Q. A Protestant friend recently commented to me that the Catholic Church is wrong to rely on Tradition as well as Scripture. How should I respond?
A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D.:
You can also tell him that he too, like all Protestants, also relies on tradition. He invokes that tradition (called sola scriptura, scripture alone) when he demands scriptural proof for belief in saints. It’s an extra-biblical axiom that Protestants assume, incorrectly, is itself scriptural.
Ask him to show you where the Bible says that all Christian teaching must be explicitly spelled out in Scripture. Scripture nowhere teaches — indeed, nowhere even implies — that all Christian belief must be “proved” from Scripture.
I once heard a priest tell of having met a fundamentalist preacher in a ministerial meeting. The preacher introduced himself aggressively: “I’m Brother So-and-So. You know, I belong to the Church that’s based on the Bible.”
The priest responded by giving his name, and said, “And I belong to the Church that wrote that Bible.”
The priest’s response was not a put-down. It was a statement of fact. Members of the Catholic Church wrote the New Testament. Out of dozens upon dozens of writings from the early centuries, the Catholic Church decided which were to be canonical.
The criterion for including a text in the Church’s canon was simple: Does a given book authentically reflect the Church’s tradition? On this basis the Church selected the twenty-seven books which all Christians now have in the New Testament.
G. K. Chesterton was once asked what the Bible says on a particular topic. He replied that the Bible doesn’t say anything. He said you can’t put the Bible in a witness chair and ask it questions and get answers. Like all other books (in this basic regard), the Bible has to be interpreted.
The New Testament is the Church’s book. She wrote it. She alone understands it correctly. In the light of her total life (her “Tradition”) she is guided by the Holy Spirit in her interpretation of Scripture.
She does not seek to “prove” her teachings from her book. Rather, she shows how her teachings — which came to her from Christ through the apostles — are reflected in the books she wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Apart from the Catholic Church’s teaching authority, which she received from Christ, there is no way to gain certain knowledge of scriptural teaching. Look at what happens to those Christians who are separated from that authority. There are over thirty thousand separate denominations, all claiming to be based on the Bible, and all contradicting one another in some or in many respects. And the number of new denominations grows steadily, year after year.