Scripture and Tradition – an Excerpt from Reading the New Testament in the Church

The following is an excerpt from Reading the New Testament in the Church, by Francis Moloney.

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If the Tradition of the Christian community gave birth to the Scriptures, nourishes them, and keeps them alive in the community, then what is the relationship between the Tradition and Scripture, and how does this relationship play into Christian life and practice?

As we have seen in our reflections on Vatican II, especially Dei Verbum, the council’s 1965 document on Revelation, this is a matter of some concern. One of the several causes of the sixteenth-century Reformation was the importance of some beliefs and practices in the Roman Catholic Tradition that had no roots in the biblical Word of God.

Cover ArtAt the Council of Trent and at Vatican I, the Catholic response was that there were two sources of Revelation, namely, Scripture and Tradition. Although it never became an article of Roman Catholic belief, both councils maintained that the Tradition had a certain priority. It did not matter whether aspects of Catholic faith and practice were not found in the Scriptures. Insofar as they were part of the Tradition, they were part of the divine communication with humankind.

This stance, although nuanced now in ways that are different from the period of the Council of Trent, remains an essential aspect of the use of the Scriptures in the Catholic Church. To make a play on catchphrases from the time of the Reformation, Catholics are committed not to sola Scriptura (only Scripture) but to prima Scriptura (the primacy of Scripture).

After a hefty debate at Vatican II, there emerged something entirely new: Scripture and Tradition are intimately linked. Both contribute “to make the people of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith” and “converse with the spouse [i.e., the Church] of His beloved Son” (DV 8). The two different sources for Revelation are now regarded as one:

“Sacred tradition and sacred scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. Flowing from the same divine wellspring, both of them merge, in a sense, and move towards the same goal” (DV 9).

This is a major contribution to the history of Roman Catholic thought. Fortunately, in that same statement, the council does not attempt to eliminate a healthy tension that might exist between Scripture and Tradition. This tension is found in the words “both of them merge, in a sense [Latin: in unum quodammodo coalescunt], and move towards the same goal.”

The fathers of the council wisely decided not to attempt a description of how the two merge into one. They recognized that by means of an interaction between Scripture and Tradition we encounter divine communication with the human. The initiative in this communicative act lies with God, and thus we do not know how this functions, but the highest form of the Church’s Magisterium stated in Dei Verbum 9 that it happens.

It is within this “uncomfortable” relationship between Scripture and Tradition that Christian faith is lived, even though there must be an awareness of the great richness of both Tradition and Scripture.

©2015 by Francis J. Moloney, SDB. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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