Sacred tradition

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Sacred tradition is a theological term used in Christian theology. According to the theology of the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Assyrian churches, sacred tradition is the foundation of the doctrinal and spiritual authority of Christianity and of the Bible. Thus, the Bible must be interpreted within the context of sacred tradition and within the community of the church. The Anglican and Methodist churches regard tradition, reason, and experience as sources of authority but as subordinate to scripture – a position known as prima scriptura . [1] [2] That is in contrast to the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, which teach that the Bible alone is a sufficient/infallible basis for all Christian teaching – a position known as sola scriptura . [3]


For many denominations of Christianity, included in sacred tradition are the writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Nicene Fathers and Post-Nicene Fathers. [4]

Usage of term

The word tradition is taken from the Latin trado, tradere, meaning "to hand over, to deliver, to bequeath". [5] According to Catholic theology, Paul the Apostle exhorted the faithful to "stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter." [6] The Pauline epistles form part of sacred scripture; what he passed on by "word of mouth" is part of sacred tradition, handed down from the apostles. Both are the inspired word of God; the latter helps to inform understanding of the former. Sacred tradition can never be in conflict with sacred scripture. [7] Protestants note that the verse says either by the word of mouth or by letter, but not that one interprets the other. They also emphasize the reference to "we" in the passage as coming directly from the mouth of the apostles. [8]


Among the earliest examples of the theological appeal to tradition is the response of early orthodox Christianity to Gnosticism, a movement that used some Christian scripture as the basis for its teachings. [9] Irenaeus of Lyons held that 'rule of faith' ('κανών της πίστης') is preserved by a church through its historical continuity (of interpretation and teaching) with the Apostles. [10] Tertullian argued that although interpretations founded on a reading of all Holy Scripture are not prone to error, tradition is the proper guide. [11] Athanasius held that Arianism fell into error primarily by not adhering to tradition. [11]

In the modern era, scholars such as Craig A. Evans, James A. Sanders, [12] and Stanley E. Porter [13] have studied how sacred tradition in the Hebrew Bible was understood and used by New Testament writers to describe Jesus.

Eastern Orthodox Church

In Eastern Orthodox theology, sacred tradition is the inspired revelation of God and catholic teaching (Greek katholikos, "according to the whole") of the Church, not an independent source of dogmatic authority to be regarded as a supplement to biblical revelation. Tradition is rather understood as the fullness of divine truth proclaimed in the scriptures, preserved by the apostolic bishops and expressed in the life of the Church through such things as the Divine Liturgy and the Holy Mysteries (Eucharist, baptism, marriage, etc.), the Creed and other doctrinal definitions of the first seven ecumenical councils, canonical Christian iconography, and the sanctified lives of godly men and women.[ citation needed ]

For the Orthodox Christian, there is one tradition, the tradition of the Church, incorporating the scriptures and the teaching of the Church Fathers. As explained by Athanasius of Alexandria, "Let us look at the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the catholic Church from the very beginning, which the Logos gave (edoken), the Apostles preached (ekeryxan), and the Fathers preserved (ephylaxan). Upon this the Church is founded (tethemeliotai)". (St. Athanasius, "First Letter to Serapion", 28). [14]

Sacred tradition for the Eastern Orthodox is the deposit of faith given by Jesus to the apostles and passed on in the Church from one generation to the next without addition, alteration, or subtraction. Vladimir Lossky described tradition as "the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church." [15] It is dynamic in application yet unchanging in dogma. It is growing in expression yet is always the same in essence. Rather, Orthodox believe tradition is that faith once delivered as understood within the context of lived history. Tradition is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a living experience, which is relived and renewed through time.[ citation needed ]

Georges Florovsky wrote:

Tradition is not a principle striving to restore the past, using the past as a criterion for the present. Such a conception of tradition is rejected by history itself and by the consciousness of the Orthodox Church. Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit and not only the memory of words. Tradition is a charismatic, not a historical event. (Florovsky, Georges. "The Catholicity of the Church" in Bible, Church, Tradition, p. 47) [14]

Catholic Church

Those in the Catholic faith believe that the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles were preserved in the scriptures as well as by word of mouth. This perpetual handing on of the tradition is called the "Living Tradition"; it is believed to be the faithful and constant transmission of the teachings of the Apostles from one generation to the next. That "includes everything which contributes towards the sanctity of life and increase in faith of the People of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship [the Creeds, the Sacraments, the Magisterium, and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass], perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes." [16] The Deposit of Faith (Latin: fidei depositum) refers to the entirety of divine revelation. According to Roman Catholic theology, two sources of revelation constitute a single "Deposit of Faith", meaning that the entirety of divine revelation and the Deposit of Faith is transmitted to successive generations in scripture and sacred tradition (through the teaching authority and interpretation of the Church's Magisterium (which consists of the Church's bishops, in union with the Pope, typically proceeding synods and ecumenical councils).

The Catholic Church views tradition in much the same terms, as a passing down of that same apostolic faith, but, in a critical difference from the Eastern Orthodox position, Catholicism holds that the faith once delivered, the understanding of it continues to deepen and mature over time through the action of the Holy Spirit in the history of the Church and in the understanding of that faith by Christians, all the while staying identical in essence and substance. [16]

In the area of moral theology, Mark D. Jordan said that medieval texts appeared to be inconsistent. According to Giovanni Cappelli, prior to the sixth century, the Church's teachings on morality were incoherent. [17] According to John T. Noonan, "history cannot leave a principle or a teaching untouched; every application to a situation affects our understanding of the principle itself." [17]

Dei Verbum

The Second Vatican Council taught on tradition, scripture, and magisterium in Dei verbum , n. 10:

Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort.

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, sacred scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.

Thus, all of the teachings of the Catholic Church come from either tradition or scripture, or from the magisterium interpreting tradition and scripture. These two sources, tradition and scripture, are viewed and treated as one source of Divine Revelation, which includes both the deeds of God and the words of God:

This plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having in inner unity: the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them. ( Dei verbum , 2)

The magisterium has a role in deciding authoritatively which truths are a part of sacred tradition.

Lutheranism and Reformed Christianity

The Lutheran and Reformed traditions of Christianity claim that the Bible alone is the source for Christian doctrine. [3] This position does not deny that Jesus or the apostles preached in person, that their stories and teachings were transmitted orally during the early Christian era, or that truth exists outside of the Bible. For sola scriptura Christians today, however, these teachings are preserved in the Bible as the only inspired medium. Since in the opinion of sola scriptura Christians, other forms of tradition do not exist in a fixed form that remains constant in its transmission from one generation to the next and cannot be referenced or cited in its pure form, there is no way to verify which parts of the "tradition" are authentic and which are not. [18]

Anglicanism and Methodism

Prima scriptura is upheld by the Anglican and Methodist traditions of Christianity, which suggest that scripture is the primary source for Christian doctrine, but that "tradition, experience, and reason" can nurture the Christian religion as long as they are in harmony with the Bible. [3] [19]

The Anglican Church does accept apostolic tradition, which can be found in the writings of the early Church Fathers, the decrees of the seven Ecumenical Councils, the Creeds, and the liturgical worship of the Church. [20]

See also

Related Research Articles

<i>Dei verbum</i>

Dei verbum, the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on 18 November 1965, following approval by the assembled bishops by a vote of 2,344 to 6. It is one of the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council, indeed their very foundation in the view of one of the leading Council Fathers, Bishop Christopher Butler. The phrase "Dei verbum" is Latin for "Word of God" and is taken from the first line of the document, as is customary for titles of major Catholic documents.

Sola scriptura, meaning by scripture alone, is a Christian theological doctrine held by most Protestant Christian denominations, in particular the Lutheran and Reformed traditions of Protestantism, that posits the Bible as the sole infallible source of authority for Christian faith and practice. Both the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches consider it to be a heretical doctrine.

The five solae of the Protestant Reformation are a foundational set of Christian theological principles held by theologians and clergy to be central to the doctrines of justification and salvation as taught by the Reformed and Lutheran branches of Protestantism and Pentecostalism. Each sola represents a key belief in these Protestant traditions in contradistinction to the theological doctrine of the Catholic Church, although they were not assembled as a theological unit until the 20th century. The Reformers are known to have only clearly stated two of the five solae. Even today there are differences as to what constitutes the solae and how many there are, not to mention how to interpret them to reflect the Reformers' beliefs.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Outline of Christian theology</span> Overview of and topical guide to Christian theology

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to Christian theology:

Magisterium Authority of the Roman Catholic Church to give authentic interpretation of the Word of God

The magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church is the church's authority or office to give authentic interpretation of the Word of God, "whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition." According to the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, the task of interpretation is vested uniquely in the Pope and the bishops, though the concept has a complex history of development. Scripture and Tradition "make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church", and the magisterium is not independent of this, since "all that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is derived from this single deposit of faith."

Christian tradition Practices or beliefs associated with Christianity

Christian tradition is a collection of traditions consisting of practices or beliefs associated with Christianity. These ecclesiastical traditions have more or less authority based on the nature of the practices or beliefs and on the group in question. Many churches have traditional practices, such as particular patterns of worship or rites, that developed over time. Deviations from such patterns are sometimes considered unacceptable or heretical. There are certain Christian traditions that are practiced throughout the liturgical year, such as praying a daily devotional during Advent, erecting a nativity scene during Christmastide, chalking the door on Epiphany Day, fasting during Lent, waving palms on Palm Sunday, eating easter eggs during Eastertide, and decorating the church in red on Pentecost.

Formal principle and material principle are two categories in Christian theology to identify and distinguish the authoritative source of theology from the theology itself, especially the central doctrine of that theology, of a religion, religious movement, tradition, body, denomination, or organization. A formal principle tends to be texts or revered leaders of the religion, while a material principle is its central teaching. Paul Tillich believed the identification and application of this pair of categories in theological thinking to have originated in the 19th century. As early as 1845 the Protestant theologian and historian Philip Schaff discussed them in his The Principle of Protestantism. They were utilized by the Lutheran scholar F. E. Mayer in his The Religious Bodies of America in order to facilitate a comparative study of the faith and practice of Christian denominations in the United States. This is also treated in a theological pamphlet entitled Gospel and Scripture by the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

The infallibility of the Church is the belief that the Holy Spirit preserves the Christian Church from errors that would contradict its essential doctrines. It is related to, but not the same as, indefectibility, that is, "she remains and will remain the Institution of Salvation, founded by Christ, until the end of the world." The doctrine of infallibility is premised on the authority Jesus granted to the apostles to "bind and loose" and in particular the promises to Peter in regard to papal infallibility.

Bible study (Christianity) Study of the Bible

In Christian communities, Bible study is the study of the Bible by people as a personal religious or spiritual practice. In many Christian traditions, Bible study, coupled with Christian prayer, is known as doing devotions or devotional acts. Many Christian churches schedule time to engage in Bible study collectively. The origin of Bible study groups has its origin in early Christianity, when Church Fathers such as Origen and Jerome taught the Bible extensively to disciple Christians. In Christianity, Bible study has the purpose of "be[ing] taught and nourished by the Word of God" and "being formed and animated by the inspirational power conveyed by Scripture".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Biblical inspiration</span> Doctrine in Christian theology

Biblical inspiration is the doctrine in Christian theology that the human writers and canonizers of the Bible were led by God with the result that their writings may be designated in some sense the word of God. This belief is traditionally associated with concepts of the biblical infallibility and the internal consistency of the Bible.

Prima scriptura is the Christian doctrine that canonized scripture is "first" or "above all" other sources of divine revelation. Implicitly, this view suggests that, besides canonical scripture, there can be other guides for what a believer should believe and how they should live, such as the Holy Spirit, created order, traditions, charismatic gifts, mystical insight, angelic visitations, conscience, common sense, the views of experts, the spirit of the times or something else. Prima scriptura suggests that ways of knowing or understanding God and his will that do not originate from canonized scripture are perhaps helpful in interpreting that scripture, but testable by the canon and correctable by it, if they seem to contradict the scriptures. Prima sciptura is upheld by the Anglican, Methodist and Pentecostal traditions of Christianity, which suggest that Scripture is the primary source for Christian doctrine, but that "tradition, experience, and reason" can nurture the Christian religion as long as they are in harmony with the Bible.

The rule of faith is the name given to the ultimate authority or standard in religious belief. It was used by Early Christian writers such as Tertullian. The phrase is sometimes used for early creeds.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Catholicity</span> Beliefs and practices widely accepted by those that describe themselves as Catholic

Catholicity is a concept pertaining to beliefs and practices widely accepted across numerous Christian denominations, most notably those that describe themselves as catholic in accordance with the Four Marks of the Church, as expressed in the Nicene Creed of the First Council of Constantinople in 381: "[I believe] in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church."

Lex orandi, lex credendi, sometimes expanded as Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi, is a motto in Christian tradition, which means that prayer and belief are integral to each other and that liturgy is not distinct from theology. It refers to the relationship between worship and belief. As an ancient Christian principle it provided a measure for developing the ancient Christian creeds, the canon of scripture, and other doctrinal matters. It is based on the prayer texts of the Church, that is, the Church's liturgy. In the Early Church, there was liturgical tradition before there was a common creed, and before there was an officially sanctioned biblical canon. These liturgical traditions provided the theological framework for establishing the creeds and canon.

Private revelation

Private revelation is, in Christian theology, a message from God which can come in a variety of types.

The Four Marks of the Church, also known as the Attributes of the Church, describes four distinctive adjectives of traditional Christian ecclesiology as expressed in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed completed at the First Council of Constantinople in AD 381: "[We believe] in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Biblical authority</span>

In Christianity, the term biblical authority refers to two complementary ideas:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dogma in the Catholic Church</span> Definitive articles of faith (de fide) according to the Roman Catholic Church

A dogma of the Catholic Church is defined as "a truth revealed by God, which the magisterium of the Church declared as binding." The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

The Church's Magisterium asserts that it exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes, in a form obliging Catholics to an irrevocable adherence of faith, truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these.

The deposit of faith is the body of revealed truth in the scriptures and sacred tradition proposed by the Roman Catholic Church for the belief of the faithful. The phrase has a similar use in the US Episcopal Church.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Criticism of Protestantism</span> Overview of criticism of Protestantism

Criticism of Protestantism covers critiques and questions raised about Protestantism, the Christian tradition which arose out of the Protestant Reformation. While critics may praise some aspects of Protestantism which are not unique to the various forms of Protestantism, Protestantism is faced with criticism mainly from the Catholic Church and some mainstream Eastern Orthodox churches, although Protestant denominations have also engaged in self-critique and criticized one another. According to both the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy, many major, foundational Protestant doctrines have been officially declared heretical.


  1. "Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Tradition". Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara. Retrieved 30 June 2021. In the Free Methodist Church, we believe all truth is God's truth. If something is true, we embrace it as from the Lord. First and foremost, we hold scripture up to be the primary source of God's inspired revealed truth to us. And, we also embrace truth that is found in three other places: reason, tradition, and experience. Along with scripture, this has come to be called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and we believe it informs our theology.
  2. Winright, Tobias (10 December 2020). T&T Clark Handbook of Christian Ethics. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN   978-0-567-67718-1. Both the Anglican and United Methodist Churches affirm tradition as a "source of authority." The Anglican Church incorporates it as part of its "three-legged stool," and Methodists as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of scripture, reason, tradition and experience.
  3. 1 2 3 "Methodist Beliefs: In what ways are Lutherans different from United Methodists?". Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. 2014. Archived from the original on 22 May 2014. Retrieved 22 May 2014. The United Methodists see Scripture as the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine. They emphasize the importance of tradition, experience, and reason for Christian doctrine. Lutherans teach that the Bible is the sole source for Christian doctrine. The truths of Scripture do not need to be authenticated by tradition, human experience, or reason. Scripture is self authenticating and is true in and of itself.
  4. Plekon, Michael (2003). Tradition Alive: On the Church and the Christian Life in Our Time : Readings from the Eastern Church. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 70. ISBN   978-0-7425-3163-5.
  5. Hardon, John (12 January 2011). The Catholic Catechism: A Contemporary Catechism of the Teachings of the Catholic Church. Crown Publishing Group. ISBN   9780307779588 . Retrieved 5 January 2021 via Google Books.
  6. 2 Thessalonians 2:15
  7. Hardon, John A. (5 January 1981). The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism. Doubleday Religious Publishing Group. ISBN   9780385136648 . Retrieved 5 January 2021 via Google Books.
  8. Slick, Matt (10 July 2010). "the New Testament and 2 Thessalonians 2:15". Retrieved 5 January 2021.
  9. McGrath, Alister. 1998. Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. Chapter 1 'The Patristic Period, c. 100451.'
  10. McGrath. op.cit. pp. 2930.
  11. 1 2 McGrath. op.cit. p. 30.
  12. Evans, Craig A.; Sanders, James A. (4 May 2001). Luke and Scripture: The Function of Sacred Tradition in Luke-Acts. Wipf and Stock Publishers. ISBN   9781579106072 . Retrieved 5 January 2021 via Google Books.
  13. Porter, Stanley. Sacred Tradition in the New Testament, Baker Publishing Group, ISBN   9780801030772
  14. 1 2 "Tradition in the Orthodox Church - Theology - Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America". Retrieved 5 January 2021.
  15. "Tradition and Traditions", in Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, (Olten, Switzerland: Urs Graf-Verlag, 1952), 17, in the revised edition (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1982), 15.
  16. 1 2 Paul VI, Pope of the Catholic Church. "Dei verbum". Retrieved 5 January 2021.
  17. 1 2 Keenan, James F (17 January 2010). A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century: From Confessing Sins to Liberating Consciences. p. 45. ISBN   9780826429292.
  18. White, James. "Does The Bible Teach Sola Scriptura?", Alpha & Omega Ministeries
  19. Humphrey, Edith M. (15 April 2013). Scripture and Tradition. Baker Books. p. 16. ISBN   978-1-4412-4048-4. historically Anglicans have adopted what could be called a prima Scriptura position.
  20. Novak, Victor E. (5 August 2011). "Scripture, Tradition, and the Deposit of Faith". Virtueonline. Retrieved 14 August 2019.

Further reading