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Outlines of Dogmatic Theology
CHAPTER I: TRADITION.
76. Scope of the Treatise. — All Christians are in substantial agreement in regard to the matter dealt with in the preceding Treatise. There may be one or two arguments which would not be universally accepted, but the general conclusion is one which will not be questioned by any that bear the Christian name: we proved that Christ was certainly a Divine Messenger, and that therefore men are bound to exert themselves to inquire what message He brought, and to receive it, when ascertained, with implicit submission. And it is the interest as well the duty of each man to learn what the Divine Teacher delivered, for it must be a benefit to the creature to know what the Creator is pleased to communicate to him; whether it be an enforcement of truths which he might have learned, however imperfectly, by the use of his natural powers; such as some of the attributes of God, and the duty of just dealing: or new truths which his natural powers would never have discovered, such as the Trinity of Persons in One God, and the duty of receiving Baptism.
But Christ died many centuries ago. How are we who are now living to ascertain what His teaching was? There must be some way of doing so without reasonable misgiving: otherwise the revelation given by God publicly to one generation would have been lost to future generations, and so far wasted.
What, then, is this normal way of learning the doctrine delivered by Christ? All Christians have their answer to this question, but there is no agreement among them as to what this answer is. The Christians of the West are divided into two great sections upon the point. Catholics maintain that the man now living obtains the information primarily from the lips of his elder contemporaries: the others hold that it is to be obtained by the study of the Scriptures. The object of the present Treatise is to discuss these two theories.
In this discussion, we shall not only use the books from which the Divine Mission of Christ was proved in the preceding Treatise: but we shall freely employ all the books of the Scriptures and of early Christian writers as trustworthy witnesses to the teachings of Christ: the authority of those books for that purpose is admitted by those with whom we have here to do. Our next Treatise will be devoted to the questions that arise as to the peculiar character that attaches to the books of Holy Scripture, and distinguishes them from all other books.
77. Subject of the Chapter. — The present chapter will be devoted to explaining and proving the Catholic doctrine: in that which follows the opposing view will be discussed. It will be convenient at once to present an authoritative statement of the rival views.
78. The Rival Views. — The doctrine of the Catholic Church on the subject is declared by the Council of Trent. The point had never been expressly defined before the sixteenth century because it had never been called in question. It is found in the decree of the Fourth Session, held on April 8, 1546. We will take the translation from the work of the Rev. J. Waterworth. (Decrees of the Council of Trent, p. 17.)
"The sacred and holy oecumenical and general Synod of Trent, lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, the same three Legates of the Apostolic See presiding therein keeping this always in view that, errors being removed, the purity itself of the Gospel be preserved in the Church; which (Gospel) before promised through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures, 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 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 as it were from hand to hand; (the Synod) following the examples of the orthodox Fathers, receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety and reverence, all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament — seeing that one God is the Author of both — as also the said traditions, as well those appertaining to faith as to morals, as having been dictated either by Christ's own word of mouth, or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession."
More shortly, we may say that according to this doctrine, Christian truth was delivered to the Apostles by the spoken word of Christ or by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and that it has come from them to us, partly committed to written books, and partly by unwritten tradition.
The opposed view, which we may call that of Protestants, is held by almost all Western Christians who are not Catholics: the only exceptions being the members of some sects, such as the Irvingites and Quakers, who seem to hold that God inspires each living man with a knowledge of the truth. We shall say what is necessary concerning these in another chapter, when we prove that the public revelation of Christian doctrine was closed on the death of the last of the Apostles, (nn. 111, 112.)
An expression of the doctrine which will be admitted by the bulk of Protestants is found in the Sixth of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of the Established Church in England. It runs as follows: "Of the Sufficiency of Holy Scripture for Salvation. Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite necessary to salvation."
This is clearer than some other parts of these Articles of Religion. The doctrine is often quoted in the form ascribed to Chillingworth: The Bible, and the Bible only, is the religion of Protestants. We shall try to show in the present chapter that the Tridentine method is that employed by Christ, inculcated by Him on His Apostles, employed by them, again inculcated by them on their immediate successors, employed by these successors, generation after generation, and never changed. If this be made out, we shall have demonstrated that the way of oral tradition is the appointed way even at the present time. In the next chapter we shall show the weakness of the arguments adduced in support of the Protestant view.
79. The Method used by Christ. — It is not disputed that Christ taught by word of mouth. There is no trace of any writing being attributed to Him, except the undoubtedly spurious letter to King Abgar of Edessa. The text of this alleged letter may be read in Eusebius. (Hist. Eccl. 1, 13; P.G. 20, 121.) The letter itself bears testimony in favour of our contention; for it contains no instruction in Christian doctrine, but the writer is made to promise that He will in due time send one of His disciples to instruct the Syrian convert: on the Protestant theory there ought to have been a promise to send a New Testament to Edessa as soon as it should be written.
The method actually used by Christ is to appeal to the Old Testament (St. John v. 39 - 46), for the prophecies contained in it, along with His own miracles, were His credentials: but He did not appeal to it as teaching His doctrine; on the contrary, He asserted His authority to be independent of it, or collateral with it, as when He claimed to be Lord of the divinely instituted Sabbath (St. Mark ii. 28; St. Luke vi. 5); and He did not hesitate to abrogate parts of the Old Law, teaching a new and high morality in the Sermon on the Mount (St. Matt. v. 21, 27, 31, 33); and giving the Samaritan woman to understand that Jerusalem was about to lose the prerogative, given it long ago by God, of being alone the place where acceptable worship could be offered to the Father. (St. John iv. 21; Deut. xii. 6.)
80. The Charge to the Apostles. — The work of Christ was to be supplemented and continued by the action of His Apostles, who received their charge from Him. The charge as to the work they were to do during the life of Christ may be read in the tenth chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel, and the ninth chapter of that of St. Luke: the sixth chapter of St. Mark adds nothing to our purpose. In these charges we find that the Apostles are commanded to preach and to heal the sick: that is to say, to exhibit the credentials of miracles, and to deliver an oral message: not a word is said about writing; the Apostles are not commissioned to inculcate the observance of the Old Law, nor to promise that the New shall be put into book form and distributed; and we learn from St. Luke ix. 6, that the Apostles fulfilled the command given them.
The final commission was given to the Apostles by our Lord immediately before His Ascension. We read of it in St. Matt, xxviii. 20, St. Mark xvi. 15, St. Luke xxiv. 47, and Acts i. 8. All these accounts agree in substance with the terms, of the earlier mission. The Apostles are not to write, but are to preach, to bear witness, to teach or make disciples of (μαθητεὐσατε. St. Matt, xxviii. 29) all nations; all which expressions certainly point to oral instruction. But this later commission contains one most important element which is absent from the earlier. St. John's Gospel, supplementing the Synoptics in this as in so many other points, tells us that Christ promised His Apostles that, after His departure, He would send them another Paraclete, or Comforter, to abide with them for ever, Who should teach them all things and bring all things to their mind, whatsoever Christ should have said to them. (St. John xiv. 15 - 26.) The purpose of this gracious promise is seen when it is renewed a part of the great commission (Acts i. 8), and we learn that it is to be through the abiding presence of this Comforter with the followers of Christ that His undertaking is to be fulfilled, that He will be with them in their work of teaching all days, even to the consummation of the world. (St. Matt, xxviii. 20.) There will be much to be said about this text hereafter. At present it may be enough to remark that this phrase, "be with you," in the language of Scripture, imports infallible and effectual assistance: the promise given in this form is never followed by failure. (See Genesis xlviii. 21; Amos v. 14; Zach. viii. 23, &c. The full list of the passages will be found in Murray, De Ecelesιa, ii. 199; and see further, n. 206.) We have here the Divine guarantee against any corruption of the teaching which the Apostles and their successors are to impart to all nations even to the consummation of the world: the tradition that they hand on will not be a tradition of men, such as those for which the Pharisees made void the commandment of God (St. Matt. xv. 6); but it will be the word of the Spirit of the Father, speaking through His ministers. (St. Matt. x. 20.)
81. Action of the Apostles. — That the Apostles acted on this commission will be seen in almost every chapter of the Acts. (See Acts i. 22, ii. 14, iii. 12, ix. 20, &c.) Nor does any other method appear in the Epistles. These letters were for the most part written to supplement and enforce the writer's preaching (see Ι Cor. xi. 2 ; 2 Cor. xi. 4; Galat. i. 8; Ephes. i. 13, &c.; St. James i. 22; I St. Peter i. 12; 2 St. Peter i. 21; St. Jude i. 3); in which last place it is to be observed that the original gives the force of "the faith which once came by tradition" (παραδοθεἰση), the word employed being one which in different forms is not uncommon in the New Testament, and which, when applied to the faith, always signifies oral transmission. (See St. Matt. xv. 2; St. Mark vii. 5; Ι Cor. xi. 2, 23; Ι Cor. xv. 3; Ι St. Peter i. 18.) The only exception is 2 Thess. ii. 15, where it includes both oral teaching and the teaching of a written document.
Further, the Apostles charged their own immediate successors to observe the same method, showing hereby that its efficacy did not depend upon any peculiar character attaching to those who had received the charge from Christ Himself, but was intended to be a part of the permanent economy of the Church. This is seen in the exhortation of St. Paul to his disciple St. Timothy, when he bids him be diligent in teaching (I Timothy iv. 13), to avoid profane novelties of words (I Timothy vi. 20); but especially in the command conveyed in the second chapter of the second Epistle, verse 2: "The things which thou hast heard of me by many witnesses, the same commend to faithful men who shall be fit to teach others also." It is to be remembered that at the time when this charge was given, the greater part of the New Testament was already in existence; yet reference is still made to the word of hearing and not to any written book.
82. The Second Century. — We find the same method in full vigour in the second century. St. Clement of Rome, the disciple, as is supposed, whom St. Paul mentions with praise (Philipp. iv. 3), belongs in fact to the first century, for his first Epistle to the Corinthians is assigned to the year 97 at the latest. Describing the constitution of the Church, he says (c. 42; P.G. 1, 292): "The Apostles brought us the good message from our Lord Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ from God. Christ was sent from God, the Apostles from Christ, and the will of God was duly fulfilled in both cases…. They preached in countries and in towns, and the first-fruits of their ministry, having tested them in the power of the Holy Spirit, they appointed to be overseers and ministers to all that should believe." And again in chapter 44: "The Apostles made these appointments and arranged a succession, that when they had fallen asleep other tried men should carry on their ministry." (P.G. I, 298.) This is an exact description of the Catholic system.
St. Irenæus belongs to the second century. He wrote expressly against heresies, and he knows no other source of truth than the tradition which has come down from the Apostles. "All that have the will to know the truth," he says (3, 3, 1; P.G. 7, 848), "may find in every Church the tradition of the Apostles which is known to all the world: we can reckon up those whom the Apostles appointed to be Bishops and their successors down to our own day, who never taught nor knew any such absurdities as these men indulge in. Had the Apostles known secret mysteries, to be communicated secretly to the perfect, they to whom the Churches were committed would assuredly have received the knowledge. For the Apostles resolved that their successors should be perfect and blameless in all, when they handed to these their own function of teaching: for if these acted well things would go well, but great calamity would attend their fall." Again there is nothing about the Scriptures being the rule of faith.
83. Tertullian's Prescription. — The last author we cite shall be Tertullian, whose work belongs to the end of the second century. He wrote a formal treatise on the argument with which we are now engaged, under the name De Præscriptionibus (P.L. 2, 1.) The word prescription belongs to the Roman law, from which it was borrowed by Christian writers, being first used perhaps by Tertullian in this Treatise: both the word and the thing are in constant use by theologians, and in many topics no more powerful argument can be found than that founded on prescription. English lawyers give the name of prescription to the title to certain forms of property founded upon lapse of time with undisturbed possession: the fact that I have held the property for such a length of time without disturbance will sometimes be an answer to every claim that can be brought against me, let it be ever so well founded. The Latin usage includes this, but is wider, extending as it seems to every case where a defendant in a lawsuit was able to put forward a consideration which cut the matter short without reference to the merits. Thus in England in the days of the penal laws the plea that the plaintiff was a Popish Recusant Convict was an absolute answer to every claim, however just; and this would have been a case of prescription in the Roman but not in the English sense.
The theological use of the word is this. The prescription of novelty is against any doctrine which can be shown to have originated at a time subsequent to the times of the Apostles: the prescription of antiquity is in favour of a doctrine which can be shown to have been held at any time as part of their faith by all Christians, even though it cannot be shown to have been held at any earlier date. The reason for the one is that a novel doctrine would require to be authenticated as a Divine revelation by miracle and prophecy, no less than the original mission of Christ: and the reason of the other is that otherwise the promise of Christ to be with His Apostles in their teaching all days would have failed, through an admixture of false doctrine having polluted the true. More will be said on this subject in our Treatise on the Church. (See n. 269.)
The application of this principle to the heresies of his time is made by Tertullian in the nineteenth and following chapters of his work. He declines to argue the points of difference on the basis of Scripture, for to do so gives rise to endless questions as to what books are to be considered authoritative and what is the meaning of the passages quoted. Neither party can hope to gain an acknowledged victory in such a contest: but his appeal is to those to whom the Scripture belongs, through whom it has been handed down to us: to the possessors of the tradition which makes us Christians. These are the apostolic Churches, founded in various cities throughout the world by those who received the commission from Christ Himself, or which are shoots or suckers proceeding from these parent stems, but establishing themselves with a separate life. Peaceful communication and recognition of brotherhood and the tokens which secure admission to membership prove the unity of the association constituted by these several Churches. What is taught in these mother Churches is truth, all else is falsehood.
84. The work of Theology. — It follows from what has been said that to ascertain the truth on any point of doctrine it is enough to inquire what is held upon the subject by Christian communities throughout the world; and in this inquiry no account need be taken of communities which, although they keep the name of Christian, hold doctrines which are new, that is to say, opposed to what at some previous time was the universal belief. All this will be better understood when we have explained the pre-eminent position held by the Roman Church and its Bishop, the Pope.
But although this inquiry teaches us with absolute assurance what is the tradition that has come to us from the Apostles; and although the ex-cathedral definition of the Roman Pontiff affords us a compendious way of knowing what would be the result of such an inquiry; yet it by no means follows that our doctrine leaves no place for the work of theologians. Let the three modes of treatment of theological questions be called to mind, as described in our Introductory Remarks (n. 6), and it will be found that they are still applicable, even after an infallible definition. The definition makes us certain what is the truth upon the point, and that this truth is contained in the Apostolic Tradition; but Positive Theology will still have its work of showing how this doctrine is to be found in the monuments of this Tradition; Scholastic Theology fixes the precise sense of the terms employed, investigates the causes of the doctrine, in the philosophical sense of the word cause, and shows how it is connected with other branches of truth; while Polemical Theology strives to enter into the minds of those who have a difficulty in admitting the truth of the doctrine, explaining and illustrating it in various ways so as to guard against all risk of misunderstanding, and urging the argumentum ad hominem, by showing the dissentients that on principles which they avow that they admit, they ought to accept what we maintain. After the definition, the theologian is encouraged to proceed with his work with greater confidence than he could have felt while the point was yet in doubt: he is by no means disposed to consider that his work is done.
85. Recapitulation. — In this chapter we have set forth the rival views of Catholics and Protestants as to the Rule of Faith, and have proved that the Catholic view was acted on by Christ, His Apostles, and their immediate successors: we have explained the meaning of the word prescription and how it is employed in Theology, as affording a short and sure way of settling any disputed point; and we have shown that this prescription makes for the Catholic Rule and that our doctrine by no means supersedes the work of Positive, Scholastic, and Polemical theologians.