Carmel Westmore

Yves Congar's theology of revelation and critique of Sola Scriptura

by Patrick Madrid
(Freedom Publishing, 2014, hardback, 145pp. $29.95. ISBN: 978-0-9775699-5-3)

This is an Australian first: a deep study of the writings of the famous Dominican theologian, Yves Congar, by the highly respected American writer and professor of theology, Patrick Madrid, and published first in Australia.

For those who do not remember Yves Congar, Bishop Anthony Fisher OP has written an illuminating foreword which describes his contribution to theological debate before, during and after the Second Vatican Council, particularly on the vexed issues which have divided Catholics and Protestants since the Reformation in the 16th century.

One of the intentions of Blessed John XXIII in convening Vatican II was to express the teachings of the Catholic Church in language which was accessible and contemporary to a world which had changed utterly in the previous century, as well as to deal with other challenges – both internal and external – which faced the Church in the 20th century.


A consequence of this, expressed in the Council's declaration on ecumenism, was the desire to engage in a more effective dialogue with Protestants on the issues which divide us, "moved by a desire for the restoration of unity among all the followers of Christ".

Yves Congar, one of the periti at Vatican II, supported the efforts of the assembled bishops at the Council to give effect to this need to express the Church's teaching in a form which was respectful of the Protestant position, and faithful to Catholic tradition.

He was appointed a consultor to the Preparatory Theological Commission which prepared the draft of the Council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum.

Patrick Madrid says he "exerted a profound influence on that document", and his contribution was the culmination of decades of scholarship into the writings of the early Church Fathers, exploring their understanding of Scripture, tradition (with a small "t"), the Apostolic Tradition as the interpretive key to Scripture, and the Catholic Church's Magisterium.

The argument is complex, and Patrick Madrid does not shy away from it.

A key distinction which Yves Congar drew was between human traditions in Scripture study and interpretation, and the Apostolic Tradition – the anchor on which the Church's teaching authority was based.

Modern biblical scholarship, the discovery of a large number of ancient scriptural texts and fragments, commentaries on them and the writings of the early Fathers, have given all Christians a far better understanding of the beliefs of the early Church which all Christian churches acknowledge and venerate.

This has undoubtedly assisted the convergence seen in recent decades in the writings of both Catholic and Protestant biblical scholars, and at least partially overcomes the old Scripture versus Tradition polemic which divided Western Christianity for over 400 years.

Unusually for a Dominican, Fr Congar was highly critical of the Catholic Church's adherence to the principles of scholasticism – most powerfully expressed by perhaps the greatest Dominican theologian, St Thomas Aquinas – which Congar believed led to precisions which doctrine neither needed nor imposed.

This, in turn, led to "confessional polemics" which "contributed to the hardening of positions ... [and] precipitated the irremediable rupture between the Protestants and the Catholic Church."

(This led some traditionalists to suspect Congar's teaching was heretical. To answer these critics, Blessed John Paul II appointed him a Cardinal in the year before his death in 1995).

In fact, Congar accepted the primacy of Scripture as the source of revelation, but showed that it had always been interpreted through the Apostolic Tradition of which the Church is the custodian.

This is a most interesting and informative book, sympathetically and convincingly dealing with complex issues of faith. Apart from its beautiful cover, it comes with a lengthy bibliography, an index of scriptural quotations and a general index.

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