Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The Complex Relationship between Scripture and Tradition

by James Akin


Jimmy Akin examines the relationship between Scripture and Tradition according to two Catholic views. The first view, called the "two source" model, holds that Scripture and Tradition are two sources of revelation, with some truths found in Scripture and some in Tradition. The second view, called the "two modes" view, holds that Scripture and Tradition are but two modes of "transmitting" the same deposit of faith. Akin examines the deficiencies in each of these views, using specific examples often brought up by Protestants and apologists.

Larger Work

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40 - 41

Publisher & Date

Catholic Answers, Inc., El Cajon, CA, 2005

The relationship between Scripture and Tradition comes up regularly in contemporary Catholic apologetics. According to one Catholic view, Scripture and Tradition are two sources of revelation. Some divine truths are found in the Bible, while others are found in Tradition. This "two source" model has a long history, but it also has some difficulties. One is that there is considerable overlap between the two sources.

For example, the Bible clearly contains a command that Christians be baptized (Matt. 28:19). But doesn't Tradition contain that, too? Wasn't the command to be baptized passed on orally in the early Church as well as being written down in Scripture? Wasn't the requirement of baptism already firmly fixed in the life and belief of the churches before the New Testament was written?

Isn't the same true of the command to celebrate the Eucharist? To worship only one God? To regard Jesus as God? In fact, weren't most teachings of the Christian faith handed on orally and only later in writing?

Speaking of Scripture and Tradition as two sources could lead one to overlook this overlap, which is so considerable that some Catholics have pondered how much of the Protestant idea of sola scriptura a Catholic can agree with. Sola scriptura is understood in different ways among Protestants, but it is commonly taken to mean that the Bible contains all of the material needed to do theology. According to this theory, a theologian does not need to look to Tradition — or at least does not need to give Tradition an authoritative role.

This view is not acceptable to Catholics. As the Second Vatican Council stressed in its constitution Dei Verbum, "It is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws its certainty about everything that has been revealed. Therefore both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence" (DV 9).

One of the principal architects of Dei Verbum was the French theologian Yves Congar, who thought Catholics could acknowledge a substantial element of truth in sola scriptura.

He wrote that "we can admit sola scriptura in the sense of a material sufficiency of canonical Scripture. This means that Scripture contains, in one way or another, all truths necessary for salvation" (Tradition and Traditions, 410).

He encapsulated this idea with the slogan Totum in scriptura, totum in traditione ("All is in Scripture, all is in Tradition"), which he attributes to Cardinal Newman. According to this theory, Scripture and Tradition would not be two sources containing different material but two modes of transmitting the same deposit of faith. We might call it the "two modes" view as opposed to the "two source" view.

The decrees of Trent and Vatican II allow Catholics to hold the two-mode idea, but they do not require it. A Catholic is still free to hold the two-source view.

Practical Use

Some apologists working with Protestants have adopted the two-mode position, which may help certain Protestants in the process of becoming Catholic. It also may help deflect certain objections that are met in debate. Such an apologist might say:

It is not necessary for a Catholic to claim that the Bible is materially insufficient — that it fails to teach some truths needed for salvation. Scripture contains all that material, and we can agree with our Protestant brethren on this point. But the Bible does not contain this material in a form that makes it easy to derive these truths without risk of error. You need the help of Tradition to do that. Scripture is thus materially sufficient but not formally sufficient.

If he uses this argument, an apologist needs to be careful of several things. Most importantly, he should not speak of this view as if it is a certainty or as if it is the official Catholic position. It is not. It is one possible position that Catholics may hold, but it would misrepresent the teaching of the Church to speak as if all Catholics hold or are expected to hold this view.

He also needs to be careful about what he says regarding the material sufficiency of Scripture. For example, Congar spoke only in terms of the Bible containing "all truths necessary for salvation." He did not speak of it containing all theological truths. This is an important distinction that comes up in discussions of sola scriptura.

Protestants often define sola scriptura by appealing to the idea that Scripture contains all truths needed for salvation. In practice, though, they often apply the term much more expansively, as if the Bible should be expected to contain all truths of Christian theology.

This is why many Protestants demand, "Where is that in the Bible?" even if the subject is a Catholic belief that has no direct connection to salvation. This means that, although adopting a two-mode theory may provide a measure of convergence in how sola scriptura is commonly defined, it may not help in practice.

Broad and Narrow Paths

Moreover, while it is legitimate in apologetic discussions to point out permitted Catholic views, that does not mean we should adopt a view just because it might be apologetically useful. We need to consider whether Totum in scriptura, totum in traditione holds true. If applied narrowly to truths necessary for salvation in the sense described above, I think that it does. I certainly can't think of any truths directly connected with salvation that aren't at least alluded to in Scripture.

But if we apply it more broadly, problems emerge. There seem to be theological truths that are not mentioned in Scripture. For example, the Bible does not state that public revelation is closed. As far as I can tell, it is neither stated nor clearly implied. Nor does the Bible say that God will not inspire any more books of Scripture or that there will be no more apostles. One needed to be a witness of the ministry of Christ to be a member of the Twelve (Acts 1:21-22), but Christ appeared in a vision to name Paul an apostle, even though he was not an eyewitness. If he wanted, Jesus could have kept appearing to people throughout history and appointing them apostles. We know from Tradition that this didn't happen — that the apostles died out and handed the Church over to their successors, the bishops — but the Bible doesn't tell us this.

The Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary are often cited as truths not taught in the Bible, although many have thought that there are passages that reflect these truths in some way (e.g., Luke 1:28, Rev. 12:1-14). This raises the question of how a truth that can be known by Tradition may be related to Scripture. It isn't as simple as a truth being "in Scripture" or "not in Scripture." There are more possible relationships than that.

Complex Relationship

Some truths of Tradition are directly stated in Scripture, such as God's creation of the world. The Bible comes right out and says, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1).

Other truths of Tradition are not stated directly in Scripture but are implied clearly by the biblical author. For example, while the Bible doesn't come out and say that the Holy Spirit is a person rather than a force, it is implied in numerous passages, such as those in which the Spirit is depicted as speaking to people (e.g., Acts 13:2), and the biblical authors meant us to understand this.

Some truths of Tradition can be inferred from Scripture even though the biblical authors did not clearly imply them. For example, Christ having both a human will and a divine will can be inferred from his being "true God and true man" (CCC 464). Various biblical passages state or imply that he is true God and true man, but in none does the biblical author state or imply that he had two wills. We have to figure that out by inference.

A truth is sometimes alluded to or reflected in the text even though it can't be proved from the text alone. The Immaculate Conception may be reflected in what Gabriel says to Mary in Luke 1:28, and the Assumption may be reflected in the wings the woman is given in Revelation 12:14, but you couldn't prove these truths from the text alone.

Some truths are presupposed by Scripture, such as many of the particulars of how the sacraments are celebrated — their proper form, matter, ministers, and recipients. The sacraments are mentioned in the Bible, but the biblical authors didn't give many details about their administration. They assumed that the reader would look to the practice of the Church for the answers to these questions. For example, the sacrament of reconciliation is discussed, but the words that need to be used to make an absolution valid are not.

Some truths are not in Scripture at all; not even a piece of the truth in question is indicated. As we saw earlier, the truths that public revelation is ended and that there will be no more apostles fall into this category.

Often it isn't easy to decide which of these categories a truth falls into, but it is beneficial to think the question through, consider whether the Scriptural basis for a truth is found in the literal or the spiritual sense of the text, and consider how much confidence in the truth can be drawn from the Bible compared to how much must be drawn from Tradition.

While these considerations may be useful as an apologist explores the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, he ultimately will have to decide how he thinks they fit together. So far, the Church has left him considerable latitude.

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