Tradition (in Theology)

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Tradition is the communication by the living Church of the Christian reality and the expression, either oral or written, of that reality. The Christian community in the post-Apostolic era, because it is the continuation of Israel and of the risen Christ through space and time, presents the reality of the Biblical message and of the institutions of Christ, which that message fixed once and for all.

In the name of tradition and in a spirit of fidelity to their heritage, some Christians have been inclined toward conservatism, and by the same token others have made attempts at innovation and leaned toward novelty. This dual spirit raises several questions. (1) What is the meaning of tradition? Whatever it is, it requires, if it is to transmit the Christian message and reality faithfully, an authentic organ or agent. (2) Single or multiple, what is the organ of tradition? Tradition that is living and dynamic must, by the law of life itself, undergo change. The danger arises, however, that the Christian tradition of today may no longer be that of yesterday, that it has meanwhile lost its homogeneity. (3) If living tradition must maintain its continuity and identity with the past, does it still allow for some sort of progress? Not all Christians have attached the same value and authority to it. Some have claimed that its very fluidity, the handing down of the Christian message by word of mouth, endangers its truth and subordinates it to Scripture. (4) How, then, do tradition and Scripture compare? The comparison of the two leads ultimately to the question of the interrelation of Scripture, tradition, and the Church. Here lies the crux of the Protestant-Catholic debate over tradition.

Meaning of Tradition. Tradition begins with the gift of God the Father at that moment of salvation history when He intervenes and reveals Himself by event and word to His people, and it is accomplished by the incarnate and personal intervention of Jesus Christ, Son of God. The Apostles first experience revelation in the Person and work of Jesus, and then under the guidance of the Holy Spirit they bear witness to their experience. "The Apostles," wrote St. Clement of Rome, "preached to us the gospel received from Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ was God's ambassador. Christ, in other words, comes with a message from God, and the Apostles with a message from Christ. Both these orderly arrangements, therefore, originate from the will of God" (1 Cor 42.12). Both the realities and the testimonies of faith compose the deposit of revelation.

Real and Verbal. There is a real and a verbal tradition. The deposit of Christian revelation is more than a message; it is the total Christian reality. Verbal tradition as a mode of transmission other than Scripture expresses the Christian revelation but does not contain the totality of it. Real tradition is that life and activity of the Church by which she presents the whole redemptive mystery. The Church, for example, accepts the gospel message of the Eucharist and celebrates it unceasingly upon her altars. She teaches the sign of the cross and imparts it. Verbal and real tradition are so complementary in her that the real is declared verbally and the verbal is clarified by the real.

Oral and Written. Just as in Israel the great Exodus and other saving events were told in memory of Yahweh's gracious intervention for His people, then later committed to writing, so in the early Church an oral tradition preceded the written tradition collected together into Sacred Scripture. The Bible is a document of tradition, the NT an embodiment of the kerygma, or preaching, of Jesus and His followers, of His life, and that of the early Christian community. Oscar Cullmann, a Protestant scholar, agrees that the oral tradition prior to the first writings was certainly quantitatively richer than the written tradition. Whether the written tradition had for its purpose the delimiting of the oral tradition, so as to establish the written Apostolic witness as a definitive norm for the Church, as he maintains, is a moot question. His opinion is that the oral tradition had normative value till only about the year 150, because it was confined to the period of the Apostles, who were eyewitnesses to the Christevent. Beyond that period Scripture was supposedly the only rule of faith (see rule of faith).

Yet St. irenaeus, writing about the year 180, taught that the law of tradition was most essential to the Church and would suffice for her if it alone existed. "And what if not even the Apostles themselves had left us any Scriptures? Ought we not to follow the course of that tradition which they delivered to those whom they entrusted with the Churches?" (Adversus haereses 3.4.1.) "And to this rule consent many nations of the gentiles, those I mean who believe in Christ, having salvation written by the Spirit in their hearts, without paper and ink, and diligently keeping the old tradition" (ibid. 3.4.2). In a sense, a gospel was prior to the Gospels. "For by no others have we known the method of our salvation than those by whom the gospel came to us: which was both in the first place preached by them, and afterwards by the will of God handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith"(ibid. 3.1.1).

Three Types. Theology has recognized three types of tradition according to varying origins, namely, divine, Apostolic, and ecclesiastical. The moments of origin undoubtedly differed: God or Christ initiated divine tradition, the Apostles who were enlightened by the Holy Spirit began Apostolic tradition, and the post-Apostolic Church originated the ecclesiastical. The period of the origin of the deposit was different from the communication of the deposit in a spatio-temporal continuity. This fact causes difficulty in clearly distinguishing specific traditions from the unwritten Apostolic traditions.

The Council of trent (154563) affirmed the existence of unwritten Apostolic traditions but refrained from drawing up a list of them (Enchiridion symbolorum 1501). Historically speaking, such traditions represent the sacramental rites, the liturgy, ecclesiastical discipline, and practical conduct of Christians through the centuries. The historic form of one or another may have been of Apostolic or even divine origin. For example, the Sunday obligation to worship and the annual Easter Communion are ecclesiastical precisions of a divine or Apostolic law.

Organ of Tradition. Tradition demands a living bearer of the Christian message and reality, one who assumes the responsibility for its authenticity. This, in the first place, is the transcendent and invisible role of the Holy Spirit. The promise of Christ was to send the Holy Spirit to guarantee infallibly the retention of the deposit and its development.

Holy Spirit and Church. The Holy Spirit is, for the Church and her preaching and evangelical witness, a principle of identity, being one and the same and always active in the Church so that she can be the means of realizing the history of salvation. St. Irenaeus had this insight when he wrote: "The preaching of the Church is on all sides consistent and continues like itself, and has its testimony from the Prophets and Apostles and from all Disciples: as we have traced out our proof through the whole economy of God and His ordinary way or working for the salvation of man, which is by faith. Which faith, received in the Church, we guard, and which, coming of the Spirit of God, is like some noble treasure in a precious vessel, continually reviving its youth and causing the very vessel which holds it to revive in like manner for where the Church is, there also is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace: but the Spirit is truth" (Adversus haereses 3.24.1).

In the visible and historical order, then, the Church is the beneficiary of the revelatory and redemptive work of Christ, the inheritor of the total Christian reality. Apart from this deposit she has no autonomy; she exists only in virtue of it. Her deposit includes the realities that are present to her historic life: the Apostolic ministry, the sacramental liturgy, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the fellowship of the saints, etc. The Church, then, is the instrument or means by which Christianity is mediated to the world.

Fathers of the Church. Among the early members of the Church who contributed much to her life and consciousness, who helped her to convey the Christian message and reality, were the Greek and Latin fathers of the church. The faith of the early Church came down to us elaborated and enriched by their writings. They were the men of tradition who kept the pulse-beat of the Church's life in their day. First and essentially commentators on Sacred Scripture, they wrote, especially in the 4th and 5th centuries, the history of salvation as it took place. Then it was that the Church defined her faith in the face of Trinitarian and Christological controversies, when she established her great liturgies, drew up the first religious rules and conciliar canons. Through the Fathers' articulation of the faith, the Church reflected upon and witnessed to the Bible. As the eyes and ears and voice of the Church, they were privileged witnesses to tradition, though they were not tradition itself (see christology; controversies on; trinity, holy, controversies on).

Faithful. The faithful, too, express the mind of the Church, perhaps more today that ever before in her history. By their understanding of the faith, their response to the preaching and teaching of the clergy, under the Holy Spirit's enlightenment, they give living witness to tradition (see witness, christian). Theirs is a tradition of fidelity to the faith of previous Christian generations, for they conserve tradition in Christian practice. They transmit the faith from baptized to baptized, from parent to child, building up a consensus of the faith. The Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, in particular, enable them to share in Christ's priesthood, to participate in the Eucharistic liturgy, and so to enjoy the Christian reality.

The fidelity of the faithful is dependent upon and interacts with the tradition of the official teaching authority of the church (magisterium). Christ appointed the Apostles to shepherd His flock, and they were succeeded in their task by the local bishops. Between the two, shepherd and flock, there is a communal activity, the one member influencing the other.

For example, the better understanding of the Marian mysteries is due in large part to the growth in Marian piety among the faithful. As their consciousness of a Christian truth and reality develops, they accompany it with a living practice. In this way they contribute something original to tradition.

Liturgy. Nowhere is tradition more vital among the clergy and laity alike than in the liturgy. Christ speaks and acts in the liturgy, for it embodies the Scriptures and reenacts the saving events of His life and death, His Resurrection and Ascension. Because He is personally the new covenant between God and man, combining as He does in Himself the divine and the human, He is now able, through the extension of Himself in His mystical body, to re-present and reactualize that covenant. The liturgy mirrors the whole Christ especially in that it interprets the Scriptures in their original setting, the liturgical assembly, and brings to life the doctrine therein expressed. That is why it has been called "the principal instrument of the Church's tradition."

Magisterium. The Church, the Fathers, the faithful, the liturgyall are the media of communication by which Christianity is delivered to the present generation. But what assurance do the people of god have that their Christianity is authentic? Christ endowed His Church with an official teaching body, the magisterium composed of the episcopal college united with the pope, who is the head of this college as Peter was of the Apostolic college. The magisterium's duty, as enunciated by vatican council i (186970), is to guard faithfully, judge authentically, and declare infallibly the content of the revealed deposit (Enchiridion symbolorum 3020, 3069). The hierarchy and faithful form, corporatively and organically, the one as the voice and the other as the echo, the authentic organ of tradition. Their first duty is to guard faithfully, that is, witness to the revealed deposit.

The Spirit-assisted magisterium does not set itself up against the Apostolic rule of faith as an independent rule; its service is only secondary and subordinateto provide believers with a security against error in the transmission of the deposit. Far from claiming to be an indispensable screen between God and His faithful, or between the Bible and the believer, the magisterium assumes a real value for the sure and uniform understanding of divine revelation.

If, in the past, mainly after the religious cataclysm in the 16th century, some theologians tended to identify tradition with the magisterium, there are reasons to explain their narrow outlook. For one thing, they reacted to the Reformers who attempted to overthrow the hierarchical priesthood. Their reactions led them to conceive the Church too much in terms of the hierarchy, and that is the reason for their overemphasizing the hierarchical structure in their ecclesiologies. On the other hand, writing in favor of an oral tradition, they involved themselves in a polemic against the Protestant teaching of the sole-sufficiency of Scripture. History has proved how reactions often end in extreme positions.

Continuity and Progress. The Christian message and reality, once lying remotely and somewhat blurredly in the deposit of revelation, can, if it is kept alive, continue to emerge homogeneously from the past, grow, and mature. Tradition is verified in the progress from the embryonic to the finally mature; across space and time it forms a continuum with the kerygma of the early Church.

The principle of continuity and progress was observable to the first Christians, though they did not have the historical perspective of a later Church and hence could not gauge the rate or amount of progress. The principle was laid down in unmistakable terms by the early 5th-century writer St. vincent of lerins in his Commonitorium (23.1). Vatican Council I quoted him to affirm the principle in its constitution on the Catholic faith: "Let there be growth and all possible progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom whether in single individuals or in the whole body, in each man as well as in the entire Church, according to the stage of their development; but only within proper limits, that is, in the same doctrine, in the same meaning, and in the same purport" (Denz 3020).

The three great dogmatic definitions of 1854, 1870, and 1950 (the Immaculate Conception in Ineffabilis Deus, papal infallibility at Vatican Council I, and Mary's Assumption in munificentissimus deus) were prime instances of dogmatic development and its justifiability by the Church's appeal to a sense of faith or a consciousness steeped in tradition and Scripture. So far, however, theology has only started to theorize about doctrinal development; the constitution Munificentissimus Deus, in particular, pointed up the need of theory for a better understanding of the developmental process.

Contemporaneously with the development of the Marian dogmas and the crisis of modernism, Catholic theology investigated the nature of doctrinal development. J. A. mÖhler and his disciples at the University of Tübingen made the most significant breakthrough by their studies of tradition in terms of the Church's consciousness. Möhler compared it to the genius of a people or national spirit, a "Volksgeist " (see his Die Einheit in der Kirche, 1832). It is the living bond between the past and present, is incarnated in the ecclesial community, and is expressed in its monuments of faith. While J. H. newman viewed doctrinal development historically and psychologically (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 1845), J. B. franzelin, SJ, took a positive theological approach to the problem (Tractatus de divina traditione et Scriptura, 1870). The former saw doctrine developing by stages and staying clear of corruptions; the latter felt that the only touchstone for homogeneous growth is the magisterium. L. billot, SJ, faced the Modernist crisis with De immutabilitate traditionis contra modernam haeresim evolutionismi (1907), in which he opposed an extreme theory of doctrinal evolutionism and held that the Apostolic deposit must be kept essentially immutable.

Tradition and Scripture. The relationship between tradition and Scripture has been a chronic problem in the history of the Church. The problem originated with the value assigned to the Scriptural canon. If Christ intended His teaching to be consigned only to writing, then, without question, oral tradition cannot be normative in the life of His Church. But if tradition was meant to coexist with Scripture in the Church, then one is forced to ask what its authority is.

To assert that Sacred Scripture always has sovereign rule and is not subject to any other is not to claim that it is the only rule of faith. Tradition and Scripture are both wholly divine and wholly human. With the aid of the Holy Spirit, tradition remains a rule of belief as it was in the time of the early Church. The Church controls, verifies, proves, and even criticizes her tradition by Scripture. She holds no truth on the basis of Scripture alone, independently of tradition, nor on the basis of tradition alone, independently of Scripture.

The Council of Trent was the historical occasion when the problem of correlating tradition and Scripture came to a head. The original draft of the Tridentine decree (April 8, 1546) stated that revelation is contained "partly in written books, partly in unwritten traditions" (partim partim ). To appease a theological minority who objected to the phrasing, the decree was changed to read: "The council is aware that this truth and teaching are contained in written books and in the unwritten traditions" (Enchiridion symbolorum 1501, italics added). The final decree had what seemed to be an inoffensive "and" replacing the "partly partly."

Meaning of Prior Draft. The first formulation affirmed the view that the saving gospel is contained partly in the Scriptures and partly in oral Apostolic traditions two quasi-independent sources of revelation. A generation after the council some of the leading theologians who retained this teaching were Melchior cano, OP (De locis theologicis, 1563), St. Peter canisius, SJ (Catechism, 1555), and St. Robert bellarmine, SJ (De controversiis, 1586). In a series of articles (Greg, 195961) H. Lennerz, SJ, vigorously defended the partim partim theory and opposed it to the Protestant "scripturistic principle." Neither tradition nor Scripture contains the whole Apostolic tradition. Scripture is materially (i.e., in content) insufficient, requiring oral tradition as a complement to be true to the whole divine revelation.

Second View. Theologians equally numerous and erudite have proposed, both before and after the Council of Trent, that divine revelation is contained entirely in tradition and entirely in the Scriptures. Their position was given historical support in the study of Prof. J. R. Geiselmann of Tübingen, Die Heilige Schrift und die Tradition (Freiburg-Basel-Wien, 1962). He and a host of German theologians contended that the whole revealed deposit is found in Sacred Scripture. Their argument for the material sufficiency of Scripture is unlike that of the Protestant Reformersthat all revealed truths are only Biblically demonstrable. They simply mean that such truths are at least implicit in or based upon Scripture. Many disciplinary matters and customs in vogue in the Church cannot be traced to Scripture.

Intermediate Theory. A third theological theory, intermediate between the above two, has developed that regards it essential that Scripture and tradition be harmonized and unified without mutual detriment. J. Beumer, SJ (see his articles in Scholastik, 194161), drew upon the works of Möhler and M. J. scheeben to evolve the theory that Scripture is relatively sufficient as a mode of transmission other than tradition. It transmits in a written form not a part but the substance of revealed truth, so that all revealed truths are somehow traceable to its content. According to this theory, Scripture and tradition link, as it were, into concentric circles, tradition encompassing all that Scripture holds substantially. Tradition interprets Scripture and is likewise a more complete expression of the life and teaching of the Church.

The reason for their correlation is that whenever the Church confronts the Biblical text, she finds true and unequivocal understanding of it only in the light of her tradition and the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. Without a living tradition, the Bible lends itself to a variety of interpretations, not a few of which appear contradictory. Tradition is a helpmate to Scripture; in its interpretive role it helps to determine the contents of the Apostolic deposit. Irenaeus, cyprian, origen, tertullian, and other ecclesiastical writers are emphatic in their teaching that the Scriptures should be read in the Church and that ecclesial tradition is "the exposition of the Scriptures."

Protestant-Catholic Convergence. Protestant scholars are increasingly more willing to admit that the slogan "Scripture alone" (sola Scriptura ) couches only a half-truthScripture has only the primacy of truth. Protestants and Catholics are growing in the agreement that the early Church got along without Scripture alone. Granted that tradition anteceded Scripture, the scriptural documents are invaluable historical records through which the Holy Spirit introduces the believing reader and the whole Christian community to Christ. Aside from these areas of agreement, Protestants remain hesitant to accept the ecclesiastical traditions that arose before and after the Biblical period.

The problematic relationship of tradition and Scripture, complex as it is, narrows down to a question of ecclesiology: do the two belong to the Church that Christ founded or do they not? The Catholic response is that the ecclesial community is in possession and command of both. God in Christ has chosen a people and given it oral and written guidance under the Holy Spirit. Each of the two represents a value and is normative. As rules of faith they are mutually inclusive and coinhere in the Church. Rather than oppose the one to the other or isolate them, the Church, by means of the two, transmits in a living authentic way, till the end-time, the Christian message and reality.

Although to some extent the Scripture-tradition problem still divides Catholicism and Protestantism, the mutual concerns over their correlation are beginning to converge. Scripture is read and interpreted within the tradition of the Church. It is highly significant that vatican council ii, by a two-thirds majority vote on Nov. 20, 1962, refused to adopt the expression "two sources of revelation." The revised schema spoke of the one source, divine revelation itself, which is presented orally and in written form by the Church.

See Also: deposit of faith; doctrine, development of; prescription, theological use of; revelation, fonts of.

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[j. a. fichtner]