Church tradition: Is it God's revelation to us or only the result of human interpretation and custom?
Sacred tradition is a term used frequently in Catholic teaching. But its specific meaning is often misunderstood or misapplied by many people today, both Catholic and non-Catholic alike. To the modern mind, the word suggests an accumulation of inherited customs and lore. I think of the song 'Tradition" sung by Tevye in the movie 'Fiddler on the Roof." For him and all the people of his village, tradition meant a rich heritage of gender roles, social duties, patterns of work and rubrics for worship.
I also remember reading about rabbinic Judaism in which tradition is embodied in the voluminous record of the ancient rabbis' interpretation of the Torah in the Old Testament, transmitted orally for generations before being set down in writing.
But Sacred Tradition in the Church is not simply the interpretation of the works of the Bible by teachers and theologians and it is not the accumulation of human behavior patterns that have developed over the centuries. It is more than all these things.
Catholic Tradition is divine salvation
transmitted through the ages
Tradition with a capital 'T" is divine revelation in its transmission through time. It is one of the two distinct modes of the transmission of the gospel of Jesus Christ "“ Scripture being the other mode. Both Scripture and Tradition, according to the Second Vatican Council, 'flow from the same divine wellspring, come together in some fashion to form one thing and move towards the same goal"(Dei Verbum 9). It is worth noting a later paragraph in Dei Verbum 9:
'Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while Scared Tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore, both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence."
We have to remember that Tradition is the teaching of the Apostles that preceded and prompted the writing of the New Testament books. For decades before Christians possessed any written gospels, they received the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The early Christian communities were celebrating liturgy (especially the 'breaking of the bread," the Eucharist) and passing on the teaching of the Apostles before the four gospels and other writings were gathered together in one canon (authentic list of books) of the New Testament at the Synods of Hippo (393 A.D.) and Carthage (397 and 419 A.D.).
St. Paul on Scripture and Tradition
St. Paul did not explicitly make a distinction between Scripture and Tradition. However he did write about both in distinct ways, as a dual source of authority in the Church. In his second letter to the Thessalonians (2:15) he writes: 'Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter." This letter of Paul to the Thessalonians later became part of the New Testament canon of inspired writings.
Earlier in his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote about the passing on of the liturgy. Even though he was not present at the Last Supper, he writes that he received his teaching from the congregations founded by the apostles; they, in turn, had received this teaching directly from Jesus the Lord: 'For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you" (1 Cor. 11:23). The Greek words Paul uses, translated as 'received" and 'handed on," are the same words the rabbis of his day used to describe the keeping and teaching of sacred traditions in Judaism.
John Paul II on Tradition in the Church
In our own age, Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter on the Eastern Churches, Orientale Lumen, presented us with a meditation on sacred tradition. He maintained that the Church's devotion to tradition is not the result of 'nostalgia for things or forms past." Rather it is 'the living memory of the Bride, kept eternally youthful by the Love that dwells within her" (#8). Tradition, then, is a living memory (anamnesis) kept alive by the living One in our midst, Jesus Christ.
Let me conclude this article on Sacred Tradition in the Church with other words of Pope John Paul II taken from the same section (#8) in Orientale Lumen: 'Tradition is a living memory of the Risen One met and witnessed to by the Apostles who passed on his living memory to their successors in an uninterrupted line, guaranteed by the apostolic succession through the laying on of hands, down to bishops of today . . . It is not an unchanging repetition of formulas, but a heritage which preserves its original, living kerygmatic core [the beliefs and practices of the apostles and their successors that were eventually committed to writing, and later canonized as the New Testament]."
The reason we have a living tradition in the Church is because our Teacher is the Risen One who continues to be present to us through word and sacrament, especially the Eucharist. At the core of our faith experience in the Church is the living Christ. Where Jesus is, there is the Church. Jesus continues to reveal himself to us in the midst of the Church through Scripture and Tradition. These are the two distinct modes by which the Gospel of Jesus Christ continues to be transmitted to us, from the beginning of the Church to the present day.