Inspiration, Tradition, and Scripture

Author: James Akin


James Akin

Technically, the word "inspiration" does not appear in Scripture. The term that is translated "inspiration" is theopneustos, but "inspiration" is not best translation of this term. "God-breathed" is, and even that term only appears in 2 Tim. 3:16.

In Catholic theology "inspiration" is a technical term. An inspired book is one which has God as its primary author. Apostolic Scripture falls into this category because even though God wrote it through human agency, he chose the actual words of Apostolic Scripture.

Is Apostolic Tradition inspired? In one sense it is, but in another it isn't. When God initially revealed doctrines to the apostles he determined the form in which these teachings came to them, so the original giving was inspired. But God did not directly fix the way the apostles expressed these teachings to others. The apostles might express a single doctrine from God in a variety of ways. So while the original giving of Apostolic Tradition was inspired, the words in which it has been passed down to us are not inspired.

God's "Words Themselves" And God's "Voice Itself"

A helpful distinction is one Bible scholars make between the ipsisima verba and the ipsisima vox of a person. The ipsisima verba of someone are the very words he uses. The ipsisima vox of a person is the true voice of a person—what he said, even if it is expressed in different words. For example, if Father O'Reilly came to me and said, "Please tell the audience the talk will be over at 9:30," then I would be giving you his ipsisima verba if I said, "Father O'Reilly says ‘The talk will be over at 9:30’."

But I would be speaking with his ipsisima vox if I said, "Father O'Reilly said we'll wrap up around half past nine." I would not be speaking his ipsisima verba because I did not use his exact words, but I would be speaking with his ipsisima vox because I accurately told you what he said, though I told it in a different way.

To apply this Apostolic Scripture and Tradition, we might say Apostolic Scripture gives us the ipsisima verba of God, while Apostolic Tradition gives us the ipsisima vox of God. Both reveal the word of God: one reveals it by using the exact words God determined; the other reveals it by expressing the same thing in other words.

Why Needed If Not Inspired?

This is important because we often can't catch a person's meaning until hear the idea stated differently. This is the answer to the question of a person who might want to ask, "Why use Apostolic Tradition if Apostolic Scripture is inspired?" Because it gives us a second way in which God's thoughts are expressed, making them more comprehensible to us—something we desperately need since Apostolic Scripture says God's thoughts are higher than our thoughts.

We also need it because the way in which God's very words themselves are expressed in Scripture is adapted to the situation of ancient cultures—that of the ancient Hebrews and Greeks—and as a result we need to have the thoughts of Scripture rephrased in a more contemporary manner. This is, for example, the basic purpose of a Bible commentary—a rephrasing of the thoughts of Scripture in a way more understandable to people in our culture.

Why Trust If Not Inspired?

The fact that Apostolic Tradition is a second way in which God's teachings are expressed is also the answer to the question, "Why trust Apostolic Tradition if it isn't inspired?" Because things don't need to be inspired to be trustworthy, they just need to be true. Truth is necessary for trust, not inspiration.

When I get dressed in the morning I don't need a divinely inspired revelation telling me where my shoes are. I simply need to know the truth about where they are. So long as I know that, I can go ahead and get dressed. How much more then should I trust the authoritative Traditions of the apostles, since they express the teachings of God, though in different words.

In theology I don't have to have a truth stated in the very words of God before I believe it. I simply need to know God teaches it, regardless of how it is expressed. For example, on the doctrine of the Trinity I don't need the Bible to say, "God is a Trinity, that is, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three Persons who are one God." If I did, I'd be in trouble because there is no direct statement of the Trinity in Apostolic Scripture.

All I need to know is that the doctrine is implied in Apostolic Scripture, even if the words themselves are not used. On Apostolic Tradition, all I need to know is that something is an Apostolic Tradition, instead of a tradition of men. Once I know this, I can trust it.

Unequally Yoking

A critic might say, "Aren't you unequally yoking Apostolic Scripture with Apostolic Tradition if one is inspired and the other isn't?" Not at all. Even though Apostolic Tradition is not inspired, it "is" infallible. God cannot teach error, so anything he taught the apostles is automatically infallible. Apostolic Tradition is therefore infallible. I just have to be able to isolate it.

Furthermore, 2 Cor. 6:14, the verse that talks about being unequally yoked, is talking about marriage. A critic can set up a parallel with this passage, but let's see if the marriage analogy really works. True, Apostolic Tradition is lower than Apostolic Scripture on one level. But this does not unequally yokes them. After all, a man and a woman are not unequally yoked just because the wife is lower than her husband on one level. If we are going to use this marriage analogy, let's use it all the way: Apostolic Scripture and Apostolic Tradition are married together, with Apostolic Scripture taking the lead and Apostolic Tradition filling a supportive, interpretive role, just as a man and a woman are married together, the man taking the lead and the woman filling a helpful, supportive role, explaining and interpreting the husband's will to the children when his own explanations have not made it thoroughly clear to them.

This is a doctrine Catholics call "prima Scriptura." Apostolic Scripture does have primacy over Apostolic Tradition (and the Church as well; see Vatican II, Dei Verbum 11). We look to it first and foremost because it is inspired, giving us God's ipsisima verba. But we also look to Apostolic Tradition to help us understand Apostolic Scripture, since it conveys God's ipsisima vox. As a Catholic I don't believe in sola scriptura, but I firmly believe in prima scriptura.

A Standing Command

2 Thessalonians 2:15 commands its readers to hold fast to all the Apostolic Traditions, whether written or oral. This is a standing command of the New Testament. As many in Reformed circles have noted, once God gives a command it is binding until he specifically revokes it. If God had not revoked the Mosaic ceremonies, such as the circumcision, food, and separation laws, they would still be binding on us.

2 Thessalonians 2:15 is a standing command of the Word of God and must be obeyed unless specific instructions to disregard it are given elsewhere. So if a critic wants to say 2 Thessalonians 2:15 is no longer binding on us, he has to come up with verses that say these Apostolic Traditions will cease to be binding at some point. But he can't do this. If an Apostolic Tradition was binding then, it would be binding now. The only question is how we can identify Apostolic Traditions, and that role is fulfilled by the Church, who as the living Bride of Christ continues to recognize and identify to her children the authentic voice of her husband.

The Paradigm Shift Argument

One last point: Everyone should admit that sola scriptura was not being used while the Bible was still being written. In the Old Testament there were prophets giving God's word, and if you asked a person, "Do you have to get all your knowledge of God from Scripture alone?" He would say, "Of course not. If God says anything, whether it is through Scripture or through a prophet, I have to listen to it. I am bound by the Word of God regardless of the channel through which it comes." The position of a person in Bible times would thus be sola verba, not sola scriptura.

In the New Testament period there were the Old Testament Scriptures, a few New Testament prophets, and the Traditions of the apostles, all of which were binding. If you asked a New Testament believer, "Do you have to get all of your knowledge of God from Scripture alone?" He would say, "Of course not! I have to heed the word of God regardless of how it comes to me, whether in Scripture or in the Traditions of the apostles!" His position, like the Catholic's, would also be sola verba, not sola scriptura.

Thus someone who denies the Catholic position is going to have to admit that the principle used in Bible times was not sola scriptura. To show sola scriptura is binding now, even though it was not binding then, the critic will have to show the New Testament teaches there will be a massive paradigm shift at the end of the apostolic age. He must produce verses that state the Apostolic Traditions will all be written down so that there is now only one source of Apostolic Tradition.

But he can't do this. There are no such verses. Furthermore, since the Apostolic Traditions passed down outside of Apostolic Scripture do not have to be materially different from those in Apostolic Scripture, but simply restatements or authentic interpretations of Apostolic Scripture, a critic would have to prove the impossible proposition that no authentic interpretations of Apostolic Scripture have been passed down from the apostolic age. And he simply can't do this.

Copyright (c) 1996 by James Akin. All Rights Reserved.