The Deposit of Faith: Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition
With the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven, we as Catholics believe that the age of divine revelation came to an end. The fullness of Truth was revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, and must only be preached, intact, to every corner of the world and every generation. The Catholic Church, and in particular the Magisterium – the successors of Christ’s Apostles – is the guardian of this deposit of faith.
Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition are the two halves of the deposit of faith. The written Word of God expressed in the Holy Scriptures, and the lived Tradition of the Church are each a part of the divine revelation preserved through the centuries from the time of the Apostles until the end of the world.
What is Sacred Tradition?
It is important to distinguish Sacred Tradition (capitalized) from regular traditions. They are referred to distinctly in scripture. For example, in Mark 7:8 Jesus says, “You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.” This passage is a favorite of protestant apologists supporting Sola Scriptura. But it does not refer to all tradition, clearly only non-sacred traditions of men. Looking to the epistles we see numerous references to sacred Tradition:
“I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.” (1 Cor 11:2)
“So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thess 2:15)
It’s obvious these passages aren’t referring to the same thing. Paul isn’t telling his disciples to abandon the commandments of God when he tells them to hold to the traditions they were taught. He speaks of the sacred tradition imparted to them by his preaching. This was the first and most important way for people to receive the gospel.
This took place in a time when the Bible itself was not compiled, and continued through most of Christian history, until the advent of widespread literacy and printing presses. But, just because we now live in a time where most people in the world can easily access their own copies of the scriptures, does not mean that Tradition is obsolete.
The Church has matured and grown in her understanding of divine revelation over the centuries since the writing of the New Testament. Ignoring this great wealth of accumulated wisdom and relying only on one’s own reading of scripture is analogous to trying to learn astronomy with a telescope in one’s own backyard, without reference to any scientist who ever studied the stars. We are certain to make many mistakes along the way, and without submitting ourselves to the correction of the proper authority, we will certainly end up with a badly distorted view of the universe.
How do we know which Traditions to Trust?
So, if we as Christians are called to follow the Sacred Tradition given to the Apostles, we need to be certain which teachings are false, which are mere traditions of men (that have no authority), and which are the true Traditions of the Apostles.
For Catholics, this is actually really simple. We just listen to the Holy Church which Jesus Christ established for this very purpose.
This is where the beautiful integrity of the Catholic position really shines. You see, not only is Tradition dependent on the Church for its authority, so is Holy Scripture. Contrary to popular belief, Jesus didn’t hand his Apostles a bible before he ascended into heaven. He left them with two things: his teachings, and his Holy Spirit (I guess if you want to get technical he also left them the Old Testament scriptures, but the Church still had to determine which books were truly the inspired word of God). They then had to write the New Testament, which would become widely available to all believers… as soon as the printing press was invented in the 1400s.
The message here is simple. As Christians, we need to cling to the Church, because we are fragile creatures who will be easily led astray without it. In this case, if you don’t accept the indefectibility of the Church, you’re liable to fall into traditions of men, which lead you to deny the commandments of God – traditions like Sola Scriptura.