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Does Tradition Matter?

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

There has been a trend in modern historical methodology to pretty systematically ignore tradition. The irony with this approach is that it is fully anachronistic, imposing contemporary categories onto the past, since all ancient cultures embedded their history in tradition, in practices that could be handed down to future generations. Many cultures lacked written languages, while those that developed the written word saw minimal literacy rates. As such, memory rather than the tablet, was the primary form of preservation and transmission. To aid in memory, ancient cultures used a handful of mimetic tricks that are well-known to us: rhyme, song, and ritual. Many of us remember learning to say “i-am-bic-pen-tam-eter” when we were first introduced to Homer. Meter and rhyme contributed handsomely to the ancient Mycenean’s preservation of their historical defeat of the Trojans, a war that helped to define what we now think of as classical Greek culture. Thus, tradition—ritualized and poetic practices—rather than anything like modern historical textbooks provided the Greeks with their identity. Why? Because tradition is lived practice, formalized or ritualized in some way to enhance memory, mark significance, and transmit ideas to future generations. The rituals, festivals, songs, poems, and sayings of the ancient peoples preserved and handed down to future generations what fragile scrolls rarely survived to save. Tradition requires the survival of a people, yes, but a people can rarely endure without it, because their identity and meaning are defined by it.

The Jews would far more easily have forgotten who they are if they didn’t remember who they were.

But tradition is not only a human institution, for God himself chose to utilize tradition to transmit and preserve his revelation. Long before the Jews could record their history, and before a single word of the New Testament was written, God had already created an institutional method rooted in mimetic tradition to preserve the astonishing fact of his intervention in the world. God established sacraments—ritualized imagistic practices—in both Judaism and Christianity in order to over and again enact and pour out his grace into the world. The songs of David are loaded with historical emphasis on God’s grand deliverance of his people from Egypt, an event that was sacramentally ritualized into the annual Passover celebration. By re-enacting the preparation for their escape down to the details of wearing one’s traveling clothes at the table, the ancient Israelites remembered who they were in relation to the God of their fathers. No pop-up book or crumbling stone monument could possibly do so much. What is written in the hearts of men and instantiated through performance art is what truly and significantly endures. The Jews would far more easily have forgotten who they are if they didn’t remember who they were.

Just as the Israelites never forgot that God raised them up from their enslavement in Egypt through their Passover Feast, so we Christians ritually and sacramentally reenact Christ’s passion each week at Mass and, through his sacrifice, offer salvation to all men. In our Christian holy days, too, we remember the key moments of God’s action in the world. Our Christmas feasts and masses are immersed in the rich traditions of the nativity, the great star of Bethlehem, and the gift-bestowing visit of the wise men. But during Holy Week we really pull out all the stops, reliving the final days of our Lord. A week before Easter we wave our palms at Christ’s triumphal entry. On Holy Thursday we join the disciples in Jesus’ foot-washing and institution of the Eucharist. On Good Friday we join the throng in vocally calling for Jesus’ crucifixion, walk with him to the cross, and watch as day turns to night, as the world of living collapses into fasting, mourning, silence, and the scent of myrrh. And then at the Easter Vigil, the early morning darkness is broken by the light of the Easter Candle, a light that passes from Christian to Christian, filling the church with flickering brightness, but we don’t stop there, do we? Oh no, for then we blast the cold stones of our ancient churches with light and sound, as our voices join our apostolic ancestors with “He is risen!” Incense billows up and surrounds our priests and altars, as we hail our once dead but now forever risen King.

Prior to any authorized written texts—in other words, prior to the writing of the Bible—Jesus had already authorized men to preserve, interpret, and hand down what he had taught.

But God didn’t stop there either, for in addition to the sacraments and feasts of the Church, at Pentecost he created the institution of the Church itself to be handed down person to person through the practice of the “laying on of hands,” what we now call Holy Orders. Jesus himself began this process in his choosing his twelve disciples, laying his hands on them and breathing into the them his Holy Spirit, teaching them for three years before his death and resurrection, and then tasking them as Apostles (meaning, “sent ones”) with taking the Faith to the four corners of the earth. To support this herculean effort, he dispatched the omnipotent power of the Holy Spirit to create a brand-new spiritual-organic unity that mimics the human person, the Body of Christ. Prior to any authorized written texts—in other words, prior to the writing of the Bible—Jesus had already authorized men to preserve, interpret, and hand down what he had taught. He established his authority through the transmission of living tradition, not through the giving of a book. And it was only through that authority that the books that we now revere as the Bible came to be written.

This is why we Catholics surprise Protestants with the to-them astonishing claim that the “Church wrote the Bible.” The Church came first, not the book. The Church does not worship a book; it worships the living Word of God, the eternal Son, Jesus Christ. Like the Jews and the Muslims, we have a book, yes, but the book is not central, and we do not make the mistake you see so often in certain sectors of Judaism and Islam of worshipping the book instead of its author. The Protestants, too, with their cry of “sola scriptura” and their locating an open Bible on an altar forget that God began not with literature but with mighty deeds, prophets, sacraments, holy orders, and his own Spirit infused into the institutions of the Jewish Temple and the Catholic Church. For without such institutions, where does the meaning of the books lie?

To say that the meaning sits solely in the words ignores the problem of ambiguity and nuance, as well as the multilayered meaning that the Scriptures in fact possess, going well beyond literalism into astonishing levels of symbolism. Jesus interpreted the Jewish texts in this multifaceted way, and handed down to his Apostles this same methodology which their own letters and traditions demonstrate. So important was the handing down of authoritative interpretation, that St. Paul urged his young protégé, St. Timothy, to “take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us” (2 Timothy 1:13-14 NABRE, emphasis mine). The Apostle was concerned about those who taught false doctrines, “wanting to be teachers of the law, but without understanding either of what they are saying or what they assert with such assurance” (1 Timothy 1:3-7 NABRE). If the texts are self-interpreting, then how is it possible for these false teachers to get them so wrong? Furthermore, on what basis can St. Paul himself assert that his interpretation is better than theirs? But he does so, emphatically, reminding St. Timothy that he was “entrusted” by God with the apostolic authority to properly teach the Gospel that had been given (1 Timothy 1:11). It is precisely this sacramentally transmitted tradition of authority of interpretation that provides a key ingredient for the unity of the Church. Without it, we would be as splintered as the thousands of sects we find in Judaism and Protestantism.

So, does tradition matter? You bet it does.

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