Bernard Sesboüé – Gospel and Tradition [Brief Review]

Bernard Sesboüé - Gospel and TraditionA Brief Review of

Gospel and Tradition.

Bernard Sesboüé

Paperback: Convivium Press, 2012.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by C. Christopher Smith

Bernard Sesboüé’s Gospel and Tradition is a helpful little book that examines the role of the church throughout its history in propagating the Gospel.  But before I say anything further about the content of the book, I should begin by noting that it is a beautiful book.  Made of high quality paper and full of creative design flourishes (for instance, a solid black page inserted to demarcate chapter breaks), Convivium Press went the extra mile to make this an elegant book to hold in one’s hands. And a quick internet browse shows that apparently this sort of top-notch design is routine for Convivium (or at least for some series of their books).  In the age of the monotonous font and blasé design of ebooks, it was exciting for me have the opportunity to review such a well-crafted theology book.  The design made me want to pick up and read the book, even though I was unfamiliar with the author’s work.

Sesboüé is a French Jesuit scholar who specializes in ecumenism, so although he is predominantly writing from a place of Roman Catholicism (and it will be helpful for readers to have at least  a smidgeon of background in Catholic history before tackling the book), he does so in a way that is sensitive to non-Catholics.  The author briefly surveys the history of the church over the first half of the book with an eye toward its discernment of the Gospel.  His distinctive focus on “the spoken word” and the dynamic ways in which the church discerns and embodies the Gospel distinguish it from the abundance of work that has been done on the translation, transmission and canonization of the biblical texts, and it seems like this approach will be appreciated by readers with interests in ecclesiology and the intersections of Christianity and culture.  Personally, I was a wee bit disappointed that large sectors of the roots of the evangelical tradition (particularly, the Anabaptist reformation and Methodism) were not mentioned at all in Sesboüé’s historical survey.  The second half of the book offers a theological exploration of the ways in which the Church discerns and transmits the Gospel (liturgy, mission, social issues).

Near the end of the book, Sesboüé offers a summary of the basic idea of the book:

[The] Gospel of saints is also a Gospel of sinners; for it was granted to humanity. This is the huge risk taken by Christ in the logic of the incarnation.  Despite the Church’s historical poverty, the Gospel is always there, after two thousand years of Christianity, young and new, creator and fruitful.  The real miracle is that there is still a Church to bear and proclaim what judges the Church itself, a Church to convert itself to the Gospel call (171).

Gospel and Tradition is a helpful introductory survey for reflecting on the church’s role in history.  My biggest complaint, however, is that it speaks so monolithically of church and tradition, and almost no attention is paid to the localization and particularity of the Gospel’s embodiment.  The book is thus very modernist in its approach, which is not surprising given that although this is a new edition, the first edition was published in 1975 and the seeds of the work go back much further than that (“It was already old” when it was first published notes Sesboüé in the foreword).  The more recent work of fellow Roman Catholic Gerhard Lohfink (particularly his masterpiece Does God Need the Church?) would offer a corrective complement to this little volume.


C. Christopher Smith is the editor of The Englewood Review of Books and author of the recent ebook The Virtue of Dialogue: Conversation as a Hopeful Practice of Church Communities. He is currently working on co-writing a book on the theme of Slow Church (IVP Books 2013), and blogs about this new project on Patheos.com.

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

One Comment

  1. I agree about their design, Chris. They’re based in Miami and bring a welcome European flair to the theology shelves. I believe that they even publish the only NT Wright book I’ve ever seen in Spanish (Surprised by Hope):