Monday, February 16, 2009

The Symbiosis of Scripture and Tradition

From Fr Andrew Louth's Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology:
What unites us with the writers of the Scriptures is the life of the Church from their day to ours. It was in the life of the Church that the Scriptures emerged, but in the Church that they were recognized as Scripture, and in the Church that they are read as Scripture – as opposed to being read as ancient Hebrew literature and the writings of one of the new religions that infested the world of late Roman Hellenism. There is a symbiosis between Scripture and tradition: Scripture feeding tradition and tradition providing the kind of receptiveness in which Scripture can be read as Scripture.

This might be developed in a number of ways. Let me suggest two: one an illustration, one more of expansion. We might consider the way in which the idea of the complementarity of Scripture and tradition makes ready sense of what we know of the formation of the Old Testament. For here too historical criticism has had the odd effect of both advancing our understanding and denying us that understanding. The notion of 'original meaning' is here very complicated: do we mean what was intended by the one who first uttered a prophetic oracle, for example, or the one who first wrote it down and regarded it as a significant oracle, or the one – or more likely the many – who edited it and gave it its place in the context of the whole prophetic book as we have it? Or take the psalms, particularly their use in Christian worship: what is the meaning of these poems that we recite, and continue to recite after three thousand years or so? Is it what the original writer intended, or what whoever it was who introduced the psalm into the worship of the Temple thought, or what? Clearly too restrictive an understanding of the meaning of a psalm will make nonsense or the recitation of the psalms and deny the basis of the spiritual experience of generations of Christians. And what about those who collected the books together and formed them into a canon? And which canon anyway? It makes a good deal of difference, it seems to me, whether the Prophets come at the end of the Old Testament or somewhere in the middle of the Hebrew Scriptures. The tendency of the historical-critical method has been to concentrate on originality and regard what is not original as secondary: but if see here a process of inspired utterance and reflection on – comment on – inspired utterance with the tradition, itself regarded as inspired, then we have a more complicated, but, I suggest, truer picture. The formation of the Holy Scriptures is an object lesson in the kind of complementarity of Scripture and tradition – or inspired utterance and tradition – that I have outlined. The art of understanding is more complicated, and richer, than an attempt to isolate the earliest fragments and to seek to understand them in a conjectured 'original' context: we hear the voice and the echoes and re-echoes, and it is as we hear that harmony that we come to understanding. As I see it, it is this perception that underlies the notion of 'canon criticism,' associated particularly perhaps with the name of Brevard Childs.
UPDATE: Kevin Edgecomb was kind enough to point out in the comment box that Eighth Day Books offers a reasonably affordable reprint of Discerning the Mystery.


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Eighth Day Books now publishes a reprint of Discerning the Mystery at an affordable price.

Felix Culpa said...

Excellent! Finally! I'll start linking to that edition.

Phil Sumpter said...

I've finally started reading this and I can see an awful lot of similarity with my hero, Brevard Childs. He even cites him, as I posted here.