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Classics

The Eternally New Grammar of the Incarnation

The Christian tradition /1. The Christian tradition is the mystery of Jesus at work in time seen in its totality, and which operates in the various places of its expression: teaching, life, worship and evangelisation. All these spheres concern man in his historical evolution.

In some epochs more than in others it is arduous to address a subject such as tradition and renewal, in which various currents of thought seem to contrast with each other, some more convinced than others that truth is on their side. For the believer, therefore, who is a theologian or a pastor, there exists no other approach than that of having the courage to revisit the sources of our faith – and thus the tradition of the Church – in order to discern there the force of renewal that is always able to fertilise the situations and lives of men of this time, who wish to believe in Christ and follow him from closer at hand.

 

 

This explains the organisation of this essay which in essential terms springs more than any other subject from the specific nature of the subject of study. It will be advisable at the outset to see what tradition is in the Christian context. Then its fertilising strength within the framework of the various life situations of believers or in the work of enculturation can naturally be brought out. Through this apparent divagation – which in reality is only an application of the nature of tradition to daily reality – we will be able to see more effectively that the Christian tradition possesses in itself a force of discernment to ‘organise’ renewals in such a way that believers remain morally and intellectually free for Jesus Christ. Thus, through the force of living tradition the Gospel is defended against all initiatives involving an attempt to create a cultural phagocyte by which ‘the world’ seeks to neutralise it.

 

 

In the strong meaning of the term, Tradition, in the Christian context, means the mystery of Christ at work in time, seen in its totality. Understood in this way, Tradition operates in various places of expression: teaching, the Christian life, worship and evangelisation. And in particular one can talk about living Tradition because these contexts concern man as written into historical evolution. Tradition does not only perpetuate transmitted faith and teaching but also everything that is experienced in service to God and in the life of the Church, yet this is an experience that is often difficult to translate into words. This historical-theological way of seeing Tradition may be rooted in the concept of the history of salvation.

 

 

One intuits that in this definition of Tradition seen as the totality of the life of the Church and its faith, Scripture finds its full location. Thanks to the intervention of the various Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church now understands better than before that Scripture is the criterion of an unceasing ‘critique’ of Tradition. Through its Dei Verbum, the Church entered a new era of theology. But we should remember that the Council showed that the objective Tradition of Scripture is made living and dynamic by the oral and living Tradition of the Community of the Church. At this level of reflection one can already grasp how Tradition, in the Christian context, can never be perceived as a phenomenon of pure and simple sterile repetition. Scripture on the one hand, and above all the Spirit, on the other, whose action consists in animating the Church, allow us to speak about an initial period that remains a point of reference for all Christians.

 

 

It may appear surprising that theology attributes a capital importance to a sequence of historical time, the initial period, to the point of making it a point of reference for all the stages of the unfolding of the history of the Church. Now, it is precisely here that there is to be found the expression of the originality of the Mystery-Tradition of Christ and its fertilising power. Indeed, to say that revelation underwent an absolutely insuperable constitutive time does not mean, clearly, to ignore the eschatological dimension that is written into Revelation. But this useful phrase demonstrates that Revelation – the Word of God – entered into the forms of transmission that were bequeathed to it by history. There was thus a precise period when Revelation became Tradition in order to remain accessible in the unfolding of history. There is thus a natural analogy between the Incarnation of the Word in the womb of the Most Holy Virgin Mary and the passage or entrance of Revelation into the matrix of Tradition. It is for this reason that Christian faith renders such honour to the dignity of history and to the category of historicity.

 

 

Now, to admit that an initial period remains absolutely referential has a dual meaning which at first sight is paradoxical. On the one hand, the material text of Scripture is the rule from which one can never depart. This is the apostolic tradition written down. There is thus an intrinsic need to receive the witness of those who believed before us because of the nature of the bond between the Holy Spirit and Christ. All the actions of Christ during the course of his history are meaningful for those who remain at the present time in the Spirit. On the other hand, the irreplaceable role of the Spirit in relation to Tradition makes it possible for renewals to be examined with reference to Revelation as it was manifested in Scripture. Expressed in other terms, the recognition of an initial period of reference also means that every human situation is susceptible to being involved in the proclaiming of the Gospel because the Holy Spirit has placed eschata in history.

 

 

We can thus state that the bond that the Church conserves with its past is not first and foremost of a historical nature. It is, rather, of a ‘theological’ nature – otherwise there could not be a ‘mission’ that is able to take on unprecedented situations. This role has often been described as being able to open up a future to the Church. With the title of missionary realism, itself founded on faith in the action of the Holy Spirit and on the nature of its bond with Christ, the notions of experience, of situation, find right of citizenship in the thought and action of the Church.

 

 

A Fertilising Power

 

 

It is not necessary to spend too much time outlining the key notion of interpretation, given that the theology of Tradition as I have rapidly described it above demonstrates that theology always experiences an anteriority, namely that of the history of Christianity. It is for this reason that it is hermeneutics. It is clear that in exploring the action of Tradition as interpretation it is perceived better in its dynamic action of renewal: interpretation-Tradition produces a meaning that naturally enters the future hermeneutic life of the believing community. And, obviously enough, the question of the Church and its organs of transmission is renewed by such a vision of Tradition. The Magisterium, located within a believing community, is the privileged witness to the Word that is made flesh in every given situation. The role of the Magisterium, seen as an agent in history of the confessing community, appears as the organ entrusted with entering every given historical situation of believers – for basic theological reasons – in the interpretative act that seeks to take on board the resonances of the Word hic et nunc.

 

 

One easily perceives that the irreplaceable role of the Magisterium is based on the unceasing work of Tradition upon Tradition, which continually writes itself into new situations or new cultures. The need for a Magisterium of vigilance is thus explained by the fact that it is specifically Revelation that became, during the referential period, Tradition. To express this in another way, it is the eschatological dimension that explains the need for such a Magisterium, which is completely specific to the Catholic Church. But precisely this strong theological need that explains the raison d’être of this Magisterium of eschatological vigilance is also what founds the various renewals of the expression of Tradition or its fertilising power as regards every culture or situation and the power of assimilation of Tradition. The life situations of the confessing community, the new cultures into which the preached Gospel penetrates, the aesthetic, emotional and intellectual contributions, the scientific objections and the political-economic tensions, are equally events of historicity which, more than braking living Tradition, stimulate it and set to work, through the action of the Spirit, the criterion of apostolic Tradition which is written down and experienced or interpreted by the believing community, with its modes and organs. One should observe that such an amazing notion of Christian experience specifically implies renewal (of the Christian life) as written constitutively into the reality of Tradition. Indeed, the notion of Christian experience implies that Tradition is not only pure repetition of what has already been taught. Each time that the human reality of listeners in their life situations is not taken into consideration, Tradition is in fact abandoned, even if confessing words are pronounced externally. Expressed in other terms, nobody can exactly determine the gospel message as they place in brackets the current situation of the believer and the community in which man experiences the meaning of life and which possess an interpretative status for faith.

 

 

Lastly, let us cite the very rich notion of enculturation which, despite the recent character of this term, is as old as Christianity itself. Enculturation is coextensive with the history of salvation: it is this history of salvation underway. Once again the analogy with the incarnation of the Word is manifest: the freedom of the Word is written into a historical succession of cultures. Without entering an in-depth reflection, let us make clear that because of the incarnation of the Word as a paradigm of enculturation, this last is neither an angelism nor dehumanisation. On the contrary: it has a constitutive relationship with the humanisation of man, and to the point that the latter becomes the criterion of the sound functioning of the former.

 

 

Arianna’s Thread

 

 

To summarise, the Incarnation of the divine Word demonstrates that God chose to free and love man through the human contingency taken on by His Word. It is this, in the always limited but always new human determinations, that God continues to operate. The Son of God did not want to cede to the Tempter who proposed that he deny his humanity in the name of his absolute divine filiation. Renewals, therefore, are not only possible – they constitute, indeed, the habitual grammar by which the genetic code of the Church is expressed in the history of men, within which unfolds the Mystery of Christ. This grammar, which can never free itself from the writing read within the Church, is the Arianna’s thread which makes possible progression in the perception of the intelligence of the mystery of Christ. Renewals are thus also of a dogmatic nature. This is the originality of the Catholic Church.

 

 

Christianity, which unfortunately in some instances is perceived as a fact of the past, is, however, the religious expression by which the always new news of the risen Christ never ceases to generate new experiences and expressions of faith, experienced, however, without falling into the ‘delirium’ of religious fanaticisms. And this through the vigilance of the apostolic Tradition at work in all historical periods, where the eschatological dimension of the Gospel is led to express itself by marrying the experience of meaning of life by those who become its listeners. Renewals are always safe from manipulations and attempts to change them into phagocytes that the Tempter never ceases to suggest to the confessing community and which are ‘verified’ and purified according to the yardstick of Scripture. The history of Christianity, which cannot be a pure repetition of the past, will continue to generate the amazement of those who listen to the message of the Gospel.

 

 

Bibliography

 

 

Umberto Betti, ‘Storia della Costituzione dogmatica «Dei Verbum»’, in La Costituzione dogmatica sulla divina Rivelazione. Storia, testo, traduzione, esposizione e commento (LDC, Torino-Leumann 1966), 9-50.

 

 

Jean-Georges Boeglin, La question de la Tradition dans la théologie catholique contemporaine (Cerf, Paris 1998).

 

 

Jean-Georges Boeglin, Pierre dans la communion des Églises. Le ministère pétrinien dans la perspective de l’Eglise-Communion et de la communion des Eglises (Cerf, Paris 2004).

 

 

Maurice Borrmans, ‘La deuxième recontre islamo-chrétienne de Tunis’, Islamochristiana 5 (1979), 221-242.

 

 

Walter Kasper, ‘Das Verhältnis von Schrift und Tradition. Eine pneumatologische Perspektive’, Theologisches Quartalschrift 170 (1990), 161-190.

 

 

Joseph Ratzinger, ‘Dogmatische Konstitution über die göttliche Offenbarung (Constitutio dogmatica de divina Revelatione «Dei Verbum»). Kommentar zum I. Kapitel’, in Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche (Herder, Freiburg 1967), 504-515.

 

 

Joseph Ratzinger, ‘Dogmatische Konstitution über die göttliche Offenbarung (Constitutio dogmatica de divina Revelatione «Dei Verbum»). Kommentar zum II. Kapitel’, in Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche (Herder, Freiburg 1967), 515-528.

 

 

Jean D. Zizioulas, ‘La continuité avec les origines apostoliques dans la conscience théologique des Églises orthodoxes’, Istina 19 (1974), 65-94.

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