Tradition and Apocalypse
June 7, 2022

David Bentley Hart has some very wise things to say about tradition and traditionalism in the opening section of his new Tradition and Apocalypse. The concept of tradition formulated in John Henry Newman’s 1845 Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine and updated by Maurice Blondel’s 1904 History and Dogma was, Hart argues, “a very new idea, relatively considered, with no very deep roots in the tradition of the church” (2). In his view, it’s also incoherent.

What Newman invented was a theological concept of tradition as “a rational and indivisible unity somehow subsisting within a history that encompasses an incalculable number of large, conspicuous, and substantial transformations.” Tradition is said to have an organic and logical unity, a “causal continuum” in the Aristotelian sense: “the essential unity of a single identifiable ‘substance,’ with an intrinsic entelechy that allows it to grow and change while remaining solely what it is.” The theological concept of tradition treats tradition as “living tradition . . . shaped by a single real formal content and by an efficient power of development whose effects are determined by an inherent and purposive finality” (9-10).

This is a hard sell, first, because of the nature of the essential Christian claim. Unlike other religions, which transmit “some invariable truth” from age to age, Christian faith is “a particular and local history that purports to disclose itself as the eternal and universal truth of all things.” Particular historical events aren’t means of disclosing some timeless content; the events are “the content of what was thereby made known.” Absurdly “the whole edifice of eternal truth [balances] upon the tiny, tenuous, evanescent foundation of a fleeting temporal episode.” Christianity arrests our attention “chiefly by its implausibility.” The fundamental claims of Christian have been elaborated with “ever more ahistorical asservations about being or nature or supernature,” yet the hard core of Christian reflection is “always a set of occurrences that reportedly took place at this or that location, and of words that were supposedly spoke to this or that person” (4-5). The “scandal of particularity” cannot be eliminated.

Given the “captivating delicacy” and “fragility” of Christian claims, a theological concept of tradition can be credible only if it tells of Christianity’s emergence and elaboration “as at once the story of the unbroken preservation of a changeless, rationally coherent, always implicit dogmatic content and also the story of the dynamic process of an ever greater crystallization, clarification, and explicit disclosure of that content in ideas, words, and practices” (5). A theory of tradition must “account both for everything in Christian belief that has not changed over time as well as for everything that has” (5).

This, Hart argues, cannot be done, and what Newman finally offers is merely a historical reconstruction of doctrinal development that is treated as inevitable. It’s “an illusionist’s trick.” Newman and his imitators struggled “to impose a consensus that had never hitherto existed, to dissolve disagreements that had persisted undetected across many generations of believers, and then to alter the record to give the impression of the armistice thus achieved were no more than the purest possible expression of something boldly confessed ubique, semper, et ab omnibus” (8-9; “everywhere, always, by everyone”). Even though every struggle produced “a set of demonstrably novel dogmatic formulations” (9), the notion of tradition confected continuity by using “the overarching narrative conceit that everything that has gradually appeared within its confines over time has been a faithful explication of truths latently present from the very beginning” (12).

History is messy, including the history of the church, which isn’t “the record of an inexorably unfolding deposit of belief already wholly contained in the most primordial moments of Christian revelation” (18-19). Historians of early Christianity are “conscious of the plurality and contradictoriness of the earliest Christian factions, and of later tradition’s seemingly immense departures from what the evidence tells us of those centuries.” This raggedness has little impact of systematics or dogmatics because theology and Early Christian studies are “rigidly sequestered from one another” (19-20). “Tradition” can be successfully invoked only by squinting at the actual history of that tradition, or by looking away.

Hart thinks Newman’s failure yielded one notable success: He effectively demolished traditionalism by showing Christianity’s coherence and credibility doesn’t lie in a steady, smooth unfolding of what is always already there; it has coherence because of its capacity to absorb novelties (12). A traditionalist cannot abide novelty. Traditionalism is “motivated by a sickly nostalgia for something recalled from childhood, or something almost recalled from somewhere just beyond the verge of one’s earliest memory.” For converts especially, traditionalism becomes a kind of resentment, “a fierce adherence to a largely simplified and fabulous version of the confession to which the convert has fled from some other confession that has left him or her cruelly disappointed.” Instead of letting reality disabuse him of this illusion, the traditionalist clings to a “parsimoniously narrow and soothingly familiar . . . picture of the faith.” Often enough, the traditionalist doesn’t really plumb the uncanny and alien depths of the church’s history, but clings to the recent past as if it were the tradition itself (13-14).

Newman’s riposte would certainly include an appeal to the Spirit’s guidance of the church, but I don’t think this rescues his theory. The Spirit is the Spirit of surprise, who blows where He will and bursts through the furrows of the past to do new things. It seems highly unlikely that the Spirit of the living God would be as predictable as Newman’s theory of tradition suggests. The Spirit preserves the church in truth, certainly; but often enough it appears as if the Spirit has let go.

In the light of Hart’s argument, it’s clear that Protestantism is more susceptible to traditionalism than Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Rooted in the ecumenical creeds, Orthodox theology is underdetermined on all sorts of issues, and so is freer to absorb novelties. Catholic tradition is more precisely fixed, but still leaves many questions open and, in recent times, has accepted a flexible distinction between doctrine and its formulation.

The founding traditions of Protestantism have a comprehensive confessional fixity that neither Catholicism nor, especially, Orthodoxy possesses. Protestants have determinate answers to many theological questions. There are pluses in that comprehensiveness. But, paradoxically, it makes the theological tradition that seems most supple to be, in practice, the most rigid.

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