Why is the Catholic Church into the "Traditions of Men?"

Tradition is not a dirty word. We need it. Don't get me wrong, the Bible is the Word of God. There are thousands of Biblical quotes on this site. We read the Bible every day. The Catholic Church says, "ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ."(Catechism 133)

However, there is more to Christianity than the Bible (sola scriptura - "by scripture alone" - is a Protestant tradition invented by Luther 500 years ago). In his #1 Evangelical book, The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren, says:

We need more than the Bible in order to grow; we need other believers.
(The Purpose Driven Life, pg. 134)

The famous Evangelical Rick Warren was right when he said that we need more than the Bible in order to grow. This is in no way a put-down of the Bible, which is central to our faith. It is the infallible Word of God on moral and spiritual issues.

The early Church was about community and unity. They came together around the Eucharist in the Breaking of Bread. They didn't have a Bible, just a bunch of letters and stories, and the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), which contained the Deuterocanonical books that were omitted from Protestant Bibles after the Reformation in the 1500's. Even after the Church decided on the books of the Bible in 397 AD most people could not read until well into the Middle Ages. In those days they would look at the stained glass pictures in the Churches and hear the stories about Jesus' life.

Thank God, today, we can read and we have the benefit of the Bible. We also have the benefit of a rich base of knowledge from many centuries of Traditions of faithful Christians, and we have each other, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Apostles are the birthplace of Christian tradition and it became an integral part of the early Christian community.

So what about all these Catholic "traditions of men"?

We got an email from a well meaning Evangelical that said:

If you embrace the words of Jesus and reject the traditions of man as he instructed us, you can secure your own salvation and lead many to the Lord.

This well meaning Evangelical was speaking about the "Traditions of Men" spoken about in Mark 7 and Mathew 15.

Mark 7:8 "For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men, [as] the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things you do."

Matt. 15:6 “…and you have made void the commandment of God for your tradition.”

We agree with what is condemned in these passages where Christ rebukes the Pharisees. Some of these pharisaic interpretations went contrary to the teaching of Scripture. St. Paul warns the Colossians (2:8) against certain teachings of pagan (probably Gnostic) philosophy. Such traditions contradict the Christian doctrine and are of themselves wrong and unchristian (and even unJewish, because most Jews were not Pharisees). So it makes sense that Jesus rebuked them.

There is nothing unbiblical whatsoever with:

  1. Divine Tradition, which is part of Christian revelation;
  2. Customs, usages, practices which form part of our ordinary exercise of our faith, such as signs of the Cross, blessings, holy water, vestments, candles, and the like, which come and go and change over the centuries and differ from one part of the Catholic world to another.(2)

Mat 15:9 speaks against teaching human precepts as doctrines. It does not say anything bad about doctrine itself. The Bible is full of doctrine. Tradition draws upon the Church's collective wisdom. It is derived from the Apostles and given to the Early Church Fathers, and revelations of the faithful. It enriches our understanding of the Bible.

The Greek word for Tradition is "paradosis", which means "giving over" or "handing down." It refers to teachings that are handed down either by spoken word or in writing. (1)

Both Catholics and Evangelicals agree that no spiritual truth will conflict with the Bible. We have different approaches to this statement. Many Evangelicals say that everything that is true is in the Bible. Catholics say that everything that is in the Bible is true. There is a subtle difference. Many Evangelicals would say "if it's true - then it's in the Bible, if it's not true, it's not in the Bible."

We think the Bible itself contradicts this view:

...there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that could be written. (Jn 21:25)

For instance, the word "Trinity" is not in the Bible, but it is most certainly real. Another word that is not in the Bible is the word "Bible". Neither of those words are in the Bible, but they are most certainly true. 

In John 16:12 Jesus says:

"I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth."

A while back, the number one Christian song on "20 the Countdown Magazine", a top worldwide Evangelical Christian radio music show, was called "Word of God Speak" by the top Evangelical Christian band "Mercy Me." The chorus lyrics are: "Word of God speak, will you fall down like rain." The song is about the Bible yet it acknowledges that the Word of God "falls down like rain" also. I've been at Evangelical prayer meetings where someone comesand says "I have a word from the Lord for you." Sometimes that word was a direct Scripture passage and sometimes it was not. The important thing was that it did not contradict Scripture.

Evangelical Tradition

I suggest that every Protestant or Evangelical Church has its own "traditions" although they would not be labeled as such. They are often called a "Mission Statement" or a "Statement of Faith." It is often these statements or "traditions" that distinguish between the denominations (or brethrens, or fellowships, or churches). To be a member of a particular group of Evangelicals, one must accept its "traditions" as laid out in the Statement of Faith or Mission Statement. Some may say "my church is just about the Bible." I don't doubt the sincerity of this claim but if someone comes up with an interpretation of Scripture contrary to the interpretation accepted by their church, then they are often rebuked. Perhaps this is a contributing reason why there are thousands of denominations who interpret Scripture differently. For instance, there are dozens of variations of the Rapture including "Post, Pre, and Mid" which are in conflict with each other.

Evangelical Bible Colleges include an extensive study of early Christian tradition to help understand the Faith. Martin Luther introduced pub songs into Church by rewording them with Christian themes. This practice became a great tradition. We call them hymns. Even the great worship music that we hear today in Evangelical Churches such as songs by Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin and Vineyard are part of a modern day Evangelical tradition. In Evangelical services, it has become a tradition to play a couple of fast songs, a few slow songs, read a passage of Scripture, have a sermon, an altar call and a have few songs to finish, followed by fellowship in the Church hall. This is all tradition. We would say that Evangelicals pay attention to their traditions as well as Scripture.

Isn't the Bible alone the only Authority?

That is probably the biggest division between Catholics and Evangelicals and it is the reason why most Evangelicals have a problem with the Traditions of the Church, because they feel it undermines the Bible. We can see how it seems blasphemous for a Catholic to say the Bible is not the "only" authority. Most certainly the Bible is infallible. However, Catholics believe that the Bible itself teaches us that the Church came before the Bible. Jesus did not write any books of the Bible. Jesus chose NOT to write but rather to build his Church, and 30-60 years later He inspired the members of his Church write down the Gospels. Several hundred years after that, He inspired members of his Church to decide what books belong in the Bible. More about Catholics and the Bible here and a history of the Bible is here. If Jesus inspired members of the Church to infallibly write the Bible and later infallibly decide on what writings to include in the Bible, He can inspire the Church to make right interpretation of Scripture on matters that are critical to our salvation.

Some Evangelicals feel that the passage from Isaiah 40:8 is a statement against the use of tradition:

"The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever"

Catholics agree that Scripture stands forever. But the passage doesn't say that tradition isn't valid. It says nothing whatsoever against tradition.

The Gospel of John says "and the Word became Flesh"
(Jn 1:14). It doesn't say, "and the Word became paper."

God became Flesh, He instituted and commissioned his Church. Later He inspired members of his Church to write, then He inspired members of the Church to discern which books to include in the Bible, and He inspired his Church to interpret it. This is what Catholics believe, and that is what all Christians believed for the first 1500 years of Christianity.

The following passage is often used to profess Sola Scriptura (Bible alone)

"...the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training" (2 Timothy 3:15-16)

The passage simply says Scripture is inspired and useful. Catholics totally agree. Water is necessary for my existence but is it all I need?  Most certainly not. The passage says nothing against Tradition. Interestingly, there was no New Testament written back then so if this passage was saying Scripture is all we need, it would be saying that the New Testament wasn't necessary, which is obviously untrue.

Catholics believe that the "Bible alone" theory is not what the Bible teaches.

Nowhere in the Bible does it say the Bible alone is the only authority. However, the Bible does say that Jesus founded his Church and gave it all authority. (Mat 16:18)

Here are some biblical passages that Catholics feel speak for the need to observe tradition as well as Scripture. It is important to note that Catholics believe that the traditions they have embraced are not contrary to the Bible, they use tradition to clarify positions that are outlined and intimated there.

  • "...hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter" (not only written) 2 Thes 2:15
  • "Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me." Not written but spoken. 2 Tim 1:13
  • ".I would rather not use pen and ink, but hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face." 2 John 12
  • "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth." John 16:12
  • 2 Tim 3:16 does not condemn tradition.
  • Mat 15 condemns the traditions of men not apostolic tradition.
  • There are many other things that Jesus did. . the whole world could not hold the books that could be written. Jn 21:25
  • I have sent my angel to announce these things to you in the churches. Rev 22:16
  • 1 Corinthians 11:2 . . . maintain the traditions . . . even as I have delivered them to you.
  • 2 Thessalonians 3:6 . . . the tradition that you received from us.
  • 1 Corinthians 15:1 . . . the gospel, which you received . . .
  • Galatians 1:9 . . . the gospel . . . which you received.
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:9 . . . we preached to you the gospel of God.
  • Acts 8:14 . . . Samaria had received the word of God . . .
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:13 . . . you received the word of God, which you heard from us, . . .
  • 2 Peter 2:21 . . . the holy commandment delivered to them.
  • Jude 3 . . . the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.

Other Bible Topics


(1) http://www.ccel.org/contrib/exec_outlines/matt/mt15_1.htm

(2) Father Mateo at www.cin.org

(3) Evangelical and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission, edited by Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, Dallas: Word Publishing, 1995, Neuhaus' chapter, "The Catholic Difference," 175-227; quote from 209-210:

Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.