The two areas mark out and involve each other reciprocally: the theological aspect can contribute to a clarification of what tradition is from the symbolic and anthropological point of view; and – correlatively – clarification as regards what we must understand by tradition in a critical sense is relevant in illuminating the specificity of the theological concept of tradition, that is to say the singularity of the Christian tradition. The various questions connected with the relationship between Tradition and Scripture, between tradition and the transmission of faith, can only be clarified by bringing into play a fundamental point of view which, on the one hand, produces a theory of the act which restores the theological quality of consciousness implied in revelation and faith, and, on the other, justifies the uniqueness of Scripture through its relationship to the experience of every man.
To this end, it is not pointless to draw near to the question by referring to the many polarisations that emerge in the Biblical constitution of revelation, that is to say where the reciprocity between Scripture and Tradition is really produced: a specific examination of the Bible brings out that the Christian concept of Tradition is a paradigm for all traditions; this requires a theory that rediscovers the true pertinence of the category of tradition designed to correct the contestable approach to revelation in tradition or traditions, which can be observed today, rediscovering, rather, their true character and their authentic theological meaning.
An Insurmountable Dialectic
As is the case with the more fundamental tandem of speech and writing, in the case of tradition as well one can always observe a dialectic between the various levels of the same polarisation which must be maintained in their unity and separation because they articulate the correlations between human words/traditions and the unique event of Revelation. The dialectic between speech and writing brings into play first and foremost the distinction (correlation) between the voice and the inscription of the discourse in a determined code, between the presence of he who speaks in the discourse and the absence of the author of the text, between the nearness of the interlocutor in the discourse and the distance of the reader in the text. To the polarisation between the oral and writing, which maintains in the anthropological register the features of a mutual interdependence, is connected the relationship between Word and Scripture, which theologically identifies the first as the Word of God and the second as Holy Scripture.
Scripture is important because the Tradition of the Church has in it its principal normative reference point which concerns all its multiple levels – the magisterium, theology and the lives of believers [DV, n. 8]. The symbolic/literary mediation which opens onto the infinite interpretations that it itself institutes, involves the fundamental question in so much as it theorises the anthropological/theological nexus both at the level of the relationship between traditions and Tradition and at the more specifically theological or Christological level of the uniqueness of revelation and its multiple mediations.
It is known that the Second Vatican Council, through its Dei Verbum, while it rejected or went beyond the contestable separation or opposition induced by the theory of two sources, excluded and did not accede to the affirmation of a single source but upheld unity and distinction, that is to say the singular articulation of Scripture and tradition, thereby fostering a reformulation of their relationship.
Revelation is not only tradition but includes at the outset tradition/traditions as a moment in itself, in the same way and differently from how, later on, it institutes its interpretation, the need and legitimacy of which has to be requested and justified.
It is by interpreting such Scriptures that the community interprets itself. There is produced here a kind of mutual election between the texts that are seen as founding texts and the community that I have deliberately called a ‘community of reading and interpretation’.
From this point of view, a tradition, like a text, ‘exists in the ultimate analysis thanks to the community, for the use of the community and with a view to giving form to the community’. The community is essential because it indicates the act; and the act has no other referent than the Word, which, while and specifically because it is theological, is also a historical act.
The meaning of a text, each time, is an event that is born from the point of intersection between, on the one hand, certain constants that the text brings with it… and, on the other, the various expectations of a series of communities of reading and interpretation that the authors of the text considered could not foresee.
The aspects that have been rapidly cited above serve to instruct us as to the question but they require that a theory is elaborated or suggested that is able to avoid the resolution of an aspect or a pole of the correlation in the other; with a view, that is to say, to correcting that contestable extenuation of the concept of tradition that one can observe today.
At one time the doctrinalist approach did not acknowledge that tradition had a truth-containing character, but in expressing revelation through a doctrine it could but understand tradition as its application. More recent and more noticed philosophical attempts conserve a certain affinity with this approach and have developed an anthropological conception of the symbolic and/or tradition in relation to which revelation is added as a conceptual shift subsequent to the theological component which takes place under the banner of exteriority.
Today the trend is more that of reducing revelation to the level of tradition and its multiple and free interpretations. In this way, in order to refer to the non-secondary or subsequent character of tradition, one ends up by relativising revelation.
To correct this orientation, and in conformity with the Biblical model, one must lead back the subject of tradition to its Christological foundation and thus (and only in this way) also to its authentically anthropological meaning. Tradition, in fact, can constitute the historical-cultural mediation of revelation only if the anthropological is acknowledged in its truth-containing importance, that is to say in its relative autonomy, without being confused with the truth.
In other words, there is a reciprocity and at the same time an anti-symmetry of the event and its transmission or its adoption that has to be restored in order to illustrate the decisive role of the Christological and how it takes on and needs the anthropological.
The character of uniqueness of the event appears from the fact that it maintains a debt in relation to anticipation and makes possible and appeals to a different kind of ‘anticipation’, which has a new regime or status – that of being taken up. It is not resolved in the anticipation or in the being taken up but institutes both. It is the event that institutes time and duration only for itself. Its historicity is essential, otherwise neither anticipation nor taking up take place. The event, in fact, also becomes a criterion for the difference between anticipation and taking up because it constitutes the criterion of the various actual modalities of the human.
The structure of the Old Testament is already a constant internal taking up within its own constitution, but in the Christian tradition there is the actualisation of Christ: there is an anti-symmetry between the anticipation made up of the various truth-containing examples of taking up of the event, which they only possess in this fashion, that is to say as anticipations, and the examples of taking up or the taking up, which consists in the actualisation of the event by the Church. This is what tradition is in both these moments.
The Historicity of Witness
In order to clarify further this question, it may be useful to draw near tradition to the subject – which from certain points of view is broader but from others more specific – of witness.
These two subjects, at a first rough glance, may seem to be comparable and at times fundamental theology has been able to re-transcribe tradition, as regards its most general meaning, in terms of witness. But it is not possible to understand tradition as witness to Christian faith without, as a pre-condition, seeing both the novelty that the category of witness represents compared to the category of tradition and the inability of tradition to be superseded by witness itself.
One cannot say what tradition is without bringing witness into play, that is to say the act, as a one and the same time third-party and non-third party dimension in the fundamental nexus of revelation and faith; and – reciprocally – one cannot understand the true character of the witness of revelation, which is faith, without proceeding from the radically historical quality of tradition, that is to say from its specific and actual specific relevance.
Although witness is the act, tradition indicates, on the one hand, its conditions, and on the other, its transcendence; and specifically because witness has an anthropological character it must be ‘normed’ by tradition. One can only hand on – tradere – truth if one is involved; and one can only be fully involved in truth. Yet this is proclaimed not by the immediate
reference to truth but only by the reference to the question of meaning in its specific relevance or in its truth-containing dimension, that is to say true meaning, which is the specific subject of tradition.
Tradition is equivalent here to what with an aesthetic category may be defined as ‘the classical’, which concerns the truth-containing aspect of meaning, that is to say meaning recognised as being true and attested to as such. In a regime that is only or reductively anthropological, tradition is specifically not given, even though it is already possible to theorise at the anthropological register the relevance of attestation, which concerns the involvement of man in attesting to truth, that is to say in meaning.
Dogma, canon, like the magisterium, which make up – each differently at its own level – the typical and salient moments of Tradition, are historical acts but not in a historicist sense. The specific moment of tradition communicates the second but not secondary character of the taking up or examples of taking up that the Spirit engenders; from another perspective it also constitutes the anticipation and/or anticipations that the Spirit himself engenders through a relationship with the event attested to in revelation. The truth of a tradition lies in the fact that it is faithful to the event and propitiates the taking on of the event itself by the anthropological, that is to say of the historicity and the various levels of the production of meaning.
Expressed in other terms: Tradition is not equivalent to revelation, but nor is it irrelevant to it, both at the outset and subsequently. Revelation without tradition does not exist; but there is no truth-containing importance in tradition without the unique event which institutes it as a moment in itself. In this sense Scripture is ‘doubly classical’ because it realises and attests to, at one and the same time, the universality of the truth and the singularity of the event of its revelation, which constitutes the act of freedom as a moment in itself.
Man has a history and tradition, in its broadest but also most radical meaning, attests to its relevance as regards specific evidence of God. In this sense, it is co-extensive with the whole hermeneutic question: on the one hand, tradition concerns the moment of the prefiguration of the text, and, on the other, it constitutes the specific site of the refiguration or hermeneutics. For that matter, it also constitutes the constitutive dimension of the configuration of the text.
To summarise: tradition tells us the mark of the human or the relevance of the historical event on revelation, as is demonstrated by the location of the text ‘in one or more traditions, which in their turn left their marks on the text under examination’. To this historical rooting, however, corresponds the new event of ‘a new word pronounced on the text and beginning with the text’.
As with hermeneutics, tradition has an aspect that is both archaeological and teleological, retrospective and forward-looking, which has its foundation in the character of being a process of revelation and in the progressive dimension of its understanding which is not purely infinite but universal, although it is always determined: in order to accede to the truth-containing level it must not forgo its finitude because the reason for its determinateness is not different from the foundation by which it is true. It is no accident that one of the criteria that became traditional by which to come to characterise the peculiarity of tradition and dogma was that drawn up by Vincenzo di Lerino, who refers to what is believed everywhere, always and by everyone. In this sense, ‘a historical community sees itself founded and so to speak included in all the meanings of the word, in and through this very particular corpus of texts’.
The dimension of transmission and respectively of ‘reception’ cannot be superseded because the tradition/transmission of faith is always the memory/tradition of an event and an actual act, which institutes the radical meaning of the temporality of man. And there is only truth at a Christological level and the specifically anthropological level in actuation.
This is not a matter of solving the Word/Tradition circularity by ‘looking for pathways a latere of Scripture’, but of recognising that ‘somebody has read Scripture before us and proposes a key to us, declaring that it is in conformity with Scripture’. Tradition thus means: a passage of gospel truth in the Church, in the form of the passage of the Book, not as a closed block but, on the contrary, as a penetrated reality, a reality journeyed by a living voice… It exits and causes an exit from Scripture not adding something to it but transmitting it, designating it as the holy Book, designating what it designates, which is the body of Christ, opening it, lastly, as it opens this same body in order to make it accessible to everyone.
The Action of the Spirit
The analysis leads on to the specifically spiritual quality of the Christian Tradition: Christian communities possess a phrase to designate what both closes and opens the Book and its interpretations. This phrase designates the unsaid of the whole of our reflection, the Spirit: one should not say ‘Word, Scripture, Religion’, but ‘Word, Scripture, Spirit’. It is the Spirit which designates the broader circle within which the Word and Scripture, Scripture and the confessing community, constitute each other reciprocally. Faith, as professed by believers, but also as it can be understood by the imagination and with sympathy in the suspension of faith, thus consists in believing that the ‘interior witness of the Holy Spirit’ – by the communities that listen and interpret – and the inspiration attributed to the Scriptures by these communities are the work of a single and identical Spirit.
The relationship between tradition and traditions, like the relationship between revelation and religions, is thus a typically spiritual question because it concerns the problem of the objectification of theological evidence. Although tradition points out the need for objectification, it also requires that its character or founding moment are demonstrated, which cannot be levelled to traditions because in this way one would lose the relevance of the Christian Tradition. God reveals Himself by constituting a history in which the component of His unknowableness can and must be understood only as a dimension of the relationship. To this spiritual dimension can also be led back the questions, which today are the subject of discussion, of the various religious traditions, religious pluralism and devotions.
One illustrative case or place is that of popular religiosity, in which traditions have a particularly weighty relevance. The various traditions that popular religion and/or devotion work together to create have a truly theological importance that can thus be received and taken on by the Christian Tradition, not if they re-transcribe a general truth at a different level, in hypothesis known at the outset, but if they demonstrate the relevance of the act and actual life of man in terms of the attestation of God; if, that is to say, they practically express the novelty that the real human represents for God and on which God Himself confers the theological quality that is specific to Him through the act of man. In order not to extenuate the theological meaning of Tradition, that is to say its Christological meaning, it is necessary to understand it as the anthropological moment of which the Christological has need in order to attest itself as such. It is not possible to justify the specifically theological consistence and pertinence of the act without recognising that the anthropological requirement plays a constitutive role.
The act of man constitutes the realism of the actuality of Christ, as his condition which Jesus himself institutes; it alone realises reciprocity between the believer and Jesus or makes actual the event of Jesus for me, which is the true meaning of Christian spirituality and the Christian tradition.
Jean-Georges Boeglin, La question de la Tradition dans la théologie catholique contemporaine (Cerf, Paris, 1998).
Tullio Citrini, ‘Tradizione’, in Giuseppe Barbaglio, Giampiero Bof, Severino Dianich (eds.), Teologia (Dizionari San Paolo, San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo (Mi), 2002), pp. 1768-1784.
Wendelin Knoch, Dio alla ricerca dell’uomo. Rivelazione, Scrittura, Tradizione (Jaca Book, Milan, 1999).
Waldenfels H., Rivelazione. Bibbia, tradizione, teologia e pluralismo religioso (San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo, 1999).
Elemire Zolla, Che cos’è la tradizione (Adelphi, Milan, 1998).