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Some Christians claim to reject Tradition in preference to a supposedly "Bible only" Christianity. Catholics, on the other hand, venerate Tradition, yet often without adequately understanding it.

In his masterful book, The Meaning of Tradition, the great theologian Yves Congar explains why Tradition is an inescapable aspect of a fully biblical Christian faith. He explores the various forms of Tradition and discusses the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, as well as the role of the Magisterium of the Church.

The Meaning of Tradition clears up misconceptions held by many Evangelical Christians and even some Catholics on this important subject. Congar’s study of Tradition greatly contributed to the teaching of Vatican II and to a deeper appreciation of the Church Fathers.

Here is the foreword—written by Avery Cardinal Dulles—to Congar's book, followed by Congar's own introduction.

Foreword to Yves Congar's
The Meaning of Tradition
by Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.

As the twentieth century recedes into history, the profiles of its theological giants loom ever larger. Yves Congar was one of those giants. Born at Sedan in 1904, he became a seminarian in Paris in 1921, entered the Dominican novitiate in 1925 and received priestly orders in 1930. In 1937 he published Chrétiens désunis, a study of the ecumenical movement, as the first volume of a series that he himself edited: Unam Sanctam. In the following two decades, he became chiefly known for his work on ecclesiology. Regarded in some circles as a dangerous innovator, he was treated with suspicion and had to endure suspension from teaching and occasional banishment from France during the 1950s.

In 1959 Pope John XXIII restored Congar’s good name by appointing him a theological consultant to the preparatory commission for the Second Vatican Council. At the Council itself, Congar’s influence was equal to, and perhaps greater than, that of any other Catholic theologian. His influence is manifest in the Council’s teaching on Revelation, on the Church, on the laity, on ecumenism, on missiology and on many other topics.

After the Council, Congar’s health was affected by a degenerative sclerosis, but he remained extremely productive almost until his death in 1995. His last major work was a three volume study of the Holy Spirit. In recognition of his achievements, Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal in 1994.

While working for the Council, Congar collaborated in the study on "Tradition and Traditions" conducted under the auspices of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. In 1960 and 1963 he published the two volumes of his Tradition and Traditions, which many consider to be his most important publication.

The Second Vatican Council set forth the Catholic doctrine of tradition in the second chapter of its Constitution on Divine Revelation. That chapter stands among the principal accomplishments of the Council. Robert Imbelli once wrote: "Were I asked to state briefly the major theological achievement of the Second Vatican Council, I would unhesitatingly reply: the recovery of tradition." [1] And, as Joseph Ratzinger has observed, it is "not difficult ... to recognize the pen of Y Congar" in the ideas and language of the text. [2]

Four centuries earlier, the Council of Trent had formulated the Catholic theology of tradition in opposition to the Protestant idea of "Scripture alone". In upholding irreversible apostolic traditions, the authors of that decree evidently had in mind beliefs such as the perpetual virginity of Mary and practices such as infant baptism and the sign of the cross, which were not attested in Scripture but seemed to go back to the very beginnings of Christianity. Catholic theologians in the post-Tridentine period came to view tradition as a second source, parallel to Scripture, transmitting truths explicitly revealed to the apostles but not consigned to writing in the canonical Scriptures.

This concept of tradition. However, was not adequate to deal with dogmas such as the Immaculate Conception, which emerged as a popular Catholic belief only in the second millennium and was first defined as Catholic dogma in 1854. Some Catholic theologians, perceiving this insufficiency in the accepted Catholic theology of tradition, began co grope for a more open and dynamic concept.

Carrying the new tendency to an extrerne, the Modernists devised an evolutionary theory of doctrine in which tradition functioned as a principle of transformation. But in this theory Christ became a mere point of departure for a revelatory process that went far beyond him and the apostles. Not surprisingly, Modernism was condemned as a heresy.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Maurice Blondel sought to carve out a middle path between post-Tridentine and Modernist theories of tradition. The true theory, he maintained, should be neither pure flux nor static permanence, neither Procrustean nor Protean, neither "veterist" nor modernist. To his lasting credit, he rediscovered the capacity of tradition to transmit what was already known in an implicit way but not yet formulated in conceptual terms.

Yves Congar revisited the whole problem of tradition in the light of his vast knowledge of the Church Fathers, the medieval Doctors and modern ecumenical literature. While standing in the footsteps of Blondel, he greatly enriches the theological dimensions.

For Congar, tradition is a real, living self-communication of God. Its content is the whole Christian reality disclosed in Jesus Christ, including the implicit contents of that disclosure. The Holy Spirit is the transcendent subject of tradition; the whole Church is its bearer. Thus tradition is an essentially social and ecclesial reality; its locus is the Church as a communion. It is transmitted not only by written and spoken words but equally by prayer, sacramental worship and participation in the Church’s life. Tradition, while consisting primarily in the process of transmission, is not sheer process.

Its content is expressed to a greater or lesser degree in a variety of documents and other "monuments", as Congar calls them. Interacting with the consciousness of those who receive it, tradition develops and is enriched in the course of centuries. Continual meditation on the inspired Scriptures on the part of those who obey the Gospel gives rise to new insights as to what was tacitly communicated in the original Revelation. The Church’s teaching office, or Magisterium, has the commission to supervise the process of transmission, to stigmatize errors and to define revealed truths as they become clear to the believing Church.

These and similar ideas, developed at length in Congar’s masterly two-volume work, are concisely summarized in the present volume, The Meaning of Tradition. Published shortly after the completion of the two-volume work, it is more orderly and concise and preferable as an introduction to the theme. The earlier work can profitably be consulted to fill in the historical background and explain the debated questions.

When I have taught material on tradition to seminarians and graduate students, I have regularly used this book as my primary text. But, being out of print, the book has been difficult to obtain. The present reprint will be welcomed by many who turn to Congar as perhaps the greatest master of the theology of tradition who has ever lived.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.

Fordham University, New York City


[1] Robert P. Imbelli, "Vatican II–Twenty Years Later", Commonweal 109 (October 8, 1982): 78.

[2] Joseph Ratzinger. "Commentary on Dei Verbum", chap. 2, in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), 3:184.

Read Congar's own introduction to The Meaning of Tradition.

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