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Tradition and Revelation

“Tradition in the church, then, is a process of gift and reception in which the deposit of faith — the teaching and ethics of the Christian community — is recieved, interpreted and handed on through time.  As such, when it is true giving and reception, it realises the Father’s giving of his Son, the Son’s self-giving to death and indeed the very life of God of which they are the economic expression.  It is for reasons such as this that we should maintain a strong view of the centrality of the particulars with have been handed down to us, to and through the biblical writers, but a less enthusiastic endorsement of the ways in which the authority of the exponents of that tradition has intruded upon its due and non-coercive transmission.  Churchly authority has not always taken the form of the authority of grace, and all too often has taken the form of the expression of coercive power.  The conclusion to draw is that the greater weight one can throw upon the faith once for all delivered to the saints, by which is mean the confession of Jesus and his meaning as the revelation of God, found like in the apostolic preaching and rules of faith, the less we have to trust in the judgment of offices, whether Holy or Protestant administrative.  It is a recipe, one might say, either for chaos or for allowing the wheat and the tares to grow together until the harvest,  Thus truth is indeed the daughter of time: the time God gives his church for faithful reception and transmission of the gospel.”

–Colin Gunton, A Brief Theology of Revelation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), 103-104.


  1. Hill wrote:

    While I appreciate the sentiments of Mr. Gunton, I think there is a tendency to “overlook” some of the more inconvenient and difficult passages of both the Gospel and the earliest Church Fathers. The authority present in the Church is called, perhaps not to coercion, but to the exclusion of the disobedient (and here’s the important part) *out of a charity that is concerned ultimately with their salvation.* 1 Corinthians 5:5 speaks unambiguously to this. And from good Fr. Longenecker’s blog:

    From Ignatius of Antioch: c.108

    Be eager to be firmly established in the doctrines of the Lord and of the Apostles…be submissive to the Bishop as Jesus Christ was to the Father, and the Apostles to Christ…that there may be unity…All who belong to God and Jesus Christ are with the bishop; and all who repent of schism and come into the unity of the Church will also belong to God that they may be living according to Jesus Christ.

    Irenaeus of Lyon: c. 190

    Therefore we will refute those who hold unauthorized assemblies–by pointing to the tradition of the greatest and oldest church, a church known to all men which was founded and established at Rome by the most renowned apostles Peter and Paul. The tradition the church has from the Apostles has bee proclaimed to all men and has come down to our own day through the succession of bishops. for this church has the position of leadership and authority.

    The details of so much Christian doctrine was forged in the crucible of a response to heretics, and I think the account Gunton gives of authority would have seemed quite alien in that context. Again, I am not advocating some kind coercive absolute authority, just trying to remind us all that an authority rooted firmly in charity can (and has) required that certain people be “handed over to Satan that their spirits might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” So while the wheat and the tares will in fact grow together until the harvest, we would be failing in our mission to stand idly by without exhausting every means possible to convert “the tares” even if this means a provisional exclusion from the community.

    Saturday, April 19, 2008 at 3:05 pm | Permalink
  2. I really like this passage, Halden. I am especially intrigued by Gunton’s admission that his view of tradition may be “a recipe, one might say, either for chaos or for allowing the wheat and the tares to grow together until the harvest…” Adrienne von Speyr, in a passage Balthasar liked to quote, spoke of the ‘chaos of love’ which breaks the boundaries that we set in our all too limited human perspective. This was a view Balthasar also gleaned from, among other sources, the great writings on love of Richard of Saint Victor, in which Richard pointed to the vehement (or even violent) nature of love calling into question our authoritative claims to draw hard and fast boundaries between the sheep and the goats. Often the very line we draw is the line of our own limited love, rather than of God’s divine decree, as so many ‘heretics’, like Marguerite Porete, leaned the hard way.

    Saturday, April 19, 2008 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    Just to add a bit to my remarks earlier: I just want to maintain a proper respect for the complexity of the nature of authority in the Church and the role it plays in the salvation of our souls. I was looking for the “handing over to Satan” passage earlier (it’s actually Bonhoeffer that drove that passage home for me) but I was blown away in exploring the entire chapter in 1 Corinthians in which it is found:

    3 For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present. 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
    6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? 7 Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
    9 I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; 10 I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. 11 But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? 13 But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.

    I think it is an ingredient to this “recipe” that can’t be omitted.

    Saturday, April 19, 2008 at 4:39 pm | Permalink
  4. “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves…” Do not move him from one parish to the next, dispensing cheap grace, and boasting of the contrition such a one has shown in private counsel with the leadership of the church. When a single bishop responsible for rejecting these verses again and again and again, (and there have been many, in many traditions, not just the Roman Catholic) is himself ‘handed over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh’ (whatever that means!), then I will take seriously the church’s claim to live by the sword of the spirit, rather than the ways of the flesh.
    Or are these verses only to apply to the laity, in particular those who challenge and question the holiness of the clergy? One look at what happened in the thirteenth century with the Beguine mystics makes one shudder. This, too, is part of the church’s ‘traditio’.

    Saturday, April 19, 2008 at 6:05 pm | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    I’m not asking you to take anything seriously but the words of scripture. Your constant harping on individual instances of sin in Catholic the church are neither theologically helpful or relevant. What exactly are you saying? This one time some bad things happened? Do you think on balance those bad things uniformly characterize the nature of the Catholic clergy? Not that you are making a point, but if you are, it would be something along the lines of “Roman Catholic clergy and the magisterium are not to be trusted, because they are all pedophiles and inquisitors.” That’s fine if you want to make that argument, but do it with logic rather than hierophobic ranting.

    Saturday, April 19, 2008 at 6:15 pm | Permalink
  6. Forgive me, Hill, for having upset you with my expressions of anger at the church’s inactions on matters of clergy sexual abuse, which go back for hundreds of years (thus my reference to the 13th century, when the problem was also rampant). That was not my intention. I think there is much more to be said about this issue, but I will refrain from inflicting my concerns upon you in this context. It is indeed upsetting and not everyone wishes to discuss the theological ramifications of soul murder and sexual violence in the church.
    May the Lord’s peace be upon you this night.

    Saturday, April 19, 2008 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

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