Roman Catholicism, the Bible, and Tradition

One of the great differences between Protestant and Catholic doctrine is in the area of Tradition. The Protestant church maintains that the Bible alone is intended by God to be the source of doctrinal truth (2 Tim. 3:16). The Catholic Church, however, says, "Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God . . ." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 97. Note, all citations in this article are from this Catechism).

The Catholic Church reasons thusly:

  1. "The apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority.'" (Par. 77).
  2. "This living transmission, accomplished through the Holy Spirit, is called tradition . . . " (Par. 78).
  3. "Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence." (Par. 82).

Within the Catholic scope of Tradition, many doctrines have been "revealed" to the Church over the centuries. For example, there is the veneration of Mary, her immaculate conception and her bodily assumption into heaven. There is also the Apocrypha, transubstantiation, praying to saints, the confessional, penance, purgatory, and more. Protestantism as a whole differs with Catholicism in these additions.

Tradition in the Bible

The Bible speaks about tradition. Some verses speak for tradition, and others speak against it. Of course, the contexts are different and carry different meanings. For example:

For Against
2 Thess. 3:6, "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us." Matt. 15:3-6, "And He answered and said to them, 'And why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God said, Honor your father and mother, and, He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death 5But you say, Whoever shall say to his father or mother, Anything of mine you might have been helped by has been given to God, 6he is not to honor his father or his mother. And thus you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition."
2 Thess. 2:15, "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us." Mark 7:8-9, "Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men. 9 He was also saying to them, You nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition."
1 Cor. 11:2, "Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you." Col. 2:8, "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ."

In the discussions regarding Tradition between Protestants and Catholics, both sets of scriptures are often quoted in order to establish their respective positions. The Protestants often quote Matt. 15:3-6 in opposition to Sacred Tradition. In an appeal to be biblical, many Catholic apologists cite 2 Thess. 2:15 to validate their position on Sacred Tradition. Unfortunately, this amounts to using the Word of God against itself. Clearly, God's word is not contradictory. Rather, it is our understanding that is in error.

The Bible is for tradition where it supports the teachings of the apostles (2 Thess. 2:15) and is consistent with biblical revelation. Yet, it is against tradition when it "transgresses the commands of God" (Matt. 15:3). By Jesus' own words, tradition is not to transgress or contradict the commands of God. In other words, it should be in harmony with biblical teaching and not oppose it in any way.

Though the Catholic Church officially states that Sacred Tradition should not and does not contradict Scripture, Protestants see much of the teaching from this Sacred Tradition as doing just that. It isn't enough for the Catholic to say that their church is the true church, that they have the apostolic tradition, that they hold the keys to the truth, and that they have revealed doctrines consistent with biblical revelation. Likewise, it isn't enough for a Protestant to pass judgment upon Catholic doctrines simply because they are Catholic and are derived via Sacred Tradition.

Are Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition Really Equal?

To me, it is not enough to simply say that Sacred Tradition is equal to Scripture based upon the decree of the Catholic Magisterium. Like any spiritual teaching, I must compare it to the Bible. Jesus' own words in Matt. 15:3 lend support for myself and many non-Catholics to subject the fruit of Sacred Tradition to the pruning of God's word. In other words, do the teachings of the Catholic church that are derived through tradition transgress the commands of God? Of course, the Catholic will say that they do not.

When Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees in Matt. 15:1-6, He reprimanded them for not understanding God's word. They were appealing to the tradition of the elders--those who had passed down oral and written tradition. Jesus, on the other hand, exposed their error by citing scripture. Please take note of what He said in Matt. 15:1-6.

"Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem, saying, 2"Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread." 3And He answered and said to them, "And why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4"For God said, Honor your father and mother,' and, He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death.' 5"But you say, Whoever shall say to his father or mother, "Anything of mine you might have been helped by has been given to God," 6he is not to honor his father or his mother.' And thus you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition."

Whatever might be said about this passage, at least one thing must be observed: The tradition of the religious leaders was subject to the Word of God. Are the religious leaders of the Catholic Church exempt from subjection to the Word of God? And likewise, is their Sacred Tradition also exempt? I think not.

Where the Protestants would interpret Tradition in light of Scripture, it seems that the Catholic Church does the opposite. Consider the following, "The Second Vatican Council indicates three criteria for interpreting Scripture in accordance with the Spirit who inspired it. 1. Be especially attentive to the content and unity of the whole Scripture.'. . . 2. Read the Scripture within the living Tradition of the whole Church.' ... 3. Be attentive to the analogy of faith." (Par. 111, 112, 13, 114).

It is number 2 that is the main concern here. What does it mean to read Scripture "within the living Tradition of the whole Church?" If Scripture is "within the living Tradition," then Tradition encompasses Scripture. In other words, it is the tradition of the Church that interprets Scripture. This is in contradiction to the Word of God spoken by Jesus in Matt. 15:1-6.

Some object and say that the Pharisees didn't have apostolic authority and succession that was ordained by the apostles as does the Catholic Church and, therefore, Matt. 15:1-6 cannot be used to nullify Sacred Tradition.

But the issue in Matt. 15:1-6 is not succession of authority but the traditions of men being used in opposition to the truth of the Word of God. Essentially, the Pharisees were seeing the Word of God "within" their sacred tradition. Jesus, in contrast to this, cited the Word of God to judge their traditions. The apostles, likewise, continuously admonished their people to check their teaching against the Scripture (Acts 17:11), thereby substantiating the position that even what they taught was subject to God's Word. After all, no doctrinal teaching should contradict biblical revelation, and the Sacred Word of God was and is the final authority in all things spiritual. The Catholic Church's position and teaching is based on Sacred Tradition are no different. They must be compared to Scripture.

My desire in writing this is not to alienate Catholics nor belittle their beliefs. I believe that there are some Catholics who love the Lord and are saved. But I would like to add that I believe it is in spite of official Roman Catholic doctrine. Nevertheless, it is my opinion that the Catholic church has added teachings that are not consistent with biblical revelation.

If you are a Catholic, I hope my words do not offend you. Rather, I hope and pray that you would consider what this site has to say and compare it with the Word of God.




About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.