This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Written and oral transmission

In the West, tradition is sometimes used in a limited way to refer specifically to orally transmitted doctrine, as opposed to the scriptures or other written forms of transmission. As we mentioned already, to differentiate themselves from Catholics, Protestant groups will say that they accept ‘scripture but not tradition,’ meaning that they reject whatever doctrine they cannot find explicitly stated in the Bible. Ignoring all the obvious difficulties and contradictions inherent in such a position, we only wish to say for now that this notion of tradition is not valid. We already noted that, etymologically, tradition simply means ‘that which is transmitted,’ and for us, as for the Catholic Church and indeed all Eastern civilizations, the idea of tradition embraces both written and oral forms of transmission. The attempts of Protestants to prefer one form over the other would not be taken seriously by any traditional organization, because the distinction in question is artificial. Moreover, because most doctrines are orally transmitted first and placed in written form later, scripture is in a sense the ‘product’ or ‘crystallization’ of a pre-existing oral tradition without which it could not have come into being. In other words, oral transmission typically precedes written transmission. For this reason, if we were going to place them in a hierarchy, we would have to say that oral transmission has a kind of primacy, and was the only mode utilized by the founder of Christianity Himself, although again we should not insist on this point as if we wished to present one as more legitimate than the other, which inevitably pits them against each other, something we have no intention of doing. It is only an observation about the historical and logical order of things.

The attempts of Protestants to deny the legitimacy of oral transmission should be taken as an expression of the underlying egalitarian individualism of the Reformation, which, like the modern world in general, insists on reducing everything to its simplest form, rejecting all that is subtle, all that requires submission to an authority, all that is of a ‘supra-individual’ character, and only accepting what can be seen, touched, and easily grasped by the general population. Everything must be made ‘democratic’, regardless of what is destroyed in the process. This inability to appreciate the supra-individual nature of the Christian Church is also apparent in the demand that each book of the Bible be attached to a single author, even when it is clear that the scripture in question was not ‘authored’ by anyone in particular.

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