Searching through the passages of Catholic teaching on the relation of Scripture and Tradition in the indispensable pdf of Denzinger-Hünermann, I was struck by how often they use some variation on the formula “written or unwritten” to refer to Scripture and Tradition respectively. This seems to be derived from the locus classicus on these things 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “Therefore, brothers, be steadfast, and preserve the traditions you were taught by us whether by word of mouth or by letter.” The teaching of the Apostle is both written and unwritten, and this is true of Apostolic Teaching in general: it is handed down in two forms, distinguished by whether they are written or not. Thus the Council of Trent:
[This Gospel] our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline; and seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions [in libris scriptis et sine scripto traditionibus] which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted [traditae] as it were from hand to hand.
Now, one can ask are these “unwritten traditions” essentially unwritten, or is their unwrittenness merely an accident; that is, are they doctrines which the Apostles simply didn’t get around to writing down, but could in principle be written down later, or are they the sort of thing that can’t be written down.
Often when people say “Apostolic Tradition” or “Sacred Tradition” they really mean something written down. Pope Benedict XVI in his memoirs (written before he became pope) notes that the historical method that came into vogue in Germany with the Enlightenment, and concentrated on documentary evidence, lead many theologians to identify Apostolic Tradition with doctrines for which there was documentary evidence from the early Church. He tells the following story from his student days in Munich to illustrate the point:
Before Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven was deﬁned, all theological faculties in the world were consulted for their opinion. Our teachers’ answer was emphatically negative. What here became evident was the one-sidedness, not only of the historical, but also of the historicist method in theology. “Tradition” was identiﬁed with what could be proved on the basis of texts. Altaner, the patrologist from Würzburg (who also had come from Breslau), had proven in a scientiﬁcally persuasive manner that the doctrine of Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven was unknown before the ﬁfth century; this doctrine, therefore, he argued, could not belong to the “apostolic tradition”. And this was his conclusion, which my teachers at Munich shared. This argument is compelling if you understand “tradition” strictly as the handing down of ﬁxed formulas and texts. This was the position that our teachers represented. But if you conceive of “tradition” as the living process whereby the Holy Spirit introduces us to the fullness of truth and teaches us how to understand what previously we could still not grasp (cf. Jn 16:12-13), then subsequent “remembering” (cf. Jn 16:4, for instance) can come to recognize what it had not caught sight of previously and yet was already handed down in the original Word. But such a perspective was still quite unattainable by German theological thought.
The historicist approach that Ratzinger attacks here is still very much with us in many “progressive” theologians, but there is also a way in which more “traditionalist” Catholics identify Apostolic Tradition with something written. They are prone to identify it with the written definitions of what Ratzinger above calls the “remembering” of what was implicit in the original word; that is, they identify it with dogma, with that which the Magisterium has explicitly defined (in writing) as belonging to God’s Revelation.
One way of seeing that neither of these positions can be right is by recalling that Apostolic Tradition is referred to as the “Word of God.” Eg. Vatican I: “innixi Dei Verbo scripto et tradito” [relying on the word of God written and handed down], and Vatican II: “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God.” But no one would say of any actual non-scriptural document that it is the Word of God. Not the writings of the ante-Nicene Fathers, nor the Canons and Decrees of Ecumenical Councils, nor the ex cathedra teachings of Popes; none of these are ever called “the Word of God.”
A great help in understanding what the Apostolic Tradition is, and a great influence on the Church’s own teaching on this in Dei Verbum, is Bl. Cardinal Newman’s concept of “idea.” At the beginning of the Essay on Development Newman writes:
The idea which represents an object or supposed object is commensurate with the sum total of its possible aspects, however they may vary in the separate consciousness of individuals; and in proportion to the variety of aspects under which it presents itself to various minds is its force and depth, and the argument for its reality. Ordinarily an idea is not brought home to the intellect as objective except through this variety; like bodily substances, which are not apprehended except under the clothing of their properties and results, and which admit of being walked round, and surveyed on opposite sides, and in different perspectives, and in contrary lights, in evidence of their reality. And, as views of a material object may be taken from points so remote or so opposed, that they seem at first sight incompatible, and especially as their shadows will be disproportionate, or even monstrous, and yet all these anomalies will disappear and all these contrarieties be adjusted, on ascertaining the point of vision or the surface of projection in each case; so also all the aspects of an idea are capable of coalition, and of a resolution into the object to which it belongs; and the primâ facie dissimilitude of its aspects becomes, when explained, an argument for its substantiveness and integrity, and their multiplicity for its originality and power.
A powerful and real idea, when it takes hold of many minds becomes a principle of activity, “is not merely received passively in this or that form into many minds, but it becomes an active principle within them, leading them to an ever-new contemplation of itself, to an application of it in various directions, and a propagation of it on every side.” This is what Newman calls “development” “the germination and maturation of some truth or apparent truth on a large mental field.”
The “idea” to which Newman applies this account in the Essay is Christianity itself. The Apostles received that idea from Christ and handed it down to their successors, in the handing down through the ages the idea is “developed” in the sense that various aspects of it are brought out more explicitly, but it remains the same idea, indeed the infallibility of the Church is meant to guard the purity of the idea.
In a later essay Newman speaks of the “depositum fidei” as an idea:
What then is meant by the Depositum? is it a list of articles that can be numbered? no, it is a large philosophy; all parts of which are connected together, and in a certain sense correlative together, so that he who really knows one part, may be said to know all. . . . Thus the Apostles had the fullness of revealed knowledge, a fullness which they could as little realize to themselves, as the human mind, as such, can have all its thoughts present before it at once. They are elicited according to the occasion. A man of genius cannot go about with his genius in his hand: in an Apostle’s mind great part of his knowledge is from the nature of the case latent or implicit… I wish to hold that there is nothing which the Church has deﬁned or shall deﬁne but what an Apostle, if asked, would have been fully able to answer and would have answered, as the Church has answered, the one answering by inspiration, the other from its gift of infallibility; and that the Church never will be able to answer, or has been able to answer, what the Apostles could not answer…
Reading Dei Verbum with this in mind sheds a new light on everything. How is such an active “idea,” “latent” with “implicit” knowledge handed on? Not just through the Apostles telling people stuff, and then those people telling other people etc. Such an active idea is handed on in the whole form of life given by the Apostles. Thus Dei Verbum:
Therefore Christ the Lord in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion (see Cor. 1:20; 3:13; 4:6), commissioned the Apostles to preach to all men that Gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching, and to impart to them heavenly gifts. […] This commission was faithfully fulfilled by the Apostles who, by their oral preaching, by example, and by observances handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they had learned through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. (7)
“The full revelation of the supreme God” cannot be fully expressed in written words, because it is Christ Himself. But tradition, as a form of life including preaching but also habits of life and rituals (example and observances), is able to hand on that revelation in a more complete way than any explicit formulation could. Ratzinger, himself one of the main periti in the drafting of Dei Verbum, puts it thus:
Revelation, which is to say, God’s approach to man, is always greater than what can be contained in human words, greater even than the words of Scripture. As I have already said in connection with my work on Bonaventure, both in the Middle Ages and at Trent it would have been impossible to refer to Scripture simply as “revelation”, as is the normal linguistic usage today. Scripture is the essential witness of revelation, but revelation is something alive, something greater and more: proper to it is the fact that it arrives and is perceived—otherwise it could not have become revelation. Revelation is not a meteor fallen to earth that now lies around somewhere as a rock mass from which rock samples can be taken and submitted to laboratory analysis. Revelation has instruments; but it is not separable from the living God, and it always requires a living person to whom it is communicated. Its goal is always to gather and unite men, and this is why the Church is a necessary aspect of revelation. If, however, revelation is more than Scripture, if it transcends Scripture, then the “rock analysis”—which is to say, the historical-critical method—cannot be the last word concerning revelation; rather, the living organism of the faith of all ages is then an intrinsic part of revelation. And what we call “tradition” is precisely that part of revelation that goes above and beyond Scripture and cannot be comprehended within a code of formulas. (Milestones, p. 127)
Considered thus, Sacred Tradition is the Church’s very life, which reflects the light of the Eternal Word as the moon reflects the sun. Thus Dei Verbum writes:
Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.
A word I want to focus on here is “worship.” The importance of the Sacred Liturgy for the handing on of Sacred Tradition has been a theme of magisterial teaching at least since the famous lines of the “Indiculus” (circa 440): “obsecrationum quoque sacerdotalium sacramenta respiciamus, quae ab Apostolis tradita in toto mundo atque in omni Ecclesia catholica uniformiter celebrantur, ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi,” usually summarized “lex orandi lex credendi.” But in Dei Verbum one senses the influence of the Liturgical Movement.
For all its blind spots, the Liturgical Movement brought out the importance of the Liturgy for the handing on of Apostolic Tradition with admirable clarity. I am thinking, for example of Odo Casel’s work on “Mystery.” Casel takes “Mystery” to refer first to the ineffable and invisible God, and second to God’s Revelation in Christ:
Christ is the personal Mystery, because he reveals the invisible God in the flesh. The deeds of his self-abasement, and above all his sacrificial death on the cross, are mysteries, because in them God reveals himself in a way that goes beyond all human standards of measurement. Above all, though, his resurrection and exaltation are mysteries, because in them divine glory was revealed in the man Jesus, and this in a form that is hidden from the world and only open to believers.
The third sense of mystery is the one that I am thinking of:
This “Mystery of Christ” the Apostles proclaimed to the Ekklesia and the Ekklesia passes it on to all generations. But just as the plan of salvation does not involve simply teaching but, above all, the salvific deed of Christ, so the Church leads mankind to salvation not merely through the word but also through holy actions or deeds… Now that Christ is no longer visibly among us, as Leo the Great says “what was visible in our Redeemer has passed over into the mysteries.” (Sermo 74.2) His Person, His salvific deeds, the action of His grace we find in the Mysteries of the Liturgy, as Ambrose says, “I find You in Your mysteries”. (Apologia Prophetae David, 58)… The Mystery is ἄρρητον, ineffable, unspeakable, not only in the original sense of the word, that the initiates were not allowed to speak of it, but also in the sense that it is impossible to fully express in words. Therefore all speech about the Mystery remains inadequate. But precisely because it is ineffable, there is always a possibility of proclaiming something of it. The Spirit of God will reveal ever more to the willing…The essence of Christianity is the Person of the God-man and his Redemptive acts for the salvation of the Church, which is thus drawn into the Mystery. For Paul, Peter, and John, the heart of faith is not the teachings of Christ, not the deeds of his ministry, but the acts by which he saves us… Christianity, in its full and original meaning, the “Gospel of God,” or “the Gospel of Christ” is not a world-view with a religious backdrop, not a theological system or a moral law, but Mystery in the Pauline sense, that is God’s Revelation to mankind through theandric acts, full of life and power, and man’s passing over to God that this Revelation and these deeds enable… (Das christliche Kultmysterium, Regensburg 1932, pp. 18-27; translation partly my own and partly taken from here and here)
I think this is the heart of the “unwritten Tradition” handed on to us by the Apostles: the presence of the Eternal Word of God, the full Revelation of the Father in the Sacred Mysteries.
What are the consequences of this for how we do theology? I think Pope Benedict XVI is a really good example of how theology should be practiced given this account of Sacred Tradition. The first volume of his collected works to be published was the volume on the liturgy. In his introduction Pope Benedict notes the liturgy has always been “the center” of his theological research, even though his academic specialty is actually fundamental theology–the theology of faith and of revelation, for these are closely related. Reading Pope Benedict’s work one can see that that the “object” of His science is really the Revelation of God has handed down in the Church in Scripture and in the unwritten word found above all in the Sacred Mysteries. The written witness to the Tradition found in the Fathers is of great importance–but as a witness to a word to which we have present access in the living tradition. Thus the works of later doctors of the Church is also a witness to Apostolic Tradition (cf. Melchior Cano’s loci theologici). The infallible Magisterium of the Church is of great importance in excluding errors and defining specific propositions as being contained in Revelation. In the professio fidei drafted by the then prefect of the CDF, Cardinal Ratzinger, we say “I also believe everything contained in the word of God, whether written or handed down in Tradition, which the Church, either by a solemn judgement or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed.” The explicit statements of the Church are thus of great importance in defining specific propositions contained in the Word of God, but the object of faith is always that Word.