By DON FIER
Over the past three weeks, our primary focus has been on God’s supernatural divine Revelation. We’ve examined how “by love God has revealed Himself and given Himself to man [and]…thus provided the definitive, superabundant answer to the questions that man asks himself about the meaning and purpose of his life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 66). We’ve seen that in the fullness of time God established an everlasting covenant with mankind by sending His Son as the “Father’s definitive Word, so there will be no further Revelation after Him” (CCC, n. 73).
The stage is now set for us to look at God’s master plan for transmitting His Revelation to mankind throughout the ages. In other words, how did and does God make known to man 1) how to live our lives in a manner consistent with the great dignity with which we were created and 2) how to know all that is necessary to attain salvation?
First, it’s imperative to grasp fully that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). As expressed in a parallel Old Testament passage, God wishes that no man reject His saving love: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Ezek. 18:23). As Dei Verbum (DV) teaches, “God graciously arranged that the things He had once revealed for the salvation of all peoples should remain in their entirety, throughout the ages, and be transmitted to all generations” (DV, n. 7). To facilitate this, Jesus “commanded the Apostles to preach the Gospel, which had been promised beforehand by the prophets, and which He fulfilled in His own person and promulgated with His own lips….This Gospel was to be the source of all saving truth and moral discipline” (DV, n. 7).
The saving Gospel message, as commanded by Jesus Christ, was to be handed on in two ways: 1) orally, through the preaching, example, and institutions established by the apostles; and 2) in writing, by the apostles and their close associates, as inspired by the Holy Spirit (cf. CCC, n. 76; DV, n. 7). These faith-filled, handpicked ambassadors of Christ were to pass along what they had heard from His lips, the works they saw Him perform — an exposition of His very way of life — to the whole world.
Furthermore, they were also to pass along, orally and in writing, what they received through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus sent after He ascended to His Father’s right hand. These two means of communicating God’s Revelation are, of course, Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture.
After the death of the last apostle, at which time public Revelation ended, God providentially provided that the Gospel message might be preserved “forever whole and alive” (DV, n. 7 § 2), and that its transmission would continue throughout the ages. To accomplish this within the structure of His Church, He gave authority that “the Apostles [might leave behind] bishops as their successors…[to whom they gave] their own position of teaching authority” (CCC, n. 77). Indeed, “the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time” (DV, n. 8 § 1).
Now, what exactly is the relationship between Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition? The Catechism tells us that Tradition “is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it” (CCC, n. 78). Tradition (with a large “T”) is not to be confused with mere human traditions, or even “the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time” (CCC, n. 84). It is the entirety of what the apostles learned from their firsthand association with Jesus — from His words and example — and then later from the inspired teaching of the Holy Spirit. The revelations contained in Tradition and Scripture are not different or competing, but are two ways the Church hands on God’s Revelation.
In his Modern Catholic Dictionary, Fr. John Hardon, SJ, defines Tradition as follows: “Tradition first means all of Divine Revelation, from the first dawn of human history to the end of the apostolic age, as passed on from one generation of believers to the next, and as preserved under divine guidance by the Church established by Christ. Sacred Tradition more technically also means, within this transmitted revelation, that part of God’s revealed word which is not contained in Sacred Scripture.”
Fr. Hardon explains in his Catholic Catechism that “[Sacred] Tradition differs from [Sacred] Scripture. Where the latter is a tangible product, contained in sacred books, the former is a living reality. It is quite correct, in this light, to view the Bible [Sacred Scripture] as part of Sacred Tradition.” This statement reminds one of a verse in St. John’s Gospel: “There are . . . many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
A reasonable, logical, and accurate conclusion is that many apostolic teachings not explicitly contained in Scripture have been passed down and most clearly taught through Tradition. For example, consider Church teaching on such topics as Purgatory, infant Baptism, and the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. However, even though each of these dogmatic teachings has been handed down through Sacred Tradition, it is also accurate to say that each is implicitly contained within and not contrary to Sacred Scripture.
Scripture itself supports the Church’s teaching that the revealed “Deposit of Faith” consists of both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture by instructing us to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). The totality of God’s revealed word and all that the Incarnate Word said and did simply could not be limited to the biblical page. At the same time, Tradition and Scripture are intimately related and, in fact, are interdependent.
As Dei Verbum teaches, “there exists a close connection and communication between Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. . . . Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence” (DV, n. 9).
A Three-Legged Stool
Yet, there is a third critical component that is absolutely essential to ensure the stability of the Church and to guarantee that her doctrine is sound. There must be a teaching authority whose task it is to guard, defend, and interpret the “Deposit of Faith” so as to prevent error from creeping in. That authority is the Church’s Magisterium, or her teaching office, who has “the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, . . . whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ” (DV, n. 10).
Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium, in a manner analogous to a three-legged stool, are legs on which depend authentic Church teaching on matters of faith and morals. If one leg is removed, the stool collapses.
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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. With the full blessing of Raymond Cardinal Burke, Fier is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)