Tradition before Scripture

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[Author’s note: This is a post made originally on my blog that a number of people found useful. I’m still reading and studying for my follow-up piece on the “gay marriage” debate. I wanted to present this to the Ignitum Today readers precisely because of the backlash I got from a number of Protestants (outside my blog). They claimed that I make Tradition “superior to Scripture” and that I “trust in men and not God” for holding that Tradition is good and necessary for understanding Scripture. I suppose you can judge for yourselves if that is true. I’m working on a follow-up to this as well, but the range of responses I received were immense. I’d like to make up something of an analysis of these arguments for your benefit.]


I’m beginning to believe more and more that it will be impossible to convince someone who believes in sola Scriptura that it’s wrong. Not only do I find it to be wrong, but it’s simply something that’s illogical from our experience of the ordinary.

“What makes it illogical?” some may ask, “After all, doesn’t Jesus defy logic and doesn’t the ordinary fall away with the presence of the divine?”

I would answer, simply, “No.”

The incarnation of our Lord is evidence enough that the ordinary does not fall away in the presence of the divine. The ordinary is mixed together, indistinguishably, from the divine. “Mixture” is an approximation of this reality, mind you.

The burning bush that stood before Moses “and behold, the bush was burning, but it was not consumed” (Ex 3:2). Resplendent with God’s power, the bush did not pass away. The Eucharist is another such example. By the power of the Spirit through the one priesthood of Jesus, common bread and wine are transformed. These things become the sacramental presence of Jesus Christ, but the properties of bread and wine do not pass away. (The priest prays over the gifts before the Eucharistic prayers: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity” (Order of the Mass, s.24))

Indeed, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

In our own lives God encounters us more through the ordinary than through the “extra-ordinary.” Certainly some experience the special grace of visions, prophecies, and the like. But even these men and women would be called ungrateful if they didn’t recognize the many signs, blessings, and messages they receive through ordinary means.

God speaks to us through prayer, the inquiry of a child, a sight that strikes us for no particular reason, or an insight while doing something mundane.

Anyone in their right mind, believing in God and Scripture, recognizes that God is not limited by time or space. All the same it’s evident that God Himself acts in time and space because He desires to relate to us and to be with us. The message of the Old Testament is that God does not abandon his people. He is with them, guiding them throughout history with His own hand, visible to those willing to look.

Returning, then, to my original notion: How does this relate to Tradition, let alone the thought that Tradition precedes Scripture? How is belief in “Scripture alone” contradictory to the experience of faith and common experience?

In order to help with this notion, I feel an analogy will be helpful. This recently came to me while praying.

Scripture is something permanent and fixed, yet it is also something that the reader experiences in a variety of ways. In this manner, Scripture is a lot like a photo. A photo is something that captures a moment so everyone can see what the photographer wanted them to see. Say that the photo was taken at a party, but someone who wasn’t there looks at it. He may be able to deduce from certain things in the photo that it was, in fact, a party. On the other hand, he may get it completely wrong.

Tradition is something lived, something fluid, but also a continuation of what came before. Tradition is like an event worth being photographed. The people at the event recognize it as special in some way and wish to remember it. These same people look at the photo and recognize instantly its significance. Those who weren’t there learn all the back-stories, nuances, jokes, etc. from those who were there.

Without Tradition there would be no Scripture. Scripture helps us to remember, Tradition helps us to understand. Both are from the Spirit, because the opportunity for both is a gift.

Tradition is not merely the mundane or something that we hold onto because we’re afraid. Tradition, properly speaking, is something we cherish because those whom we love cherished it.

In regards to God, Tradition is not a source of fond memories, it’s continuing the work that was begun long ago. The wedding photo from 50 years ago reminds a couple of where they began and how far they’ve come. The graduation photo reminds her of her accomplishments and how much more she wants to accomplish.

Scripture is something special, but it would not exist if the faithful, gathered in one place, thought it would not be profitable and useful to their children and their children’s children. The prophets or others recorded their words so future generations would recognize their fulfillment. The Apostles and their communities recorded their words to keep safe the teaching that Christ had given them.

In all these cases, their words would be incomprehensible without a line of teachers, believers who loved what was given to them and who understood their significance from the source. Indeed, many false teachers can arise in the name of God. Many speak eloquently with Scripture and reason. Only those who know Scripture and the Tradition from which it came can argue validly against them.

The Spirit, Scripture, and Tradition all protect against pride, but Tradition protects against the pride of personal enlightenment.

With Scripture alone, we have photos from long ago that mean what we want them to mean. Without Tradition, the Bible becomes my bible.

Matthew Heinrich

Matthew Heinrich

Matthew Heinrich is a deacon for the Archdiocese of Chicago. He enters his 13th year in seminary. He attended the high School seminary (Archbishop Quigley), went to St. Joseph (at Loyola), continued at Theological College in Washington DC (Catholic University of America) where he earned his PhL. He currently studies at Mundelein Seminary working towards his STB, STL. He loves philosophy, has studied Greek, and fell in love with Patristic thought. He is a huge Chicago fan--Cubs, Bears, Hawks (2013 Champs!), and Bulls. The views expressed by the author are his alone, they neither reflect those of the diocese he studies for nor at the seminary where he studies.

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3 thoughts on “Tradition before Scripture”

  1. Avatar

    Most people who dismiss Tradition use the term in a somewhat non-specific and general way, to indicate practices that many considered problematic, “questionable” practices that had crept into the Church over 1,500 years. We, as Catholics would be wise to carefully consider such critiques.

    But, as is often the case, those who deny the reality of Tradition, in a sense, also “throw the baby out with the bath water,” when they categorically deny what is obvious to anyone with knowledge of the early Church . . . the New Testament came out of the practices and experiences of the early Church. Another way of saying this is that inspiration occurred over time . . . not at an isolated instance. This is the basis for Tradition. This is also true of the Old Testament.

    The Bible is God’s revelation, but that revelation came as an interaction with His creation, not as a separate, stand-alone event. This interaction is the foundation of Tradition. All accumulated practices are not necessarily fully faithful, but to deny the reality of Tradition, along with the Bible, is to ignore how God revealed Himself to us.

    Please bear with me as I think these things through . . . the relationship between Tradition and Scripture cannot be fully defined or explained in a few words.

  2. Avatar

    Yves Congar pointed out that there is Tradition and tradition with a small t and Newman said the same thing when he noted that an inauthentic tradition can begin in the Church also and it may be attended by abruptness as when Pope Innocent IV in 1253 made burning heretics mandatory on princes ( see ” Inquisition” at newadvent’s Catholic encyclopedia). Keep in mind that the first millenium had taught against torturing or killing heretics generally. Now in light of section 80 of ” Splendor of the Truth”, “coercion of spirit” and ” torture” are seen as intrinsic evils. Hence John Paul II was seeing torture and killing heretics just as Lactantius saw them…not good. A fundamentalist reading of Luke 9 would have saved the Magisterium from incepting a basically four centuries long mistaken tradition. Hence the peaceful offshoot of the Anabaptists were correct in an area where we were wrong.

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