In the first part of my analysis of the second chapter of Dei Verbum (DV), I explained that, according to the document, Scripture and Tradition are not two things but one (unum). But just what is Tradition anyway, and how does it grow?

Dei Verbum names “doctrine, life, and cult” (DV 8) as Tradition’s three main elements. “Doctrine” refers to all the teachings that have been defined or set forth by the Magisterium (the pope and bishops), such as the Immaculate Conception or Catholic Social Teaching. “Cult” refers to the Church’s vast and diverse array of liturgical worship, centered on the seven sacraments. The category “life” is broad enough to encompass everything else, such as monasticism and canon law.

If we survey these elements, we find that the Church has many traditions that developed throughout its history, even long after the time of Christ and his apostles. Take the Rosary, for example. It gradually evolved from the 12th to the 16th century.[1] Even after stabilizing, it has continued to develop, with the addition of the optional Fatima prayer in the 20th century and Pope John Paul II adding five new “luminous” mysteries in 2002. The Rosary—including the luminous mysteries—are part of Sacred Tradition. It does not matter that the Rosary did not exist during the Church’s first millennium (let alone that it does not go back to the apostles themselves).[2]

The Rosary, like everything in Tradition, evolved organically within the Church on the basis of scriptural principles. Remember: Tradition is not separate from Scripture; “Flowing from the same divine spring, they coalesce into one” (DV 9). The luminous mysteries, for example, are taken straight from the Gospels: the baptism in the Jordan (Matt 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22), the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11), the proclamation of God’s Kingdom (Matt 4:17; Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:43-44), the Transfiguration (Matt 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36), and the institution of the Eucharist (Matt 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23). Although the practice of praying the luminous mysteries is less than twenty years old, it is no less a vehicle of divine revelation. It is one of the many means by which the one and only Gospel continues to be handed down in the Church. It is part of the living Tradition of the Church.

No aspect of Tradition floats independently from revelation or Scripture as a strictly-human “accretion,” like barnacles on a ship’s hull. Even something as small as, say, the use of candles is part of the Tradition. Liturgical candles are founded upon the use of incense in the Old Testament (which of course we also use) and symbolize our prayers rising to God, as Scripture says (Ps 141:2; Rev 8:4). If, hypothetically, research showed that candles were not used prior to, say, the fourth century, that would matter no more than that the Rosary did not exist before the 12th. The origins of particular traditions, while indispensable for theology and Church history, make no difference with regard to their nature as vehicles of divine revelation. It is completely fanciful to imagine the apostles celebrating Latin liturgies with vestments and missals, while teaching people about the form and matter of the seven sacraments. Some wrongly conclude from the historical facts that all these things are dispensable, merely-human inventions. Latin, vestments, the required form and matter of the sacraments, candles, etc., are all essential parts of the Tradition. This is why DV says that the Tradition hands over God’s word “integrally” (DV 9), that is, completely intact. Nothing is lost, and what is added is growth.

The Church’s Tradition is not a process of deformation or degradation, like the children’s “telephone game.” On the contrary: “This Tradition, which is from the apostles, makes progress in the Church under the assistance of the Holy Spirit” (DV 8). How does this progression take place? Some of you may have heard of the “Wesleyan quadrilateral,” an articulation of four sources for Methodist theology: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Well, let me introduce you to the Dei Verbum pentagon: Scripture, Tradition, theology, experience, and Magisterium!

In my next post, I will discuss Dei Verbum’s teaching on how the Church’s Tradition develops and grows over time, through contemplation and study, experience, and preaching.


[1] W. A. Hinnebusch, “Rosary,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (2003), 12:373-76.

[2] Other than what the New Testament says, nothing in the Tradition can be historically documented all the way back to the apostles.

Image: Adobe Stock.

Liked this post? Take a second to support Where Peter Is on Patreon!
Dr. Rasmussen is a Professorial Lecturer in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University. He has a Ph.D. in Theology and Religious Studies from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. His research focuses on St. Basil, Origen, and the interface between theology and science in their writings. His current research focuses on Basil and the human body, physiology, and medicine.
He blogs at https://chrysologus.blogspot.com/
Tradition’s main elements: Dei Verbum, chapter 2
Share via
Copy link