What exactly is Sacred Tradition?

Hello! I hope this is the right place to ask this question.

I was raised Catholic (and confirmed when I was 13), but I was either poorly catechized or didn’t pay attention or both, because I don’t really know much about the Catholic faith. Long story short, I left the church, and years later ended up in a small Presbyterian denomination, but recently have found myself considering whether there is a visible “true church” and where it would be.

I’ve been reading more about Catholicism, and one thing I’m a bit stuck on is what exactly Sacred Tradition is. My sense is that it’s defined as the deposit of faith given to the Church by Christ and his apostles. But I can’t say I really understand what that means. :blush: Is Tradition a set of teachings, or is it the authority to create teachings? If it’s a set of teachings, where did they come from, and how can the church decide whether they are from God or not?

I hope that question makes sense. It’s the idea of Sacred Tradition that is biggest theological obstacle to me right now (leaving our current church, which is a thriving community of people who really love God and are active in their faith, for a Catholic Church after my experience growing up in a Catholic Church where nobody ever really seemed to take their faith seriously or even really think about God outside of Mass is the practical obstacle). Like, my church has the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is obviously a man-made theological tradition, but it’s acknowledged as such and members aren’t bound by it. So I’m just interested in knowing both what exactly Sacred Tradition is and the argument for it being not simply a man-made set of teachings and practices but divine and bindingly authoritative.

"Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21)

Jesus sends the Apostles with His authority. They do have the authority to make binding and authoritative decisions as demonstrated in Acts 15 at the Council of Jerusalem. Sacred Tradition is basically the totality of the Faith whether written down (Sacred Scripture), or passed on orally and/or through practice (which is generally called Sacred Tradition). It encompasses many things that are not explicitly taught in the Bible. A few examples are the Trinity, infant baptism, purification after death (Purgatory), etc. But it can also include things that are very biblical like the Eucharist, Salvation, Sanctification, Justification, etc.

The doctrines of the Faith can develop over time based on truths already contained within the deposit of Faith. For example, the doctrine of the Trinity was not spelled out, but over time became what we have today based on the revealed truths. While the doctrines can develop over time, they can never contradict the Sacred Tradition originally handed on. They can flesh it out better, but never contradict or add something completely new.

I’d encourage you to read in the Catechism Section 1, Chapters 1-3 and the Articles under each Chapter:


Divine Revelation consists of both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. Together they form the Deposit of Faith.

It’s the teachings received from the apostles that weren’t written down in Scripture. It’s also important to note that doctrines are not the same as discipline (practices). Ths Trinity is doctrine. Christ being fully human and fully divine is doctrine. The Real Presence of the Eucharist is doctrine. The theology of the sacraments is doctrine (though how we practice them may have been formalized over time, so there is discipline involved). Priests not marrying is a discipline. The Church witnessing marriage is a discipline. The robes priests wear are a discipline. Dress codes are discipline. Doctrines cannot be reversed. Disciplines can be changed according to the time and culture.

The Catholic Church cannot strictly create new doctrines. It does have the authority to connect the dots, though. For example: the Trinity. This was not strictly formulated in either scripture or in tradition, but the Church connected the dots among what was handed down by the apostles to make this formal definition. The same with Christ being fully human and fully divine. This is the truth handed down by the apostles, but they didn’t supply technical language and such. When the Church is able to find the implications of some teachings, they might find that there are further implications that follow from that. This is not new revelation, but of becoming more precise in our beliefs, and seeing how connecting the dots here leads to other opportunities to connect the dots. Some doctrines might not be apparent until other doctrines are worked out first. For example, we could really only inquire into Christ’s personhood and the relation between his divine and human natures after the Church first formally worked out how to express that Christ was fully human and divine, and that his Sonship’s divinity was consubstantial with the Father’s. Only after you’ve properly defined his humanhood and divinity do you then realize there are further implications and must ask “Did he have a human soul? Did he have a human will? Did he have a divine will? What does it mean to be fully human? And how does all this fit together?”

The Magisterium does not get new revelation. They work out what the revelation we’ve received means such that our beliefs are more precise and fleshed out over time.

Also, doctrinal development like this generally only happens when controversy arises over what the implications from the deposit of faith are, or when longstanding teachings are questioned.

I think this is getting at where my confusion is. How do we know what was passed on orally or through practice? Are there documents or artifacts from the very early church that you go back to, or is the idea that if a practice or teaching has continued, then the fact that it continued is evidence that it is part of Sacred Tradition?

Thank you, this is very helpful!

Thinking specifically about the doctrine of Jesus being both fully human and fully divine, there was some disagreement for centuries about that within the church, if I recall correctly. Or, something like the filoque controversy, on which the early church seemed to hold different views. So I think what I’m trying to figure out is how, in a situation like that, how does the church determine which position is actually part of Sacred Tradition and which is not? At what point does it become part of Sacred Tradition? Is it when it is actually formally affirmed by the church or is the idea that it was always part of Sacred Tradition and the church just came to understand it as such?

It’s a little of both.

Also, keep in mind Tradition (capital T) is a teaching on the faith and/or on morals. It is part of the deposit of faith. For example, the doctrine of the Trinity is not explicit in Scripture and is a teaching of Sacred Tradition, revealed by Christ, hinted at in Scripture, and then clarified and explained through the Magisterium-- the Bishops in union with the Pope --over time.

The traditions (small t) of the Church, like liturgical colors, prayers, not eating meat on Fridays, etc., are NOT part of the Deposit of Faith, not a teaching on faith or morals. They are, rather, ways of doing things– things that help us in our spirituality. They may be mandatory or optional, but they are governed by Church law (and therefore completely changeable).

here’s an article on both Tradition and tradition:


Generally both scripture and the written testimony of the Church Fathers is appealed to to look for consistency and what is authentically apostolic, as are prior doctrinal developments, which increase over time. We trust that the Church is prevented from formally defining heresy as doctrine, per Christ’s promise that the gates of Hell should never prevail against it (Mt 16:18) and that Christ’s prayers for Peter that his faith should not fail (Luke 22:32) are efficacious and attributable to the communion of Bishops and the Pope as participating in Peter’s ministry.

Note: This “infallibility” is a limit. It doesn’t mean that the Church has always immediately condemned heretical beliefs, or that the Church is licensed to come up with new revelation. It’s a limit on what the Church’s Magisterium can do.

For example, let’s pretend that the Magisterium’s infallibility extends to a certain multiple choice test with 100 questions. If I were to ask you what is the minimum number of questions the Church would answer correctly based on its infallibility, you might think the answer is 100, for how could it answer wrongly? That’s not the correct answer. The correct answer is 0. Not because the Magisterium selected the wrong multiple choice answer, but because it could conceivably leave every multiple choice question blank. The Church was not obliged to answer anything on the multiple choice test. Silence is an option. It is only prevented from answering it wrongly. This goes for formal, Church-wide exercises of the teaching authority on faith and morals, not the opinions or theology of individual men.

We trust that Christ left a living Church precisely for the purpose of teaching and guarding against error. It’s why we put faith in the traditions we received and in scripture itself.


Welcome to the forum!

…you already know what tradition (human) is; I have never heard it said before (a group asserting that they are following human tradition)… now for the different Tradition.

Sacred Tradition is both Oral (usually referred to as Apostolic Tradition or simply Tradition) and Written (Sacred Scriptures):

[FONT=“Garamond”][size=]13 But we feel that we must be continually thanking God for you, brothers whom the Lord loves, because God chose you from the beginning to be saved by the sanctifying Spirit and by faith in the truth. 14 Through the Good News that we brought he called you to this so that you should share the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 Stand firm, then, brothers, and keep the traditions that we taught you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. 16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father who has given us his love and, through his grace, such inexhaustible comfort and such sure hope, 17 comfort you and strengthen you in everything good that you do or say.

(2 Thessalonians 2:13-17)
The main problem with non-Catholics’ understanding is that they are working from a limited scope of time and location–they only travel back to Luther and his contemporaries and fill the holes (the missing fifteen hundred years of Church history) with constructs of “church apostasy,” “underground church” or some other sort/s of revisionist’s history.

Now, when we read Sacred Scriptures we find that there is a lot of material that is not covered by the Written Tradition (Sacred Scriptures); Scriptures themselves explicitly or implicitly state this:

12 I still have many things to say to you but they would be too much for you now. 13 But when the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth, since he will not be speaking as from himself but will say only what he has learnt; and he will tell you of the things to come. 14 He will glorify me, since all he tells you will be taken from what is mine. 15 Everything the Father has is mine; that is why I said: All he tells you will be taken from what is mine.

(St. John 16:12-15)

14 I am saying all this not just to make you ashamed but to bring you, as my dearest children, to your senses. 15 You might have thousands of guardians in Christ, but not more than one father and it was I who begot you in Christ Jesus by preaching the Good News. 16 That is why I beg you to copy me 17 and why I have sent you Timothy, my dear and faithful son in the Lord: he will remind you of the way that I live in Christ, as I teach it everywhere in all the churches. 18 When it seemed that I was not coming to visit you, some of you became self-important, 19 but I will be visiting you soon, the Lord willing, and then I shall want to know not what these self-important people have to say, but what they can do, 20 since the kingdom of God is not just words, it is power. 21 It is for you to decide: do I come with a stick in my hand or in a spirit of love and goodwill? (1 Corinthians 4:14-21)
…those who protest would quickly claim, “but everything dealing with Salvation was revealed;” clearly, their intent is not to be submissive to Sacred Scriptures, as they often claim (‘the Bible has the final word’), but to remain separated from the One Faith, One Body, Founded by Christ.

Yet, as the Gospel and the Apostolic Writing attest there Fullness of Truth is not fully Unfolded in the Written Word. This is the Sacred Oral Tradition (don’t forget that the New Covenant Writings did not begin to take shake till a few decades after Christ’s Ascension–they only had the Oral Tradition!

Curiously enough the New Covenant Writings did not take off on a dime… the Infant Church faced heresies and the Apostle had to battle these to keep the Flock from going astray; right from Scriptures we see that there’s a Challenge to Apostolic Teaching and that some were attempting to derail the efforts made by the Apostles by creating confusion and doubt:

15 Think of our Lord’s patience as your opportunity to be saved: our brother Paul, who is so dear to us, told you this when he wrote to you with the wisdom that is his special gift. 16 He always writes like this when he deals with this sort of subject, and this makes some points in his letter hard to understand; these are the points that uneducated and unbalanced people distort,** in the same way as they distort the rest of scripture**

– a fatal thing for them to do. 17 You have been warned about this, my friends; be careful not to get carried away by the errors of unprincipled people, from the firm ground that you are standing on. (2 St. Peter 3:15-17)
Did you noticed how it is Cephas that declares that the Apostolic Writings are Sacred Scriptures? …did he point to the definition of their Faith as the Sacred Scriptures or the Teaching of the Apostles, which includes the Sacred Writings?

Maran atha!




…this is what I meant by the holes from which non-Catholics view the Faith… since they reject the Church’s Authority, they do not accept the historical writings of the Church Fathers; this leaves a gigantic empty feeling and a myriad of questions, suspicions, and doubts.

Here’s something from St. Justin Martyr, the first Christian Apologist (recorded outside of Sacred Scriptures):

Saint Justin, also known as Justin Martyr (Greek: Ιουστίνος ο Μάρτυρας, Latin: Iustinus Martyr) was an early Christian apologist, and is regarded as the foremost interpreter of the theory of the Logos in the 2nd century.[2] (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Justin_Martyr


And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration. (newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm


…you may also want to read the Didache:

New Advent: (newadvent.org/fathers/0714.htm


The Didache (/ˈdɪdəkeɪ/ or /ˈdɪdəkiː/; Greek: Διδαχή, translit. Didakhé, lit. “Teaching”),[1] also known as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, is a brief anonymous early Christian treatise, dated by most modern scholars to the first century.[2] The first line of this treatise is “The teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles (or Nations) by the twelve apostles”.[a] (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Didache

Maran atha!




Luther is not the first dissenter… there were division right from the pages of Sacred Scriptures; the Apostles had to set the rules… as for the Jesus issues there were two major ones: a) cannot be human, b) not Divine.

…go back to what I cited in St. John 16–Jesus state that His Apostles were not yet ready to receive the Full Unfolding of the Truth… so has been the history of the Church; many pious people have taken their own interpretation/understanding and forged a theology which they quickly spread (recall St. Peter’s warning about false/corrupt teaching).

The Teaching of the Apostles have never wavered from the Truth; it is only man’s thirst for power and fame that thrusts him into reinventing the wheel; the Apostles Taught that Jesus was Fully Divine:

[FONT=“Garamond”][size=]6 His state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God 7 but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are; and being as all men are, 8 he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.

(Philippians 2:6-8)
…and Jesus was Fully human:

7 There are many deceivers about in the world, refusing to admit that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. They are the Deceiver; they are the Antichrist. 8 Watch yourselves, or all our work will be lost and not get the reward it deserves. 9 If anybody does not keep within the teaching of Christ but goes beyond it, he cannot have God with him: only those who keep to what he taught can have the Father and the Son with them. 10 If anyone comes to you bringing a different doctrine, you must not receive him in your house or even give him a greeting. 11 To greet him would make you a partner in his wicked work.

(2 St. John 1:11)
(Note how the heresies are being checked and Believers are Commanded to reject those who hold to heresies.)
Jesus is Fully Divine and Fully human:

2 You can tell the spirits that come from God by this: every spirit which acknowledges that Jesus the Christ has come in the flesh is from God; 3 but any spirit which will not say this of Jesus is not from God, but is the spirit of Antichrist, whose coming you were warned about. Well, now he is here, in the world.

(1 St. John 4:2-3)
…ultimately, the Church placed this in her declaration of Faith:

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man. (usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/


Remember, as with the New Covenant Writings, it is the Holy Spirit Who Inspires the Church to both Receive and make Known the Fullness of the Truth!

Maran atha!



The Catholic Faith is based on a tripod, Scripture, Tradition (capital T) and the living magisterium. These are not totally separate but support each other. Out of hundreds of possible scriptures, the Magisterium canonized 27 NT books. Out of thousands of Christian traditions, the Magisterium in effect “canonized” a small body of wisdom.

Tradition helped guide which scriptures became Scripture, and Scripture helped guide which traditions became Tradition. Both Scripture and Tradition guide the magisterium. Just because a belief is old doesn’t make it Scripture, or Tradition. The Gnostic Christians had lots of beliefs. The Magisterium can’t, for instance, now add to Christian doctrine about the Jews. But it can, and did during Vatican II, issue a document rebuking anti-Semitism, and reflecting more deeply on their role, in relation to Christians now. The ancient and honored practice of anti-Semitism has no place.

The Magisterium can’t, in the 19th century, add new Christian dogma about Mary. But the Magisterium could, and did, reflect on questions raised in Scripture and Tradition, and find that a very old doctrine of the Immaculate Conception could be refined and defined.

Thank you! And thanks to everybody who has answered. I actually saw that Catholic Answers has a booklet called “Scripture & Tradition” so I’m going to check that out, too!

There have been some good answers but one thing I see as missing that maybe I can fill in.

There is also something called “Living Tradition”. I believe it comes from the idea of the “Seat of Moses” that gave counceling to the Hebrew People. Jesus mentions them in Matt 23:2. But in the New Covenant, the apostles are the new authority with the power to bind and loose. This means that as the Church moves forward in time the apostles and their successors by the rights of their office have the authority to make decisions for the Church concerning faith and morals. This is called the Magisterium and it can give the advice to us concerning issues that come up which we are required to believe like the Assumption of Mary into heaven. The Acts of the Apostles show this happening at the Council of Jerusalem.

Protestants do not have such a group with the authority given to them by Jesus because their ecclesiology is much different mainly believing only the bible alone or what their pastor tells them.

The Magisterium then protects the deposit of faith from heresy and defines what has been handed on to us from Jesus as a continuous living body with the guarantee of the Holy Spirit.


…and we can see Unfolding right from Scriptures:

  • Filling Juda’s abandoned Office
  • Cephas’ pronouncement right at Pentecost
  • Declaration that the Holy Spirit works in and through the Church
  • Sanctioning of pretenders to the Fellowship
  • Commissioning and Authorizing Missions
  • Organizing the Magisterium of the Church
  • Setting Boundaries for Apostles, Bishops, Presbyters, Deacons
  • Setting up the Church’s Worship Practices, Doctrine, and Community Outreach

The problem lies with rejection of Church Authority–it is said that there’s none more blind than he/she that do not want to see… non-Catholics cannot but only see what they desire to see, even when Scriptures hits them square in the face!

Maran atha!


Originally Posted by detles
I think this is getting at where my confusion is. How do we know what was passed on orally or through practice? Are there documents or artifacts from the very early church that you go back to, or is the idea that if a practice or teaching has continued, then the fact that it continued is evidence that it is part of Sacred Tradition?

The question probably has already been answered but…

Everything that the Catholic Church teaches can be found both implicitly and explicitly in the Bible (Sacred Scripture). It can also be found both implicitly and explicitly in the writings of the early Church. Whether it was passed on orally originally (such as Jesus’ teachings) they were very quickly written as well so that no doctrinal teaching is strictly an oral tradition. This teaching can then later be clarified typically when something is brought into question. I could be mistaken, but until such time that the Church dogmatically defines something, it is technically part of the Sacred Tradition.

Again I go back to the first church council of Jerusalem found in Acts 15. There was disagreement, but when the Church made its decision, the decision was final and authoritatively binding. The same can be said of every church council that deals with doctrinal issues, whether it was the Council of Nicaea in regards to the Trinity and the Creed, or the Council of Trent in regards to Justification or any of the other doctrinal statements.

Many of the core beliefs of Christians we know only by Tradition. The “Apostles Creed” for example. Almost every Christian knows it, yet its origin is “unknown” except by the tradition that it was passed on by the Apostles. What I found of interest from reading the Church Fathers was that they never wrote as if they were saying something new, they were merely trying to explain what was already known. Where there was disagreement, it was usually because they were trying to say the same thing, but stressing a different aspect or trying to come to a better and deeper understanding. If you haven’t looked into the Church Fathers, I highly recommend Rod Bennett’s “Four Witnesses” and “The Apostasy that Wasn’t” as an introduction to them.

The bottom line is, Jesus gave his authority to his Church. When the Church dogmatically defines something and teaches it, it is with Christ’s authority who commanded them to “teach all nations”, not as the word of men but as the word of God taught by men (1 Thess 2:13). If the Church were to teach error, then the gates of hell would prevail against the Church and it would be better for a millstone to be tied around it and cast into the sea for misleading people (Matt 16:8; 18:6). Faith in Jesus necessitates faith in the Church that he founded with a promise because it is built upon Himself and the Apostles (Eph 2:20).

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