Tradition: Catholic/Protestant Views

…. How does God speak to the world through such revelation? A major difference between Catholics and Protestants is found in the answer to this question.

Catholics affirm that God speaks to the world through Tradition and Scripture. Similar to the twofold way that Jesus’ apostles communicated the gospel—orally, through preaching, and in writing, through the biblical text—so God communicates to his people today in a twofold pattern: the teaching, or Tradition, of the Church’s bishops, who are the successors of the apostles, and Scripture. “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are bound closely together and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out of the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing and move toward the same goal” (CCC 80). Thus, these two modes are two streams of one source of divine authority.

Tradition is “the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit” (CCC 81). This oral communication was in turn handed over by the apostles to their successors, the bishops of the Church, who maintain this Tradition and, on occasion, proclaim it as Church doctrine. For example, the Church declares the immaculate conception of Mary and her bodily assumption (to be treated later) as part of Tradition. The other mode of divine revelation is Scripture. Though Catholics and Protestants stand together in their belief that the Bible is the God-breathed, written revelation of God, they part company on many other points in their understanding of Scripture. Significantly, the Catholic Church “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence” (CCC 82).

Against the Catholic affirmation of Scripture and Tradition as authoritative divine revelation, Protestants assert the principle of sola Scriptura: Scripture, and Scripture alone, is authoritative divine revelation. God speaks to the world through his Word, which is written Scripture only, not Scripture plus Tradition. This Protestant critique of Tradition is grounded on several points.

First, Protestants believe that the Catholic position has thin biblical support. For example, to buttress their position, Catholics appeal to Jesus’ explanation to his disciples: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12). They claim this passage as an example of Jesus underscoring the necessity of both Scripture and Tradition—what he could reveal to them as he was speaking with them, and what he would need to reveal to them later, when they were able to absorb it.

The Protestant response insists that this interpretation misses the point of that interaction. It is simply telling us that as Jesus was speaking with his disciples, they could not grasp his revelation—what he was saying to them at that moment. Indeed, in short order, they would express utter confusion about his impending death (John 16:16-24). Even when they thought they could understand the unfolding calamity, Jesus informed them that they would all abandon him (John 16:25-33), and soon afterward devil-prompted Judas was poised to betray him (John 13:2; 18:1-8), and Peter denied ever knowing Jesus (John 18:15-18, 25-27).

Following Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, however, the disciples received the Holy Spirit. As Jesus had promised, the Spirit taught the disciples all things, brought to their remembrance all that Jesus had said to them, and guided them into all the truth (John 14:26; 16:13). Having removed the prior dullness and igno­rance that had characterized the disciples, the Holy Spirit moved those who wrote Scripture to communicate the whole of divine revelation (our New Testament). This work was exactly what Jesus taught about his sending the Holy Spirit to inspire them to write Scripture. Protestants believe that, understood in context, there was no need for supplemental communication—Tradition—alongside of Scripture.1

Second, Protestants believe that the Catholic view has thin historical support as well. It is true that the apostles communicated the gospel both orally, through their preaching, and eventually in writing, through the New Testament. But when Paul points out “so then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess. 2:15), he is not saying that his oral teaching and his written communication consisted of different revelations which supplement each other. On the contrary, these two delivery systems presented the same divine revelation. The difference was in the form, not the content.

The early church did have a type of tradition: the doctrine that the apostles transmitted provided a proper understanding of Scripture and underscored sound doctrine. It stood in opposition to the wrong biblical interpretations of the time and the misguided beliefs of heretics. The early church’s “rule of faith” or “canon (standard) of truth” was a summary of its essential doctrines based on Scripture. The early creeds—for example, the Apostles’ Creed and the Chalcedonian Creed—affirmed the doctrines of the Trinity and of Christ derived very carefully from Scripture. Protestants embrace this type of tradition, finding it to be a fine source of wisdom from the past. But this is far from the Catholic notion of Tradition.

In fact, it was not until the fourteenth century that the Catholic Church began to make novel claims about Tradition, granting unwritten communication by Church leaders authoritative status as doctrine outside of, and in addition to, Scripture. Such an idea of Tradition is a relatively late development and is quite different from the notion as found in Scripture and in the early church.2

Standing opposed to the Catholic view of Scripture and Tradition as two modes of divine revelation, Protestants hold to the sufficiency and necessity of Scripture. Scripture is sufficient in that it provides everything that people need to be saved from sin and death, and everything that Christians need to please God fully. Specifically, God-breathed Scripture equips believers “for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Protestants see doctrines like the immaculate conception and bodily assumption of Mary as unnecessary and unbiblical. Protestants don’t need these doctrines to possess and believe the fullness of divine revelation. They don’t need practices like the sacrament of penance and praying for the dead in order to know and do all that God requires of them. They don’t need to believe that when they take the Lord’s Supper, the bread and the wine are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ. These doctrines, practices, and beliefs are extra-biblical, not from Scripture alone. Thus, Scripture’s sufficiency and the prin­ciple of sola Scriptura—”Scripture alone”—are closely connected and contradict the need for Catholic Tradition.3

Scripture is necessary in that it is essential for knowing the way of salvation, for progressing in godliness, and for understanding God’s will. To put it another way, apart from Scripture there can be no awareness of salvation, growth in holiness, and knowledge of God’s will.4 Catholics, on the other hand, would maintain that Scripture is necessary for the well-being of the Church: for the Church to be robustly all that God intends it to be, Scripture is necessary. But Catholics would not hold that Scripture is necessary for the being of the Church: if Scripture were to be lost, the Church could still exist because it would still have Tradition, part of divine revelation. Protestants insist that the Church would lose its way without Scripture: if Scripture were to be lost, the Church would cease to exist because all of divine revelation would have disappeared.

How does God speak to the world? Catholics respond to this question by saying “through Scripture and Tradition.” Protestants reply, “through Scripture alone.”


1. This affirmation does not mean that Protestantism ignores or rejects the theological wisdom that it has inherited from the church throughout the ages (a point to be made shortly).

2. Factors that contributed to this development included:

(1) exaggerated and indefensible claims for papal authority not only over the Catholic Church but the entire world as well;

(2) theoretical debates over which of the two options—the authority of Scripture and the authority of the Church—is supreme; (3) the introduction of the idea of apostolic succession; and (4) the novel claim that, because the Church had determined the canon of Scripture, the Church therefore possesses special revelation that is not found in Scripture. See Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), especially chapters 4 and

3. In more detail, Protestants gratefully use tradition (not Tradition, as in the Catholic sense), or wisdom from the past, as a servant to help their churches engage in the proper understanding and application of Scripture and the formulation of sound doctrine.

4. This attribute does not mean that people have to possess a written copy of Scripture and be able to read it. Rather, in the case of the majority of people today in whose language Scripture has yet to be translated and/or if those people are illiterate, they only need to be able to understand oral communication. Scripture read and heard is God’s necessary Word for them.