Saturday, January 7, 2012

What is Sacred Tradition?

SCRIPTURE ON TRADITION
Scripture speaks both negatively and positively about the idea of "tradition." For example, negatively––
And he said to them, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition (paradosis)! (Mark 7:9)

See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition (paradosis), according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. (Col. 2:8)
––and positively:
I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions (paradosis) even as I have delivered them to you. (1 Cor. 11:2)

So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions (paradosis) which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thes. 2:15)
TRADITIONS OF FAITH VS. PRACTICE
In Catholic theology, there is a distinction between traditions on matters of faith and traditions on matters of practice or custom. If a tradition is considered a matter of faith or morals, handed down from the single "deposit of faith" left by Christ and the Apostles, it is considered a divinely revealed truth, and thus cannot be recognized as a non-truth at some later point. Other traditions do not fall under this umbrella of faith or morals. For example, it can be considered "tradition" that the priest wears certain colored vestments at certain times of the year. This is not a matter of faith that one must "believe," but it is a customary practice the Church exercises. The language of the mass is another example of a "tradition" that can be altered. Recently, the translation of the American vernacular mass changed to more closely reflect the ancient Latin wording. Catechism #1202 refers to the "diverse liturgical traditions" in the Church.

In this particular blog post, I will focus on Sacred Tradition, that is considered by the Church part of the word of God in divine revelation.

DESCRIPTIONS OF TRADITION
I think the following are useful descriptions of or uses of the term "tradition" in the sense of Sacred Tradition. My comments follow each entry.
[W]hen we refer [the Gnostics] to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. ... It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.2.2, 3.3.1, ca. 180 A.D.)
In the above work, St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, defends the Church's capacity to maintain tradition versus the Gnostics who simply assert that they have special "wisdom" (3.2.1) from God. Rather, apostolic tradition is passed through those whom were appointed by the Apostles. Irenaeus later went on to identify lists of succession for the occupants of various bishops' offices.
Moreover, if there be any [heresies] bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, so that they might seem to have been handed down by the Apostles because they were from the time of the Apostles, we can say to them: let them show the origin of their Churches, let them unroll the order of their bishops, running down in succession from the beginning, so that their first bishop shall have for author and predecessor some one of the Apostles or of the apostolic men who continued steadfast with the Apostles. (Tertullian, The Demurrer Against the Heretics, 32.1, ca. 200 A.D.)
Tertullian, a few years after Irenaeus combats the same problem, against heretics claiming to possess the truth, but who have no apostolic roots.
The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. The apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of the divine sacraments, knew there are in everyone innate strains of [original] sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit" (Origen, Commentaries on Romans 5:9, ca. 248 A.D.).
Origen's comment here is an example of what is probably the most commonly held notion of "Tradition," that which is orally transmitted. Some 150-160 years removed from the death of the last Apostle, he describes that infant baptism was something taught by the apostles.

Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense Catholic, which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors. [St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium, 2.6, ca. 434 A.D.)
Note how St. Vincent describes the meaning of a "universal" belief. It does not necessarily mean a hard and fast 100% perfect unity on a doctrine. He speaks rather of a corporate voice of sorts, and that voice comes from among clergy and doctors of the Church. And if we go through time and see a teaching professed consistently, exceptions notwithstanding, then the Church can have confidence that the Spirit is guiding that voice. As we will see further down, it is ultimately the Spirit that reveals, which is what makes Sacred Tradition part of divine revelation rather than the "human" traditions that bear no such character. Notice also, that St. Vincent includes "interpretations" as part of Tradition. For example, it is quite universally held in the early Church that John 3:5, which references being "born of water and spirit" is a reference to baptism.
[The Synod recognizes the Gospel] as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline; and seeing clearly that 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; (the Synod) following the examples of the orthodox Fathers, receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety, and reverence, all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament--seeing that one God is the author of both --as also the said traditions, as well those appertaining to faith as to morals, as having been dictated, either by Christ's own word of mouth, or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession. (Council of Trent, Session IV, April 8, 1546)
Notice at Trent, the notion that the Spirit ("Holy Ghost") is guiding Tradition is also mentioned. And like Irenaeus or Tertullian's ancient comment's, Trent refers to the preservation of Tradition by way of "succession."
Some of them had been originally written; others came to us orally, from father to son; or in a practical way, as through the ceremonies of the Church for instance. For this reason, Traditions are either written, oral or practical. Some Traditions are called Written Traditions because the word Tradition may be taken in its widest signification, to include whatever has been delivered to us. In this sense, even the Scriptures may be called Traditions. (Msgr. George Agius, Tradition and the Church, p.3, 1928)
Msgr. Agius' comments here demonstrate that Tradition need not take only one form. Whether they be an oral transmission, a liturgical practice, or "whatever" has been delivered, such as the Church's passing on and discernment of the Scriptures, these are all traditions.
Therefore Christ the Lord in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion (see Cor 1:20; 3:13; 4:6), commissioned the apostles to preach to all men that Gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching, and to impart to them heavenly gifts. This Gospel had been promised in former times through the prophets, and Christ Himself had fulfilled it and promulgated it with His lips. This commission was faithfully fulfilled by the apostles who, by their oral preaching, by example, and by observances handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they had learned through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. (Dei Verbum #7, 1965)
Dei Verbum, a document produced at Vatican II, echoes the diversity of methods of transmission. Sometimes on internet forums, inquisitors ask for a "list" of Sacred Tradition. This is, of course, near impossible to exhaust because the Church continues to mature in Her interpretations, understandings, and the voice of the Spirit continues to guide the Church toward "all truth" (John 16:13) revealed. Nevertheless, the Catholic lay person need not enter a state of agnosticism or confusion. The Church has produced a number of catechisms throughout the years to help the faithful. Pope John Paul II said of the current Catechism: "I declare it to be a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion." Though the Spirit may move the Church to update the Catechism through the years, the faithful can have confidence in assenting and learning the Church's doctrines from its pages.
And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching. (CCC#81)

The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus' teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition. (CCC#83)
The above two Catechism paragraphs fortify a couple thoughts. First, that Sacred Tradition can also be considered the "word" of God. It is divine revelation because it is the "Spirit" who reveals it. Second, the assembly and transmission of the New Testament represents Tradition as well.

SCRIPTURE AS TRADITION
There was not total agreement on what books were divinely inspired. For instance, Origen referred to "doubt" that Peter even wrote a second epistle:
And Peter, on whom the Church of Christ is built, 'against which the gates of hell shall not prevail,' Matthew 16:18 has left one acknowledged epistle; perhaps also a second, but this is doubtful. (Origen, quoted by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 6.25.8)
Eusebius himself doubted the divinely inspired nature of even more books, and claimed some of his predecessors did too:
3. Among the disputed writings, which are nevertheless recognized by many, are extant the so-called epistle of James and that of Jude, also the second epistle of Peter, and those that are called the whether they belong to the evangelist or to another person of the same name.

4. Among the rejected writings must be reckoned also the Acts of Paul, and the so-called Shepherd, and the Apocalypse of Peter, and in addition to these the extant epistle of Barnabas, and the so-called Teachings of the Apostles; and besides, as I said, the Apocalypse of John, if it seem proper, which some, as I said, reject, but which others class with the accepted books. (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.25.3-4)
So these are just a couple examples. Suffice it to say, any Christian who accepts the divinely inspired quality of James, Jude, 2nd Peter, Revelation, or any book of Scripture, rely on the Church's Sacred Tradition to have identified them. These examples also show how unanimity, as described above by St. Vincent, need not be total uniformity. We believe the Spirit will guide the Church to discern such things amidst disagreement, just as the Spirit did at the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 (esp. v. 28).

DEVELOPMENT OF DOCTRINE
I just want to finish up with a brief word on the concept of doctrinal development. A couple historical treatments of the idea come to mind. One is St. Vincent of Lerins' Commonitorium in the section: On Development of Christian Knowledge. The other is Bl. John Henry Newman's essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.

As the Catechism noted, Tradition is "living." The single deposit of faith does not remain a static list of doctrinal data that cannot be more deeply understood over time. Rather, we can see the Church's deeper understanding of text within Scripture itself. For instance, in Genesis, the serpent is never identified as the devil. Yet by the time John wrote his Apocalypse, he explictly calls the ancient serpent the devil (cf. Rev. 12:9; 20:2). The episode of the flood is later understood by Peter as a prefigurement of baptism (cf. 1 Pet. 3:18-21). Paul recognizes the lives of the persons Hagar and Sarah in the Old Testament as figures of two covenants (cf. Gal. 4). Newman's essay has its own section of Scriptural examples as well. The ancient texts didn't acquire new words, but these NT authors saw them in a new light. Rather, their understanding of the ancient texts developed.

As I earlier referenced, Christ promised that the Spirit would lead the Church to "all truth" (John 16:13). One might ask, how can this be now that the last apostle has died, and all Scripture has been written. Even the Church says all doctrine is derived "from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed." (Dei Verbum, 10b; emphasis mine) One might think of the deposit organically. Although an acorn is once small, it becomes a great tree over time. Scripture tells us that the Apostles and prophets were a "foundation." (e.g. Eph. 2:20) The concept of a foundation is, of course, to be built upon. In the same way, a doctrine cannot be formulated unless it is built upon the single deposit. In other words, novel ideas that don't build upon the existing foundation cannot stand.

Consider also Christ's "body" as the figure of the Church. On more than one occasion, Paul called the Church Christ's "body." (Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 1:24) Throughout Ephesians, Paul has this organic idea of "growth" and references to the body of Christ. Keep that concept in mind and consider another passage regarding the young Jesus.
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man. (Luke 2:52)
If the Church resembles the incarnate Christ, then the Church too will grow in wisdom as well as in size. The Church can be said to follow stages of life, having a youth, and maturing in wisdom over the years. I think a couple theologians support this interpretation of the Luke verse:
The word also increases in different degrees in those who receive it; and according to the measure of its increase a man appears either an infant, grown up, or a perfect man. (St. Gregory of Nyssa, comment on Luke 2:52, quoted in Catena Aura)

Tropologically, Damascene (De fide, 1 iii c. xxii.) says that Christ progresses in wisdom and grace, not in Himself, but in His members, that is, in Christians. (Cornelius Lapide, commentary on Luke 2:52)

2 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed reading your article. I found this as an informative and interesting post, so i think it is very useful and knowledgeable. I would like to thank you for the effort you have made in writing this article.


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  2. I really enjoyed reading your article. I found this as an informative and interesting post, so i think it is very useful and knowledgeable. I would like to thank you for the effort you have made in writing this article.


    edupdf.org

    ReplyDelete