Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Sacred Tradition and the Bible

At the end of the movie Stigmata, the epilogue claims: "The Catholic Church to this day has not recognized the Gospel of Thomas." To the religious and non-religious alike who watch this pitiful film, they may ponder why the Catholic Church has never (and will never) accept this so-called gospel? Is there a powerful and godless conspiracy at the Vatican that is suppressing the "true gospel" of Jesus Christ like the movie depicts? (Poor Dan Brown!) The answer to this question relies in Catholic doctrine that Protestants reject: Sacred Tradition. This doctrine, which I believe, holds the key to unlocking the canon of the Bible.

My friends from high school and I know exactly what our teenage years were like. For years we joked about our foolish amusements; repeating our stories so often that we could easily cross-verify our accounts. Let's pretend, if you may, that we took the time to transcribe some of our worthless stories into a memoir. Being produced by many writers, there will be several overlapping accounts of whatever happened. Fast-forward into the future, and now those stories are orally received by our children in conjunction with the written memoir; then handed down to their children and so-forth. Hundreds of years later after our deaths, other writings about our lives mysteriously surface and cause great confusion among the world. Not only does the authentic memoir exist, but now also a whole array of contradictory documents have invaded and caused social chaos. What is real? Who is right? How can anyone trust anything?

In the same way, Jesus recruited His apostles (John 1:35-45) and taught them Himself what to preach. This apostolic preaching was to be continued after the death and resurrection of our Lord "to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to observe all that [He] had commanded them" (Matt 28:19-20). Therefore they handed on, by the example they gave and the word they preached, all that they have seen Christ say and do or what they had learned under the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, some of the apostles and other men took it upon themselves as a form of evangelization, to write down, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, what they have received by this sacred Tradition.

Protestants believe Tradition ceased to be useful after the Gospel was transcribed, but I think that opinion doesn’t suffice because "gospels" continued to surface for centuries after the death of the apostles. How can the Christian world determine the true memoirs among the fakes? Without a tradition, in the cases of our high school lives and of the Church, what standard is there to compare against? If we left our memoirs among our children, our children would be a legitimate authority to discern the true memoirs from the fakes because they would bear the living knowledge of our lives. Similarly, in order that the Church may preserve the Gospel in its entirety until the end of time, the "apostolic ministry" (Acts 1:25) bequeathed to the apostles was passed down to legitimate successors (the bishops) with a directive to "stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours" (2 Thess 2:15). The difference between my family tradition and the Church’s tradition is this: mine is a human tradition susceptible to disintegration; the Church has the inerrant tradition of the Holy Spirit.

For the authentic canon of the Bible to be known, the Church must have sacred Tradition to sift the wheat from the barley. The Bible did not arrive to the Church as a bound book of books. Every "book" was its own scroll or set of parchment sheets, looking as similar to the next on an ancient scholar’s shelf. Without a divine discriminator "to show which one of these you have chosen" (Acts 1:24), human heuristics can never know the full list of canonical books and do it with absolute confidence. Finally, it should not be any surprise that the Gospel was not entirely transmitted in sacred Scripture. As the apostle John says himself, "There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written" (John 21:25).