***Disclaimer: Yes, I have used the following analogy in a previous post’s introduction…but here it is in a different light.

Matthew 16:18-19

It was the second week of the first grade. My peers and I settled into our seats, and our Teacher, Mrs. Kahlil, began to etch strange glyphic symbols onto the chalkboard. I had remembered seeing these symbols elsewhere, like on the television and in the newspaper funnies, but I still had difficulty making them out. Once she had finished her transcription, Mrs. Kahlil began to sing in a paced yet rhythmic way, “A-B-C-D, E-F-G, H-I-J-K, LMNOP.” In accordance with this song’s memorization, through the fashion Mrs. Kahlil introduced to us that second week, my class soon learned the entire English alphabet and were then able to apply it on our route towards literacy. Upon reflection of this childhood experience, I am given an illustration of how to define the proper relationship between Scripture and “tradition”.

Across the Christian board, our understanding of the proper relationship between Scripture and tradition varies. The Evangelical understanding, as expressed in various denominations, is in strict priority. To most, the broadest understanding of this priority is Scripture first, tradition third–following reason and preceding experience. All things considered, I would partially concur with this understanding. I disagree however, with how “tradition” is defined in most anti-Catholic Christian circles.

First and foremost, we define scripture. To employ the Catholic perspective, I will mostly use the Catechism of the Catholic Church. To employ the Evangelical Protestant perspective, I will use my own experiences in such institutions and some popular Protestant sources. Catholics and Evangelicals would agree that, “all branches of the orthodox Christian faith affirm the story of salvation centering on Christ; the authority of the Bible as God’s written word…the necessity of salvation; and the call to mission” (Stackhouse, 42). Still, what the “Bible as God’s written word” subsists of; there is no affirmation by “all branches of the orthodox Christian faith”. McGrath, a Protestant Evangelical scholar, seeks to define what the books of Scripture are. He claims, as most Protestants do, that there are 66 books of the Bible (McGrath, 160). While Catholics believe that there are 73 (with 7 not found in the Hebrew Bible and Protestant Old Testament, but are found in the Catholic Old Testament) (CCC, 40). This definitive point, differs epistemologically in terms of historical basis.

McGrath says, “A comparison of the contents of the Old Testament in the Hebrew Bible on the one hand, and the Greek and Latin versions (such as the Septuagint or Vulgate) on the other, shows that the latter contain a number of works not found in the former,” he then goes further saying, “Following the lead of Jerome, the sixteenth-century reformers argue that the only Old Testament writings which could be regarded as belonging to the canon of Scripture were those originally included in the Hebrew Bible” (McGrath, 160). At what point, however, did this “original” canon come into existence and at what point did it close? Historically, there is no official origin or close of the Hebrew canon and I think that most scholars would have consensus on this. The closest we can come to a close of any kind is in the Pharisaic Council of Jamnia.

According to J. N. D. Kelley, a popular Protestant specialist on the Patristic era, the Council of Jamnia was the first documented Sanhedrin council that had an obvious issue with the extra books of the Greek Septuagint (Kelley, 54). This council was held 30 years after the destruction of the second temple and it met to resolve Jewish law predicated on the existence of a temple in Jerusalem, and to reinforce the remnant of whatever Pharisaic leadership was left in Israel at the time (Kelley, 54). The ultimate end of this council, led to a reformulation of the so-called “Hebrew” canon, reaffirmed by Jews and Protestant Christians today as inspired. This is where problems arise. The Council of Jamnia issued its edicts of canon alongside its rejection of God’s Messiah, Jesus. Therefore, covenantally, the non-believing Jewish leaders presiding over the council were in a state of infidelity. This presents a problem especially because while this council had rejected the deutero-canon’s canonicity, the early Church fathers did not. This is a crucial obstacle that most Protestants have to reconcile: that they are ultimately siding with those who sided against the Patristic and Apostolic Christian Church. Kelley says further,

It should be observed that the Old Testament thus admitted as authoritative in the Church was somewhat bulkier and more comprehensive than the [Protestant Old Testament]…It always included, though with varying degrees of recognition, the so-called Apocrypha or deutero-canonical books. The reason for this is that the Old Testament, which passed in the first instance into the hands of the Christians was…the Greek translation known as the Septuagint…most of the Scriptural quotations found in the New Testaments are based upon it rather than the Hebrew…In the first two centuries…the Church seems to have accepted all, or most of, these additional books as inspired and to have treated them without question as Scripture. Quotations from Wisdom, for example, occur in 1 Clement and Barnabas…Polycarp cites Tobit, and the Didache: Ecclesiasticus. Iranaeus refers to Wisdom, The History of Susannah, Bell and the Dragon, and Baruch. The use made of the Apocrypha by Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyprian and Clement of Alexandria is too frequent for detailed references to be necessary. (Kelley, 53)

Most Protestant Evangelicals seem to believe that the deutero-canon (the seven extra books of the Catholic Old Testament) was “added” to the canon of Sacred Scripture at the Catholic Council of Trent in the 16th century. This presumption is false. The councils of Rome, Hippo, and Carthage, which all occurred in the last 20 years of the 4th century, canonized all 73 books of the Catholic Bible (Denzinger). It was the Council of Trent that had to reaffirm the 73-book canon to define it against the Protestant Reformation, which rejected it (CCC, 40). Furthermore, the Jewish leaders at Jamnia also rejected the deutero-canon because its books did not exist in the original Hebrew language. Yet, since the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls at Qumran, we now know that each of the seven books had Hebrew originals. With this more comprehensive definition of what Sacred Scripture subsists of, and what it has subsisted of historically, let us turn back to tradition.

Again, ecumenically, bad definitions and bad epistemology often lead to a dividing line. To Evangelicals, tradition is every interpretive, hermeneutical, and ritualized application of the word of God revealed in His Son that has been grasped for the entire two millennia of the Church’s existence. In this case, tradition should obviously be in strict secondary or tertiary priority to Sacred Scripture. Yet, there have always been two ways of using the word “tradition” in orthodox Christianity.

One of the uses of “tradition” has been previously defined. This form is the “little-t” tradition. In the Catholic Church, the “little-t” tradition is different from what I call the  “big-t” tradition, that is, Sacred Tradition. As written in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “[Sacred] Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great [Sacred] Tradition is expressed. In light of [Sacred] Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified, or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium” (CCC, 32). Sacred Tradition, which is in question here, comes from “the apostles and… what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generations of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living [Sacred] Tradition” (CCC, 31). Sacred Tradition is the “spoken word of the apostles’ preaching,” handed down in ordained succession (CCC, 30). Sacred Tradition is the “example they gave, by the institutions they established” (CCC, 30). Sacred Tradition is finally, “what they [the apostles] had received—whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit” (CCC, 30). In regards to “big-t” tradition, or rather Sacred Tradition, the Catholic Church teaches she “does not derive…certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and [Sacred] Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence,” because they both flow from the same “divine wellspring, [and] come together in some fashion to form one thing and move towards the same goal” (CCC, 31).

Going back to that second week of first grade, the analogy I would like to present can be adapted like so: Mrs. Kahlil was the divine wellspring of revelation. What she transcribed on the chalkboard was her inspired written word. What she handed down to us in the form of a song was the Sacred Tradition we second grade disciples used to utilize and relay her written word. What ultimately came out of coupling the two was literacy, or in this case, academic salvation.

Concluding, most if not all Protestant Christian circles profess what is called sola scriptura, that is, scripture alone is the only infallible teaching authority for the Church. Yet, in this doctrine we find two gaping holes. First, scripture was dependent on Catholic councils practicing Sacred Tradition to receive its canonization. This is because Christ gave us an infallible and indestructible Church that can bind and loose (Matthew 16:18-19, 1 Timothy 3:15), which while acting in extension of Christ’s gift, gave us the entire scriptures in the 4th century. In other words, Christ, the living Word of God, did not leave us the written Word of God. Christ left us an infallible Church, which then gave us our infallible scriptures. The latter did not replace the former, it enhanced it. Second, the Protestant Bible is lacking seven books. So what is professed as the primary ecclesial authority for Protestant Christianity is not only lacking an infallible interpretive authority (i.e. the Church; 1 Timothy 3:15), it is lacking almost 10 percent of its inspired resources.


Church, Catholic. Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) with modifications from the editio typica. New York: Doubleday, 1997. Print.

Denzinger, Henricus. Enchiridion Symbolorum —Definitionum et Declarationum de Rebus Fidei et Morum, n. 179. 33rd edition. 1965, Verlag Herder KG, Freiburg.

Grenz, Stanley J. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Broadman & Holman, 2000. Print.

Kelly, J. N. D. Early Christian Doctrines. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978. Print.

McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology, An Introduction. 3rd ed. Oxford, Connecticut: Blackwell, 2001. Print.

Stackhouse, Jr., John G. Evangelical Futures, A Conversation on Theological Method. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000. Print.