Hunter/Dogmatic Theology/II/IV

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Outlines of Dogmatic Theology


105. Subject of Chapter. – If we put in this the whole of the doctrine as to the relation of Scripture and Tradition, it would fill a long chapter: but much of the subject has been anticipated in earlier chapters of the present Treatise, and more will be given in the next Treatise on Holy Scripture. In that Treatise we shall see the special and altogether unique dignity that attaches to the Sacred Books, distinguishing them from all other existing books, in that they came from no human author and are free from the slightest taint of error. We shall do no more in this place than vindicate some points in which the divinely conserved Tradition of the Church has superiority over the written Word of God.

106. Tradition prior in Time and Thought. – We have already (nn. 79 81) shown that Christian Tradition existed before the Christian Scriptures were written. This is obvious, and is admitted on all hands. The method of teaching by the living voice of authoritative witnesses was in use on the first feast of Pentecost, when the Church was instituted ; and there is no indication forthcoming that the method underwent any subsequent change. Tradition is undeniably prior in time to the New Testament Scriptures.

Not only did the Tradition of the Church exist before the New Testament was written, but we cannot think of the Scriptures as having authority in determining the belief of Christians, without first thinking of the Christian Tradition. The reason why we look upon the Gospels and Epistles as having peculiar authority, is that such is the belief of the Christian Church: in other words, such is the teaching of Tradition. No other reason can be alleged; for no book can prove its own authorship with certainty, any more than a man's asseverations of his own truthfulness add a scrap to our reasons for believing his story. If what we know of him from other sources does not incline us to believe him when he tells his story, neither does it incline us to believe him when he says that his story is true. But, besides this, no book of the New Testament makes claim to the possession of any special, character, still less does it make such a claim on behalf of the whole collection: there is no clear indication that one of the sacred writers conceived himself to be contributing to a collection which should possess a unique character. No doubt, every writer of history makes an implicit claim to be considered credible; but this is not enough to entitle a book to be looked upon as forming part of the Scriptures, for many credible histories have been written which are not regarded as Scripture; and what we are insisting upon is the absence of any claim to the possession of the peculiar character which we ascribe to the books of the New Testament.

107. Wider in Scope. – Further, there is matter contained in the Tradition of the Church which is not contained in Scripture, while on the other hand there is nothing in Scripture which is not in Tradition. This last is clear because Tradition embraces Scripture and looks upon Scripture as the chiefest instrument by which Tradition is handed down. On the other hand, Tradition contains some matters which are not in Scripture. First and principally, Tradition teaches us the authoritative character attaching to the Scripture, as we saw at length in the last paragraph. But besides this, there are many points which are accepted by the great bulk of Protestants as part of the Christian religion in spite of the weight of purely Scriptural argument seeming decidedly opposed to them. In these cases, the Catholic theologian, under the guidance of Tradition, and knowing the truth, is able to show that the words of Scripture are not conclusive; at the same time that the Scriptural argument is too strong to be resisted by those who have no other guide. We will point out some of these cases.

I. Infant Baptism. – The great bulk of Protestant sects employ infant Baptism, yet there is no trace in Scripture of Christian Baptism being administered to any one who was not capable of asking for it, while there are many places in which certain dispositions – faith or repentance, or both – are mentioned as necessary conditions. The practice of infant Baptism therefore cannot be defended on Scriptural grounds. (See St. Mark xvi. 16; Acts ii. 38, 41, viii. 12, 37.) Dr. Browne, in his Exposition of the 27th of the Thirty-nine Articles (pp. 671 − 676), after some irrelevant remarks on Jewish ceremonies, urges the hardship of excluding infants from the benefits promised to the baptized, an unsafe argument in dealing with the positive institution of God, and one which would go to prove that water might be dispensed with in Baptism if it were unattainable: a conclusion which Dr. Browne would not admit. He then quotes some passages showing that the children of Christian parents were in an advantageous position, which may refer merely to the benefit of education; and lastly he points out that the Apostles baptized whole households (Acts xvi. 15, 33; I Cor. i. 16), and assumes that there were infants among the members of these households, and that these infants were baptized; whereas the phrase “the household was baptized” is abundantly satisfied if all the capable members received that Sacrament. This writer is then glad to support his doctrine from the Fathers, that is to say, to admit the force of Tradition.

II. Indissolubility of Marriage. – Most Protestants, at least until recent times, maintained the Catholic doctrine of the indissolubility of consummated marriage of Christians. Yet the student of "the Bible and the Bible only could hardly fail to come to the conclusion that there was an exception, expressly authorized by Christ (St. Matt. v. 32), which full statement of the doctrine must stand, although the exception is not mentioned by St. Mark (x. 11) nor by St. Luke (xvi. 18). The full explanation of this difficult matter must be reserved for our Treatise on the Sacrament of Matrimony. The embarrassment of Protestant divines will be seen by reference to the note in the Speaker's Commentary.

III. Feet Washing. – If the earlier part of the thirteenth chapter of St. John's Gospel be read (vv. 1 − 7), we see that our Lord on the last night of His mortal life, washed the feet of His disciples, and taught them that unless He washed them they should have no part with Him. Further, that they ought to wash one another's feet, and if they did so, they should be blessed. We seem here to have the formal institution of an obligatory rite, to the due observance of which a special blessing is attached, while to neglect it is spiritually disastrous. And we learn also (I Timothy v. 10) that to use the rite was one of the marks of an upright Christian. Nevertheless, with insignificant exceptions, the rite has never been in use; and the practice of the Church assures us that "to wash the saints' feet" is a phrase for readiness to embrace opportunities of doing acts of kindness, even when they are humiliating; but one who knew nothing of the matter beyond what the Scripture teaches, would have no ground for so understanding the passages.

IV. Eating Blood. – The Israelites were forbidden to eat the blood of any creature whatsoever. (Levit. vii. 26, and many other places.) The motive of this law was perhaps partly sanitary, but it also, no doubt, had reference to the Divine decree by which the redemption of mankind was destined to be purchased by the shedding of the Precious Blood on Calvary. This law is still observed by the Jews. In the earliest days of the Church, probably within twenty years of the Death of Christ, a question arose, how far Gentile converts were bound to observe the Law of Moses, and the Apostles and others gathered together at Jerusalem to discuss the point. The proceedings are narrated in the fifteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. The result was that the Council sent a circular letter addressed in form to the Gentile converts of Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, but which is referred to in Acts xxi. 25, as being applicable to all Gentiles; and this letter insists on the duty of abstaining from blood. Nothing but the Tradition of the Church assures us that this prohibition has ceased to be binding.

V. Oaths. – In the Sermon on the Mount we have a distinct precept of Christ not to swear at all (St. Matt. v. 34); and St. James would have Christians "above all things, swear not." (St. James v. 12.) No words can be plainer, and the context limits them only so far as to indicate by the examples adduced, that the prohibition is confined to oaths properly so called. It is to no purpose therefore that Dr. Browne, defending the ordinary practice of men against certain fanatical sectaries, in his comment on the last of the Thirty-nine Articles, adduces certain forms of speech which are employed occasionally by St. Paul (Romans ix. 1; I Cor. xv. 31, &c.) as proof that the Apostle considered it lawful to take an oath; these forms are something different from oaths. Nor does it avail him more to quote the example of our Lord, Who suffered Himself to be adjured (St. Matt. xxvi. 63), for this was the act of the High Priest, not of Christ; but to take an oath is the act of the witness, not of the judge: and by permitting the High Priest to act in this way, He no more sanctioned his action than He sanctioned His own condemnation, which He suffered this same High Priest to pronounce.

VI. No point of the popular religion of Protestants is more prominent than the strictness with which they observe the weekly rest on Sunday, and the duty is constantly rested upon that commandment of the Decalogue which forbids work on the Sabbath. The belief is wide-spread among ignorant Protestants that the Sunday is the Sabbath, whereas nothing is more certain than that Sunday is observed as the day of the Resurrection of our Lord, which took place on the day following the Sabbath. (St. Luke xxiii. 56.) The Jews have preserved the true reckoning, and they rest on the Saturday. Such Protestants as know better than to fall into this confusion, feel the need of discovering a Scriptural basis for their practice of observing Sunday; but they find nothing better than some indications that Christians were accustomed to meet for worship on the first day of the week (Acts xx. 7; I Cor. xvi. 2), but there is nothing in these passages to impose a perpetual obligation, or to show that this observance is of Divine institution. Again we are driven to Tradition and the practice of the Church, to justify the existing usage.

We may conclude this discussion by citing two passages from the Fathers, in which our principle is stated with great plainness. St. Epiphanius, who wrote about the year 370, combats certain heretics with arguments derived from Scripture; and then goes on (Adv. Hæreses, 61, 6; P.G. 41, 1048): "We must also call in the aid of Tradition; for it is impossible to find everything in Scripture; for the holy Apostles delivered to us some things in writing, and other things by Tradition." To the same effect we read in St. Basil, writing about the same time, the clear statement that the Church had Traditions on doctrinal questions, adding to what is contained in the Scripture. Many passages to this effect are found in the Saint's work on the Holy Spirit, where he discusses the proper way of speaking of the Three Divine Persons. Thus (n.66; P.G. 32,188): "Among the dogmas that are maintained in the Church, we find some in the doctrinal writings, others come to us handed down from the Apostles; both of which have the same religious force." And again (n. 71, p. 200), he is advocating the use of a certain form of speech, and answers the argument that this form is not found in Scripture, as follows: "If nothing else is accepted which is not Scriptural, then let not this be accepted; but if most of our doctrines are accepted among us without writing, then let us receive this along with the multitude of the rest." Patristic passages to the same effect have been collected in abundance.

108. More necessary. – It follows from what we have already said, that the Church could dispense with Holy Scripture, but cannot dispense with Tradition. Were it possible to imagine that all copies of the Scripture should perish, without possibility of restoration, still the voices of living men would proclaim what is the Christian teaching. On the other hand, if a copy of the Bible found its way to some community who knew nothing of the Christian Revelation, there would be nothing about the volume by which it could be distinguished from other books teaching a sublime morality; the community would see no reason to take this Bible, and this Bible alone, as their religion. This superior necessity of Tradition plainly appears if we consider the way in which Protestants in fact learn their religion. No one actually learns it from the Bible and the Bible alone. All are taught by way of authority, however freely they may be referred to the Bible to verify what they are taught; if they fail to be convinced by the Scripture proofs, on such a matter as infant Baptism, for example, or the observation of Sunday, they will be told that wiser men than they have considered the matter and been convinced, and they will not be told that others have also considered the Scriptural argument and have found it insufficient; or more probably they will be led to stifle their own doubts out of respect to the usage of those among whom they have been brought up, and who have their confidence; they in fact believe Tradition, with which they could not dispense, the Scripture being a most valuable help, but not indispensable. The high position that Catholic doctrine assigns to Holy Writ will be seen in the next Treatise, and it will be seen that we yield to no Christians in our esteem; but we esteem it on account of what we learn concerning it from Tradition.

109. Recapitulation. – This chapter has taught us that Tradition is prior in time to Scripture, and prior in thought; it is of wider scope, as is shown by several examples, and it is more necessary.

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