St. Paul's Scriptural Arguments For Tradition

Attacks on Catholicism often start with an attack on Tradition, and, ironically, usually cite Sacred Scripture as support for the Protestant fundamentalist position. Yet, when Scripture is viewed as a cohesive whole, the foundation upon which sola scriptura and criticism of Tradition rest begins to crumble and give way.

Before turning to St. Paul, let us review what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: "Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine wellspring, come together in fashion to form one thing and move towards the same goal" (no. 80). It goes on to say: "And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound, and spread it abroad by their preaching" (no. 81).

Now, we can turn our attention to what St. Paul wrote. St. Paul mentions tradition several times in his epistles, reminding both Timothy and the Thessalonians to stand fast to the traditions he taught them. In his Second Letter to Timothy, Paul wrote: "Take as a model of sound teaching what you have heard me say, in faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the rich deposit of faith with the help of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us" (1:13-14). Later, in the same letter, he further instructs Timothy, "You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2:1-2). It seems clear that the apostolic Tradition, the oral teaching of the apostles, was to be preserved and transmitted from generation to generation. St. Paul doesn't write to Timothy and say, "This is all you need for salvation"; rather, he writes Timothy to entrust to other faithful men, who will be able to instruct others, what he preached, and Timothy heard, before many witnesses.

In the Second Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul is just as explicit: "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter" (2:15). Either by word of mouth or letter.

Were the brethren to stand firm and hold the oral Tradition that St. Paul taught only for that one generation? Did the Holy Spirit tire and decide to safeguard the transmission of only the written record of Jesus' and the apostles' teachings? Obviously not!

Scripture is clear that the spoken record of apostolic teaching, what we Catholics today call Holy Tradition, has been handed down and preserved for us. Good and faithful men, the bishops of the Church, have handed on to us the teachings of the apostles, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

One of the first Councils met, in part, because according to the decree, there were those who "acted without any authority from us." The council reached a decision because "it has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves." These Council Fathers did not base their decision on sola scriptura, but rather said that it seemed good to them and the Holy Spirit.

The Council of Jerusalem, as described in Acts 15, further weakens the already crumbling supports of sola scriptura. This inevitably leads us to another crucial point. Those who decry Tradition as having no role in matters of faith and who wish to return to a "primitive New Testament" Church have no grounds for quoting Scripture. The "primitive New Testament" Church relied on the oral teaching of the apostles and their successors.

Even after the books comprising the New Testament were written, it would take centuries of prayerful study in the Church to discern which books were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing in the 27 books of the New Testament telling us which books are inspired and which are not. It was left for the "Church of, the Living God, which is the pillar and foundation of truth," to recognize which books represent the authentic teaching of the apostles.

There are some passages which are used by our separated brethren to "prove" the case of Scripture alone, and attack Tradition.

First, they cite from St. Paul's Second Letter to Timothy; "But you, remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it, and that from infancy you have known (the) sacred scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

"All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, well equipped for every good work" (3:14-17).

This is no proof because, first of all, Paul tells Timothy to remain faithful to what he learned and believed - an obvious reference to his mother, Lois, grandmother, Eunice, and all who taught him the Scriptures, including Paul.

Second, the Scriptures for a Greek speaking Jew were the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament.

Finally, St. Paul does not list the books that comprise Scripture. He does say that all Scripture is inspired and useful, so that he who belongs to God will be fully equipped and made complete for every good work. He does not say "Scripture alone," and those who read that into the text are doing so based on their own tradition.

Then there are the Beroeans mentioned in Acts 17:10-11. The Beroeans checked the Scriptures to see if Paul and Silas spoke correctly regarding Jesus' messianic details. They checked the Old Testament, and again, that was probably the Septuagint. Perhaps they were swayed by the passage in Wisdom 2:12-24 foretelling the passion of our Lord. Like Tradition, what St. Paul told the Beroeans did not contradict Scripture, but was in accord with it.

The other passage usually cited is 2 Peter 3:15-16: "As our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, also wrote to you, speaking of these things as he does in all his letters. In them there are some things hard to understand, that the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures."

There is a reference to "all his letters" and, later, in verse 16, St. Peter seems to give them the same status as Scripture, with the phrase "as they do the other scriptures." That doesn't tell us how many letters Paul wrote, or even which ones they are. It is Tradition to consider the 14 epistles we have as inspired.

Aside from Tradition, there is no proof that St. Peter actually wrote two epistles. We simply don't have the originals, so we are relying on the traditionally accepted authorship of St. Peter. Yes, it begins with the phrase, "Simon Peter, the servant and apostle of Jesus Christ," but that phrase alone does not prove apostolic authorship. So when someone says that he accepts the Pauline epistles on the same basis as St. Peter, it is obvious he is relying on Tradition, as St. Peter's second epistle does not give explicit reasons for their acceptance, does not limit Scripture to the Pauline epistles, and does not tell us the epistles considered inspired by the Prince of the Apostles.

While there is the warning about the ignorant and unstable twisting Scripture to their own destruction, we should at least be grateful that St. Peter's authority to discern Scripture, as revealed to him by the Holy Spirit, is recognized.

Another extremely weak argument in favor of sola scriptura involves 2 Timothy 4:13. Here, St. Paul instructs Timothy to bring him his cloak, papyrus rolls and parchments. Some have said the New Testament was sewn into the cloak. That, however, is pure speculation, to put it charitably. It still doesn't tell us what comprises the New Testament.

In reading through the Pauline epistles, one finds that St. Paul repeatedly exhorts the preaching and safeguarding of what he taught. St. Paul writes that Timothy should "command and teach these things" (1 Tm 4:11) and guard what has been entrusted to him (see 1 Tm 6:20). He writes us to "hold fast to the true message which has been taught" (Ti 1:9), and "say what is consistent with sound doctrine" (Ti 2:1). Nowhere do we see the phrase "Scripture alone" used by St. Paul; nor does he tell Timothy to write everything down, or even that he himself has written everything down that is important.

Our Lord himself said, "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Mt 4:4).

St. Paul was very explicit in telling the Thessalonians to hold fast to the traditions they had received from him, whether written or oral, and in telling Timothy that he was to guard the truth entrusted to him by the Holy Spirit, to be strong in the Grace of Christ and to entrust to faithful men what he, Timothy, had heard him, Paul, preach so that they would be able to teach others also. This is what the Church holds, what the Church believes, what she teaches.

By: Luis S. Nunez
Published in the July/August '96 issue of The Catholic Answer
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