Is Catholic Oral Tradition Valid Revelation?

Matthew Cserhati

Introductory Questions

What is truth? And how can we ascertain what the truth is? According to the Protestant churches, the sole highest authority in determining truth is the Scripture alone. As opposed to this, the Roman Catholic church claims that besides Scripture, her oral tradition also has authority:

“As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, ‘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.’”[1]

This is a bold claim.  Many of the Roman Catholic church’s teachings, such as Mary’s eternal virginity, the papacy, and the doctrine of Purgatory, are defended by her oral tradition. Without tradition, these teachings of the Roman Catholic church would have no support whatsoever.

Protestants and Roman Catholics both accept the authority of the Bible. But since Roman Catholics believe in tradition, the burden of proof rests with them.  Why does Rome cling to tradition as an additional source of allegedly divine revelation besides the Bible?

Therefore, an important question is, what exactly is tradition? How do you define it?

Paragraph 78 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

“This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, ‘the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.’ ‘The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer.’”[2]

A question which obviously follows from this statement is, and which I ask the reader as well: can anyone quote anything valid and irrefutable from this oral tradition?

My Quest for Answers

One needs to ponder this question deeply to understand its profound implications. The Roman Catholic church has made consistent, vigorous claims for over hundreds of years that one must follow sacred tradition besides Scripture. So much Roman Catholic theology has rested for so long on the concept of tradition. Roman Catholic clergy have had more than enough time to compile a large body of knowledge to support their theology. Both Protestants and Roman Catholics have the Bible, and it is a trivial thing to open it up and read from it. Thus, if we take them at their word, Roman Catholics should be able to cite oral tradition profusely which has been transmitted down to us throughout the centuries.

Therefore, I asked this question from a Roman Catholic friend of mine who had invited me and my friend to debate doctrine with him on a regular basis. He was never able to respond to this question. This is only one person, I thought, so since my friend is only a lay Catholic, I thought I’d ask someone who possibly had more knowledge.

I put the question several times to a Roman Catholic apologist who had debated on this topic previously.  He was also unable to answer my question. I then asked the “Fullness of Truth” Catholic Evangelization Ministries whether they could cite anything from oral tradition, even something as simple as “It’s sunny today”. They also did not respond.

Finally, I emailed the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), asking the same question. At this point, I was asking leading national Roman Catholic clergy this very simple question. However, the USCCB did not directly reply to my question, but rather pointed me to some material on tradition and Scripture.

To me this was very perplexing. What hindered prominent members of national Roman Catholic clergy from answering a very simple question?

Multiplying the drama, according to evangelist James McCarthy, who ministers to Roman Catholics, the Vatican itself has no record of anything found in sacred tradition.[3]

As the reader can see, after having asked Roman Catholics at increasing levels of knowledge and authority, nobody has been able to quote anything substantive from this oral tradition. Can it be true that the Roman Catholic church was so disinterested in its own tradition that it didn’t even bother to make any kind of record of it?!

What Is the Explanation?

At this point some Roman Catholics might want to respond. There is a verse from 2Thessalonians 2:15, which states: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” So they claim that tradition certainly must exist, since the Bible speaks about it.

But is this really true? Let us turn to the early theologian and historian Eusebius, who could arguably be a source of tradition himself. In his book “The History of the Church”, which encompasses the first 300 years of church history, Eusebius writes this about the oral tradition of the apostle Peter after the time of Christ:

“So brightly shone the light of true religion on the minds of Peter’s hearers that, not satisfied with a single hearing or with the oral teaching of the divine message, they resorted to appeals of every kind to induce Mark (whose gospel we have) as he was a follower of Peter, to leave them in writing a summary of the instructions they had received by word of mouth, nor did they let him go till they had persuaded him and thus became responsible for the writing of what is known as the Gospel according to Mark.”[4]

Thus, we see that the kind of tradition that Paul is writing about in 2 Thessalonians 2 is not what Rome is talking about.

A true definition of tradition is that tradition is the same thing as Scripture. In other words, Scripture is the written form of tradition.

Just think about it: would it make sense for the apostles to randomly leave out certain important doctrines from the Scripture (papacy, Mariology, purgatory), and leave others in? Why leave such important oral tradition to the winds of forgetfulness?

On a further note, since Eusebius wrote a history of the early church, it would be interesting to see whether he mentions anything about Roman Catholic tradition in his history of the early church. This is important, because the first 300 years of Christian history is an important period of time, following the time of Christ, encompassing the preaching of the apostles, and serving as a conduit to our modern day and age.

Eusebius only mentions two things which can in any measure have anything to do with Roman Catholic theology: he mentions the bishop’s mitre, and the fact that the theologian Origen (184-253) held to the idea that the church was founded on the apostle Peter.[5] However, the Jewish priests also wore a mitre of a very different shape than that worn by Roman Catholic clergy. Furthermore, Origen’s view on Peter being the rock is only one of many possible interpretations of Matthew 16:18, and does not establish apostolic succession, which is necessary for the doctrine of the papacy. For example, later in Matthew 18:18, Christ ascribes this same authority to the other apostles as well as Peter.

Sola Scriptura: Only God’s Word Has Valid and Infallible Authority

So we see that even the Vatican can cite nothing with certainty from its own oral tradition.  Furthermore, the first centuries of the early church are almost devoid of any kind of Roman Catholic theology.  Therefore, it follows then that the early church was not Roman Catholic in character.

Since the written form of tradition is Scripture, it follows that Scripture really is the sole highest authority in deciding truth.

A full definition of Sola Scriptura is as follows: The entire Scripture, and not men’s interpretation of it, is the sole highest authority in defining truth in all questions for all people in all times. This means that Scripture serves as the final court of appeals in defining dogma, and not tradition or the church, which are the inventions of men.

John Calvin asks in the Institutes what is the source of reliable revelation?[6] His answer also is Scripture alone, since “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2Tim. 3:16-17)

Only Scripture is inspired by God in its entirety, whereas one has to decide which portions of tradition are true. In other words, the Scriptures stand alone as true, and have no need of men’s authentication. In other words, it is self-verifying. Opposed to this stands tradition, which is in need of a rule in order to decide which tradition is true, and which is not. This rule is the rule of Scripture.

According to Hebrews 1:1-2: “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds.”

This means that whereas in Old Testament times God did indeed speak to His people by many means other than Scripture (such as dreams, visions and prophecies), now He speaks to His people in only one way, via His Son Jesus Christ in the Scriptures.

Thus, this one single source of divine revelation common to both Protestants and Roman Catholics is the only source of reliable divine revelation.

In Acts 17:10-11 we read: “Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.”

Notice here that the Bereans, who the Scripture describes as being fair-minded readily accepted Paul’s preaching. The church indeed does have some form of relative authority, which however is subservient to the authority of Scripture. This passage does not merely state that the Bereans simply accepted what Paul had to say.  Rather, they followed up by double checking Paul’s words with what Scripture says.

Thus, the Scripture itself states that it’s authority is higher than that of the church. Scripture also states: “Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other.” (1Cor. 4:6) The Scripture truly is the highest and sole authority.

Since Scripture is the rule of faith which decides all controversies, let us examine the traditions of the Roman Catholic church to see if they stand the test of truth:

Roman Catholic doctrine Scripture
Peter was the first pope, with a long line of popes succeeding him. And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:11) – this is an exhaustive list of offices in the early church.
Mary was eternally virgin since she had no sin. for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23)
Salvation is by faith and works. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. (Rom. 3:28)
During the Mass the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ. Jesus says during the Last Supper: Assuredly, I say to you, I will no longer drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God. (Mk. 14:25)
Purgatory is a place where one is purged of his sins. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us. (Lk. 16:26)
One can pray to Mary and the saints for their help and intercession. then hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and forgive, and act, and give to everyone according to all his ways, whose heart You know (for You alone know the hearts of all the sons of men) (1Kings 8:39)
Baptism regenerates the human being. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1Pt. 3:21)
You can never be assured of your salvation. receiving the end of your faith—the salvation of your souls. (1Pt. 1:9)
Man can choose God. You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you. (Jn 15:16)
Priests are to remain celibate throughout their entire lives. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach. (1Tim. 3:2)

Who Gave Us the Bible?

The reader may now be wanting to ask the question, “Who gave us the Bible?”

“Surely the Roman Catholic church!” Roman Catholics claim that their church gave the world the Bible when they decided which books belonged to the canon at the council of Nicaea in 325 AD.

This is a faulty notion, since as mentioned earlier, the Bible is self-authenticating. The apostle Peter himself writes: “For prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2Pt. 1:21).

The individual books and epistles of the Bible refer to each other, thereby verifying each other’s divine inspiration. For example, 2 Peter talks about the writings of Paul, and Paul quotes Luke in 1Timothy 3.

Furthermore, since years earlier in the year 303 AD, during the Diocletian persecutions the church out of necessity recognized the books belonged to the Bible, and which ones did not. Christians safeguarded those books which were necessary as the foundation of faith. The question of canon developed emerged centuries later.  In reality, the church simply reaffirmed those books that Christians of earlier times had already recognized as divinely inspired.

The Scriptures make the church, and not the other way around.  Man cannot dictate to God what books He authors, and which ones He doesn’t.

Think about it: why would God leave His people ignorant of what the truth was for 325 years after the death and resurrection of Christ?

The Roman Catholic version of the canon which contains 73 books contain numerous contradictions (e.g. Tob. 13:33 versus Rev. 21:21).  The Catholic version of the canon also supports Protestant doctrines, such as predestination (Sir. 11:33; Tob. 13:10), which Roman Catholics reject. The extra seven books of the Roman Catholic canon were added after the council of Trent; yet Cardinal Cajetan, a strong opponent of Luther, also held to the Protestant canon.

Conclusion

In conclusion, if we break the principle of Sola Scriptura by elevating men’s traditions to the level of the Scriptures, in effect we are introducing all sorts of teachings which God never commanded us to do. Thus, we can rightly claim that Rome transgresses the commandments of God by their traditions (Mt. 15:3).   Roman Catholic tradition is an invention of men which gradually crept into the church and led men astray from the truth.

Therefore, we plead with our Catholic friend to leave these ungodly doctrines and follow the Word of God.  Let the Scriptures serve as a lamp for our feet and a light on our path (Ps. 119:105).  Holy Scripture is the sole, supreme authority which judges the thoughts of all men in all questions. Rely solely on the Holy Spirit, Who is enough to enlighten our minds and lead us unto all truth (Jn. 16:13).

All Bible quotes were taken from the King James Version.


[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, Para. 82 cited on http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s1c2a2.htm  accessed on April 11, 2018.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, Para. 78 cited on http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s1c2a2.htm  accessed on April 11, 2018.

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WjE5M-Sk9k  accessed on April 11, 2018.

[4] Eusebius, The History of the Church, (Penguin Books Ltd. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England. 1965).  See also http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250102.htm  accessed on April 11, 2018.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. translated by Robert White (1541 French ed.) (Banner of Truth: Carlisle, PA, 2014).