What precisely is 'tradition'? - Catholic Courier

What precisely is ‘tradition’?

Q. As Catholics, we accept the church’s teaching on Scripture and tradition. But what precisely is tradition? What is it that is "handed down"? Pius IX once said, "I am tradition," meaning, I suppose, that tradition is anything the pope says. The assertion could be made that tradition could mean anything. I don’t believe that. (Indiana)


A. I agree that tradition in the Christian sense cannot mean just anything, but it does mean many things. Generally the word refers to the entire process by which the church hands over (a more accurate and fruitful meaning than "hands down") what it believes from one generation to the next.

It also refers to the core facts and beliefs crystallized in the great creeds and authoritative documents, especially of the first centuries of Christianity: the several brief creedal statements in the New Testament, and the Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian creeds, among others.

All the above are sometimes called "Tradition" (with a capital T). If a doctrine or practice is not clearly taught as essential to the Catholic faith, for example, or if it is somehow in conflict with New Testament Scriptures, it cannot be part of this Tradition.

In modern times, the word also refers to the long string of clarifications and explanations the church has used to present the faith through the centuries.

Finally, there are practices, ideas, customs, ways of expressing and living the faith, which have gradually been accepted, often without great theological or spiritual scrutiny — tradition with a small t.

Naturally, all these expressions of tradition are inevitably influenced by the times, languages, local traditions and worldviews of the cultures in which they originate.

Especially since the Protestant Reformation, theologians and Christian leaders have disagreed over whether Scripture is the sole source of divine revelation (the more Protestant view), or whether tradition and Scripture constitute two sources of revelation. The Council of Trent (Session 4), for example, taught that Christian truth and way of living are contained "in written books and in unwritten tradition." Both are to be "received and honored with equal loyalty and reverence."

Holy Scripture itself is, of course, the product and depository of tradition. Many oral, unwritten traditions were passed down over hundreds of years before any books of our Bible were written.

In the written Scriptures themselves some events took on a tradition life of their own and became the basis for understanding subsequent events. Later Hebrew history was explained and interpreted in light of the tradition of the exodus, the Lord’s delivery of the people from slavery in Egypt.

Much theology in the Gospels was written in light of and to interpret the meaning of our Lord’s resurrection, which took place decades before the Gospels appeared. Early Christian expectation of the imminent return of Jesus, reflected in the first Christian Scripture (First Letter to the Thessalonians), was a tradition greatly modified in later books when that expected return didn’t happen.

The long controversy over the relationship between Scripture and tradition has become somewhat modified in recent decades. Vatican Council II, while repeating the above words of Trent, saw divine revelation as coming from a more unified source. Sacred tradition, it said, along with the sacred Scripture of both the Old and New Testaments, "are like a mirror in which the pilgrim church on earth looks at God, from whom she has received everything, until she is brought finally to see him as he is, face to face." (Constitution on Divine Revelation, 7)

In this perspective, tradition and Scripture are not two separate sources of revelation with differing content. They are rather two ways of mediating God’s self-revelation that help define and support each other.

A longtime columnist with Catholic News Service, Father Dietzen died March 27, 2011.

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