I’ve been reading Yves Congar’s The Meaning of Tradition and want to share some thoughts about it related to sola Scriptura, including naturally an allusion to the Karate Kid movie.
Tradition is the most confusing and misunderstood idea, especially for Protestants. Heck, I’ve been Catholic ten years and am still growing in my appreciation and understanding of it.
It is not some secret channel of teachings whispered from one bishop’s ear to another, nor is it only customs that change and evolve from place to place over time. Instead:
The reality that it communicates is primarily a doctrine, but not exclusively so. Indeed, if “tradition” is taken in its basic, strict sense, signifying transmission, or delivery, it includes the whole communication, excluding nothing. If, then, we consider the content of what is offered, tradition comprises equally the holy Scriptures and, besides these, not only doctrines but things: the sacraments, ecclesiastical institutions, the powers of the ministry, customs and liturgical rites–in fact, all the Christian realities themselves.
Tradition is hard to wrap your head around because it is truly the transmission of Christianity, the entire deposit of faith, to each and every generation, within and through the Church, by the power and action of the Holy Spirit.
Can you Learn Karate from a Book?
In the original Karate Kid movie, Daniel-san wants to learn karate to keep from getting beaten up again; he’s in the living room of his mom’s apartment practicing front kicks while consulting a “how-to karate book.” Mr. Miyagi walks in to fix the sink, looks at him skeptically, and asks “learn karate from book?”
And we all intuitively know that it’s preposterous to try to do such a thing. To really know karate you need to have a teacher, someone who is wise and has been themselves instructed in the particular martial art by another master. Even if you could, theoretically, learn how to kick in such a way or punch in generally the correct form, if it came to an actual fight, how would you put it together? How do you best respond if your opponent does this, or that, or comes at you with a knife.
And there are katas to learn, concepts like chi, honor, tea ceremonies, and the philosophy behind the martial art (strike first strike hard no mercy sir, or only use in defense).
Daniel-san knows all this and begs his mom to be able to go to a real karate school, with good teachers who are immersed in the tradition. Of course, Mr. Miyagi is a master and starts to teach him, along the way instructing him in other aspects of the tradition, like training bonsai trees.
A week ago when we went to the Baptist service, I noted the preaching of the pastor (a friend of mine). First, his intonation and style: it matched that of my old Baptist pastors. Now, nowhere in the Bible does it say that this is how you set the tone of your voice when you preach. Somewhere it seems there is a Baptist school where this is learned, or a way that preaching style is transmitted in the Baptist tradition.
But that is not all that is transmitted: the service itself matched closely with my old Baptist service. And the doctrinal content matched as well. It seems that an entire interpretive paradigm of the Scriptures is transmitted within the Baptist tradition. This is even though nowhere in the Bible are their official Baptist study notes that are on par with the Scriptures themselves. So doctrinal information and even the underlying principles of how the Bible is to be interpreted are also transmitted.
Realize that the New Testament nowhere tells us how to celebrate the liturgy. What is done when, and how is it done? What words are used? And the first NT letters weren’t written for many many years after Christ’s Ascension and Pentecost, but the early Christians knew how to do the liturgy because Christ taught them and the Spirit reminded them (see John 14:26 and John 16:12-15).
You can’t learn karate from just a book. And Christianity was not meant to be learned from a book alone, either. Protestants get this. Which is why they don’t just hand newcomers a Bible and tell them to go back home and read it and they’re “good to go.” No, they know that a living witness is needed, and help is needed to understand the Scriptures correctly.
This Protestant “tradition” though is not the same as Catholic sacred Tradition, for one thing because sacred Tradition is enlivened by the Holy Spirit. It is the Tradition, and it finds its rightful place within the visible Church, alongside the Magisterium. Still, it is an analogy that can help Protestants make sense of Tradition.