Sacred Tradition is Biblical: A book report on "The Meaning of Tradition" by Yves Congar

Updated: Jan 2

By Luke Lancaster

Yves Congar was a Catholic priest who was very influential at the Second Vatican Council, and he wrote a large work on the subject of Tradition known as Tradition and Traditions, which he subsequently shortened into a much smaller work called The Meaning of Tradition, which is what this paper will be on.


The work is a thorough explication of Tradition, how it relates to Scripture, and a refutation of Sola Scriptura. It flows very smoothly from each topic to the next, and I will focus on four main points: A basic understanding of Tradition, how Scripture relates to Tradition, how doctrine develops, and finally, the need for the Magisterium. Those four points will each end with a critique or praise in the last paragraph.


A Basic Understanding of Tradition


Tradition is similar to a relay race, starting with God the Father, then going to Jesus, to the apostles, then to their successors (e.g. Ignatius of Antioch), and their successors, and on and on. It is the whole deposit of faith that is handed on from generation to generation, including the “Scriptures…sacraments, ecclesiastical institutions, the powers of ministry, customs and liturgical rites, in fact, all the Christian realities themselves” (p. 17-18).


Sometimes Tradition is spoken about in the sense of something distinct from Scripture, but Congar prefers the former position of Tradition as encompassing everything, for that is what the Church Fathers held. Tradition was transmitted from Jesus to the apostles without writing, but rather orally and under the Jewish understanding of discipleship, which meant imitating the “masters’ actions and personal way of life” (p. 22). As seen, truly everything was communicated to the apostles. So, when teachings started to be written down (i.e. the New Testament), they presupposed a larger body of knowledge that was being handed down.


An example of that would be where the Scriptures mention “breaking bread” (Ac. 2:42, 46), and assume the reader knows it refers to the Eucharist and how it was celebrated. Paul only addressed the fragmentary issues that the churches he founded were dealing with when he wrote his letters. Paul, without repeating them, “reminded the Thessalonians of the instructions he had given them verbally (1 Thess. 4:1-2; 2 Thess. 2:13); finally he told the Corinthians that he would settle a certain number of points at his next visit (1 Cor. 11:34) (p. 37).


What Congar said about Tradition was a very thorough and easily understandable position on the deposit of faith. The Scriptural references he gave were excellent, and would help a Protestant get out of the mindset of Sola Scriptura. Congar drew a straight line from God the Father all the way to the early Church regarding faith and practice. The point about how the Jewish understanding of discipleship operated and would have occurred with the apostles was particularly striking. When Congar mentioned the “breaking of the bread” phrase in Scripture, he could have offered more thorough evidence demonstrating that the phrase did, indead, refer to the Eucharist. However, his point was pretty clear.


Scripture and Tradition


Tradition can be seen in either one of two ways: 1) As the content of Scripture in the same or different way; or 2) as a different content from Scripture. The Church Fathers took position 1), as does Congar, where Tradition is a sort of hermeneutic that explicates Scripture. The essence of Tradition is, therefore, its dogmatic interpretation of Scripture. Protestants sadly do not follow the Church Fathers and their claim for the need of Tradition, but instead say that Scripture is self-interpreting, and does not need Tradition to be the lens through which to see Scripture. Catholics say that Scripture is indeed the supreme standard, but Tradition is just as necessary. If Tradition taught in contradiction to Scripture, then the specific teaching would have to be rejected.


So the Scripture is the codified, fixed standard which the Church uses to: “verify, confirm, prove and, where necessary, criticize Tradition” (p. 95). Many Catholics (e.g. the Church Fathers and Congar) have believed that all the teachings of the faith necessary for salvation can be found in Scripture in “one way or another” (p. 99). None of those teachings necessary for salvation are taken strictly from Scripture nor strictly from Tradition, however. Rather, Tradition makes explicit what is implicit within Scripture, and vice-versa.


If Protestants only knew how high Catholics hold Scripture! I loved what Congar had to say about how Scripture and Tradition interrelated. Scripture is the clearest and earliest monument or witness to Tradition, so it is thus the supreme source of Tradition, of which everything else from Tradition must agree with. It would have been better if Congar had given some more evidence to his claim that the Church Fathers taught that Tradition is just the content of Scripture, but this book is a summary of his much larger book so I assume he substantiated that claim.


When he spoke on how Protestants reject Tradition as a lens to see Scripture, but that Scripture is self-interpreting, he could have pointed out how Protestants basically make up their own Tradition. It caused and still causes serious disunity in the faith, with tons of different denominations coming up with different doctrines because they have their own Tradition. For the Church of Christ believes that baptism regenerates, and only baptism within their denomination, whereas some non-denominational Christians do not even get baptized!


Development of Tradition


That Tradition which was handed down developed over time as well, with, “practical conclusions connected with doctrine [made], to determine Christian practice or the life of the Church according to the Gospel” (p. 39-40). Tradition developed and practical conclusions such as the Lenten fast (of which St. Irenaeus, St. Jerome, and St. Leo mention), infant baptism (Origen and St. Augustine held), prayers for the dead (St. John Chrysostom speaks about it), and many, many more were made. Most of the time those developments within Tradition have Scriptural roots, but they are in the form of “analogies…hints and presages,” rather than explicit statements (p. 41).


Tradition is not stagnant, but has, “developed through the centuries by the Councils, the Fathers, the liturgy and institutions, the teaching of the Magisterium and the doctors, the practice of the faithful and the entire exercise of the Christian life” (p. 99). St. Vincent of Lerins taught that doctrine must develop, and an example of his teaching would be the terminology of transubstantiation, which was an explication of the Eucharistic reality already believed by the Church from the beginning.


New ideas, like the Immaculate Conception of Mary, come from the analogy of faith, which is the “relationship and proportions existing between the different statements or articles that have been revealed” (p. 112). It is like the prediction of the existence of Saturn. So development is simply a more thorough explication of Scripture and Tradition, because the understanding of Christians about the deposit was designed to grow.


All the aspects of Scripture, Tradition, and development of doctrine were touched on very nicely by Congar. Protestants reject the whole idea of development of doctrine, and I think Congar could have done a better at pointing out how Protestants themselves hold to doctrines that took time to develop! The two natures of Christ, the eternal nature of hell, original sin, etc. are all beliefs that took centuries to develop. Congar did do a good job at pointing out how the Church Fathers developed doctrines, such as praying for the dead. That shows the depth of his scholarship.


The Need for the Magisterium


The subject of Tradition is the person who transmits the teaching. So that would have to be the Church, who transmits Tradition as it’s instrument. Could not the Church err though in that transmission of teaching over the centuries?


Congar answers no, for the Holy Spirit guides that transmission, as He is now the soul of the Church, which is the Body of Christ. The apostles were enlivened by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Ac. 1:8), they were to be reminded of the Gospel by Him (Jn. 14:26), He was to lead them into all truth (Jn. 16:12-13), He witnessed with them (Jn. 15:26-27; Ac. 5:32), and when they gathered to make a formal declaration, they could say, “It is the Holy Spirit’s pleasure and ours (Ac. 15:28)” (p. 53). The successors to the apostles have that same Holy Spirit down through the centuries.


The Holy Spirit is responsible for the way the Church has understood God’s Word, defeated heresies, made decisions at Councils, and elected leaders. Protestants have gone too far as to reject the, “Church framework that is definitely public, comprising an established ministry, sacraments, etc.” (p. 61). The average Christian needs the Magisterium, whose role it is to, “keep faithfully, judge authentically and define infallibly the content of the deposit” (p. 63). Those successors to the apostles were, and are today, the servants of Tradition, and are not above or outside of it, but in fact are within Tradition.


What was really on target was how Congar emphasized the role of the Holy Spirit in keeping the sacred deposit of faith free from error. The biblical basis for that doctrine was very thorough and clear. He could have brought in the fact that “the gates of hell will not prevail” against the Church, but what he did say made that truth clear. Another point which could have been emphasized is that every Protestant is basically his own Magisterium. For no one is completely free from biases. Not everyone is guided by the Holy Spirit in interpreting Scripture.


Conclusion


This study by Congar should be a must-read for every catechumen seeking to enter the Church. The book was very accessible at only around 150 pages, and contained a number of points that could be expanded on very deeply (which was done in Congar’s book Tradition and Traditions). I was especially intrigued regarding what he said about Scripture containing all the truths necessary for salvation (material sufficiency).


What he had to say about development of doctrine was particularly impressive as well, for it makes sense that there would be an “analogy of faith,” where certain beliefs are compared to one another and implications are fleshed out. That would be the case with the assumption of Mary, for if she was truly immaculately conceived, then it would be very likely that she was assumed into Heaven. In the words of Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., “Congar is perhaps the greatest master of the theology of Tradition who has ever lived” (Forward).