When God brought Moses up onto Mt. Sinai forty days Ex 24:15–18 he taught Moses the Oral Law. We know that he had not yet given Moses the Written Law because Moses did not know about the golden calf Ex 32:4. The Lord told Moses, “Go down; for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves” Ex 32:7.
The Old Testament
The Written Torah could not exist without a tradition of sacred oral teaching.
Canon Michael Lewis, in his The Hebrew Catholic article “The Holy Tongue,” writes:
In its fundamental structure, the holy tongue points to the Trinity whose signature is on all that is made. Most Hebrew words derive from a root form that consists of three consonants and thus Hebrew itself is a reminder of God who is Three in one.
Hebrew has an alphabet of twenty-two letters that originally denoted only consonants, although w, y and h are used to represent vowels in certain positions. The lack of true vowels raises questions as to how the text is to be vocalized for, although a system developed of representing vowels by adding points to the consonants, the points themselves are not part of the inspired text of Scripture.
Imagine an English sentence without vowels (mgn n nglsh sntnc wtht vwls) or a linguistic world where potentially ‘bg’ could be read as ‘bag,’ ‘beg,’ ‘big,’ ‘bog’ or ‘bug.’ This absence of true vowels is a reminder to us of a profound truth: we can only read God’s word as set down in writing in the Hebrew Scriptures because of tradition. It is tradition that teaches us how to read the text, how to mark the vowels and so to vocalize the written word. As the Psalmist wrote: ‘God has spoken once: twice I have heard him.’ Ps. 62:12 There is but one Word but we hear that Word in Scripture and in Tradition.
The Hebrew Scriptures were originally written in the form of continuous strings of letters, with no breaks between the words. The great achievement of the Masoretes (fifth to tenth century) was to set down the oral tradition on how the Bible was to be read. The Bible is always a book that has to be interpreted though tradition for without tradition, that which has been handed down, we would be unable even to read the Old Testament.
Rabbi Yeshua and Sacred Tradition
Rabbi Yeshua said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” Mt 28:19–20. Everything Rabbi Yeshua said and did is to be transmitted as authoritative teaching. But Rabbi Yokhanan told us, “There are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” Jn 21:25. Rabbi Yeshua taught and did much more than was written in the New Testament, and he commanded us to teach all that he taught the shlikhim. So there has to be a Sacred Tradition of oral teaching handed on by the shlikhim, as we see in Rabbi Paul’s admonition to Timothy, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it.” Rabbi Paul gives an example, quoting a statement by Rabbi Yeshua that did not appear in the Gospels: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” Acts 20:35.
As the time for the Last Supper approached, Rabbi Yeshua told his shlikhim: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” Jn 16:12–13.
Sacred Oral Teaching
Rabbi Yeshua and his shlikhim always taught by word-of-mouth. However, some scribes, or their students, very likely were among his disciples. Rabbi Yeshua’s teaching was seen as Oral Law at the time. There was no halakhic prohibition against writing personal notes to aid a scholar’s memory. Many, or even all, of Rabbi Yeshua‘s words were probably written down at the time he spoke them. The four Evangelists would have been aware of these notes and used them in compiling the Gospels. The words not written down would still have been accurately preserved through God’s inspiration 2 Tim 3:16.
Rabbi Yeshua‘s Sacred Tradition of Apostolic teaching began at the start of his public revelation, when he began to teach his shlikhim. The shlikhim received the Sacred Tradition from Rabbi Yeshua‘s spoken words, from his way of life and his works, and from the prompting of the Holy Spirit. They passed it on by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, and by the institutions they established. It also includes all of divine revelation, from the dawn of human history to the end of the apostolic age, passed on from one generation of believers to the next and preserved under divine guidance by the Catholic Church.
God’s direct inspiration guided the sacred authors of the Catholic Canon of Sacred Scripture, so the words of Sacred Scripture did not come from the stream of Sacred Tradition. However, the divine revelation by which Holy Mother Church illuminates our understanding of Sacred Scripture does come from Sacred Tradition. Since God is the author of both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, they are always completely consistent with one another and together constitute the complete deposit of faith taught by Holy Mother Church.
The Church Fathers
The Sacred Tradition of Apostolic Teaching
When a divine institution comes into being it should be able to trace its origin directly, visibly and continuously back to its divine founder. Only the Catholic Church has been in continuous existence, teaching what Rabbi Yeshua and his shlikhim taught through the apostolic succession.
Rabbi Yeshua, the Torah made Flesh, spoke Torah to his shlikhim in Judea and Galilee. The stories of his life and teachings were told by the shlikhim as notes from their wider comprehension of the original revelation. Some of it was written down in the Gospels and the other books of the New Testament. Most was not Jn 21:25. These remained within Sacred Tradition, passed along exactly as the Oral Law had been.
The shlikhim were the twelve, but other men were with Rabbi Yeshua on his journeys. When it came time to replace Judas, Rabbi Kefa told the eleven, “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection” Acts 1:21–22. “Matthias … was enrolled with the eleven apostles” Acts 1:26. We hear nothing more from him, but we may speculate that St. Matthias traveled with the eleven to spread the good news.
“So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” Eph 2:19–20.
He adds that the Tradition that the shlikhim hand from brother to brother comes from Rabbi Yeshua: “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you” 1 Cor 11:23. He made sure everyone understood: “When you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” 1 Thess 2:13.
And he used extremely strong language to hand on a direct command in Rabbi Yeshua‘s name: “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” 2 Thess 3:6.
He adds further, “What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” 2 Tim 2:2.
“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.
And “Maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you” 1 Cor 11:2. Above all, he emphasized, “If I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” 1 Tim 3:15. The Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth.
We can see some early examples. John personally instructed Polycarp, whom he ordained Bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp too lived to an advanced age. His disciple Irenaeus became Bishop of Lyons in Gaul and lived until AD 202. And so on. The Apostolic Fathers, Church Fathers who lived and wrote before AD 200, were St. Clement of Rome, Mathetes, St. Polycarp, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Barnabas, St. Papias, and St. Irenaeus. Most were pastors. They wrote down their homilies so that, when they traveled, the people in each place would hear the same words. In AD 324, Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, completed his massive ten-volume Church History.
The Church Fathers wrote in the shadow of the Talmud. The early Jewish sages wrote their commentaries on the halakha, and the Church Fathers wrote theirs on Rabbi Yeshua and his Church. The sages blended their writings and resolved inconsistencies, while the popes blended the Fathers’ “innumerable treatises, homilies, debates, meditations, councils, and ecclesiastical rulings”1 Catholics who read the Church Fathers relish the tang of individual minds serving one true Church: St. Irenaeus’ sharp sarcasm, Origen’s astute exegetical skill, St. Augustine’s serene majesty.
Yet, the Holy Spirit held the Sacred Tradition together as the centuries passed. The Church Fathers were surprisingly consistent Let’s look at the Church Fathers on the Holy Eucharist. Here is Catholic Answers‘ list on the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.
The Church Fathers of each century reflected the ideas around them. In the mid-to-late second century St. Justin, a philosopher before his conversion, and Tertullian, a lawyer, had backgrounds in Stoic and Platonic philosophy. Third century Fathers were concerned with stopping Manichaeism. Fourth century Fathers often wrote about the issues surrounding the ecumenical councils at Nicaea (AD 325) and Constantinople (AD 381), and so on.
The Church Fathers as individuals are not infallible. They show continuity, not infallibility. We read the Fathers to see the continuity of Catholic teaching from the shlikhim to the present day. Holy Mother Church understands Scriptural teaching by reading the early Church Fathers, who were much closer to the teaching of Rabbi Yeshua and the shlikhim than we are. The Church looks at four criteria.
- Consensus If all the Fathers teach a particular doctrine the same way we know we have received it intact from the shlikhim. If there are, say, thirty fathers who teach it one way and one who teaches it slightly differently, the Church may still recognize the doctrine as authentic but at a lower level of theological certainty.
- Concentration Fathers who wrote extensively on a doctrine probably studied it extensively, and therefore would have greater weight than those who just mention it in passing.
- Date The early Fathers are given greater weight; Fathers who were personally taught by a shaliakh, or who were personally taught by someone taught by a shaliakh, have the greatest weight.
- Number If many Fathers teach a particular doctrine it is more likely to have been taught by the shlikhim than if few teach it.
The Fathers show us that the Catholic Church is the same Church that Rabbi Yeshua instituted two thousand years ago and teaches today what it taught from the beginning. They document the apostolic tradition. For instance, St. Irenaeus of Lyon, a second century bishop, taught the apostolic succession and affirmed the threefold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon. He had been taught by St. Polycarp, who had been personally taught by St. John the Apostle.
Respect for Papal Authority
St. Dionysius of Corinth, Epistle to Pope Soter, fragment in Eusebius’ Church History, II: 25.8.
“Tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.” St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 3:3. AD 190.
Tertullian addresses “those whom Peter baptized in the Tiber,” [On Baptism, 4] the river just east of the Holy See in Rome. Tertullian also writes,that St. Clement, the fourth bishop of Rome, was “ordained in like manner by Peter.” [Prescription Against Heretics, 32]. Both wrote around AD 218.
St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on Romans, homily 32: “I love Rome even for this … it has as two glistening eyes the bodies of these Saints. Not so bright is the heaven, when the sun sends forth his rays, as is the city of Rome, sending out these two lights into all parts of the world. From thence will Paul be caught up, from thence Peter.”
William A. Jurgens, in his three-volume set, The Faith of the Early Fathers, a masterly compendium that cites at length everything from the Didache to St. John Damascene, includes thirty references to Rabbi Kefa’s primacy, divided, in the index, about evenly between the statements that “Peter came to Rome and died there,” and that “Peter established his See at Rome and made the Bishop of Rome his successor in the primacy.”
Archaeologists searching beneath the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, several levels down, have found the bones of a powerfully built elderly man who had been crucified, where the original first century Vatican hill sloped away toward the Tiber River, outside the walls of what once had been Nero’s Palace, exactly where the early Christian and even non-Christian records say Rabbi Kefa was crucified and buried.2
Some academics opposed to the Church have argued that the original papacy did not govern the Church by appointing a single bishop to rule alone over a city. Today the pope appoints a single bishop to rule over a diocese. Even when the diocese is very large and needs several bishops, one is always the diocesan bishop, ruler of the diocese, and the others are auxiliary bishops.
The Holocaust Connection
Rabbi Yeshua told us, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” Mt 18:20. Whenever Catholic and sola Scriptura believers, including Messianic Jews, get together, Peter in Rome is always a lively subject. It attracted considerable interest during the Holocaust, when Pope Pius XII and the Jews formed a powerful bond.
Did Rabbi Yeshua place the Holy See in Rome so that Pius XII could rescue hundreds of thousands of Jews and bring Jews and Christians together? As we see here, his divine mind considered all of salvation history, but certainly the Holocaust and the Cross were bound together in that time. Rabbi Pinchas Lapide, in his authoritative book Three Popes and the Jews, (New York: Hawthorne Books, 1967), p. 215, declared,
The final number of Jewish lives in whose rescue the Catholic Church had been instrumental is thus at least 700,000 souls, but in all probability is much closer to the maximum of 860,000.… These figures … exceed by far those saved by all other churches, religious institutions and rescue organizations combined.
The Development of Doctrine
Catholics know that there will be § 65-67 no new doctrine but the doctrines Rabbi Yeshua taught us will be more fully revealed as the Church grows in understanding. Holy Mother Church speaks of § 2625 “the fullness of truth,” which under the Holy Spirit‘s guidance we gradually approach and will reach only at the Second Coming, when this world will pass away.
St. Vincent of Lérins
In the Catholic Church herself every care must be taken that we may hold fast to that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. For this is, then truly and properly Catholic.3
St. Vincent continued:
Will there, then, be no progress of religion in the Church of Christ? Certainly there is, and the greatest.… But it is truly progress and not a change of faith. What is meant by progress is that something is brought to an advancement within itself; by change, something is transformed from one thing into another. It is necessary, therefore, that understanding, knowledge and wisdom grow and advance strongly and mightily … and this must take place precisely within its own kind, that is, in the same teaching, in the same meaning, and in the same opinion. The progress of religion in souls is like the growth of bodies, which, in the course of years, evolve and develop, but still remain what they were.… Although in the course of time something evolved from those first seeds and has now expanded under careful cultivation, nothing of the characteristics of the seeds is changed. Granted that appearance, beauty and distinction has been added, still, the same nature of each kind remains.4
St. Vincent continued further:
Dogma … may be consolidated in the course of years, developed in the sequence of time, and sublimated by age — yet remain incorrupt and unimpaired … so that it does not allow of any change, or any loss of its specific character, or any variation of its inherent form.5
St. Vincent added:
It should flourish and ripen; it should develop and become perfect … but it is sinful to change them … or mutilate them. They may take on more evidence, clarity, and distinctness, but it is absolutely necessary that they retain their plenitude, integrity, and basic character.… The Church of Christ is a faithful and ever watchful guardian of the dogmas which have been committed to her charge. In this sacred deposit she changes nothing, she takes nothing … she adds nothing to it.6
Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman, 1801-1890, the great Anglican who became complete in the Catholic faith, pointed out that development of doctrine is central in Catholic teaching.
One thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches … at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this. And Protestantism … as a whole, feels it, and has felt it. This is shown in the determination … of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone.… To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.7
In the same essay, Cardinal Newman summarized,
If it be true that the principles of the later Church are the same as those of the earlier, then, whatever are the variations of belief between the two periods, the later in reality agrees more than it differs with the earlier, for principles are responsible for doctrines. Hence they who assert that the modern Roman system is the corruption of primitive theology are forced to discover some difference of principle between the one and the other; for instance, that the right of private judgment was secured to the early Church and has been lost to the later, or again, that the later Church rationalizes and the earlier went by faith.8
Papal Infallibility and Development of Doctrine
Infallibility does not demand that a given formulation be always and everywhere imposed, but only that it be not directly contradicted. It means that when the Church, through its highest teaching office, defines a truth pertaining to revelation, divine providence, working through a multiplicity of channels, will preserve the Church from error. But it may well be necessary, as generations pass, to reinterpret the defined dogma in accordance with the presuppositions, thought categories, concerns, and vocabulary of a later age.9
For example, slavery had a long history in ancient Egypt and Greece, as well as Rome. Rabbi Yeshua’s most fundamental teachings, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “love one another; even as I have loved you” Mt 22:37; Jn 13:34, were radically incompatible with slavery, but confronting the institution directly would likely have brought great bloodshed. Rabbi Paul instead encouraged slaves to serve their masters as if they were serving Rabbi Yeshua, and masters to treat their slaves with love, as family, mindful that their own Master in heaven would treat them as they treated their slaves. Eph 6:5, 9; Col 4:1; Mt 7:2. Rabbi Paul spoke of the slave Onesimus as “my child,” and urged Philemon to treat him as a “beloved brother” Philem 10, 16.
Holy Mother Church has always sought to protect the dignity of God’s image and likeness everywhere as best she could. As Mark Brumley puts it, “Slaves and free men had equal access to the sacraments, and many clerics were from slave backgrounds, including two popes (Pius I and Callistus). This implies a fundamental equality incompatible with slavery.”10
Holy Mother Church is always careful. As the centuries passed and civilizations evolved, she had to distinguish between just and unjust forms of servitude. Brumley also tells us that, “The Magisterium condemned unjust enslavement early on.”11 However, it also recognized “just title” involuntary servitude, served by prisoners of war and criminals, as well as the voluntary servitude of indentured servants, who agree to serve someone for a benefit, as Jacob served his uncle Laban for seven years hoping to marry Rachel Gen 29:18.
Pope Eugene IV, in Sicut Dudum § 4, condemned the enslavement of persons in the newly colonized Canary Islands. “These people are to be totally and perpetually free and are to be let go without the exaction or reception of any money.” Pope Paul III in Sublimus Dei applied the same principle to the newly encountered inhabitants of the West and South Indies, describing the enslavers as allies of the devil and declaring attempts to justify slavery “null and void.” He also declared anyone who enslaved the Indians or stole their goods subject to a latae sententiae excommunication remittable only by the pope himself. When Europeans began enslaving Africans as a source of cheap labor, the Holy Office of the Inquisition condemned the entire practice, and required that slaveholders had to emancipate and compensate unjustly enslaved Africans. Pope Gregory XVI in In Supremo Apostolatus, reiterated papal opposition to enslaving “Indians, negroes and other wretched peoples” and prohibited “any Ecclesiastic or lay person from presuming to defend as permissible this traffic in Blacks under no matter what pretext or excuse.”
The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council in Gaudium et Spes § 27 condemned slavery in the strongest terms: “Furthermore, whatever … insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children … all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.”