Sacred Tradition, or Holy Tradition, is a theological term used in some Christian traditions, primarily those claiming apostolic succession such as the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, and Anglican traditions, to refer to the foundation of the doctrinal and spiritual authority of the Christian Church and of the Bible.
The word "tradition" is taken from the Latin trado, tradere, meaning "to hand over, to deliver, to bequeath". The teachings of Jesus Christ and the holy Apostles are preserved in writing in the Scriptures as well as word of mouth and are handed on. This perpetual handing on of the Tradition is called the Living Tradition; it is the faithful and constant transmission of the teachings of the Apostles from one generation to the next. That "includes everything which contributes towards the sanctity of life and increase in faith of the People of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship [the Creeds, the Sacraments, the Magisterium, and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass], perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes." The Deposit of Faith (Latin: fidei depositum) refers to the entirety of Divine revelation. And there is, according to Roman Catholic theology, two sources of Revelation which constitute a single Deposit of Faith, meaning that the entirety of Divine Revelation and the Deposit of Faith is transmitted to successive generations in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition (through the teaching authority and interpretation of the Church's Magisterium (which consists of the Church's bishops, in union with the Pope), typically proceeding synods and ecumenical councils).
In Orthodox theology, Holy Tradition is the inspired revelation of God and catholic teaching (Greek katholikos, "according to the whole") of the Church, not an independent source of dogmatic authority to be regarded as a supplement to biblical revelation. Tradition is rather understood as the fullness of divine truth proclaimed in the scriptures, preserved by the apostolic bishops and expressed in the life of the Church through such things as the Divine Liturgy and the Holy Mysteries (Eucharist, baptism, marriage, etc.), the Creed and other doctrinal definitions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, canonical Christian iconography, and the sanctified lives of godly men and women.
According to the theological understanding of these Churches, sacred scripture is the written part of this larger tradition, recording (albeit sometimes through the work of individual authors) the community's experience of God or more specifically of Jesus Christ. Thus, the Bible must be interpreted within the context of sacred tradition and within the community of the church. That is in contrast to many Protestant traditions, which teach that the Bible alone is a sufficient basis for all Christian teaching (a position known as sola scriptura).
Usage of term
In the English language, "sacred tradition" is more likely to be used in reference to Catholicism and "holy tradition" in reference to Eastern Orthodoxy, although the two terms are interchangeable in meaning.
Among the earliest examples of the theological appeal to tradition is the response of early 'orthodox' Christianity to Gnosticism, a movement that used some Christian Scripture as the basis for its teachings. Irenaeus of Lyons held that 'rule of faith' (regula fidei) is preserved by a church through its historical continuity (of interpretation and teaching) with the Apostles. Tertullian argued that although interpretations founded on a reading of all Holy Scripture are not prone to error, tradition is the proper guide. Athanasius held that Arianism fell into its central error by not adhering to tradition.
Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort.
But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.
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 souls.
Thus, all of the teachings of the Catholic Church come from either Tradition or Scripture, or from the magisterium interpreting Tradition and Scripture. These two sources, Tradition and Scripture, are viewed and treated as one source of Divine Revelation, which includes both the deeds of God and the words of God:
This plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having in inner unity: the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them. (Dei verbum, 2)
The magisterium has a role in deciding authoritatively which truths are a part of sacred tradition.
In the Catholic and Orthodox churches
Holy tradition for the Eastern Orthodox is the deposit of faith given by Jesus Christ to the apostles and passed on in the Church from one generation to the next without addition, alteration, or subtraction. Vladimir Lossky described tradition as "the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church." It is dynamic in application yet unchanging in dogma. It is growing in expression yet is always the same in essence. The Eastern Orthodox churches do not regard tradition as something which accrues or expands over time. Rather, Orthodox believe tradition is the faith which Jesus Christ taught to the apostles and which they gave to their disciples without any development or deepening in understanding of the faith. It is merely that faith once delivered as understood within the context of lived history.
The Catholic Church, too, views tradition in much the same terms, as a passing down of that same apostolic faith, but, in a critical difference from the Eastern Orthodox position, Catholicism holds that the faith once delivered continues to deepen and mature over time through the action of the Holy Spirit in the history of the Church and in the understanding of that faith by Christians, all the while staying identical in essence and substance. Thus, the doctrines of the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the divine motherhood, the Immaculate Conception, and the Assumption of Mary, along with other Catholic dogmas were always part of the orthodoxy of the Church, but were not precisely defined for many years, according to the need for clarification. Moreover, the understanding of these doctrines may continue to grow and be enriched in the future, not only through mystical experience, but through the practice of the sciences of philosophy and theology as guided by the Holy Spirit; exemplified, for instance, by the Scholastics such as Saint Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham in the High Middle Ages. A common metaphor used to explain this position is that of a seed: the acorn itself has neither branches nor leaves, yet once planted in fertile soil, it gradually grows into a tall oak; throughout its lifetime, however, it ever continues to be the same tree that was planted.
According to some, prior to the sixth century, the Church's teachings on morality were incoherent. Catholic researchers such as Bernard Hoose and Mark Jordan have found that claims to a continuous teaching by the Church on matters of sexuality, life and death and crime and punishment are "simply not true". Not only was there "inconsistency, contradiction and even incoherence" in the Church's doctrines but the researchers' work has led them to conclude that "the tradition itself is not the truth guarantor of any particular teaching.". However others disagree and argue differently.
Protestant denominations claim that the Bible alone is the source for Christian doctrine. This position does not deny that Jesus or the apostles preached in person, that their stories and teachings were transmitted orally during the early Christian era, or that truth exists outside of the Bible. For sola scriptura Christians today, however, these teachings are preserved in the Bible as the only inspired medium. Since in the opinion of sola scriptura Christians, other forms of tradition do not exist in a fixed form that remains constant in its transmission from one generation to the next and cannot be referenced or cited in its pure form, there is no way to verify which parts of the "tradition" are authentic and which are not.
- For example, see the debate between James White and Patrick Madrid at vintage.aomin.org
- McGrath, Alister. 1998. Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. Chapter 1 'The Patristic Period, c. 100–451.'
- McGrath. op.cit. pp. 29–30.
- McGrath. op.cit. p. 30.
- McGrath. op.cit. p. 30.
- "Tradition and Traditions", in Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, (Olten, Switzerland: Urs Graf-Verlag, 1952), 17, in the revised edition (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1982), 15.
- Agius, George (2005). Tradition and the Church. Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc. ISBN 0-89555-821-1.
- Petley, D.A., ed. (1993). Tradition: Received and Handed on: [papers presented at] a Theological Conference held at the [Anglican] Cathedral Church of St. Peter, Charlottetown, P.E.I., 27 June-1st July 1993. Charlottetown, P.E.I.: St. Peter Publications. ISBN 0-921747-18-7