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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
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. Congars study of Tradition greatly contributed to the teaching
of Vatican II and to a deeper appreciation of the Church Fathers.
Here is the forewordwritten by Avery Cardinal
Dullesto Congar's book, followed by Congar's
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.
1959 Pope John XXIII restored Congars good name by appointing him
a theological consultant to the preparatory commission for the Second
Vatican Council. At the Council itself, Congars influence was equal
to, and perhaps greater than, that of any other Catholic theologian. His
influence is manifest in the Councils teaching on Revelation, on
the Church, on the laity, on ecumenism, on missiology and on many other
After the Council, Congars 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
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."  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. 
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 Churchs
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 Churchs 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 Congars 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
 Robert P. Imbelli, "Vatican IITwenty Years Later", Commonweal
109 (October 8, 1982): 78.
 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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