“Tradition”* is a dynamic concept and presupposes a double movement, of receiving and transmitting. The apostolic Tradition is the gospel, the word and event of salvation,* entrusted by Jesus to the disciples he had chosen as its witnesses so that they in turn might hand it on with authority* (see Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:21-22). In 1 Cor., the term refers to the teaching Paul transmitted to the church in Corinth (11:2), especially concerning the Lord’s supper (11:23) and the event of Christ’s death and resurrection (15:3) (see common confession, creeds, eucharist ). Paul, the last to be favoured with an appearance of the risen Christ (15:8), had himself “received” the apostolic witness which he “handed on” to the Corinthians (15:3-7). What Paul received and transmitted was the gospel (15:1); it was also the meaning and manner of celebrating the Lord’s supper (11:20,24-26), the central act of the life of the community Paul had founded at Corinth . The context of 1 Cor. 11 shows that the apostolic Tradition has a “centre” – the gospel of the saving passion of the Lord (11:23-26; cf. 15:1-8) – and a broader context of practices which the apostle bases on the mystery of Christ (11:2-16).

The pastoral epistles do not use the terminology of “tradition”, but the idea itself is everywhere implicit. Once again the gospel is the centre of the message (1 Tim. 1:15-18; 3:16-4:6) and connected with it, the context of ecclesial life, though with a new emphasis. False teachings oppose the gospel transmitted by the apostle. This authentic apostolic Tradition is referred to three times as a deposit – that which “has been entrusted” (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:12,14) – associated with the idea of keeping or guarding, and fairly close to the Jewish idea of tradition (Ceslaus Spicq). But what is transmitted and guarded is, above all, the gospel. The organization of the church and the norms handed down by Paul for this purpose are meaningful only in reference to the transmission of the unique gospel (see church order, church discipline ).

The Tradition of the church

From the sub-apostolic age onwards, works like the Didache formulated the norms of Christian and ecclesial life as apostolic Tradition. The spread of the Gnostic heresy during the 2nd century, which appealed to secret traditions of the apostles, led the mainstream church to define the apostolic Tradition in more precise terms by establishing which writings were of apostolic origin and could and should be read in congregations, thus forming the “canon”* of the New Testament. At the same time, norms emerged for interpreting these writings in harmony with the prophecies in the Jewish scriptures which foretold the Christ and his work of salvation (see hermeneutics ).

Around 180, in a work entitled Against Heresies , Irenaeus of Lyons established rules for discerning the authentic Christian message in opposition to the errors of the Gnostics. He insisted that the church throughout the world has always had a single and unique rule of faith,* whose articles constitute the substance of what would become the baptismal creed (see creeds ), “for although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the Tradition is one and the same” (1.10.2; see catholicity ). The sole content of the Tradition is the preaching of the apostles deposited in the scriptures, interpreted by the bishops instituted in the churches by the apostles (3.3.1; see teaching authority, episcopacy ). This interpretation goes beyond a simple exegesis of the prophecies recorded in the Old Testament or of the New Testament writings, for, as already in Paul’s case, reading scripture in accordance with the apostolic Tradition has concrete implications for the life of the churches and the behaviour of the Christian. In opposition to the secret traditions the heretics claimed to have received from the apostles, Irenaeus asserts the public character of the Tradition and denounces all forms of esotericism. This Tradition is not necessarily written, for the “barbarians who believe in Christ… having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit without ink… carefully preserve the ancient Tradition” (3.4.2).

This concept of Tradition was developed by subsequent Christian theologians and polemicists (Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen). Some of them listed the unwritten traditions in force in ecclesial life deriving from the apostles (Tertullian, Concerning the Crown 3-4; Hippolytus in his Apostolic Tradition , where ecclesiastical organization derives from the apostles by tradition; the Syriac Didascalia ; and church orders based on these writings). At the beginning of the 5th century a principle was formulated which is rooted in this conception of the intimate bond between the heritage of the apostles, scripture (as read in the universal tradition of the church) and ecclesial life: namely, the normative character of the life of prayer of the universal church for the faith (see lex orandi, lex credendi ).

Written tradition and unwritten secret tradition

With Basil of Caesarea (d.379), there is an appreciable development in the concept of apostolic Tradition. Despite the arguments used in anti-Gnostic controversy, Basil distinguishes between the tradition of the kerygma (preaching), open even to the unbaptized, and that of the dogma * (doctrine), reserved for the initiated, those partaking of the sacraments* ( On the Holy Spirit 27.66). Basil derives this distinction from the apostles and fathers, who from the beginning arranged all that concerns the churches; in fact, these unwritten secret traditions mainly concerned the rites, formulas and prayers used in the celebration of baptism* and the eucharist.* He was alone in his day in developing this distinction between two kinds of tradition; and he affirmed that “both have the same force for the faith”.

Nicea II, the reformers, Trent

The council of Nicea II (787) legitimated the reverence offered to the holy images by the Tradition of the church, which was seen as comprising both written and unwritten elements. The former is the gospel and the writings of the holy fathers, to the latter belong the holy images and the veneration accorded to the book of the gospels and to the cross. Christian antiquity, especially in its Greek and Oriental form, did not always distinguish clearly between scripture, commentaries on it and the various traditions which constituted the fabric of the church’s life. The Tradition appeared rather as a living continuity with the church of the apostles and fathers, with scripture at its heart.

A clear distinction between scripture and the traditions began to establish itself in the West in the 12th and 13th centuries with the desire for a life in accordance with the gospel sine glossa , first with the scholastics, then with John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, who rejected traditions which contradicted scripture and the pure gospel and identified the apostolic Tradition with scripture (see Tradition and traditions ), thereby laying the foundations for a pivotal principle of Luther and Calvin: sola scriptura , on the basis of which every tradition which appeared not to be founded directly on the canonical text of scripture was rejected. While Calvin often quotes the fathers, he does so in order to explain the pure gospel which the apostles deposited in writing as “sure and genuine scribes of the Holy Spirit” ( Institutes 4.8.9).

In reaction, the council of Trent* in 1546 affirmed that “the truths and rules” of the gospel are preserved “in [all] the written books” of the OT and NT “and in the unwritten traditions which, received by the apostles from the mouth of Christ himself or from the apostles themselves, have come down to us in the Catholic church in unbroken succession” (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum , 1501). The council refused to set scripture in opposition to the apostolic Tradition but wished also to maintain the position of Basil and Nicea II. Post-Tridentine theologians often misinterpreted Trent’s juxtaposition of scripture and oral traditions as pointing to two sources of the Christian revelation* – some going so far as to assert that truth is “partly” in scripture and “partly” in the unwritten traditions.

Scripture and Tradition

in the contemporary ecumenical movement Emergence in the second half of the 20th century from the blind alley of four centuries’ conflict between Protestants and Catholics is due partly to a better acquaintance with church history and partly to ecumenical contacts with Orthodoxy. Eastern Orthodox teaching remained in fact a living reality in the churches of the East, which attach particular importance not only to the teachings of the councils and the fathers but also to the celebration of the liturgy as living and authoritative witnesses to the apostolic Tradition. Orthodox participation in the work of the Faith and Order* commission and in the debates of Vatican II* helped to get the dialogue moving again.

The fourth world conference of F&O (Montreal 1963) produced a report on “Scripture, Tradition and traditions” which, by starting from the Tradition of the gospel (the paradosis of the kerygma ; see Tradition and traditions ), considerably transformed the approaches to the problem.

In November 1962 the Second Vatican Council rejected a draft text entitled “The Sources of Revelation” and then drafted and promulgated another entitled “The Word of God” (the constitution Dei Verbum ). It outlines the central place of scripture in the life of the church, the relationship (concordance) between scripture and Tradition, and the role of the magisterium* (the teaching of the bishops, councils and the pope) in the authentic interpretation of the word of God.* The originality of this text lay in its recalling that the apostolic Tradition had preceded the scriptures of the NT (para. 7), and that the apostolic Tradition embraces the whole life and faith of the church and is continued in the church (para. 8). Scripture and Tradition, “flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing and move towards the same goal. Sacred scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And Tradition transmits in its entirety the word of God which has been entrusted to… the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they might faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching. Thus it comes about that the church does not draw her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy scriptures alone. Hence, both scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal feelings of devotion and reverence” (para. 9). In no way, however, is Tradition a “source” of revelation independent of scripture.

That the problem of the Tradition has largely been settled is recognized in numerous subsequent bilateral dialogues (Anglican-Lutheran 1972, paras 32-44; Anglican-Orthodox 1976, paras 9-12; 1984, paras 47-52,90-92; Anglican-Roman Catholic 1981, para. 2; Disciples-Roman Catholic 1981, paras 46-56; Lutheran-Roman Catholic 1972, paras 14-34; 1980, paras 62-65; 1984, para. 57; Reformed-Roman Catholic 1977, paras 25-30). The 1991 Singapore report of the Methodist-Roman Catholic dialogue* was entirely devoted to “The Apostolic Tradition”. Following the official responses of the churches to the Lima document on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry ,* further clarifications were suggested on the relationship between church and word of God, scripture and Tradition (see Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry 1982-1990 , pp.131-42); and following the world conference on F&O at Santiago de Compostela in 1993, these led in part to A Treasure in Earthen Vessels: An Instrument for an Ecumenical Reflection on Hermeneutics (1998).


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