By Edmond Lo, M.T.S., catechist of the Chinese Martyrs Catholic Church
Unlike our Protestant counterparts who promote “Bible alone” (sola Scriptura), the Catholic Church teaches that the Bible cannot be properly understood without the teaching and guidance of the Church Magisterium, which does so following the Holy Tradition.
What is the Holy Tradition?
According to Vatican II, Tradition (from the Latin ‘traditio’ – ‘that which is handed down’) came from the preaching of the Gospel done by the apostles and other men associated with them, “who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit” (Dei Verbum, n.7).
In the words of Avery Dulles, S.J., a contemporary and well-respected mainstream Catholic theologian, “tradition involves a communal ‘sense of the faith’ aroused and continuously sustained in the Church by the Holy Spirit”; it is “grasped through familiarity or participation as a result of dwelling within the Church, taking part in its worship, and behaving according to its standards.” Tradition is “an organ of apprehension and transmission…the mode in which the Church perpetuates its faith and its very existence” (A. Dulles, The Craft of Theology, pp. 94 and 103).
Dulles contends that if “taken apart from the tradition in which it comes to the faithful, the Bible would no longer deserve to be called the word of God.”
Strong words, and yet so true!
There are many different ways to understand the teaching and events of the New Testament books. If you follow the Catholic tradition, you will see God as Trinitarian, for example. Similarly, you will find strong scriptural support for the Marian doctrines of Immaculate Conception and perpetual virginity. This is not the case at all if the Bible is read in the light of, say, the Jehovah Witnesses tradition, which disputes the divinity of Christ. Also, according to the traditions of many Protestant churches the Bible is understood to teach that Mary was not free from sins and had other children. Tradition is like eyeglasses: what you see is determined by what you wear!
But how could the Catholic Church claim that her tradition is the only tradition that has the authority and ability to properly interpret Scripture if hers is only one of many? Why are the Catholic “eyeglasses” necessarily better than all other eyeglasses? How could Catholic theologians such as Dulles be so “puffed up” as to claim that the Bible is no longer the word of God if taken apart from the Catholic tradition?
For one thing, of all the Christian denominational traditions, the Catholic tradition is one of a handful that was handed down to us directly from the apostles, who had first-hand experience in encountering the historical Christ.
More important, however, is the fact that of the few Christian traditions that can be traced back to the apostles (e.g. Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, etc.), the Catholic tradition is the only one that came down directly from Peter and Paul, the two glorious apostles of Christ, through two thousand years of continuous succession. The other traditions, while apostolic and originally part of the integral whole of the Petrine Church, had at one point or another branched out to progress and develop on their own, picking up characteristics and faith elements that are sometimes foreign to the Catholic faith.
According to Irenaeus, a second century and much-quoted saint, orthodox Christian faith is that which is believed in those apostolic churches, founded by the apostles. But among all the apostolic churches, he offered to produce only the line of succession “of the very great, the very ancient and universally known church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul” (Against the Heresies 3.3.2).
In concluding this article, let me leave you with this final thought: the Catholic tradition provides a certain approach, a sense of the faith, if you will, that Catholics adopt in reading and understanding the inspired Scriptures. It was based on this reading and understanding of the Christian faith as preached and proclaimed by the apostles, that the early Church determined the Canon of the Scripture, i.e. the official list of inspired books. Wouldn’t any attempt to read and understand the Scriptures apart from this original reading and understanding render the Scriptures unworthy of being considered the “inspired books” or word of God? Remember, the message or teaching is not the book as such, i.e. the Bible, which is but a stack of papers; it is the reading, the understanding, and the teaching derived there from.
If you understand my concluding thought, you will understand the topic of this article.