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How to determine whether a statement is an Apostolic Tradition

6 min • Digitized on May 28, 2023

From A Defense of the Teachings of Mary, page 137
By St. John Henry Newman

II. I mean, that having determined what the Three Fathers say, and how far they are at issue with what Catholics hold now, I now come to the main question, viz. What is the authoritative force in controversy of what they thus say in opposition to Catholic teaching? I think I shall be able to show that it has no controversial force at all.

I begin by observing, that the main force of passages which can be brought from any Father or Fathers in controversy, lies in the fact that such passages represent the judgment or sentiment of their own respective countries; and again, I say that the force of that local judgment or sentiment lies in its being the existing expression of an Apostolical tradition. I am far, of course, from denying the claim of the teaching of a Father on our deference, arising out of his personal position and character; or the claims of the mere sentiments of a Christian population on our careful attention, as a fact carrying with it, under circumstances, especial weight; but, in a question of doctrine, we must have recourse to the great source of doctrine, Apostolical Tradition, and a Father must represent his own people, and that people must be the witnesses of an uninterrupted Tradition from the Apostles, if any thing decisive is to come of any theological statement which is found in his writings; and if, in a particular case, there is no reason to suppose that he does echo the popular voice, or that that popular voice is transmitted from Apostolic times,—or (to take another channel of Tradition) unless the Father in question receives and reports his doctrine from the Bishops and Priests who instructed him on the very understanding and profession that it is Apostolical,—then, though it was not one Father but ten who said a thing, it would weigh nothing against the assertion of only one Father to the contrary, provided it was clear that that Father witnessed to an Apostolical Tradition. Now I do not say that I can decide the question by this issue with all the exactness which is conceivable, but still this is the issue by which it must be tried, and which I think will enable me to come to a satisfactory conclusion upon it.

Such, I say, being the issue, viz., that a doctrine reported by the Fathers, in order to have dogmatic force, must be a Tradition in its source or form, next, what is a Tradition, considered in its matter? It is a belief, which, be it affirmative or negative, is positive. The mere absence of a tradition in a country, is not a tradition the other way. If, for instance, there was no tradition in Syria and Asia Minor that the words “consubstantial with the Father,” came from the Apostles, that would not be a tradition that they did not come from the Apostles, though of course it would be necessary for those who said that they did, to account for the ignorance of those countries as to the real fact.

The proposition “Christ is God,” serves as an example of what I mean by an affirmative tradition; and “no one born of woman is born in God’s favour,” is an example of a negative tradition. Here it is observable that a tradition does not carry its own full explanation with it; it does but land (so to say) a proposition at the feet of the Apostles, and its interpretation has still to be determined,—as the Apostles’ words in Scripture, however much theirs, need an interpretation. Thus I may accept the above negative Tradition, that “no one woman-born is born in God’s favour,” yet question its strict universality, as a point of criticism, saying that a general proposition admits of exceptions, that our Lord was born of woman, yet was the sinless and acceptable Priest and sacrifice for all men. So again the Arians allowed that “Christ was God,” but they disputed about the meaning of the word “God.”

Further, there are explicit traditions and implicit. By an explicit tradition I mean a doctrine which is conveyed in the letter of the proposition which has been handed down; and by implicit, one which lies in the force and virtue, not in the letter of the proposition. Thus it might be an Apostolical tradition that our Lord was the very Son of God, of one nature with the Father, and in all things equal to Him; and again a tradition that there was but one God: these would be explicit, but in them would necessarily be conveyed, moreover, the implicit tradition, that the Father and the Son were numerically one. Implicit traditions are positive traditions, as being strictly conveyed in positive.

Lastly, there are at least two ways of determining an Apostolical tradition:—1. When credible witnesses declare that it is Apostolical; as when three hundred Fathers at Nicæa stopped their ears at Arius’s blasphemies; 2. When, in various places, independent witnesses enunciate one and the same doctrine, as St. Irenæus, St. Cyprian, and Eusebius assert, that the Apostles founded a Church, Catholic and One.

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