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Tradition means information handed down from previous generations - often by word of mouth, but also in writing.

Bill Bennett wrote:

  • "We are heirs of legacies that ... embody important human realites and hard-won lessons about life and civilization."[1]

In Christianity

A major difference between branches of Christianity concerns the role of Tradition. Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy see the Tradition of the Church and Scripture as equally important. By contrast, for Protestants, Scripture is of primary importance, and Tradition takes a secondary place.

The major Protestant view is that of sola scriptura (Scripture alone) which believes that all that is necessary for salvation is contained in Scripture. The Christian tradition may contain some things useful to know, but none of it is essential; Tradition is to be filtered in light of Scripture, retaining those elements which agree with Scripture and are useful to keep, rejecting those elements which are contrary to Scripture or not useful. Another view is prima scriptura (Scripture first), which is more willing than sola scriptura to rely upon tradition as a source of doctrine or morals, while still insisting that Scripture must have primacy.

From a Catholic perspective, Scripture is Scripture because the Church, through its Tradition infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit, has defined the canon of Scripture, i.e. discerned and declared which texts constitute inspired Scripture, and which texts, however esteemed, are not inspired and hence not Scripture. So, from a Catholic viewpoint, to reject Tradition is to reject the means by which we can assuredly know what is Scripture and what is its authentically normative interpretation handed down by the apostles according to the mind of Christ in the Holy Spirit, who has been promised to lead into all truth. This guards against the deviations of heretical doctrines based on private interpretations of the Bible (1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Timothy 2:15; Hebrews 13:17; 2 Peter 1:20 and 3:15-17; Proverbs 18:2; Sirach 3:24 "Their own opinion has misled many, and wrong judgment has led them astray"). See Magisterium.

But from a Protestant perspective, Scripture is not dependent upon tradition for its canonicity; Scriptural texts are Scriptural because the Holy Spirit inspires them, which according to Protestant doctrine can be directly perceived by those readers of the text in whom the Holy Spirit is working; tradition may serve to communicate evidence of this inspiration to the present, but our knowledge of inspiration is not dependent upon tradition, but can be attained independently of it. See Apocrypha and Biblical Canon. Compare Sola spiritu.


  1. The Broken Hearth, Page 195