Sacred Scripture and Tradition

I recently read Mark Shea’s By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition Revised and Expanded Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press. 2013). Shea began his Christian life in the Evangelical Church. This book tells his story of moving from sola scriptura (from the Bible only) to his embracing of Sacred Tradition in the Catholic Church. It is his story. I will not retell his story here. You can read his story for yourself.

In this article, I want to offer some highlights of his points regarding sola scriptura and Sacred Tradition. The book tells Shea’s conversion story. However, it is not just a story. In describing his purpose in writing it, he writes, “It is written for those Catholics who wish to find a way to speak of the Faith to their Evangelical brothers and sisters that is not alienating but intelligible. It is written for Catholics who wish to understand more clearly the very real impediments to faith an Evangelical often encounters when he thinks of the Catholic faith” (17). Cradle Catholics may take our faith for granted. We take Catholic Tradition for granted. We know what we do even if we don’t understand it. However, I think it is the lack of understanding that is a core issue in Catholics who no longer practice their faith or have left for another denomination. I see what Shea says about sola scriptura and Sacred Tradition as important part of people growing in their understanding of our Catholic faith.

In the Evangelical Church, Shea was raised to reject tradition. The rejection has its ties to scripture. In fact, it flows from Jesus’ words, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees” (Mark 8:15 as quoted by Shea from RSV translation). The Jewish religious leaders had added to God’s tradition and yet fell short of practicing their faith. Evangelicals see this verse as a call to reject human tradition.

In his journey of faith, Shea comes to the question, if we reject tradition, then how is it we accept the Bible as it is. Where did the Bible come from? He writes, “I had rather absentmindedly nodded assent to the general Evangelical sense that Scripture, being “God breathed”, is therefore self-attesting and does not depend at all upon tradition…I had simply figured, “Since it’s divinely inspired, it can be discerned by any Spirit-filled believer.” I thought it was one of those “obvious” truths” (61).

Shea will go on to discuss both the origin of the Bible and how we come to know which books belong in the Bible. It comes from Sacred Tradition.

Using the book of Ecclesiastes as one example, Shea came to realize that left to his own resources, he “would never have seen Ecclesiastes as a scriptural book. Rather I accepted it because I had been taught to do so by my church” (72). Why do we accept the 73 books in the Catholic Bible as “the Bible”? Because, led by the Holy Spirit, our Catholic faith has taught us this as part of Sacred Tradition.

Shea later writes, “Therefore, I realized, one of the two things necessarily followed: either, as modernism said, the canon of Scripture was a merely human tradition or else God must have ordained some sort of revelation outside of Scripture as the means by which we could know what Scripture was. There was no third option” (83).

Still, given that Jesus told us to “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees“, how is it that we can come to accept Sacred Tradition? Shea finds the answer in the Bible. Shea writes, “Paul twice commands and commends adherence to tradition! I blinked and looked again. It was still there. First, he tells the Thessalonians, So then, brethen, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thes 2:15, RSV)” (85). Shea continues, “Second, Paul not only commands an adherence to tradition, but he expressly warns his readers to shun anybody who doesn’t” (85, see 2 Thes 3:6, RSV). Remember, in Paul’s day, there was no New Testament. The faith that Jesus brought was shared in oral tradition.

Even when the New Testament was written, it was not mean to tell us everything Jesus did. It tells us so for we read in John 20:30, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of [his] disciples that are not written in this book” (see Shea, 88). Everything does not have to be in the Bible to be valuable in our faith. How do we know this? From the Bible. Shea points out how the Letter of Jude quotes a tradition from Enoch, which is not the Bible, to show us that extrabiblical sources have their place (see Shea, 95). This is not to say all extrabiblical sources are equal. We count on the Holy Spirit and Tradition to guide in the sources that are from God.

Shea then turns to Jesus’ own words to find that Tradition has its value, citing Matthew 23:2-3, as Jesus tells his disciples to obey what the teachers and Pharisees who “sit in Moses’ seat.” Shea points out that the Old Testament does not mention Moses’ seat as a sign of authority. It is point of tradition at Jesus’ time. He tells his disciples to follow that tradition even though it isn’t in the Bible (97).

As Shea comes to accept the place of Sacred Tradition, he begins to see how apostolic succession, the handing down over the ages of the faith is affirmed in the Bible. Shea quotes Jesus, “He who listens to you listens to me” (Luke 10:16, RSV as quoted by Shea, 135).

Shea later realizes that this continued as the apostles took what Jesus them and handed it on to their successors (see examples like Acts 14:23, see Shea 146-147). We are not called to decide what is true by ourselves. There needs to be a central authority. For this, God gives us the Church. We need to pray that the Church is always led by the Spirit.

What I have written here is only a taste of Shea’s whole book. If you would like to learn more, I encourage you to read the book for yourself.


Fr. Jeff

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