Should Catholic tradition have equal or greater authority than the Bible?
Question: "Should Catholic tradition have equal or greater authority than the Bible?"
Answer: Should church traditions be accepted as equally authoritative as Scripture? Or, should church traditions be followed only if they are in full agreement with Scripture? The answer to these questions plays a large role in determining what you believe and how you live as a Christian. It is our contention that Scripture alone is the only authoritative and infallible source for Christian doctrine and practice. Traditions are only valid if they are built on the firm foundation of Scripture and in full agreement with the entirety of Scripture. The following are seven biblical reasons supporting the teaching that the Bible should be accepted as the authority for faith and practice:
(1) It is Scripture that is said to be God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16), and it is Scripture that has the repeated, “Thus saith the LORD...” In other words, it is the written Word that is repeatedly treated as God’s Word. Never is it said of any church tradition that it, too, is God-breathed and infallible.
(2) It is to Scripture that Jesus and the apostles appeal time after time in support or defense of their actions and teachings (Matthew 12:3, 5; 19:4; 22:31; Mark 12:10). There are over 60 verses in which you find “it is written...” used by Jesus and the apostles to support their teachings.
(3) It is to the Scriptures that the church is commended in order to combat the error that was bound to come (Acts 20:32). Likewise, it was the written Word that was seen in the Old Testament as the source of truth upon which to base one’s life (Joshua 1:8; Deuteronomy 17:18-19; Psalm 1; Psalm 19:7-11; 119; etc.). Jesus said that one of the reasons that the Sadducees were in error concerning the resurrection is that they did not know the Scriptures (Mark 12:24).
(4) Infallibility is never stated as the possession of those who would become church leaders in succession of the apostles. In both the Old and New Testaments, it is seen that duly appointed religious leaders could cause the people of God to err (1 Samuel 2:27-36; Matthew 15:14; 23:1-7; John 7:48; Acts 20:30; Galatians 2:11-16). Both Testaments exhort people to study the Scriptures to determine what is true and what is false (Psalm 19; 119; Isaiah 8:20; 2 Timothy 2:15; 3:16-17). While Jesus taught respect toward religious leaders (Matthew 23:3), an admonition which the apostles followed, we have the apostles’ example of breaking from the authority of their religious leaders when it was in opposition to what Jesus had commanded (Acts 4:19).
(5) Jesus equates the Scriptures with God’s Word (John 10:35). In contrast, when it comes to the religious traditions, He condemns some traditions because they contradict the written Word (Mark 7:1-13). Never does Jesus use religious tradition to support His actions or teachings. Before the writing of the New Testament, the Old Testament was the only inspired Scripture. However, there were literally hundreds of Jewish “traditions” recorded in the Talmud (a collection of commentary compiled by Jewish rabbis). Jesus and the apostles had both the Old Testament, and the Jewish tradition. Nowhere in Scripture does Jesus or any of the apostles appeal to the Jewish traditions. In contrast, Jesus and the apostles quote from or allude to the Old Testament hundreds of times. The Pharisees accused Jesus and the apostles of “breaking the traditions” (Matthew 15:2). Jesus responded with a rebuke: “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3). The manner in which Jesus and the apostles distinguished between the Scriptures and tradition is an example for the church. Jesus specifically rebukes treating the “commandments of men” as doctrines (Matthew 15:9).
(6) It is Scripture that has the promise that it will never fail, that it will all be fulfilled. Again, never is this promise given to the traditions of the church (Psalm 119:89,152; Isaiah 40:8; Matthew 5:18; Luke 21:33).
(7) It is the Scriptures that are the instrument of the Holy Spirit and His means for conquering Satan and changing lives (Hebrews 4:12; Ephesians 6:17).
"And that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:15-17). "To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" (Isaiah 8:20).
According to 2 Timothy 3:15-17, it is Scripture that is able to give one knowledge of salvation, it is God-breathed, and it is what we need to be thoroughly equipped for every good work. To be “thoroughly” equipped, means that it has all that we need. Scripture contains the information from God that is all we need for salvation and to live a life of good works. According to Isaiah 8:20, it is the “law and testimony” (terms used to refer to Scripture, see Psalm 119) that is the standard by which to measure truth.
"Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so" (Acts 17:10-11). Here the Jewish people of the town of Berea were commended for testing the teachings they were hearing from Paul by the Scriptures. They did not just accept Paul’s words as authoritative. They examined Paul’s words, compared them with Scripture, and found them to be true.
In Acts 20:27-32, Paul acknowledges publicly that “wolves” and false teachers would arise from “among yourselves” (within the church). What did he commend them to? To “God and the word of His grace.” He does not commend them to the “church leaders” (they were the church leaders) nor to the traditions of the church nor to a particular overseeing elder. Rather, Paul pointed them to the Word of God.
In summary, while there is no one verse that states that the Bible alone is our authority, the Bible over and over again gives the examples and the admonitions of turning to the written Word as one’s source of authority. When it comes to examining the origin of a prophet’s or religious leader’s teaching, it is Scripture that is appealed to as the standard.
The Roman Catholic Church uses a number of biblical passages to support their use of tradition as of equal weight with Scripture. Here are the most commonly used of these passages, along with a brief explanation:
"Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle" (2 Thessalonians 2:15). "But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us" (2 Thessalonians 3:6). These passages relate to the traditions the Thessalonians had received from Paul himself, whether oral or written. They do not relate to traditions handed down, but to teachings that they themselves had received either from the mouth of Paul or from his pen. Paul is not giving his blessing on all tradition, but, rather, only on the traditions he had passed on to the Thessalonians. This is in contrast to the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, which have been handed down from the fourth century and later, not from the mouth or pen of one of the apostles.
"These things I write to you, though I hope to come to you shortly; but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:14-15). The phrase "pillar and ground of the truth" does not indicate that the church is the creator of truth, or that it can originate tradition to supplement Scripture. The church being the “pillar and ground of the truth” simply means that the church is the proclaimer and defender of the truth. The New Testament praises churches for proclaiming the truth, "for from you the word of the Lord has been spread abroad" (1 Thessalonians 1:8). The New Testament commends early Christians for defending the truth, "partakers with me...in the defense and confirmation of the gospel" (Philippians 1:7). There is not a single verse in all of Scriptures which indicates that the church has the authority to develop new truth, or to decree new truth as being from the mouth of God.
"But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you" (John 14:26). This was a promise given to the apostles alone. The Holy Spirit would help the apostles to remember everything that Jesus had said to them. Nowhere does this Scripture state that there would be an apostolic line of successors, and that the promise would also be for them.
"And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:18-19). These verses are used by the Roman Catholic Church to support their teaching that Peter was the first pope, and that the church was built upon him. But when taken in context with what takes place in the Book of Acts, you find that Peter was the one who opened up the gospel to the world in the sense that it was he who first preached the gospel of Christ on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). It was he who first preached the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10). So, the binding and loosing was done through the preaching of the gospel, not through any Roman Catholic tradition.
While it is clearly evident that Scripture argues for its own authority, Scripture nowhere argues for “authoritative tradition equal with Scripture.” In fact, the New Testament has more to say against traditions that it does in favor of tradition.
The Roman Catholic Church argues that Scripture was given to men by the Church and therefore the Church has equal or greater authority to it. However, even among the Roman Catholic Church’s writings (from the First Vatican Council), you will find the acknowledgment that the Church councils that determined which books were to be considered the Word of God did nothing but recognize what the Holy Spirit had already made evident. That is, the Church did not “give” Scriptures to men, but simply “recognized” what God, through the Holy Spirit, had already given. As A. A. Hodge states, when a peasant recognizes a prince and is able to call him by name, it does not give him the right to rule over the kingdom. In like fashion, a church council recognizing which books were God-breathed and possessed the traits of a God-inspired book, does not give the church council equal authority with those books.
In summary, one cannot find a single passage that states that “the written Word alone, and not tradition also, is our sole authority for faith and practice.” At the same time, what must also be admitted is that repeatedly, the Old Testament writers, Jesus, and the apostles turn to the Scriptures as their measuring stick, and commend the same to any and all that would follow them.
Recommended Resources: The Gospel According to Rome: Comparing Catholic Tradition and The Word of God by James McCarthy and Logos Bible Software.
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