A Non-Catholic’s Guide To Catholicism: On Scripture and Tradition

Why am I writing this post? I’ve run into about 92834792749729729 people the past few days that need basics reviewed – basics of history, basics of religion, etc. I mean, I’m not perfect, I need basics reviewed too. But I kinda want to throw a feeler out there to see what people know about / want to know more about. Please keep in mind that there will be future posts that discuss the relative strengths of Protestantism and other views. I just want to present the strongest case for whatever is being discussed per post.

1. Why should I care about Catholicism?

For the same reason you should read the Bible whether you believe or not, or why you should ask people questions about things that are important to them – if you’re an educated person, you try to understand things and not stereotype them. I’m lucky in that most atheist friends I have are very intelligent and curious, but increasingly I have been running into people who only know about organized religion through “The DaVinci Code.” Needless to say, this has been less than inspiring in terms of my faith in humanity.

Catholicism, much more so than many Protestant denominations, is intellectually rigorous. There’s an enormous amount that can be covered if I wanted to dwell on it full-time. I just want to focus on the issue of authority today, and I already know from the number of Catholics that are on “teh Internetz” and go to Latin Mass and are sympathetic with Mel Gibson that I’m going to get hammered for not being accurate enough. This is purely an introduction for people that know nothing about the faith, and if you’re curious about anything here, go talk to someone who really knows their stuff.

2. Scripture and Tradition

Protestants try to determine what God wants of us through sola scriptura. This makes sense to a degree since Christ is introduced in the Gospel of John as the “Word of God,” and He Himself says he has not come to change one “jot or tittle” of the Law given previously. So it would seem that if you went to your Bible and read that and lived that you’d be good.

It’s quite obvious that not only is this not the most practical way to live, but that unity as a Church is an impossibility. Everyone becomes more Scriptural or “Bible based” than everyone else, and the fact that there’s pretty much one Catholic Church and a lot of Protestant churches that fade in and out of existence should be very telling.

So when Catholics talk about “Scripture and Tradition” as being the basis of authority of the Church, we can look at “tradition” and try to be cynical. We can say that it is a political move, made to create unity in the Church and prevent people from thinking about God on their own. Certainly the thought of illiterate peasants in the Middle Ages needing statues and paintings to teach the faith seems to contribute to this notion.

But I think the more charitable argument for “tradition” trumps all the complaints about it: it is just really, really hard to be perfect, for some strange reason. Hence one might need clergy – the tradition of “apostolic succession” means that the priestly authority comes from St. Peter through the ritual of “laying on of hands” being performed over the centuries – to help guide people. One might find that God has given Sacraments that serve as a way of living the faith without having to go out and do the most radical thing for God at any and all times. One might see saints and holy days as a way of marking that God didn’t just reveal all in the past and let us go, but gives continual reminders on a higher level of what holiness in life does. One might see that finding the best ideas to express Christian doctrine is far better than letting everyone think every single thing possible about the faith. Etc., etc.

The best argument for “tradition” as an additional pillar of authority is that in a sense, Scripture is a tradition itself. That’s not the best argument to use, because Scripture has to stand higher than other traditions ultimately. But when one confronts the question “Why are you reading Scripture in the first place,” one does have to give an answer more in accordance with tradition and a particular interpretation of Scripture, as opposed to saying that Scripture speaks for itself on this question (although – I do know preachers that claim this. I am just thankful I have never encountered them personally, as laughing in their face might make me Anti-Christ).

3. Next post, and Some Advice for People Who Haven’t Understood A Thing I’ve Said

Depending on what reaction I get to this, there might be a post on Sacraments forthcoming, and then I want to talk about Christianity’s openness to philosophy in the Middle Ages. There will absolutely be posts forthcoming that discuss Protestantism and existentialism. I think for now, this is good enough.

If everything I have said has gone over your head – i.e., you don’t even know where this “Scripture/Tradition” debate is coming from, or what Protestants and Catholics are, that’s fine. You might want to start reading the Bible on your own, and I highly recommend just starting with Genesis and plowing through. I can help out with a commentary or two that’s lying around – if you go to the podcast link on the sidebar, there’s a podcast which covers Genesis 1. If you start learning the Bible, you’ll be in a position to understand the three monotheistic religions, and that’s great for everyone involved in this day and age where people can argue for atheism via evolutionary theory but not spell their own names right.


  1. Ashok

    I have an MA in scripture, am an adjunct in theology at a Catholic university and teach for my diocese. I came across your little blog looking for info for an RCIA class I will be presenting on this topic. I just wanted to say that your brief synopsis of apologetics on the subject is well done. Would you mind if I refer my catechumens to it?


  2. Sure! Feel free to contact me via e-mail if you have any questions, the “contact me” form should be working.

    What university btw?

  3. Addendum:

    I just want to say again that the above post is making the strongest possible argument for tradition.

    I think a very strong argument can be made for sola scriptura and a more Bible-based Christianity. If you’re interested in a more impartial look at those ideas, look up the “Martin Luther and John Calvin” essay in the “History of Political Philosophy,” ed. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey. I realize that the focus of that essay is narrow, but the argumentation is rigorous – it’s hard to read that essay and not be sympathetic with Protestantism’s spirit.

    Furthermore, Augustine’s Confessions is indispensable to seeing how a Bible-based Christianity can work. One’s reason, one’s sentiments, given by the grace of God can, with the Bible give an individual strength to be near perfect in this life.

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