declared “sola scriptura” during a public debate with Johann Eck known as the Leipzig Debate, held in Leipzig, Germany, between June 27 and July 16, 1519. Luther’s idea of the Bible Alone was not ascertained through scriptural study, but was rather a rhetorical response to Eck’s charge of Luther breaking from the rulings of previous Church Councils. This exchange played a significant role in shaping the course of the Reformation and solidifying Luther’s position as a leading figure in the movement. To bolster this position and justify his break from Rome, Luther and later Protestants sought out any Biblical verses that would seem to lend credence to the idea.

Some would point to Mark 6:7 where Jesus accuses the Pharisees of abandoning God’s commandments in favor of traditions of men. The claim was that Christ here was condemning all Tradition, but He is not. The context of Mark explains that the religious leaders of the temple were focused on the dedication of money to the temple (qorban) which should have been used to fulfill the commandment of keeping one’s parents out of poverty, thus nullifying God’s command to honor one’s parents (Mark 7:10-13). Christ is pointing out the hypocrisy of man-made traditions that nullify God’s commandments, not condemning all Tradition. Scripture clearly teaches that we are to keep Tradition; (1Cor.11:1, 1 Thess. 2:13, 2Thess.2:15, 2Tim.2:2). By claiming the “Bible alone” is the sole rule of faith, Martin Luther created a man-made tradition that nullified God’s command to keep Tradition.

Another verse that was often referenced as support of “sola scriptura” was 2 Timothy 3:16-17 which says;

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

The claim is that the Bible alone is the sole rule of faith equipped to answer all questions on faith and doctrine. There are several problems with relying on this verse, however, as this is not what the text says nor is it the author’s intention to claim such a thing:

  1. Nowhere in 2 Timothy (or anywhere else in the Bible), does it list the books that should be included in the Bible and therefore be considered Scripture. The verse says “all Scripture is God-breathed and useful…” but it does not say what is considered Scripture.
  2. How then do we know that 2 Timothy is Scripture and should be included in the Bible? No where in the Bible does it state that 2 Timothy is Scripture.
  3. When taken into account the time period in which 2 Timothy was written, the New Testament had not yet been gathered together and definitively declared Scripture. This wouldn’t happen for another 300 years. In addition, because it is stated that Timothy had known these Scriptures since childhood, it is clearly evident that the verse is referring to the Old Testament, as any books of the New Testament had not yet been written in Timothy’s childhood.
  4. Which Old Testament books would Timothy have considered Scripture? Timothy was Greek and would have been familiar with the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint. The Septuagint differed from the later Hebrew Old Testament canon in that it included books like I & II Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Baruch, and Sirach. If 2 Timothy is claiming “sola scriptura” and included these books as Scripture, then what was Luther’s reasoning for rejecting these books as Scripture?
  5. No where does 2 Timothy actually say that ONLY Scripture should be used as a rule of faith. It says that “ALL Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” which is exactly what the Catholic Church has always taught.

All Scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training, but this does not mean that the Church was not given authority or that Scripture is the only source of authority in matters of the faith. Christ Himself never commanded the Apostles to write a New Testament and then go distribute it to the world. He told them to go out and teach the nations everything that He had commanded them (all of which was oral teaching) and that He would be with them until the end of the age and not even the gates of Hell would prevail against them (Matt 16:18 and 28:18-20). In other words, He established the Apostles and thus the Church as the authority on rules of faith, not the Bible.

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Historical Quotes:

Bible Verses:

1 Corinthians 11:2

“I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.”

2 Thessalonians 2:15

“So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.”

2 Thessalonians 3:6

“Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.”

2 Timothy 2:2

“What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

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Church Father Quotes:

St. Papias of Hierapolis 

“Papias, who is now mentioned by us, affirms that he received the sayings of the apostles from those who accompanied them, and he, moreover, asserts that he heard in person Aristion and the presbyter John. Accordingly, he mentions them frequently by name, and in his writings gives their traditions… There are other passages of his in which he relates some miraculous deeds, stating that he acquired the knowledge of them from tradition” (fragment in Eusebius, Church History 3:39 [A.D. 312]).

Eusebius of Caesarea

“At that time [A.D. 150] there flourished in the Church Hegesippus, whom we know from what has gone before, and Dionysius, bishop of Corinth, and another bishop, Pinytus of Crete, and besides these, Philip, and Apollinarius, and Melito, and Musanus, and Modestus, and, finally, Irenaeus. From them has come down to us in writing, the sound and orthodox faith received from tradition” (Church History 4:21).

St. Irenaeus of Lyons 

“As I said before, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth. For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the tradition is one and the same” (Against Heresies 1:10:2 [A.D. 189]).

“That is why it is surely necessary to avoid them [heretics], while cherishing with the utmost diligence the things pertaining to the Church, and to lay hold of the tradition of truth. . . . What if the apostles had not in fact left writings to us? Would it not be necessary to follow the order of tradition, which was handed down to those to whom they entrusted the churches?” (ibid., 3:4:1).

“It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors to our own times—men who neither knew nor taught anything like these heretics rave about.

“But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles.

“With this church, because of its superior origin, all churches must agree—that is, all the faithful in the whole world—and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition” (ibid., 3:3:1–2).

St. Clement of Alexandria

“Well, they preserving the tradition of the blessed doctrine derived directly from the holy apostles, Peter, James, John, and Paul, the sons receiving it from the father (but few were like the fathers), came by God’s will to us also to deposit those ancestral and apostolic seeds. And well I know that they will exult; I do not mean delighted with this tribute, but solely on account of the preservation of the truth, according as they delivered it. For such a sketch as this, will, I think, be agreeable to a soul desirous of preserving from loss the blessed tradition” (Miscellanies 1:1 [A.D. 208]).

Origen of Alexandria 

“Although there are many who believe that they themselves hold to the teachings of Christ, there are yet some among them who think differently from their predecessors. The teaching of the Church has indeed been handed down through an order of succession from the apostles and remains in the churches even to the present time. That alone is to be believed as the truth which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition” (The Fundamental Doctrines 1:2 [A.D. 225]).

St. Cyprian of Carthage

“[T]he Church is one, and as she is one, cannot be both within and without. For if she is with Novatian, she was not with [Pope] Cornelius. But if she was with Cornelius, who succeeded the bishop Fabian by lawful ordination, and whom, beside the honor of the priesthood the Lord glorified also with martyrdom, Novatian is not in the Church; nor can he be reckoned as a bishop, who, succeeding to no one, and despising the evangelical and apostolic tradition, sprang from himself. For he who has not been ordained in the Church can neither have nor hold to the Church in any way” (Letters 75:3 [A.D. 253]).

St. Athanasius of Alexandria 

“Again we write, again keeping to the apostolic traditions, we remind each other when we come together for prayer; and keeping the feast in common, with one mouth we truly give thanks to the Lord” (Festal Letters 2:7 [A.D. 330]).

“But you are blessed, who by faith are in the Church, dwell upon the foundations of the faith, and have full satisfaction, even the highest degree of faith which remains among you unshaken. For it has come down to you from apostolic tradition, and frequently accursed envy has wished to unsettle it, but has not been able” (ibid., 29).

St. Basil “the Great” of Caesarea 

“Of the dogmas and messages preserved in the Church, some we possess from written teaching and others we receive from the tradition of the apostles, handed on to us in mystery. In respect to piety, both are of the same force. No one will contradict any of these, no one, at any rate, who is even moderately versed in matters ecclesiastical. Indeed, were we to try to reject unwritten customs as having no great authority, we would unwittingly injure the gospel in its vitals; or rather, we would reduce [Christian] message to a mere term” (The Holy Spirit 27:66 [A.D. 375]).

St. Epiphanius of Salamis

“It is needful also to make use of tradition, for not everything can be gotten from sacred Scripture. The holy apostles handed down some things in the scriptures, other things in tradition” (Medicine Chest Against All Heresies 61:6 [A.D. 375]).

St. Augustine of Hippo 

“[T]he custom [of not rebaptizing converts] . . . may be supposed to have had its origin in apostolic tradition, just as there are many things which are observed by the whole Church, and therefore are fairly held to have been enjoined by the apostles, which yet are not mentioned in their writings” (On Baptism, Against the Donatists 5:23[31] [A.D. 400]).

“But the admonition that he [Cyprian] gives us, ‘that we should go back to the fountain, that is, to apostolic tradition, and thence turn the channel of truth to our times,’ is most excellent, and should be followed without hesitation” (ibid., 5:26[37]).

“Perhaps you will read the gospel to me, and will attempt to find there a testimony to Manichæus. But should you meet with a person not yet believing the gospel, how would you reply to him were he to say, I do not believe? For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. So when those on whose authority I have consented to believe in the gospel tell me not to believe in Manichæus, how can I but consent? Take your choice. If you say, Believe the Catholics: their advice to me is to put no faith in you; so that, believing them, I am precluded from believing you—If you say, Do not believe the Catholics: you cannot fairly use the gospel in bringing me to faith in Manichæus; for it was at the command of the Catholics that I believed the gospel;— Again, if you say, You were right in believing the Catholics when they praised the gospel, but wrong in believing their vituperation of Manichæus: do you think me such a fool as to believe or not to believe as you like or dislike, without any reason?” -Augustine of Hippo, Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus, Chapter 5

“But in regard to those observances which we carefully attend and which the whole world keeps, and which derive not from Scripture but from Tradition, we are given to understand that they are recommended and ordained to be kept, either by the apostles themselves or by plenary [ecumenical] councils, the authority of which is quite vital in the Church” (Letter to Januarius [A.D. 400]).

St. John Chrysostom

“[Paul commands,] ‘Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or by our letter’ [2 Thess. 2:15]. From this it is clear that they did not hand down everything by letter, but there is much also that was not written. Like that which was written, the unwritten too is worthy of belief. So let us regard the tradition of the Church also as worthy of belief. Is it a tradition? Seek no further” (Homilies on Second Thessalonians [A.D. 402]).

St. Vincent of Lerins

“With great zeal and closest attention, therefore, I frequently inquired of many men, eminent for their holiness and doctrine, how I might, in a concise and, so to speak, general and ordinary way, distinguish the truth of the Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical depravity.

“I received almost always the same answer from all of them—that if I or anyone else wanted to expose the frauds and escape the snares of the heretics who rise up, and to remain intact and in sound faith, it would be necessary, with the help of the Lord, to fortify that faith in a twofold manner: first, of course, by the authority of divine law [Scripture] and then by the tradition of the Catholic Church.

“Here, perhaps, someone may ask: ‘If the canon of the scriptures be perfect and in itself more than suffices for everything, why is it necessary that the authority of ecclesiastical interpretation be joined to it?’ Because, quite plainly, sacred Scripture, by reason of its own depth, is not accepted by everyone as having one and the same meaning. . . .

“Thus, because of so many distortions of such various errors, it is highly necessary that the line of prophetic and apostolic interpretation be directed in accord with the norm of the ecclesiastical and Catholic meaning” (The Notebooks [A.D. 434]).

Pope St. Agatho

“[T]he holy Church of God . . . has been established upon the firm rock of this Church of blessed Peter, the prince of the apostles, which by his grace and guardianship remains free from all error, [and possesses that faith that] the whole number of rulers and priests, of the clergy and of the people, unanimously should confess and preach with us as the true declaration of the apostolic tradition, in order to please God and to save their own souls” (Letter read at fourth session of III Constantinople [A.D. 680]).

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Non-Catholic Quotes:

J. N. D. Kelly (1909-1997, A Protestant and an early Church historian)

“Where in practice was the apostolic testimony or tradition to be found?… The most obvious answer was that the apostles had committed it orally to the Church, where it had been handed down from generation to generation… Unlike the alleged secret tradition of the Gnostics, it was entirely public and open, having been entrusted by the apostles to their successors, and by these in turn to those who followed them, and was visible in the Church for all who cared to look for it” (Early Christian Doctrines, 37).

For the early Fathers, “the identity of the oral tradition with the original revelation is guaranteed by the unbroken succession of bishops in the great sees going back lineally to the apostles. . . . [A]n additional safeguard is supplied by the Holy Spirit, for the message committed was to the Church, and the Church is the home of the Spirit. Indeed, the Church’s bishops are . . . Spirit-endowed men who have been vouchsafed ‘an infallible charism of truth’” (ibid.).

Georges Florovsky (1893-1979), Russian Orthodox priest, theologian, and historian

“Tradition is not a principle striving to restore the past, using the past as a criterion for the present. Such a conception of tradition is rejected by history itself and by the consciousness of the Orthodox Church. Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit and not only the memory of words. Tradition is a charismatic, not a historical event.” –Tradition in the Orthodox Church – Theology – Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Retrieved 5 January 2021.

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