Blondel on “Tradition” pt. 2

Maurice Blondel

In the previous post, we see Blondel attacking Tradition understood as, basically, all that the apostles taught that did not happen to make it into the canon. Of course, it is not hard to understand why Catholics would have this impression with statements like this from Trent, fourth session: “seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand.” For Blondel, the apostolic deposit of faith is not a static datum, which the Tridentine decree seems to indicate; instead, it is the apostolic faith itself, alive in the Church in all ages. As such, it is a sure guide, through the appropriate given media, for the Church in her discernment of doctrine. With this understanding, Tradition does not serve to distill the apostolic faith as explicitly taught by the apostles; instead, it is the continuing explication and application of this faith in all of the variant human contingencies that constitute the life of the Church in the world. At least, that is how I would summarize what Blondel is doing. Here are some of his own words:


Contrary to the vulgar notion, but in conformity with the constant practice of the Church, we must say that Tradition is not a simple substitute for a written teaching. It has a different purpose; it does not proceed solely from it and it does not end by becoming identified with it. It preserves not so much the intellectual aspect of the past as its living reality. Even where we have the Scriptures, it always has something to add, and what passes little by little into writing and definitions is derived from it. It relies, no doubt, on texts, but at the same time it relies primarily on something else, on an experience always in act which enables it to remain in some respects master of the texts instead of being strictly subservient to them. In brief, whenever the testimony of Tradition has to be invoked to resolve one of the crises of growth in the spiritual life of Christians, it presents the conscious mind with elements previously expressed, systematized or reflected upon. This power of conservation and preservation also instructs and initiates. Turned lovingly towards the past where its treasure lies, it moves towards the future, where it conquers and illuminates. It has a humble sense of faithfully recovering even what it thus discovers. It does not have to innovate because it possesses its God and its all; but it has always to teach something new because it transforms what is implicit and ‘enjoyed’ into something explicit and known. …

However paradoxical it may sound, one can therefore maintain that Tradition anticipates and illumines the future and is disposed to do so by the effort which it makes to remain faithful to the past. It is the guardian of the initial gift in so far as this has not been entirely formulated nor even expressly understood, although it is always fully possessed and employed; it frees us from the very Scriptures on which it never ceases to rely with devout respect: it helps us reach the real Christ whom no literary portrait could exhaust or replace, without being confined to the texts. Thus the Gospel itself appears as part of the deposit, not as the whole deposit, for, however divine the text, we cannot legitimately rest all dogma and all faith on that alone. Something in the Church escapes scientific examination; and it is the Church which, without rejecting or neglecting the contributions of exegesis and of history, nevertheless controls them, because in the very tradition which constitutes her, she possesses another means of knowing her author, of participating in his life, of linking facts to dogma, and of justifying both the capital and the interest of her teaching.

Maurice Blondel, The Letter on Apologetics & History and Dogma (Eerdmans 1994), pp. 267-269.



  1. Y’all are welcome.

    This is actually some of the more easy to understand parts of the essay. There’s something about these Kantian Thomists that makes them all love to use very dense prose.

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