“The Gift That Keeps on Giving:

Opening Scripture to Discover Tradition”

by Mark Shea (Envoy, June/July 1999)

Mark Shea, author of By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition, writes on the relationship between sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition, noting that “though Scripture is sufficient (as Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16), there is a distinction between material and formal sufficiency….

“It's the difference between having a big enough pile of bricks to build a house and having a house of bricks. Catholic teaching says written Sacred Tradition (known as Scripture) is materially sufficient: all the bricks necessary to build its doctrines are there in Scripture. But because some things in Scripture are implicit rather than explicit, other stuff besides Scripture has been handed down from the Apostles. This other stuff is unwritten Sacred Tradition (which is the mortar that holds the bricks of the written Tradition together in the right order and position) and the Magisterium or teaching authority of the Church (which is the trowel in the hand of the Master Builder). Taken together, these three things are formally sufficient for knowing the revealed truth of God.”

Shea discusses how we can tell the difference between tradition — things handed down, not because they are necessary to our faith — and Tradition. The former includes candles, favorite songs, popular forms of devotion, beloved books and treasured old rituals like Christmas caroling. “[N]one of these small ‘t' traditions, vital and living though they are, are essential to the Faith,” writes Shea. Sacred Tradition, on the other hand, comes from the Apostles themselves, and “must not be altered by addition or subtraction in any way. For the difference between tradition and Tradition is the difference between the customs of man and the revelation of God.”

How do we deal with claims that Catholics over the centuries have added plenty of things to Sacred Tradition, such as the Immaculate Conception and papal infallibility? And how do we answer the view of many that the Catholic understanding of Tradition really amounts to “secret” doctrines that are from time to time made officially public?

First, the Church explicitly repudiates the view that “Sacred Tradition is … a separate, secret and parallel revelation. Indeed, it is precisely this view of Tradition which the Church has always condemned as the essence, not of Christianity, but of Gnosticism.” Instead, sacred Tradition is “the living and growing truth of Christ contained, not only in Scripture, but in the common teaching, common life, and common worship of the Church. … [T]his common teaching, life and worship is a living thing — a truth which was planted as a mustard seed in first-century Jerusalem and which has not ceased growing since — as our Lord prophesied in Mark 4:30-32. The plant doesn't look like the seed, but it's more mustardy than ever.”

Since sacred Tradition comes from the Apostles (who received it from Christ), it cannot be added to, though the Church's comprehension of its meaning can be enriched. In other words, the Church cannot come up with a fourth member of the Trinity, or decide to consecrate beans and franks as well as bread and wine, though she can find new ways to express and clarify the meaning of the Trinity and the reality of transubstantiation.

Further, writes Shea, “[W]e do not derive the doctrine from Scripture. Rather, we see it reflected there. … Catholics see the Perpetual Virginity of Mary reflected in Scripture. … In this context, we discover not explicit, but implicit testimony to the doctrine, while those verses which appear to speak of Jesus' siblings or Mary's relations with Joseph after the birth of Christ can easily be understood in a way compatible with perpetual virginity.

“In summary, Sacred Tradition is handed down ‘both by word of mouth and by letter.’ In Scripture, as today, ‘Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God’ (Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, II, 10) so that the Bible is part, not the whole, of the apostolic paradosis [tradition]. … In Scripture, both written and unwritten Tradition are from Christ and made by him to stand inseparably united like hydrogen and oxygen that fuse to form living water or like the words and tune of a single song. … In Scripture, the Church in council sits on the judge's bench and listens to the testimony of Scripture in light of its Tradition in order to discern how best to define that Tradition more precisely.

“And all this is because, in Scripture, as today, the Tradition, both written and unwritten, comes to us through the Body of him who is Truth: the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church Paul calls ‘the fullness of him who fills everything in every way’ and the ‘pillar and foundation of the truth’ (Ephesians 1:23; 1 Timothy 3:15).”

Ellen Fielding writes from Davidson, Maryland.