“Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.” – 2 Thessalonians 2:15.
Tradition has a special place in Catholic thought and is of great significance to understanding the Bible and Catholic theology. In this paper, I will discuss what Tradition means within the context of religion. I will discuss how Tradition provides the foundation for the creation of the Bible. Finally, I will examine the effect tradition has on Catholic theology.
What Is Tradition?
The term tradition derives from the Latin tradere, which means “to transmit” or “to give over.” Generally, it refers to beliefs, doctrines, customs, ethical and moral standards, and cultural values and attitudes transmitted orally or by personal example and teaching. With regard to the Old Testament, this would include the Ten Commandments.
Catholic theology refers to Sacred Tradition consisting of the stories and teachings that the apostles passed on orally through their preaching. It is important to state that Tradition does not refer to legends or mythological accounts.
Sacred Tradition, more technically, also means, within this transmitted revelation, that part of God’s revealed word that is not contained in Sacred Scripture. Referring specifically to how Christian Tradition was handed on, the Second Vatican Council says: “It was done by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received – whether from the lips of Christ, from His way of life and His works, or whether they had learned it by the prompting of the Holy Spirit.” (See Father John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary).
In accord with the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul Vl issued Dei Verbum (Word of God), the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. The document refers to the Bible as the Word of God in human language. While convenient to do so, the Bible should not be viewed as a single book. Rather, the Catholic Bible is seventy-three books. Each one of these books is a product of a tradition.
Within the framework of Catholic theology, Tradition means all Divine revelation that has passed on from one generation of believers to the next. Part of the purpose of the Catholic Church is to preserve this Sacred Tradition under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
How The Bible Came To Be
It is no exaggeration to argue that the books of the Bible are a direct result of Tradition. Mostly, this Tradition consisted of oral stories that eventually found their way to parchment.
Indeed, one cannot deracinate the connection between Sacred Tradition and Scripture without damaging, if not destroying, the significance of both. The reason why this is so is that both Sacred Tradition and Scripture flow from the same Divine wellspring. Scripture is the word of God, in the words of human beings and those words are the result of Sacred Tradition.
The Hebrew Bible or Old Testament was codified as a result of scribes who put the oral traditions and stories into writing. Many of the scribes belonged to the Levite tribe (priests) with the time and resources to engage in literary activities. Other scribes, such as the record-keepers, historians, and letter-writers in the royal palaces and administrative centers, were affiliated with the ancient equivalent of professional guilds. (Werrett, Ian. Ritual Purity and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Brill, 2007).
As the Apostles wrote predominantly in Greek, the Catholic Church uses the Septuagint as its base for the Old Testament. The Septuagint is considered the oldest and most complete translation of the Hebrew Bible.
Significantly, from the Catholic perspective, the Septuagint includes the deuterocanonical books. Several of these books were written in Greek by Greek-speaking Jews in the Mediterranean region. The other books were translated into Greek to aid those who did not read Hebrew. Because of this, the Apostles wrote in Greek and used the Septuagint in quoting from the Old Testament.
“He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16). The Church, in the persons of the apostles, was given the authority to teach by Christ, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
In the years following the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, the apostles continued the Tradition of oral instruction. Just as Jesus taught His disciples through speech, so His disciples taught others. In time, the stories and teaching of Jesus began to be written down.
Nevertheless, the process of compiling the Canon that would eventually constitute the Bible was long. It would not be until the Councils of Hippo in 393 and Carthage in 397 and 419, that the Bible was fully compiled.
In response to the Reformation, the Church infallibly defined these books at the Council of Trent.
Tradition After The Canon
As we have seen, the Bible came to be as a result of Tradition. This Tradition remains alive and well within the Catholic Church. Under the auspices of the Magisterium, the Church continues to teach the Word of God. “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 85).
God has revealed Himself by communicating to human beings. This communication was initially spread among human beings through oral transmission. Eventually, what God intended us to know was written down. It would be the responsibility of the Church that Jesus founded, the Catholic Church, to compile, collect and preserve the Word of God.
In the preceding paper, I have sought to explain how the Bible came to be and the significance that Tradition had and continues to have for Catholics.