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Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition. (Jaroslav Pelikan)

We’ve been reflecting here on the place of the Bible and of Reason in God’s revelation. Tradition, the focus of this post, is also a dimension of God’s revelation.

Too quickly we think of Tradition as being one stream alongside the Bible as another stream, as if some of God’s revelation is in the Bible and then there’s another pile of God’s revelation in Tradition. Such an image is normally called the “Two Source Theory” of God’s revelation. This viewpoint cleaves Catholicism and Protestantism.

But I want to suggest not two sources, Bible and Tradition (as if siloed, compartmenatlised), but a deeper unity: Bible within Tradition.

On 18 November this year it will be 50 years since the promulgation of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. I highly recommend reading and reflecting on that text in full. It says:

There exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. (9)

Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. (10)

The Tradition was first. Some of the Tradition was written down, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Then, within the Tradition, there was the recognition of those texts that would have a special, normative expression of the Tradition, our scriptures. We only know by Tradition what texts are scripture and what texts are not scripture.

Manifestly, the Scriptures-separated-from-Tradition can be interpreted in ridiculously innumerable ways – this is the insoluble problem of sola-scriptura Protestantism.

A common response of sola-scriptura Protestantism is to point to an obvious issue with Tradition, with traditions – it can drift chinese-whispers-like. Tradition-embodied-in-Scriptures-affirmed-by-Tradition acts as an anchor to prevent the drift.

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3 thoughts on “Tradition”

  1. I was raised in a conservative protestant denomination whose basic rule of thumb was that if it wasn’t in the authorized scriptures, it wasn’t godly or trustworthy. Later in life when I became an Episcopalian it was out of sense of relief that I could be with other people who weren’t afraid of tradition or non-scriptural elements of belief. Having now made extensive study of the Hebrew scriptures and ancient Palestine, it’s my personal conclusion that oral and cultural traditions were fundamental to the Jewish people and therefore must have been so to the very earliest followers of Jesus.

    I respect other points of view, and in particular those of the church folk I grew up with. But I am more comfortable in my own relationship with God and God’s people when I introduce tradition into the mix.

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