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The ideas of “tradition” and “creativity” seem at first glance to be opposed and incompatible. Tradition says continuity; creativity says innovation and hence discontinuity. With the proper distinctions, however, it may be possible to show that the two are not only compatible but mutually supportive.

The question arises on at least two distinct levels. On one level, tradition is considered in the sociological sense, as a factor in the life of society and culture, including the arts. Tradition is the process by which a specific set of ideas or customs is perpetuated, continuing to influence new developments. On a second level, tradition is considered as a specifically theological entity. Christian faith, as generally understood, is built on the conviction that God’s saving act in Christ is a definitive reality that is to be proclaimed and believed by all future generations. For its continued existence the Church depends upon the mediation of that saving event. Tradition in the theological sense refers to this process of transmission. Theologically it must be asked whether faithful mediation of the past redemptive act leaves room for, requires, or even perhaps enhances human creativity, and conversely, whether human creativity contributes to the mediation of the past event.


The concept of tradition has a long history in theology. In the New Testament, the noun paradosis and the verb paradidomi are used in several senses. In the Gospels, Jesus sometimes speaks disparagingly of rabbinic or Pharisaic tradition as a device for nullifying the word of God. For example, he reprimands the scribes and Pharisees for attaching too much importance to ablutions before meals, and even more for the practice of dedicating money to God (the korban) as a means of evading the obligation to support their aged parents (Matt. 15:1–9; Mark 7:1–15). Paul, while he is familiar with the concept of merely human traditions (Gal. 1:14; Col. 2:8), also uses the term to signify divine or apostolic tradition, to which Christians are bound. He exhorts the Thessalonians to hold fast to the traditions they have learned (2 Thess. 2:15). In writing to the Corinthians he reminds them of their obligation to stand by the tradition concerning Christ’s institution of the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:23) and the tradition concerning the appearances of the risen Jesus (1 Cor. 15:3 ff.).

In the early Church, theologians such as Irenaeus and Tertullian insisted against the Gnostics that the authentic doctrine had been passed on in the Church from the apostles to the legitimate pastors, and that it was not to be found through human philosophical constructions. Gregory of Nyssa, a good representative of the fourth century, writes: “We have, as more than sufficient guarantee of the truth of our teaching, tradition, that is, the truth that has come down to us by succession from the apostles, as an inheritance.” Basil and others distinguish between things known from Scripture and things known from tradition. “Among the doctrines and the definitions preserved in the Church,” Basil writes, “we hold some on the basis of written teaching and others we have received, transmitted secretly, from apostolic tradition. All are of equal value for piety.”

Until the late Middle Ages the dominant tendency was to treat Scripture as the basic text of revelation and to rely on tradition, especially patristic tradition, for the authoritative interpretation of Scripture. By the fourteenth century, however, some theologians were beginning to look on tradition as an independent source of revealed truths not attested in Scripture.

The problem of the relationship between Scripture and tradition became acute in the sixteenth century, when many Protestants took the position that Scripture alone was the norm by which all doctrines and practices were to be tested. The Council of Trent, relying on authorities such as Basil, responded that Scripture was not a sufficient rule of faith, and that the Church was bound also by traditions concerning faith and morals that had been continuously handed down from Christ and the apostles.

Since the Council of Trent the concept of tradition has been nuanced in several different ways. Many theologians used the term (usually in the plural, traditions) in an objective sense to mean revealed truths handed down from apostolic times by channels other than the canonical Scriptures. Others used the term to designate the process of transmitting the apostolic heritage in the Church, regardless of whether the content was also attested by Scripture. Thirdly, tradition came to mean a criterion to which theologians could appeal to establish the authenticity of certain doctrines and practices that were, as the phrase goes, “proved by tradition.” The consensus of the Fathers and the testimony of the liturgy were instances of tradition in this normative sense.

More important for our present purposes is the emergence in the nineteenth century of still another usage. Under the influence of romanticism (and, I suspect, also of Kant), the term “tradition” began to be understood more subjectively as a collective sense of the faith supernaturally imparted to the Church by the Holy Spirit. In his Die Einheit in der Kirche (1825) the Catholic Tübingen theologian Johann Adam Möhler depicted tradition as a mysterious inner principle or power of spiritual life. “Tradition,” he wrote, “is the living influence of the Holy Spirit animating the whole body of the faithful, perpetuating itself through all times, continually living, and yet expressing itself in bodily forms.” For Möhler, therefore, tradition or the living Gospel, continuously proclaimed in the Church, extends to the whole spirit of Christianity and to all its doctrines. While recognizing that tradition inevitably embodies itself in language, Möhler spoke particularly of “interior” tradition, by which he meant the “mysterious, invisible side of the spiritual power of life that perpetuates itself and perdures in the Church.” Individual Christians, according to Möhler, had access to tradition by their incorporation in the Church, the primary carrier of tradition. The sense of the faith was constant, since the faith did not change, but it was also living and dynamic, since the faith was experienced and articulated in different forms in different times and cultures.

Early in the twentieth century the Catholic concept of tradition was further developed by the lay philosopher Maurice Blondel, who tried to find a via media between the errors he attributed respectively to the Modernists and to the Scholastics. The Modernists, according to Blondel, regarded tradition as a pure process without any stable or determinate content. For them, he said, Christian beginnings were a mere point of departure. Their view of tradition was Protean, since the past was always up for reassessment. On the other hand, the Scholastics, as perceived by Blondel, fell into a fixist or Procrustean position, which Blondel labeled “Veterist.” They inculcated servile conformity to a static given and overlooked the need for personal involvement on the part of the believer.

Blondel attempted to transcend both the Modernist and Veterist positions by proposing a synthesis. Tradition, he said, is not the mere transmission of received teachings, for in that case it would be only a poor substitute for written texts. Unlike written archives, tradition preserves the living reality of the past, including elements that cannot be stated in words. It is the bearer of tacit knowledge, and is most effectively transmitted and received through faithful action. The stability of tradition, for Blondel, comes not from verbal or conceptual conformity with prior statements but from fidelity to the reality intended by the statements. That reality points toward the future: “However paradoxical it may sound, one can therefore maintain that Tradition anticipates and illuminates the future and is disposed to do so by the effort which it makes to remain faithful to the past.”

On the eve of Vatican II a number of scholarly theologians took up the insights of Möhler and Blondel. The Tübingen theologian Josef Rupert Geiselmann argued that Scripture and tradition should not be seen as two parallel deposits of revelation but as two witnesses to one and the same body of truth. The French Dominican Yves Congar, after a thorough investigation of the history of the question, concluded that “no article of the Church’s belief is held on the authority of Scripture independently of Tradition, and none on the authority of Tradition independently of Scripture.” The apostolic heritage, initially crystallized in Scripture, continues to be transmitted through living tradition, and only in the light of that tradition discloses its true meaning. Following Blondel, Congar was convinced that tradition in its historical journey “is as much development as memory and conservation.” The deposit of faith, as received today, comes with the enrichment that results from its having been “lived, pondered, and expressed by generations of believers inhabited and vivified by the Spirit of Pentecost.”

Thanks to the active collaboration of theologians such as Congar, Vatican Council II espoused a highly dynamic concept of tradition. According to the Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), which devotes its second chapter to the theme, tradition is the way in which the Church “perpetuates and transmits to all generations all that it is and all that it believes.” Tradition consists not simply of words (“oral tradition”) but also of ways of living and acting. It is, moreover, capable of growth as the Church meditates on the Word of God, undergoes spiritual experiences, and receives instruction from its hierarchical authorities. The tradition is ceaselessly sustained by the Holy Spirit, who makes the voice of the gospel resound in the Church and keeps the Church in uninterrupted conversation with God. “As the centuries advance, the Church constantly tends toward the fullness of divine truth, until the words of God reach their consummation in the Church.”

Although there is no direct contradiction between Trent and Vatican II, the concept of tradition underwent a considerable evolution between the two councils. Trent used the word “tradition” only in the plural, and in an objective sense, to mean particular beliefs and practices that were continuously handed down in the Church, having been entrusted to the apostles by Christ and the Holy Spirit. Although Trent did not explicitly say that there are any truths in tradition alone, it was generally interpreted as teaching that tradition, as a second source, attested to some revealed truths not certified in Scripture.

Vatican II in Dei Verbum uses the term “tradition” only in the singular (except in one instance, where it is quoting the New Testament). It speaks of tradition primarily in a subjective or active sense, to mean the process by which the apostolic heritage is transmitted and received in the Church. Whereas Trent had emphasized oral tradition, Vatican II gives equal emphasis to transmission by action. Unlike Trent, which looked upon traditions as invariant, Vatican II understands tradition as a sense of the faith that develops organically under the aegis of the Holy Spirit. Finally, Vatican II seems to suggest that there is no revealed truth that is attested either by Scripture alone or by tradition alone. It declares that Scripture and tradition “form one single deposit of the Word of God” and “are so connected and associated that one does not stand without the other.”

The shift in the dominant concept of tradition in twentieth-century Catholicism has facilitated a more positive assessment of the relationship between tradition and creativity. Before looking into this relationship, however, we must examine the meaning of creativity.


The term creativity, as currently used, has very little grounding in the classical theological heritage. The ancient and medieval authors held that creative power is proper to God alone. Creation had a generally accepted definition: productio rei ex nihilo sui et subjecti (production of something from no preexisting component or material). No creature, even the highest of the angels, could create anything at all. Most theologians have followed St. Thomas in holding that creatures could not even cooperate as instrumental causes in creating. It was commonly taught that each human soul, as an immaterial substance, came into being by a creative act, and hence was immediately produced by God.

Creativity, to be sure, is not God’s only property. God conserves and cares for all that he has made. Creation would be pointless unless God preserved creatures in existence and enabled them to achieve their proper goal. God’s presence and activity, therefore, may be discerned not only by the occurrence of utter novelty but also, at times, by extraordinary durability and fruitfulness.

The attribution of creativity to human beings seems to have originated in literary and artistic criticism. John Donne in one of his sermons, probably preached in 1632, says: “Poetry is a counterfeit Creation, and makes things that are not, as though they were.” Similarly, John Dryden, in a preface to Troilus and Cressida, wrote that in the character of Caliban, “Shakespeare seems there to have created a person which was not in Nature, a boldness which, at first sight, would appear intolerable.” As Edward Shils remarks with reference to passages such as these, “The artist became a ‘creator’ and thereby assumed god-like lineaments.”

During the hegemony of romanticism it became standard practice to dismiss tradition as a hindrance to spontaneity and creativity. It was widely supposed that artists of genius, having access to immediate inspiration, could do without human instruction. Rousseau and the primitivists urged artists to express their personal emotions without restraint or inhibition. Nietzsche identified enthusiasm not with Apollonian serenity but with Dionysiac intoxication. Modernist critics measured creativeness not by truth but by originality. Thus antitraditionalism, as Irving Babbitt observed, developed a powerful, though misguided, tradition of its own.

The theme of creativity was popularized in philosophy by Henri Bergson, among others. Bergson held that the process of evolution is sustained by a vital, creative impulse that continually breaks through to higher levels. Although the élan vital eludes the static and abstract categories of discursive reason, it can in some fashion be glimpsed by means of intuition. Human beings vaguely intuit their own freedom and are thereby put in contact with the creative activity of the cosmic vital process. Bergson’s immanent élan vital differs markedly from the Jewish and Christian idea of God as creator, but Bergson in his later work came to recognize the existence of a transcendent creative activity. By means of the creative energy of love, Bergson contended, God brings into being “creators, that He may have, besides Himself, beings worthy of His love.”

Among Bergson’s disciples we must recognize the Russian Orthodox thinkers Lossky and Berdyaev. Unlike Thomas Aquinas and the theologians of the Catholic tradition, they maintained that human beings, like God, are creative, and that all creation is ex nihilo. Human freedom, according to Berdyaev, is self-creation; creation is continuous.

A number of French Catholic intellectuals were influenced by Bergson. Inspired in part by Bergson, the poet Charles Péguy explored the connection between creativity and tradition. He inveighed against the clerical Catholicism of his day for having lapsed into formalism and privatization, and for failing to renew society. Catholicism in the nineteenth century, he commented, had lost its hold on the people and had become “a kind of higher religion for the higher classes of society and of the nation, a miserable sort of distinguished religion for ostensibly distinguished people.” Péguy built into the concept of tradition Bergson’s idea of élan vital. By simply imitating its own past forms, he argued, tradition becomes atrophied and moribund. Tradition must renew itself by constantly returning to its own original inspiration. Tradition is thus, in the most literal sense, a resource. Péguy was apparently the first to use in French the term ressourcement, in the sense of the self-renewal of a people from the original sources of its own life. He wrote in 1913: “Nothing is more thrillingly beautiful than the spectacle of a people that is raising itself up by an inner movement, by a deep ressourcement of its former pride, by a renewal of the instincts of its race.” Against a superficial and imperfect tradition, Péguy maintained, there is no remedy except to reactivate a deeper and more perfect tradition, and to sound the depths from which a richer humanity can well up.

The Thomistic philosopher Jacques Maritain, who had been a pupil of Bergson, built bridges between him and Aquinas. In his richly suggestive book Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Maritain sought to incorporate themes from the romantic tradition, comparing its concept of genius with the classical theological doctrine of the infused gifts of the Holy Spirit. Poetic intuition was for Maritain, as for Bergson, something suprarational, resembling in that respect the connatural knowledge of divine things bestowed upon the saints. The sources of creativity, he said, lie at a level beneath the sunlit surface inhabited by explicit concepts and judgments, at a point that is “hidden in the primordial translucid night of the intimate vitality of the soul.” Poetry therefore emanates from the spiritual unconscious, which may also be called the preconscious.

Poetic intuition, according to Maritain, has both cognitive and creative components. In its cognitive aspect, it is directed toward concrete realities that speak to the soul in its inmost being. Through intuition poets can perceive the deeper dimensions both of reality and of their own subjectivity.

In its creative aspect poetic intuition is turned toward expressive activity. Maritain asserted, with others before him, that the poet is like a god. Poetic creativity is free, “for it only tends to engender in beauty, which is a transcendental, and involves an infinity of possible realizations and possible choices.” But the poet is only “a poor god” because poetic activity depends on stimulation from an external world and on the mediational function of a language that must be learned. For all that, however, poetry and art express the subjectivity of the author, somewhat as the created world expresses the subjectivity of God.

Before the age of romanticism, Maritain remarked, poets and artists were not interested in reflective self-awareness. The advent of reflexivity could be a gain, but it has unfortunately been accompanied in many cases by an impoverishing shift to the self-centered ego. At its best, Maritain believed, poetic creativity transcends the private concerns of the individual. True creativity engages the deepest recesses of the self but draws them into the service of the transcendent. Thus there is an analogy between the “I” of the poet and that of the saint.

So far as I am aware, Maritain did not apply his reflections on creativity to the theology of tradition. Combining what he says about the gifts of the Holy Spirit with Möhler’s mystical ecclesiology, one might say that the person of faith, especially the saint, grasps the profound meaning of past expressions of the faith by dwelling in a community of faith and acquiring a certain connaturality with the things of God. The religious person’s awareness of the spiritual realities attested by the tradition is in the first instance prereflexive and suprarational. Tradition therefore expresses itself primarily by life and action and only secondarily by explicit statements. Authentic expressions of the life of faith communicate not simply the insights of individual believers but the faith of the community. The expressions can be creative because the revelation borne by the tradition is transcendent; it is open to an infinite variety of possible linguistic and cultural embodiments.


Antitraditionalism, as we have already seen, has developed a vigorous tradition of its own. Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the many who railed against tradition as a hindrance to creativity. In his essay on “Nature” (1836), he wrote: “Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we through their eyes. Why should we not have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not a history of theirs?” The following year, in his famous Phi Beta Kappa address of 1837, Emerson complained that American institutions were overly concerned with the heritage of the past, and were failing to arouse the spontaneous powers of students. In his address to the Senior Class in Divinity at Harvard (July 15, 1838) he applied these principles more directly to theology, objecting to the tenets that the Bible is a closed revelation and that inspiration is a thing of the past.

Emerson’s complaints contained a grain of truth. Learning about the past should not be a substitute for dealing with the present. But what Emerson assails under the name of tradition is very different from what Péguy, for example, seeks to defend. To clarify the difference one might distinguish, as does Jaroslav Pelikan, between tradition as “the living faith of the dead” and traditionalism, “the dead faith of the living.” Traditionalism, he asserts, is what gives tradition its bad name.

Some years earlier, T. S. Eliot made a similar observation. In his celebrated essay on “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) he wrote:

If the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor.

Eliot then went on to explain that a writer cannot be traditional without a vivid sense “not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.” This historical sense, involving a synthetic perception of past and present in relation to each other, “makes a writer most acutely conscious of his own place in time, of his own contemporaneity.”

Among theologically alert authors there is a growing consensus that to let the past live, one must grasp its spirit and adapt its forms. Fidelity requires discernment. Building on some texts of Péguy, Congar points out that there are two levels of fidelity. On a superficial level, fidelity may be understood as adherence to the approved forms. But on a deeper level, the faithful adherent is one who penetrates to the meaning, the principle, the intention. Only the latter type of fidelity is open to progress and development. Following in the footsteps of John Henry Newman, Congar asserts that the dynamic idea at the basis of Christianity transcends all the forms in which it can be objectified. Reflection on the idea gives rise to continually new insights and propositions, none of which exhausts what was implicitly known from the beginning. In Newman’s perspective, therefore, development is an inner dimension of tradition itself.

Many Christians, as Congar points out, fail to perceive that fidelity to the past calls for creative appropriation. All too often they live their faith on the level of received ideas and customs, which they confuse with tradition. Gabriel Marcel, making essentially the same point, remarked that orthodoxy is commonly confused with mere religious conformism, whereas true orthodoxy “creates those conditions rooted in the supernatural which unfold the most spacious and unbounded horizons for human knowledge and action.”

It follows from all this that to represent the tradition authentically one must be acutely sensitive to the current situation and to present problems. Like the artist and the poet, the theologian must seek to extend the tradition and thereby contribute to it. Mere imitation is never enough. The contemporary work, as Eliot pointed out, takes its place in the succession that comes down from the past. The past is modified by the introduction of each new member in the series and is reinterpreted in relation to what has emerged from it. The extension may itself be creative if the new work actualizes some previously unforeseen possibility.

Those who extend the tradition depend on previous tradition as the matrix of their work. Classical texts are those that retain through the centuries their power to awaken new insights. They give rise to a series of subsequent works that attest to their disclosive power. Especially is this true of canonical texts, which have normative value for an abiding community. Each generation is challenged to interpret and apply the text in ways that are faithful to the original intention and at the same time responsive to the needs and possibilities of the moment. Past interpretations that have been judged successful provide examples and models for the present.

For Christians the Bible is the canonical text par excellence. As an inspired record of a definitive revelation, it generates a long history of interpretation, some instances of which come to be recognized as permanently valid. Confident that Christ abides with the Church in all ages, thoughtful Christians reread the Bible in the light of what it has meant to the believing community down through the centuries.

Confidence in the tradition never excuses the contemporary thinker or writer from going back to the sources. Since subsequent commentary cannot take the place of the foundational records of the faith, the tradition must be continually renewed by reference to its sources. The nouvelle théologie of the 1940s was powerful because it went back to earlier and more authentic sources, which had not been sufficiently studied in their own right: the Scriptures, the church fathers, and the medieval doctores. The program of aggiornamento, articulated by Pope John XXIII at Vatican II, was a direct consequence of the ressourcement of the 1940s. The council laid down the principle: “Every ecclesial renewal essentially consists in an increase of fidelity to the Church’s own calling.” Congar had said almost the same thing more than a decade earlier: “The great law of Catholic reformism will be to begin by a return to the principles of Catholicism.”

Even in the secular sphere, tradition has liberative power. It expands our horizons and thereby prevents us from becoming imprisoned in our own personal limitations and in the transitory fashions of our day. It provides us with a platform from which we can look critically at the present and judge it differently than it judges itself. In Christian theology tradition liberates insofar as it binds its adherents to the vital sources of their life—the revealed truth that makes us free. The truth of the Gospel is ever fruitful in new insights. The theologian cannot fail to be stimulated and inspired by gaining familiarity with ideas resulting from what Newman calls “intuitive spiritual perception in scripturally informed and deeply religious minds.”

The study of ancient texts and models, even those contained in Holy Scripture, does not automatically yield creative insights. In order to be attuned to the lasting significance of the classics one must have acquired a certain skill or facility in interpretation. As Michael Polanyi explains in Personal Knowledge (1964), this is an art that cannot be learned by prescription. The novice must assimilate a multitude of particulars that cannot be specified in detail. They are normally passed down by example and supervised performance under the guidance of masters.

By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice picks up the rules of the art, including those which are not explicitly known by the master himself. These hidden rules can be assimilated only by a person who surrenders himself to that extent uncritically to the imitation of another. A society which wants to preserve a fund of personal knowledge must submit to tradition.

By assiduous discipleship one can gain a personal mastery of the art and be liberated from mechanical submission to formal and explicit rules. This aptitude, as Polanyi explains, is especially crucial for making original advances. The more deeply the discoverer is rooted in the tradition, the more resources will he or she be able to bring to unsolved problems. Lively appreciation of the great achievements of the past fires the mind with confidence and zeal, and provides hints for the solution of new problems. By drawing analogies from earlier discoveries the creative imagination becomes better qualified to discern intelligible patterns in puzzling or confusing data.

Paradoxically, therefore, the most innovative artists and scientists have often been the most deeply traditional. Each renaissance has been, at root, a ressourcement. Literary revolutionaries such as T. S. Eliot were deeply immersed in the classical sources. James Joyce’s Ulysses must be understood against the background of a long tradition stretching back to Homer. So, likewise, the theologians who have made the greatest contributions by their personal genius have taken pains to labor within the tradition. What would Luther have been without Augustine, Newman without Athanasius, or de Lubac without Origen? One may apply to the theologian what Eliot says of the poet: “We shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.”

A privileged locus of tradition in the life of the Church is the liturgy. Polanyi speaks in this connection of a dialectic of “dwelling in” and “breaking out.” The worshiper’s tacit powers are trained and activated by participation in the traditional rites. Discovery takes place in a moment of ecstasy produced by dwelling in spirit

within the fabric of the religious ritual, which is potentially the highest degree of indwelling that is conceivable. For ritual comprises a sequence of things to be said and gestures to be made which involve the whole body and alert our whole existence. Anyone sincerely saying and doing these things in a place of worship could not fail to be completely absorbed by them.

At a later point in Personal Knowledge Polanyi expands on the heuristic character of religious worship:

The words of prayer and confession, the actions of the ritual, the lesson, the sermon, the church itself, are the clues of the worshipper’s striving towards God. They guide his feelings of contrition and gratitude and his craving for the divine presence, while keeping him safe from distracting thoughts.

These assertions receive ample confirmation from theology. When the inspired Scriptures are effectively proclaimed and when the community, invoking the Holy Spirit, responds in adoration, the very reality of the tradendum makes itself present. By means of the proclaimed word and the sacramental action, the living Christ draws near with his creative power, transforming the mind, heart, and imagination of the worshipers.

In fields such as art, music, and literature, it has been persuasively argued that creativity depends on “a fundamental encounter with transcendence.” “In most cultures,” says George Steiner, “in the witness borne to poetry and art until the most recent modernity, the source of ‘otherness’ has been actualized or metaphorized as transcendent. It has been invoked as divine, as magical, or daimonic.” In many great works of art, such a referral to the transcendent is explicit. Whatever may be true in other fields, this relation to transcendence is essential in theology. The Christian tradition, stemming as it does from the presence of the God-man within history, perpetuates both the memory and the presence of its founder. Transmitting the ancient heritage in ever new frameworks, the Church continually reactualizes the mystery that is at the heart of its being.

In a certain sense tradition may be regarded as the Christian mystery transmitting itself. It is, in the words of Henri de Lubac, “the very Word of God both perpetuating and renewing itself under the action of the Spirit of God, … the living Word entrusted to the Church and to those to whom the Church never ceases to give birth.” For this reason, says de Lubac, “Tradition, according to the Fathers of the Church, is in fact just the opposite of a burden of the past: it is a vital energy, a propulsive as much as a protective force.”

The Christian mystery transcends past, present, and future; it rejuvenates those who come into contact with it. Pascal put this well in one of his letters to Mademoiselle de Roannez (November 5, 1656):

The truths of Christianity are certainly new things, but they must be renewed continually; for this newness, which cannot be displeasing to God, any more than the old man can please him, is different from earthly newness, in that the things of the world, however new they may be, grow old as they endure; whereas the new spirit continues to renew itself increasingly as it endures. “The old man perishes,” says St. Paul, “and is renewed from day to day,” and will only be perfectly new in eternity where the New Canticle, of which David speaks in the Psalm of Lauds, will be forever sung, that is to say, the song that springs from the new spirit of charity.

The novelty in Christianity points beyond all time to the eschatological future. The glorification that has been accomplished in Jesus is still to be accomplished in the Church and the cosmos. Cherishing the memory of its risen Lord, the Church is drawn forward toward its final destiny, which it anticipates in hope.

The very process of transmission is affected by the character of that which is transmitted—the Christ who has gone before us into the glory to which we aspire. Jürgen Moltmann shows how this eschatological dimension gives a creative quality to the Christian concept of tradition:

Christian tradition is then not to be understood as a handing on of something that has to be preserved, but as an event which summons the dead and the godless to life.… This is a creative event happening to what is vain, forsaken, lost, godless, and dead. It can therefore be designated as a nova creatio ex nihilo, whose continuity lies solely in the guaranteed faithfulness of God.

The same conclusion may be reinforced from another point of view. In the perspectives of theology, the primary bearer of tradition is not the individual or even the Church, but the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church into all truth. As Möhler pointed out, the Holy Spirit dwells in the hearts of the faithful, giving them a kind of instinct for, and inner affinity with, the truth of revelation. This Holy Spirit is the Spiritus creator, the Spirit who makes all things new. What comes from the Spirit is never a stale reproduction of the past.

The interaction between past and present in Christian tradition, though it has certain analogies in other fields, is unique and unparalleled. The apostolic tradition, which remains accessible through the inspired texts of Scripture and through sacramental worship, transmits the living reality of the past and activates the spiritual powers of those who receive it. Rooted in the sources of faith, they can exercise creative fidelity. For the past to be living, it must in some mysterious way transcend the divisions of time; it must become contemporaneous with the present and point the way into the future. Because Christ the Lord is “the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” Christian tradition can rise to this challenge, ceaselessly bringing forth “new things and old.”

Avery Dulles S.J., holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair at Fordham University and is author, most recently, of The Craft of Theology: From Symbol to System (Crossroad). This essay was originally presented at a conference sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Public Life.

Photo by Jung Ho Park on Unsplash. Image cropped.