Catholic Tradition: An Argument for Tradition Plus the Bible


Kenneth R. Samples

Article ID:



Jul 31, 2022


Apr 8, 2009

The full PDF can be viewed by following the link below the excerpt.


One of the basic differences between Catholics and Protestants is over whether the Bible alone is the sufficient and final authority for faith and practice, or the Bible plus extrabiblical apostolic tradition. Catholics further insist that there is a need for a teaching magisterium (i.e., the Pope and their bishops) to rule on just what is and is not authentic apostolic tradition. Catholics are not all agreed on their understanding of the relation of tradition to Scripture. Some understand it as two sources of revelation. Others understand apostolic tradition as a lesser form of revelation. Still others view this tradition in an almost Protestant way, namely, as merely an interpretation of revelation (albeit, an infallible one) which is found only in the Bible. Traditional Catholics, such as Ludwig Ott and Henry Denzinger, tend to be in the first category and more modern Catholics, such as John Henry Newman and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in the latter. The language of the Council of Trent seems to favor the traditional understanding.3 Whether or not extrabiblical apostolic tradition is considered a second source of revelation, there is no question that the Roman Catholic church holds that apostolic tradition is both authoritative and infallible. It is to this point that we speak now.

Catholic Tradition: The Catholic Argument for Holding the Infallibility of Apostolic Tradition

The Council of Trent emphatically proclaimed that the Bible alone is not sufficient for faith and morals. God has ordained tradition in addition to the Bible to faithfully guide the church. Infallible guidance in interpreting the Bible comes from the church. One of the criteria used to determine this is the “unanimous consent of the Fathers.”4 In accordance with “The Profession of Faith of the Council of Trent” (Nov. 13, 1565), all faithful Catholics must agree: “I shall never accept nor interpret it [‘Holy Scripture’] otherwise than in accordance with the unanimous consent of the Fathers.”5 Catholic scholars advance several arguments in favor of the Bible and tradition, as opposed to the Bible only, as the final authority. One of their favorite arguments is that the Bible itself does not teach that the Bible only is our final authority for faith and morals. Thus they conclude that even on Protestant grounds there is no reason to accept sola Scriptura. Indeed, they believe it is inconsistent or self-refuting, since the Bible alone does not teach that the Bible alone is the basis of faith and morals. In point of fact, argue Catholic theologians, the Bible teaches that apostolic “traditions” as well as the written words of the apostles should be followed. St. Paul exhorted the Thessalonian Christians to “stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or epistle” (2 Thess. 2:15; cf. 3:6). One Catholic apologist even went so far as to argue that the apostle John stated his preference for oral tradition. John wrote: “I have much to write to you, but I do not wish to write with pen and ink. Instead, I hope to see you soon when we can talk face to face” (3 John 13). This Catholic writer adds, “Why would the apostle emphasize his preference for oral Tradition over written Tradition…if, as proponents of sola Scriptura assert, Scripture is superior to oral Tradition?”6 Roman Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft lists several arguments against sola Scriptura which in turn are arguments for tradition: “First, it separates Church and Scripture. But they are one. They are not two rival horses in the authority race, but one rider (the Church) on one horse (Scripture).” He adds, “We are not taught by a teacher without a book or by a book without a teacher, but by one teacher, the Church, with one book, Scripture.”7 Kreeft further argues that “sola Scriptura violates the principle of causality; that an effect cannot be greater than its cause.” For “the successors of the apostles, the bishops of the Church, decided on the canon, the list of books to be declared scriptural and infallible.” And “if the Scripture is infallible, then its cause, the Church, must also be infallible.”8 According to Kreeft, “denominationalism is an intolerable scandal by scriptural standards — see John 17:20-23 and I Corinthians 1:10-17.” But “let five hundred people interpret the Bible without Church authority and there will soon be five hundred denominations.”9 So rejection of authoritative apostolic tradition leads to the unbiblical scandal of denominationalism. Finally, Kreeft argues that “the first generation of Christians did not have the New Testament, only the Church to teach them.”10 This being the case, using the Bible alone without apostolic tradition was not possible.

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