Catholics are familiar with arguments that surely “sacred tradition” is needed as a rule for faith besides Sacred Scripture. Isn’t Church authority necessary to determine what counts as Scripture at all (“the Canon”)? Those who deny this — that such an authority, the “apostolic succession,” which is explained in the tradition (Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch) — claim that it is not in Scripture.
Logically, Scripture cannot determine its own Canon. Moreover, the Protestant claim of sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”) is self-defeating, since it too cannot be found in Scripture.
But what about the stronger view, not that tradition is necessary, but that tradition should be sufficient, and Scripture should be unnecessary? Call this nulla scriptura (“with no Scripture”).
This view appears in embryo in a brilliant treatise by the Dominican Melchor Cano, Theological Sources (De Locis Theologicis, Salamanca, 1562.) Cano argues, rightly, that the Church is older than Scripture; that the Lord did not write books or even order the Apostles to write books but rather commanded them to preach; that many matters that must be held by Christians are not found explicitly in Scripture (such as “three equal persons in one nature”).
And then pointing out that Paul and John in their letters refer to the teachings they have handed down but have not committed to writing, Cano reaches a powerful conclusion. We have two epistles of Peter, he says, and yet we know that Peter stayed seven years in Antioch and 25 more years in Rome:
So then, he taught nothing by what he said, besides what he left in writing in these two epistles? What do you mean? Andrew, Thomas, Bartholomew, Philip – didn’t they, without any writings at all, but solely by what they said, found churches where they were sent and where they remained, in continuity with the faith and with our religion? Let us agree, therefore – it is not even open for us to deny it – that the doctrine of the faith in its entirety is not committed to writing, but it has been handed down in part in spoken words deriving from the apostles.” [My emphases]
That’s the phrase, “without any writings at all.” It was the condition of the early Church for at least thirty years.
Then I found this view stated in full in St. John Chrysostom’s marvelous series of 90 homilies on Matthew. Here’s how he begins:
It were indeed meet for us not at all to require the aid of the written Word, but to exhibit a life so pure, that the grace of the Spirit should be instead of books to our souls, and that as these are inscribed with ink, even so should our hearts be with the Spirit. But, since we have utterly put away from us this grace, come, let us at any rate embrace the second-best course.
The Saint points out that God spoke on familiar terms with Noah, Abraham, Job, and Moses, without any writings. Moreover, the Incarnate God did not give writings to the Apostles, as he might have, but instead promised and gave them the Spirit.
If so, then why do we have Scripture at all? For the same reason, he says, that Moses brought down the tablets, because of our badness: “since in process of time they made shipwreck, some with regard to doctrines, others as to life and manners, there was again need that they should be put in remembrance by the written word.”
All of which only underscores the importance now, Chrysostom says, of studying Scripture: “Reflect then how great an evil it is for us, who ought to live so purely as not even to need written words, but to yield up our hearts, as books, to the Spirit; now that we have lost that honor, and have come to have need of these, to fail again in duly employing even this second remedy.”
And he adds to encourage his flock still further: “For if it be a blame to stand in need of written words, and not to have brought down on ourselves the grace of the Spirit; consider how heavy the charge of not choosing to profit even after this assistance, but rather treating what is written with neglect, as if it were cast forth without purpose, and at random, and so bringing down upon ourselves our punishment with increase.”
All of this makes sense. The Spirit is with us now, just as surely as the Son was with us at the Founding of the Church. But why isn’t His presence sufficient for us in practice as well as in principle?
We cannot return to the Church’s first decades, but we can think of Christian life as stratified. Imagine, first, everything written removed from your life, not merely the Bible, but also the writings of the Councils, that is, the tradition since written down. You have considerable riches still. Do you make the best use of them?
What do I mean? I mean you know the Apostles’ Creed, basic prayers, the Rosary. You can go to the tabernacle and actually pray before the Lord. You will see immediately that you will need to pray much more, to become more familiar with God. Also, you will need to mortify yourself constantly, to create openings for the Spirit.
You have examples of the saints, whose lives you know. You probably know miracles among your friends. Even the mere existence of bishops, whatever their sanctity, witnesses to the reality of the Church’s foundation. Any priest testifies to the institution of the Eucharist.
And you have the sacraments.
Try to live thus in the Spirit. Now add Scripture and written tradition. Of course these strata are not stages in time, or isolable, but each is meant to aid the other.
Arguably, sola scriptura – that bane of understanding the faith and the Church – could look like a necessary rule for Protestant reformers only because Catholics were not obviously living enough of the faith nulla scripture.
*Image: Saint Jerome Writing by Caravaggio, 1605-06 [Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy]
You may also enjoy:
Joseph Ratzinger’s Scripture without tradition
Bevil Bramwell’s Aquinas on Contemplating Scripture