The Two Types of Tradition

There are two kinds of tradition which play important roles in the life of the church for the world.

First, there is (oral) “Tradition,” which, as St. Basil says, refers primarily to the handing down of ritual actions in the liturgical worship of the church. This kind of tradition is of course in theory subject to Scripture, though it is hard to imagine how it could “contradict Scripture.” On the other hand, there is a sense in which this kind of tradition is prior to Scripture in that, since time immemorial, it has conditioned the public reading of Scripture in specific, proscribed ways. The public reading of Scripture, in other words, is embedded or enfolded within this ritual action which is the church’s liturgy. (Scripture itself refers to this kind of Tradition.)

Second, a very different type of tradition is what Alisdair MacIntyre (and others) have described in the following terms (Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue p 221):

The traditions through which particular practices are transmitted and reshaped never exist in isolation for larger social traditions. What constitutes such traditions?We are apt to be misled here by the ideological uses to which the concept of a tradition has been put by conservative political theorists. Characteristically such theorists have followed Burke in contrasting tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict. Both contrasts obfuscate. For all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought, transcending through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition; this is as true of modern physics as of medieval logic. Moreover when a tradition is in good order it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose.

So when an institution–a university, say, or a farm, or a hospital–is the bearer of a tradition of practice or practices, its common life will be partly, but in a centrally important way, constituted by a continuous argument as to what a university is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is. Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead.

In this latter sense tradition is an ongoing dialogue that takes place over large periods of time within particular communities.

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[…] First, who gets to say what orthodoxy is? Some arbitrary conglomeration of individuals and congregations who band together on the basis of agreement? On the contrary, orthodoxy is the rule of faith, which is concretely embodied in the creeds of the church in her liturgy. Beyond this, we are called to engage in an ongoing, open-ended discussion of real listening and give and take. This discussion has a name: tradition. […]

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