Knowledge is the possession of those living ideas of sacred things, from which alone change of heart or conduct can proceed. This awful vision is what Scripture seems to designate by the phrases “Christ in us,” “Christ dwelling in us by faith,” “Christ formed in us,” and “Christ manifesting himself unto us.” And though it is faint and doubtful in some minds, and distinct in others, as some remote object in the twilight or in the day, this arises from the circumstances of the particular mind, and does not interfere with the perfection of the gift itself.1
An article with the phrase “the theologian’s responsibility to tradition” in the title is bound to elicit knee-jerk reactions on all sides of the theological divide. Perhaps the prototypical “traditionalist”2 will be relieved to hear a theologian speak up for tradition in a scene often dominated by historical-critical skepticism and “identity politics.” From the other side, one is open to the suspicion of hiding from contemporary, “real world” problems and injustices by escaping to the safety of some ideal age in the theological past. In short, what we have come to call theological progressives and conservatives tend to have fairly strong a priori assumptions about theology’s relationship to tradition; one is either a conservative who is out to preserve tradition or one is a progressive who sees the theologian’s task as “speaking truth to power.” In what follows, however, I would like to get beneath these all-too-superficial debates by taking a more fundamental look at what a Catholic means by tradition on the one hand and by theology on the other. As is always the case, there is no getting past an impasse as long as we do not understand the terms we too often carelessly throw around. What I would like to suggest in what follows is that a proper understanding of the role of tradition, not just in Catholic theology but in human life in general, will go a long way in helping to clarify both the theologian’s de facto relationship to tradition, and also the theologian’s task within the Church.
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1. John Henry Newman, Sermon XV, “The Theory of Developments in Religious Doctrine,” in Fifteen Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford, ed. James David Earnest and Gerard Tracey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 223–24.
2. I am using the term “traditionalist” in the colloquial rather than technical sense here, the latter referring to a theory “according to which man’s natural and individual reason is incapable of achieving knowledge of God and of the most fundamental and decisive metaphysical realities” (Robert Spaemann, A Robert Spaemann Reader: Philosophical Essays on Nature, God, and the Human Person, ed. and trans. D. C. Schindler and Jeanne Heffernan Schindler [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015], 37).