Monday, 28 January 2013

Corpus Traditum

This post is in honour of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose memorial we celebrate today.

Some time ago I was struck by the following text:

Without tradition, the Scripture of the New Covenant too would remain Old-Testamentic; it would have the character of law and promise, and would not be the Word-body of him who necessarily also, as eucharistic Life-body (which did not exist in the Old Testament), lives and works in his Church.
(Hans Urs von Balthasar, Verbum Caro, p. 19)

This, so casually tossed out, seemed to me to merit closer examination. In its context, Von Balthasar also claims that the denial of the sacrificial character of the Eucharist is consistent with the generally eschatological character of Protestantism. The general drift of both statements seems to be that Protestantism is a form of Christianity that looks forward to the definitive coming of the Messiah, but does not experience the same Presence of the Anointed in their midst.

Scripture in Protestantism, according to Von Balthasar, is approached as in the Old Covenant: it lays down moral commandments and guidelines to make people wise, and it promises a new heaven and a new earth, in which the just(ified) will dwell. It is law and promise. But it is not Word-body (Wortleib), existing in conjunction with Life-body (Lebensleib). Why is tradition necessary to make a Body out of Scripture? And what does ‘Body’ mean, if it can be applied to Scripture?

The fundamental sense of the phrase ‘body of Christ’ is simply the historical body which Jesus received from Mary, overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. With this body Jesus founded the Church, the mystical body of Christ, which incorporates humanity into the historical body (we are crucified with Him!). To demonstrate the strict unity of the historical and the mystical body, there are ‘two intermediate forms of corporeity’. They make the Logos, origin and measure of things, into the Way in which we can be incorporated into God; the Eucharist as Life, Scripture as Truth.

Scripture is not merely a universal human word or abstract wisdom; it transmits to us the word and spirit of Christ. It reaches out universally, without losing its concreteness; the same could be said about the Eucharist. But it is always reflects the revelation of the God-Man, the definitive Word which no Scripture can exhaust. To say (as I once heard a Reformed presuppositionalist do) that Scripture is as close a reflection of the mind of God as possible, is false; such an idea sees the Incarnation as serving Scripture, not the other way around.

The words which God spoke in the Old Covenant did have some sort of absolute quality; they could only be passed on, but not elaborated. Any tradition that grew up around them was not the expression of the fullness of the spoken word, nothing that would become an object of faith.

In the fullness of time, however, the fullness of divinity has appeared bodily; God does not merely speak from Heaven, but gives himself over (tradiert sich). In the same way as the self-gift on the Cross (which is also the gift of the Spirit to the Church), Christ gives Himself under the two corporeal forms of Scripture and Eucharist. These carry within themselves ever-new surprises. Because the Revelation infinitely surpasses Scripture, it gives a vitality to the Church which receives it (or rather, Him in it). Scripture is tradition: it is Christ’s self-tradition, it arises from tradition, and its authority could never be established without tradition. It is a ‘divine mirror of the divine revelation’, and certifies that the Truth is preached in the Church.

According to Von Balthasar, the handing-over and preaching of the truth in the Church would be made impossible without this security – as holiness would be without the Eucharist. This is certainly an interesting comparison.

In short, Scripture and Tradition mutually attest to each other and to the plenitude and faithfulness of God’s Christ.

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