THE PRESERVATION OF SACRED TRADITION

 

Monuments of Sacred Tradition

One common objection raised against Sacred Tradition as a source of revealed truth is that oral transmission is susceptible to corruption.  However, the Church, in receiving the mandate to teach all nations, also received from Christ the gift of infallibility. Therefore, the chief means by which revealed truth is preserved in the Church by way of Sacred Tradition is through the continuous exercise of the Church’s infallible Apostolic Teaching Office, or the Magisterium. By her infallible Teaching Authority the Church serves not merely as the final arbiter of truth in all matters pertaining to our salvation, but also as the keeper of the faith. St. Paul tells Timothy: “Hold the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me in faith, and in the love which is in Christ Jesus. Keep the good thing committed to thy trust by the Holy Ghost, who dwelleth in us” (2 Tim 1:13-14). Then again St. Paul instructed the Church to be watchful and to be always on guard against those who promote novel teachings that depart from the faith: “If any one preach to you a gospel, besides that which you have received, let him be anathema” (Gal 1:9).

 

Although divine revelation was orally preserved in Sacred Tradition by the authoritative and infallible teaching of the Church, much of it has also been tangibly preserved in the Church in various monuments of Sacred Tradition. These monuments, also called "channels" or "vehicles of tradition", are witnesses to the Faith of the Church. These monuments are the following:

 

  1. The Creeds and Professions of Faith

  2. The Acts of the Church Councils and of the Supreme Pontiffs (the Popes)

  3. Liturgical Books

  4. Acts of the Martyrs

  5. Writings of the Fathers of the Church, Ecclesiastical Writers and Theologians

  6. Records of Ecclesiastical History

  7. Christian Art

 

Each of these monuments will now be discussed briefly.

 

 

The Creeds and Professions of Faith

 

The Creeds are brief summaries or formulas of the truths of the Christian faith. They are sometimes referred to also as signs or symbols of the faith due to the fact that Christians are distinguished from other people by their belief and use of such formulas. There are three such Creeds known in Sacred Tradition: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.

 

Unlike the Creeds which contain only brief summaries of faith, the Professions of Faith contain more developed expressions of the Catholic Faith that Catholics and members of the hierarchy are required to make on various occasions. The chief professions of faith in the Catholic Church are the following:

 

  1. The profession of faith of the Council of Trent, prescribed by Pius IV.

  2. The profession of faith for the Greeks prescribed by Gregory XIII.

  3. The profession of faith for Oriental Catholics prescribed by Urban VIII and Benedict XIV.

  4. The Profession of Faith and the Oath against Modernism, prescribed by Pius X.

  5. The profession of faith, “Credo of the People of God,” prescribed by Paul VI.

  6. The Profession of Faith and Oath of Fidelity, prescribed by Pope John Paul II.

 

The Creeds and Professions of Faith that the Church has produced in various times in history serve as records of the Church’s faith and Teaching activity and are, therefore, monuments of Sacred Tradition. In addition to the Creeds and Professions of faith cited above, the major catechisms promulgated by the Church, such as the Catechism of the Council of Trent and the present Catechism of the Catholic Church, may be regarded as monuments of Sacred Tradition.

 

 

Acts of the Church Councils and of the Supreme Pontiffs

 

Considered actively, Sacred Tradition is nothing else but the acts of the Church in its capacity as Teacher of sacred truth. These acts are most evident in the Councils of the Church and the acts of the Supreme Pontiffs.

 

A Church Council  or synod is simply a meeting of the members of the hierarchy (mostly bishops), legally convened for the purpose of making a common deliberation on matters of doctrine (faith and morals) and church discipline, and which result in the issuance of doctrinal and/or regulatory decrees. In these councils experts from various fields (Holy Scripture, patristics, theology, canon law and even science) may be invited to join in the discussions, although they may not have voting rights. A local meeting of members of the clergy, presided by a bishop, is called a diocesan council. A council comprised by the bishops of an entire nation is called a national council. A council comprised by the bishops of a region or province is called a provincial council. And a council comprised by bishops of the entire world, presided by the Pope, is called an ecumenical council.

 

So far there had been 21 ecumenical councils in the history of the Church. These are:

  1. The First Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325)

  2. The First Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381)

  3. The Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431)

  4. The Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451)

  5. The Second Council of Constantinople (A.D. 553)

  6. The Third Council of Constantinople (A.D. 680-681)

  7. The Second Council of Nicaea (A.D. 787)

  8. The Fourth Council of Constantinople (A.D. 869)

  9. The First Lateran Council (A.D. 1123)

  10. The Second Lateran Council (A.D. 1139)

  11. The Third Lateran Council (A.D. 1179)

  12. The Fourth Lateran Council (A.D. 1215)

  13. The First Council of Lyons (A.D. 1245)

  14. The Second Council of Lyons (A.D. 1274)

  15. The Council of Vienne (A.D. 1311-1313)

  16. The Council of Constance (A.D. 1414-1418)

  17. The Council of Basle/Ferrara/Florence (A.D. 1431-1439)

  18. The Fifth Lateran Council (A.D. 1512-1517)

  19. The Council of Trent (A.D. 1545-1563)

  20. The First Vatican Council (A.D. 1869-1870)

  21. The Second Vatican Council (A.D. 1962-1965)

 

 

In each of these councils the Church has made important accomplishments. For example, we owe the formulation of the Nicene Creed from the First Council of Nicaea (sometimes represented as Nicaea I). The Council of Ephesus declared Mary as the Mother of God (theotokos), and Vatican I decreed the doctrine of papal infallibility; etc. For a brief description of the general councils and their accomplishments, see the article on the Catholic Encyclopedia, General Councils”. Since the councils produce documents containing the fruits of their deliberation on doctrinal and disciplinary matters, these documents serve as monuments or records of Sacred Tradition. By diligently reading and studying the various documents produced by the local and ecumenical councils of the church, one can see how the Magisterium has manifested divine truth through the ages. These monuments of Sacred Tradition are a valuable source of Catholic wisdom and understanding.  For a free online resource of conciliar documents, click the button below:

 

 

 

Like the decrees of the various church councils, the papal documents issued by the Popes in their efforts to transmit the faith that was handed down by Christ and the Apostles also serve as monuments or records of Sacred Tradition. These documents come in many forms. Solemn Papal acts authenticated with a bulla or seal are called Bulls. Those solemn Papal acts documenting doctrinal definitions ex cathedra,  church governance, erecting dioceses, etc., are referred to as Apostolic Constitutions. Those Papal acts that express the Pope's teaching  on matters of faith or morals, short of being solemn definitions, are called Encyclical Letters. Others, which merely encourage the performance of certain activities, but which do not touch on doctrinal matters, are called Apostolic Exhortations. By reading these papal documents, especially the Apostolic Constitutions and the Encyclicals, one can benefit from our enormous heritage of Sacred Tradition. For a free online reference on papal documents, click the button below:

 

 

 

 

Liturgical Books

 

There is a popular maxim that says: Lex orandi, lex credendi, which literally means “the law of prayer is the law of belief.” This truism is based on the fact that the rules and form of our liturgy are shaped by what we believe. We bow before the Eucharist because we believe in the real presence of Christ. We make the sign of the cross because we believe that Christ redeemed us by His death on the cross. In short, we pray as we believe: Lex orandi, lex credendi. Therefore, the liturgy and prayers of the Church are a true testament of its faith; they are valuable monuments of Sacred Tradition.

 

Some examples of liturgies that were developed in the early Church include, but are not limited to, the following:

 

 

For additional reading on the history and evolution of the liturgical books of the Church, see the article from the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Liturgical Books.

 

 

Acts of the Martyrs

 

The so-called Acts of the Martyrs are the records of the trials and execution of early Christian martyrs some of which were made by the notaries of the Roman court, and others by early Christian writers. The Roman records were eventually put in judicial archives by Roman officials, but very few of these records still exist today. Many of them were destroyed (burned) by Emperor Diocletian in the third century A.D. when it was noticed that these Acts actually inspired the early Christians to become even more steadfast in their faith, thus contributing to the more rapid expansion of Christianity. Today most of the reliable accounts of the heroism of the martyrs are those that were written, or purport to be written, by eyewitnesses or their contemporaries. There are also accounts written and preserved in liturgical readings.

The Acts of the Martyrs are regarded as important monuments of Sacred Tradition because the heroic witness to the faith contained in these records manifest the faith quite powerfully, sometimes even more powerfully than the scholarly treatises written by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Some examples of these accounts are the following:

               1916 Edition - for reference only,

                          not for liturgical use.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writings of the Fathers of the Church, Ecclesiastical Writers and Theologians

 

Many of the Apostolic teachings came to us through the tireless effort of the Church Fathers, who painstakingly recorded in writing the doctrines of our faith as they received them from the Apostles. Now, in the Bible a father is often taken as analogous to a teacher (Jgs 17:10-13; Prov 4:1-2; Acts 7:1-53; 1 Cor 4:15). A father normally gives instructions to his children; so, a teacher is often regarded as a father to his disciples. Therefore, it became the custom in the early Church to use the word “Father” to refer to eminent teachers of the faith. Today the title “Father of the Church” is given to those ancient, holy, and orthodox writers whom the Church acknowledged as having displayed outstanding leadership in defending, explaining and developing Catholic doctrines.  

These, then, are the four marks that constitute a writer as a Father of the Church:

 

  • Antiquity. The Fathers were ancient because the title is reserved to those who lived during the first eight centuries of the Christian era, when the Church was at its infancy. It is generally recognized that St. John Damascene (d. 754) was the last of the Fathers in the East. Although some Patrologists regard St. Isidore of Seville (d. 636) as the last of the Fathers in the West, one may regard Saint Bede the Venerable (d. 735) as the last of the Western Fathers, although he was from England. Most of the early Fathers were bishops, such as St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 117), but certain priests, deacons and laymen were also recognized as Fathers in later years on account of their contribution to the Church. For example, St. Ephaem the Syrian (d. 373) was a deacon, while St. Prosper of Aquitaine (d. 463) was a layman.

  • Sanctity. The Fathers were holy because they were noted for the sanctity of their lives. Many of the Fathers were canonized saints. Some, like St. Ignatius of Antioch, were also martyrs.

  • Orthodoxy. The Fathers were orthodox because they displayed an unwavering witness to the truths of the Catholic faith and showed a steadfast loyalty to the teaching Magisterium of the Church. However, the fact that a writer taught a mistaken opinion on a debatable issue prior to the Church’s act of resolving the question, does not betray a lack of orthodoxy.

  • Church Approval. The Fathers were acknowledged as such by Holy Mother Church, not necessarily by an official proclamation, but by praising them in the Roman Martyrology as being “eminent for holiness and learning,” by her consistent approbation of their status as “Fathers,” and most especially by quoting or citing their works in conciliar and papal documents. For instance two letters of St. Cyril of Alexandria were read at the Council of Ephesus, clearly indicating the Church’s approval of his works. Also, since the title “Father” is given to those who had illumined the Church by their writings, the citation of their work in one or more of the councils of the Church indicates the Church’s recognition of their contribution to her understanding of revealed doctrine.

 

Some early Christian writers, such as Arnobius (d. 327), Origen (d. 254), Tertullian (d. 230), and Clement of Alexandria (d. 215) among others, once contributed greatly to the enlightenment of the Church, but because they were lacking either in eminent holiness or perfect orthodoxy, they were not numbered among the Fathers. Instead, they are referred to only as “ecclesiastical writers.” On the other hand, those early Christian writers who excelled in learning and holiness, but whose works and teachings are seldom cited or read, or whose influence in the Church remained insignificant, are not regarded as Fathers either, but only as “Ecclesiastical Writers.” For a listing of the Fathers and Ecclesiastical Writers, see the Fathers of the Church and Ecclesiastical Writers charts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Holy Spirit has been generous in giving the gift of wisdom to many theologians, including those who lived after the Patristic era (or the first eight centuries of the Church). These theologians had been officially proclaimed by the Popes with the special title “Doctor of the Church” on account of their orthodoxy, their sanctity, their learning or depth of doctrinal insight, and their outstanding work in the manifestation and development of Catholic Doctrine. This title had been given to some of the Fathers of the Church, such as St. Ambrose and St. Augustine. But the title had been given also to later theologians who did a great job in explaining the faith, but who, for lack of antiquity, were not regarded as “Fathers.” For example, St. Thomas Aquinas was one of the best theologians of the Church. Pope St. Pius X quoted Pope John XXII as saying that St. Thomas “enlightened the Church more than all the other doctors together.” (See Pope St. Pius X, Doctoris Angelici,  in the seventh paragraph.)  Yet St. Thomas Aquinas was not considered a Father of the Church because he was not ancient. He lived during the 13th century, way past the Age of the Fathers. The same can be said of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), who was dubbed “last of the Fathers” by Pope Pius XII (in his encyclical Doctor Mellifluus) because of the style of his writing. But, while he deserved to be honored as a “Father,” he is not counted among the Fathers because he lived after the Patristic era. However, he was counted among the Doctors. (See the Doctors of the Church chart for a complete list).

 

The Holy Spirit gives His gifts of prophecy and teaching in a variety of ways. As the recent proclamations of the Church show, some saints were given the title “Doctor,” not because they wisely and eloquently defended Church doctrine in controversies and scholarly disputations, but because they simply illumined the Church by their special charism as teacher. This particularly was the case of St. Therese of Lisieux, who taught the world a path to God through her Way of Spiritual Childhood. One might also mention the special charism of St. Hildegard of Bingen, who manifested divine works extraordinarily by her visions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although the Fathers and Doctors of the Church taught and wrote individually, they showed their agreement with one another and their unity with the Magisterium in two ways: first, by insisting that the teaching of those that preceded them must be followed, and second, by submitting their work to the ultimate judgment of the Church. Because of their internal harmony with the Magisterium, the teachings of the Fathers and the Doctors often reflect the official teachings of the Church Herself. Therefore, their writings are also important monuments of Sacred Tradition.

 

The writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church are among the finest examples of Christian literature. They were written by men noted for their piety, orthodoxy and deep learning, and they were written with hearts afire with the love of God. It is lamentable that so few, even among Catholics, are familiar with their writings.

 

 

Records of Ecclesiastical History

 

One of the earliest writers of Church History was St. Luke, who wrote the Acts of the Apostles. St. Luke wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so his work became part of Holy Scripture rather than Sacred Tradition strictly so-called. The works that will be cited below are only those that the Church did not consider inspired, but which had become important sources of information regarding the activities of the Church during the first centuries of the Christian era. The writers of early Church history were actually some of the Fathers and Ecclesiastical Writers. Notable authors and their historical works include, but are not limited to, the following:

           

           

 

Christian Art

 

Christian Art, as a monument of Sacred Tradition, refers to artifacts of sacred art that depict themes of the Christian faith. Early evidences of this form of art were found in the catacombs where the early Christians buried their dead, and where they congregated and held religious services during the time of the Roman persecutions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more examples of early Christian Art found in the catacombs, search "Catacomb Art" in commons.wikimedia.org.

 

While these early artifacts were limited in quality and number, the practice of embellishing churches, homes and graves with religious artifacts continued throughout the succeeding centuries of the Christian era. The practice proved beneficial during the centuries before the invention of the printing press when Holy Scripture was not readily available to the general public. People relied heavily on the preaching activity of the Church to learn their faith, and preachers in turn used Christian Art as a vehicle for catechizing the faithful. One only needs to visit the majestic European cathedrals, such as the Cathedral of Cologne (Germany), the Cathedral of Rouen (France), or any one of those built during the Middle Ages to see how the statuary, the magnificent paintings and stained glass windows served as a stunning visual catechism of the Catholic Faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For a history of Christian Art, see http://www.historyofchristianart.com/. For some galleries with free downloadable images, click the button below:

Besides being recorded in liturgical readings and Roman archives, the acts of some martyrs have been immortalized in the art (paintings, sculptures, etc.) of later centuries. The painting to the right is an example. It shows St. Cecilia (A.D. 200-230), Patroness of Church Music, who was beheaded because she refused to worship Roman idols.

 

For a description of St. Cecilia's martyrdom, see "The Acts of St. Cecilia."

The Martydom of St. Cecilia

A painting by Orazio Riminaldi, 1630

Image source link: Wikiart.org

Statue of St. Peter

at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Rome

Photo by Jastrow, CC BY 2.5 License

Source/License link: commons.wikimedia.org

St. Dionysius the Great (A.D. 190-268)

Father of the Church

Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org

Eusebius of Caesarea (A.D. 265-340)

Ecclesiastical Writer

Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org

St. Hildegard of Bingen

Doctor of the Church

Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org

Cathedral of Cologne (Germany)

Source/license link: commons.wikimedia.org

Altarpiece of the Magi

at the Cathedral of Cologne

Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org

Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace, Dan 3

Catacomb of Priscilla, circa 3-4th Century BC.

Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org

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