Revelation and the Church
James McCarthy

Roman Catholicism teaches that Jesus Christ revealed the Christian faith in all its fullness to His twelve apostles. They in turn entrusted it to the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. Known as the Magisterium, the pope and bishops are the guardians, interpreters, and authoritative teachers of revelation.

The Church refers to the body of beliefs and practices entrusted to its pope and bishops as the sacred deposit of faith. It says that the apostles passed on this deposit to the bishops in two distinct ways. The first was through unwritten means, such as the apostles’ preaching, conduct, prayer, and worship. The Church refers to that portion of revelation received from Christ and passed on by the apostles through unwritten means as Tradition. The second form in which the apostles passed on the revelation received from Christ was in written forms. The Holy Spirit moved men to record a portion of the deposit of faith as inspired Scriptures. These are the writings of the New Testament.

The Church teaches that Scripture and Tradition together form the Word of God. Together they preserve the entire sacred deposit of faith and serve the Church "as the supreme rule of her faith."i

This explanation of revelation may sound reasonable to some, especially when Rome describes Tradition as nothing more than the apostles’ preaching and example. The Church even cites Scripture to support its position. For example: "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us."—2 Thessalonians 2:15

But look more closely at what the Roman Catholic Church means by Tradition, and you will find that it has little to do with what Paul means by "traditions" in 2 Thessalonians 2:15. There Paul is writing to his contemporaries, Christians living in Thessalonica, whom he had personally taught. He tells them to hold fast to the "traditions" they have received from him. The Greek word translated "traditions" simply means something handed down. Paul uses the word to stress that the truths that he had taught them did not originate with him. He simply passed on that which he had received from the Lord. The same is true of two other verses often cited by the Catholic Church to support its view of Tradition: 1 Corinthians 11:2 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6. These verses also speak of truths that Paul personally passed on to the first Christians in Thessalonica and Corinth.

Is this what the Roman Catholic Church means by Tradition? Not at all. Catholic Tradition is not Paul’s oral teachings recorded on some kind of first century audio device. Neither is it a first-hand account of the apostles’ preaching, their conduct, or their worship.

So what is Roman Catholic Tradition? It’s difficult to say. The Church appears to be purposefully vague when describing it. Rome is clear enough in its claim that the source of Tradition is the unwritten teachings of the apostles. But source, as the Church well knows, isn’t the issue. Transmission, how apostolic teaching has been passed down in unwritten form for some 20 centuries without being corrupted—that’s the issue. How has this supposedly happened? Where does this unwritten sacred deposit of information currently reside? And how can anyone today distinguish the authentic oral teaching of the apostles from beliefs and practices introduced in later centuries by others? These are the questions that reveal the true nature of Roman Catholic Tradition.

In addressing these questions of transmission, Rome is far less explicit, except to say that they each have their answer in the Church—the Roman Catholic Church in general and the Magisterium in particular. It says that the Church is the vehicle by which Tradition is transmitted, the means by which it is kept from corruption, the abode in which it resides today, and the final arbitrator as to what is authentic Tradition. Indeed, the Church’s understanding of revelation is so closely linked to the Church’s understanding of itself that the two cannot be separated. According to the Second Vatican Council, "…sacred Tradition, sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others."ii

In trying to grasp what the Church means by Tradition, don’t think of it as something you can pick up in your hands and read. Even today Tradition is unwritten; it is not contained in books. It might be expressed in the writings of the early Christians, such as the so-called "Church Fathers." Other "witnesses," as the Church calls them, to Tradition include early creeds, ancient liturgies, inscriptions on monuments, and the documents of various synods and councils. These may express doctrines and practices derived from Tradition, but they are not Tradition itself. Neither is Tradition the result of scholarly research performed by historians and archaeologists trying to reconstruct the faith of the primitive church. Roman Catholic Tradition is not any of these things.

If you want to understand Tradition you must look to the Church, for Tradition, says Rome, lives within the Church. It is a living thing, the life experience of the Catholic people. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that revelation is "written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records."iii Catholic theologians describe Tradition as "the word living continuously in the hearts of the faithful,"iv a "current of life and truth coming from God through Christ and through the Apostles to the last of the faithful who repeats his creed and learns his catechism."v And since Tradition lives within the Church, only the "living Magisterium" of the Church, the pope and bishops of Rome, can define it with infallible precision.

This concept of unwritten divine revelation living within the Roman Catholic Church is totally foreign to the Scriptures. Nowhere does the Bible teach such a thing. Jesus identified Scripture as the Word of God (John 10:35), but never Tradition. To the contrary, He condemned the Jews for elevating their Tradition to the same level of authority as God’s written Word (Mark 7:1-13). This is the very thing that the Roman Catholic Church has done with its Tradition. According to Rome’s bishops: "… both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal feelings of devotion and reverence."vi

The Church is unmoved by criticism that its concept of Tradition cannot be found in the Scriptures. It reminds its opponents that Roman Catholicism holds that a belief doesn’t need to be established by Scripture before it can be held as a doctrine of the Church. In the words of the Second Vatican Council: "…the Church does not draw her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone."vii Catholicism, says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is not a "religion of the book."viii In Roman Catholicism beliefs and practices can be established from Tradition. This means, of course, that Rome’s doctrine of Tradition doesn’t need to be established by the Scriptures. It can be infallibly defined by the Magisterium based on revelation passed on as—you guessed it—Tradition!

Such self-validation, of course, is meaningless circular reasoning. Meaningless, that is, unless one is willing to first accept the Magisterium’s claim to infallibility. In that case, Rome can’t go wrong. The doctrine of infallibility itself, however, cannot be established from Scripture. It must, therefore, also be established on the authority of Rome’s second font of revelation—right again!—Tradition. And so, we’re back to where we started, having completed the circle one more time.ix

The bottom line is that Tradition is whatever the Roman Catholic Church says it is. It’s a blank check that Rome can fill out virtually as it desires. Examples of Roman Catholic doctrines based primarily or wholly on Tradition include purgatory as a place to atone for sin after death, the necessity of seven sacraments as channels of grace, the worship of the Eucharist, the supreme authority and infallibility of the bishop of Rome, the veneration of Mary, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and the Assumption of Mary.

In Roman Catholicism, if the Church’s pope and bishops say that a certain belief or practice is part of the sacred deposit of faith, no one can say otherwise. Not even opposing arguments founded on Scripture will be heard, for in Roman Catholicism the teachings of the Church determine the meaning of Scripture. The Bible, says Rome, must be read within "the living Tradition of the whole Church."x Tradition is the key to interpreting the Bible, and the Magisterium alone holds that key. The interpretation of Scripture, says the Church, "is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church."xi


i. Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," no. 21.

ii. Ibid., no. 10, or see Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 95.

iii. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 113.

iv. The German Bishop’s Conference, The Church’s Confession of Faith (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1987), p. 45, quoting J. A. Mohler. See also the Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," no. 8; and the Council of Trent, session 4, "First Decree: Acceptance of the Sacred Books and Apostolic Traditions."

v. Jean Bainvel, The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York, NY: Robert Appleton Co., 1912), "Tradition," vol. 15, p. 9.

vi. Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," no. 9.

vii. Ibid.

viii. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 108, quoting the Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," no. 11.

ix. Some have accused Christians of using similar circular reasoning in arguing for the authority and inspiration of Scripture when they say things such as: "I know the Bible is inspired because it says it’s inspired." Such reasoning, critics point out, is fallacious.

    The point is well taken. Nevertheless, there are valid reasons for believing in the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures. As others have demonstrated, ultimately it is Jesus Christ who establishes the Bible as the inspired and authoritative Word of God. The argument goes as follows: Textual and historical evidence show the New Testament to be a reliable and trustworthy document. In the New Testament is found a record of events related to the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. These provide sufficient evidence to believe with confidence that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Jesus Christ as the divine Son of God is an infallible authority. He taught that the Scriptures are the Word of God. As the Word of God, the Bible in infallible, supremely authoritative, and utterly trustworthy.

x. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 113.

xi. Ibid., no. 119, quoting the Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," no. 12.

Adapted from Conversations with Catholics by James G. McCarthy (Harvest House Publishers: Eugene, 1997)

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