Scripture, Tradition flow from the one source of revelation

June 23, 2014

Seemingly miniscule changes in wording can hide major shifts in understanding. So it was when the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) spoke of "Tradition" in comparison with "traditions" referred to in the teaching of the 16th century Council of Trent.

The shift from the plural to the singular and from a small "t" to a capital "T" augured a significant shift in Church teaching.

For Joseph Ratzinger, this was but one sign in Dei Verbum indicating that Tradition had come to mean something quite different than the strict "passing on" of unchanging truths and laws inherited from the past.

Ratzinger's finely-tuned analysis of Chapter Two of the constitution, published in 1967, emphasizes how the legal concepts of Trent were replaced at Vatican II with those of grace and dialogue. Not every tradition is part of Tradition, noted the future pope.

Both Tradition and Scripture, the constitution says (DV 7), are like a mirror in which the Church contemplates God. It cannot yet see him face to face.

Scripture and Tradition flow from the same divine wellspring and move towards the same goal.

Ratzinger wrote that the metaphor of the mirror implies that what we now see contains "distortions and shifts in emphasis." It was an "unfortunate omission" that the documents of Vatican II – a Church council oriented to reform – did not state this explicitly.

Tradition, in Dei Verbum, is not fixed and unchanging, but a living, organic reality. To state the importance of Tradition is not to engage in nostalgia for the past, but to emphasize that the dialogue between God and the Church continues after the death of the last apostle.

While "no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord, Jesus Christ" (DV 4), the divine-human conversation continues throughout history.

Tradition develops through this conversation. Such development is a deeper understanding of the original "public revelation," not an innovation that discovers "new truths."

Tradition develops in three ways, says Dei Verbum. It progresses, first, through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder revelation in their hearts. Second, it grows through "the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience." Third, it evolves through the preaching of bishops who "have received the sure charism of truth. . . .

"Thus, God who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the spouse of his beloved Son" (DV 8).

This is a remarkable shift in understanding of the nature of Tradition.

The shift grows even more remarkable in the next paragraph where the council fathers put an end to the centuries-old tension between Scripture and Tradition. From whence – from Scripture or Tradition – does any particular teaching of the Church originate?

This notion of two sources of revelation, Ratzinger states, assumes that revelation is a collection of propositions each of which must be justified by either Scripture or Tradition. If most Church teaching is rooted in Scripture, some of it, such as the doctrine of Mary's Assumption, comes from Tradition.


For Dei Verbum, there is only one source of revelation – the Word of God. "Flowing from the same divine wellspring, both of them (Scripture and Tradition) merge, in a sense, and move towards the same goal" (DV 9). Revelation is complete in the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Scripture and Tradition are the vehicles through which we encounter Jesus. For that to be the case, Tradition must be something wider than the propositions which the Church teaches to be true.

It consists in, the constitution says, "the teaching of the apostles, the communion of life, the breaking of bread and the prayers" (DV 10). "Communion of life" might well be seen as an umbrella term that includes the lives of holy people, the sense of the faithful and even the writings and art that interpret the faith.

The question then arises as to which interpretations and lived realities are legitimate and which are not.

Not surprisingly, Dei Verbum states, "The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone" (DV 10).

The pope and bishops have the charism and responsibility of ensuring that the Church remains true to its origins in Christ.


Then, however, the constitution does make a perhaps surprising statement: "The magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is rather its servant."

The pope and bishops have no authority to make arbitrary changes in or interpretations of Church teaching. They are servants of the Word.

Indeed, "the entire holy people" are responsible for maintaining the Church's fidelity to God's Word. "There is a unique interplay between the bishops and the faithful" (DV 10).

In summary, there is but one revelation, which is given through Scripture and Tradition. What is revealed is the Word of God, which is not a collection of statements but a divine-human person. Our understanding of Jesus Christ grows through the ages as we, under the guidance and authority of the pope and bishops, contemplate him ever more deeply and live in the communion of life that he inaugurated.