National Catholic Register

Commentary

Human Tradition vs. Sacred Tradition

BY Mark Shea

June 19-July 2, 2011 Issue | Posted 6/10/11 at 6:05 PM

 

I mentioned in this space last time that I was surprised to discover that we evangelicals honored human tradition as much as Catholics do and that we even honored sacred tradition and treated it just like, well, sacred tradition. That’s how we knew that the books of the Bible belonged in the Bible and the “gospel of Thomas” did not. It’s how we knew that human life was sacred from the moment of conception. (Scripture alone is not too helpful on this point.) It’s how we knew that a man should have but one wife. (Martin Luther’s endorsement of polygamy inadvertently pointed out that Scripture alone was not very helpful here either.) It’s how we knew God was a Trinity (“Trinity,” like “Bible,” does not appear in the Bible). It’s how we knew that public revelation ended with the death of the last apostle. (Scripture is silent on this point.) In short, while Catholics believed in sacred tradition and knew they did, we believed in it and didn’t know we did.

So why did we Protestants think we didn’t? Basically because we had created a “heads we win; tails Catholics lose” approach to reading Scripture:

If a thing is condemned by the Church, but permitted by the Protestant (say, same-sex “marriage,” if the Protestant was a Congregationalist), the demand is for an explicit text forbidding it: “Show me where Jesus said one word about not allowing same-sex ‘marriage’! That’s just the Catholic Church imposing its purely human ideas on what Jesus came to say.”

Conversely, if a thing is allowed by the Church but condemned by the Protestant, the demand is for an explicit text commanding it. So, for instance, we get demands like “Where in the Bible do you find anyone asking us to pray to dead people? That’s just the Church imposing it’s purely human ideas on what Jesus came to say.”

What this boiled down to was that we Protestants got to impose our purely human traditions on the text of Scripture, while denouncing Catholic tradition as “human tradition” whenever we happened to dislike it. When the Protestant’s individual interpretation lined up with a Catholic reading of Scripture, then the Church was graciously acknowledged as accidently right — this time.

Eventually, however, I came to realize that this was exactly backward — beginning with the purely human and false tradition of sola scriptura, which appears nowhere in Scripture. What sola scriptura means, at the end of the day, is that Christianity teaches whatever any individual Protestant thinks the Bible teaches. The fatal difficulty for this whole theory lies right at the root of the claim, which puts the Bible — and not God — at the center. When troubling questions like “Where did you get your Bible from?” arose, there was no coherent answer on the basis of sola scriptura. That’s why The Da Vinci Code posed such a thorny challenge for Bible-only Protestants: It challenged the authority of the Bible itself by pointing out that it was the product of the self-same Church tradition Protestants derided.

For Catholics, the answer to The Da Vinci Code is elementary. When a Code fan demands, “By what right does the Church say what books belong in Scripture?” the Catholic can reply, “By what right do you decide what pictures go in your family photo album? It’s your family photo album. You can put whatever you want in it. In the same way, the Bible is the family photo album of the Church. The books in it were chosen because they reflect what our tradition teaches.”

Mark Shea blogs at NCRegister.com.