How do Catholics assert certain traditions being equal with Scripture when Scripture never says tradition can be of equal authority?
Apostolic Tradition aided the Church before the Biblical Canon was established.
First of all, let us clarify a few terms.
What is Sacred Tradition and how does this differ from other Church traditions?
Catholic maintain that 2 Thessalonians 2:15, upholds this stance or appeal to Sacred Tradition: "Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle."
The word tradition is taken from the Latin trado, tradere, meaning "to hand over, to deliver, to bequeath". According to Catholic theology, the Apostle St. Paul exhorted the faithful to "stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter." The Pauline Epistles form part of Sacred Scripture; what he passed on by "word of mouth" is part of sacred tradition, handed down from the apostles. Both are the inspired word of God; the latter helps to inform understanding of the former. Sacred tradition can never be in conflict with sacred scripture.
There are differences between Sacred Tradition and other Catholic traditions. At times, the early Tradition before the written New Testament is called “Apostolic Tradition”.
To begin, it is important to note that Sacred Tradition is not the same as what we commonly understand by the word "tradition." We need to distinguish between the terms "tradition" spelled with a lower case "t" and Tradition" spelled with a capital "T." When we spell the word tradition with a lower case letter, we are referring to those things that are more often referred to as "traditions" and have a meaning closer to the word "practices” which are not part of Divine Revelation itself, but are pious customs that have arisen later in the history of the Church (CCC 2651). Examples of traditions include praying the Rosary or the Divine Mercy Chaplet, devotions to favorite saints, making the sign of the cross and the like.
When Tradition is capitalized in this context, it refers to Sacred Tradition. The word tradition comes from the Latin word tradere which means "to hand on." Sacred Tradition is the Scripture as it is lived out in the Church. It is nevertheless the Word of God. Specifically, it is the Word of God that the prophets and the Apostles received through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This message which they received was "handed on" to the Christian world by the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The concept of Tradition has been a difficult, confusing and divisive one ever since the Protestant Reformation. For this reason, it is helpful to break down the concept piecemeal. First, tradition is a “what”—the content of the gospel proclamation given first by Jesus Christ and subsequently by the apostles, in terms of their oral preaching and teaching (2 Thess 2:15; Matt 28:19-20) and in terms of their writing (CCC 75-76). Sometimes the early Tradition before the written New Testament is called “Apostolic Tradition” (CCC 83). Those who wrote about the Christ event in the New Testament did so under the special inspiration of the Holy Spirit, "the Spirit of Truth," who is the sacred Author of the Scripture. These inspired writings came into existence within a definite Tradition, a living context of faith. Some elements of Tradition were based in the sayings and deeds of Jesus Christ, especially his death and resurrection. Other elements were not revealed directly by Jesus, but rather at the prompting of the Holy Spirit which he sent:
"I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:12-15)
What is Sacred Tradition
The Bible as we have it now, does not tell us which books are inspired. For the Church, this required spiritual discernment. The assembling of all the canonical books of the New Testament was a lengthy process, not completed until the end of the fourth century, with the Council of Rome under Pope Damasus I in 382 A.D.
Among the earliest examples of the theological appeal to tradition is the response of early orthodox Christianity to Gnosticism, a movement that used some Christian scripture as the basis for its teachings. Irenaeus of Lyons held that “rule of faith” is preserved by the Church through its historical continuity (of interpretation and teaching) with the Apostles. Tertullian argued that although interpretations founded on a reading of all Holy Scripture are not prone to error, Tradition is the proper guide. Athanasius held that Arianism fell into error primarily by not adhering to to this Tradition.
In a Catholic perspective, not everything is written in the Sacred Scriptures. This is evident by the writings of both St. Paul and St. John:
15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.
16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word. - 2 Thessalonians 2:15-17
29 Jesus saith to him: Because thou hast seen me, Thomas, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed. 30 Many other signs also did Jesus in the sight of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God: and that believing, you may have life in his name. - [John 20: 29-31
23 This saying therefore went abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die. And Jesus did not say to him: He should not die; but, So I will have him to remain till I come, what is it to thee? 24 This is that disciple who giveth testimony of these things, and hath written these things; and we know that his testimony is true. 25 But there are also many other things which Jesus did; which, if they were written every one, the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written. - John 21: 23-25
The New Testament, while being the primary source for all that God revealed in Christ, is itself a product of Tradition. Tradition is a living and active process which the Church experiences from one age to the next while meditating on the Word of God and the events of salvation history. The Holy Spirit guides the Church in this process and guarantees that Tradition will be an authentic expression of God’s Word for each generation. After the writing of the New Testament, subsequent generations could reflect not only on Jesus’ teaching but also on that privileged experience of first generation Christians who knew Jesus when he walked the earth.
The Church in each generation, through prayer, study, and contemplation, reflects on God’s Word in Scripture and gives new interpretation to it while never altering the Revelation it contains. In every generation, she expresses anew the Word of God against an ever changing landscape of human society and culture. The diversity of devotions and styles of worship is beautiful and expresses the Church’s catholicity or universality. But these various local traditions are not what we mean when we speak of Tradition. As times change and in light of Tradition, these religious customs and practices may be changed or discarded. Sacred Tradition does not change. It is expressed differently from one age to the next but is always consistent with the truth of God’s Revelation.
The following articles may be of interest to some.