Tuesday, February 15, 2011

To the Law and to the Testimony

All too often we speak of Scripture and Tradition as if two sources exist for knowing right doctrine. In fact, however, one source exists, and that source is revelation. The Church believes what God has revealed through the Apostles and Prophets, and everything essential in that revelation was recorded in Scripture (Eph. 3:1-5). Therefore, holy Tradition does not teach doctrines that are extra-Biblical. Rather, it teaches correct interpretation. As other essays on this blog have stated, even doctrines long assumed by many to be extra-Biblical are taught in Scripture, whether by explanation or by example. Among these are, for example, the Apostolic Succession.

When we say Tradition (with a big "T") we mean something that predates many of our established practices. Some things we practice by custom, such as the use of vestments and colors. Some of these are very useful, such as the Church calendar, because by practicing them we keep always before us the essential truth taught by revelation (and therefore in the Scriptures). These things ought to be practiced because the Church has inherited them from the authoritative source of saints who have gone before. As Richard Hooker taught:

“Is it a small office to despise the Church of God? ‘My son, keep thy father’s commandment,’ saith Solomon, ‘and forget not thy mother’s instruction: Bind them both always about thine heart.’ It doth not stand with the duty we owe to our heavenly Father, that to the ordinances of our mother the Church we should show ourselves disobedient. Let us not say we keep the commandments of the one, when we break the law of the other: for unless we observe both we obey neither.”1

If our attitude is one of humility and obedience, we cannot dismiss the customs handed down to us by the Church--as if we could afford to assume that the Holy Spirit has at any time departed from the Church, an idea that cannot be supported by any genuine theological principle.

Nonetheless, about such matters as our liturgy (or, to employ Dix's words, The Shape of the Liturgy) , our Holy Days, and other matters that have proved beneficial over several centuries of use, let us employ the correct phrase. These things have come to us by way of the Church's exercise of Right Reason. Indeed, though modern people too often speak of a thing called Reason to mean mere experience or common sense reserved to the preference of individuals, the Right Reason we bow to is that of the Church, the wisdom given, as Scripture teaches, by God for our good. This Right Reason has been with the Church in every generation, granted in Christ by the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 1: 30, 31; 2:16) , and inherited by us.

Therefore, we keep the laws of our mother, the Church, so as not to disobey God, our Father. For example, Christ commanded us to "do this in remembrance of Me." The Church has given us a rule and practice by which we carry out the commandment of Christ, and not without the Holy Spirit Who is always present. In small ways we have variation and even some difference in custom; but, the way that we carry out Christ's commandment is well established. Nonetheless, the source for knowing what Christ has commanded is Scripture, words from His own mouth as heard by Apostles, revealed by Him and received by us.

Every doctrine that can rightly be called doctrine was, therefore, revealed to the Church through the Apostles of the New Testament, and before them through the Prophets of the Old Testament. Isaiah the Prophet said, "To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them (Isaiah 8:20)." The Law and the Testimony constitute the record of Scripture. Either it is the Law, that is, God's spoken word; or, it is the Testimony, the retelling of what eyewitnesses proclaimed who saw God's mighty works (chief of which is Christ alive again after He had died, with the marks of His wounds still visible in His resurrected body). So, if men teach some other thing, it is not from light, but from darkness.

What we call the Tradition, therefore, is doctrinal. It is the revelation of God's holy word for all people for all time. It must not be separated from Scripture. If we separate doctrine from Scripture we are left with the error of Newman's Doctrinal Development, shaky ground at best, subject to "progressive revelation" so-called, and mere theories elevated to the level of revelation, yet having no revealed word from God as their source. These can include many serious errors. If, on the other hand, we separate doctrine from Tradition, we can make the Bible mean anything we want it to mean; we can teach any deadly error as long as we quote some words from the Bible with enough skill to deceive the unlearned or partially educated.

Therefore, we need to teach the doctrine revealed in Scripture as received in the Tradition, for this is the word of God our Father. And, we ought to keep the ordinances and customs of the Church, our mother, in her collective wisdom from ages past.
* * *
1. Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book 3.IX.3.


RSC+ said...

Fr. Hart,

Perhaps you may be able to answer a question for me that's interested me for a while now. In Judaism, there's the Torah, Nevi'im, and Ketuvim, which comprise the Hebrew Bible. There's also the Talmud, which isn't the Bible, but interprets the Bible in a way that is normative for Judaism. It is, effectively, Tradition.

How closely do TNK and Talmud mirror our own understanding of Scripture and Tradition?


(Veriword: baccons!)

Fr. Robert Hart said...

TNK? The Tenach (Old Testament) I assume? Anyway, I don't consider there to be much of a mirror. The Talmud is man made rules on top of the 613 commandments, which were quite enough as it was.

Anonymous said...


It may be helpful to compare the two rather different ways the word "paradosis" is used in the NT.
In Matt 15 (parallel in Mark 7) we find a polemic, much loved by some Protestants, against the "tradition of the elders," which is summed up by Our Lord quoting Isaiah 29:13 and declaring "You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men." This "tradition of men" is what was (after the Fall of Jerusalem) compiled as the Talmud. It was the object of Our Lord's stern denunciation in Matt 5:17--48 ("You have heard it said ... but I say ..."). Paul alludes to this in Gal 1:14 and possibly in Col 2:8 (although there he seems to have hellenistic philosophy in view).

OTOH, we find in 1 Cor 11:2, 2 Thess 2:15 and 3:6 another, quite different, sort of tradition. This is the "tradition you received from us," or "traditions you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by letter" or "traditions even as I delivered them to you." Also important is the verb form, paradidwmi, "to tradition," that is, "to hand over" especially in 1 Cor 11:23 and 15:3.

The NIV shows its Protestant bias by rendering the same word, paradosis, as "tradition" when used negatively but when used positively, as "teaching."
Go figure.

So the bottom line is that analogizing Talmudic tradition with Christian tradition is, in a word, disastrous.

Tradition does not interpret the Bible; the Bible interprets, regulates, and is the normative form of tradition. Tradition ungoverned by Scripture is surely a dangerous thing. Matt 15 could not be more clear.

Anonymous said...

I was the writer of the above unsigned comment. Permit me to add: whereas in Judaism tradition almost smothered and annulled Biblical revelation, in the NT mediates and contemporizes the Biblical revelation, to which it is always subordinate.

welshmann said...

To all:

Fr. Hart's comments are well-taken. Throughout the NT, the Lord makes a point of flouting man-made customs that had clouded the original intent of Scripture. Still, He recognized that the scribes sat "in Moses seat" (Matt 23:1-3). Maybe the Lord saw more substance in the Talmud than we currently recognize.


Anonymous said...

To Welshmann:

"Mose's seat" may have been an actual chair like those used in later synagogues, according to my study bible. It may also have been symbolic of the teaching authority which the Pharisees preached while failing to practice the "weightier matters of the law" as noted by Jesus in Matt: 23:23. Those matters were justice, mercy, and faith, the foundations of the Mosaic Law, one of which Jesus alluded to also in Matt 9:13 when He said to the Pharisees, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice."

Therefore I do not agree that He saw more substance in the Talmud but rather He recognized a body of sacrificial and purity regulations that did not fulfill Israel's original duty to be, as noted in my study bible, "a physician of the nations."


Stretch Marks said...

It is the revelation of God's holy word for all people for all time. It must not be separated from Scripture. These can include many serious errors.