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…Totius Traditionis Mirabile Sacramentum

Rebekah Earnshaw
Wednesday 8 February 2017

For the second meeting of its spring semester, the St Andrews theology research seminar was privileged to welcome Professor Lewis Ayres. He is Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology at Durham University and kindly made the trip north of the border. Professor Ayres is an authority on trinitarian theology in patristic and modern thought as well as Augustine; his books Augustine and the Trinity and Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth Century Trinitarian Theology will be known to many.

Ayres presented a paper which forms part of a larger project investigating theologically the nature and practice of theology. This paper was previously presented to the Ad Limina Apostolorum conference in Washington, DC, which invited responses to the documents of Vatican II. In his paper Ayres addressed the question of how Dei Verbum might serve the task of theology and Christian unity. His paper is titled ‘…Totius Traditionis Mirabile Sacramentum: Toward a Theology of Tradition in the light of Dei Verbum’ and responded most directly to the conclusion of Dei Verbum’s second chapter.

It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.

After preliminary remarks concerning historical context and his method of reading the council, Ayres sought a theological foundation for how tradition might ‘contribute effectively’. He argued that this may be found by primarily considering tradition as the act of “handing on” and framing this within Church as sacrament, which is itself grounded in Christ as the sacrament. Tradition is therefore a fundamentally theological act rooted in both Christology and Trinitarian theology.

Ayres’s sacramental understanding of salvation and the whole of the divine economy is vital to his argument. The hypostatic union means salvation is intrinsically sacramental and the need for visible and bodily encounter does not cease with the ascension and sending of the Spirit. The Church is a sacramental reality and Christ’s mystical body. The visible society of the Church is a sign for the nations of eschatological reality. Ayres disciplined his sacramental position by noting the ongoing mystery and divine action in the Church, as well as the reality of unity of the Church which foreshadows the eschatological reality: ‘the Church in via has both a beautiful and a tragic guise’. Tradition is the sacramental practice of the waiting Church, which is accompanied by spiritual discernment and guidance.

Ayres finds this sacramental perspective generative for considering how “handing on” may contribute to the salvation of souls. As act, this “handing on” is an embodied and lively social and temporal reality overseen by the Spirit within the sacramental time of the Church. (Ayres takes his lead from the trajectory of Möhler, Newman, Blondel, and Congar.) At significant moments of “handing on” the Spirit works in sacred history to empower and quicken human intellect and will so that they ‘are gradually better ordered to their true end’. The Church learns to think in light of revelation by faith and thus the City of God is built.

Ayres contests that “handing on” is theologically essential to the sacramental Church. Interpretation, imagination, and speculation are unavoidable for Christian thinking this side of eternal bliss. Discernment and formation of tradition is the action that Spirit formed Christian thinking takes. This demands careful theological attention without simplistic reduction of complexity or claims of “having arrived”. Ayres maintains a robust account of double agency with appropriate measures of prayerful confidence and penitant humility. Under his sacramental theology of “handing on” Ayres advocates robust historical investigation under the auspices of the Spirit.

Ayres concludes by considering the place of Scripture in this sacramental economy and returns to Dei Verbum explicitly at this point. For Ayres, Scripture’s status in the Church depends on a strong account of tradition. Christ remains the bedrock of revelation. The living Lord continues to speak in manifold ways, with Scripture as the constant referrant for the Church’s attention.

Ayres’s account is compelling as it seeks a theological account of the practice of Christian thinking. Ayres considers a broad dogmatic basis in Trinitarian theology and Christology but also drawing on Pneumatology, Sacramentology, Ecclesiology, Salvation, Eschatology, and Anthropology. The result challenges an unmoored exaltation of Christian thinking, even thinking which critically reflects on Scripture, apart from the life of the Church. Ayres contextualises individual present insight within the theological context of the convenant fellowship of God’s people from Beginning to End.

The discussion after the paper pursued how this proposal might respond to weaknesses within the tradition and tragic elements during the period of waiting. Ayres also filled out how this theology of theology differs from reception and sentire cum ecclesia. Further, he admonished us to be more philosophically and hermeneutically astute in the dogmatic historical task.

I eagerly anticipate the longer volume of which this thought is a small piece and thank Professor Ayres for the moment of “handing on” he shared with us.

Rebekah Earnshaw

(Views expressed in this post are my own and not those of St. Mary’s College.)

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