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.

Blondel on “Tradition”

January 13, 2009


Maurice Blondel (1861-1949) was a French philosopher whose work anticipated the transcendental Thomists (e.g., Rahner) of a subsequent generation, the generation of Vatican II. His work in theology (at least, “History and Dogma”), however, reminds me of the ressourcement influenced theologians, like de Lubac and von Balthasar. A kinship with Congar can also easily be detected. This is the finest statement I’ve read (in my limited reading) of the contemporary Catholic position on Tradition — at least, I assume this is basically the majority position, but I’m sure that self-styled “traditionalists” are not big fans.


The usual idea evoked by the word Tradition is that of a transmission, principally by word of mouth, of historical facts, received truths, accepted teachings, hallowed practices and ancient customs. Is that, however, the whole content, is it even, where Catholicism is concerned, the essential content of the notion?

If that were so, there would be grounds for thinking that it would not resist analysis; and this would perhaps explain why the authority of Tradition is invoked over difficulties of detail, when precise or apposite arguments are not available. For in fact if it simply reports de ore in aurem what the first audiences did not write down, if it simply answers to a need for the esoteric or to a ‘discipline of the secret’, if even today its object is to teach us what the texts could have transmitted to us, simply supplementing the lacunae, their laconic form, and their failure to mention the commonest customs of the time, which are the least noticed, then how can one fail to see  how little usefulness it has? The interval of time which separates us from the sources, the inventive inaccuracy of popular recollection, the growing tendency of humanity to put down in writing all its reminiscences and all fine shades of meaning, the uprootedness of modern life with its consequent loss of continuity, the habit of committing everything to black and white (a sort of paper memory), surely all this results in the progressive erosion of traditions and the exhaustion of Tradition itself?

…those who cling to this point of view and speak of Tradition with the greatest respect and the greatest detail, always seem subject to a double presupposition: tradition only reports things explicitly said, expressly prescribed or deliberately performed by men in whom we are interested only for their conscious ideas, and in the form in which they themselves expressed them; it furnishes nothing which cannot or could not be translated into written language, nothing which is not directly and integrally convertible into intellectual expression: so that as we complete our collection of all that former centuries, even without noticing it, confided to memory — rather like students of folklore noting down folk-songs — Tradition, it would seem, becomes superfluous, and recedes before the progress of reflective analysis, written codification and scientific co-ordination.

Now these consequences are manifestly contrary to the spirit which inspires the Church, to the esteem in which she holds Tradition, and to the permanent and unchanging confidence which she places in it. …One only has to reflect for a moment on the role played by Tradition in the Church to see that it includes something altogether different from the transmission of the spoken word or of ancient custom. And, to state at once the full extent of the thesis I want to justify, I would say that Tradition’s powers of conservation are equaled by its powers of conquest: that it discovers and formulates truths on which the past lived, though unable as yet to evaluate or define them explicitly, that it enriches our intellectual patrimony by putting the total deposit little by little into currency and making it bear fruit.

“History and Dogma,” in The Letter on Apologetics and History and Dogma (Eerdmans 1994), pp. 265-267.


I will soon post bits from his positive statement on Tradition.