Terminology: tradition

Terminology, in philosophy and theology, is very important. I have posted about the use (within Anglicanism) of the term catholic and how this differs from the way it is used within the Roman Communion. Another term struck me today: tradition.

Allow me to think out loud. I think there are three distinct ways of speaking about tradition (and note the case in each): Tradition, tradition, and traditions. Each community, whether religious or secular, has some form of tradition. The question is whether or not this tradition has authority and has some call on my obedience.

    Tradition is the source of God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ. Jesus, in this sense, is Tradition. That Tradition continues in the apostolic preaching which comes to the Church in word and epistle (2 Thes 2:15). That is to say in an oral and written form. Here we must be very distinct – Tradition (in two distinct forms) is the source of revelation and therefore is authoritative. Here Scripture is a form of Tradition and derives its authority from Tradition and not the other way around.

    Here the question of ecclesiology becomes central. This is the sense Saint Paul speaks of the Church as the pillar of truth (2 Tim 3:15). The Apostolic Preaching continues in the Apostolic Church. The Church as the Sacrament of Salvation is the guardian of this Tradition.

    Yet sometimes the term is used not for the Revelation itself but rather for an authoritative interpretation of that Revelation. In this form, tradition has authority only in so much as it is a true interpretation of the Revelation. Here the authority is derived from Scripture (as the primary source of revelation). Here tradition becomes a collection of agreed statements which are deemed to be a right interpretation of the primary authority, Scripture.

    Here our concept of what Scripture is and is not becomes central. Where did Scripture come from? Which writings are Scriptural? What principles (hermeneutics) are to be used in the interpretation of Scripture?

    Traditions appears to be a modern synonym of custom. A distinction must be made between custom (of a particular community) and the Tradition and tradition. Custom is a particular communities way of expressing the faith in a particular setting. For example, it is a tradition within this parish to have a daily Mass. This tradition has only authority within that particular setting and is not binding on the rest of the Church. A custom, of course, can become Tradition.

The basic meaning of tradition is to hand down. (Hence, the English word traitor as someone who has handed over valuable information etc.) So the three above can be see in terms of what is handed down or over.

    Tradition – Jesus
    tradition – a set of interpretations/doctrines
    traditions – a way of being a community of faith within a particular context

The lines between the three are not always as clean cut as the above might suggest. Just my thinking out loud!


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