Roman Catholic Doctrine Examined: Scripture and Tradition
Updated: Mar 4
by Joe Harper
On June 30th, 2000 the congregation of doctrine and faith issued a statement of the use of the terminology of “sister Churches” in relation to Churches outside the Roman communion. The statement was the work of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who would later go on to become Pope Benedict XVI. One excerpt of the statement read,
“It must always be clear, when the expression sister Churches is used in this proper sense, that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Universal Church is not sister but mother of all the particular Churches.” 1
This clear statement, which was approved by John Paul II shows the continuity of Roman Catholic thinking in regard to who is the true Church. Rome has always affirmed that they are the one true universal Church and that their teachings stretch all the way back to the Apostles. They would claim that their doctrines were supported by the early Church and that Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism have fallen into schism and heresy. This viewpoint is embraced by a Church which is composed of over 1.3 billion believers. The second Vatican council of the 1960’s brought about huge shifts in thinking in regards to non-Catholics. The council now referred to non-Catholics as separated brethren and called for the unity of all Christians. The ecumenical movement has made huge strides in the decades following the council with Rome right at the center of the movement. These developments however do not change the fact that Rome views itself as the only true Church.
The ecumenical movement has also led to the Catholic Church being viewed differently by the Protestant world at large. In the eyes of many Protestant Christians, Rome is another Christian denomination amongst the many and is filled with true Christians. For decades Protestant leaders have met with the Pope, heaped praise upon him and participated in ecumenical dialogue. Even many Evangelicals have come to view Rome as merely another denomination with its own doctrinal distinctives. Prominent documents such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together and the Manhattan Declaration are examples of the softening views of Evangelicals towards Rome.
In this ecumenical day and age there is a great need for the doctrines of Romanism to be examined both in light of Scripture and Church history. There has been a great deal of disillusionment amongst many Roman Catholics of their own Church, due to the embrace of modernism, the abandonment of traditionalism and the priestly abuse scandal. These Catholics would do well to reexamine the beliefs of their Church in light of the word of God. Protestants and especially Evangelicals are also in desperate need of better understanding Roman Catholicism and comparing Catholic beliefs to their own bibles. This article is the first in a series of articles that will briefly examine Roman Catholic doctrines. This article will examine the doctrine of Church tradition being of equal authority with Scripture. The intention of this article is not to exhaust the subject but to lay a foundation that will lead to further study.
Scripture and Tradition
The Catholic Church has always maintained the position that tradition as understood by the teaching magisterium of the Church has the same level authority of Scripture. The Catholic Catechism states,
“As a result, the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, "does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.” 2
This is arguably the most important point of difference between Protestants and Roman Catholics. The reason being is that the difference in belief in regard to authority will lead to different thinking on all manner of doctrine and teaching. The Protestant Reformers strenuously opposed tradition being of equal authority to Scripture. The Reformers did not state that the concept of tradition has no value at all, but simply stated that the final authority in all matter of doctrinal dispute must be the Scriptures alone. John Calvin articulates this point,
“What, then, you will say, is there no authority in the definitions of councils? Yes, indeed; for I do not contend that all councils are to be condemned, and all their acts rescinded, or, as it is said, made one complete erasure. But you are bringing them all (it will be said) under subordination, and so leaving everyone at liberty to receive or reject the decrees of councils as he pleases. By no means; but whenever the decree of a council is produced, the first thing I would wish to be done is, to examine at what time it was held, on what occasion, with what intention, and who were present at it; next I would bring the subject discussed to the standard of Scripture. And this I would do in such a way that the decision of the council should have its weight, and be regarded in the light of a prior judgment, yet not so as to prevent the application of the test which I have mentioned. I wish all had observed the method which Augustine prescribes in his Third Book against Maximinus, when he wished to silence the cavils of this heretic against the decrees of councils, “I ought not to oppose the Council of Nice to you, nor ought you to oppose that of Ariminum to me, as prejudging the question. I am not bound by the authority of the latter, nor you by that of the former. Let thing contend with thing, cause with cause, reason with reason, on the authority of Scripture, an authority not peculiar to either, but common to all.” In this way, councils would be duly respected, and yet the highest place would be given to Scripture, everything being brought to it as a test. In this way, councils would be duly respected, and yet the highest place would be given to Scripture, everything being brought to it as a test. Thus those ancient Councils of Nice, Constantinople, the first of Ephesus, Chalcedon, and the like, which were held for refuting errors, we willingly embrace, and reverence as sacred, in so far as relates to doctrines of faith, for they contain nothing but the pure and genuine interpretation of Scripture, which the holy Fathers with spiritual prudence adopted to crush the enemies of religion who had then arisen.”3
Calvin and the other Reformers understood the historic teaching of the Church as expressed in certain creeds and councils to be of immense value and conveyed as an expression of the
teachings of Scripture. Tradition did have a place in the Church of the Reformers but the final authority was always the word of God. The point here is that tradition was merely a summation of the teaching of Scripture and not a competing source of authority. Calvin understood that the teachings of councils should be compared to the Bible and accepted or rejected on the basis of the true final authority. The Reformers believed that Scripture was the final authority for two reasons. First, the claims of the Bible itself demanded Sola Scriptura. Second a correct understanding of church history and particularly the Church Fathers supported this view. While Rome claimed that the Reformers were diverting from the historic teaching of the Church, the Reformers believed they were embracing it.
The Claims of Scripture
The Bible explicitly teaches that the traditions of man cannot be placed on equal footing to the Word of God. Scriptures make claims of itself to be sufficient in all matters of doctrine and teaching for the Church. Jesus Christ himself condemned placing tradition alongside Scripture. Mark 7:5-9 says,
5 Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?
6 He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.
7 Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
8 For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.
9 And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.4
Roman Catholicism today has fallen into the exact same error that the Pharisees held to in the first century. The teaching of tradition articulated in their own councils and catechisms would be condemned by Christ himself. The Old Testament scriptures also clearly commanded the people of God not to add or subtract from the commandments of God. Deuteronomy 4:1-2 says,
Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I am teaching you to perform, so that you may live and go in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you. 5
The reason for this explicit commandment not to add or subtract from the word of God is because nothing else is needed by the people of God to please their Lord. Scripture teaches its own sufficiency in all matters relating to doctrinal truth and holy living. The apostle Paul made this clear to Timothy.
15 And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
17 That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. 6
If the Scriptures can furnish the man of God unto all good works then there is no need for tradition at all. This is reinforced in the Old Testament as well. David in the nineteenth Psalm clearly demonstrates the sufficiency of Scripture.
7 The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
8 The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
9 The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. 7
The law of the Lord is perfect! God’s word brings wisdom and understanding. His words are to be desired more than gold. To state a belief in these powerful truths on the one hand and state the necessity of tradition on the other is a contradiction at best. Now, Roman Catholics will object by saying that tradition is taught in the New Testament. It’s true that Paul does make mention of tradition in his epistles. In 2 Thessalonians he says to hold on to the traditions which he taught. 2 Thessalonians 2:15 says,
Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle. 8
Also 2 Thessalonians 3:6 states,
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. 9
The Greek word for teaching is paradosis which means “to give up” or give over. The word means teaching given either orally or in writing. The Roman Catholic claims of tradition meaning a separate stream of authoritative teaching can be shown to be overstated by two points. The first is examining these verses in light of the whole of Scripture. The Church has always interpreted the unclear parts of Scripture in light of the clear parts. The abundance of other verses in this article alone show that the Roman Catholics interpret these verses differently than what Paul intended. The second point is the historical context of Paul’s writing. In the first century, the Church did not yet have the complete New Testament. Paul
instructed the churches orally and then later brought them into remembrance of what he taught by way of his epistles. Obviously, the truths that Paul taught at first orally he later wrote in his epistles. It shows that the traditions he is referencing is not intended to be a separate source of authority from what is recorded in God’s word. The use of these verses to support the idea of tradition being of equal authority to Scripture is a weak case at best. The Scriptures clearly condemn the Romanist understanding of tradition.
The Church Fathers
The Roman Catholic Church has always claimed that their tradition was transmitted from the Apostles through the early Church to today. The Church Fathers are appealed to in order to support this claim. Certain Church Fathers do indeed make reference to tradition in their writings. However, the way they speak of tradition is once again different from the way it is used today. For example, the Church Father Irenaeus of Lyons (130-202 ad) makes reference to tradition throughout his writings. However, Irenaeus did not consider tradition to be a separate stream of authority of from the Scriptures but the same fundamental teachings of the Apostles that they recorded in their inspired writings. Irenaeus here lays out his view of Scripture,
"We have learned from none other the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public , and at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.” 10
Irenaeus clearly believed what the Apostles taught orally, they later transcribed in the sacred Scriptures. This is the same view earlier articulated in regards to the traditions that Paul taught. This gives immense clarity to Irenaeus’ views on tradition. A number of Church fathers can be quoted showing their views articulate what we would now call Sola Scriptura. Athanasius (296-373 ad) for example states,
“The knowledge of our religion and of the truth of things is independently manifest rather than in need of human teachers, for almost day by day it asserts itself by facts, and manifests itself brighter than the sun by the doctrine of Christ. Still, as you nevertheless desire to hear about it, Marcarius, come let us as we may be able set forth a few points of the faith of Christ: able though you are to find it out from the divine oracles, but yet generously desiring to hear it from others as well. For although the sacred Scriptures are sufficient to declare this truth, while there are works of our blessed teachers compiled for this purpose.” 11
Athanasius is clearly teaching the sufficiency of the Scriptures here while still affirming a place for human teachers. Augustine (354-430 ad) also affirms the central place of the Scriptures.
“We ought to find the Church, as the Head of the Church, in the Holy Canonical Scriptures, not to inquire for it in the various reports, and opinions, and deeds, and words, and visions of men.” 12
Lastly Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386 ad) states,
“Concerning the divine and sacred Mysteries of the Faith, we ought not to deliver even the most casual remark without the Holy Scriptures: nor be drawn aside by mere probabilities and the artifices of argument. Do not then believe because I tell thee these things, unless thou receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of what is set forth: for this salvation, which is our faith, is not by ingenious reasonings, but by proofs of the Holy Scriptures.” 13
It is clear that the Church Fathers understood both the sufficiency of the Scriptures for all doctrinal matters and the central authoritative place of God’s word. Space does not allow for an exhaustive look of the all the writings of the Church Fathers. What is clear is that the Roman Catholic claims of tradition being equal to Scripture cannot be supported by the Church Fathers. Also, it’s important to note that Rome appeals to the unity of the Fathers to support various doctrines. However further examination of the writings of the Church Fathers would reveal that they rarely unanimously agree on many points of doctrine. The testimony of Church history supports Sola Scriptura.
The testimony of Scripture and Church history has been shown to support the doctrine of Scripture alone. The Protestant Reformers were merely returning the Church to biblical truth and not deviating from it. This article is a call to discernment for all professing Christians. For Roman Catholics this article will hopefully lead to examination of the teachings of their Church and as a result to come out and be separate. For Evangelicals this article is dramatic plea for biblical separation from a false religious system. The differences betw
een Evangelicals and Roman Catholics are too severe to be overlooked. Ecumenism has been incredibly destructive to Evangelicalism and is a sin before the Lord. Only true separation will lead to a faithful witness and proclamation of the gospel.
Congregation For The Doctrine Of Faith, Note On The Expression “Sister Churches"
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Edition, 
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, 2008) ,777
Holy Bible, King James Version, Mk. 7:5-9
Holy Bible, King James Version, Deut. 4:1-2
Holy Bible, King James Version, 2 Tim. 3:15-17
Holy Bible, King James Version, Psa. 19:7-10
Holy Bible, King James Version, 2 Thess. 2:15
Holy Bible, King James Version, 2 Thess. 3:6
J.N.D Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), p. 46
NPNF2, Vol. IV, Against the Heathen, Part I. 1-3.
De Unitate Ecclesiae, Caput XIX. 49. Translation by William Goode, Vol. 3, p. 165.
A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church, The Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril 4:17, (Oxford: Parker, 1845) p. 42
Congregation For The Doctrine Of Faith, Note On The Expression “Sister Churches” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, 2000
Catechism of the Catholic Church – English translation (U.S.A., 2nd edition) (English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Modifications from the Editio Typica, copyright 1997, United States Catholic Conference, Inc., Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, 2012
Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines. New York: HarperCollins, 1960
Webster, William. The Church of Rome at the Bar of History. Edenborough: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995
King, David T., Webster, William. Holy Scripture: The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith, Volume III, The Writings of the Church Fathers Affirming the Reformation Principle of Sola Scriptura. Battle Ground: Christian Resources Inc, 2001