Sacred Tradition in Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy

Dear Reader,

In my previous post I tried to outline the sources of authority in the Roman Catholic Church. This time I’d like to take a broader view and compare how the three largest branches of Christianity — Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism – deal with these topics.

When we speak of sources of authority in the church, we can think of two big categories: content and authority. By content, I mean that body of knowledge which Christ passed along to his immediate followers. By authority, I mean the authority to define doctrine which the first Apostles enjoyed. All three major branches agree that Jesus Christ did give the Apostles both knowledge  and authority. What happened after that is where we begin to see differences. Because of how very big this topic is, I am going to concentrate on the content issue in this post and save that of authority for the next in the series.

A last note before I dig in — this is meant to be a very general introduction to the topic for those who, like me, find themselves in dialogue with those from other strains of Christianity. As such it is meant to detail what can currently be found on the positions of the various branches. It is not by any means a historical study. I myself am just beginning to read a book called The Shape of Sola Scriptura by Keith Mathison. My preliminary impression is that is gives  a very good summary of the historical aspect.

The Content of Faith: Questions

My Catholic friend tells me that his church would call this the “Deposit of Faith.” It is the information that Christ gave his immediate followers. The three major branches of Christianity agree that there was such content and that at least some portion of it was written down and became the New Testament. They also all agree that the New Testament, combined with the Old (in whatever form they accept it; that is another huge topic), is authoritative, truthful and inerrant.

The questions I would like to ask of each branch are:

  • How much of the oral knowledge delivered to the Apostles was enshrined in the New Testament?
  • Were there an criteria for determining which part of the broader body of knowledge was included in the NT?
  • If there is also an oral tradition which survives apart from the NT, what is its content?
  • How do the oral and written traditions relate to one another? Are they held in equal esteem or does one have precedence?

The Protestant View

In some ways the Protestant position is the simplest.  In other ways, because there are so very many kinds of Protestants, nothing is ever simple with them. The short answer to “what is the Protestant take on Sacred Tradition?” is that they just don’t believe it exists.* Protestants say that all the content delivered by Christ to the Apostles is written in the New Testament, at least all that God wishes us to have. There is no surviving tradition apart from the New Testament.

I want to be clear, however, that many Protestants do rely on tradition (little “t”) in many ways. They use of catechisms and confessions, for example. They listen to their elders, pastors and Sunday School teachers They adhere to the same early creeds as their Catholic and Orthodox neighbors. They quote John Calvin as if he were Scripture. But deep down they know he is not and when pushed will admit that even Calvin is fallible. There is nothing else in Protestantism which approaches the level of the Bible which is the God-breathed Word of God. There is no body of knowledge in Protestantism which passed down from the Apostles which constitutes Sacred Tradition (big “T”).

*Anglicans are the most notable exception. They believe in both Sacred Tradition and the Apostolic Succession and so fall much more in line with the Roman Catholic view discussed below than with other Protestants.

The Eastern Orthodox Position

The Eastern Orthodox believe that only part of the body of content delivered to the Apostles was included in the New Testament. They see the New Testament as a subset of the larger body which is Holy Tradition:

The preaching of the apostles preceded the Scripture, so we must understand the Scripture as an expression of that preaching . . .” (“Holy Scripture” from

In Orthodoxy, it is the most important parts of the knowledge delivered to the Apostles which was written down:

“From the Orthodox point of view, the Bible represents those texts approved by the church for the purpose of conveying the most important parts of what it already believes.” (“Eastern Orthodox Christian Theology” from

Because the Bible is a part of a bigger Tradition in the Orthodox Church, it does not stand alongside Tradition or above it but within it:

“Orthodox see the Bible as a collection of inspired texts that sprang out of this tradition, not the other way around; and the choices made in forming the New Testament as having come from comparison with already firmly established faith. The Bible has come to be a very important part of “Tradition“, but not the only part.” (“Eastern Orthodox Christian Theology” from

And being a part of Holy Tradition, the Scriptures cannot be interpreted except in the context of Tradition:

“Holy Tradition consists of those things which Christ delivered to his
Apostles and which they transmitted to their successors orally.  It is
absolutely essential to faith, because it is the source of the Holy
Scripture and we cannot understand all of the Holy Scripture correctly without the help of Holy Tradition.” (Rev. Constas H. Demetry, Catechism of the Eastern Orthodox Church, p.4)

According to the Orthodox, the Bible focuses on Christ and was written down so that there might be a record once the generation that knew him had passed:

“The Scripture—both Old and New Testaments—is fundamentally about Christ. It is Christocentric and Christological. The whole Bible presupposes the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ. Indeed, the very purpose in writing the New Testament was because Christ had already risen from the dead—with the death of the Apostle James, the Church realized that the eyewitnesses were not always going to be with them, therefore the preaching of the eyewitnesses was written down.” (“Holy Scripture” from

The Scriptures were written “so that we might believe and be saved” (“Holy Scripture” from If this is so, then what is left for Holy Tradition? What does it consist of?

Let me start by saying what Tradition is not, for the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is not, as some Protestants might think, a changeable thing:

“Unlike many conceptions of tradition in popular understanding, the Orthodox Church does not regard Holy Tradition as something which grows and expands over time, forming a collection of practices and doctrines which accrue, gradually becoming something more developed and eventually unrecognizable to the first Christians. Rather, Holy Tradition is that same faith which Christ taught to the Apostles and which they gave to their disciples, preserved in the whole Church and especially in its leadership through Apostolic Succession.” (“Holy Tradition” from

What then is the content of Holy Tradition in the Eastern Orthodox Church?  In their longer catechism, I find:

“By the name holy tradition is meant the doctrine of the faith, the law of God, the sacraments, and the ritual as handed down by the true believers and worshipers of God by word and example from one to another, and from generation to generation.” (Orthodox Catechism of Philaret, Question 17)

The Catechism then goes on to give us some idea of the content of Holy Tradition when it quotes St. Basil the Great as follows:

“Of the doctrines and injunctions kept by the Church, some we have from written instruction. but some we have received from, apostolical tradition, by succession in private. Both the former and the latter have one and the same force for piety, and this will be contradicted by no one who has ever so little knowledge in the ordinances of the Church; for were we to dare to reject unwritten customs, as if they had no great importance, we should insensibly mutilate the Gospel, even in the most essential points, or, rather, for the teaching of the Apostles leave but an empty name. For instance, let us mention before all else the very first and commonest act of Christians, that they who trust in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ should sign themselves with the sign of the cross–who hath taught this by writing? To turn to the east in prayer–what Scripture have we for this? The words of invocation in the change of the Eucharistic bread and of the Cup of blessing–by which of the Saints have they been left us in writing? for we are not content with those words which the Apostle or the Gospel records, but both before them and after them, we pronounce others also, which we hold to be of great force for the sacrament, though we have received them from unwritten teaching. By what Scripture is it, in like manner, that we bless the water of baptism, the oil of unction, and the person himself who is baptized? Is it not by a silent and secret tradition? What more? The very practice itself of anointing with oil–what written word have we for it? Whence is the rule of trine immersion? and the rest of the ceremonies at baptism, the renunciation of Satan and his angels?–from what Scripture are they taken? Are they not all from this unpublished and private teaching, which our Fathers kept under a reserve inaccessible to curiosity and profane disquisition, having been taught as a first principle to guard by silence the sanctity of the mysteries? for how were it fit to publish in writing the doctrine of those things, on which the unbaptized may not so much as look? (Can. xcvii. De Spir. Sanct. c. xxvii.)” (Orthodox Catechism of Philaret, Question 24)

I take a couple of points from this:

  • The content of Holy Tradition is, if not entirely so largely practical in that it tells how things are to be done and also provides a basis for practices of the Church which are not described in the Scriptures.
  • Holy Tradition is intentionally kept unwritten to keep it mysterious and to guard it from prying eyes.

The Roman Catholic View

The Roman Catholic Church, like the Eastern Orthodox, believes that there was additional content, apart from the New Testament, which was not written down but continued to be passed down orally. This is the Church’s Sacred Tradition. As I tried to show in my previous post, Catholics hold Scripture and Tradition as two pillars which stand side by side:

Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end.” (Dei Verbum, 9)

This strikes me as a slightly different characterization than that of the Eastern Orthodox. Scripture is not a part of Tradition but stands along-side it. I am not sure yet what all the implications of this may be.

While the Orthodox say that Scripture contains the most essential parts of Tradition, I have found no explanation in Catholicism of what parts of the body of knowledge delivered to the Apostles were written down. I get the impression that Scripture and Tradition, while never contradictory, are nonetheless two distinct bodies of knowledge.

Nonetheless, if there is any preeminence it is given to Scripture:

[The Church] has always maintained [the Scriptures], and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles. Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture.” (Dei Verbum, 21)

But it is Tradition which tells what Scripture is:

“120 It was by the apostolic Tradition that the Church discerned which writings are to be included in the list of the sacred books.”(Catechism of the Catholic Church 120)

Like the Orthodox, the Catholics say that there are no new public revelation: “. . . we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Dei Verbum 4).

What then is the content of Sacred Tradition in the Catholic Church? Here I am at a bit of a loss. I can find no good answer to this question. Indeed, it seems that there is no definitive answer as I am told that Catholic theologians themselves argue both about the content of Tradition and about its relationship to Scripture.

From a Protestant source, I find this:

“It is true that the Early Church also held to the concept of tradition as referring to ecclesiastical customs and practices. It was often believed that such practices were actually handed down from the Apostles, even though they could not necessarily be validated from the Scriptures. These practices, however, did not involve the doctrines of the faith, and were often contradictory among different segments of the Church.” (“What did the Early Church believe about the authority of Scripture? (sola scripture)” from

The above quote would seem to agree with the Orthodox depiction of Sacred Tradition as containing mostly practical information.

It seems that even within Catholicism there is no clear understanding of what Tradition is and what its relationship to Scripture is (this is again from a Protestant source):

“There is not a consensus opinion as to the exact content of Tradition, the precise relationship between scripture and Tradition, and exactly how the vehicle of Tradition functions and becomes known by the church. Rome’s official statements do not explicitly define whether Tradition is the second of a two-part revelation (known as partim-partim), or if both forms of revelation contain the entirety of God’s revealed truth. Does Tradition function as the interpreter of scripture, or is it interpreted by scripture, or do they interpret each other? Is the content of Tradition confirmed by historical scrutiny, or is it an unwritten opinion only confirmed by a movement within the developing church?”(“‘Tradition’ as Viewed by Popular Roman Catholic Apologists . . . and a Response” from

This article goes on to quote  a few Catholic apologists. I will leave it to you, Reader, to pursue this angle if you wish to do so.

To conclude this part of my discussion, then, let me just summarize what I have found regarding the presence, role and content of Tradition in each of these branches of Christianity:

  • Protestantism, while quite varied, generally denies that there is any Tradition (big “T”) apart from the Scriptures themselves.
  • Eastern Orthodoxy sees Scripture as a subset of Holy Tradition. It is the most important parts of that body of knowledge which was delivered to the Apostles, written down for us. As such, it must be interpreted within the context of Tradition and cannot stand part from it. The rest of Tradition, that part which remained oral, seems to be mainly of a practical nature in that it deals with the practices of the Church.
  • Roman Catholicism views Scripture and Sacred Tradition as two parts of a whole. Both were delivered to the Apostles and are authoritative. They stand side by side with perhaps some preeminence given to Scripture. There seems to be little consensus in the Catholic Church as to the content of Sacred Tradition.

Next time, I will give you the second half of this essay on Apostolic Authority in each of these three strains of Christianity.



3 responses to this post.

  1. […] Roman Catholic Church. One just seems to lead to another. So far I have talked about: the papacy, sacred tradition, the magisterium, and indulgences. As I mentioned in the most recent of these, the idea of […]


  2. […] thoughts on this topic previously when I discussed sources of authority in the church (see here and here). Since then I have read and reviewed (here)  Keith A. Mathison’s book, The Shape of Sola […]


  3. […] Sacred Tradition in Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodoxy […]


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