Saturday, October 31, 2009

Tradition: Short Reflection and Basic Explanation

The Protestant (especially evangelicals and charismatics: and I am from both camps in my background) tends to look at Scripture and say, "what does this teach me?" As far as that goes, there is nothing wrong with it, except when all these individuals start looking at the same Scripture, that they all revere as the inspired, infallible Word of God, yet nevertheless disagree on the interpretation. Then we have a problem, because contradiction means someone is wrong, and wrong is a falsehood, and falsehood comes from you know who. Truth is not relative.

The Catholic Church (contrary to the false stereotype) accepts and encourages the individual to read his or her Bible, but goes much further and deeper than that. G. K. Chesterton said that tradition was the "democracy of the dead." What he was getting at was the communal aspect of historic Christianity. The Catholic believes that the Church has learned a few things through the years, and that these can be passed on, so that we don't have to reinvent the wheel in every generation.

The Catholic not only asks what God is communicating to him individually, but what He has taught all the millions of other Christians through history: holy people, saints, doctors, missionaries, priests, nuns, fervent laypeople. That's the whole thing about the Church fathers. They were the "on-fire" Christians of the early centuries. What did they believe? What can we learn from them?

So it's the "democracy of the dead": not just a head count of those of us who happen to be here today or some vote at a national convention or a poll in Christianity Today. We believe that if God can teach us things personally, that He also teaches other folks, too, and has done so all along, so that we can learn from them. To a large extent, this is what Tradition is. It's really not that complicated of a thing.

Protestants have been accustomed for so long, to run down and disparage Tradition, as "barnacles" on the ship, to be scraped off, or corruption, that they miss the simple, obvious beauty of the thing: the democracy of the dead: the community of the saints, gathered together not just geographically (like the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15) but over time as well, through history.

This is the cool thing about Catholicism. Whatever we can ponder in our heads, the Church has, inevitably, thought about for centuries, and has come to conclusions. Catholics trust these, as a function of trust in God, Who guides and protects His Church, as we believe. It doesn't mean we have always been perfect, but when something has been declared upon by pope, council or official catechism, we can accept it as trustworthy.

The individual doesn't have to figure everything out. That's impractical and, I contend, impossible, anyway. Who of us is the font of all wisdom? How silly is that notion?! Who even wants to have that burden and responsibility? God never meant His Church or the individual Christian to function that way. There is something there far larger than merely our own private judgment and discernment.

That is Catholicism. What has been believed in the past and passed down is extremely important. The Church eventually develops these thoughts and proclaims dogmas, after so many centuries of reflection.


Ken Sponburg said...


I am a Catholic who was baptized at 11 and then left the Church for 10 years before return in 2008. However, my faith is growing slowly and it is fragile. I was taking a History of Religion class at school and I saw a quote from Bart Ehrman on a handout. I don't know why it rubbed me the wrong way and I was wondering if you could tell me where he is off in his information and why?

"One could claim-and many in fact did- that the leaders of the churches who were appointed by the apostles could pass along their teachings, so that these leaders had authority equal to God himself. God sent Jesus, who chose his apostles, who instructed their successors, who passed along the sacred teachings to ordinary Christians. Several problems with this view arose, however. For one thing, as churches multiplied, each of them could no longer claim to have as its leader someone who had known an apostle or even someone who knew someone who once knew an apostle. An even bigger problem was the fact that different leaders of churches, not mention different Christians in their congregations, could claim they taught the apostolic truths. But these "truths" stood at odds with what other leaders and teachers said were the teachings of the apostles.

How was one to get around these problems? The obvious answer presented itself early in the Christian movement. One could know what the apostles taught through the writings they left behind. These authoritative authors produced authoritative teachings. So the authoritative truth could be found in the apostolic writings."

If the Apostles passed down Tradition, then why was there so much debate over things like the meaning of the Trinity? Wasn't that passed down? Hope you can help me understand.

Dave Armstrong said...

For lack of time (a very complex question), I'll have to refer you to y "Bible and Tradition" and "Church" pages, and recommend that you contact Catholic Answers, who have apologists standing by to answer questions like this!