The Bible and Tradition

The Bible and Tradition November 1, 2014

Fiddler on the Roof. Credit: Carl Lender.
Fiddler on the Roof. Credit: Carl Lender.

We saw a production of Fiddler on the Roof at the Stratford Festival a few years ago. We’re fortunate to live close by and to be able to get out to see a show once in a while. We’ve never been disappointed.

Tevye is who I always think of when I hear the word, “Tradition.” Maybe you’re like me. In Fiddler, Tevye, the patriarch of a Russian Jewish family, is struggling against the tension between the modern world (circa 1905) and the tradition of his Jewish heritage. He laments this discord in what has to be one of the best songs to come out of Broadway.

During my time interning for the student church, Pastor Dan had a significant impact on the direction and depth of my faith—more than he, or I, would realize for a very long time. It was, ultimately, something that Dan said to me, casually, in his office one day that would catapult me further on this journey towards Catholicism. And it was about tradition.

I’ve learned since then that the notion of tradition is one of the primary routes for Protestant converts to Catholicism. At the time I had no idea.

At the time, Dan and I were chatting about religion and Catholicism and I was picking his brain. I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about, or how it came up, but it was fairly mundane conversation. So it felt like a shot right out of left field when Pastor Dan said, “Which is more important, the Bible or tradition?”

I hadn’t really, ever, considered that. My gut said immediately that it had to be the Bible but I barely even had a frame of reference to understand the question. To me, tradition was something of the Jews in the Old Testament or the Pharisees of the gospels. Or all the superstitions and dressings of the Catholic church—that stuff built up over a couple thousand years. Which was more important?! How are they even connected?

“The Bible.”

“Of course the Bible was more important,” I said.

“But how was the Bible put together?” Pastor Dan asked.

I was stumped.

For all I knew as a Christian, for all I’d been taught and studied and read I’d never actually considered this fundamental question. I’d taken a few courses in my undergrad about the gospels so I knew how they were written but, put together? The Bible is the most important book to Protestant Christianity and I hadn’t even superficially considered how it was put together. That thought alone shocked me.

As an educator, I know that a really good teacher isn’t someone who necessarily answers a lot of questions but someone who knows how to ask them. I don’t remember how that particular conversation with Dan ended but it wasn’t resolved. He didn’t attempt to answer the question and I was left feeling like a bomb had gone off. In fact the best way I’ve found to describe it—and I’ve talked a lot about this particular conversation since it happened—was as if Dan dropped and bomb, and left.

Pastor Dan did leave, in fact, a few months later. He left his pastoral job at the campus church to complete a doctoral thesis and we largely lost touch. He dropped a bomb and left.

The question shook me to my very foundation. I’m sure it’s a combination of poor Christian education and perhaps sheer ignorance but it really wasn’t a question I’d ever considered. I held the Bible in my hands, I read it on a semi-regular basis, and I held that it was God’s inspired, infallible word but I never thought about how those particular books were collected together. I knew there were books that Christians considered outside of the Bible—this was the era of the Davinci Code, after all—and I knew those books weren’t credible, were written later, or didn’t line up with the rest of the texts, but the ones that made the cut, how did those get included?

I could only come to one conclusion: Tradition trumps the Bible. It was tradition that put together the Holy Bible, based on what books were being used most popularly, and based on the decisions of a particular tradition and particular people who were given a traditional authority. Since tradition put the Bible together, tradition was most important.

It wasn’t the kind of question you’d expect to hear from a Protestant pastor but that question, asked and not answered, was to serve as another catalyst in a journey that would take me closer toward to Rome. That question, so fundamental to how I understood my faith, I’ve learned since, has sent countless Protestants on similar journeys to Rome and I was not the first, or the last, to wrestle with such a simple question.

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