The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 47, No 4, Jul-Aug 1994

Theology for the Laity
By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.

One major difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is the different way in which they view divine revelation. For most Protestant religions the only true source of divine revelation is the BIBLE, and its interpretation is left to the conscience of the individual Christian. For the Catholic Church, however, God’s revelation is found in SACRED TRADITION, understood as God’s revealed word handed down by the living teaching authority established by Christ in the Church. That includes both written tradition (Scripture) and unwritten tradition received from Christ and handed down orally by the apostles and their successors. The Church founded by Christ on Peter, and only that Church, has been empowered by Christ to interpret His teaching authoritatively in His name.


The word tradition is taken from the Latin word “tradere”- to hand down, to pass on. In this case it refers to a “handing down” of God’s revealed word from apostolic times to our own day. If we would take the word tradition in the broad sense, we could say that the Catholic Church derives it’s doctrines from tradition alone, understanding thereby the body of revealed truth (written & unwritten) handed down from the apostles. St. Paul seemed to understand it in this way when he wrote to Timothy to “hold to traditions which you have learned, whether by word or by our letter (2 Thes. 2:14). Even though a great part of that tradition has been committed to writing and is found in the inspired books of the Scriptures, the Catholic Church looks upon Tradition and Scripture, not as two separate sources of revelation, but as two different means of transmission of God’s revelation, forming a single deposit of faith. The Bible, then, is a part of Tradition, along with the unwritten instruction received from Christ and handed down by the apostles and their successors. Some writers refer to the revealed doctrines (written & unwritten) handed down by the apostles and their successors as the passive aspect of Tradition, and the living teaching authority (the magisterium) established by Christ to insure that His teaching would be handed down to succeeding ages in its integrity and without error, as its active aspect.

To understand the Catholic Church's teaching in regard to Sacred Tradition, we must consider several things:

a) Public revelation ceased with Christ and the apostles and evangelists who recorded His teachings;

b) Christ commissioned His apostles to preach;

c) Christ established a living teaching authority to safeguard the integrity of the gospel message, and to apply it with divine authority to succeeding ages;

d) The development of the gospel message is not new doctrine.


God in his goodness and wisdom revealed Himself gradually through the prophets and patriarchs of the old Testament. But the fullness and completion of that revelation came through the Incarnation of the only-begotten Son of the Father who became man to redeem us, and to bring to completion the revelation of the Godhead and the divine plan of salvation. The message that Christ brought to mankind by His preaching, His deeds, His death and resurrection brings an end to public revelation, as opposed to private revelation, such as occurred in the apparitions of Our Lord and the saints to various persons throughout the Christian era. Referring to this, the second Vatican Council declared in the dogmatic constitution on Revelation:

“The Christian dispensation, therefore, as the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away, and we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Verbum Dei, n.4).

(NOTE: It is only public revelation that we are bound in conscience to accept by virtue of the divine gift of faith.)


Our Blessed Lord left no written record behind Him, but rather ordered His apostles to hand down His teaching orally. He told them to preach the gospel to all nations: “Go and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to observe all I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19). Referring to this the second Vatican Council states:

“Christ the Lord, in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion, commissioned the apostles to preach to all men that gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching, and thus imparts to them divine gifts. . . . This commission was faithfully fulfilled by the apostles who, by their oral preaching, by example, by ordinances, handed down what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they learned through the promptings of the Holy Spirit. The commission was fulfilled too, by those apostles and apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing” (ibid. n.7).

The first gospel was written, however, some 20 years after the death of Christ, and the last gospel (that of John) was written at the end of the first century. That means that a whole generation of Christians knew nothing of the teaching of Christ, or the duties of the Christian life, except through the preaching of the apostles and their fellow-workers, - that is to say, except through Sacred Tradition. What is more, almost four hundred years elapsed before the inspired books of the New Testament were collected (by the teaching authority of the Catholic Church) into one book. And even after that, since copies of the inspired books were transcribed laboriously by hand, there were extremely few copies available. And that scarcity lasted for almost another thousand years until the coming of the printing press in the fifteenth century.

Much that Christ said and did is not recorded in the Scriptures, as St. John so clearly testifies: “There are still many other things that Jesus did, yet if they were written in detail, I doubt there would be room enough in the entire world to hold the books to record them” (Jn. 21:24). St. Paul, too, testifies that part of his teaching received from Christ (Gal. 1:12) was not included in his letters: “The things which you have heard from Me through many witnesses you must hand on to trustworthy men who will be able to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2).

Consequently, while the Sacred Scriptures contain a large portion of God’s revelation, some portion of it was passed on orally and eventually recorded in the writings of the Fathers of the Church, those spiritual and intellectual giants of those early centuries who further explained and developed it. The second Council of Constantinople (553) rebuked those who do not follow the “traditions of the Fathers.” Those traditions “hold the faith which our Lord Jesus Christ, true God, entrusted to the holy apostles, and which, after them, the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church entrusted to their people.” While the writings of the Fathers were not inspired, they were handing down teaching that came from Christ through the apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit promised by Christ. (Mt. 28:20).

Some practices of the Catholic Church coming down from the primitive Church are recorded only in sources other than the Scriptures. One example of this is the Didache, the full title of which is “The Lord’s Instruction to the Gentiles through the Twelve Apostles.” That document which dates from around the time of the Gospel of St. John tells us of the celebration of the Eucharist on Sunday (the Lord’s day) rather than on the Sabbath, and of the forgiveness of sin through confession.

The same is true of the liturgy, an important witness of sacred Tradition, for as the second Vatican Council testifies, “the Church, in her teaching, life, and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes” (ibid. 8). Changes in the Church’s liturgical customs result not only from adaptation to the times, but also from a development of doctrine that called for corresponding expression in the liturgy. Pope Pius XII referred to this in his encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ:

“As Catholic doctrine on the Incarnate Word of God, the Eucharistic sacrament and sacrifice, and Mary the Mother of God came to be determined with greater certitude and clarity, new ritual forms were introduced through which the acts of the liturgy proceeded to reproduce this brighter light from the decrees of the teaching authority of the Church, and so to reflect this light that it might reach the hearts and minds of Christ’s people more effectively” (Mediator Dei, I. 52).


Our Blessed Lord not only commissioned the apostles to preach to all the world the saving message He had given them, but He empowered them to “bind and to loose” in His name, so that “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt.16:19). Because of this, He assured them that “he who hears you, hears Me; and he who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me” (Lk. 10:16).

Immediately after commissioning the apostles to preach the gospel to all nations, Our Savior continued: “Behold I am with you all days, even to the end of the world” (Mt. 28:20). By these words He assured the apostles that He would be with them (through the Holy Spirit whom He would send) so that they could hand down His teaching without error until the end of time. But since the apostles would not live that long, Christ’s promise is valid for His successors, those in charge of the Church in succeeding ages. Thus until the end of time the successors of the apostles will share the teaching authority conferred by Christ on the apostles, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit that He promised.

After the Ascension of Christ, the apostles did in fact claim for themselves a teaching authority, sending others as they themselves had been sent by Christ, with the power to teach in Christ’s name, to impose doctrine, as well as to govern the Church and to baptize.

Christ preached His message, He did not write it. In His preaching He appealed to the Scriptures, but was not satisfied merely to read them. He explained them, interpreted them. So too, in the centuries to come the Church would not merely refer to the Bible, but would explain and interpret it, applying it to the changing conditions of the times. Although the Bible is the inspired word of God, it was not meant to be our sole guide. Just as God provided mankind with the guiding light of the Scriptures, so He provided mankind - through the continued guidance of the Holy Spirit - with an official living authority to interpret those divinely inspired books. One of the main reasons for the division of Christendom into the hundreds of Christian religions we have today, is the claim that the interpretation of the Scriptures is left to the individual Christian. Just as the Constitution of the United States is not left to the interpretation of each individual American, but is interpreted authoritatively by the Supreme Court, so the whole deposit of revealed truth (the Bible and Tradition) is not left to the judgment of each individual Christian, but is interpreted for us by the living authority that Christ established. “He who hears you, hears Me” (Lk. 10:16). The second Vatican Council states this clearly:

“In order to keep the gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the apostles left bishops as their successors, handing over their own teaching role to them. This Sacred Tradition, therefore and the Sacred Scriptures of both the Old and New Testament are like a mirror in which the pilgrim looks at God (ibid. u.7). . . . The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church (the magisterium) whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ” (ibid. n.10).


As we saw above, public revelation ended with the death of John the apostle. After him no new revelation has been added to the deposit of faith. However, that does not exclude the development of those truths contained in that revelation. As time passed on, the Church, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, came to a greater understanding of God’s revealed word. The second Vatican Council speaks of this:

“This tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. . . . As centuries succeeded one after another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her” (ibid. n.8).

Development of doctrine, therefore, does not mean a changing or abandoning of a doctrine originally taught, but rather the growth of the Church’s understanding of it. Revealed truths are not fixed or static concepts. Their richness is inexhaustible, so that succeeding generations have discovered new insights into God’s message to mankind.

One thing that has occasioned the development of doctrine has been the attacks on the revealed truths by those not of the Catholic faith. They might deny a truth outright, or might interpret it in a way not in keeping with its true meaning as handed down by the apostles. This requires and occasions on the part of the Church a fuller expression of those truths being challenged.

Then, too, there are doctrines of our Catholic faith that were contained in divine revelation only implicitly. And for that reason they became obligatory dogmas only after the passing of centuries. Examples of this are the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Mother of God.

From the beginning the Church believed in the singular holiness of Mary, but it was not always clear whether or not she had contracted original sin. Some felt that the universality of Christ’s redemption, and the doctrine that “all sinned in Adam” (Rom.5:12), implied that Mary would need cleansing from original sin. However, with the passage of time and the reflections of saints and theologians (enlightened by the Holy Spirit), it was understood how Mary was redeemed by Christ without inheriting original sin, namely, in anticipation of Christ’s merits. Since the Mystical Body of Christ is a mystery that extends beyond space and time, Mary’s redemption was not curative, but preventative. Hence, only in the 19th and 20th centuries after Christ were these two doctrines, both of which are implicitly contained in divine revelation, declared dogmas of the Catholic faith. These truths had been divinely revealed from the beginning, but the explication and understanding of their divine revelation came only gradually.


Since sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture come from one and the same divine source, there is a close connection between them, both forming one sacred deposit of the word of God. One of them is not complete without the other. As the words themselves imply, SACRED SCRIPTURE is the written word of God divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit; and SACRED TRADITION is divinely guided “handing down” of that revealed truth entrusted to the apostles, and passed on written or unwritten. Hence the second Vatican Council declares:

“It is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her 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 devotion and reverence” (ibid. 9).

And since, as we have seen, Christ established a living teaching authority to interpret in His name and hand down His revealed word, the same Vatican Council concludes:

“It is clear, therefore, that sacred Tradition, sacred Scripture, and the teaching authority of the Church (the magisterium), in accord with God’s most wise designs, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls” (ibid. 10).

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