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Shadows of Divine Things

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This site is devoted to theological and philosophical investigations of the spiritual meanings of life, current events, music, spiritual growth, nature, and learning to be attuned to listening to the 'language of God.' The name of this blog comes from one of Jonathan Edwards's journals which he called 'Shadows of Divine Things,' and later renamed 'Images of Divine Things.' As a Christian I am continously on a spiritual journey to grow more into the image of Christ, to understand what it means to be crucified with Christ. To seek the truths of the Christian Faith is of upmost importance, and to know that any truths that are found outside of Christianity are present there because they ultimately point to God. I have an M.A. in theology and apologetics and I completed one year of graduate studies in Philosophy at Marquette University.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Probatur ex Scriptura aut Probatur ex Traditione: A Protestant View of Tradition, Part Two

In continuing my response to Congar’s work The Meaning of Tradition, I would now like to touch on the latter two elements or features which Congar declares Tradition encompasses; namely, issues or doctrines which are not explicitly taught in Scripture; this ties in with ‘Unwritten apostolic traditions,’ and the role of the Magisterium in preserving the content of the deposit.

At the end of chapter three Congar summarizes Tradition by declaring, “Tradition signifies, then, the Catholic spirit together with the living manner in which the whole apostolic deposit, whose subject is the Church, is transmitted.” This is clearly a summation of Congar’s overall view of Tradition, but is very telling and important for Protestants to grasp. Congar teaches that all the essential elements or features of Tradition are norms for the Church to in fact be the Church. This means Catholics begin with the reality in which Christianity is presented in history from Christ to the present day and how this reality is manifested in and through the Church is the underlining factor of the overall deposit presented to the Church by the apostles. Therefore, Scripture and Tradition are of equal authority. Congar confirms this when he declares, “And its real significance, to which the continuity of tradition bears witness, is that no article of the Church’s belief is held on the authority of Scripture independently of tradition, and none on the authority of tradition independently of Scripture.” (p.43)

Granted, Congar’s remarks reflect a classic Catholic view of Scripture and tradition working together; there is reason, as Protestants, to be a bit cautious about this assertion. The reason for caution can be clearly seen historically in that the Roman Catholic Church, time and again, has placed Tradition over and against Scriptures repeatedly when deciding certain seemingly important issues not delineated in Scripture (e.g. Purgatory, Immaculate Conception of Mary, infallibility of the Pope/Magisterium, etc.) Congar confirms this notion when he declares, “Scripture and tradition do not have the same function; tradition envelops and transcends Scripture. It is more complete and could be self-sufficient.” (p. 101, emphasis mine) This statement certainly seems to contradict Congar’s previous assertion that tradition and Scripture cannot have independent authority from or over each other. I think the Catholic Church has much to answer for here, as most Protestants would perhaps agree.

Albeit, I concede (as a Protestant) more often than not Protestants either treat tradition like a cafeteria buffet simply picking here and there what they will ‘accept,’ or ignore in tradition altogether simply because it is ‘Roman Catholic’ and thus taboo. I think both of these actions are wrongheaded and need ‘reform’ themselves (this is something I will detail a little better in my third post).

Now, pertaining to Congar’s last feature of tradition, which is closely connected to the third feature, I would like to state that this feature is perhaps the most controversial of all the features mentioned. Regarding the role of the Magisterium in guarding the content of the deposit Congar declares, “If tradition or the Magisterium claimed to teach something contradicting the holy Scriptures, it would certainly be false, and the faithful ought to reject it.” (p. 100) [Note Bene; This quote is actually taken, by Congar, from Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica] Now, all the Protestants reading this have just perked up and I can hear them making their protests about all the things they think the Magisterium has claimed which contradict the Scriptures. And this is why I think this feature is the most controversial.

The above claim made by Congar is certainly problematic with issues that are not contained in the Scriptures. However, Congar explains this problem (for the Protestant) by declaring, “When the pastoral Magisterium presents its testimony thus in the form of a ‘definition’ or of dogmatic ‘canons’ when it promulgates a ‘dogma’, it endows a simple revealed truth, to which it bears witness, with legal value, binding for the whole Church. It does this by exercising the authority that it has received to ‘feed’ God’s People, by teaching and governing it.” (p.67)

This statement in and of itself causes some of the greatest contention between Catholics and Protestants across the board. For most of the Protestant population Scripture possesses in and of itself, without the need of addition or aid, the power or authority (or qualities) that lead one to saving faith.

In contemporary ‘reformed’ circles this is the issue of Sola Scriptura. However, I would go so far as to say that recently (within the last century or so) this issue has been bifurcated from the genuine Classical Reformed view. Certainly the Reformers in the 15th century (i.e. Luther and Calvin) agreed to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura but never out of the context of the Church, and never at the expense of losing tradition altogether (please be patient and do not jump to hasty conclusion here, I will detail my thinking on this in my third post).

However, according to the Roman Catholic Church the Magisterium has a special grace which corresponds to the mission it was entrusted with; namely deciding issues that it thinks that the body of believers is incapable of deciding in a unanimous and clear fashion. But how is this relevant for those issues which are agreed upon universally whether one is Roman Catholic or Protestant? I’m assuming that Congar would answer this question by declaring that those councils within Church history and tradition united in their common belief on these issues and therefore established certain creeds and dogmas pertaining to these issues.

However, I do think that Congar’s view of the Magisterium (which seems to be the typical Roman Catholic view) tends to be one of the greatest points of contentions between Protestants and Roman Catholics (along with the issue of Justification).

The bottom line of these features of Congar seem to be reduced, in one sense or the other between Protestants and Catholics, as those doctrines (including Scripture and Tradition) espoused by either camp are perhaps done so by being Probatur ex Scriptura aut Probatur ex Traditione (proved from Scripture or proved from Tradition). While Congar seems to try and make Scripture and Tradition equal features in the deposit of the apostles (in terms of their authority), it is quite evident based on Congar’s other statements and Church History itself that this is clearly not the case. Too often Roman Catholics make Tradition more authoritative than Scripture. And for this reason, among others I remain Protestant.

(This post is not intended to be exhaustive in its delineations of Congar's book or regarding the issues of Tradition and Scripture. I do value my readers opinions, so please feel free to comment, I want to hear what each of you has to say about these issues [but please do so with respect to each other], that is one reason why I have a blog)

6 Comments:

Blogger Jeremiah Kier Cowart said...

I have given this second post a reply, to be found at the same url: http://unitatisredintegratio.blogspot.com/

Let me know what you think!

7:08 PM, December 09, 2005  
Blogger Dave said...

Sorry to be the Johnny-come-lately, here. T., what a great summary and dialogue! I think you've laid out the basic differences between Catholic and Protestant very clearly. I am surprised to conclude that on all of those points of contention you mentioned, I lean to the Catholic side.

For me, the turning point was understanding the Church as Christ’s actual body and not merely a collection of like-minded persons, and the Scriptures as a product of the Church. Thus, the issue of tradition and its authority is not a separate doctrine that can be argued separately. Tradition in itself is nothing; every group and sect have their own traditions. The catholic tradition is what is disputed, and in my opinion, it is authoritative precisely because of whose tradition it is and to whom it points.

The Church is the Christ’s body. This is a biblical proposition that Protestants would not contend, but I think the implications are important but controversial (today, anyway). First, the seemingly plain statement implies that salvation is found in the Church. It is in her not only that Jesus Christ is learned and believed, but also received really (and even bodily) in her communion with him and with her various members.

Second, this communion, and the faith which preserves its meaning, is presided over by the Magisterium. Indeed, the idea of a Church without a Magisterium, to me seems foolish and naïve; the children of the Reformation bear undeniable testimony to this. As dogmatically and formally descended from the apostles and therefore, Christ, the Magisterium is the collective authority of the Church under Christ.

Third, when we read that the Church is Christ’s body in light of the Church’s history, we see that the Scriptures are a product of the her dynamic life. As the Church was being formed by the Word, her apostles and their appointed representatives also proclaimed that Word in teaching, preaching, and in writing the Scriptures. Therefore, the Church, and specifically, the Magisterium, is the necessary agent to authoritatively read and interpret those Scriptures.

In this sense, the tradition is the memory/record of this ongoing interpretation, which is not equally authoritative in all its parts, but various. Thus the tradition needs to be interpreted and weighed in a faithful yet critical way, just as do the Scriptures.

Now, I still have difficulties with aspects of tradition which seem to have been mistaken. But I don’t think these are insurmountable. I think there is promise for a better understanding of some of these problem elements in the ecumenical dialogue I see going on, especially typified by Robert Jenson. To me the authority issue is not between Scripture and authority, but who has the authority to interpret both of these.

11:49 AM, December 20, 2005  
Blogger T.B. Vick said...

David States:
"The catholic tradition is what is disputed, and in my opinion, it is authoritative precisely because of whose tradition it is and to whom it points."

That's a good way of communicating it, and I agree wholeheartedly.

David states:
"the Magisterium is the collective authority of the Church under Christ."

Most Catholics would want this to be qualified. Unless I am misunderstanding the RC Church, the Magisterium is a select group of representatives speaking on behalf of the entire body, not the actual collective body in and of itself. Let me know if I am misunderstanding what you are saying here.

David states:
"In this sense, the tradition is the memory/record of this ongoing interpretation, which is not equally authoritative in all its parts, but various. Thus the tradition needs to be interpreted and weighed in a faithful yet critical way, just as do the Scriptures."

I agree with you in the above comment, only to further qualify where I stand by saying that all of tradition needs to be interpreted and weighed in light of Scripture. Here is where i remain truly 'reformed.'

David states:
"To me the authority issue is not between Scripture and authority, but who has the authority to interpret both of these."

In the above comment, I think you have cut very quickly to the heart of the matter, and this is where Catholics and Protestants would begin to draw dividing lines.

Thanks for your comments, David.

1:51 PM, December 20, 2005  
Blogger Dave said...

Todd, first, let me clear up the ambiguity in my statement about the Magisterium: I meant exactly what you said. By calling the Magisterium a collective, I did not mean to imply that the Church as a whole is the Magisterium. I only meant to acknowledge that it consisted of a group of persons, whose collective (as opposed to individual) authority is subordinate only to Christ's.

Second, I am becoming uncomfortable with the phrase, “read tradition in the light of Scripture.” This language suggests that the Scriptures are clear and straightforward, while the tradition is unclear and needs to be interpreted; that the Scriptures are untainted by human imperfection and should not be submitted to any kind of criticism, while the tradition is all too characterized by it and is not useful until we have our way with it. In short, I think that as the product of the Church’s ongoing life and tradition (in their formation, transmission, interpretation, and subsequent textual alterations), the Scriptures bear all the marks of human imperfection and proneness to error that the tradition does. We are not dealing with isolated entities here, but two expressions of the same process: the Scriptures cannot be seen as an entity over against the tradition because they are a part of the tradition. Thus, both need to be interpreted in light of each other, because that is how they were both formed.

So, this leads to the question of what we mean when we refer to tradition. In the purest sense, by the very definition of the word, tradition is any teaching, standard, or practice that has been passed beyond its originator or author. It differs from history, in that for an event to be historical, it does not have to be repeated. So in this sense, the source of a teaching or practice has nothing to do with whether we acknowledge it as part of tradition.

This observation makes tradition seem like a much larger and less cohesive thing. Indeed, I think this is exactly the case: tradition is not homogenous. Some parts of it have been long forgotten and buried in the pages of history, while other parts have outlived their usefulness and should be discarded. There are indeed parts which we should lament ever entered into the tradition. Yet, there are also elements of the tradition which are essential to understanding the Bible. There are also those traditions which do not come directly out of the Bible, and indeed under different conditions might not have ever developed at all, but having once been adopted have become irreversible (e.g., the Creed, the Canon, the liturgy, and episcopal succession; for this observation, see Robert Jenson’s argument for succession). So the tradition is a multilayered thing with varying degrees of authority. Sifting through this enormous deposit is the task of the Church’s theologians and ultimately her Magisterium.

I don’t claim that this is a simple answer; indeed it makes things a great deal more complicated. But I believe this is exactly the process that God intends us to be in, and in which the Magisterium are to depend upon the Holy Spirit for understanding both the Scriptures and the tradition, and the process in which the Spirit truly guides the Church and preserves her. The biggest question that this raises for me is: where is this Church and Magisterium?

10:17 PM, December 20, 2005  
Blogger PresterJosh said...

"The reason for caution can be clearly seen historically in that the Roman Catholic Church, time and again, has placed Tradition over and against Scriptures repeatedly when deciding certain seemingly important issues not delineated in Scripture (e.g. Purgatory, Immaculate Conception of Mary, infallibility of the Pope/Magisterium, etc.)"

While I can certainly see how this is plausible when reading scripture through the lens of a Protestant interpretive tradition, isn't one of the important questions raised by the discussion whether that interpretive tradition is adequate? John Henry Cardinal Newman, for one, puts forward a strong case that the Catholic "distinctives" are in fact organic developments of the scriptural faith.

"Congar confirms this notion when he declares, “Scripture and tradition do not have the same function; tradition envelops and transcends Scripture. It is more complete and could be self-sufficient.” (p. 101, emphasis mine) This statement certainly seems to contradict Congar’s previous assertion that tradition and Scripture cannot have independent authority from or over each other."

I'm not quite sure how you are moving from Congar's quotation to the conclusion that tradition and scripture have independent authority. It seems to me that Congar's point here is simply that tradition includes the contents of holy scripture as well as more (including the living authority of the church). Thus it could be sufficient on its own. And historically, it does seem to have been sufficient for those times before the New Testament canon was complete. (Though I suppose one could identify that sufficiency as a byproduct of continuing revelation.)

1:19 PM, September 19, 2006  
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