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Tradition and institution: Lutheran critique--Catholic dilemma.

In his magnum opus, Tradition and Traditions, the first volume of which was published just before the Second Vatican Council, Fr. Yves Congar argued persuasively that the Council Fathers at Trent had explicitly rejected the proposal that the truth of the gospel is found partly in scripture and partly in the church's traditions, the so-called "partim ... partim" theory. The Conciliar definition substituted the more neutral "et" ("and") to describe the relationship between scripture and tradition. (1) The result of the inclusion of this more neutral phraseology, however, was that after the Council the inherent ambiguity in the definition enabled Catholic theologians to interpret Trent's teaching as if it had indeed taught a two-source theory of revelation, a position which seemed to many Catholics to provide a strong alternative to the Protestant critique. The two-source theory, in fact, became the dominant way in which Catholic theology would speak about the relationship between scripture and tradition up until the Second Vatican Council, and it was this (in)famous partim ... partim theory which Protestants attacked not only as blasphemy but also as opening a Pandora's box containing all sorts of novelties that arose in later tradition without any scriptural warrant. (2)

The problem, as we have come to realize several centuries later, is that this post-Tridentine Catholic theology constituted, as Fr. George Tavard has shown, a critical break with the earlier theology of the Fathers and medieval schoolmen in which scripture and tradition were understood as co-inhering. (3) Fr. Congar has similarly argued that prior to Trent there was "a tightness" to the relationship between scripture, tradition, and church that operated quite differently from the thought of most post-Tridentine churchmen. "If there is one position which the Fathers consistently maintained,'' Congar argues, "it is the position that links inseparably Scripture, the Church and Tradition. Far from considering these three realities to be in opposition, they saw them as united and inseparable." "For the men of the Middle Ages, all knowledge comes from Scripture because in it is contained what God has told us of the conditions, the end, and the laws of our life." The Fathers and medieval schoolmen acknowledged the material sufficiency of scripture and at the same time affirmed that scripture is only understood correctly in the church and in its tradition.(4)

If "classical" Catholic theology was more scriptural than some of its modern variants, it is also true that "classical" Lutheran theology was more traditional than is sometimes thought. The understanding of tradition by the sixteenth-century Lutheran theologian, Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586), for example, was perhaps the most positive and extended Lutheran articulation on the subject. (5) In his Examination of the Council of Trent Chemnitz posits eight different kinds of tradition, the first seven of which can rightly be accepted by the evangelical party. Only the eighth kind is to be rejected. This last kind of tradition includes those things that pertain to both faith and morals but cannot be proven by any testimony of scripture and which the Synod of Trent nevertheless commands to be received and venerated with the same reverence and devotion as the scripture itself. (6)

Chemnitz' concern with this eighth kind of tradition, which he saw Trent as espousing, was that it would give theologians and bishops what he called "comprehensive license" to invent whatever they pleased "freely and with impunity" under the name of "tradition." A two-source understanding of revelation would, moreover, lay the groundwork for justifying "whatever the present Roman Church believes, holds and observes," while relieving the magisterium of the burden to demonstrate that its current tradition really is the apostolic tradition. (7) In other words, Chemnitz' concern was that the institution of the teaching office would in the final analysis become self-referential. This, it seems to me, was the heart of this part of the theological controversy during the sixteenth century. The issue was not so much the relationship between scripture and tradition, but how scripture and tradition were being understood and exegeted by the contemporary teaching office within the church. Chemnitz was quite clear that the church does indeed have a teaching office and that God wants to have the ministry of the word in the church. This, then, means that "the church must be heard as teacher." At the same time, faith and worship continue to rest on the word of God and not on human authority. (8) In other words, there is a magisterium in the church, but this magisterium is the servant of the word of God, not its master.

The problem of the relationship between the church's teaching office, scripture, and tradition which Chemnitz had articulated so clearly in the sixteenth century is not a dead issue. It continues to constitute a legitimate ecumenical problem. Whatever the weakness of Chemnitz's position, his questions are not without theological weight. Developments in the modern period, moreover, have demonstrated that his fears were not entirely unjustified. Fr. Congar has argued that in the modern period Catholic theology increasingly moved away from an understanding of tradition as content and deposit received from the apostles to an accent on tradition understood as the transmitting organism, which resides primarily in the magisterium of the church. The Fathers and early canons of the church, he argues, came to be considered less as inspired organs of tradition themselves and more as witnesses to a tradition, which consists in the present teaching of the magisterium (9) In other words, the means by which the faith is proclaimed--the teaching office--in the modern period has tended to overshadow the content of the faith, with magisterium assuming a more and more autonomous and absolute value. (10) In 1865, Henry Edward Manning, Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, for example, would go so far as to argue that any appeal to antiquity in order to find the truth of things is both "treason and heresy." His justification for this claim was his conviction that the voice of God is to be found in the contemporary teaching voice of the church. This implied for Manning that in a strict sense the church has no antiquity; rather, it "rests upon its own supernatural and perpetual consciousness." (11)

This push to identify the magisterium as the criterion and standard reached its zenith in the period just before the Second Vatican Council. Pope Pius XII's 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis, embodied this push. There the pope asserted as essential elements of Catholic teaching the following positions: 1) the teaching office of the church in matters of faith and morals is the "proximate and universal criterion of truth for all theologians"; in other words, scripture and tradition as criteria are further away from us, while the magisterium is the closer and more immediate face and criterion of truth; 2) even what is called the "ordinary teaching authority" of the magisterium, as found in encyclical letters, demands consent; 3) the task of theologians is to show how the doctrine of the "living Teaching Authority" is found either explicitly or implicitly in the scriptures and tradition "in that sense in which it has been defined by the church"; 4) Christ has given the right of authentic interpretation of the deposit of faith, not to each of the faithful and not to theologians, "but only to the Teaching Authority of the church"; and 5) it is a false procedure to try to explain "what is clear" (i.e., what the living magisterium teaches) "by means of what is obscure" (what is found in scripture and tradition). (12)

Pope Pius XII's teaching is what Fr. Joseph Ratzinger in 1969 identified as the principle of "solo magisterio" ("by the magisterium alone"). In his commentary on Dei Verbum 2:10, Fr. Ratzinger compared this text of the Second Vatican Council to what he describes as the "antithetical" way in which Pope Pius XII had articulated the relationship between the papal magisterium and the rest of the church with regard to the work of keeping the word of God pure within the life of the church. If one compares the Dei Verbum text with the corresponding section of Humani Generis, Ratzinger argues, we can see the progress that was made by the Council. (13)

In contrast to the older, pre-Vatican II understanding of the place of the magisterium in relation to both church and tradition, Ratzinger put forward a more dynamic and inclusive understanding of the relationship between the word of God and the church, and consequently the place of the teaching office within this context. He asserted that the church and its understanding of revelation is moving forward toward the fullness of the divine word in the church in the eschaton, that is, there is a deepening in our understanding [emphasis added] which will only be fulfilled in the Age-to-Come. Moreover, it is important to realize, he argued, that the "progress of the word in the time of the church is not seen simply as a function of the hierarchy, but is anchored in the whole life of the church." It is the entire spiritual experience of the church that "causes our understanding [emphasis added] of the original truth to grow and in the today of faith extracts anew from the yesterday of its historical origin what was meant for all time and yet can be understood only in the changing ages and in the particular way of each." (14) This emphasis on the connection between community and magisterium was taken up in the 2006 Lutheran-Roman Catholic study document, The Apostolicity of the Church: "The magisterium is in constant interaction with those instances of testimony to God and his revelation. It must, above all, take account of the reality of the inerrant faith of the people as a whole ..." (15) In the ecclesial process of understanding, which is the "concrete way in which tradition proceeds," the work of the magisterium is only one component, not the whole.

The magisterial function is certainly a "critical" component, but it is not what Ratzinger calls a "productive" component. (16) By this, he seems to be saying that the magisterium does not give us new bits of information to which we would not otherwise have access. Ratzinger further asserted that the risk of a "false orientation" in Humani Generis cannot be dismissed. One can hardly deny the problematic character of that position which regards only scripture (and I would add, tradition) as being unclear in contrast to the clarity of the teaching office:
  Again a comparison [of Dei Verbum 2:10] with the previous text from
  Humani Generis (DS 3886), which underlies it, shows the progressive
  nature of the revision that the Council [Vatican II] has carried out
  here. For the first time a text of the teaching office expressly
  points out the subordination of the teaching office to the word,
  i.e., its function as a servant. One can say, it is true, that there
  could never have been any serious doubt that this was in fact the
  case. Nevertheless the actual procedure often tended somewhat to
  obscure this order of things, though it had always been acknowledged
  in principle. Thus the risk of a false orientation cannot be
  dismissed when Humani Generis (which incidentally quotes Pius IX on
  the point) declares that it is obviously wrong to seek to clarify
  what is clear by the help of what is obscure--which means in the
  context that it is not the teaching office that can be clarified by
  Scriptures, but only, on the contrary, Scripture by the teaching
  office. (17)

To reduce the task of theology to the proof of the presence of the statements of the teaching office in the sources is, Ratzinger argues, to threaten the primacy of the sources--scripture and tradition--themselves and ultimately to destroy the serving, ministerial, character of the teaching office. (18) Or, as James Hanvey has put it, when the magisterium determines the tradition, the preservation of which authenticates the magisterium, what is generated is solipsistic discourse in which the magisterium becomes self-referential in order to demonstrate that it is consistent and unchanging. (19) This, of course, was precisely what Martin Chemnitz had already in the sixteenth century both warned against and feared!

Chemnitz concerns over the centuries have repeatedly been taken up by Lutheran theologians. One of the most balanced and best articulations of this can be found in a small 1964 monograph, Roman and Evangelical, by the Swedish Lutheran theologian Per Erik Persson. Within the modern period, Persson argues, the Catholic understanding of the role of tradition has undergone a major shift from what it was before the Reformation. The criterion of the correctness of a doctrine no longer consists in the fact that the doctrine can be found in scripture as explicated and interpreted within the tradition. Rather, the truth of a doctrine consists in that it is actually being proclaimed by the church today. It is the church's current consciousness of faith, incarnate in the teaching office of the church, which is the primary criterion or canon of truth. This, Persson argues, is the deepest gulf between Lutherans and Catholics. (20) The Catholic position can be seen most clearly and most concretely in the new Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption. With both of these dogmas, it was the current faith of the church that was the decisive factor, rather than either scripture or the historical tradition. (21) The result of this is that one no longer asks what the word of Cod has said, but what the church through the voice of the magisterium is now saying. (22) The inherent danger in this way of thinking is, as Ratzinger also acknowledged, that the primacy of scripture within the on-going tradition of the church is threatened and that the magisterium can too easily become something other than servant to the word of God, listening to and preserving that word against error. (23)

This problem of the relationship of the teaching office to the theological sources has been, it seems, a burr in Ratzinger's theological saddle over the decades. During the 1980s, while Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, he raised it again in Principles of Catholic Theology while discussing the concept of tradition


(1.) "... perspiciensque banc veritatem et disciplinam contineri in libris scriptis et sine scripto traditionibus" ("seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books and the unwritten traditions"). Yves M.-J. Congar, O.P., Tradition and Traditions: The Biblical. Historical, and Theological Evidence for Catholic Teaching on Tradition (San Diego: Basilica Press, 1966), 164 ff. [originally published in two volumes in 1960 and 1963; the Second Vatican Council opened in 1962]. Cf. Carl E. Braatens assertion that Trent did indeed teach a partim-partim theology. Braaten, That All May Believe: A theology of the Gospel and the Mission of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 21. Here, I think. Braaten has overstated his case with regard to Trent itself, although he is correct in identifying what occurred in post-Tridentine Roman Catholic theology.

(2.) Braaten, That All May Believe, 21. See also Scripture and Tradition. Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue IX, eds. Harold C. Skillrud, J. Francis Stafford, Daniel F. Martensen (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995), 31-32.

(3.) Holy Writ or Holy Church: The Crisis of the Protestant Reformation (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1959), 3, 11, 20, 22, 244 ff. See also Carl E. Braaten, "A Shared Dilemma: Catholics and Lutherans on the Authority and Interpretation of Scripture," Pro Ecclesia vol. X, no. 1:65.

(4.) Tradition and Traditions, 112, 117.

(5.) During the twentieth century, Lutheran theology has increasingly articulated the sola scriptura principle within the broader context of the interconnectedness of church, scripture, and tradition. The Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue has, moreover, clearly shown that Lutheran theologians, while giving primacy and ultimacy to sacred scripture, do not want to isolate it from the tradition, the teaching office of the church or the Christian community as a whole. See, e.g., Gustaf Aulen, The Faith of the Christian Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 69-71; Carl E. Braaten, "The Problem of Authority in the Church" in Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds., The Catholicity of the Reformation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 61-62; Scripture and Tradition: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue IX, 29, 50; The Apostolicity of the Church Study Document of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity. The Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2006), 37-38, 190.

(6.) An English translation can be found in Fred Kramer, ed., Examination of the Council of Trent. Part 1 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1971), 272.

(7.) Ibid., 220, 274.

(8.) Ibid., 257. This theme, significantly, was affirmed in Catholic theology for the first time at a magisterial level at the Second Vatican Council in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum): "But the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter, however, is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it." Dei Verbum, 2:10. The 2006 Lutheran-Roman Catholic Study Document, The Apostolicity of the Church, 194, also attempted to deal with this issue by bringing together Lutheran and Catholic concerns with regard to the relationship between the church's teaching voice, scripture, tradition, and the Christian community. It affirmed the legitimacy of the teaching office to formulate doctrine while also asserting that the magisterium is not to be considered as an isolated and autonomous ministry.

(9.) Tradition and Traditions, 182.

(10.) Yves Congar, "The Magisterium and theologians--a short history," Theology Digest, vol. 25, no. 1 (Spring 1977), 18. Catholic Romanticism in the form of the Tubingen School of Theology helped to shape the understanding of the relationship between tradition and institution during the modern period and to push it in the direction in which tradition increasingly became identified with the voice of the magisterium. See Symbolism, trans. James Burton Robertson (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997), 259, 266-267 and Michael J. Himes, Ongoing Incarnation. Johann Adam Mohler and the Beginnings of Modern Ecclesiology (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997), 316, 328-329.

(11.) The Temporal Mission of the Holy Ghost or Reason and Revelation (New York: P. J. Kennedy, 1905), 227-228.

(12.) Humani Generis, 18-21. This encyclical can conveniently be found on the Vatican Web site:

(13.) "The Transmission of Divine Revelation" in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II (New York: Herder and Herder: 1969), 3:196.

(14.) Ibid., 3:186.

(15.) The Apostolicity of the Church, 194.

(16.) "The Transmission of Divine Revelation," Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, 3:186.

(17.) Ibid., 3:197.

(18.) Ibid.

(19.) See James Hanvey, "Tradition as Subversion," International Journal of Systematic Theology, vol. 6, no. 1 (January 2004): 56.

(20.) Roman and Evangelical (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964), 28. The assumption, of course, is that this current consciousness of faith is somehow present in scripture and tradition. Within this new framework, scripture and tradition do not cease to be normative, but they are the regula fidei remota and are normative only in the sense defined by the teaching office. The teaching office is the primary canon of faith, the regula proxima fidei, as Pope Pius XII's encyclical Humani Generis spelled out.

(21.) Ibid., 30-36. In the final analysis, what this means is that the teaching office to its own voice through the centuries, since it is the creative, life-giving and constitutive principle of the church. When one listens to this teaching office, then, one hears the voice of the Spirit.

(22.) Ibid., 52-54.

(23.) "The Transmission of Divine Revelation," Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, 3:197.

Chrysostom Frank

Full Professor, St. Vianney Theological Seminary
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Author:Frank, Chrysostom
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Feb 1, 2011
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