The Romish View

THE position of the Romish church with reference to tradition has been officially declared by the Council of Trent. It is found in the 'Decree concerning the Canonical Scriptures' of April 8, 1546. The Council declares that the Gospel 'of old promised through the Prophets in the Holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, promulgated first with His own mouth, and then commanded it to be preached by all His Apostles to every creature as the source at once of all saving truth and rules of conduct. It also clearly perceives that these truths and rules are contained in the written books and in the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ Himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand. Following, then, the examples of the orthodox Fathers, it receives and venerates with a feeling of piety and reverence all the books both of the Old and New Testaments, since one God is the author of both; also the traditions, whether they relate to faith or to morals, as having been dictated either orally by Christ or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church in unbroken succession' (cf. H. J. Schroeder: Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, pp.17, 296).


 It is apparent that the premise of this official pronouncement is that the source of all Christian truth, by which the faith and morals of the church are to be determined, is the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The question with which the Council is particularly concerned is the way in which this Christian truth, pertaining both to faith and morals, is conveyed to us. The Council's emphatic declaration is that it has come to us by two streams, Scripture and unwritten traditions. The latter have an authority in this matter equal to that of Scripture; they are to be received and venerated with a feeling of piety and reverence similar to that with which the Scriptures are received and venerated. For these traditions were dictated either orally by Christ or by the Holy Spirit and have been preserved in the Catholic Church in continuous succession. The outlines of the Romish doctrine of tradition, therefore, should be rather obvious. The summary statement of Sylvester J. Hunter may help to elucidate what has just been set forth. 'Christian truth', he says, 'was delivered to the Apostles by the spoken word of Christ or by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and... it has come from them to us, partly committed to written books and partly by unwritten tradition' (Outlines of Dogmatic Theology, Vol. I, p.107).

Though this summary is in some respects simple enough, we are not to suppose that the Romish doctrine is as simple and intelligible as might appear from this formal statement. There are two things that need to be said.


 First, it is not to be supposed that nothing of what is implied in unwritten tradition has ever been committed to writing. The Romish Church does not mean that the whole content of authoritative tradition must be jealously guarded from ever finding its way into either script or print. In other words, it is not claimed that this teaching is such an esoteric secret that no one may presume to give any indication of its character or purport by committing it to writing. It is fair to conclude that the word 'unwritten' is first of all intended to distinguish the mode of its transmission from the mode by which the revelation of Scripture has come, namely, inscripturation. The authoritative teaching embodied in tradition is not conveyed to us by inspired writings. It does not follow, however, that other writings have not played a part in the conveyance and even in the exposition of what this tradition embraces. For example, the Church of Rome in its defence of tradition as an authoritative rule and in the support of certain traditions makes frequent appeal to the writings of the church fathers. Again the symbols of faith and the definitions of the ecumenical councils are important elements of tradition. But these, of course, are committed to writing and all may have access to them as documents of tradition.

But, secondly, the Church of Rome does place great stress upon the fact that tradition is oral and unwritten. In terms of this emphasis we shall look in vain for any summary or codification of what is involved in tradition. As one Protestant writer has said, 'so far as we are aware, there is no publication which contains a summary of what the Church believes under the head of tradition' (Charles Elliott: Delineation of Roman Catholicism, p.40). Indeed, if there could be a codification or summation of the 'unwritten traditions', this would destroy the very principle that underlies the whole superstructure of tradition, namely, the Romish conception of the church. For Rome, the church as a visible, palpable organization and living organism, subject particularly to the papal see, is the depository of tradition. If writings were the depositories of tradition, this would radically interfere with the function ascribed to the church. The organs of this tradition are the official ministers of the church, the successors of the apostles. Christ and the Holy Spirit dictated these unwritten instructions to the apostles, the apostles committed them to their successors, and of these there has been an unbroken succession in the Romish hierarchy. So, while Rome does not aver that tradition receives no expression in writing, yet she is very jealous to maintain that the church is the medium through which tradition is transmitted, and not written documents.


 As indicated already, the church for Rome, is that visible, palpable organization professing subjection to the hierarchy which finds its head in the bishop of Rome. It is in this Church, called, presumptuously enough, 'the Catholic Church', that these traditions are preserved in continuous succession. These traditions, therefore, do not exist outside the communion of the Romish Church; she is their sole possessor and custodian. And this claim of Rome is to be understood, not in the sense in which she claims to be the custodian and infallible interpreter of Scripture, but rather in the sense that tradition does not exist except as an oral transmission passed on from hand to hand by Rome's official ministers.

Furthermore, tradition is not to be regarded as a verbatim transmission of sayings and directions given by Christ orally or by dictation of the Holy Spirit. Tradition is not a static corpus of oracles handed down from generation to generation. Tradition is rather that which the Church propounds in each successive generation; it is the living voice of the Church. Hence new decrees and dogmas may be officially declared from time to time which are invested with all the authority claimed for tradition. Rome, indeed, does not claim that such official pronouncements regarding faith and morals are new inventions of the Church. It is claimed rather that they are concrete expressions and formulations of what was implicit from the beginning in the tradition of the Church. By the authority vested in the Church they are declared to be infallible dogmas which are implicit in and grow out of tradition.

We can readily see how fluid and flexible this concept of tradition really is, and how difficult it is to determine what exactly is included in it. Indeed, there is something banefully elusive about it all. We get good examples of what the doctrines of tradition and of the Church can produce in the hands of the Roman hierarchy when we think of the dogmas of the immaculate conception (1854) and of papal infallibility (1870). Blasphemous pretensions can emanate from so elusive, but for Rome so convenient, a doctrine!

Protestants should be alive to the consequences of the Romish position, particularly in two respects. First, in the name of tradition there can be foisted upon the church what is the antithesis of the truth of the Gospel. We see this in the impious claims of the papacy. Secondly, Protestants should understand that the claim of Rome implies that the protestant church is excluded from access to one of the indispensable media of divine revelation, with the result that it cannot possibly be the church of Christ.


 In examining the Romish position, a thorough discussion would take us far beyond the limits of such an article as this. But a few considerations may be briefly adduced.

    (1) It is true that the Gospel was at first orally communicated and transmitted. We have no evidence that Christ Himself gave to the apostles or to the church written documents. Even the first of our New Testament books was not written for several years after the ascension of Christ. The Gospel by this method of oral transmission was indeed the same Gospel and was the power of God unto salvation.

    (2) All that Christ revealed and spoke was infallible and normative for faith and morals. If we today possessed any actual instructions of Christ which have not been committed to Scripture and if these instructions could be authenticated to us by some infallible criterion, then these unwritten sayings of our Lord would be on a plane of authority equal to that of Holy Scripture. The same would hold of instructions or revelations given to the apostles by dictation or inspiration of the Holy Spirit, provided they were also authenticated by an infallible criterion.

    (3) It is a remarkable providence that notwithstanding the many sayings and deeds of our Lord not included in the canonical Scriptures, alluded to, for example, in John 20:30; 21:25, the number of sayings or of deeds, not incorporated in the canonical books, which have come down to us are very few indeed and are of such doubtful authenticity that we cannot rely upon them or make use of them in any determinative way in matters of faith or morals. When we bear in mind the mass of material that existed in the instructions and deeds both of our Lord and of His apostles, not included in Scripture, and then ask the question: how much of that material has been conveyed to us by a really authentic tradition? We are really confronted with an amazing phenomenon. There is scarcely anything. We are constrained to ask: is this not a fact of God's providence intended to confine the church to the canonical Scriptures as the only infallible rule of faith and morals?

    (4) The very doctrine of tradition as propounded by the Romish Church is indicative and indeed corroborative of the foregoing providential facts. The 'unwritten traditions' of Rome do not purport to be simply sayings of our Lord or inspired utterances of the apostles that have come down to us by authentic transmission. Tradition is not by any means conceived of as a collection or corpus of such instructions. Tradition, for Rome, is something quite different. But the only tradition that we would concede would be equally authoritative with Scripture would be the tradition of instructions given or deeds done by our Lord and inspired utterances and deeds of the apostles, communicated to us by infallibly authentic testimony. The only tradition then which we Protestants could place on a par with Scripture is that kind of tradition which does not exist, and which, indeed, Rome does not aver.

    (5) Protestants, particularly Reformed Protestants, do not deny that there is such a thing as tradition to which all due deference must be paid. At the outset the word 'deference' should be noted. We have not used the word 'reverence'. In this resides a very important distinction.


 There is truly a catholic tradition to which all due respect is to be paid and for which we should thank God. The Romish Church has attempted to monopolize the word 'Catholic' by trying to fix upon itself the denominational name, 'the Catholic Church'. Protestants should not be the dupes of Rome in this respect and should resist every attempt on the part of Rome to appropriate that denomination. The Church of Rome is not the catholic church. It is presumption for her to claim to be. We should understand that all who profess the true religion belong to the catholic church and in the catholic tradition we glory. The catholic tradition is enshrined particularly in the ecumenical creeds, and is found also in the line of orthodox interpreters and theologians throughout the centuries.

There is also a Protestant tradition. It is the viewpoint of the Protestant church as over against the perversions and apostasies of the Romish communion. This tradition is enshrined in the great Protestant creeds and in the theology of the Protestant reformers. It is also embodied in the worship and practice that prevailed in the Protestant churches of the 16th and 17th centuries.

There is in like manner a reformed tradition. It is enshrined in the reformed creeds, theology, worship and practice. It is in this latter tradition that we specially glory. And we glory in it because we believe that it is the purest repristination and expression of apostolic Christianity. It is in this tradition that we move; it is the stream along which we are borne; it is the viewpoint we cherish, foster and promote. We cannot abstract ourselves from it; it gives direction and orientation to our thought and practice.

 The Protestant View

 There is then a catholic, a protestant and a reformed tradition. It would be false to disavow them. It would be presumptuous and even absurd to try to extricate ourselves from these traditions. We cannot do it and we should not attempt to. And we must bear in mind that these traditions of which we speak are not transmitted and carried on simply in the documents that enshrine and exemplify these traditions. In a highly real and important sense each tradition is established and perpetuated from generation to generation within the community and communion of those embracing and cherishing it. The family, the visible church, the school, to a certain extent even state institutions and various other organizations are instruments whereby these traditions are fostered and communicated. For example, a reformed community breathes in a certain atmosphere, is animated by a certain spirit, embraces a certain viewpoint, is characterized by a certain type of life and practice, maintains and promotes certain types of institutions. We call this the reformed tradition; it permeates the whole life of that community. When we pass on to another community of a different tradition, we immediately notice the difference. In these respects the fact of tradition and of its all-permeating influence on thought and life is undeniable. Where it is a good tradition, it should be welcomed, embraced, cherished, promoted. It is the way whereby God in His providence and grace establishes and furthers His kingdom in the world.

We must ask then: what is the difference between this view of tradition and that of the Romish Church? The difference is not to be sought in the denial that there is such a thing as tradition. Undoubtedly there is a reformed tradition, and Romish tradition, and Lutheran tradition and Methodist tradition. Neither is the difference to be sought in the badness of tradition as such. We would not condemn Romish tradition simply because it is tradition in the sense of our immediately foregoing discussion. If it stood a fair test of the criteria of Christianity', it would be good. But our present discussion is not concerned with an analysis of Romish tradition in the sense in which we also properly speak of reformed or Lutheran tradition. What we are concerned with is the Romish claim to the 'unwritten traditions' which Rome says are to be received and venerated with a feeling of piety and reverence equal to that with which Scripture is received and venerated. We can immediately perceive that we are here dealing with something that is distinctive of Rome and finds no analogy in any protestant avowal. The difference between Romanists and Protestants is not that Rome claims one set of 'unwritten traditions' which are to be received with piety and reverence, and Protestants claim another set of 'unwritten traditions' which stand in opposition to those of Rome, but which are also to be received and venerated with piety and reverence. No, not at all. The difference is that Rome claims such 'unwritten traditions' and Protestants deny that there are any such. For Protestants there are not two streams by which Christian revelation has come to us; there is but one Holy Scripture. For Protestants there are not two norms of faith and morals, both equally authoritative; there is but one Holy Scripture. It is precisely here the issue is joined, not at all in the denial of a protestant tradition and of its potent and beneficent influence.

It is, of course, quite true that the Romish view of the 'unwritten traditions', which are regarded as on a par with Scripture in the matter of authority, has deeply affected the Roman Catholic tradition in thought and life. And any evaluation of the Romish tradition would have to take into account the influence exerted upon that tradition by Rome's view of the 'unwritten traditions'. But our concern now is simply Rome's claim to the 'unwritten traditions'.

Protestants unequivocally deny that there are 'unwritten traditions' which provide any of the content of divine revelation or any of the instructions that are of divine authority. What then, we must ask, is the place or function of tradition in the protestant heritage?

Tradition, in the true sense of the word as delineated above, has the greatest potency and, if of the proper kind, the greatest value. But one thing must be appreciated, namely, that tradition, even when it is the best, has no intrinsic authority. Tradition is always subject to the scrutiny and test of Scripture. Its rightness or value is always determined by its conformity to Scripture. This is just saying that it is never proper to appeal to tradition as having intrinsically an authority in matters of faith or morals. Tradition when true and right and good always flows from the Scripture and is simply God's will as revealed in Scripture coming to expression in thought and life. Tradition, when right, is always derived; it is never original or primary. And this is invariably true from whatever aspect tradition is viewed.

Perhaps the best example that can be provided is that of a creed. In the reformed tradition, particularly, creeds or confessions of faith have held a highly honoured place and have exerted a powerful influence for good. A creed is a formulation of the truth believed, a confession of the faith of that branch of the visible church which adopts it. It should not be disputed that the church has a right and duty to declare what it believes to be the system of truth contained in Scripture as well as to declare what it believes to be the sense or meaning of any particular part or teaching of Scripture. In such cases the creed is the bond of fellowship, a bulwark against the incursions of errors, a testimony to the faith once delivered unto the saints, and an instrument for the preservation of both purity and peace. The persons subscribing to that creed are bound to adhere to its teachings as long as they enjoy the privileges accruing from that subscription and from the fellowship it entails. They must relinquish these privileges whenever they are no longer able to avow the tenets expressed in the creed. In this sense a creed may be said to be normative within the communion adopting it. For the Church concerned officially declares in the creed what it believes the teaching of Scripture to be. And so the person who has come to renounce the tenets of the creed to which he once subscribed has no right to continue to exercise the privileges contingent upon subscription. He may not in such a case protest his right to these privileges by appeal to Scripture as the supreme authority. It is entirely conceivable that the creed may be in error and his renunciation of it warranted and required by Scripture. But his resort in such a case must be to renounce subscription and with such renunciation the privileges incident to it. Then he may proceed to expose the falsity of the creedal position in the light of Scripture. In a true sense, therefore, the creed, even in a reformed Church has regulative authority. But while full recognition must be given to this fact, there are certain positions that must be very jealously guarded lest we fall into the Romish conception of ecclesiastical authority.

    (i) A creed never possesses by reason of the Church's action or adoption an authority that is intrinsic to itself The action of the Church in framing the creed or the action of the Church in adopting it in no way guarantees the truth or correctness of the interpretation the creed embodies or of the formulation it presents. No creed or other official declaration of the Church is by the action of the Church invested with divine authority. A creed by reason of its being a creed is never per se authoritative so as to bind the conscience in matters either of faith or of morals.

    (ii) A creed or any other ecclesiastical pronouncement derives its whole authority from its consonance with Scripture. It is only as it reproduces and insofar as it reproduces the teaching of Scripture that it possesses authority over the faith and lives of men. As it is the transcript or reproduction of the teaching of Scripture, it has binding authority for the simple reason that what is scriptural rests upon the authority of Scripture itself and carries with it the mandate of Scripture.

    (iii) The person who adopts a creed and subscribes to it is never justified in doing so merely on the authority of the Church or simply because it is the creed of the Church to which he belongs. Creedal adoption or subscription must always proceed from the conviction that the creed is in accord with Scripture and declares its truth. The person adopting can never pass on the responsibility for such personal and individual conviction to the Church and its official action. The moment acceptance is conceded on the basis that it is the interpretation and formulation of the Church rather than on the basis of consonance with Scripture, in that moment the Church is accorded the place of God and the authority of the Church is substituted for the authority of God's Word. The gravity of such a spiritual catastrophe cannot be measured. For in principle the idolatry perpetrated by Rome has been conceded and the basis has been laid for the gross impieties and tyrannies that have followed the career of the Romish Church. We need to guard jealously the position so eloquently expressed in the Westminster Confession: 'God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in anything contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also' (Chap. XX, Sect. II); 'The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men' (Chap. I, Sect. VI).

 From The Presbyterian Guardian, 1947, May 10 and 25 and reprinted in Collected Writings of John Murray - Vol. 4 Studies in Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1982) pp. 264-273.


Born in Sutherland, Scotland in 1898, John Murray was educated at Dornoch Academy and, after service in France in World War I, at the University of Glasgow. A decision to prepare for the Christian ministry took him to Princeton Theological Seminary for three years in 1924. Thereafter, while studying in Edinburgh, he was invited by Caspar Wistar Hodge, Professor of systematic Theology at Princeton, to join him as assistant in 1929. He thus entered directly into the succession of the Hodges and Warfield. On account of the struggle then taking place between historic Christianity and Liberalism in the Presbyterian church in the USA, Princeton Seminary was passing through the greatest upheaval in its history and the outcome was that in 1930 Murray followed Gresham Machen, O.T. Allis and R.D. Wilson to the newly-formed Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. Here he was to teach systematic theology to successive generations of Students until his retirement in 1966.

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