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Systematic Theology - Volume I
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§ 3. Tradition.

The word tradition (παράδοσις) means, (1.) The art of delivering over from one to another. (2.) The thing delivered or communicated. In the New Testament it is used (a.)For instructions delivered from some to others, without reference to the mode of delivery, whether it be orally or by writing; as in 2 Thess. ii. 15, “Hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle;” and iii. 6, “Withdraw yourself from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.” (b.) For the oral instructions of the fathers handed down from generation to generation, but not contained in the Scriptures, and yet regarded as authoritative. In this sense our Lord so frequently speaks of “the traditions of the Pharisees.” (c.) In Gal. i. 14, where Paul speaks of his zeal for the traditions of his fathers, it may include both the written and unwritten instructions which he had received. What he was so zealous about, was the whole system of Judaism as he had been taught it.

In the early Church the word was used in this wide sense. Appeal was constantly made to “the traditions,” i.e., the instructions which the churches had received. It was only certain churches at first which had any of the written instructions of the Apostles. And it was not until the end of the first century that the writings of the Evangelists and Apostles were collected, and formed into a canon, or rule of faith. And when the books of the New Testament had been collected, the fathers spoke of them as containing the traditions, i.e., the instructions derived from Christ and his Apostles. They called the Gospels “the evangelical traditions,” and the Epistles “the apostolical traditions.” In that age of the Church the distinction between the written and unwritten word had not yet been distinctly made. But as controversies arose, and disputants on both sides of all questions appealed to “tradition,” i.e., to what they had been taught; and when it was found that these traditions differed, one church saying their teachers had always taught them one thing, and another that theirs had taught them the opposite, it was felt that there should be some common and authoritative standard. Hence the wisest and best of the fathers insisted on abiding by the written word, and receiving nothing as of divine authority not contained therein. In this, however, it must be confessed they were not always consistent. Whenever prescription, usage, or conviction founded on unwritten evidence, was available against an adversary, they did not hesitate to make the most of it. During all the early centuries, therefore, the distinction between Scripture and tradition was not so sharply drawn as it has been since the controversies between Romanists and Protestants, and especially since the decisions of the Council of Trent.

Tridentine Doctrine.

That Council, and the Latin Church as a body, teach on this subject, — (1.) That Christ and his Apostles taught many things which were not committed to writing, i.e., not recorded in the Sacred Scriptures. (2.) That these instructions have been faithfully transmitted, and preserved in the Church. (3.) That they constitute a part of the rule of faith for all believers.

These particulars are included in the following extracts from the acts of the Council: “Synodus — perspiciens hanc veritatem et disciplinam contineri in libris scriptis et sine scripto traditionibus, quæ ex ipsius Christi ore ab apostolis acceptæ, aut ab ipsis apostolis, Spiritu Sancto dictante, quasi per manus traditæ, ad nos usque pervenerunt; orthodoxorum patrum exempla secuta, omnes libros tam Veteris quam Novi Testamenti, cum utriusque unus Deus sit auctor, nec non traditiones ipsas, tum ad fidem tum ad mores pertinentes, tanquam vel ore tenus a Christo, vel a Spiritu Sancto dictatas, et continua successione in Ecclesia Catholica conservatas, pari pietatis affectu et reverentia suscipit et veneratur.6363Trent. Sess. iv.

Bellarmin6464De Verbo Dei, iv. 1. divides traditions into three classes: divine, apostolical, and ecclesiastical. “Divinæ dicuntur quæ acceptæ sunt ab ipso Christo apostolos docente, et nusquam in divinis literis in veniuntur. . . . . Apostolicæ traditiones proprie dicuntur illæ, quæ ab apostolis institutæ sunt, non tamen sine assistentia Spiritus Sancti et nihilominus non extant scriptæ in eorum epistolis. . . . . Ecclesiasticæ traditiones proprie dicuntur consuetudines quædam antiquæ vel a prælatis vel a populis inchoatæ, quæ paulatim tacito consensu populorum vim legis obtinuerunt. Et quidem traditiones divinæ eandem vim habent, quam divinae præcepta sive divina doctrina scripta in Evangeliis. Et similiter apostolicæ traditiones non scriptæ eandem vim habent, quam apostolica, traditiones scriptæ. . . . . Ecclesiasticæ autem traditiones eandem vim habent, quam decreta et constitutiones ecclesiasticæ, scriptæ.

Petrus à Soto, quoted by Chemnitz6565Examen Concilii Tridentini, p. 85, edit. Frankfort, 1574. says, “Infallibilis est regula et catholica. Quacunque credit, tenet, et servat Romana Ecclesia, et in Scripturis non habentur, illa ab apostolis esse tradita; item quarum observationum initium, author et origo ignoretur, vel inveniri non potest, illas extra omnem dubitationem ab apostolis tradita esse.

From this it appears, 1. That these traditions are called unwritten because not contained in the Scriptures. They are, for the most part, now to be found written in the works of the Fathers, decisions of councils, ecclesiastical constitutions, and rescripts of the Popes.

2. The office of tradition is to convey a knowledge of doctrines, precepts, and institutions not contained in Scripture; and also to serve as a guide to the proper understanding of what is therein written. Tradition, therefore, in the Church of Rome, is both the supplement and interpretation of the written word.

3. The authority due to tradition is the same as that which belongs to the Scriptures. Both are to be received “pari pietatis affectu et reverentia.” Both are derived from the same source; both are received through the same channel; and both are authenticated by the same witness. This authority, however, belongs properly only to traditions regarded as divine or apostolical. Those termed ecclesiastical are of less importance, relating to rites and usages. Still for them is claimed an authority virtually divine, as they are enjoined by a church which claims to have been endowed by Christ with full power to ordain rites and ceremonies.

4. The criteria by which to distinguish between true and false traditions, are either antiquity and catholicity, or the testimony of the extant Church. Sometimes the one, and sometimes the other is urged. The Council of Trent gives the former; so does Bellarmin, and so do the majority of Romish theologians. This is the famous rule established by Vincent of Lerins in the fifth century, “quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus.” On all occasions, however, the ultimate appeal is to the decision of the Church. Whatever the Church declares to be a part of the revelation committed to her, is to be received as of divine authority, at the peril of salvation.


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