Friday, October 31, 2014

Church as Tradtion

While a presumed and essential part of God’s revelation to man, pinning down a clear and succinct definition of the nature of Tradition has been a centuries long process. By looking at the character, modality, content, effects, and most importantly the subject of Tradition, the beginnings of a definition will arise following the promptings of the Second Vatican Council when it says that what the Church hands down (its Tradition) is omne quod ipsa est, omne quod credit.[1]

Looking first as the character of Tradition, its distinguishing mark, Tradition is, particularly when compared with Scripture, unwritten. This mark of Tradition has been of great importance even from the beginning. Finding this unwritten Tradition primarily in the oral traditions of the Apostles and their successors, Irenaeus makes it very clear against the Gnostics that if there were some other set of secret truths that the Apostles only taught to a few, “they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves,”[2] that is, to their successors. In order to demonstrate this, Irenaeus outlines the succession of Apostles for one of those Churches, the most prominent one, that of Rome, at which point he says of one of the successors that he had “the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes.”[3] Irenaeus even gives a sort of personal testimony to his own inheritance of this primarily unwritten traditio when he recounts his own apostolic heritage leading back to St. John via Polycarp.[4] Yet, he highlights this characteristic mark of Tradition as unwritten in a most compelling manner when he speaks of the barbarians “who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith.”[5] Indeed, he lauds the faith of the barbarians in the face of the Gnostics saying that were they to listen to the preaching of such heresies, they would “at once stop their ears, and flee as far as possible.”[6]

This understanding of Tradition as primarily unwritten stood as the defining mark of its character even up through Trent: “this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand.”[7]

This notion of Tradition as unwritten was particularly characteristic of how the Protestants understood the Roman Catholic Tradition. John Henry Cardinal Newman in one of his works prior to his conversion made it clear that the distinguishing mark of Roman Tradition is that it was not in scripture, i.e. not written. Giving the various options for the origins of religious truth, he says, “Either there is no definite religious information given us by Christianity at all, or it is given in Scripture, in a direct and covert way, or it is indeed given, but not in Scripture…the third is the ground of the Roman Church.”[8] And while this is certainly not unhelpful particularly in delineating Tradition from Scripture,[9] it certainly does not do tell us what Tradition is. Indeed, it indicates what it is not and suggests what it may be or at least its mode of being, but being unwritten does not clearly define its nature.

As an unwritten heritage, Tradition has its own proper modality. Indeed, as the word traditio suggests,[10] an essential part of Tradition is the act of “handing over” or “passing down.” This new modality as Yves Congar says can be understood as a means of communication; “Tradition is the transmission of the whole of Christianity.”[11] Yet in understanding Tradition as a mode or means of communication, we must not reduce Tradition down to its mark or character, for it is less about an oral transmission of unwritten teachings than of a “transmission of the very substance of the Christian faith, which surpasses any written statement.”[12] Indeed, it is the very “heritage of the apostles”[13] as Irenaeus would want to say. In fact, Irenaeus as mentioned earlier gave room for this broader sense of “handing over” when he mentioned the traditions still being in the eyes of those successors.[14] Tradition as a form of communication is something observed or, as Congar continues to develop this modality, learned: “Tradition, like education, is a living communication whose content is inseparable from the act by which one living person hands it on to another.”[15] Here we are drawn to the suggestion given by the Second Vatican Council in Dei Verbum when it speaks about the way in which Jesus manifested Himself so as to proclaim by “words and deeds” our salvation.[16] Thus, Tradition in its proper modality is the act of “handing over,” an instructive means of communication in which the whole of the faith is given over, not simply as an unwritten message or by word of mouth, but as the entire heritage of the believer.

While certainly the content of Tradition is primarily not written down, its contents and their importance exceed simply its mark or modality. As just mentioned, it is the “handing over” of the very substance or entirety of Christianity. Irenaeus was acutely aware of the completeness of the content of Tradition,[17] for the Gnostics disputed this very point, considering themselves the wiser “not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth.”[18] But this is impossible, since they have received via this apostolic success “a certain gift of truth.”[19] Irenaeus’ logic is clear: if the apostles possessed “perfect knowledge” (and they did), then so do we, their successors.[20]

To this effect, Congar speaks at one point of Tradition “as the transmission of the reality that is Christianity: this is really the tradition.”[21] While in another place Congar specifically says that the content of the Tradition is typically thought of in terms of faith and morals,[22] I think this “reality” or as in another place “substance” of Christianity is more helpful in the sense that it captures not only the specific doctrines, disciplines, and ceremonies,[23] but also the inheritance of every Christian, the very life which the Apostles, like St. Paul, were trying to communicate to others. Thus, Tradition can be said in its content to be the very handing over of life in Christ.

As a radical transmission of new life, the Tradition produces a particular effect in the believer. Congar speaks of this effect particularly in light of the crucial role that liturgy plays in Tradition: “The fruit or result of what might be called the sum total of tradition…is what the Fathers and the Councils have often termed the “Catholic spirit” or the “mind of the Church.”[24] While this “Catholic spirit” has proved somewhat ambiguous in recent years being claimed or even hijacked by some as the “spirit of the council” to the exclusion of its letter, understood properly this is simply that sentire cum ecclesiam the characterizes the best of all Catholic theology. In this “Catholic spirit” placing one’s head near the heartbeat of Mother Church, there is as Blondel says a transformation “by reflection from ‘something lived implicitly into something known explicitly.”[25] In other words, the Catholic mind having given the ascent of faith seeks and finds understanding, which was previously present in that hearing (auditus) yet inchoate in its articulation (intellectus).

It is here that we happen upon the very subject of Tradition. This unwritten “handing over” of the reality of Christianity thereby producing a Catholic mind or spirit finds its protagonist, its very subject in the Church. Irenaeus was acutely aware of this, always speaking of those bearers of the Apostolic Tradition as those who are “in the Church,”[26] or more clearly saying that this truth is “handed down by the Church.”[27] Newman seems to have made room for this claim (ultimately leaving room for his conversion[28]) in that he places the proper understanding of scripture in this implicit sense[29] which in many ways could be called the Tradition.[30] Yet, in his conclusion, Congar makes the claim very clear saying that “The Church is in Tradition as its human subject.”[31] In his work Tradition and Traditions, Congar gives us an insight into why by nature the Church as mother is the very subject of Tradition:

“We may even discern a feminine and maternal touch in the vital aspect of tradition. A woman expresses instinctively and vitally what a man expresses logically. The man is the logos, the external agent. The woman is the recipient, the matrix and fashioner of life. She creates the surroundings in which life will retain its warmth; one thinks of the maternal breast, of tenderness, of the home. She is fidelity. The man is intended for the hazards of the struggle outside, where he may receive wounds and be at the mercy of adventure and inconstancy. In the Woman he finds again the one who waits, keeping intact the warmth and intimacy of the home.”[32]

Clearly there is reason in calling the Church mother and home of the faithful in the image of Mary, the Mother of God. In fact, the Second Vatican Council gives credence to this cultivation of Tradition within the Church, saying that the Tradition “comes from the Apostles develop[s] in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit.”[33]

Yet, I would conclude that if the Church is the very subject of Tradition, then it could be said that the Tradition is the very Mystical Body of Christ, living, breathing, and growing through the ages. For if the Church hands down “all that she herself is, all that she believes,”[34] she is the very Tradition herself. Much in the way a mother gives of herself to her new born child, the Church nourishes and feeds her children with her very essence; she hands over all that she is. In giving over herself as the Body of Christ, she creates a saving encounter with the Risen Lord. This is why Tradition was enough for those barbarians which Irenaeus held up as so exemplary, not because they had diligently learned the various doctrines of the Church (although they clearly did), but rather because they had encountered the Risen Lord through His body the Church, receiving the saving reality of the Gospel, that adoption for which we were destined in Christ, sons of God the Father.

[1] Dei Verbum, 8.
[2] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. III chap. III.1
[3] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. III chap. III.3
[4] Cf. Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. III chap. III.4
[5] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. III chap. IV.2
[6] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. III chap. IV.2
[7] Council of Trent, Session IV: Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures
[8] John Henry Cardinal Newman, “Holy Scripture in its relation to the Catholic Creed,” Discussions and Arguments on Various Subjects,” (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1907), Lect. 2.1
[9] Yves Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” The Meaning of Tradition, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004), 15-16.
[10] Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” 9-11.
[11] Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” 15.
[12] Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” 20.
[13] Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” 22.
[14] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. III chap. III.3
[15] Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” 25.
[16] Dei Verbum, 4. Congar mentions in this vain St. Thomas Aquinas’ reason why Jesus did not Himself write, for He was the absolutely perfect Teacher (“Traditions and Traditions,” 20, citing ST, IIIa, q. 42, a. 4).
[17] A question arises here regarding whether or not Tradition is materially and/or formally sufficient. It seems fair to say that Irenaeus thought Tradition was at the very least materially sufficient by his testimony regarding the barbarians. While his claim that the successors of the apostles have “perfect knowledge” is suggestive, it is not clear if he thinks that Tradition is formally sufficient. Congar seems to think that Tradition is materially sufficient since he claims that Scripture is and that Tradition has everything that Scripture contains: “totum in Scriptura, totum in Traditione. All is in Scripture, all in Tradition” (“Scripture and Tradition in Relation to Revelation and to the Church,” 410-411). And his claim that Tradition is the handing over of the “reality that is Christianity” could be taken to mean such, he, like Irenaeus, does not make clear claim regarding the formal sufficiency of Tradition.
[18] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. III chap. II.1
[19] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. IV chap. XXVI.2
[20] Cf. Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. III chap. I.1
[21] Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” 44.
[22] Cf. Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” 45.
[23] Congar highlights what he calls the “monuments” or “witness” of Tradition, namely the Word of God, the Texts of the Magisterium, the Liturgy, and the Fathers of the Church. Yet while enlightening, they still do not define the nature of Tradition. The words Conger chooses here admit this in that monuments and witness recall or recount the event or person. They are not the event or person itself. Cf. “The Monuments or Witnesses of Tradition,” The Meaning of Tradition, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004), 129-155.
[24] Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” 32.
[25] Cited in Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” 27: Tradition brings to the surface of consciousness elements previously imprisoned in the depths of the faith and of its practice, rather than expressed, expounded and reasoned.”
[26] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. IV chap. XXVI.5
[27] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. III chap. III.4
[28] Cf. John Henry Cardinal Newman, “Holy Scripture in its relation to the Catholic Creed,” Note in Lect. 2.
[29] Cf. John Henry Cardinal Newman, “Holy Scripture in its relation to the Catholic Creed,” Lect. 2.
[30] Congar cites refers to Johann Evangelist von Kuhn’s claim that “This Tradition consists in the genuine understanding of Scripture” (Tradition and Traditions, part II, chap. 5: “Scripture and Tradition in Relation to Revelation and to the Church” (Wheathampstead: Anthony Clark Book, 1966), 378).
[31] Congar, “Scripture and Tradition in Relation to Revelation and to the Church,” 423.
[32] Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” 25.
[33] Dei Verbum, 8.
[34] Dei Verbum, 8.

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