Yves Congar: Tradition vs the Bible

As we move through Catholicism in the 20th century, it’s probably worth touching on some of the differences between Protestant and Catholic thought – outlining the movement in terms of its differences to other denominations. For that task, we’re going to turn to Yves Congar. A French Dominican, Congar was a major figure in Catholic thought during the 20th century – he was one of the central figures at Vatican II, and his diaries from the council are still selling today, along with his childhood diaries from the First World War. The Catholics also barred him from teaching during the 50’s, and banned copies of his True and False Reform in the Church – which I’d love to read, but it’s $60, so, you know. Instead we’re looking at his book The Meaning of Tradition. Tradition is one of Congar’s main themes – his major work is a two-volume text titled Tradition and Traditions, published in 1960 and 1963. This current text serves as a short introduction to the larger volumes, covering off the basic ideas and giving you a bit of a grounding in the subject.

Tradition is one of those sticky points between Catholics and Protestants. One of the key ideas in Catholicism is apostolic succession, the idea that Jesus handed over the keys to the church to Peter, and that the popes essentially continue that lineage – that they sit in the seat of Peter, in Rome, and therefore have the right to govern the church. There’s a real emphasis on historical continuity, on the supposedly unbroken lineage of that authority across time. It’s in direct opposition to the Protestant emphasis on Scripture. We’ve talked before about Luther’s views on Scripture, how he set Scripture up as an authority against Catholic tradition – well, now we’re going to come at that argument again from the Catholic side some five hundred years later.

Congar opens in his Introduction with some very reasonable historical observations. For example, he notes that while Jesus was alive, the disciples learned from him in a very standard Jewish way – by following him round and watching what he got up to. “The Jewish ideal of discipleship entails far more than the mere learning that characterizes a pupil; it included the imitation of the master’s life and habits. The disciple not only received oral decisions from his master, to be memorized – a most effective practice for inculcating tradition, and one that Jesus certainly applied to his disciples – he also learned from his master’s actions and personal way of life.” The emphasis is on imitation and oral tradition, on receiving that appropriate behaviour directly from Christ himself.

Further, Congar suggests, that practice continued beyond Jesus and the disciples, and became normative for the church at large. He particularly cites communion as an example of this process. Jesus breaks bread with the disciples during the Last Supper, he tells them what to do (“do this in remembrance of me”), and then the disciples transmit that instruction to the developing church. In 1 Corinthians 11, when Paul is describing the proper process for the Lord’s Supper, he says “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you.” He emphasises the transmission of information from person to person – I got this from Jesus, and now I’m telling you, so that you can start doing it as well. It’s again that emphasis on imitation, on an essentially unbroken inheritance from Jesus down to the people of Corinth. As Congar says, “It was enough for the apostles to have seen Jesus celebrate it. The church, which had seen the apostles do it after him, thus learned the Eucharist from its celebration.”

I think there’s a pretty compelling case in all that for the faith as something handed down from person to person – that we can all, in some sense, trace our own faith back through the ages to Christ’s direct example to the apostles. I got my understanding of the faith from some people who got theirs from the people before them, all the way back up the chain. The Bible’s not irrelevant to all of that, but it’s not necessarily crucial, either. That is, Paul didn’t have the Bible, but he was still a Christian. And the guys after Paul didn’t have the Bible either. We actually don’t have evidence of the Bible in its final form until the fourth century, meaning that for as much as three hundred years, Christians were going round communicating the gospel to each other in their own way, without the central authority of the Bible. The Protestant principle of sola scriptura can’t account for or explain the identity of the church during that time. Congar’s idea of tradition is a more comprehensive account of our history and nature.

That’s not to say that the Bible is therefore unimportant, or that we can do without it now that it exists. Later, in Chapter III, Congar writes that “the holy Scriptures have an absolute value that tradition has not … if tradition or the Magisterium claimed to teach something contradicting the holy Scriptures, it would certainly be false, and the faithful ought to reject it.” But, he continues, the Bible “is not the sole principle regulating the belief and life of the church. To this end God has established two other principles: tradition and the church, with her pastoral Magisterium.” Congar sees the church as its own entity, existing prior to the Bible, but still drawing on it as its absolute source of truth – without pretending that Christianity was invented in the fourth century. To return to the Introduction, Congar writes: “She [the church] lived her own life, which had been handed down to her as such, before the texts and together with them, in the texts and yet not limited to them, independently of them. She did not receive her life from them. She was the church from the time of the apostles and not the product of their writings.”

I have a lot of sympathy with that position. It’s a fair analysis of the church before the Bible, and it feels true to how people actually learn about Christianity. Nobody really picks up the Bible off the cuff and just figures out the faith from scratch. We learn through our communities, through the culture. We take part in the church, in the body of believers. We carry out traditions that existed before the Bible – things that were established directly by Christ. And, you know, there are points where I’ll differ from the Catholics as well. I don’t care about the Magisterium. But on this point – I think they’re on to something.

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