Living Tradition (Viva Voce - Whatever We Say)
A Repudiation of the Patristic Concept of Tradition
In the history of Roman Catholic dogma, one can trace an evolution in the theory of tradition. There were two fundamental patristic principles which governed the early Church’s approach to dogma. The first was sola Scriptura in which the fathers viewed Scripture as both materially and formally sufficient. It was materially sufficient in that it was the only source of doctrine and truth and the ultimate authority in all doctrinal controversies. It was necessary that every teaching of the Church as it related to doctrine be proven from Scripture. Thomas Aquinas articulated this patristic view when he stated that canonical Scripture alone is the rule of faith (sola canonica scriptura est regula fidei).1 Additionally, they taught that the essential truths of Scripture were perspicuous, that is, that they were clearly revealed in Scripture, so that, by the enablement of the Holy Spirit alone an individual could come to an understanding of the fundamental truths of salvation.
The second is a principle enunciated by the Roman Catholic Councils of Trent (1546-1562) and Vatican I (1870) embodied in the phrase ‘the unanimous consent of the fathers.’ This is a principle that purportedly looks to the past for validation of its present teachings particularly as they relate to the interpretation of Scripture. Trent initially promulgated this principle as a means of countering the Reformation teachings to make it appear that the Reformers’ doctrines were novel and heretical while those of Rome were rooted in historical continuity. It is significant to note that Trent merely affirmed the existence of the principle without providing documentary proof for its validity. Vatican I merely reaffirmed the principle as decreed by Trent. Its historical roots hearken back to Vincent of Lerins in the fifth century who was the first to give it formal definition when he stated that apostolic and catholic doctrine could be identified by a three fold criteria: It was a teaching that had been believed everywhere, always and by all (quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est).2 In other words, the principle of unanimous agreement encompassing universality (believed everywhere), antiquity (believed always) and consent (believed by all). Vincent readily agreed with the principle of sola Scriptura, that is, that Scripture was sufficient as the source of truth. But he was concerned about how one determined what was truly apostolic and catholic doctrine. This was the official position of the Church immediately subsequent to Vincent throughout the Middle Ages and for centuries immediately following Trent. But this principle, while fully embraced by Trent and Vatican I, has all been but abandoned by Rome today in a practical and formal sense. This is due to the fact that so much of Rome’s teachings, upon historical examination, fail the test of unanimous consent. Some Roman Catholic historians are refreshingly honest in this assessment. Patrologist Boniface Ramsey, for example, candidly admits that the current Roman Catholic teachings on Mary and the papacy were not taught in the early Church:
At first, this clear lack of patristic consensus led Rome to embrace a new theory in the late nineteenth century to explain its teachings — the theory initiated by John Henry Newman known as the development of doctrine. In light of the historical reality, Newman had come to the conclusion that the Vincentian principle of unanimous consent was unworkable, because, for all practical purposes, it was nonexistent. To quote Newman:
The obvious problem with Newman’s analysis and conclusion is that it flies in the face of the decrees of Trent and Vatican I, both of which decreed that the unanimous consent of the fathers does exist. But to circumvent the lack of patristic witness for the distinctive Roman Catholic dogmas, Newman set forth his theory of development, which was embraced by the Roman Catholic Church. Ironically, this is a theory which, like unanimous consent, has its roots in the teaching of Vincent of Lerins, who also promulgated a concept of development. While rejecting Vincent’s rule of universality, antiquity and consent, Rome, through Newman, once again turned to Vincent for validation of its new theory of tradition and history. But while Rome and Vincent both use the term development, they are miles apart in their understanding of the meaning of the principle because Rome’s definition of development and Vincent’s are diametrically opposed to one another. In his teaching, Vincent delineates the following parameters for true development of doctrine:
First of all, Vincent is saying that doctrinal development must be rooted in the principle of unanimous consent. That is, it must be related to doctrines that have been clearly taught throughout the ages of the Church. In other words, true development must demonstrate historical roots. Any teaching which could not demonstrate its authority from Scripture and the universal teaching of the Church was to be repudiated as novel and therefore not truly catholic. It was to be considered heretical. This is the whole point of Vincent’s criticism of such heretics as Coelestius and Pelagius. He says, ‘Who ever before his (Pelagius) monstrous disciple Coelestius ever denied that the whole human race is involved in the guilt of Adam’s sin?’6 Their teaching, which was a denial of original sin, was novel. It could not demonstrate historical continuity and therefore it was heretical.
But, with Newman, Rome redefined the theory of development and promoted a new concept of tradition. One that was truly novel. Truly novel in the sense that it was completely foreign to the perspective of Vincent and the theologians of Trent and Vatican I who speak of the unanimous consent of the fathers. These two Councils claim that there is a clear continuity between their teaching and the history of the ancient Church which preceded them (whether this is actually true is another thing altogether). A continuity which can they claimed could be documented by the explicit teaching of the Church fathers in their interpretation of Scripture and in their practice. Vatican I, for example, teaches that the papacy was full blown from the very beginning and was, therefore, not subject to development over time.
In this new theory Rome moved beyond the historical principle of development as articulated by Vincent and, for all practical purposes, eliminated any need for historical validation. She now claimed that it was not necessary that a particular doctrine be taught explicitly by the early Church. In fact, Roman Catholic historians readily admit that doctrines such as the assumption of Mary and papal infallibility were completely unknown in the teaching of the early Church. If Rome now teaches the doctrine we are told that the early Church actually believed and taught it implicitly and only later, after many centuries, did it become explicit.
From this principle it was only a small step in the evolution of Rome’s teaching on Tradition to her present position. Rome today has replaced the concept of tradition as development to what is known as ‘living tradition.’ This is a concept that promotes the Church as an infallible authority, which is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who protects her from error. Therefore, whatever Rome’s magisterium teaches at any point in time must be true even if it lacks historical or biblical support. The following statement by Roman Catholic apologist Karl Keating regarding the teaching of the Assumption of Mary is an illustration of this very point. He says it does not matter that there is no teaching on the Assumption in Scripture, the mere fact that the Roman Church teaches it is proof that it is true. Thus, teachings do not need to be documented from Scripture:
This assertion is a complete repudiation of the patristic principle of proving every doctrine by the criterion of Scripture. Tradition means handing down from the past. Rome has changed the meaning of tradition from demonstrating by patristic consent that a doctrine is truly part of tradition, to the concept of living tradition — whatever I say today is truth, irrespective of the witness of history. This goes back to the claims of Gnosticism to having received the tradition by living voice, viva voce. Only now Rome has reinterpreted viva voce, the living voice as receiving from the past by way of oral tradition, to be a creative and therefore entirely novel aspect of tradition. It creates tradition in its present teaching without appeal to the past. To paraphrase the Gnostic line, it is viva voce — whatever we say. Another illustration of this reality relates to the teaching of the Assumption of Mary from the French Roman Catholic historian, Joussard:
The editors of the book which references these statements from Joussard offer the following editorial comments:
The historical method is not the theological method, nor is historical tradition synonymous with dogmatic tradition? Such a view is the complete antithesis of the teaching of Vincent of Lerins and the Councils of Trent and Vatican I. This is an apt illustration of the concept of living tradition. This new perspective on tradition is also well expressed by Roman Catholic theologian and cardinal, Yves Congar. In light of the lack of historical support for a number of the Roman Catholic dogmas, Congar sets forth this new approach of living tradition:
Congar affirms that unanimous consent is the classical position in Roman theology. But he honestly admits that for all practical purposes it is nonexistent. It is a claim that has been asserted for centuries but lacking in actual documentary validation. As Congar says: ‘In regard to individual texts of Scripture total patristic consensus is rare.’ And he uses the fundamental passage for all of Rome’s authority as an example, that being the rock passage of Matthew 16 in which he candidly admits that the present day Roman/papal interpretation of that passage contradicts that of the patristic age. But, according to Congar, the problem is really not a problem because it can be circumvented by a different understanding of consensus. The Fathers must be interpreted in light of present day teaching. Congar says: ‘The Fathers cannot be isolated from the Church and its life.’ And by the Church and its life, he means the Church as it is today. He says: ‘It is the Church, not the Fathers, the consensus of the Church in submission to its Saviour which is the sufficient rule of our Christianity.’ In other words, what matters is what the Church teaches now. That is the criterion of truth and Tradition because the Church is living and Tradition is living. He continues:
Note carefully the last two sentences of that paragraph. Congar postulates that in the future the Church could be teaching doctrines which are completely unheard of today and which will therefore not be able to be documented historically. As he puts it: ‘The lifelines of faith may not pass through the great doctors in a given instance.’ Historical documentation must leave room for judgment that is not restricted to documentary evidence alone but transcends the historical record in light of the present day Church’s faith. In other words, the truth of ecclesiastical history must be viewed through the lens of whatever the faith of the Church is at the present moment.
This in effect cuts the Church off from any kind of continuity as far as real documentation is concerned or accountability. It allows the Church to conveniently disregard the witness of history and Scripture in favor of a dynamic evolving teaching authority. History in effect becomes irrelevant and all talk of the unanimous consent of the fathers merely a relic of history. This brings us to the place where one’s faith is placed blindly in the institution of the Church. Again, in reality Rome has abandoned the argument from history is arguing for the viva voce (living voice) of the contemporary teaching office of the Church (magisterium), which amounts to the essence of a carte blanche for whatever proves to be the current, prevailing sentiments of Rome. Never was this more blatantly admitted and expressed than it was by the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Henry Edward Manning (1808-1892) who was one of the leading proponents for the definition of papal rule and infallibility at Vatican I. His words are the expression of sola ecclesia with a vengeance:
So, in effect, the new teaching of tradition in Rome is no longer that of continuity with the past but living tradition, or viva voce — whatever we say. Instead of sola Scriptura, the unanimous principle of authority enunciated by both Scripture and the Church fathers, we now have sola Ecclesia, blind submission to an institution which is unaccountable to either Scripture or history. That blind submission is not too strong an allegation is seen from the official Roman teaching on saving faith. What Rome requires is what is technically referred to a dogmatic faith. This is faith which submits completely to whatever the Church of Rome officially defines as dogma and to refuse such submission results in anathema and the loss of salvation, for unless a Roman Catholic has dogmatic faith, he or she does not have saving faith. Rome’s view is based on the presupposition that the Church is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and is therefore infallible. She cannot err. But the presupposition is faulty. Historically, the Roman Church has clearly proven that she can and has erred and is therefore quite fallible. Her gospel is a repudiation of the biblical gospel.
This is where we ultimately arrive when the patristic and Reformation principle of sola Scriptura is repudiated for the concept of living tradition and an infallible magisterium — the embracing of teachings which are not only not found in Scripture or the teaching of the early Church, but which are actually contradictory to Scripture and in many cases to the teaching of the Church fathers.
William A. Webster is a business man, living with his wife and children in Battle Ground, Washington. He has already authored The Christian Following Christ as Lord and Salvation, The Bible, and Roman Catholicism, The Church of Rome at the Bar of History and just recently published (Sept. 2001) the three volume series, Sola Scriptura co-edited by David T. King. Mr. Webster is a founder of Christian Resources, Inc., a tape and book ministry dedicated to teaching and evangelism. You can visit his website at:
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