Contents of holy tradition

Roman Catholicism teaches that revelation comes to the Church in two sources: Scripture and the Tradition of the Church. One is written, the other is transmitted orally down the ages. They are not unrelated, nor are they to be interpreted the one without the other.

But what are the contents of the holy Tradition of the Church? How can we distinguish between the holy Tradition of revealed truths, and laudable customs of the Church inherited from previous generations?

Would modern Roman Catholics agree that the practices described by St. Basil the Great in chapter xxvii of On the Holy Spiritare “delivered to us “in a mystery” by the tradition of the apostles”?

Source, from an Eastern Orthodox website so that you know I’m genuinely interested, and don’t think this is just a random Protestant attack on the concept of holy tradition].

Scripture was determined by the measuring stick of Tradition. Scripture is a written portion of the whole Tradition, but not the entire Tradition. Scripture should be interpreted in light of Tradition, but I have never heard that Tradition should be understood in light of scripture…that does not make sense to me.

What is the content of tradition, besides Scripture?

Before I reply, I’d like to set some parameters on what I understand tradition, in light of Catholic theologians and Catholic documents. After all, you are asking about our understanding of holy tradition and what we mean by it - correct?

Tradition is the assimilation of the past in understanding the present, without a break in the continuity of a society’s life, and without considering the past as outmoded. (M. Dufrenne, Cathiers Internat de Sociologie - 1947)

In its different forms, tradition is like the conscience of a group or the principle of identity that links one generation with another; it enables them to remain the same peoples as they go forward throughout history, which transforms all things. (Cardinal Congar, The Meaning of Tradition - 1964).

I’d also like to refer you to Dei Verbum’s 2nd chapter (All of it really, as it is great).


  1. In His gracious goodness, God has seen to it that what He had revealed for the salvation of all nations would abide perpetually in its full integrity and be handed on to all generations. Therefore Christ the Lord in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion (see Cor. 1:20; 3:13; 4:6), commissioned the Apostles to preach to all men that Gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching, (1) and to impart to them heavenly gifts. This Gospel had been promised in former times through the prophets, and Christ Himself had fulfilled it and promulgated it with His lips. This commission was faithfully fulfilled by the Apostles who, by their oral preaching, by example, and by observances handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they had learned through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The commission was fulfilled, too, by those Apostles and apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing. (2)

But in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, “handing over” to them “the authority to teach in their own place.”(3) This sacred tradition, therefore, and Sacred Scripture of both the Old and New Testaments are like a mirror in which the pilgrim Church on earth looks at God, from whom she has received everything, until she is brought finally to see Him as He is, face to face (see 1 John 3:2).

  1. And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (see 2 Thess. 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (see Jude 1:3) (4) Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.

This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. (5) For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.

The words of the holy fathers witness to the presence of this living tradition, whose wealth is poured into the practice and life of the believing and praying Church. Through the same tradition the Church’s full canon of the sacred books is known, and the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her; and thus God, who spoke of old, uninterruptedly converses with the bride of His beloved Son; and the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel resounds in the Church, and through her, in the world, leads unto all truth those who believe and makes the word of Christ dwell abundantly in them (see Col. 3:16).

I don’t think I can honestly move forward unless we can agree up to this point.

Awesome question. :popcorn:

I have always wondered why Catholics say that scripture is just the tradition that the RCC decided to write down(paraphrased in my own obtuse understanding). The confusing part is why the epistles to the Corinthians even had to be written. If Paul was just regurgitating tradition it seems that the leaders should have already been following the tradition they were told by the Apostles or should have been Apostles themselves. I guess what I am saying is if the leaders already knew what they were supposed to be doing and just were not following tradition. It seems like it would just be easier to kick them out of their positions and put people in who knew tradition and would have the intestinal fortitude to enforce it. If they already knew tradition would not a simple 3 sentence letter suffice. If they already knew the traditions Paul was telling them what good was telling them, and why have two letters.

It seems to me way more plausible that the leaders thought they were doing what was right and they were trying to follow God the best they knew how. I also think that they as well as all Christians need/ed guidance. Therefore God divinely inspired Paul to write them/us 2 letters.

Isaiah and I are best buds. He loves just telling me I am wrong with no explanation. If I am thinking of the wrong person please accept my apology

I’m still in :popcorn: mode though.

Who says that Holy Tradition is oral? It is all written down in the documents of the Church. The councils of Ecumenical Councils, the decrees of Popes, the encyclicals and dogmatic constitutions, these are all Holy Tradition and these are all written, indeed, they are mostly available on the Internet for us all to study in various translations and the original languages.

Teachings can begin in oral transmission, just as surely as Moses’ law began and Jesus’ parables and sermons. To this day we have oral homilies and even YouTube videos made by the likes of Father Barron. But at some point, the important bits are written down so as to be transmitted accurately and securely across the ages.

Au contraire, mon ami!

Isaiah helps Protestor

And I raise you a bucket!


Isn’t this what concrete camper meant when he/she/it said “Scripture is a written portion of the whole Tradition”

Before you had the councils, and I would say quite a few of them, it was mainly oral. First council of Nicaea in the early 300’s and it really is not a long document. The councils as far as I can tell were done to settle disputes with usually rouge church leaders.They were not the mainly to embody all of doctrine and dogma.

[quote=Isaiah45_9]And I raise you a bucket!

Isaiah sooooo sorry. There was a guy I asked for more than one line answers and he basically said I was not worth his time. You two have the same avatar. Thank you so much for that I really have used it.

I do not think I can eat three buckets

The Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures of the fourth session of the Council of Trent.

The sacred and holy, ecumenical, and general Synod of Trent,–lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, the Same three legates of the Apostolic Sec presiding therein,–keeping this always in view, that, errors being removed, the purity itself of the Gospel be preserved in the Church; which (Gospel), before promised through the prophets in the holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline; and seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand; (the Synod) following the examples of the orthodox Fathers, receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety, and reverence, all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament–seeing that one God is the author of both –as also the said traditions, as well those appertaining to faith as to morals, as having been dictated, either by Christ’s own word of mouth, or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession


While the contents of said tradition may be written down, and Basil seems to think that that’s what he’s doing, they are in the first instance oral.

So how do we know that the content of revelation is, as opposed to dogmatic development? You say that the decrees of the Popes and the Councils are the tradition in written form; I say fine, but how do we distinguish between the revelation and the faithful reception? Re: the eucharist, you can point to John 6, and say that transubstantiation is a legitimate development of its teaching. How do we demonstrate the same developmental legitimacy with the oral tradition?

Yep, ok, I think we can agree on what you’ve posted so far, as long as we can further clarify two points.

As I’ve posted elsewhere on this thread, Trent clearly states that there is an oral tradition coming from the Apostles, which is part of public revelation. With this in mind, Dufrenne and Congar are quite right with regard to the mechanism of tradition in the Church, its transmission and function through the ages, but they are silent (in the quotes you provided, at least) on its origin and (original) content. Basil seems to have his opinions; I’m asking for yours.

It’s that particular aspect of the holy tradition that I’m interested in.

Does anyone have any more thoughts to share on this?

The holy, ecumenical and general Council of Trent, lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, the same three legates of the Apostolic See presiding, keeps this constantly in view, namely, that the purity of the Gospel may be preserved in the Church after the errors have been removed.

This [Gospel], of old promised through the Prophets in the Holy Scriptures,[1] our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, promulgated first with His own mouth, and then commanded it to be preached by His Apostles to every creature[2] as the source at once of all saving truth and rules of conduct.

It also clearly perceives that these truths and rules are contained in the written books and in the unwritten traditions, which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ Himself, or from the Apostles themselves,[3] the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand.


What does “Catholic and reformed” in your religion mean?

The Church of England is made up of two provinces of the Latin Church, Canterbury and York, which were separated from the rest of the Latin Church during the reformation. We see ourselves as standing in broad continuity with Western Catholicism, having inherited our faith and our church structures from the pre-reformation church, while at the same time recognising that during the reformation we were separated from Rome and placed strong emphasis on salvation by grace through faith, like the other Protestant churches did.

I’m tired, so that wasn’t a great explanation :o


We Orthodox hold a similar teaching about Holy Tradition, although we would say that Scripture is just part of Holy Tradition rather than being something distinct.

While it would be impossible to list everything that is part of Holy Tradition, we know that it must be internally consistent. Since we can name a great deal that is Holy Tradition - The writings of the saints, scripture, the Canons of the Ecumenical Councils - we have something to compare others to. We must also remember that not everything the saints wrote is necessarily Holy Tradition. They were fallible, and they were human. If one saint disagrees with a consensus we can agree that the saints specific point must not be part of Holy Tradition, likewise if there seems to be no consensus among the saints on a topic we can also accept that Holy Tradition does not speak on that topic itself (for on any important topic consensus was eventually reached).

In short Holy Tradition is not really oral, but it is not written down either. It is simply the consistent message of the Church through the centuries.

Great! We can move forward. :thumbsup:

Working on it.

There are two schools of thought on Tradition. The first is that Tradition represents additional content not found in scripture. The second is that Tradition represents another mode of transmission of the Gospel.

Here is an illustration I came up with to explain the latter:

Tradition and A Few Good Catholic Men

Tradition is often thought to add to the content of the Gospel, and indeed, there are things that we know from Sacred Tradition that we cannot learn exclusively from Sacred Scripture. This manner of looking at Scripture and Tradition is known as the “Two Source” model, and it is one valid way of understanding the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. However, another model, called the “Two Mode” model, recognizes that Tradition is also properly understood to be another mode of transmission of the one Gospel.

I want to focus here on the Two Mode model, and I would like to offer an excerpt from the movie, A Few Good Men, which illustrates this principal very clearly. In this courtroom scene, Cpl. Barnes is on the witness stand being cross-examined first by the prosecutor, Capt. Ross, and then by the defense attorney, Lt. Kaffee.

Capt. Ross: Corporal Barnes, I hold here the Marine Corps Outline for Recruit Training. You’re familiar with this book?
Cpl. Barnes: Yes, sir.
Capt. Ross: You’ve read it?
Cpl. Barnes: Yes, sir.
Capt. Ross: Good. Would you open it up to the chapter that deals with code reds, please?
Cpl. Barnes: Sir?
Capt. Ross: Just flip open to the page of the book that talks about code reds.
Cpl. Barnes: Well, sir code red is a term that we use, I mean, just down at Gitmo, I really don’t think that…
Capt. Ross: Ah, we’re in luck then. Standard Operating Procedures, Rifle Security Company, Guantanamo Bay Cuba. Now I assume we’ll find the term code red and its definition in that book. Am I right?
Cpl. Barnes: No, sir.
Capt. Ross: Corporal Barnes, I’m a Marine. Is there no book, no pamphlet or manual, no regulation or set of written orders or instructions that lets me know that, as a Marine, one of my duties is to perform code reds?
Cpl. Barnes: No, sir. No book, sir.
Capt. Ross: No further questions.
[as Ross walks back to his table Kaffee takes the book out of his hand]
Kaffee: Corporal, would you open this book up to the part that says that where the mess hall is?
Cpl. Barnes: Well, Lt Kaffee, that’s not in the book either, sir.
Kaffee: You mean to say the entire time you’ve been at Gitmo you’ve never had a meal?
Cpl. Barnes: No, sir. Three squares a day, sir.
Kaffee: Well, I don’t understand. How did you know where the mess hall was if it wasn’t in this book?
Cpl. Barnes: I guess I just followed the crowd at chow time, sir.
Kaffee: Thanks. No more questions.


Lt. Kaffee powerfully demonstrates the idea that some things in the life of a marine are learned not from a book but from observation of others. In the life of the Church, Catholics refer to this oral form of teaching as Sacred Tradition, and it is every bit as authoritative as the written word because God has authored them both.

When the Apostles taught about whether infants were to be baptized, how the Lord’s Supper was to be celebrated, about confession, weddings and many other things, they did not write an instruction manual. They taught by their actions and their personal example - their living witness - what we are to believe and do.

Jesus quoted scripture but never wrote a word Himself; the Apostles learned exclusively from what He said and what He did. In turn, the Apostles taught their disciples by their oral preaching and teaching, by their personal example, and by their written letters. Finally, the successors of the Apostles, the Bishops of the Catholic Church, continue to teach as Jesus and the Apostles did - from the scriptures, from their manner of life and from their oral teaching.

I know this is frustrating to Protestants–it was frustrating for me for years–but I don’t think there is an answer to that question.

This is in fact one of the most important developments in Catholic self-understanding brought about by the Reformation and the need to explain Tradition in the face of the Protestant challenge. In the Reformation era most Catholics probably did think about Tradition (when conceived of as something distinct from Scripture) in terms of specific ideas or practices. The concept of Tradition as something separate from Scripture seems to have been promoted mostly by canon lawyers, who were naturally thinking in terms of practices, rules, etc. The scholastic theologians tended to think of Tradition more in terms of the interpretation of Scripture, which was seen as the ultimate, authoritative textbook for theology.

Over the past 500 years, Catholics have some to a more nuanced understanding of Tradition as the ongoing life of the Church. On the whole, I think the Eastern Church expresses this better than the Western by using the word “Tradition” to mean the entire revealed Word of God or apostolic revelation. Scripture, official Church dogma, preaching and catechesis, liturgy, and pious practices would all be among the many ways in which this truth is transmitted. Scripture holds pride of place among these, because it is the verbal Word of God. However, many of the other forms of transmission are non-propositional (I would argue that the most profound aspects of Scripture are also non-propositional) and even non-verbal.

St. Basil’s examples are excellent ones. The sign of the Cross is perhaps not itself divine revelation. But it embodies in a non-verbal form all kinds of things that couldn’t be expressed fully in propositional form.


I don’t think Lutherans would have much problem with this definition. Where we have problem with ‘Tradition’ is as we perceive it:

Lutheran: Papal-infalibility? That’s seems new, or at least the dogma seems new…
Catholic: Tradition!
Lutheran: Where? How?
Catholic: Tradition!
Lutheran: Hmmm…

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit