So last we spoke, I’d just discovered that there may be some biblical basis for the Catholic papacy – at an Evangelical Christian Conference no less. That was disconcerting.
But what happened next was even more so.
The next day, Monica and John-Paul suggested I go to a seminar with them on Catholicism, specifically on this very issue of authority in the church. (Confused about who they are?) I already knew that Catholics believed the Bible wasn’t enough, that we also needed Tradition and the Church. And obviously, as a Protestant, I found that highly objectionable.
It wasn’t that I was anti-tradition or anti-church, I was pretty “pro” both. I just thought that both tradition and church should be subject to the Bible. After all, it was the Word of God,
“breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17)
What more could you want?
I thought that if you gave anything else equality with Scripture, it would diminish and eventually negate Scripture. This is precisely what had happened to Catholicism. The Church had gone off the rails when it tried to have tradition and the Bible. Even though I had heaps of questions about sola Scriptura, I was still very sure that Catholicism wasn’t the answer.
Nonetheless, I went to this seminar and it was there that I met… the diagram.
For all my “artsy-ness”, I’ve always been very fond of diagrams and this diagram probably ranks as the most important diagram of my life. In many ways, it was this diagram that sent me Catholic.
Using nothing but my Microsoft Paint skills, I will now replicate that diagram.
It doesn’t seem like much, does it?
(And admittedly, the graphics aren’t exactly amazing…)
But it showed me, more clearly than I’d ever seen, the reason why Catholics thought the Bible wasn’t enough.
It was because they believed that Tradition and the teaching office of the Church were equally inspired by God and given by Christ to the Apostles as part of the Deposit of Faith.
That was a revelation to me – a revelation about the nature of revelation. Because I quickly saw that, even if I disagreed with them, it meant that Catholics treated the single Deposit of Faith the way I treated the Bible, which I believed contained the whole deposit of faith. And from within that framework, Protestant objections to Catholicism made no sense.
From a Catholic point of view, I couldn’t object that Tradition was “man-made” any more than I could criticise the Bible for the same reason. Yes, both came through men but both are inspired by God.
Neither could I protest that Tradition contradicts the Bible any more than I could claim that one book of the Bible contradicts another. Some people think they do and try to pit Luke against John, or Paul against James. But if you think the Bible contradicts itself, then there’s a problem with your interpretation not with the Word of God. For Catholics, the same went for pitting Tradition against the Bible. After all, how could the Holy Spirit contradict Himself?
It was an intriguing hypothesis and one I’d never really considered… that the Sacred Deposit, the truths of Revelation, might be in more than the Bible, that the authoritative revelation of God might not simply be via one arrow to the Bible, but via three to Scripture, Tradition and the Church. That one-arrow-ness is the Protestant belief in sola Scriptura, the Bible Alone; in contrast, the Catholic belief can be termed sola Dei Verbum, the Word of God Alone.
So the debate, at most, is not over adding or subtracting to the Word of God. It is about what is – and is not – the Word of God.
In the weeks and months following AnCon, that stupid diagram kept popping up in my head. It was half-way between a seed of thought, growing silently in my mind – and a thorn in my flesh, that just. would. not. leave. me. ALONE.
But the more I thought about it, the more the Catholic position started making sense.
When Catholics talk about Tradition, they’re not talking about the sum of “traditions” accrued over time. Every culture or social group – from families to nations – have these. Some are good, some are bad; most can go either way depending on how we use them. No, when Catholics talk about Tradition, they meant Capital-T Tradition. This is nothing less than the oral transmission of the deposit of faith from the Apostles,
“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 whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit” (CCC, 76)
Along with this “handing on” (literally, “tradere”) of the Faith, the Apostles also wrote letters to the churches. This is Scripture, the written transmission from the Apostles of this same message, inspired by the same Spirit and together they
“make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God” (Dei Verbum, Vatican II, 10)
And the Magisterium is the teaching office of the Church, transmitted from the Apostles and guided by the Holy Spirit, that gives the
“authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition.” (CCC, 85)
It was a remarkably elegant system, almost Trinitarian in the way its part were intertwined, each equal but distinct as they flowed from “the same divine well-spring, come together… and move towards the same goal.” (Dei Verbum, Vatican II, 9)
One source. Three arrows. I found it beautiful and intriguing.
But more than that, I increasingly came to see that it made better sense of Scripture and better sense of history.
The first thing to note is that Christ entrusted His message and His authority, first and foremost to the Apostles, and not to the Bible. The Apostles are our conduit to Jesus, for whoever received them, receives Him. (c.f. Mt 10:40) After washing His disciples feet, Jesus says to them,
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. (John 13:2)
And before ascending into Heaven, He says to them,
“[Y]ou will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8).
Christ entrusted His authority to those He sent: to people. And people do stuff too. The Apostles were Christ’s authoritative witnesses when they preached and “teached”, when they planted churches, wrote letters, sent representatives, appointed elders and ordained successors. It included what they wrote but definitely wasn’t limited to it. After all, in an overwhelming oral culture, how could it be otherwise?
Even more, the Bible specifically tell us to keep and obey all the Apostles handed over, whether written or not. St Paul wrote to the Corinthians,
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” (1 Co 11:1-2)
And to the Thessalonians,
“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” (2 Thess 2:15)
John even wrote to Gaius,
“I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.” (3 John 1:13)
(I’d always wondered why 3 John was so short!)
It also made better sense of the historical reality of the Early Church. I realised that, without Apostolic Tradition and Apostolic Succession, the Early Church would have been unrecognisable.
It was foundational to the Early Church and informed their understanding of, well, everything. Their Councils and Creeds, their defence of orthodoxy and critique of heresy, their entire structure of church governance – none of it would be explicable. As soon as there was a post-apostolic Christianity to speak of, there was the strong belief in the authority of Apostolic Tradition through the succession of bishops.
I soon discovered my favourite example of this. In c. 180 AD, St Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies. It was against (you guessed it) the heresy of Gnosticism, which taught that was a secret knowledge or gnosis from Jesus that couldn’t be found within the one, visible, authoritative Church. St Irenaeus himself was a bishop of Lyon, and a disciple of St Polycarp who was a disciple of the Apostle John. And he pulverises the poor Gnostics, declaring that,
“It is within the power of all, therefore, in every church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries… they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the churches themselves.” (Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3, 1)
Indeed, St Irenaeus says that we find the true Church,
“[B]y indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.” (Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3, 2)
St Irenaeus wasn’t a loose cannon here.
Christians, again and again, in the next 1500 years appealed to Tradition and to Apostolic Succession as the guarantors of orthodoxy. They also readily quoted the words of the Apostles, knowing that it was also the Word of God. In fact, they used their authoritative succession from the Apostles and their knowledge of the Rule of Faith in Tradition to compile and confirm the canon of the Bible. (But I’ll get to that particular issue later. At the moment, think of the problem of the biblical canon as like a timebomb waiting to explode… or perhaps even a cannon with its fuse lit. (Geddit? Coz it’s a cannon about the canon. Oh you!))
All this meant that for first 1500 years, Christians understood that the Faith was in three different, but mutually supporting and entirely consistent, sources. For that 1500 years, all Christians had three arrows.
And it seemed from Scripture, which I already followed, that we were supposed to follow all three arrows. For as Paul urged his disciple Timothy,
“Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” (2 Tim 1:13-14)
In that one verse, you can see all three elements at work: Paul writes to instruct (Scripture) Timothy, his apostolic successor, to guard (Magisterium) what he has heard (Tradition) from him.
One source. Three arrows.
Seeing how Tradition and the Apostolic Succession could, and indeed did, fit together was beautiful. It was also the death-knell to my belief in sola Scriptura and ultimately, my Protestantism because it forced me to see that Bible-Alone wasn’t a given, it had to be proven. And I couldn’t do that, not when the Bible itself and Christian history from its earliest beginnings were against me.
My Bible-Alone-ism was about to die.
And if anyone asks you what killed it, you can tell them: it was three arrows.