Multiplying Meaning

Senses of Traditionby By John E. ThielOxford Univ. Press. 264p $39.95

John Thiel, who teaches at Fairfield University in Connecticut, has already published books on authority as well as the debate over foundationalism. Now he argues for a more complex appreciation of the meaning and dynamics of tradition. As patristic and medieval theology recognized multiple senses in the scriptural text, so also we need to recognize multiple senses of tradition. Each of these multiple senses refers to an interpretive possibility that calls for skillful discernment..

The literal sense of tradition is the obvious meaning of a belief or practice held by the Christian community and rooted in the constancy of the sensus fidei. The literal sense, however, is not to be confused with the literality of a belief or practice. Fundamentalisms (of both the Protestant and Catholic type) make this mistake. The literal sense is always the result of an act of interpretation. Literality exists prior to the act of interpretation and thus stands at the threshold of the literal sense. The literal sense, however, by no means exhausts the meaning of tradition.


The second sense of tradition has to do with tradition’s development-in-continuity. This interpretive sense recognizes the productive power of historical development. Thiel discusses various models of development (Drey, Möhler, Newman and contemporary reception models) and then makes a distinction between what he calls a prospective model and retrospective model of development. Prospective models look on tradition as an essence or deposit that is complete and simply handed down faithfully. These models presume a God’s-eye-view of history. Continuity is the prime value. Retrospective models claim that the continuity of past tradition can be discerned only from the limited perspective of the present. Continuity therefore needs to be discerned repeatedly as tradition unfolds. In Thiel’s view, retrospective models are more limited in their claims but more hermeneutically sophisticated.

Thiel also discusses what he calls (somewhat misleadingly) the dramatic development of tradition. Dramatic refers to a belief or practice that no longer has the authority that is proper to tradition. In contrast to the second sense, this third sense of tradition is attentive to breaks in historical continuity and reversals in Christian belief. Official church teachings regarding usury, slavery and various condemnations of religious freedom are offered as examples of the dramatic development of tradition. Signs that a teaching is undergoing a dramatic development include its rejection by a significant number of the faithful, the need for church authorities to resort to theological arguments to defend the teaching and the rejection of these theological arguments by theologians. Thiel discusses current controversies regarding birth control and the insistence on an exclusively male, celibate priesthood as examples of what may be dramatic developments of tradition. Retrospective notions of tradition are better equipped to handle this sense of tradition than any of the prospective models.

The fourth sense of tradition has to do with an incipient development where beliefs and practices that have not been recognized in the past as traditional are held up for acceptance by the faithful as authentic tradition. Like the third sense, incipient development is attentive to discontinuity in tradition. Unlike dramatic development, however, the emphasis is on innovation, the role of the imagination, the church’s need for renewal and respect for the prophetic. Thiel discusses the doctrines of original sin and transubstantiation and the practice of venerating saints as examples of incipient development. There is an extended treatment of the Christological controversy in light of the principle of incipient development as well. Current examples of incipient development include the call for a preferential option for the poor by liberationist theologians and the argument that priests need to be of the same gender as Jesus by restorationist theologians.

Thiel’s writing is not a bit friendly. I do wish to single out for praise, however, what may go unnoticed about his difficult but rewarding book. Although the main thrust of the book is on the hermeneutics of tradition, Thiel also makes a significant contribution to our thinking about the Holy Spirit. His investigation of the multiple senses of tradition requires him again and again to reflect on the work of the Spirit in the church and the world. The complex hermeneutics of tradition require us to recognize a correspondingly complex role for discernment and the Spirit in the church. Thiel is therefore critical of those who would look on the magisterium as a penal or merely juridical authority and on the Holy Spirit as a deus ex machina watching over the church. The implications of his understanding of tradition for the theology of the Holy Spirit would make a fine topic for his next book.

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