Not By Scripture Alone

By St. Robert Bellarmine, Doctor of the Church


I. The Council of Trent, the First Vatican Council and the Council of Nicea II on the Apostolic Traditions.

Apostolic Traditions are as important as the Sacred Scripture as a source of revealed revelations. The Church has declared that it is an error to consider the Sacred Scripture as the only source of Divine Revelation.

  • The Decree of the Council of Trent on The Sacred Books and The Traditions of The Apostles (April 8, 1546):
  • Ex-cathedra Declaration of the First Vatican Council on the Source of Revelation:
  • Definition of Council of Nicea II (787) on Tradition:
    1. If anyone rejects all ecclesiastical tradition either written or not written ... let him be anathema. (Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, 30th edition, originally published by B. Herder Book Co., St. Louis, Missouri; Now published by Marian House, Powers Lake, ND 58773, # 308, p. 123.)

    II. St. Robert Bellarmine on how to recognize the authentic Apostolic Traditions.

    In the following, St. Robert Bellarmine of Society of Jesus, Doctor of the Church, demonstrates that we can recognize the true and authentic Apostolic Traditions of the Apostles through the five rules, De Controversiis Christianae Fidei 1, 4, 9 and 1586. Reprinted from "30 Days" Magazine, No. 5, 1992.

    Rule 1.

    When the Universal Church accepts as a dogma of faith something which is not found in the Divine Scriptures, it must be said to originate from the Tradition of the Apostles.

      The reason is this: since the Universal Church cannot err, being as it is the pillar and support of the truth (1 Timothy 3 , 15 )and given that the Lord said this of it (Matthew 16, 18): "The Gates of the underworld can never overpower it", it is certain that whatever the Church believes to be of Faith is, without doubt, of Faith. But nothing is of Faith except that which God has revealed through the Apostles or the Prophets, or that which is clearly a consequence of these revelations; now, the Church does not rest on new revelations but remains firm in those which were transmitted by the ministers of the word, and so it was said (Ephesians 2, 20 ): "You are built upon the foundations of the apostles and prophets". So, all the things the Church observes as Faith have been transmitted by the Apostles or by the Prophets either in writing or in words. This is true as regards the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin, the number of Canonical books and for similar things.

    Rule 2.

    When the Universal Church observes something which no one, except God, would have been able to establish and which, in any case, is not to be found written down anywhere, it must be said that it was transmitted by Christ himself and by his Apostles.

      The reason for this is similar to the above. For, not only is the Universal Church incapable of erring in its belief, it is also incapable of erring in its action and, especially, in its rites and divine worship. Augustine rightly teaches (Epist. 118 ) that it is a matter of great and presumptuous madness to think that whatever the Universal Church does is not done in the right way; so, given that the Church could not observe something not instituted by God and given that it does observe it, it must he said that it was instituted by God even though it cannot be read in any book. This is also true for the Baptism of infants. For, the Church would err in a grave way if it were to baptize, without the mandate of God, infants who have no Faith as yet. On this point Augustine said (De Genesi ad litteram X, 23 ): "The custom of the Mother Church in baptizing infants is not to be rejected at all . Neither should it considered superfluous in any way but it should certainly not be believed if it were not of the Apostolic Tradition". This is also true as regards the validity of the Baptism administered by heretics and on this point Augustine always refers back to the Apostolic Tradition and its mandate not to rebaptize those baptized by heretics: for, the Church cannot give authority to the baptism if that authority does not come from Christ.

    Rule 3.

    Whatever has been observed in the Universal Church and throughout all ages past is rightly believed to have been instituted by the Apostles, even if it is the kind of observation which could have been instituted by the Church.

      This is a rule of Augustine (Contra Donatistas IV, 24 ). Let the Lenten fast serve as an example. This could have been instituted by the Church if Christ and the Apostles had not instituted it; but we say and we have proof that it was instituted by Christ or by the Apostles because if we go back to its origins we can only find it at the time of the Apostles; yet Calvin teaches (Instit. IV 12, 20 ) that Lent is pure superstition neither transmitted by Christ nor by the Apostles but devised by someone who came after and who was spurred by misplaced zeal. The Blessed Bernard says (Serm. 3, de Quadragesima): " Until now we have been the only ones to fast until nones. Now (during Lent), until Vespers everyone will fast with us in the same way -- kings and princes, noblemen and commoners, clergy and the people,and rich and poor in the exact same way". Before Bernard, Gregory (Homil. in Evangelia, 16) reminds us of Lent and explains why we fast for 40 days. Then before Gregory there was Leo (Serm. 12, de Quadragesima); and before him there was Augustine (Epist. 118, 119; Serm. 44, de Quadragesima); and before him wrote Jerome (Comment on Matthew, 9; Comment on Jonah, 3; and elsewhere), Paulinus 1 (Epist.6, ad Amandum ), Chrysostom (Homil. 1, in Genesin; and elsewhere). . Then before them there were, the writings of Ambrose (Serm. 8, de Quadragesima), Epiphanius (Compendiaria doctrina), Basil (Orat. 2, de ieiunio), Gregory Nazianzieno (Orat. in sanctum Lavacrum) and Cyril (Catechesi, 1 ), Before them, Origen (Homil. 10, in Leviticum ); before him Irenaeus (Eusebius, Histor. V, 24 ); before him Pope Telesforo (Epist. decret. ); before him Ignatius , (Epist. ad Philippenses) and Clement 5 (Constit. V, 13 and Can. Apostolorum, 68 ).

      By the same criterion Calvin says (Instit. IV, 19, 24 ) that the Minor Orders are a recent invention no written record of which can be found except among quibblers, professors and canonists of no merit. But according to the rules established here, we can demonstrate that they belong to Apostolic Tradition. Isidore came before all the professors and canonists. He lists (Etymol. VII, 12 ) the Orders one by one and sets out the reasons for their names. Before Isidore there was the Fourth Council of Carthage whose canons 1 to 10 transmit the rites by which Bishops, Presbyters, Deacons, Sub-Deacons, Acolytes, Readers, Exorcists and assistants for the Eucharist are ordained. (Although these canons are considered authentic, the Fourth Council of Carthage in the year 398 was never held. cf. Denzinger- Schoenmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum, Definitionum et Declarationum, ed. XXXIII, 1965, page 115). And before this Council there was Jerome who in Chapter 2 of his Comment on the Letter to Titus lists all the Orders, except the Acolytes, mentioned in the letter ad Nepotianum, LII (c) de Vita Clericorum et Monachorum.

      Before Jerome there was the Council of Laodicaea whose 24th chapter names all the Minor Orders. Before that Council, Pope Cornelius (Epist. ad Fabium Antiochenum, Eusebius, Histor. VI, 33 ) says that at his time in the Roman Church there were, besides the Bishop, 46 Presbyters, seven Deacons, seven Sub-Deacons, 42 Acolytes and 52 Exorcists, Readers and Eucharistic assistants. But even before Cornelius, Ignatius greets all the Orders by name (Epist. ad Antiochenses).

    Rule 4.

    When, by common consent, all the Doctors of the Church, either in General Council or in their individual writings in books, teach that something descends from Apostolic Tradition this must be believed to be Apostolic Tradition.

      The reason for this rule is the following: if, when they are in agreement in passing judgment, all the Doctors of the Church were to be mistaken, the Church as a whole would be mistaken since it is expected to follow its Doctors, and it does follow them. An example of the first case is the veneration of images which the Doctors of the Church, who met at the Second General Council of Nicaea (Actio ultima ), stated as belonging to Apostolic Tradition. An example of the second case would only be found if, in giving judgment, all the Fathers without exception were to have stated expressly something which they had written. But it appears to be sufficient for a certain number of Fathers of renown to make an express affirmation and for the others, who might also be concerned with the question at hand, not to contradict them. Then it could be said without fear of erring that this would be a common judgment since, when the Fathers of old erred on grave matter, there were always many others to contradict them.

      By this rule we can prove that the rites we observe in the Baptism belong to Apostolic Tradition; that person who is baptized must be baptized with water which the priest has blest first; that the person be ordered to renounce Satan and his seductions; that he be marked with the sign of Cross; that he be anointed with holy oil, etc. This is clear in Basil (De Spiritu Sancto, 27 ), in Tertullian (De Corona militia ) and in several others. No one has ever said anything to the contrary; hardly any of the Ancients failed to remember these ceremonies as ceremonies accepted by all in the Church. For the same reason, we can also prove by this rule with certainty that Lent is a Divine or Apostolic Tradition, given that Irenaeus, Epiphanius, Jerome, Ambrose and Leo all say this clearly given that no one contradicts them and that everyone observes it.

    Rule 5.

    It must be believed to be descended without a doubt from Apostolic Tradition that which is held as such in Churches where the succession from the Apostles is integral and continual.

      Irenaeus transmits this rule (III, 3 ) as does Tertullian (De praescriptione haereticorum ). The reason for the rule is that the Apostles will consign the doctrine of the religion, along with the office of the Episcopate, to their successors. If, then, in a Church we can look back on all the Bishops who succeeded one another and arrive at one of the Apostles, and if it cannot be shown that those same Bishops introduced a new doctrine, then we can be certain that the Apostolic Traditions are conserved there.

      Certainly, at one time there was uninterrupted succession not just in Rome but in Ephesus, Corinth, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem and elsewhere.

      That is why Tertullian offers men any of the Apostolic Churches as a reference because there the Apostolic Traditions are to be found; Theodosius (L. Cunctos populos, C. de summa Trinitate et Fide catholica ) also orders everyone to conserve that same Faith which was preached at the time of Damasus in Rome and Peter in Alexandria, the two Pontiffs of the most important Apostolic Churches. But now there is no longer that certain succession in all the Apostolic Churches, except for the Church of Rome, and so from the testimony of this one Church we can extract a sure argument for recognizing the Apostolic Traditions; and this is especially true when the doctrine or the rites of those Churches are in contrast with the doctrine and rites of the Roman Church.

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