February 8, 2013

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: Tradition as well as Scripture

John F. FinkLast week, 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 had better elaborate on that because it is sometimes confusing both to Catholics and others.

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 were also inspired by the Holy Spirit to commit the message of salvation to writing.

The disciples of Jesus were spreading the faith through their preaching, as Christ commanded them to do, for about 20 years before the first New Testament writing appeared—likely St. Paul’s two 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 Thess 2:15).

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

“Tradition” comes from the Latin word “tradere”, meaning “to hand over.” In Catholic beliefs and theology, tradition refers to the teachings and practices that were handed on by the Apostles to their successors. This is known as the “deposit of faith.”

When, before his ascension to heaven, 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 St. 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 Sts. Polycarp, Irenaeus, Clement and 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.

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

Today, Catholics believe that Scripture and tradition together make up a single sacred deposit of the word of God. †

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