Scripture and Tradition

by Sinclair B. Ferguson

Martin Luther's famous Ninety-five Theses sparked a religious fire in Europe that the Roman Catholic Church was unable to extinguish. The theological conflict that ensued has often been characterized as focusing on the four "alones" of the Reformation: sola gratia, solo Christo, sola fide, sola Scriptura—salvation is by grace alone, in Christ alone, by faith alone, and all that is necessary for salvation is taught in Scripture alone. Each of these principles, and certainly all four together, served as a canon by which the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church was assessed and found lacking.

In these great slogans, the nouns—grace, Christ, faith, Scripture—were and are of great importance. But in each case the qualifying sola (alone) was and is in some ways even more significant. Rome had always taught that salvation was by grace through faith in Christ, and had always held that the Bible was the Word of God—but never alone. To speak of sola Scriptura has almost always been viewed in Rome as a prescription for spiritual anarchy in which everyone would create for himself a personalized message of the Bible. The only safeguard against this was the living tradition of the church, which was viewed as a separate channel of divine revelation.

Literacy levels were low in the Middle Ages (prior to the printing press, a Renaissance development that brought about widespread access to the Bible). But this alone does not account for the Reformation horror stories about the large-scale biblical ignorance among both priests and people. Nevertheless, it would be uncharitable to extrapolate from those dark days to the present day as though no counter-reformations within Catholicism had taken place in the interim. And Protestants also must recognize that a widespread interest in the Bible has developed within the Roman Catholic Church in the past century.

Can it be, then, that we now face a new situation in Roman Catholicism? After all, "common" Bibles are being published for the first time since the Reformation. Moreover, not only within the World Council of Churches (largely dominated by liberal theology) but also within evangelicalism, substantial rapprochement has been viewed as possible in our own time. So it is timely to ask: Has something unprecedented happened within Roman Catholicism's interpretation of the Bible so that the old differences can, at last, be laid to rest?

Between the First Vatican Council (1870) and the publication of the Pontifical Biblical Commission's important work The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993), the Roman Magisterium published a series of significant statements on the nature, interpretation, and role of the Bible in the church. These began in the nineteenth century in the widespread crisis for faith created by the effect of Enlightenment thought and thereafter by the onslaught of scientific humanism that found its impetus in naturalistic evolutionism. Pronouncements have continued to appear up to the present day, when the Vatican has sought to wed contemporary historical-critical methods of biblical interpretation with the ancient dogmas of the church. Each of these statements is of interest on its own account; together they mark a development that has been significant for the work of large numbers of Roman Catholic biblical scholars.

The story of this development is not well known among Protestants. Indeed, probably most Roman Catholics are relatively unfamiliar with it. It is worth narrating, at least in broad outline.


In 1893, Pope Leo XIII issued the Encyclical Letter Providentissimus Deus. It was the first wide-ranging attempt of the Roman Church to deal specifically with the impact of the critical methodologies that had come to characterize theological scholarship in the latter part of the nineteenth century. These methodologies treated the Bible as an ancient Near Eastern text and assessed it from the standpoint of critical historical investigation and linguistic and religious development. In sophisticated theological terms, Scripture's "humanity" was explored (and, in fact, its divinity was increasingly ignored and denied).

Against this background, in which the idea of human evolution played a major role, Providentissimus Deus insisted on a long-standing principle of Christian orthodoxy: if God is Author of both nature and Scripture, these two "books" of divine revelation must be in harmony with each other. The encyclical emphasized that there could therefore be no ultimate conflict between the Bible and either the natural sciences or historical investigation. It urged both theologians and scientists to respect the limits of their own spheres. In addition, biblical exegetes who employed the fruits of secular scientific and historical studies were counseled to remember the importance of the analogia fidei (analogy of faith): the Scriptures should always be interpreted in keeping with the apostolic rule of faith to which the church subscribed. Thus, the last word on what the Bible taught lay with the Roman Magisterium.

Providentissimus Deus was thus characterized by a conservative (some would have said "reactionary") character, expressed particularly in its negative criticisms of the way in which historical-critical principles were being used. The underlying anxiety of the encyclical was that critical methodologies would prove injurious to the faith of which the church was called to be the guardian, not the destroyer.

Fifty years later, the face of Europe had changed dramatically. The Great War had been fought from 1914–18 and the Second World War of 1939–45 was in full course. The misplaced and anthropocentric optimism of nineteenth-century liberal theology had collapsed, shattered before the enormity of human need; the notion that humanity was evolving from a lower to a higher moral condition had been dealt an embarrassing blow. The "gospel" of the universal fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man stood exposed in all of its inherent poverty. There arose a new sense of need for some powerful word from God. In Protestantism, the "theology of crisis" emerged and what came to be known as "Biblical Theology" began to stir.

Significant developments also had taken place within the world of Roman Catholic biblical scholarship. In the wake of Providentissimus Deus, the Pontifical Biblical Commission was created by Leo XIII in 1902. Its earliest responses (responsa) to questions of biblical interpretation were characterized by negative reaction to higher criticism. But in due season (it was completely reorganized in 1971 following the Second Vatican Council) it would prove to be a spearhead of the new way of reading the Bible.

In 1943, Pius XII issued his Encyclical Letter Divino Afflante Spiritu. It was promulgated during the Second World War, but not until the turn of the decade did its full impact begin to be felt. This time a more positive note was struck. For one thing, Roman Catholic biblical scholars were largely set free from the burden the church had carried for centuries: the use of the Vulgate (Jerome's Latin translation of the Bible). It had been regarded as the authoritative text for ecclesiastical use since the time of the Council of Trent (and even in 1943 it was declared to be "free from all error in matters of faith and morals").

In a manner reminiscent of the humanists of the Renaissance, with the motto ad fontes ("back to the original sources"), Roman Catholic scholars now enjoyed a new freedom and fresh impetus to gain and employ expertise in the biblical languages to enable a true understanding of the text of Scripture. A new value was recognized in the use of such tools as textual, literary, and form criticism. The importance of history, ethnology, archaeology, "and other sciences" was affirmed. The "true meaning," indeed the so-called "literal sense" of Scripture, was to be sought, as well as the "spiritual significance." Pre-critical ways of reading the Bible were widely (but not entirely) replaced with the new approach. A clear distinction was made between the "meaning" of the original text and the contemporary application ("significance") of it. Principles of interpretation that had long been familiar to Protestants were now increasingly recognized as essential to proper biblical exegesis. The historical-critical method had come to stay.

All this was encouraged (it could scarcely have been prevented, but the genius of Rome, unlike Wittenberg and Geneva, has always been its ability to hold opposite tendencies together). The underlying principle was that the Scriptures cannot be charged with error. Supposed errors in Scripture, it was held, could be resolved by a right reading of the text. Any tensions between Scripture and "reality" could always be resolved in favor of biblical integrity. Harmonization was an essential key to reading the Bible as a modern Catholic.

Times change, and we change with them. The second half of the twentieth century saw continued movement in Roman Catholic biblical scholarship. This was not without ecclesiastical bloodletting (at one point, professors at the Pontifical Biblical Institute were banned from teaching). But the overall result has been that some of the most erudite biblical studies published during this period carry the imprimatur nihil obstat, which identify them as the work of Roman Catholic scholars that has been declared "free of doctrinal or moral error."

The most recent succinct expression of this development can be seen in the Pontifical Biblical Commission's statement on biblical interpretation, published in 1993. Here the fruits of critical scholarship set within the context of the church's tradition were warmly welcomed. Indeed, strikingly—in view of the importance of the principle of harmonization at all costs that marked earlier Roman Catholic pronouncements—it was of a Protestant-style fundamentalist approach to Scripture that the church seemed to have become most critical, and perhaps most fearful.

But why should this development since 1870 be of interest to Protestant Christians? The reason lies on the surface of much of the very best Catholic biblical scholarship. There is, in our day, a clear recognition in Roman Catholic biblical scholarship that there is a gulf—or at least a distance—between what the text of sacred Scripture states and the teaching of the sacred tradition of the church. There is also recognition that the words of Jesus recorded in John 16:12–15, often taken as a specific promise guaranteeing the truth and infallibility of sacred tradition, do not refer to such a tradition at all. By necessity, therefore, some Roman Catholic interpreters of Scripture have had to develop a novel view of the relationship between Scripture and tradition in order to hold them together: tradition adds to Scripture, but Scripture is "open" to tradition.

Can this contention be readily illustrated from Roman Catholic biblical scholarship?

In critical discussion, it is always a great temptation to treat the most extreme examples of the opposition's viewpoint as though they were representative. That is an unworthy tactic, one that often merely hardens prejudices on both sides. In this context, however, the point can readily be illustrated not from the worst historical examples of Roman Catholic biblical interpretation, but—albeit from a necessarily limited sample—by what is widely regarded as its best.


It would be hard to find a better illustration of the new approach to the Bible in Roman Catholicism than the recent widely acclaimed commentary on Romans by Joseph A. Fitzmyer. Professor Fitzmyer is a leading Roman Catholic scholar whose outstanding academic gifts pervade his almost 800-page commentary. While it is often true in the matter of commentaries that "one man's meat is another man's poison," it is impossible to imagine any student of Scripture failing to find considerable profit from the erudition and stimulus of Fitzmyer's work. Raymond E. Brown, the outstanding American Catholic Johannine scholar, describes Fitzmyer as "the most learned N[ew] T[estament] scholar on the American Catholic scene." Elsewhere he says of Fitzmyer's work on Romans that "It can lay fair claim to being the best commentary on Romans in English."3 Even those who might award the palm to someone other than Fitzmyer recognize the value of the commendation.

But it is precisely because of the quality of this commentary that its contents are so significant. A desire for careful exegesis coupled with faithfulness to the Magisterium of the church leads Fitzmyer (a Jesuit) to state, albeit with appropriate sensitivity and discretion, that the teaching of the Scriptures cannot simpliciter ("directly") be identified with the teachings of the sacred tradition. The following illustrations will underline this.

In an extensive introductory chapter on Pauline theology, Fitzmyer includes an essay on faith. In the developed theology of the medieval period, theologians had spoken and written much of fides caritate formata, justifying faith that was "faith formed by love." This, not "faith alone," justifies, they said. This view was confirmed at the Council of Trent.

Many of the statements from Trent reveal misunderstandings of the teaching of Luther and the other Reformers; nevertheless, its teaching in this regard is clearly intended as a rejection of the principles the Reformers regarded as central to the gospel. Trent's Decree on Justification reads as follows: "If anyone says that people are justified either by the sole imputation of the righteousness (justitia) of Christ or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and charity which is poured into their hearts through the Holy Spirit and inheres in them; or even that the grace by which we are justified is only the favour of God, let him be anathema."

Rome's great fear has always been that sola fide would breed antinomianism and moral license. Christians, it was held, were preserved from this by the fact that justification takes place through faith that is formed by love; i.e., justification involves personal transformation.

But, comments Fitzmyer, Paul's notion of faith that "blossoms" in love is to be distinguished from this fides caritate formata:

That is a philosophical transposition of the Pauline teaching—acceptable or not depending on whether one agrees with the philosophy involved—but the genuine Pauline idea of "faith working itself out through love" is implicit in Romans … he does not equate faith with love; nor does he ascribe to love what he does to faith (viz., justification, salvation), even though he recognizes the necessity of the two working in tandem.

Here is an important recognition of the fact that we must distinguish between what the tradition has said and what the Scriptures actually affirm. The idea of faith and love being instrumental in justification cannot be read out of the text as such. It is no part of the exegesis of Paul's words.

Note, however, that Fitzmyer is careful to suggest only that there is distance between what is affirmed by Paul and what is stated in the tradition. He does not affirm that there is any necessary contradiction between Scripture and tradition.

More is to follow. Commenting on a central passage regarding the justification controversy, Romans 3:21–26, Fitzmyer states that Paul formulates "three, or possibly four, effects of the Christ-event [i.e., the work of Christ] …: justification, redemption, expiation, and possibly pardon," and adds, "It is important to recognize that such effects of the Christ-event are appropriated through faith in Christ Jesus, and only through faith. It is the means whereby human beings experience what Christ has done."

Here again the Pauline text is to be read on its own terms without recourse to post-Pauline developments in the church. Fitzmyer knows that within the church there have always been those who have read Paul's words as implying the principle of sola fide.

It would be quite wrong, however (indeed naive), to read this distancing of the church's pronouncements from the statements of the biblical text as a capitulation to the Protestant exposition. Indeed, Fitzmyer gives equal care to articulating the difference between the text and the way in which it has been interpreted within Protestant circles.

Within a page of the previous citation we find Professor Fitzmyer rejecting the interpretation of a Protestant scholar on the grounds that "that reading would introduce an Anselmian distinction into the Pauline text, which does not warrant it." But even here the concern is to allow Paul to speak for himself in distinction from reading him through the eyes of the construction of a postbiblical tradition (in this case, one that also appealed to Protestantism). Whether or not Fitzmyer's critique is accurate, what is at first sight remarkable is the way in which his recognition of Paul's emphasis on the unique role of faith might easily be mistaken for the comment of a Protestant exegete.

There are other noteworthy illustrations of an exegesis that self-consciously seeks to let the Scriptures speak for themselves apart from the dominance of theological tradition. In this sense, the Roman Catholic scholar is approaching the text in a manner similar to the Protestant.

Commenting on the words "justified freely by His grace" in Romans 3:24, Fitzmyer notes: "It should be superfluous to stress … that in using dorean and te autou chariti, Paul is not referring to the efficient cause of justification by the former and the formal cause by the latter (as if charis were 'sanctifying grace'). That is anachronistic exegesis, a distinction born of later medieval and Tridentine [Council of Trent] theology."

Here again, without rejecting the teaching of Trent as such, a distinction is made between what the text itself states and the theology that has developed within the Catholic tradition.

The comments that may strike the Protestant mind as most unexpected are to be found in Professor Fitzmyer's exposition of Romans 3:27–31. It was in his translation of Romans 3:28 in 1522 that Luther's appeal to sola fide emerged as seminal for the Reformation understanding of the gospel. Fitzmyer recognizes that this language long predates Luther and can be found in the writings of the early fathers. He frankly states that "in this context" Paul means "by faith alone," although he contends that in the Lutheran sense its use is an extension of what Paul says. This inevitably prompts questions as to the nature of this "extension" and whether there is any Roman Catholic "sense" in which justification is genuinely "by faith alone." But the admission in and of itself is significant.

The same distance between Scripture and tradition is further indicated when Fitzmyer turns to the exposition of Romans 5:12. The traditional Roman Catholic view of this text is to see here a reference to "original" sin. This was made explicit by the Council of Trent, which not only set its imprimatur to this exegesis of Paul's words, but also forbade any other understanding of his statement. Fitzmyer comments:

This tradition found its formal conciliar expression in the Tridentine Decretum de peccato originali, Sess. V, 2–4.… This decree gave a definitive interpretation to the Pauline text in the sense that his words teach a form of the dogma of Original Sin, a rare text that enjoys such an interpretation.

Care must be taken, however, to understand what Paul is saying and not to transform his mode of expression too facilely into the precision of later dogmatic development.… Paul's teaching is regarded as seminal and open to later dogmatic development, but it does not say all that the Tridentine decree says.

Again we can hardly avoid noting the caution that emerges with respect to reading the church's tradition back into Scripture. The dogma as such is not rejected; what is made clear is that it is not to be identified simpliciter with the teaching contained in the New Testament.

Next, in commenting on Romans 6:12, Fitzmyer alludes to the teaching of the Council of Trent that what Paul sometimes calls "sin" (as, for example, in Rom. 6:12) is not described as such by the Roman Catholic Church, but rather is understood as the fomes peccati. The allusion here is to one of the most astonishing (and surely embarrassing) statements in the documents of Trent, in the Decree Concerning Original Sin: "This concupiscence, which the apostle sometimes calls sin, the holy Synod declares that the Catholic Church has never understood it to be called sin, as being truly and properly sin in those born again, but because it is of sin, and inclines to sin. And if anyone is of a contrary sentiment, let him be anathema."

Again we must not make the mistake of thinking that Fitzmyer has ceased to be a faithful son of the Roman Church. For this, he notes (in agreement with the earlier biblical scholar M. J. Lagrange), "might be an exact theological transposition," but it is a precision not yet found in the Pauline text.

Our concern here is not to discuss the precision of the theology involved in this statement, but once more to underline the gap—although for Fitzmyer manifestly not an unbridgeable historical gulf—that is fixed between the revelation as it comes to us in Scripture and what the church has received as its authoritative tradition.

No doubt this whole approach causes anxiety in the hearts of Roman Catholics who are conservative and traditionalist (there are "fundamentalists" in both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism). They may find some relief in the way Professor Fitzmyer's concurrence with the Roman tradition is given notable expression in his handling of Paul's teaching on justification. Professor Fitzmyer nuances the meaning of dikaioo in the direction of "being made upright." Here, at perhaps the most critical point, his exegesis harmonizes with the Vulgate's translation of the New Testament's dikaioo by justum facere.

Despite the presence of Lutheran sympathizers at Trent, the council committed the church irrevocably to a transformationist doctrine of justification: "Justification … is not the removal of our sins alone, but also the sanctification and renovation of the inner man through the willing reception of the grace and the other gifts by which a man from being unjust (ex injusto) becomes just, and from being an enemy becomes a friend so that he may be an heir according to the hope of eternal life."

Even Fitzmyer's further qualification—he notes that this justification takes place "gratuitously through God's powerful declaration of acquittal"—does not eliminate a distinctively Tridentine exegesis, as he makes clear: "The sinful human being is not only 'declared upright,' but is 'made upright' (as in 5:19), for the sinner's condition has changed."

Much is at stake here. In many areas where sacred tradition is not already present and perspicuous in sacred Scripture, Fitzmyer and other Roman Catholic scholars reduce the gap between what is taught in the biblical text and the dogma of sacred tradition by an appeal to the "open" character of biblical teaching. In this way, they minimize the force of the Reformation criticism that tradition contradicts Scripture.

Jesus' washing of the disciples' feet and His exhortation to them to imitate Him (John 13:1–15) give an example of this "open" character of Scripture. Foot washing might well have developed into a sacrament, in a manner parallel to the development that took place in another "open" passage, James 5:14. Here, "under the Spirit-guided development of Tradition" the text became the basis for the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.

No appeal to the theory of Scripture's "open" character can be of service, however, in relationship to the doctrine of justification. It would simply not be possible for Fitzmyer at this juncture to agree with the Reformation exegesis of justification as declaratory, imputed righteousness, yet appeal to the "open" character of Paul's teaching and to the Spirit's continuing work in the church as bringing out the fullness of meaning in justification as including infused righteousness. These two perspectives stand in direct contradiction with one another.

Nevertheless, Fitzmyer's interpretation is based on an exegetical appeal—to his own exegesis of Romans 5:19: "Just as through the disobedience of one man many were made sinners, so through the obedience of one many will be made upright." He takes Paul's verb kathistanai ("made") in the sense of subjective condition, i.e., in a transformationist sense.

Two things should be said here. First, we believe Fitzmyer's interpretation of Romans 5:19 can be demonstrated to be mistaken. But second, his logic is wrong. Even if kathistanai were understood in a subjective-transformationist sense, it does not necessarily follow that Paul's use of dikaioo is transformationist rather than forensic and declaratory. To consistently interpret "justify" in the light of this assumption is an exegetical procedure without justification!

But even here there is a formal recognition of the principle: sacred Scripture must be distinguished from sacred tradition; we should not assume that the latter is an exegesis of the former.

Naturally, Protestants view this distinction through Protestantized spectacles. Anyone convinced of the sole authority and sufficiency of Scripture is bound to ask how it is possible for a scholar of integrity to recognize this gap and yet to remain a faithful Roman Catholic.

It is too simple a construction, however, to conclude that there is manifest duplicity here. Rather, the general consistency and clarity with which Fitzmyer's exegesis illustrates the gap between Scripture and tradition highlights why it is that the Protestant appeal to Scripture alone to refute Roman Catholic dogma seems to cut little ice: for Rome, neither Scripture nor tradition can stand on its own. The rationale for this should now be clear: in the Roman Catholic Church, sacred tradition stands beside sacred Scripture as a valid and authoritative source of divine revelation. In fact, both emerge within one and the same context: the Catholic Church.

Understanding this principle helps us to see the mindset of the Roman Catholic Church's approach to interpreting the Bible at this juncture.


For Rome, the Bible itself emerges from within the church. The church exists prior to the Bible; the Bible is itself an expression of the living voice of the church—in its own way, it is tradition. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition." The New Testament is tradition—the earliest tradition inscripturated in distinction from the living tradition that arises within the ongoing life of the church in the context of apostolic succession.

This perspective is well attested in the succession of Rome's authoritative doctrinal statements.

Appeal in this context is made to the Profession of Faith composed in connection with the Second Council of Constantinople (553), to the Council of Lateran (649), and to the Second Council of Nicea (787). However, it was in the context of the Counter-Reformation that the church's position was set in concrete by the Council of Trent:

The holy ecumenical and general Council of Trent … clearly perceives that this truth and rule are contained in the written books and unwritten traditions which have come down to us.… Following, then, the example of the orthodox Fathers, it receives and venerates with the same sense of loyalty and reverence all the books of the Old and New Testaments—for God alone is the author of both—together with all the traditions concerning faith and morals, as coming from the mouth of Christ or being inspired by the Holy Spirit and preserved in continuous succession in the Catholic Church.

The implication of this, specifically drawn out by the council itself, was that no one should dare to interpret Scripture in a way contrary to the unanimous consent of the fathers, even if such interpretations are not intended for publication:

Furthermore, in order to restrain petulant spirits, it [the Council] decrees, that no one, relying on his own skill, shall—in matters of faith, and of morals, pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine—wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, presume to interpret the said Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church—whose it is to judge the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures—hath held and doth hold; or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; even though such interpretations were never [intended] to be at any time published. Contraveners shall be made known by their Ordinaries, and be punished with the penalties by law established.

Leaving to one side the doubtful concept of the unanimous consent of the fathers, it is clear here why the tradition becomes the master element in the Scripture-tradition liaison. Historically, it has always been the case that a "living" (in the sense of contemporaneous) word of revelation will become the rule for Christians de facto (whatever may be claimed to the contrary). That is virtually a psychological inevitability. In the case of Rome, what may have begun as a limiting concept (the regulum fidei) developed into the master concept.

This position, with appeal to these very citations, was later confirmed by the church at the First Vatican Council in the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius (1870). A quarter of a century later, Providentissimus Deus (1893) appealed to the principle of the analogy of faith understood as the consensus fidelium as an essential principle for Catholic exposition. Roman Catholic exegetes were summoned to use critical skills with the specific agenda of confirming the received interpretation.

This was stated within the context of Leo XIII's affirmation of the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. Such was the continuing impact of modernism, however, that within two decades the Decree Lamentabili (1907) was issued to stem the tide of theological corruption. It repudiated and condemned the view that "The Church's teaching office cannot, even by dogmatic definition, determine the genuine meaning of Sacred Scripture."

As recently as the International Theological Commission's brief but seminal work The Interpretation of Theological Truths (1988), Rome has continued to affirm that any conflict between exegesis and dogma is provoked by unfaithful exegesis. Genuinely Catholic exegesis, by definition, will always seek to find the appropriate harmony between biblical text and ecclesiastical dogma. The Pontifical Biblical Commission comments: "False paths [i.e., in exegesis] will be avoided if actualization of the biblical message begins with a correct interpretation of the text and continues within the stream of the living Tradition, under the guidance of the Church's Magisterium." The circle of reasoning here appears to be "vicious."

In the nineteenth century, the Magisterium rightly recognized that the rise of higher criticism and of theological modernism would endanger the faith of Catholics (as it had already done among Protestants). But Rome faced an additional problem. The view that sacred tradition is also revelation implies that the tradition possesses the attributes of revelation, including infallibility and inerrancy. Consequently, the tradition had to be regarded as infallible. The inevitable correlate of this emerged in Vatican I's Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, in which papal infallibility was promulgated as a "divinely revealed dogma." The pope's ex cathedra definitions of faith were stated to be "irreformable of themselves and not from the consent of the Church" ("I am tradition," commented Pius IX). The anathema sit was pronounced on any who might "contradict this our definition."

The later pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council continued basically to affirm what was historically regarded as the Tridentine view of the relationship between Scripture and tradition reaffirmed in Vatican I's Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Dei Filius. Tradition, declared Vatican II, "comes from the Apostles [and] develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit.… The words of the holy fathers witness to the presence of this living tradition.… Through the same tradition the Church's full canon of the sacred books is known."

Especially significant is the statement made on the relationship between tradition and Scripture. It employed the phraseology of Trent, apparently on papal insistence (presumably in view of the need to hold together the traditionalist and the progressive wings of the church):

Hence there exists a close connection and communication between Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the Word of God, while Sacred Tradition takes the Word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity. Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence. Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the Word of God, committed to the Church.…

It is clear, therefore, that Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, contribute effectively to the salvation of men.


We ought not to make the mistake of assuming that the Roman Catholic Church is thoroughly monolithic. As we have noted, it too has a conservative and liberal wing. Problems and disagreements arise in tracing and exegeting the tradition as much as in exegeting the Scriptures! Thus, for example, it has become characteristic of many Roman Catholic scholars to re-read the tradition in as ecumenical a fashion as possible.

One of the most interesting developments within this context has been the emergence of a school of thought especially stimulated by the work of the Tubïngen theologian J. R. Geiselmann. This school argues that the idea of Scripture and tradition being twin sources of revelation, complementing one another, is a misreading of the teaching of the Council of Trent. Geiselmann appealed to what he held to be the significant change introduced into the final text of the decree through the influence of Bishop Pietro Bertano of Fano and Angelo Bonucci, the general of the Servites. The draft for the Decree on Scripture and Tradition had stated that revealed truth was to be found partly in the books of Scripture, partly in the traditions ("partim in libris … partim in … traditionibus"). But the final document spoke of this truth being in the scriptural books and in the unwritten traditions ("in libris scriptis et sine scripto traditionibus"). Geiselmann argued from this change that Trent did not deny that all saving truth is contained in the Scriptures. The truth of divine revelation is found not partly in Scripture while the remainder is found in the traditions (the draft formulation); it is all in Scripture. It is also all in the tradition. It could be argued therefore that the sola Scriptura principle, properly understood, is consistent with Trent.

In response to Geiselmann's position, however, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) has argued that "as a Catholic theologian, [Geiselmann] has to hold fast to Catholic dogmas as such, but none of them is to be had sola Scriptura, neither the great dogmas of Christian antiquity, of what was once the consensus quinquesaecularis, nor, even less, the new ones of 1854 and 1950. In that case, however, what sense is there in talking about the sufficiency of scripture?"

In a word, the deposit of the faith (depositum fidei) is contained in both Scripture and tradition, and the task of interpreting it is "entrusted to bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome."

The recent document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, continues to affirm this position, if in a less polemical and dogmatic manner and in an ecumenically conscious fashion: "What characterizes Catholic exegesis is that it deliberately places itself within the living tradition of the Church." In this context, however, the commission is careful to add: "All pre-understanding, however, brings dangers with it. As regards Catholic exegesis, the risk is that of attributing to biblical texts a meaning which they do not contain but which is the product of a later development within the tradition. The exegete must beware of such a danger."27

No hint of criticism is made of the fact that sacred tradition requires belief in dogma that is not contained in sacred Scripture. But there is present here a hint that exegetes in the past (and still today) may read the New Testament as though it had been written in the light of the tradition, and thus distort the teaching of sacred Scripture (and by implication perhaps also the function of the tradition). Implicit in this is the recognition of the substance-gap between sacred Scripture and sacred tradition.

The historic Protestant view is that this gap becomes a chasm at certain strategic points. There is an unbearable discrepancy, not merely a healthy tension, between sacred Scripture and sacred tradition in many areas.

A wide variety of factors contributed to the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Among the chief was the discovery, fueled by the Renaissance spirit of ad fontes, that the gap between the clear teaching of Scripture and the teaching of the tradition was at points so great as to involve not merely development but contradiction.


Roman Catholic scholars such as Professor Fitzmyer have been given the freedom to explore what Scripture teaches. They discover themselves looking over their shoulders at the Roman Catholic traditionalists who do not hide their anxiety that such open distancing between Scripture and tradition will be the downfall of the church. Consequently, their characteristic refrain is that the difference between the content of Scripture and the content of the tradition does not involve contradiction but only development.

What is becoming clearer than ever, however, is that the principle of sola Scriptura remains a watershed. As Cardinal Ratzinger as much as admitted in his reaction to Geiselmann, there are major Roman doctrines that simply cannot be found in the Scriptures. In this sense, Scripture alone cannot be regarded as sufficient for the life of the church.

But we must go further. There are important teachings in the tradition that are not only additional to, but different from and contradictory to, the teaching of sacred Scripture. These include the very doctrines that were the centerpiece of the Reformation struggle: the nature of justification; the importance of the principle of sola fide; the number of the sacraments; the sufficiency of the work of Christ; the effect of baptism; the presence of Christ at the Supper; the priesthood of all believers; the celibacy of the priesthood; the character and role of Mary; and much more. The more that Scripture is exegeted on its own terms, the more it will become clear that in these areas sacred tradition does not merely add to sacred Scripture, it contradicts it. That being the case, can tradition really be "sacred"?

A major development has taken place, then, in Roman Catholic interpretation of Scripture. For this we may be grateful. We should not grudgingly minimize the rediscovery of the Bible. Indeed, it might help us greatly if we recalled that responsibility for the confusion in Rome's understanding of justification rests partly on the shoulders of the great Augustine himself, whom we often claim with Calvin as "wholly ours."

Having said this, however, it is now clearer than ever (pace Geiselmann) that the Roman Catholic Church cannot and will not subscribe to sola Scriptura. It must deny the sole sufficiency of the Bible. And, as the Reformers recognized, so long as Rome appeals to two sources, or even tributaries, of revelation, the contents of Scripture and the substance of its own tradition, it is inevitable that it will also withstand the message of Scripture and of the Reformation: sola gratia, solo Christo, sola fide.


Source: Ferguson, Sinclair B. Sola Scriptura: The Protestant position on the Bible (pp. 91–109).

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