I have a born-again Christian workmate who is trying to convince me that the Bible alone is sufficient to ground our faith and that we don’t need tradition or the Church. How do I answer him?
This view is one of the fundamental pillars of Protestant thought and it goes by the Latin name of sola scriptura: Scripture alone.
Those who hold to it, like your workmate, say we don’t need the Church or tradition to teach us – the Bible is sufficient. There are several problems with this.
The first is that without tradition and the Church we would not even have the Bible.
For the first 20 years of the Church, as far as we know, there were no written texts that today make up the New Testament.
The apostles went out and preached the faith, the people heard their preaching and came to believe it and in turn pass it on to others, and this preaching gradually became concretised in such practices as the Mass, Baptism, Confirmation, the ordination of sacred ministers, funeral rites, prayers for the dead, etc.
This handing on of the faith by word of mouth and the customs that grew out of it, are what we know as tradition.
Indeed, the word tradition comes from the Latin traditio, meaning handing on. For those first years there simply was no Bible and, in a sense, the Church did not need one. The Church functioned perfectly well without it.
Then, mainly in the 50s and 60s of the first century, the apostles and others began to write down some of their preaching in the Gospels, as well as the history of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles, and letters addressed to different communities and individuals.
So gradually there appeared a number of early Christian writings which were faithfully copied and passed around among the various communities, and which were read in the Mass.
But at the same time there were numerous other writings which were also highly revered, copied and passed around, writings such as the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, the letter of Barnabas, etc.
Who decided which writings were to be regarded as divinely inspired and hence part of the Bible and to be read in Mass, and which were not? The Catechism of the Catholic Church answers: “It was by the Apostolic Tradition that the Church discerned which writings are to be included in the list of the sacred books” (CCC 120).
That is, the Holy Spirit guided the early Christian communities to discern which writings were to be considered inspired by God and which were not.
So it was the tradition of the Church that gave us the Bible. Thus, it is foolish to say that the Bible alone is sufficient, when without the tradition we wouldn’t even have the Bible.
But the tradition of the Church is needed for a second reason: to interpret the Bible authentically.
For example, some Christians today say that Jesus was not the only child of Mary because the Bible says he had brothers and sisters (cf Mt 13:55, Mk 3:31-35; 6:3).
If we take the Bible on its own, we could conclude that Jesus indeed had brothers and sisters and therefore Mary was not a virgin after his birth.
But the early Christian communities knew Mary, Joseph and Jesus and they knew Jesus was the only child.
This tradition was handed on down the ages and so the Church has always professed that Mary was “ever Virgin”.
Thirdly, the tradition of the Church has given us a number of beliefs which are not found explicitly in the Bible at all, beliefs such as the existence of purgatory, the assumption of Mary into heaven, Mary’s Immaculate Conception, etc.
Because the tradition of the Church was so firm and constant in affirming these beliefs, the Church has defined them as dogmas of faith.
So it is simply not true that the Bible alone is sufficient to ground our faith.
Finally, people who believe that Scripture alone is the sole source of our knowledge about the faith should be able to point to a passage in the Bible which says this.
But no such passage exists. On the contrary, St Paul makes explicit mention of the importance of oral tradition: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess 2:15).
And St John writes: “But there are many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn 21:25).
Many of these things that Jesus said and did which are not recorded in the Bible have been handed on by word of mouth in the tradition, and these too are a source of knowledge of our faith.
So no, the Bible alone is not sufficient to ground our faith.