Yves Congar, Meaning of Tradition, Blog 1

Before the Reformation theologians had never debated whether Tradition was equal to Scriptures.

“Scripture Alone” was one of Luther’s slogan, the Luther who excelled at reducing complex theological arguments to simple slogans, the Luther who started the debate of Scripture vs. Tradition.  Not all Reformation debates were new, but this was a new debate, before the Reformation theologians had never debated whether Tradition was equal to Scriptures, or whether the credo should be Scripture alone.

The decrees of Vatican II no longer strive to be confrontational with the Protestant Churches but rather seeks dialogue with them as separated brethren.  No longer does the official Catholic Church seek polemic arguments on topics such as Scripture vs. Tradition.  The cleric whose writings most influenced the decrees of Vatican II was Yves Congar, including his work on the Meaning of Tradition.  He examined what the Church Fathers taught us about tradition throughout Church History, and as expected, since it was not hotly debated until the Reformation, there was a great many teachings on what tradition meant.


There are several Bible verses that serve as proof-texts when quoted out of context appear to deny the role of traditions:

Jesus answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”[1]

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.[2]

Certainly, it is not Christian to distort both Scripture and tradition in a manner that conflicts with your Love of God and neighbor, but that does not mean that all tradition is condemned by Scripture.  Indeed, there are also Bible verses that affirm the role of traditions:

From 2 Thessalonians: Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.[3]  So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.[4]

From 1 Corinthians: I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain traditions just as I handed them on to you.[5]


The ancient Church Fathers never debate whether Scriptures and traditions can be separates, this debate arose from the Protestant Reformation.  We do have one of the most ancient patristic works that was discovered after the Reformation, the Didache, reveal that the early Church developed a strong liturgical tradition early in its history.  You can reference our blog on this work in the footnotes.[6]

Another useful work is St Augustine’s Confessions, where St Augustine confesses how he converted back to the Catholic faith of his mother.  He describes how the sacraments were part of his life in the Church, how he consulted with St Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, and how he was baptized on Easter.[7]  The Confessions give us a rare look at how the lives of ordinary Christians were intertwined with the liturgy and the sacraments and by the spiritual leadership of the bishops and priests, the hierarchy of the church.

St Augustine in the Confessions tells us the story of Victorinus, someone who studies the Gospels and the Church Fathers but declines to attend services, asking “Do the walls of the Church make you a Christian?”  In the words of St Augustine, in his studies Victorinus became “resolute, he was seized by the fear that Christ might deny him before the holy angels if he was too faint-hearted to acknowledge Christ before men, and he felt himself guilty of a great crime in being ashamed of the sacraments instituted by the Word of God in his lowly state.”[8]


As we discussed in our blogs, the Council of Trent was truly a reform council that laid a lasting theological foundation that that the Vatican II Council built upon.  However, the theologians at Trent sometimes misunderstood the history of some ancient Church traditions.  Also, as a result of the polemic battles with Protestants afterwards the interpretation of the Trent Council decrees became more reactionary.  Even so, the decrees of Trent are an excellent starting point to determine the historical definition of tradition.

Trent spoke not of Tradition but many traditions, and its decrees venerate both Scriptures “as well as traditions concerning both faith and conduct . . . which have been preserved in unbroken sequence in the catholic church,” traditions that include infant baptism.  When it talks about traditions practiced in unbroken sequence, Trent refers to apostolic traditions rather than later human or ecclesiastical traditions.[9]

The Trent decree does not separate Scriptures and traditions, as both Scriptures and traditions are transmitted together by Christ and the Holy Spirit:

“Following the example of the orthodox Fathers, the Council of Trent receives and venerates with the same sense of loyalty and reverence all the books of the Old and New Testament, for the one God is the author of both, together with all the traditions concerning faith and practice, as coming from the mouth of Christ or being inspired by the Holy Spirit and preserved in continuous succession in the Catholic Church.”[10]

The many decrees from Trent reaffirming the validity of the Catholic sacraments are also defenses of the value of tradition.

The Protestant Reformation started the debate of Tradition vs. Scripture, it never occurred to the Church Fathers that you could distinguish between Tradition and Scripture.  To them they were really one and the same.  Originally Scriptures flowed from Tradition, and then the writings of the Church Fathers that formed much of the traditional beliefs of the Church flowed from and comment on the Scriptures.


The Greek work for tradition means a passing on of an object, like a baton in a relay race, like the passing on of the Good News from the apostles through the ages.  The debate over which is more important, Scripture or Tradition, is absurd, the Scriptures themselves were handed down to us by tradition.  Most scholars argue that the Gospels developed over many decades from oral tradition, and it was not until the late fourth and early fifth century when the early Church came to a consensus formed on what books would be included in the New Testament canon.

Yves Congar notes that though many Protestants concede that the Scriptures were handed down by tradition, that once the canon was settled that unwritten tradition was no longer comparable to the Scriptures.  However, the early Church Fathers did not see tradition falling away as the setting of the canon was a gradual process attested by multiple Synods and the writings of many Church Fathers.[11]

The Greek word for Paradise, Paradeisos, is similar to the Greek word for tradition, Paradosis.  Yves Congar observes, “tradition or transmission is the very principle of the economy of salvation.”  Just as God delivered and gave up His Son for our salvation, so the Good News of the Gospel is delivered and transmitted through the ages through the Church.  “Tradition includes equally the Holy Scriptures and also the sacraments, ecclesiastical institutions, the powers of the ministry, custom and liturgical rites,” and all the elements of Christianity.[12]

If Scripture was meant to transcend tradition, if the written word is so superior to the oral traditions only written on the hearts of the men who heard the Good News, why didn’t Jesus Himself write down His teachings.  St Thomas Aquinas teaches us that “Christ did not teach by means of the written word because He is the absolutely perfect Teacher,” teaching a living message that would be handed down by the Apostles through the Church up to the current day.[13]

Blog 2 of this series: http://www.seekingvirtueandwisdom.com/yves-congar-meaning-of-tradition-blog-2/

[1] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew+15%3A3&version=NRSVCE

[2] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=colossians+2%3A8&version=NRSVCE

[3] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+thessalonians+3%3A6&version=NRSVCE

[4] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Thessalonians+2%3A15&version=NRSVCE

[5] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+corinthians+11%3A2&version=NRSVCE

[6] http://www.seekingvirtueandwisdom.com/didache-early-church-writing/

[7] St Augustine, “Confessions,” translated by RS Pine-Coffin (New York: Dorset Press, 1961), Book IX, chapter 6, p. 190.

[8] St Augustine, “Confessions,” Book VIII, chapter 3, p. 160

[9] John O’Malley, “Trent, What Happened at the Council,” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), pp. 92-98.

[10] “Denzinger Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals”, 43rd Edition, “Council of Trent Decrees, various translators (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, translated 2012), Paragraph 1503, p. 370.

[11] Yves Congar, “The Meaning of Tradition,” (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1964, latest edition 2004), pp. 17-19, list of Church Fathers and traditions, p. 37.

[12] Yves Congar, “The Meaning of Tradition,” pp. 9-13

[13] Yves Congar, “The Meaning of Tradition,” pp. 24-25

About Bruce Strom 167 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.

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