Saturday, February 26, 2011

Thoughts on Viviano, Scripture and Tradition.

I recently read Tom Viviano’s¹ entry “The Normativity of Scripture and Tradition in Recent Catholic Theology” in Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible: How the New Testament Shapes Christian Dogmatics,² and I must admit I came away from it with mixed feelings.

Viviano gives us an excellent historical excursus of the eminent Catholic biblical scholar M. J. Lagrange (1855-1938) and his dealings with the Catholic hierarchy at the time (who viewed him with suspicion). He also gives an able presentation of J. R. Geiselmann on Scripture and Tradition as it relates to Trent, Sola-Scriptura and the battle of “inerrancy” of Scripture. Geiselmann, Viviano reminds us, holds Scripture as sufficient for all things necessary to salvation, with Tradition playing an important role in interpreting Scripture.³ We are then treated to a good discussion over Canon Criticism, Dei Verbum, Vatican II and the role of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on these issues.

My main concern comes in Viviano’s conclusion (pp. 139-40). He states that “One can therefore be a good Roman Catholic and live by a kind of sola scriptura, but with some qualifications.” Now let us not be confused here. We know that Viviano is writing (consciously) to a largely Protestant audience in a Protestant publisher, so he clearly is attempting some eirenic tone. What are then these “qualifications?” First, that Scripture would contain the deuterocanonical (or as Protestants call them, the ‘Apocryphal’ books). Very few Protestants would agree with this claim. His second qualification is that tradition “sometimes provides a dogmatically binding interpretative norm (e.g., the homoousion in the Nicene Creed).” Few Protestants today would hold to this specific formulation and even fewer conservative Catholics. Third, there is a freedom to interpret Scripture in light of the “new knowledges” i.e., Hammurabi’s Code or nuclear warfare. But this is simply a quirk of the higher critical Biblical guilds which most conservative Protestants and Catholics would deny. And fifth, that the faithful Roman Catholic should remain at peace knowing that he exists in a Communion with many others who “indulge in unscriptural beliefs and practices.” This statement is filled with problems however. To simply assert this and not to cite examples or even to tie these supposed erroneous beliefs to the principle of Scripture and Tradition can leave a brutal misrepresentation in the minds of Protestant readers.

Viviano’s entry is a thoughtful exercise in twentieth century Catholic thought over Scripture and Tradition. His peculiar suggestion of a nuanced Catholic sola scriptura however fails on many points. It would have been better for Viviano to collocate the historic Catholic view of Scripture and Tradition with modern Catholic views and trail blaze a way beyond the differences without kowtowing to Protestant sensibilities.


Craig W. Pointer


¹ Thomas Viviano O.P., Professor of New Testament at Fribourg University, Switzerland. Probably best known as a Matthean scholar. He is responsible for the notes on Matthew in theNew Jerome Biblical Commentary (Prentice-Hall, 1990) and also Matthew and His World: The Gospel of the Open Jewish Christians (NTOA 61; Fribourg Academic Press, 2007).

² Edited by Markus Bockmuehl and Alan J. Torrance, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008), pp. 125-40.

³ This is an acceptable Catholic view with representatives such as Yves Congar, Tradition and Traditions: An Historical and a Theological Essay (London: Burns & Oates, 1966). For Catholic critics of this view and for an alternative understanding of Scripture and Tradition consult Karl Rahner,Revelation and Tradition (New York: Herder and Herder, 1966).

Most Catholics (are conservative) and would hold on the contrary that tradition is not just “sometimes dogmatically binding” but rather all the time.

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