Revelation, Fonts of

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"Fonts of revelation" is a technical term used by theologians of recent centuries to designate the authoritative sources of Christian doctrine. Although the Church Fathers and medieval theologians regularly treated Scripture and tradition as authentic sources, the problem of their respective dignity and mutual connection did not become acute until the time of the reformation. luther, followed by many other protestants, took the position that Scripture alone was the final authority, and that the tradition of the Church, as expressed in creeds, dogmas, liturgy, and the like, had to be tested against Holy Scripture. The Epitome in the Lutheran Book of Concord (1580) begins with the lapidary statement: "We believe, teach, and confess that the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged." The Anglican William Chillingworth in 1638 asserted: "The Bible, I say, and the Bible only, is the religion of protestants!" (Works [Philadelphia 1844], 48081).

Responding to Lutherans and other Protestants, the Council of trent taught in 1546 that the gospel promised of old through the prophets in the Sacred Scriptures and promulgated by Jesus Christ was "the source [fontem ] of every saving truth and rule of conduct." This truth and this rule, the council then declared, were received by the apostles either by word of mouth from Jesus Christ or by inspiration of the Holy Spirit and are contained "in the written books and in unwritten traditions" that have come down to us from the apostles. The books of Scripture and the apostolic traditions, since they alike come from Christ and the Holy Spirit, are to be received "with the same sense of loyalty and reverence" (DS 1501).

During the next several centuries, Catholic theologians, apologists, and catechetical writers commonly professed a "two-source" theory, namely, that the revelation of Christ is contained partly in Holy Scripture and partly in sacred tradition. Perhaps this was the meaning intended by the Fathers at Trent, but the council did not actually teach that any revealed truth was contained either in Scripture alone or in tradition alone. A previous draft of Trent's decree had stated that the truth of the gospel is contained "partly in written books and partly in written traditions," but the words "partly" were stricken from the final text. To satisfy the demands of Trent it would therefore be sufficient to say that the word of God is accessible in two ways. It is transmitted both through Scripture and through apostolic tradition, two channels that are to be held in the same reverence insofar as both attest with divine authority to the same gospel.

In the ecumenical climate of the 20th century the cleavage between the Catholic and Protestant positions became less sharp. Protestant Scripture scholars recognized that Holy Scripture depends heavily on a prior oral tradition, of which it is a privileged sedimentation. Protestants also recognized that they themselves read Scripture in the light of tradition, and that it is practically impossible to bypass tradition and approach Scripture, as it were, for the first time. In the words of Paul Tillich, "the radical biblicistic attitude is a self-deception. No one is able to leap over two thousand years of church history and become contemporaneous with the writers of the New Testament, except in the spiritual sense of accepting Jesus as the Christ" (Systematic Theology, 1:36).

The world council of churches, through its Faith and Order Commission, responded to this more positive attitude toward tradition on the part of Protestants. It was affected also by the traditionalism of the Orthodox, since several important Orthodox churches had been admitted to membership in 1951. Finally, it was influenced by the new climate of cooperation with Roman Catholic scholars. The Faith and Order Commission accordingly launched in 1954 an in-depth study of the problem, and as a result produced an important report on "Scripture, Tradition, and traditions," accepted at the Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order in Montreal in 1963. Acknowledging the indispensability of tradition, this report stated: "We exist as Christians by the Tradition of the gospel (the paradosis of the kerygma ) testified in scripture, transmitted in and by the church through the power of the Holy Spirit. Tradition taken in this sense is actualized in the preaching of the word, in the administration of the sacraments and worship, in Christian teaching and theology, and in mission and witness to Christ by lives of the members of the Church." By this declaration the Montreal statement distanced itself from those Protestants who thought it possible to appeal to "Scripture alone," but the statement did not provide a clear rule for distinguishing between merely human traditions and divine or apostolic Tradition (which it spelled with a capital T).

On the Catholic side the Second vatican council manifested the effects of the ecumenical movement on Catholic theology. The first draft of the Constitution on Revelation began with a chapter on "The Two Sources of Revelation" (De duplici revelationis ) that was sharply criticized at the first session in November 1962 and was withdrawn by order of Pope John XXIII. The new text, composed in 1963 and several times revised, became in November 1965 the dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum. It insisted on the inseparability of Scripture and tradition, which together "form one sacred deposit of the word of God" (DV 10). In line with previous Catholic teaching, however, the constitution affirmed: "It is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything that has been revealed" (DV 9). In other words, even if all revealed truth is in some way contained in Scripture, tradition is needed to grasp it with the required assurance.

Tradition, therefore, has an intimate relationship with sacred Scripture. Vatican II viewed both Scripture and tradition not statically, as depositories containing particular truths, but rather dynamically, as ways in which God converses with his People (DV 8 and 21). Scripture itself is actively handed down ("traditioned") in the Church. Tradition, moreover, consists not simply in oral and written statements but in the total life and practice of the praying and believing Church. Tradition in this sense is viewed as necessary, not least for the identification of the canonical Scriptures. "Through the same tradition the Church's full canon of the sacred books is known, and the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her" (DV 8).

Regarding the relative dignity of Scripture and tradition, Vatican II repeated the assertion of Trent that the two are to be received with the same sense of devotion and reverence (DV 9), inasmuch as apostolic tradition is, like Scripture, a form of the word of God. On the other hand, Scripture enjoys a certain priority, since the very text of Scripture is the word of God (DV 24), whereas tradition is a more elusive reality. Particular traditions, which may be thought to be apostolic, have to be sifted and evaluated in order to determine their authenticity. Scripture, as the divinely guided expression of God's word in human language, has a certain critical function over against all other expressions. Thus there is a sense in which Catholics, as well as Protestants, can speak of Scripture as being finally normative. But while tradition cannot contradict the true meaning of Scripture, Scripture cannot be confidently identified or authoritatively interpreted without the help of tradition.

In answer to the question raised at Montreal about how to distinguish genuine tradition from merely human and possibly distorted traditions, Catholics refer to a variety of tests, such as conformity with Scripture, coherence with Catholic tradition as a whole, harmony with the norms for worship (the lex orandi ), acceptability to the community of believers (the sensus fidelium ), agreement with the past teaching of popes and councils, and the approval of the contemporary magisterium. Exegetes and theologians by their preparatory study help the judgment of the Church to mature (DV 12). According to Vatican II, the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, as found in Scripture or tradition, is entrusted to the living magisterium, which exercises its authority in the name of Jesus Christ (DV 10).

Some theologians look upon Scripture as the true source and regard tradition as a succession of commentaries upon it. Although unexceptionable in what it affirms, this position tends to be reductive. Tradition does not first arise from the study of Scripture. Having existed even before Scripture was written, it accompanies Scripture at every stage of history as a kind of surrounding atmosphere. Tradition, therefore, gives a perspective for biblical interpretation deeper than merely philological exegesis. Some elements of Christian faith, barely hinted at in Holy Scripture, may be more vividly attested by tradition.

In the early centuries it may have been possible to identify certain particular traditions as coming from the apostles by word of mouth. Theologians speculate that doctrines such as infant baptism and the perpetual virginity of Mary may have been transmitted in this way. But at the distance of many centuries scientific history can no longer establish the apostolic origin of these doctrines. Thus the concept of tradition as a source of factual information, parallel with and alongside of Holy Scripture, has been losing favor.

In recent centuries the theology of tradition has been taking on new features. Authors such as Johann Adam mÖhler, John Henry newman, and Maurice blondel have propounded the thesis that authentic tradition is sustained and illuminated in the Church by the Holy Spirit, and gives rise to a "sense of the faith" on the part of committed members of the Church. Vatican II adopted this dynamic concept of tradition. "This tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in understanding of the realities and the words that have been handed down. As the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her" (DV 8).

In the 16th century the burning question was whether the finally decisive authority was single or double. Was it Scripture alone or Scripture together with apostolic traditions? In the 20th century theologians asked how best to use both Scripture and tradition in order to find the word of God in them. Christians of many different ecclesial affiliations involved themselves in the effort to reexamine Scripture in the light of their own traditions, and to evaluate their traditions in the light of Scripture. Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox have been engaged in similar pursuits and have come to understand each other better. As Christianity enters the third millennium, the churches may hope to be further enriched both by their own traditions and those of other ecclesial bodies as they listen to one another and prayerfully read the Scriptures they hold in common.

Bibliography: j. p. mackey, The Modern Theology of Tradition (New York 1963). k. rahner, ed., "Scripture and Tradition," Encyclopedia of Theology: The Concise Sacramentum Mundi (New York 1975), 6:5457, with bibliog. y. m.-j. congar, Tradition and Traditions (New York 1967). a. dulles, The Craft of Theology, 2d ed. (New York 1995). h. c. skillrud and others, eds., Scripture and Tradition: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue IX (Minneapolis 1995).

[a. dulles]