Article 13: Catechism of the Catholic Church Series
Scripture and Tradition
The hit musical “Fiddler on the Roof” almost immediately triggers in people’s minds the theme of “tradition.” The poor Jewish milkman, Tevye, the father of five daughters, invokes the word “tradition” over and over again as he sings several stanzas of the title song.
Set in Imperial Russia in 1905, the story centers on Tevye’s attempts to maintain his family and Jewish religious traditions while outside influences encroach upon their lives. He must cope both with his strong-willed older daughters who do not follow the customs of their faith, and with the edict of the Tsar that discriminates against Jews.
The first stanza of the song summarizes well Tevye’s unfortunate predicament:
Who, day and night, must scramble for a living,
Feed a wife and children, say his daily prayers?
And who has the right, as master of the house,
To have the final word at home?
When Catholics reflect on the word “tradition,” many likewise focus on various traditions or customs unique to their ethnic background. For example, baking Easter bread called babka is a popular tradition among the Polish while St. Joseph Day pastry (a fried zeppole) is popular among the Italians for the feast of St. Joseph or San Giuseppe. Then there is St. Patrick’s Day with the Irish tradition of corn-beef and cabbage.
For Vietnamese Catholics, Christmas would not be complete without a buche de noel, a log-shaped sponge cake with chocolate inside. For Mexicans and other Hispanics, a food staple for Christmas include tamales and the piñata tradition continues to be a popular one in Central and Latin American countries. Then there is the tradition of Fiesta Quinceañera, marking the rite of passage from girlhood to young womanhood.
Unlike the traditions, customs and practices outlined above, or other liturgical or devotional traditions such as Eucharistic processions, novenas or even kneeling at Mass, Tradition with a capital “T” is a uniquely different matter. The Second Vatican Council explains in its document on Divine Revelation called “Dei Verbum,” article 9 as follows:
“There exists a close connection and communication between Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture … flowing from the same divine wellspring … Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while Sacred Tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. 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.”
Curiously, the 19th century Anglican convert to Catholicism and English cardinal, Blessed John Henry Newman, also wrote on this subject in his famous 1884 essay “Inspiration in its Relation to Revelation.”
“Although Sacred Scripture is profitable,” Newman observed, “it is not said to be sufficient. The Apostle [Paul] requires the aid of Tradition (2 Thess. 2:15). Moreover, the Apostle here refers to the scriptures which Timothy was taught in his infancy.”
Evidently, “the scriptures” that Newman refers to “which Timothy was taught” were from the Old Testament books since the New Testament was yet to be written when Timothy and Paul were alive.
Saint Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians 2:15 to which Newman makes reference states: “…stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by a letter of ours.”
Here Saint Paul is writing to the people in Thessalonia reminding them that Sacred Scripture is not the only exclusive source of God’s Word.
Saint Peter likewise affirms this in his first letter: “The word of the Lord remains forever. This is the word that has been proclaimed to you” (1 Peter 1:25).
The crux of the matter is that for us Catholics, Sacred Tradition with a capital “T”, “transmits in its entirety the Word of God, (which is scripture and tradition) given over to the apostles by Christ and the Holy Spirit” (ccc 81).
“Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture … are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other,” says the Catechism. In fact, using the language of Vatican II (as previously cited above), the Catechism explains that both of them flow “out from the same divine well-spring” or “deposit of faith” (ccc 80).
The Catechism also introduces the tender thought that “sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit” (ccc 81). Consider for a moment that people encounter us primarily through our speech. Speech is also one of the most immediate and significant ways we get to know one another. When we hear the words of Sacred Scripture proclaimed or when we read passages ourselves, it is as if the Creator of the universe is speaking to us.
It is through Sacred Scripture that we derive with certainty many revealed truths about our faith. However, the Catechism tells us, quoting the Second Vatican Council, that the Church does not derive revealed truths from “the holy Scriptures alone” but from “both Scripture and Tradition,” both of which “must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence” (ccc 82). Why? Because long before all 73 books of the Sacred Scriptures were completed, the apostles and their descendants (bishops, priests and laity) went about proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ “standing firm and holding fast to the traditions that were taught by word of mouth” (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:15).
Scriptures, Catechism provide best summary of faith
Article 13: Catechism of the Catholic Church Series