Our reading from Genesis at today’s Holy Mass bears witness to the living sacred Tradition of the chosen People of God. Jacob sacrificed to the God of his father and grandfather, at the southern border of the Holy Land. Jacob would not leave the land promised to Abraham without an assurance that, somehow, he would return.
We stand in unbroken continuity with that decisive moment of ancient history. Israel went down to Egypt and became a nation of slaves. Then God liberated them, by giving them Moses, prefiguring what He would do in the fullness of time: send His own Son to liberate all mankind from sin and death. Christ appointed St. Peter as chief shepherd of all the missionaries sent into the world. Our communion with St. Peter’s successor makes us members of the family of Abraham, the People of God.
The idea of “tradition” can, of course, serve as a refuge for scoundrels and tyrants. Nothing accommodates itself to my own personal whims so well as un-written authority. But: That doesn’t mean that we can live without the idea of Tradition, with a capital T.
Yesterday, a couple of us had a chance to “dialogue” with some young local Bible experts.* An enormous irony emerged in our conversation. One thing almost any humble Christian would acknowledge would be: the Church has a hierarchical structure, established by God. The Church has leaders who possess authority by virtue of office. The New Testament bears witness to this fact. The laws of human society do, too. Groups exist as groups because they have leaders with authority.
A problem for a “Bible expert” without Sacred Tradition: how to identify the fundamental hierarchical structure of the Church, solely based on the indications of the New Testament.
The New Testament contains documents written by the Apostles in the course of their ministry as Church leaders. None of these documents proposes itself to be a written constitution for the Church.
Trying to find something in the New Testament that simply isn’t there, our Bible-expert friends found themselves in the odd position of arguing that…
1) St. Paul himself, the human author of most of the New Testament, was not an “elder” of the Church, because he was not married.
Also, 2) they argued that the Eucharist was celebrated in the ancient church in Corinth without one particular person saying, “Take and eat,” and, “Take and drink,” in the person Christ, while the rest of the people received the sacrament from that person. An unfortunate, absurd position to find oneself in.
Goes to show that nothing could be more ironic than arguing from isolated New-Testament texts that the Church possesses a hierarchical structure other than the hierarchical structure that Sacred Tradition has given us.
Doing that is like telling Julia Child that she doesn’t know how to read her own recipes, at the precise moment when she is handing you a plate of her Boeuf Bourguignon. To our dear Protestant friends, we say, Why not just eat the Boeuf Bourguinon?
* I think I can say that we were pretty courteous to Mr. Robertson. We spent an hour talking with him and his brother. I congratulated him on many insights that he has, and I tried as best I could to explain to him why it was not his personal business whether or not I was aware of any baptized Christians who had committed adultery. None of this managed to make it onto his tv show. Instead he insists that I “teach error,” based on his pure conjectures. He also taped us without telling us, which is certainly quite rude.