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What is Tradition?
Posted By Eric Sammons On April 23, 2009 @ 7:35 am In Apologetics | Comments Disabled
A common dispute between Protestants and Catholics is the use of Tradition as an authoritative means of passing divine revelation. Most Protestants of course only accept the Bible as an authoritative source, but Catholics recognize both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition as means by which God has revealed Himself and His salvific plan. However, I have found in many of my own discussions with non-Catholics (and sometimes Catholics) that many do not understand what exactly Tradition is.
For a long time, even after I became Catholic, I saw Tradition as solely consisting of the writings of Councils, encyclicals, and the saints (especially the early Church Fathers). And I think most Protestants see it like that as well. However, that transfers a flaw in Reformation thinking, one that sees the written word as the only assured way of transmitting knowledge. This is a flaw conceived in the age of the printing press, and one that Jesus clearly didn’t share, as he didn’t write anything nor command anyone to write anything.
Tradition includes, of course, those writings, but it is primarily the life of the Church, which is the womb of those writings (including the writings of Scripture). This life consists of Catholics believing, preaching and worshiping, and in a special way it includes the liturgy, which is the life of the Church at its most fundamental level. The liturgy is the action in which we are united to our Trinitarian God and it is a primary means in which our Faith is transmitted from age to age.
We can see an example of this in the Arian debates of the 4th century. Arius and his followers were claiming that Jesus was an exalted creation – the first-born of God, but created, nonetheless. Up to this time, there were no councils to look it, no papal encyclicals, and the writings of theologians and even saints were somewhat conflicted and unclear as well. And Scripture alone did not solve the problem – some passages made Jesus appear to be equal to God, and some on the surface did not. The Arians themselves were very Scriptural in their arguments and loved to quote the Bible in their defense. However, the orthodox had a “trump card”, so to speak: they reminded everyone that in the liturgy, they had worshiped Jesus for the past 300 years. And everyone was in agreement that only God was to be worshiped. Therefore Jesus must be God. Thus, the life of the Church, as experienced in the liturgy, is what transmitted this fundamental truth about our Savior for 300 years before it was formalized in the Council decrees. Without Tradition, we would still be debating the divinity of Christ. (This also shows that the Council of Nicea did not “invent” the divinity of Christ – as a certain bestselling author  would assert – but merely affirmed what was already practiced and believed by the Church.)
For those interested in seeing how the life of the Church transmitted Christian beliefs from generation to generation before the written word became primary in the 15th century, I would recommend Jaroslav Pelikan’s 5-volume The Christian Tradition series.
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