June 5, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: Belief in tradition

John F. Fink(Seventeen in a series of columns)

Two weeks ago, I wrote that, while Catholics believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, the Catholic faith is not based solely on the Bible. I’d better elaborate on that.

Catholics believe that God has transmitted divine revelation to us in two distinct modes: Scripture and Tradition.

The Gospel of Christ was handed on in two ways: first, orally by the Apostles, who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to preach; and, later, in writing by those who also were inspired by the Holy Spirit to commit the message of salvation to writing.

Jesus’ disciples were spreading the faith through their preaching, as Christ commanded them to do, for about 20 years before the first New Testament writing appeared: Paul’s Letters to the Thessalonians.

In one of those letters, Paul advises those to whom he was writing: “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 Thes 15).

The early Christians followed those traditions that Paul wrote about well before the first Gospel was written about 40 years after Christ’s resurrection. Those traditions are an integral part of Catholic faith.

When the Catholic Church uses the word “tradition,” it means more than just custom, as in, “That’s the way we’ve always done it; it’s a tradition.” The word comes from the Latin, meaning “handing over,” and it means the teachings and practices that were handed over by the Apostles to their successors. This is known as the “deposit of faith.”

When Jesus commissioned his Apostles to make disciples of all nations, he told them, “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). He obviously expected his teachings to be continued long after the Apostles were dead. Therefore, the Apostles entrusted the deposit of faith to the Church that Jesus founded upon Peter.

The task of preserving, spreading and interpreting the deposit of faith was given to the Apostles’ successors, the bishops, in communion with the successors of Peter, the bishop of Rome.

The immediate successors of the Apostles included those who are known as the Apostolic Fathers, men like St. Polycarp, a disciple of St. John, and St. Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp. Others were St. Clement of Rome and St. Ignatius of Antioch. They and their successors, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, handed on the deposit of faith.

As followers of Christ began to write the Gospels, it was the Apostles’ successors who had to determine which of them were inspired by the Holy Spirit.

St. Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, became the first, in 367, to declare the 27 books of the New Testament as the canon binding on the whole Church. This was affirmed by the North African Synod of Carthage in 419, but the matter wasn’t treated by an ecumenical council until the Council of Florence in 1439. The Council of Trent reaffirmed the canon in the 16th century.

Scripture and Tradition together make up a single sacred deposit of the faith. †

Local site Links: