Why is Tradition reliable?

Now, I want people to tackle this question without taking the assumption that the Pope is infallible, that would be circular reasoning from my point of view as well (Tradition is preserved by the Holy Spirit through those in communion with the Pope because the Pope is infallible, the Pope is infallible because of Scripture and Tradition, Tradition is preserved because the Pope is infallible).

Put yourself in the shoes of a person who is seeking the faith, and is trying to work out what the “true Church” is, using Scriptures and Tradition.

Taking the Chalcedonian schism into account, why is tradition trusted so much and assumed to not change over time?

The Chalcedonian bishops thought they were preserving tradition. The non-Chalcedonian bishops thought they were also preserving tradition. Apostolic succession doesn’t seem to have done much here.

Why trust tradition when we have these schisms, it seems like doctrines can change over time, there is no divine preservation but rather we must heed Jesus’ and Paul’s warnings to look out for false teachers.

The Scriptures are an objective source right in front of our eyes, it seems simple to trust it. Tradition is complex and is handed down and subject to the “Chinese whispers” effect. A further problem was the Arian heresy, for example, many bishops fell to that heresy, to the extent that it was said Athanasius stood against “the world”. When that many bishops, successors of the Apostles, can fall into serious doctrinal error, then why trust the church fathers and tradition to begin with, especially those who lived many centuries after Christ? One cannot answer with “the Pope” because that relies on tradition as well, his infallibility cannot be drawn explicitly from Scripture alone.

First, I don’t think you can, or the church does, view everything that happens with Christians as Sacred Tradition. When you read the Scriptures many of the doctrinal teachings were written to counter false teachings that people were following. Just because a person, a group of people, follow something does not make it included in what the Church considers Tradition. My understanding is that Tradition is that which the church taught or practiced as a whole between the time of Christ and ratification of the Canon (OT, NT, Apochrypha).

Hmm, so once the Canon was official, shall we say, Tradition ended in your opinion? What’s that till, the third or fourth centuries?

I’ll take a stab at this - please forgive any crudeness in my response, as you can see from my “religion” tag I am also considering Catholicism and am not a perfect expert in these things.

This assumes, ipso facto, that Scripture is an authority. How do we know it is an authority? Well, we look at Tradition. If you look at any arguments for the veracity of Scripture, at some point they involve quoting a list of figures who endorsed individually and collectively the New Testament canon. In the case of the books we accept, even heretics can be quoted, because there is such a broad consensus. Irenaeus, among other things, speaks of a Gospel taught the same everywhere as the standard for what is True in our faith.

So as a bare-bones starting point, I want to propose that we can accept what we find universal early consensus on as Tradition.

Tradition is also written down. We have written Tradition from many first, second, third and fourth century Church Fathers from before this particular schism took place. These are not individually preserved from error, but they cumulatively bear witness to Tradition. A comparison with Chinese whispers is not really appropriate as Tradition is:
A) Public, not whispered secrets and
B) Contained and checked by writings, including and most importantly Sacred Scripture

Your assertion here is only true if you start with the premise that the Pope is not, well, Pope. If the Catholic Church’s claim is true, and that union with the Church (and therefore Tradition) is defined by unity with the successor of Sts Peter and Paul, then apostolic succession preserved the great majority of the Church from the errors of a smaller non-Chalcedonian faction that fell away.

It is also not an A or B choice between trusting the Pope or watching for false teachers. IF we grant the Catholic claim for the moment that the Pope is the universal head of the Church, we still need to be wary of false teachers. There are still heretics which Popes can be slow to address and there have been anti-Popes in the history of the Church. Popes are also capable of making mistakes when not defining dogma. What we must still do is trust Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16:18 to protect the Church as a whole from permanently falling into error.

And that, in a nutshell, is why a question about the reliability of Tradition, needs to first pin down how to identify what authentic Tradition is. One method is mentioned above; the consensus of the whole Church. In addition to that there are two other possibilities:

The Orthodox method (as far as I understand it) is to close dogma as of the Triumph of Orthodoxy in the iconoclasm dispute.

The Catholic method is to make unity with the teaching of the Pope the method by which reliable Tradition is discerned.

Which one is right?

I think there’s enough information in Sacred Scripture and in what is shared by all historic Christian groups in the consensus of the first three hundred years of Christianity (before Arianism and Chalcedon) to make an informed choice.

For me, it looks like the Catholic position is correct based on Scripture and Tradition. Coming to that decision involved looking at how Peter is treated in Scripture (get an electronic Bible, search for “Peter” and read all the verses concerning him and their context) combined with what the Church Fathers wrote and my broad understanding of the history of Catholicism, Orthodoxy et al.

Feel free, Catholics, to correct me if I’ve misrepresented something!


I’m a catechumen (I’ll be baptized this Easter) and this is one of the more difficult questions I’ve found to tackle.

I’m sure that there are others on here that can probably give a more detailed answer, and I hope that they do respond, however, I think that you did a great job for what it’s worth! This is about how I would/could answer it in my current knowledge.

I’m curious though, you seem to have a pretty good grasp of things, what are you struggling with in order to make that choice to come home?

Ok I hope I can help here. (This is my second attempt as the first one just deleted!! Rrrrr)

The Sacred Tradition is the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles, it is the apostolic faith, it is the sermons of Paul and Peter, the advice John gave his friends and bishops. It is the example of living faith, it is the discussions had with Jesus while they traveled from town to town or sat around their lunch.

This and this alone is the Sacred Tradition. It is from this WORLDVIEW created at that time that the scriptures spring forth under Gods inspiration. It is this worldview that shows what Christianity is.

We know that Jesus left an authoritative church. A church that could settle problems and keep the faith given it. We see this in Matt 16 where Peter receives the keys and slso in Matt 18 where the church is designated to settle DEFINITIVELY disputes.

Individuals are not protected from error, but the church as a whole in unity with Peter. In Acts 15, if an errant apostle (Judas like person) had taught error and refused to listen to the council and its authoritative statement he would have been cut off. That does not undermine apostolic authority but strengthens it.

So too as controversies arose on what the apostolic faith was or how it should be applied to a changing world that was different than the world of the apostles. When needed church councils were called to determine what is the apostolic faith given us and how does it apply to this situation. You will see this in many council documents along the lines of “this was the faith given by the apostles”. So Arius wasn’t wrong to think a new way or present a question on Jesus’ divinity, but he was wrong to not listen to the church gathered saying that he was wrong and why.

We know these councils are protected because Jesus promised they would be.

I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you. "I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. After a little while the world will no longer see Me, but you will see Me; because I live, you will live also.

"These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful. (‭John‬ ‭14‬:‭16-19, 25-27‬ NASB)

So in closing, I’d like to offer an analogy.

Imagine a professor at a university taught subject X for 50 years. Everyday he lectured and everyday he taught subject x. He lived it. During the course of his career he wrote a textbook and apprenticed a small group to teach his subject and pass on his teaching. This small group traveled with him everyday.

When the professor dies, his followers this small group of apprentices passes on his teaching and continues lecturing on subject x. They too bring on apprentices and teach them and they learn subject x and continue passing it on.

After a while a group comes across the textbook and reads it differently. They say that the apprentices and lecturers are all wrong and the textbook alone contains the teaching of subject x.

How absurd would that be?

So too with rejection of apostolic authority, except we also have divine intervention involved!

Jon S.
The biggest problem with this is, I think, for those that don’t have faith in either the Catholic Church and/or Christ, is that we don’t have any “extrabiblical” texts from the Apostles.

(I personally can’t see WHY anyone who believes in the infallibility of the Bible would reject Sacred Tradition-especially since the Bible was compiled on the premis of Sacred Tradition-which for me left Orthodox, Coptic or the Catholic Church)

We have certain extrabiblical texts/gospels, but they have been deemed non-authentic for whatever reason and are not held in any way on the level of Scripture, and we don’t even hold them at the level of Father’s of the Church and/or Doctors.

We do have all of the texts of the apostles. They are in the New Testament. If they wrote more we would have them in the New Testament. Remember people did not write much in the first century since it was time consuming and expensive. The oral word was far more prevalent.

So we have writings from Peter, Paul, John, Matthew, Mark, Luke and we have writing about these people.

Also we have writings of people that knew the apostles that are authentic. People like Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch, and Clement of Rome. Those are authentic.

So I’m not really following the problem? What number of writings would you like? 27-35 books aren’t enough?

So I’m not really following the problem? What number of writings would you like? 27-35 books aren’t enough?

I’d be interested in where you are getting the number 35.

I’m not saying that they aren’t enough for me. But many reject the idea-many people say that they were written after the fact that the Apostles were alive and/or they were altered to fit with people’s thoughts/ideas.

Also, I think that a big point is this-we believe that Ignatius studied right under John the Apostle. Do we have any letters corresponding between the student and the teacher? Or is this fact established this just based on the premise that Ignatius states this fact in his letters?

Same with Peter-Linus-the Next Popes.
I know that Iraneous writes about the Pope’s line in 180 AD, but do we have any correspondance between the people?

Ignatius of Antioch heard John teach and was a friend of polycarp. His word and letters and the fact it’s undisputed at that time or any time seems evidence enough to me.

Letters between Apostles and others made public became part of the New Testament. Paul’s letters to Timothy are an example. We also have the three letters of John.

The 35 was a ball park to account for the letters and works of those who knew the apostles. 27 New Testament books plus a few more depending on how you count them.

It’s interesting to me that 1 Clement was almost in the New Testament, cut out at the last second. If it had been included every Protestant everywhere would defend it. But since it’s not they dismiss it.

It shows the fallacy of their position that they rely on church tradition for their New Testament while denying it.

When you get to the end of this, remember that everything said about the Bible applies to Tradition, also.

Proving Inspiration

The Catholic method of proving the Bible to be inspired is this: The Bible is initially approached as any other ancient work. It is not, at first, presumed to be inspired. From textual criticism we are able to conclude that we have a text the accuracy of which is more certain than the accuracy of any other ancient work.

Next we take a look at what the Bible, considered merely as a history, tells us, focusing particularly on the New Testament, and more specifically the Gospels. We examine the account contained therein of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Using what is in the Gospels themselves and what we find in extra-biblical writings from the early centuries, together with what we know of human nature (and what we can otherwise, from natural reason alone, know of divine nature), we conclude that either Jesus was just what he claimed to be—God—or he was crazy. (The one thing we know he could not have been was merely a good man who was not God, since no merely good man would make the claims he made.)

We are able to eliminate the possibility of his being a madman not just from what he said but from what his followers did after his death. Many critics of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection claim that Christ did not truly rise, that his followers took his body from the tomb and then proclaimed him risen from the dead. According to these critics, the resurrection was nothing more than a hoax. Devising a hoax to glorify a friend and mentor is one thing, but you do not find people dying for a hoax, at least not one from which they derive no benefit. Certainly if Christ had not risen, his disciples would not have died horrible deaths affirming the reality and truth of the resurrection. The result of this line of reasoning is that we must conclude that Jesus indeed rose from the dead. Consequently, his claims concerning himself—including his claim to be God—have credibility. He meant what he said and did what he said he would do.

Further, Christ said he would found a Church. Both the Bible (still taken as merely a historical book, not yet as an inspired one) and other ancient works attest to the fact that Christ established a Church with the rudiments of what we see in the Catholic Church today—papacy, hierarchy, priesthood, sacraments, and teaching authority.

We have thus taken the material and purely historically concluded that Jesus founded the Catholic Church. Because of his Resurrection we have reason to take seriously his claims concerning the Church, including its authority to teach in his name.

This Catholic Church tells us the Bible is inspired, and we can take the Church’s word for it precisely because the Church is infallible. Only after having been told by a properly constituted authority—that is, one established by God to assure us of the truth concerning matters of faith—that the Bible is inspired can we reasonably begin to use it as an inspired book.

A Spiral Argument

Note that this is not a circular argument. We are not basing the inspiration of the Bible on the Church’s infallibility and the Church’s infallibility on the word of an inspired Bible. That indeed would be a circular argument! What we have is really a spiral argument. On the first level we argue to the reliability of the Bible insofar as it is history. From that we conclude that an infallible Church was founded. And then we take the word of that infallible Church that the Bible is inspired. This is not a circular argument because the final conclusion (the Bible is inspired) is not simply a restatement of its initial finding (the Bible is historically reliable), and its initial finding (the Bible is historically reliable) is in no way based on the final conclusion (the Bible is inspired). What we have demonstrated is that without the existence of the Church, we could never know whether the Bible is inspired.

The advantages of the Catholic approach are two: First, the inspiration is really proved, not just “felt.” Second, the main fact behind the proof—the reality of an infallible, teaching Church—leads one naturally to an answer to the problem that troubled the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:30-31): How is one to know which interpretations are correct? The same Church that authenticates the Bible, that attests to its inspiration, is the authority established by Christ to interpret his word.

Didn’t find web page…

They must have changed the link or updated the article-

Thanks…good article.

Because it just is. Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture go hand and hand like thunder goes with lightning. Neither could exist without the other. What better example than the Council of Nicaea (325)? The heretic Arius had been going around North Africa and Palestine proclaiming that Jesus was not divine. The Council of Nicaea was called to settle the dispute. There the bishops interrogated Arius about his beliefs and cited scripture that they thought went against his viewpoint. However, Arius shocked the council by taking those passages that were quoted and interpreting them in a new and different way.

Eusebius of Caesarea criticized this new way of interpreting scripture, and used Sacred Tradition to prove him wrong. Eusebius challenged him to name a single Church Father from the first, second and third centuries who had ever interpreted scripture like that. Arius could not and was easily defeated at Nicaea.

By looking at the Council of Nicaea, you can see that these early Christians regarded the interpretation of scripture by the early Church Fathers to be almost dogmatic. Quite a few of the Fathers Eusebius talks about in his famous tome, Ecclesiastical History, knew the Apostles and heard the Gospel straight from their mouths. Their writings and the writings of their proteges are vital in our understanding of Sacred Scripture.

Thank you! This is good information. I’ll have to take a look at Eusebius’s writings.

Since the 27 NT texts are part of that Tradition I think its also fair to ask why we should trust them also. The community of believers (early Church) was preaching and teaching for decades before a single NT writing was written. So why not take your question just one step back. Some of the NT texts were probable written as long as 60 years after the ministry of Jesus. Why should we trust someone today that writes about someone from the the 1950s regarding historical and theological truth? Thats a long time for things to get confused, mixed up, exagerrated etc.

Hi Randy,
Don’t you think that even with the Church the inspiration of the Scriptures is something like that of the Incarnation of Christ in that it is a matter of faith not logical deduction. I have never really understood the usefulness of the “spiral argument”.

simspt #19
I have never really understood the usefulness of the “spiral argument”.

As great apologists have empathically supported it you should rethink your confusion.

The reality is that:
Fact 1: There was a man called Jesus.
Fact 2: He claimed to be a messenger sent from God.
Fact 3: He did enough to prove that He was such a messenger.
Fact 4: Crowds followed Jesus and He had an inner circle to whom he spoke much more.
Fact 5: He commissioned His followers to continue His teaching and founded His Church.
Fact 6: Jesus affirmed that God would protect that teaching.

The writings of these facts—the Gospels – are comparable with other ancient documents from writers such as Caesar, Tacitus, Thucydides and others, they are all reliable as history.

Historically, they prove that the messenger sent from God worked many miracles to support His mission and teaching to the extent of forgiving sins. God as Truth cannot provide such power to prove falsehood, so the claims of Jesus are true, culminating in the fact of His resurrection from the dead.

**So from the reliability of the Gospels as history, we now know that:

  1. An infallible Church was founded by the Son of God
  2. That infallible Church teaches that the Bible, as She has given us, is the inspired Word of God.**

The authority for the Bible is the Church.

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