Examples of Sacred Tradition in Scripture and History
Updated: Aug 11, 2022
By Luke Lancaster
Many Protestant brothers and sisters do not recognize the reasons that Catholics hold to Sacred Tradition. They think that the only infallible means of communicating God's truths is through Scripture. Hence their doctrine of Sola Scriptura. The Catholic notion of Tradition is, for Protestants, a blurry soup with no specific examples. However, Sacred Tradition, or the verbal passing on of teachings, is what God intended to be used alongside Sacred Scripture. Sacred Tradition is the oral Words of God. Both the oral Words of God and the written Words of God are to be taken seriously. Consider the biblical and historical examples of Sacred Tradition.
#1. Elijah. The greatest of the Jewish prophets, Elijah, never wrote anything. Rather, he preached to the people, teaching them what God had to say. Some of his words were written down, but the vast majority were not. How were subsequent generations of people (who never saw Elijah) going to hear about his prophecies? Well, the things he taught would have been passed down through Jewish tradition. The same is true for Catholic Sacred Tradition.
#2. Obadiah. The prophet Obadiah had a long prophetic career, yet we only have one chapter of writing from him in the Old Testament! Did he only teach the same thing which was written over and over throughout his time as the prophet of the Lord? Or did he only speak about what previous prophets had taught? I imagine not. His teachings would have been preserved through Jewish tradition.
#3. John. In John 20:30, it says that "Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book." Seems that this larger pool of information, containing the other things which Jesus taught, was known by John. Those things which were not written down would surely have been taught by the apostles to their successors and communities. That way they they did not pass away. In fact, the Church Fathers are filled with extra-biblical quotations from Jesus. St. Paul himself gives one in Acts 20:35.
#4. Apostles. Maybe only nine of the twelve apostles which Jesus personally chose did not write anything. If they thought that all truth was to be passed on with their writing, shouldn't they have gotten the memo? Why did they instead preach to their communities and elect successors to continue on the faithful transmission of teaching? The reason is that they believed in Sacred Tradition.
#5. Ephesus. St. Paul preached for three years in the Greek city of Ephesus, teaching the community the whole council of God day and night (Ac. 20:27, 31). Yet all we have a record of is a short, five-chapter, thirty-minute read epistle to the Ephesians. Certainly, there was more which he taught them! The rest is preserved in Sacred Tradition.
#6. Thessalonica. St. Paul said in his 2nd letter to the people of Thessalonica, "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter" (2 Thess. 2:15). St. Paul did not write out a Catechism or a summary of Christian beliefs for the Thessalonians. Rather, he preached to them. The things which he taught he called "traditions," and such "traditions" were transmitted to other believers through word of mouth. If he intended for Scripture alone to act as the sole rule of faith, then why did he write only two short letters to the Thessalonians!
As St. John Chrysostom (347 - 407 AD) said of this passage, "From this it is clear that they did not hand down everything by letter, but there is much also that was not written. Like that which was written, the unwritten too is worthy of belief. So let us regard the tradition of the Church also as worthy of belief. Is it a tradition? Seek no further" (Homilies on Second Thessalonians).
#7. Corinth. St. Paul said in his first letter to the people of Corinth, "I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you" (1 Cor. 11:2). St. Paul mainly gave the Corinthians doctrines by way of teaching them in-person (1 Cor. 11:34). That was his principal avenue for communicating the breadth of Revelation. He did not praise the Corinthians for only sticking to what he wrote them previously. The Corinthians did not practice Sola Scriptura.
With this background in mind, let's consider some teachings of the early Church which were not explicitly written down in Scripture, but were explicit in Tradition.
#1. Infant baptism. Origen of Alexandria (184 - 254 AD), claimed to have received the practice of baptizing infants from the apostles (Commentaries on Romans 5:9).
#2. Prayer for the dead. St. John Chrysostom (347 - 407 AD) claimed to have received the practice of prayer for the dead from the apostles (Homily 3 on Philippians).
#3. The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. All of the Church Fathers unanimously taught that the bread and wine are transformed into the literal flesh and blood of Jesus.
#4. The Mass as a sacrifice. All of the Church Fathers unanimously taught that the Mass was a sacrifice. Yet Scripture never said explicitly, "The sacrifice of the Mass."
#5. The canon of Scripture. The books that belonged in Scripture (ex. 1 Corinthians or 1 Clement) were not specified in Scripture, for there was no inspired table of contents. The Tradition of who wrote what books and who was inspired or not was preserved in the Church.
#6. The perpetual virginity of Mary. This teaching was universally taught by the early Church even though there was no Scripture verse that said, "Mary never had relations with Joseph."
#7. The need for bishops to have apostolic succession. The Church Fathers considered it essential that bishops could trace their lineage back to the apostles. Heretics who claimed that their doctrines stemmed from the apostles were refuted by Tertullian (160-220 AD) with the fact that they did not have succession lists of their bishops that proved apostolic succession (Demurrer Against the Heretics, 32).
#8. The tri-partite structure of the clergy. Scripture never said that there were bishops, priests, and deacons. It only said that there were elders/overseers and deacons. Yet St. Ignatius of Antioch (? - 110 AD) and other early Christians clearly knew of a tri-partite grouping of orders (Letter to the Trallians 2:1–3). Where did they get such an idea if not from Tradition? How could they be so confident that every Church had a single bishop above the priests and deacons?
#9. Rebaptism of converts was unnecessary. St. Augustine (354 - 430 AD) explicitly said that it was a tradition (On Baptism, Against the Donatists 5:23).
#10. The Sacrament of Confirmation. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (313 - 386 AD) would be just one example of the Church Fathers who referred to it (Catechetical Lectures, 21:1, 3–4). Scripture never said, "After baptism, seal Christians with sacred chrism oil by the bishop." Such an idea was from Tradition.
As seen, Sacred Tradition preserved this verbal handing on of information. The above teachings were not explicitly stated in Scripture, but that was acceptable for the early Christians, for God did not intend to have everything written down. Rather, it was through oral teaching (Tradition) and writing (Scripture) that the whole Revelation of God was kept pure and infallible. If a teaching was implicit in one (ex. Scripture) then it was explicit in the other (ex. Tradition) and vice-versa.
The Jewish traditions were able to be corrupted based on Matthew 15, so wouldn't that mean that Sacred Tradition could as well? No, for its transmission was guarded by the Holy Spirit, "But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you" (John 14:26). Jesus said that, "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth" (John 16:13). The Church is given clarity by the Holy Spirit to recognize what Traditions are authentic and which are inauthentic (traditions of men). For the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Tim. 3:15).