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Valid Tradition is Scriptural

About valid Tradition

Scriptural Tradition Latent Tradition Dynamic Tradition Informed Tradition Valid Tradition

Valid Tradition is Scriptural

§ 9. “ Sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal. Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching. Thus it comes about that the Church does not draw her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Hence, both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal feelings of devotion and reverence.”

§ 10. “Sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church. By adhering to it the entire holy people, united to its pastors, remains always faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (cf. Acts 2:42 Greek). So, in maintaining, practicing and professing the faith that has been handed on there should be a remarkable harmony between the bishops and the faithful.”

Dei Verbum. ‘Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation’ no 9 - 10, in The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, ed. by A.FLANNERY, Dominican Publications, Dublin 1975, p. 755. See full chapter here.

In order to be valid, tradition must be scriptural.

Note, however, that a tradition does not become scriptural just because Fathers of the Church, theologians or the Magisterium of the Church quote some scriptural texts. In order to be validly scriptural, the use made of Scripture must be legitimate. This means that only those written sources are valid sources of tradition which employ Scripture according to the intended meaning of the inspired authors.

The inspired meaning of Scripture is established by taking into account:
* the ‘literal sense’ intended by the author;
* the ‘literary forms’ employed by the author;
* the ‘intended scope’ of the text;
* possible limitations such as ‘rationalizations’ in the text.

The Church's experience in the past provides excellent material to illustrate the principle. I will concentrate here on two examples: the Church's failure, for 19 centuries, to discern the proper Tradition regarding slavery; and its claim that only Catholics could be saved. In both instances, one of the chief causes of the faulty ‘tradition’ was a faulty interpretation of Scripture.

  1. The test case of slavery.
  2. The test case of ‘no salvation outside the Church’.
  3. The progressive understanding of Scripture in the history of the Church leads to an wareness of Christ's true mind

The use of Scripture in the socalled ‘tradition’ favouring slavery

Although many Popes condemned the excesses of the international slave trade, the official Magisterium of the Church endorsed the legitimacy of slavery as such until Pope Leo XIII in 1888! Look at some of the facts, abbreviated for lack of space:

  • the local Council at Gangra in Asia Minor, in 362 AD, excommunicated anyone telling a slave to despise his master or withdraw from his service;
  • the same decree is repeated in a Council under Pope Martin I in 650 AD;
  • the ninth Council of Toledo in 655 AD imposed slavery on the children of priests;
  • the Synod of Melfi under Pope Urban II in 1089 imposed slavery on the wives of priests;
  • the Third Lateran Council of 1179 imposed slavery on those helping the Saracens;
  • the legitimacy of slavery was incorporated in the official Corpus Iuris Canonici, based on the Decretum Gratiani, which became the official law of the Church since Pope Gregory IX in 1226;
  • in 1454, through the bull Romanus Pontifex, Pope Nicholas V authorised the king of Portugal to enslave all the Saracen and pagan people his armies would conquer;
  • though, as I stated before, some subsequent Popes condemned the excesses of the slave trade, they did not condemn slavery as such;
  • in fact, the Holy Office in Rome still declared on 20 June 1866: “Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons.... It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given”.

Read about all this: J.F.MAXWELL, ‘The Development of Catholic Doctrine Concerning Slavery’, World Jurist 11 (1969-70) pp.147-192 and 291-324.

Note that the Holy Office, in 1866, declared that slavery was ‘not contrary to divine law’. In theological terms this means: slavery is in harmony with the inspired meaning of Scripture.

Among the biblical proofs supporting the legitimacy of the tradition were the following Scriptural texts:

1. The use of Old Testament texts

The Old Testament takes the institution of slavery for granted. See for instance Sirach 33,25-30.

Israelites can be enslaved by other Israelites as penalty for theft (Ex 22,3), to pay off debt (Ex 31,2-6; Lev 25,39), by purchase from a foreigner (Lev 25,47-55), and by sale of a daughter by her father (Ex 21,7-11). These kind of texts became the source on which canon lawyers and theologians constructed the four ‘just titles of slavery’ (see Holy Office text quoted above): capture in war, just condemnation, sale & purchase, and birth (the child of a slave mother is a slave!).

Comment: Paul had clearly shown that the Old Testament Law had been abrogated. The principle of equality in Christ of Jew and Greek, slave and free, man and woman, had been clearly enunciated. Read Galatians 3,28.
These arguments are therefore invalid!

2. The use of Gospel texts

Suppose one of you has a slave who returns from the fields after ploughing or minding the sheep, will he say to him: ‘Sit down now and have your meal’?
Will he not more likely say: ‘Get my supper ready. Tidy up and serve me while I eat and drink. You yourself can have your meal afterwards’?
Will he be grateful to his slave for doing what he was told?
In the same way, when you have done all you have been told to do, say: ‘We are only slaves. We have done no more than our duty’.

Luke 17,7-10; see also Matthew 10,24-25; 13,27-28; 18,25; etc.

Some Fathers of the Church, theologians and Popes have used such Gospel passages to prove that slavery is willed by God. Jesus himself, they said, accepted slavery. Jesus gives examples from slavery which show that he took the subordination of slaves for granted. What is more, Jesus admired the service of submissive and humble slaves. Therefore, it is something beautiful that is not contrary to God’s will!

Comment: Jesus just adduced the example of slavery to make a point. He did not abolish slavery, as little as he abolished the social dependence of women, but it is not legitimate to conclude from such texts that he endorsed slavery. This follows from the literary form he uses, as well as from his intended scope.

3. The use of New Testament Letters

“Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not with eye-service as just pleasing people, but in singleness of heart, pleasing the Lord.
Whatever your task work with commitment, as serving the Lord and not human beings, etc. . . .”

Colossians 3,22-25; see also Ephesians 6,5-9; Titus 2,9-10; 1 Peter 2,18-20.

These texts were used to prove that the Apostles endorsed the practice of slavery. Theologians kept repeating these kinds of arguments until late in the nineteenth century. It brought them to a firm conclusion: ‘It is certainly a matter of faith that slavery in which a man serves his master as a slave, is altogether lawful. This can be proved from Holy Scripture.’ From a standard work: LEANDER, Questiones Morales Theologicae, Lyons 1692; Volume 8, De Quarto Decalogi Precepto, Tract.IV, Disp. I, Q.3.

Comment: the argument is invalid because, in these socalled ‘household codes’, the authors of these letters address the immediate situation of their audiences (in which social slavery was a fact). Deducing general principles regarding slavery from the texts goes beyond their intended scope.

Lesson: In our own time the Church, including the Magisterium, has come to the recognition that slavery is against basic human rights and ‘contrary to God's intent’ (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, no 29).

This recognition has the following implications:

  • The socalled ‘tradition’ that was thought to endorse slavery and on which the Magisterum based its justification of slavery was, in fact, not part of the real Tradition handed down from Christ.
  • The socalled ‘tradition’, which was claimed to be scriptural (see Holy Office in 1866: “slavery is not contrary to divine law”) has been proved to be not scriptural. The biblical texts were quoted illegitimately. Their interpretation went beyond the inspired and intended sense.
  • The real Tradition that came down from Christ and the Apostles was contained in the principle of fundamental equality for all, enshrined in the universal baptism of Christ applied to men & women, slave & free, alike; as also explicitly taught by Paul.
  • Only this valid Tradition was truly biblical!

The use of Scripture in the socalled ‘tradition’ that there is no salvation outside the Church

Until at least 1854, the official teaching of the Church was that there was no salvation outside the Church. Here are some statements by the Magisterium:

  • In a profession of faith prescribed by Pope Innocentius III in 1208 we read: “We believe that outside the one, holy, Roman, Catholic Church no one will be saved” (Enchiridion Symbolorum, Denzinger (=abbr. Denz) no 423).
  • In the IVth Lateran Council of 1215: “There is one universal Church of the faithful outside which no one at all is saved” (Denz. 430).
  • Boniface VIII solemnly defined in his Bull Unam Sanctam of 1302: “We declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff” (Denz. 468).
  • The Council of Florence in 1442, under Pope Eugene IV: “(The Holy Roman Church).. firmly believes, professes and preaches that no-one remaining outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews, heretics or schismatics, can become partakers of eternal life; but they will go to the ‘eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels’ (Mt. 25:41), unless before the end of their life they are received into it. For union with the body of the Church is of so great importance that the sacraments of the Church are helpful only for those remaining in it; and fasts, almsgiving, and other works of piety, and exercises of a militant Christian life bear eternal rewards for them alone. And no one can be saved, even if he sheds his blood for the name of Christ, unless he remains in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church” (Denz. 714).

The use of Scripture

By the Fathers of the Church, theologians and Popes, the ‘tradition’ was mainly based on the following Scripture texts:

  • “I give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16,19; see also 18,18).
  • “Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved. Who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16,16).

The argument given was that these texts are exclusive in what they state. They attribute universal power to the hierarchy and make baptism the only means of salvation.

Comment: The absolute way of speaking is a specific literary form, the hyperbole, characteristic of the Jewish way of speaking. For other examples read: Matthew 7,4; 23,24; 5,29; 5,34-35; 24,36; 12,30 (contrast with Mark 9,40!). This literary form has to be taken into account.
Moreover, Jesus did not enter into the wider question of how virtuous people are saved in and through their own religions. The exclusive interpretation went beyond his intended scope.

Lesson: In the 19th century the Church began to modify its teaching, stating that one could belong to the Church also ‘in desire’ and that this sufficed for salvation. Vatican II completed this process by clearly stating that there is salvation for those outside the Church, ‘all those who seek God with a sincere heart’ (Lumen Gentium 15-17) and that their various religions are also, to some extent, means of salvation (Nostra Aetate, on Relation to non-Christian Religions.

This recognition has the following implications:

  • The socalled ‘tradition’ that was thought to limit salvation to Catholics and on which the Magisterum based its doctrinal justification was, in fact, not part of the real Tradition handed down from Christ.
  • The socalled ‘tradition’, which was claimed to be scriptural has been proved to be not scriptural. The biblical texts were quoted illegitimately. Their interpretation went beyond the inspired and intended sense.
  • The real Tradition that came down from Christ and the Apostles was contained in other Scripture texts, such as Christ's respect for the religious sincerity of Romans (Matthew 8,5-13), Samaritans (John 4,7-26; Luke 10,29-37) and Syro-Phenicians (Matthew 15,21-28; Mark 7,24-30); and Paul's teaching that God judges everyone, Jews or non-Jews according to the dictates of their own conscience (Romans 2,6-16).
  • Only this valid Tradition was truly biblical!

The progressive understanding of Scripture in the history of the Church leading to an awareness of Christ's true mind

Since Scripture and Tradition are one source of Revelation, ‘a single deposit of the Word of God’ (Vatican II, Divine Revelation’ no 9 - 10), it follows that they must both develop together in the spiritual and theological awareness of the Church.

  • Tradition is not something additional to Scripture (in the sense that it transmits apostolic doctrine not contained in Scripture) but another way of imparting the truths of Scripture - Scripture itself being “absolutely sovereign”.
  • Tradition is a thésaurisation or constant accrual of meditation on the biblical text made by one generation after another, “the living continuity of faith quickening the people of God” - a sort of midrash [reflection] or gemara [commentary].
  • Many parts of Scripture mean more to Christians today than they did to their predecessors in the early centuries A.D. because of what they have meant to intervening generations of Christians.
  • Tradition is the cumulative interpretation of Scripture, accruing at compound interest over the centuries, without getting more out of Scripture than is there at least implicitly. See F.F. Bruce, Tradition, Old and New, Paternoster Press, New York 1970, pp. 167-168.

Yves M.J. Congar, the undisputed expert on tradition, describes the process as an interpaly between the original words and deeds of Christ on the one hand, and the continuing activity of the Spirit on the other (Tradition and Traditions, London, Burns & Oates, pp. 338-347). I will summarise his thoughts here.

The dogmatic content of Tradition consists in the correct interpretation of scriptural revelation in terms of its central object: Christ and the salvation he brought. Now, according to the New Testament, though Christ is the content of Scripture, he gives us understanding of it through his Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who enables us to say “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12,3); the texts of Scripture are obscure until we turn for understanding to the Lord, under the influence of his Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3,12-18). Doubtless this is why St Paul exhorted Timothy to “guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us” (2 Timothy 1,14).

The Letters of St Paul, and St Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, attribute the whole of the Church’s life and the work of its ministry to the Spirit. The promise of the gift of the Spirit, made by our Lord to the apostles (John 14,18; 14,16; 15,26; 16,12-13) was not only addressed to the Twelve. On the contrary, we have reasons for asserting that it applies also to the Church in all ages. Note the recurrence, in John 14 and 16, of the word “you”: I shall give you, I shall send you, he will lead you, he will give you understanding. This repeated “you” refers both to persons (the apostles) and to the community. In fact, at Pentecost the Spirit is given to all the disciples, a hundred and twenty in number (cf. Acts 1,15; cf. Luke 24,33: “The eleven . . . and those who were with them”). The promised Spirit was given to the community of those who were present; when new members were joined to the first nucleus of a group, and then to the Church, as time went on, they in their turn would receive the Spirit who builds up the body of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 12,13). Basically, this gift of the Spirit is on a par with the saving economy as a whole: the event, once it has taken place, concerns all succeeding generations, working in them.

The role thus vested in the Holy Spirit is the actualizing and interiorizing of what Christ said and did. Living faith in Christ has now to be lived out by human beings succeeding each other in time, coexisting separately in space. The pattern of truth and life set up once and for all, and for all people, must become a personal pattern for each individual, and a common pattern for untold multitudes of people leading, each one, his or her own individual life in space and time. A personal appropriation has to be made, not merely by a decision taken by people, which would be neither a principle of unity nor a principle of divine life, but by a new act of God himself, no longer visibly incarnate at a moment of human history, but giving himself interiorly to each and all. This is the work of the Spirit.

Since he is Spirit, he acts in persons in a spiritual manner without in any way forcing them. Scripture characterizes this intervention by comparing it to an indwelling, a penetrating oil, an inner inspiration scarcely distinguishable from the normal workings of our mind, a consciousness which is alone able to plumb the depths of our personal life (1 Corinthians 2,10ff.). And yet, he is in all people, working from within to bring about unity and unanimity. He disposes each, according to his or her nature, vocation and place, to seek and promote the communion of all. His gifts are made “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12,7), “for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4,12; cf. 1 Corinthians 12,13). This is how the ‘sensus fidelium’ can carry a latent tradition that is later explicitated in the Church.

The structure of our faith results from the union of a spiritual energy or inspiration received directly from God, with the acceptance of a teaching passed on by the Church, from Christ and the apostles, over a long historical process. In our faith there are joined together a historical transmission of the pattern of belief and a spiritual “event” which the Spirit brings about in each new consciousness. What is produced at the personal level, is reproduced analogically at the ecclesial level, where the great Sequentia sancti Evangelii [=the unfolding of the Holy Gospel] must be progressively realized. The Church itself is perfectly well aware of this; it testifies as much, both in the words of the Fathers or theologians and in those privileged moments of self awareness and collective stocktaking called councils. The dynamic aspect in Tradition thus owes its origin to the lasting activity of the Holy Spirit.


For a ‘tradition’ to be part of the Church's genuine Tradition it needs to be scriptural. This means that it must be based on a correct understanding of the inspired meaning of scriptural texts. In the history of the Church, such a correct understanding often went hand in hand with a new awareness of important issues. The new, correct interpretation of Scripture comes about through the undying activity of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

John Wijngaards

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