Fallible and Infallible Tradition 13

Have you ever stopped to consider just how many things we believe to be true as Christians are not explicitly spelled out in the Gospel?

Take, for instance, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. There is only one God who is a Trinity of Persons. Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity has two natures, divine and human. According to these two natures, Christ has a divine intellect and human reason, a divine will and human will. Every Christian believes that these articles of the faith are infallibly true. But where is any of this specifically mentioned in the Bible?

Of course the doctrine of the Trinity and the humanity and divinity of Christ is in the Bible. Several passages can be cited as evidence; e.g., Christ instructs his Apostles to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; he says emphatically that “the Father and I are one.” Numerous other examples can be used to evidence the scriptural basis for our belief in these dogmas. However, the words Trinity, Person, or nature are not mentioned in any of these contexts. Yet these are the terms we use to explicate the doctrine. If we deny that these terms have any necessary import, then how do we explain these articles of the faith? We cannot simply leave them unexplained.

The doctrine of the faith as we understand it today is the same faith the Apostles received from the Lord and the same faith they handed on to the earliest Christians. Some of the Apostle’s successors, whom we recognize as Church Fathers, handed on in writing what they received directly from the Apostles. Saints Polycarp and Ignatius of Antioch, for example, were disciples of Saint John the Apostle. In their writings and in those of other Church Fathers we find the doctrine of the faith elaborated much in the same way that we hold it today.

So in the early Church there was a tradition — a handing on of the teaching Christ entrusted to the Apostles. The New Testament not only speaks of this tradition, but it also considers it to be an essential apparatus in the transmission of divine revelation. In his second letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle lays out the blueprint.

“Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.” — 2 Thessalonians 2:15

Paul’s exhortation to hold fast to Church teaching involves three elements:

  • Magisterium: traditions you were taught
  • Tradition: by an oral statement
  • Scripture: by a letter of ours

In keeping with this line from Sacred Scripture,the unbroken line of Apostolic tradition, and consistent Church teaching from Apostolic times, the Second Vatican Council upholds that Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium are intimately bound conduits of Revelation to be held by the whole Church.

“It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.” — DV II, 10

Another key word from the quote above is authority. Aye! There’s the rub! For in this cynical secular world in which we live, what individual can bear the burden of an authority whose preaching breaches the confines of any human being’s natural use of reason. Justin Martyr? Who is he? Transubstantiation? What kind of gibberish is that? Infallibility? Excuse me! No man can claim to be infallible.

It is a shame that some would think that way, because with out the notion of infallible authority, properly understood, the Scripture-Tradition-Magisterium platform for divine revelation easily falls apart. You see, the model I presented yesterday is entirely fallible:

Why? Because human reason is fallible. I suppose then that something needs to be said to clarify what we mean by Papal infallibility, but I will have to hold off on that for now, so as not to go off on a sizable tangent. For now, let’s just say that the statement “No man is infallible” denotes a serious misunderstanding of what the doctrine of infallibility actually entails.

The three-legged stool above lacks a couple of important details for it to be a working model to explain “God’s most wise design” to “contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.” (However, as some of yesterday’s comments pointed out, they do serve as a good model for well-reasoned, human traditions in line with Christian faith. More on that later).

First, for our purposes, we need to put a name on the seat of the stool. Call it Revelation. Second, the legs of the stool need fortification. Every Christian will accept that the scriptural leg has its own authority, which is full and complete in itself. The leg of tradition gets called into question, because it lack specification, we need to call it Apostolic Tradition or Sacred Tradition. That is, Tradition commissioned by the one who gave his Apostles and their successors the Authority (I’ll explain the capital “A” in a moment — I’m not making this up) to hand on the teachings of his Church, namely, Christ himself.

Examples of Christ’s commission to teach are bountiful in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles: e.g., “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loosen on earth, will be loosened in heaven.” That kind of Authority, “Auctoritas” (with a capital “A”) The Apostolic Fathers repeatedly used this term in reference to Sacred Scripture (including the translation of the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint), Tradition, and their magisterial teaching as successors of the Apostles.

Reason, the third leg of the stool pictured above, certainly needs to be qualified as not just mere fallible human reason. That leg should be labeled as Magisterium, the official teaching body of Christs Church, which has the mandate from none other than Christ himself to teach the doctrine of faith and morals to be held by all believers. Magisterium means the “authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design… under the action of the one Holy Spirit [to] contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.”

The legs of the stool then are the pillars of Authority, guaranteed by the Holy Spirit. They are “are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others,” such that “all together and each in its own way” contribute to our understanding and full acceptance of the one true faith Christ handed to his Apostles. Accordingly, Saint John writes to the very first Christians:

“We announce to you the eternal life which dwelt with the Father and was made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we announce to you, so that you may have fellowship with us and our common fellowship be with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ.” — 1 John 1:2-3

For a good example of how Scripture, Tradition, and the Teaching Authority of the Church collaborate throughout history in the development of Church doctrine as it is held by the faithful today, I’d like you to invite you to visit this post from fellow blogger 1 Catholic Salmon on the history of confession. The basis for confessing our sins and asking for forgiveness is in the Bible. The practice was held regularly since Apostolic times and taught by their successors, the Church Fathers. The formula we use today is firmly rooted in that tradition as well as in Holy Scripture.

What can we take away for ourselves from the blueprint or model of Scripture-Tradition-Magisterium. I think that if we understand the proper role and place of Tradition within the scheme of revelation, we can learn a lot about the role of tradition in our daily lives. Tradition is not the seat of the stool. Nor does the stool stand on tradition alone. But the stool cannot stand without the leg of tradition either. Every meaningful and healthy tradition needs recognizable recognizable support and a secure basis as a source or point of reference in the same way that Scripture serves as a confirmation of Apostolic Tradition. Tradition also needs to be confirmed through teaching or education. Our friend Tevye from the Fideler on the Roof informs us:

“You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition. And because of our traditions everyone of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”

Tradition on it’s own educates, tells us who we are and what God expects us to do, supposedly. But if the tradition itself is not educated, and we are not educated with regard to its origin and objective, we just accept it blindly, live it without understanding it, and eventually, that tradition will be questioned. Who will have the answer? Without answers, why should we expect younger generations to live by it?

If we want to share the faith and our traditions, if we want to pass them on to our children, if we want people to understand what we really believe as Catholics — Education, Education, Education. Together with the Holy Spirit’s help, of course.

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13 comments

    • Hi SR! Thanks a lot. I have been busy lately and not getting around to seeing my favorite blogs as much these days, due to my preparation for some pretty big upcoming changes, some of which will be posted on my blog. I’ll comment on this more over at your place soon. Thanks again and God bless!

  1. There’s that stool again! What I find amazing is how the biggest tradition of all is overlooked constantly, and that is Holy Scripture. I don’t recall, and I could be wrong, Jesus giving out a reading list to the first Christians… I am, though, pretty certain that it was the Catholic Church that compiled these writings that have been part of the traditions for 1700 years. I challenge anyone to prove to me that the Bible is extra-traditional! God’s love!

    • I once had a spontaneous debate on the front doorstep of a Protestant minister. He was very congenial, God-loving, Scripture loving, and very agressive. We talked long enough to both get sunburns that day. He kept pressing me on tradition (I use a small “t” because that is what he really understood it to be). He maintained a strict “Sola Scriptura” position. At one point I raised the issue you mention here about the cannon of Scripture not being mentioned in the Bible. He responded, “Well you have to study Church history in order to understand that.” I quickly pointed out to him that Church history is not in scripture either; and by the way, it’s what most people would call tradition, like it or not.

      The man was honest. He had to agree. It was the only point where I got him to agree with me.

    • Well, it was in Mexico. That and the amount of time we spent outside explains the sunburns, plus the fact that the tone really was that of a friendly conversation — though like I said, he was agressive, and I liked that. He did have a certain edge on me as I was 24 at the time and he was probably close to 40. We spent close to 2 hours passing his Bible back and forth. I really had no idea what I was getting into. I was only there in the first place to invite him to a Eucharistic procession in the village. I did not know he was a minister.

  2. I think your ‘Dual-Source’ illustration rocks…I have already saved it for future reference.
    This is the quote that jumps out at me(my comments in brackets):’ Tradition on it’s own educates,(YES!) tells us who we are and what God expects us to do (YES!), supposedly. But if the tradition itself is not educated, and we are not educated with regard to its origin and objective, we just accept it blindly, live it without understanding it, and eventually, that tradition will be questioned.’ (and we have to be ready with the answers to these questions so that the Holy Spirit can get to work).’
    Thought provoking as always, Biltrix!

    • I’m glad you liked the ‘Dual Source’ illustration. It makes the relationship among lines of revelation very clear. As you said, “We have to be ready with the answers to these questions so that the Holy Spirit can get to work.” Education. Education. Education.

      But first, Pray! Pray! Pray! And let the Holy Spirit do the heavy lifting.

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