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Scripture Is Tradition
Envoy Magazine ^ | Jeff Cavins

Posted on 07/31/2007 3:03:08 PM PDT by Titanites

"Hold fast to the traditions you received"
(2 Thess. 2:15).

Why do you Catholics add all those traditions to the Bible? Jesus told the Pharisees, "You nullify the word of God in favor of your traditions that you have handed on" (Mark 7:13). This is a typical question posed to Catholics by Protestants. When a Protestant objects to a Catholic teaching, such as purgatory, the Eucharist, or infant baptism, the typical question he asks the Catholic is, "Where is that taught in the Bible?"

Tragically, many Catholics leave the Church as a result of questions like these from well meaning but misguided "Bible Christians." These questions presuppose that the scope of divinely revealed, infallible truth is confined to Scripture alone. Usually without realizing it, Protestants, who hold this presupposition, are basing their arguments against particular Catholic teaching on three untenable presuppositions: "The Bible alone is the means of divine revelation"; "The Bible alone tradition is the way the Church has received revelation from the beginning"; and "The individual Christian, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the authoritative interpreter of the Bible."

In discussions with Protestants, if the Catholic allows these erroneous presuppositions to go uncorrected, he will not be very successful in explaining his positions and, as often happens, he may well end up adopting those presuppositions as his own.

Perhaps the greatest difference between Catholics and Protestants is in the way that the two groups view the means of receiving divine revelation. The typical Protestant view is that the only reliable, infallible source of divine revelation is the Scripture. This tradition of relying on the Scripture as the sole means of receiving Gods revelation is fairly recent, only being introduced in the 16th century by the Protestant Reformation.

Catholicism, on the other hand, is not a "religion of the book." Rather, it is the religion of the "Word" of God (CCC 108). The Catholic Church teaches that both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the Word of God (Dei Verbum 10). The gospel (the good news) of Jesus Christ is the source of all saving truth and moral discipline, and as such it must be conveyed to all generations. Therefore, Jesus commanded His apostles to preach the gospel.

In the apostolic preaching, the gospel was handed on in two ways. The first way was orally: "By the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received, whether from the lips of Christ, from His way of life and His works, or by . . . the prompting of the Holy Spirit." The second way was in writing "by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing" (CCC 76).

This means that Scripture itself is tradition and it is part of the greater category of Tradition (cf. 2 Thess. 2:15). Both means of transmitting the deposit of faith, Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, are bound closely together and communicate one with the other. They both flow from the same divine source, and share a common goal; to make present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ (CCC 80). I like the way Mark Shea put it in his recent book By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition. He describes the relationship between Scripture and Tradition as one, but not the same: "They were the hydrogen and oxygen that fused to form living water. They were the words and the tune of a single song. They were two sides of the same apostolic coin" (p. 120). The English word "tradition" comes from the Latin "tradere," meaning "to hand on." When the Church refers to Tradition she is speaking of the "handing down" of the sacred deposit of faith.

But one might wonder how the full deposit of faith could remain intact and free from the corruption of human error and tampering. This is a particularly important issue, since there was no formal New Testament to guide the Church until 393 A.D. Who would preserve and teach with authority the gospel as it spread into various cultures and continents? To safeguard the gospel, the apostles appointed bishops as their successors, giving them "their own position of teaching authority" (CCC 77). In the process of apostolic succession, we see the continuation of Jesus' delegated authority down through the ages. For it was Jesus who said to Peter, the first pope, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven" (Matt. 16:19). And to His apostles Jesus said, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples . . . teaching them to observe all that I command you" (Matt. 28:18-20) and "He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me" (Matt. 10:40).

This idea of a living, continuing authoritative presence did not begin with the Catholic Church. In the Old Testament we see an ongoing authority in the Mosaic priesthood, as well as the royal dynasty of David and the Sanhedrin established just prior to Jesus' birth.

Today, the bishops around the world in union with the bishop of Rome, the pope, constitute the teaching authority of the Church. This authoritative body is often referred to as the Magisterium. The Magisterium, Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are so closely "linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others" (DV 10). This is the living Tradition of the Church. This means that Tradition is the lived interpretation of Scripture and the preaching of Christ and the Apostles. In defining what apostolic Tradition is, we must first distinguish between social traditions, traditions of the Church and The Tradition. When the Church speaks of apostolic Tradition, she is not speaking of it in the sense that people traditionally open their gifts on Christmas Eve as opposed to Christmas day. Frankly, this is your own business and can be modified upon Grandmother's approval. Nor is apostolic Tradition the numerous theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions developed in the local churches over the years. These traditions, (often referred to as small "t" traditions) can be modified or entirely dropped under the guidance of the Magisterium. The apostolic Tradition, however, comes from the apostles as they received it from Jesus' teaching, from His example, and from what the Holy Spirit revealed to them. It is this apostolic Tradition that is referred to when the Church speaks of Scripture and Tradition making up the deposit of faith. This apostolic Tradition must be preserved and taught by the Church.

Jesus' criticism of the Scribes and Pharisees in Mark 7:13, "that you have invalidated the word of God by your tradition," is not a blanket condemnation of all tradition, but rather, a correction regarding a particular tradition of man (the Corban), a bad tradition that had circumvented a commandment in Scripture. According to this tradition, a son could declare that what he had intended to give his parents was considered "Corban" (ie. a gift devoted to God). Once a gift was considered "Corban" it could technically (though not actually) be no longer available for the care of his parents. Wouldn't you condemn a tradition like that? Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger points out that the "traditions were criticized in order that genuine tradition might be revealed" (Principles of Catholic Theology, p. 95). It comes as a big surprise to some that at no time in the history of the people of God was the concept of the "Word of God" bound only to the written page. From Adam and Eve to Moses (1400 BC), oral tradition was the only means of passing on the Word of God. And from Moses to the birth of the Catholic Church on the day of Pentecost, it was clearly understood by all in God's covenant family that the "Word of God" was made up of Tradition that was handed down both orally and in writing. St. Paul exhorted us to "stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours" (2 Thess. 2:15).

Cardinal Ratzinger explained that "Jesus did not present his message as something totally new, as the end of all that preceded it. He was and remained a Jew; that is, He linked His message to the tradition of believing Israel" (Ibid. 95). Receiving and handing on the Word of God in oral and written form is part of the ancient tradition of Israel.

Just weeks after the children of Israel were freed from Egypt, they settled for one year at the base of Mt. Sinai. It was there that Moses received the written Torah (the first five books in the Bible), and during the forty year period following the Exodus, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Moses put the Torah into writing.

The fact that God put His will into writing does not come as a surprise to most Christians, but what does cause surprise, particularly to Protestants, is the fact that the Jewish community of the Old Testament, as well as the people of Jesus' time, all recognized that God gave Israel an oral law (oral tradition) in addition to the written law.

Rabbi Hayim Donin in his book entitled To Be A Jew explains that "we believe that God's will was also made manifest in the Oral Tradition or Oral Torah which also had its source at Sinai, revealed to Moses and then orally taught by him to the religious heads of Israel. The Written Torah itself alludes to such oral instructions. This Oral Torah which clarifies and provides the details for many of the commandments contained in the Written Torah was transmitted from generation to generation until finally recorded in the second century to become the cornerstone upon which the Talmud was built" (p.24-25).

Jacob Neusner points out in his introduction to the Mishnah (the codified oral tradition of Judaism) that the oral Torah "bore the status of divine revelation right alongside the Pentateuch." The Jewish community, from which Christianity sprang, has always understood the Torah to be both written (Sefer Torah) and Oral (Torah She-Bal Peh). Along with the written Torah, the Oral Torah which Moses received at Sinai was "transmitted to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly . . ." (Ethics of the Fathers 1:1). In nearly identical fashion, the Catholic Church has continued in this tradition of the Word of God coming to His people in both written and oral form. It is fair to say that the new concept of God's Word coming only in the written form (Sola Scriptura) was a foreign idea to the Jews both in Moses and Jesus' day. The Catholic teaching that "Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God" (DV 10) is not some new, cleverly devised system, but is a continuation of that ancient stream our forefathers stood in. The very idea of the Word of God being both written and oral flows from our Jewish roots. It is part of the nourishing sap of the Olive Tree (Israel), and those who stand outside of this tradition stand on the shores of the still flowing ancient current.

Jeff Cavins is a contributing editor for Envoy. A convert to the Catholic Church from Protestantism. He hosts the popular television program "Life On the Rock" (EWTN).



TOPICS: Apologetics; Catholic; Orthodox Christian; Theology
KEYWORDS: scripture; tradition

1 posted on 07/31/2007 3:03:11 PM PDT by Titanites
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To: Titanites

So ... was it tradition or Scripture that caused you to post this article “centered”?


2 posted on 07/31/2007 3:04:30 PM PDT by r9etb
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To: Titanites

Apologies for the “centered” format.


3 posted on 07/31/2007 3:05:16 PM PDT by Titanites
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To: Titanites

I kind of like the centered format.
It looks important.


4 posted on 07/31/2007 3:06:51 PM PDT by netmilsmom (To attack one section of Christianity in this day and age, is to waste time.)
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To: NYer

ping!


5 posted on 07/31/2007 3:07:35 PM PDT by netmilsmom (To attack one section of Christianity in this day and age, is to waste time.)
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To: Titanites

"Hold fast to the traditions you received"
(2 Thess. 2:15).

Why do you Catholics add all those traditions to the Bible? Jesus told the Pharisees, "You nullify the word of God in favor of your traditions that you have handed on" (Mark 7:13). This is a typical question posed to Catholics by Protestants. When a Protestant objects to a Catholic teaching, such as purgatory, the Eucharist, or infant baptism, the typical question he asks the Catholic is, "Where is that taught in the Bible?"

Tragically, many Catholics leave the Church as a result of questions like these from well meaning but misguided "Bible Christians." These questions presuppose that the scope of divinely revealed, infallible truth is confined to Scripture alone. Usually without realizing it, Protestants, who hold this presupposition, are basing their arguments against particular Catholic teaching on three untenable presuppositions: "The Bible alone is the means of divine revelation"; "The Bible alone tradition is the way the Church has received revelation from the beginning"; and "The individual Christian, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the authoritative interpreter of the Bible."

In discussions with Protestants, if the Catholic allows these erroneous presuppositions to go uncorrected, he will not be very successful in explaining his positions and, as often happens, he may well end up adopting those presuppositions as his own.

Perhaps the greatest difference between Catholics and Protestants is in the way that the two groups view the means of receiving divine revelation. The typical Protestant view is that the only reliable, infallible source of divine revelation is the Scripture. This tradition of relying on the Scripture as the sole means of receiving Gods revelation is fairly recent, only being introduced in the 16th century by the Protestant Reformation.

Catholicism, on the other hand, is not a "religion of the book." Rather, it is the religion of the "Word" of God (CCC 108). The Catholic Church teaches that both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the Word of God (Dei Verbum 10). The gospel (the good news) of Jesus Christ is the source of all saving truth and moral discipline, and as such it must be conveyed to all generations. Therefore, Jesus commanded His apostles to preach the gospel.

In the apostolic preaching, the gospel was handed on in two ways. The first way was orally: "By the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received, whether from the lips of Christ, from His way of life and His works, or by . . . the prompting of the Holy Spirit." The second way was in writing "by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing" (CCC 76).

This means that Scripture itself is tradition and it is part of the greater category of Tradition (cf. 2 Thess. 2:15). Both means of transmitting the deposit of faith, Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, are bound closely together and communicate one with the other. They both flow from the same divine source, and share a common goal; to make present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ (CCC 80). I like the way Mark Shea put it in his recent book By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition. He describes the relationship between Scripture and Tradition as one, but not the same: "They were the hydrogen and oxygen that fused to form living water. They were the words and the tune of a single song. They were two sides of the same apostolic coin" (p. 120). The English word "tradition" comes from the Latin "tradere," meaning "to hand on." When the Church refers to Tradition she is speaking of the "handing down" of the sacred deposit of faith.

But one might wonder how the full deposit of faith could remain intact and free from the corruption of human error and tampering. This is a particularly important issue, since there was no formal New Testament to guide the Church until 393 A.D. Who would preserve and teach with authority the gospel as it spread into various cultures and continents? To safeguard the gospel, the apostles appointed bishops as their successors, giving them "their own position of teaching authority" (CCC 77). In the process of apostolic succession, we see the continuation of Jesus' delegated authority down through the ages. For it was Jesus who said to Peter, the first pope, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven" (Matt. 16:19). And to His apostles Jesus said, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples . . . teaching them to observe all that I command you" (Matt. 28:18-20) and "He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me" (Matt. 10:40).

This idea of a living, continuing authoritative presence did not begin with the Catholic Church. In the Old Testament we see an ongoing authority in the Mosaic priesthood, as well as the royal dynasty of David and the Sanhedrin established just prior to Jesus' birth.

Today, the bishops around the world in union with the bishop of Rome, the pope, constitute the teaching authority of the Church. This authoritative body is often referred to as the Magisterium. The Magisterium, Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are so closely "linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others" (DV 10). This is the living Tradition of the Church. This means that Tradition is the lived interpretation of Scripture and the preaching of Christ and the Apostles. In defining what apostolic Tradition is, we must first distinguish between social traditions, traditions of the Church and The Tradition. When the Church speaks of apostolic Tradition, she is not speaking of it in the sense that people traditionally open their gifts on Christmas Eve as opposed to Christmas day. Frankly, this is your own business and can be modified upon Grandmother's approval. Nor is apostolic Tradition the numerous theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions developed in the local churches over the years. These traditions, (often referred to as small "t" traditions) can be modified or entirely dropped under the guidance of the Magisterium. The apostolic Tradition, however, comes from the apostles as they received it from Jesus' teaching, from His example, and from what the Holy Spirit revealed to them. It is this apostolic Tradition that is referred to when the Church speaks of Scripture and Tradition making up the deposit of faith. This apostolic Tradition must be preserved and taught by the Church.

Jesus' criticism of the Scribes and Pharisees in Mark 7:13, "that you have invalidated the word of God by your tradition," is not a blanket condemnation of all tradition, but rather, a correction regarding a particular tradition of man (the Corban), a bad tradition that had circumvented a commandment in Scripture. According to this tradition, a son could declare that what he had intended to give his parents was considered "Corban" (ie. a gift devoted to God). Once a gift was considered "Corban" it could technically (though not actually) be no longer available for the care of his parents. Wouldn't you condemn a tradition like that? Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger points out that the "traditions were criticized in order that genuine tradition might be revealed" (Principles of Catholic Theology, p. 95). It comes as a big surprise to some that at no time in the history of the people of God was the concept of the "Word of God" bound only to the written page. From Adam and Eve to Moses (1400 BC), oral tradition was the only means of passing on the Word of God. And from Moses to the birth of the Catholic Church on the day of Pentecost, it was clearly understood by all in God's covenant family that the "Word of God" was made up of Tradition that was handed down both orally and in writing. St. Paul exhorted us to "stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours" (2 Thess. 2:15).

Cardinal Ratzinger explained that "Jesus did not present his message as something totally new, as the end of all that preceded it. He was and remained a Jew; that is, He linked His message to the tradition of believing Israel" (Ibid. 95). Receiving and handing on the Word of God in oral and written form is part of the ancient tradition of Israel.

Just weeks after the children of Israel were freed from Egypt, they settled for one year at the base of Mt. Sinai. It was there that Moses received the written Torah (the first five books in the Bible), and during the forty year period following the Exodus, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Moses put the Torah into writing.

The fact that God put His will into writing does not come as a surprise to most Christians, but what does cause surprise, particularly to Protestants, is the fact that the Jewish community of the Old Testament, as well as the people of Jesus' time, all recognized that God gave Israel an oral law (oral tradition) in addition to the written law.

Rabbi Hayim Donin in his book entitled To Be A Jew explains that "we believe that God's will was also made manifest in the Oral Tradition or Oral Torah which also had its source at Sinai, revealed to Moses and then orally taught by him to the religious heads of Israel. The Written Torah itself alludes to such oral instructions. This Oral Torah which clarifies and provides the details for many of the commandments contained in the Written Torah was transmitted from generation to generation until finally recorded in the second century to become the cornerstone upon which the Talmud was built" (p.24-25).

Jacob Neusner points out in his introduction to the Mishnah (the codified oral tradition of Judaism) that the oral Torah "bore the status of divine revelation right alongside the Pentateuch." The Jewish community, from which Christianity sprang, has always understood the Torah to be both written (Sefer Torah) and Oral (Torah She-Bal Peh). Along with the written Torah, the Oral Torah which Moses received at Sinai was "transmitted to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly . . ." (Ethics of the Fathers 1:1). In nearly identical fashion, the Catholic Church has continued in this tradition of the Word of God coming to His people in both written and oral form. It is fair to say that the new concept of God's Word coming only in the written form (Sola Scriptura) was a foreign idea to the Jews both in Moses and Jesus' day. The Catholic teaching that "Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God" (DV 10) is not some new, cleverly devised system, but is a continuation of that ancient stream our forefathers stood in. The very idea of the Word of God being both written and oral flows from our Jewish roots. It is part of the nourishing sap of the Olive Tree (Israel), and those who stand outside of this tradition stand on the shores of the still flowing ancient current.

Jeff Cavins is a contributing editor for Envoy. A convert to the Catholic Church from Protestantism. He hosts the popular television program "Life On the Rock" (EWTN).

6 posted on 07/31/2007 3:07:59 PM PDT by Titanites
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To: r9etb
So ... was it tradition or Scripture that caused you to post this article “centered”?

It was just my clumsy editing of the source code.

7 posted on 07/31/2007 3:09:48 PM PDT by Titanites
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To: Titanites
Link to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
8 posted on 07/31/2007 3:11:12 PM PDT by Titanites
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To: netmilsmom

Thanks for being charitable.


9 posted on 07/31/2007 3:14:48 PM PDT by Titanites
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To: Titanites

no problem at all. I like it!


10 posted on 07/31/2007 3:27:17 PM PDT by netmilsmom (To attack one section of Christianity in this day and age, is to waste time.)
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To: Titanites
When a Protestant objects to a Catholic teaching, such as ....infant baptism, the typical question he asks the Catholic is, "Where is that taught in the Bible?"

In the part where whole households are written about as being Baptized. There is no mention of the children being excluded.

11 posted on 07/31/2007 3:41:50 PM PDT by FormerLib (Sacrificing our land and our blood cannot buy protection from jihad.-Bishop Artemije of Kosovo)
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To: Titanites
When a Protestant objects to a Catholic teaching, such as...infant baptism, the typical question he asks the Catholic is, "Where is that taught in the Bible?"

Let me know when a Protestant, as opposed to a Evangelical/Baptist, objects to that.

12 posted on 07/31/2007 4:16:07 PM PDT by Alex Murphy (As heard on the Amish Radio Network! http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-religion/1675029/posts)
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To: r9etb

It is not “centered” format, it is indented at both the left and right margins.


13 posted on 07/31/2007 4:25:16 PM PDT by attiladhun2 (Islam is a despotism so vile that it would warm the heart of Orwell's Big Brother)
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To: Titanites; Lady In Blue; Salvation; narses; SMEDLEYBUTLER; redhead; Notwithstanding; ...
It comes as a big surprise to some that at no time in the history of the people of God was the concept of the "Word of God" bound only to the written page. From Adam and Eve to Moses (1400 BC), oral tradition was the only means of passing on the Word of God. And from Moses to the birth of the Catholic Church on the day of Pentecost, it was clearly understood by all in God's covenant family that the "Word of God" was made up of Tradition that was handed down both orally and in writing. St. Paul exhorted us to "stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours" (2 Thess. 2:15).

Excellent article! Thanks for the post.

14 posted on 07/31/2007 4:35:35 PM PDT by NYer ("Where the bishop is present, there is the Catholic Church" - Ignatius of Antioch)
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To: NYer

Very good. Very good. ;^)


15 posted on 07/31/2007 4:45:43 PM PDT by tioga
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To: Titanites

“He hosts the popular television program “Life On the Rock” (EWTN).”

Fr. Francis Mary Stone emcees “Life on the Rock”


16 posted on 07/31/2007 5:13:12 PM PDT by franky1
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To: franky1

Maybe the author was the previous host.


17 posted on 07/31/2007 5:14:40 PM PDT by Titanites
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To: Titanites
Apologies for the “centered” format.

I'm running Safari at 1024 and the centering gives it about a half an inch margin on the sides. Rather nice, actually.

18 posted on 07/31/2007 6:58:29 PM PDT by monkfan
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To: Titanites
Scriptural references here too!

Early Church Fathers on (Oral) Tradition - Catholic/Orthodox Caucus

19 posted on 07/31/2007 7:42:51 PM PDT by Salvation (†With God all things are possible.†)
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To: Titanites

I am a follower of Christ who believes the Bible to be the inspired written Word of God. For me, when I think of all the rules man has added to the written word, I remember when the early Christians were debating whether to follow Paul or Apollos, and even before, when the question of Paul’s conversion being from God was asked, one verse comes to mind.
James 1:27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Simply put, personally defined.


20 posted on 07/31/2007 8:27:17 PM PDT by huldah1776
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To: huldah1776
James 1:27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

That is one of my favorite verses of Scripture. Thanks for posting it. Another is:

    James 1:22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
I am a follower of Christ who believes the Bible to be the inspired written Word of God.

You'll find that the Catholic Church also believes the Bible to be the inspired written Word of God:

    CCC 135 "The Sacred Scriptures contain the Word of God and, because they are inspired, they are truly the Word of God".

21 posted on 07/31/2007 9:03:51 PM PDT by Titanites
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To: Salvation

Thanks for posting these excellent quotes from the early Church.


22 posted on 07/31/2007 9:04:55 PM PDT by Titanites
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To: Titanites
Why do you Catholics add all those traditions to the Bible? Jesus told the Pharisees, "You nullify the word of God in favor of your traditions that you have handed on" (Mark 7:13). This is a typical question posed to Catholics by Protestants.

Matthew 23:1-3

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.

Jesus upholds the teaching authority of the Pharisees! But he warns against their hypocrisy. I'm surprised that Jeff didn't mention this passage.

**************************************************************************

Chair of Moses: Refuting James White’s Claims of sola Scriptura in his book The Roman Catholic Controversy

Written by Dave Armstrong

Reformed Baptist apologist and expert on sola Scriptura, Dr. James White, offered a two-page response to the Catholic apologetic use of Matthew 23:1-3 and Moses’ seat. I shall quote the heart of his subtle but thoroughly fallacious argument:

“Some Roman Catholics present this passage as proof that a source of extrabiblical authority received the blessing of the Lord Jesus. It has been alleged that the concept of ‘Moses’ seat’ is in fact a refutation of sola scriptura, for not only is this concept not found in the Old Testament, but Jesus seemingly gives His approbation to this extrascriptural tradition . . .

“The ‘Moses’ seat’ refers to a seat in the front of the synagogue on which the teacher of the Law sat while reading from the Scriptures. Synagogue worship, of course, came into being long after Moses’ day, so those who attempt to make this an oral tradition going back to Moses are engaging in wishful thinking” (White, 100).

James White agrees that the notion is not found in the Old Testament but maintains that it cannot be traced back to Moses. That may be correct (though we are told that Moses took his seat or sat among the people to judge them in Exodus 18:13), yet the Catholic argument here does not rest on whether it literally can be traced historically to Moses, but on the fact that it is not found in the Old Testament. Thus, White from the outset concedes a fundamental point of the Catholic argument concerning authority and sola Scriptura.

White then cites Bible scholar Robert Gundry in agreement, to the effect that Jesus was binding Christians to the Pharisaical law, but not “their interpretative traditions.” This passage concerned only “the law itself” with the “antinomians” in mind. How Gundry arrives at such a conclusion remains to be seen. White’s query about the Catholic interpretation, “is this sound exegesis?” can just as easily be applied to Gundry’s fine-tuned distinctions which help him avoid any implication of a binding extrabiblical tradition. White continues:

There was nothing in the tradition of having someone read from the Scriptures while sitting on Moses’ seat that was in conflict with the Scriptures . . . It is quite proper to listen and obey the words of the one who reads from the Law or the Prophets, for one is not hearing a man speaking in such a situation, but is listening to the very words of God (White, 101).

This is true as far as it goes, but it is essentially a non sequitur and amounts to eisegesis of the passage (which is ironic, because now White plays the role of “a man speaking” and distorting “the very words of God”). Jesus said:

“’The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice’” (Mt 23:2-3).
First, it should be noted that nowhere in the actual text is the notion that the Pharisees are only reading the Old Testament Scripture when sitting on Moses’ seat. It’s an assumption gratuitously smuggled in from a presupposed position of sola Scriptura.

Secondly, White’s assumption that Jesus is referring literally to Pharisees sitting on a seat in the synagogue and reading (the Old Testament only) and that alone—is more forced and woodenly literalistic than the far more plausible interpretation that this was simply a term denoting received authority.

It reminds one of the old silly Protestant tale that the popes speak infallibly and ex cathedra (cathedra is the Greek word for seat in Matthew 23:2) only when sitting in a certain chair in the Vatican (because the phrase means literally, “from the bishop’s chair”; whereas it was a figurative and idiomatic usage).

Jesus says that they sat “on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you.” In other words: because they had the authority (based on the position of occupying Moses’ seat), therefore they were to be obeyed. It is like referring to a “chairman” of a company or committee. He occupies the “chair,” therefore he has authority. No one thinks he has the authority only when he sits in a certain chair reading the corporation charter or the Constitution or some other official document.

Yet this is how White would exclusively interpret Jesus’ words. The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, in its article, “Seat”, allows White’s reading as a secondary interpretation, but seems to regard the primary meaning of this term in the manner I have described:

References to seating in the Bible are almost all to such as a representation of honor and authority . . .

According to Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees occupy “Moses’ seat” (Matt. 23:2), having the authority and ability to interpret the law of Moses correctly; here “seat” is both a metaphor for judicial authority and also a reference to a literal stone seat in the front of many synagogues that would be occupied by an authoritative teacher of the law (Myers, 919-920).

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (article, “Seat”) takes the same position, commenting specifically on our verse:
It is used also of the exalted position occupied by men of marked rank or influence, either in good or evil (Mt 23:2; Ps 1:1) (Orr, IV, 2710).
White makes no mention of these considerations, but it is difficult to believe that he is not aware of them (since he is a Bible scholar well-acquainted with the nuances of biblical meanings). They don’t fit in very well with the case he is trying to make, so he omits them. But the reader is thereby left with an incomplete picture.

Thirdly, because they had the authority and no indication is given that Jesus thought they had it only when simply reading Scripture, it would follow that Christians were, therefore, bound to elements of Pharisaical teaching that were not only non-scriptural, but based on oral tradition, for this is what Pharisees believed. They fully accepted the binding authority of oral tradition (the Sadducees were the ones who were the Jewish sola scripturists and liberals of the time). The New Bible Dictionary describes their beliefs in this respect, in its article, “Pharisees”:

. . . the Torah was not merely ‘law’ but also ‘instruction’, i.e., it consisted not merely of fixed commandments but was adaptable to changing conditions . . . This adaptation or inference was the task of those who had made a special study of the Torah, and a majority decision was binding on all . . .

The commandments were further applied by analogy to situations not directly covered by the Torah. All these developments together with thirty-one customs of ‘immemorial usage’ formed the ‘oral law’ . . . the full development of which is later than the New Testament. Being convinced that they had the right interpretation of the Torah, they claimed that these ‘traditions of the elders’ (Mk 7:3) came from Moses on Sinai (Douglas, 981-982).

Likewise, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church notes in its article on the Pharisees:
Unlike the Sadducees, who tried to apply Mosaic Law precisely as it was given, the Pharisees allowed some interpretation of it to make it more applicable to different situations, and they regarded these oral interpretations as of the same level of importance as the Law itself (Cross, 1077).
Fourthly, it was precisely the extrabiblical (especially apocalyptic) elements of Pharisaical Judaism that New Testament Christianity adopted and developed for its own: doctrines such as: resurrection, the soul, the afterlife, eternal reward or damnation, and angelology and demonology (all of which the Sadducees rejected). The Old Testament had relatively little to say about these things, and what it did assert was in a primitive, kernel form. But the postbiblical literature of the Jews (led by the mainstream Pharisaical tradition) had plenty to say about them. Therefore, this was another instance of Christianity utilizing non-biblical literature and traditions in its own doctrinal development.

Fifth, Paul shows the high priest, Ananias, respect, even when the latter had him struck on the mouth, and was not dealing with matters strictly of the Old Testament and the Law, but with the question of whether Paul was teaching wrongly and should be stopped (Acts 23:1-5). A few verses later Paul states, “I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees” (23:6) and it is noted that the Pharisees and Sadducees in the assembly were divided and that the Sadducees “say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge them all” (23:7-8). Some Pharisees defended Paul (23:9).

Next, White mentions (presumably as a parallel to the Pharisees and Moses’ seat) Nehemiah 8: a passage I dealt with previously:

Indeed, when Ezra read the Law to the people in Nehemiah, chapter 8, the people listened attentively and cried “Amen! Amen!” at the hearing of God’s Word (White, 101).
He conveniently neglects to mention, however, that Ezra’s Levite assistants, as recorded in the next two verses after the evangelical-sounding “Amens,” “helped the people to understand the law” (8:7) and “gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (8:8).

So this supposedly analogous example (that is, if presented in its entirety; not selectively for polemical purposes) does not support White’s and Dr. Gundry’s position that the authority of the Pharisees applied only insofar as they sat and read the Old Testament to the people (functioning as a sort of ancient collective Alexander Scourby, reading the Bible onto a cassette tape for mass consumption), not when they also interpreted (which was part and parcel of the Pharisaical outlook and approach).

One doesn’t find in the Old Testament individual Hebrews questioning teaching authority. Sola Scriptura simply is not there. No matter how hard White and other Protestants try to read it into the Old Testament, it cannot be done. Nor can it be read into the New Testament, once all the facts are in. James White, however, writes:

And who can forget the result of Josiah’s discovery of the Book of the Covenant in 2 Chronicles 34? (White, 101).
Indeed, this was a momentous occasion (Dr. White probably thinks it is similar in substance and import to the myth and legend of Martin Luther supposedly “rescuing” or “initiating” the Bible in the vernacular, when in fact there had been fourteen German editions of the Bible in the 70 years preceding his own).

But if the implication is that the Law was self-evident simply upon being read, per sola Scriptura, this is untrue to the Old Testament, for, again, we are informed in the same book that priests and Levites “taught in Judah, having the book of the law of the LORD with them; they went about through all the cities of Judah and taught among the people” (2 Chron 17:9), and that the Levites “taught all Israel” (2 Chron 35:3). They didn’t just read, they taught, and that involved interpretation. And the people had no right of private judgment, to dissent from what was taught.

James White and all Protestants believe that any individual Christian has the right and duty to rebuke their pastors if what they are teaching is “unbiblical” (that is, according to the lone individual). This is an elegant, quaint theory indeed, on paper, but it doesn’t quite work the same way in practice. I know this from my own experience as a former Protestant, for when I rebuked my Assemblies of God pastor in a private letter (because he had preached from the pulpit, “keep your pastors honest”), I was publicly renounced and rebuked from the pulpit (in a most paranoid, alarmist manner) as a theologically-inexperienced rabble-rouser trying to cause division.

Dr. Kim Riddlebarger, an expert in historical theology, in dealing with the same passage, assumes what he is trying to prove (what is known in logic as “begging the question” or a “circular argument”):

The biblical case for sola scriptura becomes even stronger when one looks to the words of our Lord on the subject . . . Jesus instructs us to obey the Old Testament (Matthew 23:3) . . . Is the Old Testament incomplete in this regard, requiring a “sacred” tradition to complement it? On the contrary, Jesus declares that the Old Testament alone is authoritative in matters of doctrine . . . There is no hint, therefore, in any of these texts, that the biblical writers viewed anything other than the written Word of God (the Old Testament) as the only infallible guide or authoritative source for the faith and practice of the church (in Armstrong, 237-238).
This perspective is quite interesting, seeing that what Jesus did in that verse was to encourage submission to the teaching of the Pharisees (not the Old Testament), and on the basis of their sitting on Moses’ seat: a phrase not even found in the Old Testament, as Dr. James White admitted above.

White also asserts that “we are only speaking of a position that existed at this time in the synagogue worship of the day” (White, 100). That is hardly “Old Testament alone.” White’s and Riddlebarger’s positions here mutually exclude each other. Such confusion is one of the hallmarks of an incoherent, weakly-supported position.

Moreover, the Pharisees themselves can only be dated to the 2nd century B.C. at the earliest (see Douglas, 981) long after the completion of the Old Testament. And they accepted the full authority of oral tradition, as mentioned above.

Riddlebarger’s “argument,” therefore, collapses on all points. He cites Jesus’ injunction to obey a group which began in the 2nd century B.C. one which believes in oral tradition—and on the basis of an institution of authority (Moses’ seat) which cannot be found in the Old Testament, as somehow the same as obeying the letter of the Old Testament, which alone Jesus supposedly regarded as authoritative. The internal inconsistency and incoherence of this position is surely evident.


23 posted on 08/01/2007 5:25:26 AM PDT by Aquinasfan (When you find "Sola Scriptura" in the Bible, let me know)
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To: huldah1776
I remember when the early Christians were debating whether to follow Paul or Apollos...

And then later, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, etc., ad infinitum.

Luther's doctrine of "the Bible alone" shattered Christendom, destroying the unity of the Church, the unity which Christ desired.

John 17:20-21

"My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me."


24 posted on 08/01/2007 5:33:33 AM PDT by Aquinasfan (When you find "Sola Scriptura" in the Bible, let me know)
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