What is Tradition?

One of the oddest things about religious traditionalists is that it has a rather untraditional meaning of “tradition”. People are often confused between something being very old and something being traditional. They may often go together but they aren’t the same thing, especially in theology. Tradition has a specific meaning, it simply referred to that which was continuously transmitted or handed down from the beginning. Something could be very very old and yet not have originated from the source.

The Traditional Understanding of Tradition

This of course brings us to Newman’s Theory of the Development of Doctrine. As much pains as Roman Catholics take to show how this doesn’t really concede any “real” or “true” change, the fact is that the theory quite frankly is simply a denial of Tradition in the proper sense of the word. Before Newman, in the age of Bossuet, virtually every major Roman Catholic theologian in the 16th-19th century (e.g. Boussuet, Francis Suarez, Cardinal John De Lugo, etc) believed that the apostles were explicitly aware of doctrines like transubstantiation and the two wills of Christ, etc. Whatever the Church would later teach are nothing more than faithful transmissions of the very doctrines which the apostles explicitly knew and taught. For them it was impossible for the future generations of the Church or later Christians to claim to know more than the apostles themselves. In the works of the early Church Fathers there is no sense or consciousness that later churches would get a better or clearer idea of the faith than the apostles. Their obsession was with accurate and faithful transmission of what went on before, they did not look forward to some future council to clarify doctrinal teachings or formulas nor did they believe that later Christians would know better than them concerning the faith.

The problem of course is that obviously concepts like the Trinity or transubstantiation could not be found in the early Fathers explicitly. How then did all these doctrines get transmitted? The predominant theory, still appealed to in some parts of the Church today, although hedged with many qualifications, is that there is another source of “unwritten oral traditions” whereby such doctrines are transmitted. This theory went hand in hand with a belief that the common piety of the faithful themselves were a source of tradition. The Fathers and doctors of the Church could not possibly record everything, so it supposedly got orally transmitted via the practical piety of the general populace. To this day Eastern Orthodoxy still holds that the people of God themselves are the “guardians of the faith” rather than the clergy (the 1848 Encyclical letter of the Eastern Patriarchs).

The Collapse of the Theory of Unwritten Oral Traditions

The idea of unwritten oral traditions however has become more or less abandoned in most parts of high church denominations today. Speculatively I would attribute this to, firstly, the primitive Baptists and Congregationalists appeal to such “unwritten traditions” amongst unrecorded congregations or sects which supposedly preserved the true tradition and faith of the primitive Church throughout history, apart from later corruptions of the mainstream body. Secondly the long war of the Guelphs/Papalists (those who supported the supremacy of the Pope over the Emperor) against the Ghibellines/Conciliarists (those who supported the Emperor, who can be thought of representative of the people, and Church Councils) was complete in Vatican I in the declaration of the universal and supreme authority of the pope, who can exercise his infallible office all by himself, independently of the wider church. This confirmed once and for all the clerical nature of the Roman Magisterium and signalled the end of the idea that the wider body or the laity itself could be a source of preserved unwritten apostolic traditions. Finally of course the increasing divergence between the official teaching of the Magisterium and the beliefs and practices of the lower clergy and the bulk of the laity today rendered ludicrous any idea that the laity could be a preserver of such unwritten oral traditions from the apostles.

The Magisterial Protestant/Jesuit Theory: Logical Deductions from Scripture

Naturally the Roman Catholics then were not without other options. The other theory, dominant amongst Protestants and amongst some Jesuits, is the idea that later doctrines were logically deduced or inferred from Scriptural premises. This theory has precedence in theologians like John Duns Scotus who said:

…many necessary truths are not expressed in Sacred Scripture, even if they are virtually contained there, as conclusions in principles; in [circa] the investigation of which the labor of the doctors and expositors was useful.

Thus, if we don’t believe in the idea of unwritten oral traditions, we can appeal to both the Scriptures and our Reason to draw out the logical implications contained within the apostolically revealed premises given in Scripture. Thus later doctrines may not be found explicitly in Scripture, but they are contained there “as conclusions in principles” which our reason draws out. This is why the Magisterial Protestants as a whole had a particularly high view of reason which was able to draw the correct inferences from Scripture.

Newman’s Implicit Concessions to the Protestants<

With the rise of the modern historical method it was becoming increasingly difficult to argue that the early church fathers explicitly knew of doctrines like purgatory or transubstantiation. If they cannot continuously trace an explicit knowledge or confession of those doctrines from the very beginning, then those doctrines are in no sense of the word “traditional”, that is, continuously explicitly transmitted from the beginning. But as we know, Roman Catholics in the early 19th century actually need not have been worried. They could either insist that the practical piety of the faithful transmitted their present doctrines via “unwritten oral traditions”, or they could go with logical deductions from Scriptural premises. There are two things to keep in mind. This was before Vatican I and the declarations of papal infallibility as well as the various Marian dogmas. Roman Catholic theologians back then were still confident that they could make a biblical case for saintly invocation, purgatory and transubstantiation, etc.

What we see however is a loss of nerve on Cardinal Newman’s part. Instead of resting his case for Romanism upon logical inferences from the Scriptures, or upon such unwritten oral traditions, he instead essentially conceded that the Apostles or early Church were not aware of later Roman Catholic doctrines nor had they once for all established all the necessary truths of the Christian faith. All we are given from the beginning are “seeds” or principles from which later doctrines would “grow” or develop from as the Church reflected and debate on the matter. Newman thus essentially argued for what every major Roman theologian before had denied: That later Christians can claim to know better than the apostles about the doctrine of the Trinity or the Christian faith if for no other reason than that they have made the logical deductions and inferences the apostles did not.

Newman’s theory scandalised his contemporary Romanists who were aghast at this shocking concession to the Protestant argument that the apostles knew nothing of so many Roman Catholic accretions and therefore were guilty of deviating from the traditional apostolic deposit of faith. Newman’s theory was even condemned as heretical by some Roman Catholic thinkers and his theory was strongly criticised by Archbishop Manning. Newman tried to get the approval of Giovanni Perrone, a prominent Italian theologian who occupied a chair of dogma at Roman college, by presenting a list of doctrines he thought could not be accounted for under the traditional theories (the validity of heretical baptism, the canon of Scripture, the sinlessness of the virgin Mary, the doctrine of indulgences, eucharistic sacrifice, etc). Perrone merely responded with an unamused: “All these the Church has always held and professed.”

It would be instructive to note that both Perrone and particularly Cardinal Manning had a pretty low view of history. Cardinal Manning dismissively pointed out that no Roman Catholic deduces his faith from antiquity or history while to Perrone’s Italian mind Roman Catholic doctrines were logically deduced from dogmatic declarations; what weight do mere inductions from history possess against such rigorous deductions?

Conclusion: The Abandonment of Tradition and its Reinvention

The Lutheran church historian Hermann Sasse noted that even before Vatican I a plausible biblical case for the Roman Catholic position could still be made. With the Marian dogmas and Vatican I, Roman Catholic dogmas could no longer be plausibly inferred from Scripture or witness of the early church, especially when it is frankly admitted that the dogmas are the product of speculative or “conclusion theology” rather than Biblical inferences or even transmission from the early church. It is not by accident that with the Marian dogmas and Vatican I, the theory of unwritten oral traditions was quietly shelved away, the Jesuit theory of logical deductions from Scripture set aside, and Newman’s theory of doctrinal development acquired new strength.

What is clear however is that Newman’s theory of doctrinal development is itself a novelty, it is unprecedented in its concession that so many central Roman teachings were unknown to the apostles or the early Church. What we are witnessing in traditionalist circles is an ironically modern phenomenon, when the cultural context or background collapses, there is an attempt to romantically reinvent the past to reorient oneself. Tradition no longer refers to actual teachings transmitted from the source. Instead it involves a human idealisation projected backwards in time to give the illusion of antiquity and a grounding upon the past. Of course this foundation is itself ironically sustained only by a presentist act of narration and tale spinning. It is simply not borne out by the facts of history.

It is perhaps a great irony that one of the most common response to the alleged Protestant deviation from tradition is to invent one’s own version of tradition.

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