Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Expanding a Previous Observation

In a previous post I said that if we Catholics ignore tradition as Protestants do, then we will misread the Bible as they do. This remark was challenged by a Protestant, who denied that they ignore tradition. I think I have sufficiently replied in the combox there (especially with Nick’s help), but I think that some more may be said about the subject.

Catholics make a distinction between tradition and big-T Tradition or Sacred Tradition, and I think it’s relevant in this case. The latter is not coextensive with the former: that is, Sacred Tradition is not exactly the same as the collection of writings produced by the Church Fathers. The writings of the Fathers aren’t divine revelation, and consequently they may err. By way of an atrocious example: St. Thomas Aquinas, who was not a Father of the Church but is a Doctor of the Church, erred concerning the Immaculate Conception. No matter the degree of respect that I have for his writings, they’re not revelation and they’re not inspired. The same is true for the Fathers.

But the same is not true of Sacred Tradition, because Sacred Tradition is divine revelation.

“Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.”

“and [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching.” [CCC §81]

The Catechism continues, making clear the distinction between small-t and big-T Tradition:

The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. the first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition.

Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium. [§83]

Small-t tradition is subject to correction and change; Sacred Tradition is not, because it has been revealed by God.

Now in the present context, I said that we must read the Bible within the living Tradition of the whole Church. As my one or two regular readers know, I’ve said that exact thing repeatedly; it’s a quotation once again from the Catechism (§113):

Read the Scripture within “the living Tradition of the whole Church”. According to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God’s Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture (“…according to the spiritual meaning which the Spirit grants to the Church”).

It is not sufficient merely to dig around in the Church Fathers. Anyone can do that. Protestants do it; the heresiarchs of the fourth and fifth centuries surely did that as well. Just as Bryan Cross has said [quoted here] that “Scripture alone is not sufficient to prevent heresy,” the same may surely be said of the Fathers, whose writings are not divinely inspired. So to say that one doesn’t ignore tradition because he quotes the Fathers doesn’t answer to the issue. The tradition according to which we must interpret the Scripture and the Fathers is the same: the Sacred Tradition preserved and taught by the Church. Only by doing this may we have any confidence that we are properly understanding what God has said in the Bible; only by doing this may we have any confidence that we are properly reading the Church Fathers.


Nick said...

That St Thomas "erred" in regards to the Immaculate Conception is something that needs serious qualification. When examining his line of reasoning, he actually all but affirmed the doctrine (he fully affirmed the Blessed Virgin never sinned and was sanctified from the earliest moments in the womb of St Anne). The main difficulty was that he thought the soul was infused 14 days after conception, thus the notion of "the moment of conception" didn't make sense.


Reginald de Piperno said...

Hi Nick,

Elsewhere I've said that St. Thomas got this wrong because he considered only two possibilities: grace before conception and grace after conception, rather than grace at the moment of conception.

I don't think that it does him an injustice to say that he erred, even if we insist that it was not his fault due to his reliance upon other authorities.

There is a brief essay in the print edition of the Summa on this subject (p. 2155, in volume 4), but unfortunately it appears to be omitted from the New Advent site (I don't see it between III, Q26 and III, Q27, which is where it appears in the print edition) where they say basically what I said above about the nature of the error (and I probably got that from the book in the first place anyway).

It's also worth pointing out—for the sake of honesty, and certainly not because I wish to cast aspersions on him who is my patron saint!—that he explicitly said “The flesh of the Virgin was conceived in original sin.” (ST III Q14 A3 ad 1)

This is not to say that he denied that she was preserved from all actual sin, etc.



Nick said...

Ah, so you have considered this. I'm not as well read on this as some, but I'm of the understanding he didn't realize "at the moment of conception" was 'biologically' possible. I don't see the issue as clear cut black/white in terms of flat out denial or acceptance.

Reginald de Piperno said...

I don't know anything about external circumstances (like, for instance, the state of scientific understanding concerning ensoulment and conception) that might have contributed to his views on the subject. What you say may very well be the case. Certainly the fact that he didn't consider the possibility of the Blessed Virgin receiving grace at the moment of conception cannot reasonably be considered an egregious error, in my opinion; I think it is a trivial one.

But that doesn't mean it wasn't an error for him to explicitly say that she was conceived in original sin. It's not a culpable error, surely, given the circumstances; but it's still an error.