Monday, October 13, 2014

How Scripture and Tradition Became Conflated in the Middle Ages

The word “tradition” has been a wax nose throughout church history, used in various ways at various times, as described here: Four different kinds of “tradition”.

Today, Rome claims that “Scripture and Tradition” together form “one common source” of divine revelation, with “two distinct modes of transmission”. Its official teaching from the CCC states it this way:


One common source. . .

80 "Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal." Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own "always, to the close of the age".

. . . two distinct modes of transmission

81 "Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit."

"And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching."

82 As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, "does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence."

Apostolic Tradition and ecclesial traditions

83 The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus' teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition.

Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church's Magisterium.

The Medievals meant something different when they said “Tradition”. (And it is no doubt something that the Magisterium in place during Vatican II wished to “modify” and “abandon”, as it did not suit their needs at the time. However, here, according to Richard Muller, is how “Tradition” was “handed along”:

The Glossa ordinaria and the interpretive tradition.

The reading and study of Scripture was central to the theological enterprise of the Middle Ages. Indeed, before the late twelfth century, the Bible was the only “set text” in the medieval schools.

In the late twelfth century, with the differentiation between study of sacra pagina and the science of theology, the study of Scripture was, typically, followed by a course on Christian doctrine organized topically into groupings of statements, or sententia.

The examination of the method and form of theological exposition that led to the medieval practice of elaborating on and augmenting Lombard’s standard Sententiae in IV libris distinctae with more texts, further arguments, and preliminary discussion of the nature of theology also led to the more cohesive organization of the study of Scripture.

In the case of biblical study, the early scholastics had a stronger foundation on which to build their exegetical edifice than did the builders of the sententia: they had the tradition of the gloss or, as it later came to be called, the Glossa ordinaria.

Although certain elements of the gloss were derived from commentaries written in the ninth and tenth centuries, the actual production of a running commentary on the whole text of Scripture belonged to the twelfth century and was the work of Anselm of Laon and his assistants.

Between 1100 and 1130, the scholars of Laon gathered together all of Jerome’s prologues, joined them to other prefatory material, and copied out the whole together with the text of Scripture and with a composite, running commentary consisting in marginal and interlinear discussion of the text.

Both the marginal and the interlinear comments draw on earlier medieval ..and patristic materials in, to borrow Smalley’s words, “varying degrees of thickness”: important doctrinal or moral passages receive lengthier comments.

Later in the twelfth century, Gilbert de la Porrée and Peter Lombard expanded Anselm’s gloss. It also became the practice, at least from Anselm of Laon onward, not only to lecture in the form and on the basis of the gloss but to introduce quaestiones on important doctrinal topics into the lectures.

Thus, Lombard’s expansion of the gloss on the Pauline Epistles draws out doctrinal themes at length in the form of carefully argued quaestiones.

The development of these various levels of gloss was intimately related with the common assumption of the medieval writers that Scripture and tradition spoke with one voice and that the meaning of the text had been embodied in the interpretations of the fathers.

The text of Scripture, as in the case of the great Paris Bibles of the second quarter of the thirteenth century, was frequently copied out, together with the gloss, for use as a textbook for theological study.

In many cases, the text itself was accommodated to the gloss on the assumption of the correctness of patristic interpretation. Loewe points out that “it is possible to illustrate the organic interdependence of the text in its twelfth-century form, and the gloss, and to point to the dependence of the sentences on both.”

The gloss developed in the first half of the twelfth century by Anselm of Laon and his school became, through the efforts of Anselm’s pupil, Gilbert de la Porrée, and of Peter Lombard, the standard or ordinary gloss (Glossa ordinaria) used in basic biblical instruction from the twelfth century onward.

Lombard also took the Anselmic gloss as the basis of his own lengthy exposition of the Psalter and the Pauline epistles, the Magna glosatura, which eventually became the standard exposition of these particular biblical books.

In his compilation of the Sentences, Lombard drew on both the Glossa ordinaria and his own magna glosatura, with the result that the biblical-traditional amalgam of the various levels of gloss became the authoritative basis for doctrinal exposition in the basic medieval course in theology.

This mutual interdependence of text and tradition as evidenced in Scripture, the gloss, and the new theological science serves to identify and define the issue of the relationship and relative authority of Scripture and tradition as found in the Middle Ages and to distinguish it both formally and materially from the issue of the relative authority of Scripture and tradition as encountered in subsequent periods.

Perhaps even more importantly, this intimate relationship of text, gloss, and sententia points toward the context and significance of medieval references to the inspiration and authority of Scripture in theology: the line between text and theology was drawn only with difficulty—just as the scholastic identification of sacra pagina and sacra theologia was a distinction, hardly a separation. The terms theologia and sacra scriptura were virtually synonymous.

Both hermeneutically and linguistically, the Vulgate text and the work of theological formulation were so profoundly interwoven that the language of Scripture and the language of theology flowed into one another.

Indeed, in the Middle Ages, one cannot distinguish firmly between biblical and theological language, but only between the fundamental elements of theological language learned from Scripture and the other aspects and elements of theological language learned from the larger tradition and used to interpret Scripture and to formulate doctrine.

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 2: The Cognitive Foundation Of Theology (2nd ed., pp. 31–33). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

I’ve been publishing selections from Richard Muller’s Volume 2, dealing with the doctrine of Scripture through the Middle Ages, here at Triablogue, at the following links:

“Scripture interprets Scripture” through the centuries, October 2, 2014

The Medieval Biblical Canon Revisited, October 3, 2014


  1. John i don't understand the point of this article. Are you suggesting the medeivals erred in their understanding of tradition? Can you elaborate on this quote?

    And it is no doubt something that the Magisterium in place during Vatican II wished to “modify” and “abandon”, as it did not suit their needs at the time

    Is Trent's understanding of tradition at odds with one of Vatican 2?

    1. Vincent -- Keep in mind that this is as much a history as anything. I think what Muller is saying is that "tradition" for the Medievals involved something totally different from what either Trent or Vatican II understood it to be.

      So there are several things going on. First, some of the early Medievals lost the sense of Scripture (which was buried within the "glosses"). This precipitated the need to have the "Scripture-vs-Tradition" discussions that the Medievals had. This also shows that "Tradition" was a vague and fuzzy concept not only for the Medieval theologians, but also for the "infallible Magisterium", which seemed not to have any idea what was going on.

      The bottom line is that dogmas about the authority of "Tradition" are pretty meaningless except insofar as they are assertions of Roman authority.

    2. Was Trent different than Vatican 2's understanding of tradition? I remember you mentioned to me that Trent never dogmatized the two-source theory but left it an open question.

  2. I don't think the CCC denies the material sufficiency of scripture in the above quote. You can correct me if I am wrong. Where the medievals right and Trent/Vatican 2 wrong?

    1. The point is only that they were different -- and I don't yet know how Muller (and maybe someone like Heiko Oberman, who also has written about this) will show the how the history develops.

    2. From my understanding the two-source theory came into exsistence in the 14th century, and was part of the whole debate of scripture vs tradition. This article seems to suggest that the medievals did not view scripture and tradition as antithetical and two things that needed to be pitted against each other. They seem to deny the formal sufficiency of scripture (they affirm the material) by implying that the scripture can only be understood and interpreted through the liturgical and patristic tradition and not independent of it. This seems similar to the EO view of scriptural authority.