BITE-SIZE THEOLOGY (17) – What does “Sacred Tradition” mean?

– Rev José Mario O Mandía

We have seen last time that Apostolic Tradition is transmitted through Sacred Tradition and through Sacred Scripture (cf CCCC 13). Let us discuss Sacred Tradition first. What do we mean by “Sacred Tradition”?

The term “tradition” comes from the Latin traditio, “handing down.” Tradition does not refer to customs or practices like praying the Rosary, or going on processions and pilgrimages. These latter practices are called customs or, also, traditions (in plural form). The CCC (no 83) teaches: “Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium.”

Tradition” or “Sacred Tradition” is the sum of the doctrines transmitted through word of mouth by Christ’s apostles. Jesus Christ sent his apostles to preach, and that preaching is what Tradition consists of. Since the early Church did not right away consign our Lord’s teachings to writing, the beliefs of the early Christians were drawn from oral testimonies. From a chronological perspective, first there was Tradition, then Scripture. It was this early preaching, this Tradition, that determined which of the written works were to form part of the Scripture. Scripture is interpreted correctly only in and according to Tradition.

Is the teaching of Sacred Tradition written down anywhere?

First of all, in the early Church, we find several persons, many of them saints, who eventually wrote down these teachings. These are the Fathers of the Church and the ecclesiastical writers.

What does it take to be a Father of the Church?

There are four requirements:

(1) Antiquity: he must have lived in the early centuries of the Church.

(2) Orthodoxy: his teaching must be in consonance with Tradition, Scripture and Magisterium.

(3) Recognition by the Church: the Church must recognise him as a Father.

(4) Sanctity or Holiness of life.

Other ancient writers who do not meet one of the last three requirements are called ecclesiastical writers. Their contribution is also valuable to Sacred Tradition.

Secondly, Sacred Tradition can also be found in liturgical texts and practices that have come down to use from the beginnings of the Church. The official prayers of the Church reflect the beliefs of the faithful. Hence the axiom (coined by Pope Celestine in 422 AD) lex credendi, lex orandi (“the law of belief is the law of prayer”).

Thirdly, this Sacred Tradition is found in the life of the faithful. The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has emphasised that Tradition is not some kind of dead letter, but belief that is lived out. He further elaborated the concept of Tradition in his General Audience of 26 April 2006: “Tradition is not the transmission of things or words, a collection of dead things. Tradition is the living river that links us to the origins, the living river in which the origins are ever present, the great river that leads us to the gates of eternity. And since this is so, in this living river,  the words of the Lord that we heard on the reader’s lips to start with are ceaselessly brought about: ‘I am with you always, to the close of the age’ (Mt 28: 20).”

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