Rome’s New and Novel Concept of Tradition
Living Tradition: (Viva Voce – Whatever We Say)

A Repudiation of the Patristic Concept of Tradition

by William Webster

In the history of Roman Catholic dogma, one can trace an evolution in the theory of tradition. There were two fundamental patristic principles which governed the early Church’s approach to dogma. The first was sola Scriptura in which the fathers viewed Scripture as both materially and formally sufficient. It was materially sufficient in that it was the only source of doctrine and truth and the ultimate authority in all doctrinal controversies. It was necessary that every teaching of the Church as it related to doctrine be proven from Scripture. Thomas Aquinas articulated this patristic view when he stated that canonical Scripture alone is the rule of faith (sola canonica scriptura est regula fidei).1  Additionally, they taught that the essential truths of Scripture were perspicuous, that is, that they were clearly revealed in Scripture, so that, by the enablement of the Holy Spirit alone an individual could come to an understanding of the fundamental truths of salvation. The second is a principle enunciated by the Roman Catholic Councils of Trent (1546-1562) and Vatican I (1870) embodied in the phrase ‘the unanimous consent of the fathers.’ This is a principle that purportedly looks to the past for validation of its present teachings particularly as they relate to the interpretation of Scripture. Trent initially promulgated this principle as a means of countering the Reformation teachings to make it appear that the Reformers’ doctrines were novel and heretical while those of Rome were rooted in historical continuity. It is significant to note that Trent merely affirmed the existence of the principle without providing documentary proof for its validity. Vatican I merely reaffirmed the principle as decreed by Trent. Its historical roots hearken back to Vincent of Lerins in the fifth century who was the first to give it formal definition when he stated that apostolic and catholic doctrine could be identified by a three fold criteria: It was a teaching that had been believed everywhere, always and by all (quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est).2 In other words, the principle of unanimous agreement encompassing universality (believed everywhere), antiquity (believed always) and consent (believed by all). Vincent readily agreed with the principle of sola Scriptura, that is, that Scripture was sufficient as the source of truth. But he was concerned about how one determined what was truly apostolic and catholic doctrine. This was the official position of the Church immediately subsequent to Vincent throughout the Middle Ages and for centuries immediately following Trent. But this principle, while fully embraced by Trent and Vatican I, has all been but abandoned by Rome today in a practical and formal sense. This is due to the fact that so much of Rome’s teachings, upon historical examination, fail the test of unanimous consent. Some Roman Catholic historians are refreshingly honest in this assessment. Patrologist Boniface Ramsey, for example, candidly admits that the current Roman Catholic teachings on Mary and the papacy were not taught in the early Church:

Sometimes, then, the Fathers speak and write in a way that would eventually be seen as unorthodox. But this is not the only difficulty with respect to the criterion of orthodoxy. The other great one is that we look in vain in many of the Fathers for references to things that many Christians might believe in today. We do not find, for instance, some teachings on Mary or the papacy that were developed in medieval and modern times.3

At first, this clear lack of patristic consensus led Rome to embrace a new theory in the late nineteenth century to explain its teachings—the theory initiated by John Henry Newman known as the development of doctrine. In light of the historical reality, Newman had come to the conclusion that the Vincentian principle of unanimous consent was unworkable, because, for all practical purposes, it was nonexistent. To quote Newman:

It does not seem possible, then, to avoid the conclusion that, whatever be the proper key for harmonizing the records and documents of the early and later Church, and true as the dictum of Vincentius must be considered in the abstract, and possible as its application might be in his own age, when he might almost ask the primitive centuries for their testimony, it is hardly available now, or effective of any satisfactory result. The solution it offers is as difficult as the original problem.4

The obvious problem with Newman’s analysis and conclusion is that it flies in the face of the decrees of Trent and Vatican I, both of which decreed that the unanimous consent of the fathers does exist. But to circumvent the lack of patristic witness for the distinctive Roman Catholic dogmas, Newman set forth his theory of development, which was embraced by the Roman Catholic Church. Ironically, this is a theory which, like unanimous consent, has its roots in the teaching of Vincent of Lerins, who also promulgated a concept of development. While rejecting Vincent’s rule of universality, antiquity and consent, Rome, through Newman, once again turned to Vincent for validation of its new theory of tradition and history. But while Rome and Vincent both use the term development, they are miles apart in their understanding of the meaning of the principle because Rome’s definition of development and Vincent’s are diametrically opposed to one another. In his teaching, Vincent delineates the following parameters for true development of doctrine:

But some one will say. perhaps, Shall there, then, be no progress in Christ’s Church? Certainly; all possible progress. For what being is there, so envious of men, so full of hatred to God, who would seek to forbid it? Yet on condition that it be real progress, not alteration of the faith. For progress requires that the subject be enlarged n itself, alteration, that it be transformed into something else. The intelligence, then, the knowledge, the wisdom, as well of individuals as of all, as well of one man as of the whole Church, ought, in the course of ages and centuries, to increase and make much and vigorous progress; but yet only in its own kind; that is to say, in the same doctrine, in the same sense, and in the same meaning.5

First of all, Vincent is saying that doctrinal development must be rooted in the principle of unanimous consent. That is, it must be related to doctrines that have been clearly taught throughout the ages of the Church. In other words, true development must demonstrate historical roots. Any teaching which could not demonstrate its authority from Scripture and the universal teaching of the Church was to be repudiated as novel and therefore not truly catholic. It was to be considered heretical. This is the whole point of Vincent’s criticism of such heretics as Coelestius and Pelagius. He says, ‘Who ever before his (Pelagius) monstrous disciple Coelestius ever denied that the whole human race is involved in the guilt of Adam’s sin?’6 Their teaching, which was a denial of original sin, was novel. It could not demonstrate historical continuity and therefore it was heretical. But, with Newman, Rome redefined the theory of development and promoted a new concept of tradition. One that was truly novel. Truly novel in the sense that it was completely foreign to the perspective of Vincent and the theologians of Trent and Vatican I who speak of the unanimous consent of the fathers. These two Councils claim that there is a clear continuity between their teaching and the history of the ancient Church which preceded them (whether this is actually true is another thing altogether). A continuity which can they claimed could be documented by the explicit teaching of the Church fathers in their interpretation of Scripture and in their practice. Vatican I, for example, teaches that the papacy was full blown from the very beginning and was, therefore, not subject to development over time. In this new theory Rome moved beyond the historical principle of development as articulated by Vincent and, for all practical purposes, eliminated any need for historical validation. She now claimed that it was not necessary that a particular doctrine be taught explicitly by the early Church. In fact, Roman Catholic historians readily admit that doctrines such as the assumption of Mary and papal infallibility were completely unknown in the teaching of the early Church. If Rome now teaches the doctrine we are told that the early Church actually believed and taught it implicitly and only later, after many centuries, did it become explicit. From this principle it was only a small step in the evolution of Rome’s teaching on Tradition to her present position. Rome today has replaced the concept of tradition as development to what is known as ‘living tradition.’ This is a concept that promotes the Church as an infallible authority, which is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who protects her from error. Therefore, whatever Rome’s magisterium teaches at any point in time must be true even if it lacks historical or biblical support. The following statement by Roman Catholic apologist Karl Keating regarding the teaching of the Assumption of Mary is an illustration of this very point. He says it does not matter that there is no teaching on the Assumption in Scripture, the mere fact that the Roman Church teaches it is proof that it is true. Thus, teachings do not need to be documented from Scripture:

Still, fundamentalists ask, where is the proof from Scripture? Strictly, there is none. It was the Catholic Church that was commissioned by Christ to teach all nations and to teach them infallibly. The mere fact that the Church teaches the doctrine of the Assumption as definitely true is a guarantee that it is true.7

This assertion is a complete repudiation of the patristic principle of proving every doctrine by the criterion of Scripture. Tradition means handing down from the past. Rome has changed the meaning of tradition from demonstrating by patristic consent that a doctrine is truly part of tradition, to the concept of living tradition—whatever I say today is truth, irrespective of the witness of history. This goes back to the claims of Gnosticism to having received the tradition by living voice, viva voce. Only now Rome has reinterpreted viva voce, the living voice as receiving from the past by way of oral tradition, to be a creative and therefore entirely novel aspect of tradition. It creates tradition in its present teaching without appeal to the past. To paraphrase the Gnostic line, it is viva voce-whatever we say. Another illustration of this reality relates to the teaching of the Assumption of Mary from the French Roman Catholic historian, Joussard:

In these conditions we shall not ask patristic thought-as some theologians still do today under one form or another-to transmit to us, with respect to the Assumption, a truth received as such in the beginning and faithfully communicated to subsequent ages. Such an attitude would not fit the facts…Patristic thought has not, in this instance, played the role of a sheer instrument of transmission.8

The editors of the book which references these statements from Joussard offer the following editorial comments:

A word of caution is not impertinent here. The investigation of patristic documents might well lead the historian to the conclusion: In the first seven or eight centuries no trustworthy historical tradition on Mary’s corporeal Assumption is extant, especially in the West. The conclusion is legitimate; if the historian stops there, few theological nerves will be touched. The historian’s mistake would come in adding: therefore no proof from tradition can be adduced. The historical method is not the theological method, nor is historical tradition synonymous with dogmatic tradition.9

The historical method is not the theological method, nor is historical tradition synonymous with dogmatic tradition? Such a view is the complete antithesis of the teaching of Vincent of Lerins and the Councils of Trent and Vatican I. This is an apt illustration of the concept of living tradition. This new perspective on tradition is also well expressed by Roman Catholic theologian and cardinal, Yves Congar. In light of the lack of historical support for a number of the Roman Catholic dogmas, Congar sets forth this new approach of living tradition:

In every age the consensus of the faithful, still more the agreement of those who are commissioned to teach them, has been regarded as a guarantee of truth: not because of some mystique of universal suffrage, but because of the Gospel principle that unanimity and fellowship in Christian matters requires, and also indicates, the intervention of the Holy Spirit. From the time when the patristic argument first began to be used in dogmatic controversies-it first appeared in the second century and gained general currency in the fourth-theologians have tried to establish agreement among qualified witnesses of the faith, and have tried to prove from this agreement that such was in fact the Church’s belief…Unanimous patristic consent as a reliable locus theologicus is classical in Catholic theology; it has often been declared such by the magisterium and its value in scriptural interpretation has been especially stressed. Application of the principle is difficult, at least at a certain level. In regard to individual texts of Scripture total patristic consensus is rare. In fact, a complete consensus is unnecessary: quite often, that which is appealed to as sufficient for dogmatic points does not go beyond what is encountered in the interpretation of many texts. But it does sometimes happen that some Fathers understood a passage in a way which does not agree with later Church teaching. One example: the interpretation of Peter’s confession in Matthew 16.16-18. Except at Rome, this passage was not applied by the Fathers to the papal primacy; they worked out an exegesis at the level of their own ecclesiological thought, more anthropological and spiritual than juridical. This instance, selected from a number of similar ones, shows first that the Fathers cannot be isolated from the Church and its life. They are great, but the Church surpasses them in age, as also by the breadth and richness of its experience. It is the Church, not the Fathers, the consensus of the Church in submission to its Saviour which is the sufficient rule of our Christianity.10

Congar affirms that unanimous consent is the classical position in Roman theology. But he honestly admits that for all practical purposes it is nonexistent. It is a claim that has been asserted for centuries but lacking in actual documentary validation. As Congar says: ‘In regard to individual texts of Scripture total patristic consensus is rare.’ And he uses the fundamental passage for all of Rome’s authority as an example, that being the rock passage of Matthew 16 in which he candidly admits that the present day Roman/papal interpretation of that passage contradicts that of the patristic age. But, according to Congar, the problem is really not a problem because it can be circumvented by a different understanding of consensus. The Fathers must be interpreted in light of present day teaching. Congar says: ‘The Fathers cannot be isolated from the Church and its life.’ And by the Church and its life, he means the Church as it is today. He says: ‘It is the Church, not the Fathers, the consensus of the Church in submission to its Saviour which is the sufficient rule of our Christianity.’ In other words, what matters is what the Church teaches now. That is the criterion of truth and Tradition because the Church is living and Tradition is living. He continues:

This instance shows too that we may not, at the doctrinal as distinct from the purely historical level, take the witnesses of Tradition in a purely material sense: they are to be weighed and valued. The plain material fact of agreement or disagreement, however extensive, does not allow us to speak of a consensus Patrum at the properly dogmatic level, for the authors studied in theology are only “Fathers” in the theological sense if they have in some way begotten the Church which follows them. Now, it may be, that the seed which will be most fruitful in the future is not the most clearly so at present, and that the lifelines of faith may not pass through the great doctors in a given instance. Historical documentation is at the factual level; it must leave room or a judgment made not in the light of the documentary evidence alone, but of the Church’s faith.11

Note carefully the last two sentences of that paragraph. Congar postulates that in the future the Church could be teaching doctrines which are completely unheard of today and which will therefore not be able to be documented historically. As he puts it: ‘The lifelines of faith may not pass through the great doctors in a given instance.’ Historical documentation must leave room for judgment that is not restricted to documentary evidence alone but transcends the historical record in light of the present day Church’s faith. In other words, the truth of ecclesiastical history must be viewed through the lens of whatever the faith of the Church is at the present moment. This in effect cuts the Church off from any kind of continuity as far as real documentation is concerned or accountability. It allows the Church to conveniently disregard the witness of history and Scripture in favor of a dynamic evolving teaching authority. History in effect becomes irrelevant and all talk of the unanimous consent of the fathers merely a relic of history. This brings us to the place where one’s faith is placed blindly in the institution of the Church. Again, in reality Rome has abandoned the argument from history is arguing for the viva voce (living voice) of the contemporary teaching office of the Church (magisterium), which amounts to the essence of a carte blanche for whatever proves to be the current, prevailing sentiments of Rome. Never was this more blatantly admitted and expressed than it was by the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Henry Edward Manning (1808-1892) who was one of the leading proponents for the definition of papal rule and infallibility at Vatican I. His words are the expression of sola ecclesia with a vengeance:

But the appeal to antiquity is both a treason and a heresy. It is a treason because it rejects the Divine voice of the Church at this hour, and a heresy because it denies that voice to be Divine. How can we know what antiquity was except through the Church?…I may say in strict truth that the Church has no antiquity. It rests upon its own supernatural and perpetual consciousness. . . . The only Divine evidence to us of what was primitive is the witness and voice of the Church at this hour(emphasis mine).12

So, in effect, the new teaching of tradition in Rome is no longer that of continuity with the past but living tradition, or viva voce – whatever we say. Instead of sola Scriptura, the unanimous principle of authority enunciated by both Scripture and the Church fathers, we now have sola Ecclesia, blind submission to an institution which is unaccountable to either Scripture or history. That blind submission is not too strong an allegation is seen from the official Roman teaching on saving faith. What Rome requires is what is technically referred to a dogmatic faith. This is faith which submits completely to whatever the Church of Rome officially defines as dogma and to refuse such submission results in anathema and the loss of salvation, for unless a Roman Catholic has dogmatic faith, he or she does not have saving faith. Rome’s view is based on the presupposition that the Church is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and is therefore infallible. She cannot err. But the presupposition is faulty. Historically, the Roman Church has clearly proven that she can and has erred and is therefore quite fallible. Her gospel is a repudiation of the biblical gospel. This is where we ultimately arrive when the patristic and Reformation principle of sola Scriptura is repudiated for the concept of living tradition and an infallible magisterium—the embracing of teachings which are not only not found in Scripture or the teaching of the early Church, but which are actually contradictory to Scripture and in many cases to the teaching of the Church fathers.


(1) It should be noted that though many might write concerning Catholic truth, there is this difference that those who wrote the canonical Scripture, the Evangelists and Apostles, and others of this kind, so constantly assert it that they leave no room for doubt. That is his meaning when he says ‘we know his testimony is true.’ Galatians 1:9, “If anyone preach a gospel to you other than that which you have received, let him be anathema!” The reason is that only canonical Scripture is a measure of faith. Others however so wrote of the truth that they should not be believed save insofar as they say true things.” Thomas’s commentary on John’s Gospel, Super Evangelium S. Ioannis Lectura, ed. P. Raphaelis Cai, O.P., Editio V revisa (Romae: Marietti E ditori Ltd., 1952) n. 2656, p. 488. Latin Text: Notandum autem, quod cum multi scriberent de catholica veritate, haec est differentia, quia illi, qui scripserunt canonicam Scripturam, sicut Evangelistic et Apostoli, et alii huiusmodi, ita constanter eam asserunt quod nihil dubitandum relinquunt. Et ideo dicit Et scimus quia verum est testimonium eius; Gal. I, 9: Si quis vobis evangelizaverit praeter id quod accepistis, anathema sit. Cuius ratio est, quia sola canonica scriptura est regula fidei. Alii autem sic edisserunt de veritate, quod nolunt sibi credi nisi in his quae ver dicunt. Return to the article.

(2) Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicece and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), Series II, Volume XI, Vincent of Lerins, A Commonitory 2.4-6. Return to the article.

(3) Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1986), p. 6. Return to the article.

(4) John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., reprinted 1927), p. 27. Return to the article.

(5) Nicece and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), Series II, Volume XI, Vincent of Lerins, A Commonitory 23.54. Return to the article.

(6) Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), Volume XI, Vincent of Lerins, A Commonitory, Chapter XXIV.62. Return to the article.

(7) Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988), p. 275. Return to the article.

(8) Joussard, L’Assomption coropelle, pp. 115-116. Cited by Juniper B. Carol, O.F.M., ed., Mariology, Vol. I (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1955), p. 154. Juniper B. Carol, O.F.M., ed., Mariology, Vol. I (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1955), p. 154. Return to the article.

(9) Juniper B. Carol, O.F.M., ed., Mariology, Vol. I (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1955), p. 154. Return to the article.

(10) Yves Congar, Tradition and Traditions (New York: Macmillan Company, 1966), pp. 397-400. Return to the article.

(11) Yves Congar, Tradition and Traditions (New York: Macmillan Company, 1966), pp. 397-400. Return to the article.

(12) Henry Edward Manning, The Temporal Mission of the Holy Ghost: Or Reason and Revelation (New York: J.P. Kenedy & Sons, originally written 1865, reprinted with no date), pp. 227-228. Return to the article.