What is Tradition?

An Address delivered at the Second Orthodox Education Day in St. Sarkis Armenian Orthodox Church, Iverna Gardens, London, on 18 January 2014,

We live in a society which is very conscious of its traditions: the Monarchy, the Law, the Church – which are all institutions with a rich sense of tradition. We live at a time when many of those traditions – especially with regard to the Christian Faith – are under attack, and those who would resist those erosions are proud to be called Traditionalists.

Yet we need to recognise that there is a vast difference between the secular understanding of traditions and what the church calls Holy Tradition. For many Evangelical Christians, firmly grounded in a biblical faith, the admission that there is another, higher authority rejoicing in the vague title of ‘Holy Tradition’ is a matter of serious concern. It seems to undermine the authority of the Sacred Scriptures and by its adherence to something which appears as a culturally conditioned “fixed quality”, a static deposit, a stock of dead capital, it is judged by them to be the very antithesis of “walking in the spirit” and inherently liable to degeneration and ossification. Indeed the Lord Himself when challenged that He and His disciples did not live by “the tradition of the elders” sharply condemned the Pharisees as hypocrites and accused them of having “let go of the commands of God” and of “holding on to the traditions of men.” (Mark VII: 6-9). The Apostle Paul warns the Colossians to be alert to the “traditions of men” making certain that they do not take us “captive through philosophy and empty deception”(Colossians II: 8).

Sadly, orthodox Christians (and I use a small ‘o’ here) sometimes see Holy Tradition in much the way as their Evangelical critics fear. To them epithets such as “conservative”, “fixed”, “immobile”, certainly don’t offer cause for reproach. Nevertheless, to view Holy Tradition merely in this way is to ensure spiritual stagnation and to deny the vibrant workings of the Holy Spirit in our own days, because Holy Tradition rather than being something frozen and inert is living and dynamic.  Nor do we believe that is it antiquity which verifies tradition: we do not simply do something now because we first did it 2,000 years ago. Saint Cyprian of Carthage stated that “Custom without truth is the antiquity of error.”[1]

The Greek word for tradition is paradosis. It does not mean imitation. Its cognate verb is paradidomi, which means “handing over or delivering a thing by hand.” The closely associated verb is paralambano, which means “receiving a thing or taking it.” In Hebrew there are two words masar (hand on or deliver) and qibbel (to receive). Thus the word tradition does not mean imitation of the past but rather “delivering a deposit and receiving it.” One generation delivers the faith and another receives it.

Tradition is not so much a protective and preservative principal as a principle of growth and regeneration. Our Lord did not deliver to His disciples and apostles a written document, but rather prepared them to follow Him and to accept Him indwelling in their hearts. Certainly they were witnesses to all that He did and said; to His passion, death, resurrection and glorious ascension, which the evangelists eventually recorded, but as St John tells us: “There are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written everyone, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John XXI: 25). The apostle Paul, who had warned the Colossians against the traditions of men also exhorted them to follow the tradition they received as Christians, “As you therefore have received Christ the Lord, so walk in him.” Here the word received means much more than just accepted or acknowledged. The late Professor F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) of Manchester University, a distinguished biblical exegete, explains, “When he says that they have ‘received’ Christ Jesus as their Lord, he uses the verb paralambano which was specifically employed to denote the receiving of something which was delivered by tradition.” Saint Paul encourages the Corinthians “to hold firmly to the traditions just as I delivered them to you … For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you”(1 Corinthians XI: 2, 23) and later, “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which you also stand … For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians XV:1, 3). We should note that St. Paul does not exhort his listeners to observe the scriptures, which at that time comprised only the Old Testament.

The Sacred Scriptures should not be viewed as if set in opposition to Tradition as they are themselves fully part of it. They have been described as “the fruit of the Spirit grown on the tree of Tradition.” Professor Bruce again explains,

“Whereas Western Christians tend to set ‘Scripture and ‘Tradition’ over against each other, as though Tradition were oral only and not written, there is no reason why Tradition should not take a written form. If it is Apostolic Tradition, in due course it takes a written form and becomes Apostolic Scripture. Whether Paul’s teaching was given orally or in writing, it equally carried apostolic authority; hence he can encourage the Thessalonians to ‘stand firm and hold to the Traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.”[2]

Saint Basil the Great demonstrates this interdependence and essential unity of Scripture and Tradition,

“Among the doctrines and teachings preserved by the Church, we hold some from written sources, and we have collected others transmitted in an explicit form from apostolic tradition. They have all the same value … For if we were to try to put aside the unwritten customs as having no great force, we should, unknown to ourselves, be weakening the Gospel in its very essence; furthermore, we should be transforming the kerygma – [the Gospel proclamation] – into mere word.[3]

Inspired by the Spirit, the written Scriptures were entrusted to the Church, which alone has the spiritual discernment necessary to rightly divide the word of truth (2 Timothy II: 15). Their content is spiritual and prophetic and must be read in the light of faith and within the community of the faithful. The Apostle St. Peter makes it clear that, “No prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.” (2 Peter I: 20)

Luther himself accepted that the true understanding of the Bible was within the context of the Church, “God’s Word cannot be without God’s people, God’s people cannot be without God’s Word,” and affirmed that it is not the individual believer who holds final responsibility for its meaning but the community to which it has been entrusted.  He was nevertheless remarkably authoritarian in his own pronouncements about certain parts of the scriptural canon, dismissing Saint James as “the epistle of straw” and the Book of Revelation as “neither apostolic nor prophetic” in which he could “in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it.” Luther’s attitude to the church fathers was also highly selective, picking from their sayings when they concurred with him, according them a limited authority, beneath Scripture; but when the fathers do not agree with him, they are summarily dismissed,

 “Jerome can be read for the sake of history, but he has nothing at all to say about faith and the teaching of true religion. Origen I have already banned. I have no use for Chrysostom either, for he is only a gossip. Basil doesn’t amount to anything; he was a monk after all and I wouldn’t give a penny for him.”[4]

Towards the end of his life, however, he is more respectful of the role of the fathers and scholars: 

 “Let nobody suppose that he has tasted the Holy Scriptures sufficiently unless he has ruled over the churches with the prophets for a hundred years.”[5]

What Luther, and others who followed him, disregard, is the depth of the Church Fathers’ knowledge and use of the scriptures. Far from presenting a rival source of inspiration, the fathers are themselves immersed in the Bible and much of what they write are but extended commentaries on it. Their approach is a holistic one, viewing the Old and New Testament as a unity rather than creating what Professor George calls “any canon within the canon as far as individual books are concerned.”[6] Every doctrine and practice is evaluated in the light of Scripture viewed within the life of the Church throughout history and transcending all cultures. St. Gregory of Nyssa explained, “We make the Holy Scripture the standard and rule of all teaching; we are bound, therefore, to have in view that and only that which is in harmony with the intention (skopos) of Scripture.[7]

In another judgement by the Reformation, whilst according the Bible pre-eminent authority, Anglicans placed tradition in a subordinate place, “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an Article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”[8] Although it recognised that the Church had power to decree rites or ceremonies and authority in controversies of faith, it nevertheless declared it unlawful for the Church “to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one piece of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.”[9] For Anglicans, tradition was viewed more in the light of the customs which might be in use in every particular or national church, according to the diversity of countries, times and men’s manners and had only man’s authority. Those, who through private judgement, willingly and purposely, broke the traditions and ceremonies of the Church which were not in opposition to the scriptures, deserved to be rebuked because they “offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the conscience of the weak brethren.”[10]

This specific Anglican contribution was seen as a steadying of the Reformed movement, which saved it from the violent disregard of the past which so often characterised it on the Continent.[11] Bishop Jewel argues that those who act without recourse to the word of God, the authority of ancient councils, the Catholic fathers, examples from the primitive Church, and Reason act “against all antiquity, do wickedly therein, and are very Church robbers.”[12]

This approach was later developed by Richard Hooker’s appeal to Reason, Scripture and Tradition, which was popularly known as “Hooker’s three-legged stool.”[13] Hooker actually speaks of “the voice of the Church” rather than Tradition  (which he usually uses as synonymous with custom), by which he means the major decisions of ecumenical councils and of national churches which relate to important matters on which Scripture is silent or only supplies hints – such as the structure and content of Liturgy. These rules, he asserts, are morally and spiritually binding on Christians. They are not things indifferent, left to the individual conscience, but part of the Christianity to which they are attached by providence and grace. 

As previously noted, things developed differently on the Continent, where in order to refute the Catholic criticisms that their lack of Apostolicity rendered them reliant upon nothing but their own thoughts, the Continental Reformers who came after Luther reformulated the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.  Against the authority of Rome they quoted the authority of the Word of God as an external, independent, self-contained revelation.  This is best summed up by Zwingli,

 “All human traditions, authority of Councils, Fathers and papacy, are as nothing before the all competent self-authenticating authority of the Scriptures. The Bible has no need to be confirmed by the authority of the Church: the Word of God speaks directly from the Scriptures to the individual heart and mind.”[14]

Much of modern Fundamentalism is predicated on such a thesis and is usually set up as a bulwark against innovation and liberalism, quoting the Apostle Paul’s warning,

 “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vein deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.”[15]

A typical Fundamentalist approach reminds us,

 “When a religion depends upon traditions and ‘continuing revelations,’ that religion is constantly changing. There is no absolute. But a document that is written and preserved intact is unchangeable.”[16]

Unchangeable it might be, but unless it is either going to be the World’s least-read Best Seller or succumb to the whim of individual interpretation, it requires sound exposition.

St. Vincent of Lerins also asserts that quoting from the Bible was no guarantee of the truth,

“Some one may ask, Do heretics also appeal to Scripture ? They do indeed, and with a vengeance; for you may see them scamper through every single book of Holy Scripture,–through the books of Moses, the books of Kings, the Psalms, the Epistles, the Gospels, the Prophets. Whether among their own people, or among strangers, in private or in public, in speaking or in writing, at convivial meetings, or in the streets, hardly ever do they bring forward anything of their own which they do not endeavour to shelter under words of Scripture. Read the works of Paul of Samosata, of Priscillian, of Eunomius, of Jovinian, and the rest of those pests, and you will see an infinite heap of instances, hardly a single page, which does not bristle with plausible quotations from the New Testament or the Old.”[17]

The rule he set for the authentic interpretation of scripture as commended by holy and learned men, was to

“interpret the sacred Canon according to the traditions of the Universal Church and in keeping with the rules of Catholic doctrine, in which Catholic and Universal Church, moreover, they must follow universality, antiquity, consent.”[18]

When St. Vincent of Lérins wrote that, “We must hold what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all” he was reiterating a belief in the common mind and catholicity of the church.

Being perceptive listeners you will have already noted that I am expounding my understanding of Holy Tradition by reference to a wide range of authorities: the Scriptures, patristic writers and modern Orthodox theologians. Although the late Dorothy Sayers contended that, “a facility for quotation covers the absence of original thought” and the author A.A. Milne, believed that “a quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself, always a laborious business”; in my case I hope that it demonstrates the point that what I am saying about Holy Tradition. It is not my personal opinion or a singular interpretation, but represents the belief and mind of the Orthodox Church. Faced with heretics who propounded their own interpretation of the scriptures, the early Church appealed to continuity, consensus and catholicity to uphold the faith. St. Hilary of Poitiers made this clear, “for Scripture is not in the reading, but in the understanding.”[19] The great twentieth century theologian, Father Georges Florovsky, emphasises that, “The Apostolic Tradition of faith was the indispensable guide in the understanding of Scripture and the ultimate warrant of right interpretation. The Church was not an external authority, which had to judge over the Scripture, but rather the keeper and guardian of that Divine truth which was stored and deposited in the Holy Writ.”[20] The third century writer, Tertullian, would not even discuss Scripture with heretics, who he believed had no right to use them and for whom they were just “a dead letter, or an array of disconnected passages and stories which they endeavoured to arrange or rearranged according to their own pattern derived from alien sources. They had another faith …. They had no right to use the Scripture, as it did not belong to them.”[21]

That great biblical exegete, Origen, insisted on catholic interpretation of Scripture, as it is offered in the Church, as heretics, in their exegesis specifically ignored the true “intention” of the Scriptures; whilst St Jerome asserted that the preaching of heretics, not possessing the Spirit of God, was merely human,

“We do not think that the Gospel consists of the words of Scripture but in its meaning; not on the surface but in the marrow, not in the leaves of sermons but in the root of meaning.”[22]

The use of Bible verses or proof-texts in brackets after any statement or interpretation is no guarantee that our views are inspired or even Orthodox; indeed the Devil himself was adept at quoting from the Bible, proving that a text out of context is often a pretext. Indeed St. Peter, writing about the epistles of “our beloved brother Paul” warned that “in which some things are hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.”[23] I am reminded of the pastor who was asked to pronounce on the morality of the Animal Welfare Acts which recently banned tail-docking except for certain working dogs. Clutching his Bible to his chest, he solemnly pronounced, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”[24]

Holy Tradition neither adds to nor contradicts the Sacred Scriptures and, as I have already said, they are not to be viewed as two independent sources of revelation, contending against each other. They are both sources of revelation flowing from the same stream, a living stream of the one life of the Church which brings up the past as a living present and extends the present towards tomorrow without deformation.[25] The scriptures are the written testimony to and the product of tradition. They have also been likened to “two tuning forks set to the same note” which will “automatically reverberate their tone” with each other.[26]

Holy Tradition is God’s knowledge revealed in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, “the living Truth and the Way”. By their testimony of preaching the apostles became Messengers of Truth with a faith fixed on the full knowledge of the divine life of our Lord and Saviour. At the last He sent them His Holy Spirit not only to remind them of His words and deeds, and support them in their Christian lives but to attain unity with Him and to participate in His Divine Life. George Florovsky explains this,

“We may truly say that when we accept tradition we accept, through faith, our Lord, who abides in the midst of the faithful; for the Church is His Body, which cannot be separated from Him.”

As members of the Body of Christ, we are able to discern and receive the Ministry of the Holy Spirit among us, which brings this union with Christ, and through him union with all the members of the church. This is a living relationship and the true basis for Holy Tradition.

The Church has authority to teach and make disciples, to save and to sanctify, and to bear witness to the Truth but this is not done merely by harking back to the past. Florovsky says, “Tradition is not a principle striving to restore the past, using the past as a criterion for the present; for the church bears witness to the truth not by reminiscence from the words of others, but from its own living, and unceasing experience.”[27] It is, therefore achieved by sharing the fruits of the church’s own living experience. Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit and glory of Christ in His church. The Russian theologian, Sergei Bulgakov, reminds us, “Tradition is not a book which records a certain moment in the development of the Church and stops itself, but a book always being written by the Church’s life. Tradition continues always and now, not less than formally, we live in tradition and create it. And nevertheless the sacred tradition of the past exists for us as present: it lives in our own life and consciousness.”[28] 

This understanding of tradition sees it as the faith, “once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and the Gospel written in our lives and engraved upon our hearts (2 Corinthians III: 2). It is the life of the Holy Spirit in the church, communicating to each member of the body of Christ the ability to hear, to receive and to know truth. “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John VIII: 32). Father Tadros Malaty explains,  

“It is by the action of the Holy Spirit that the tradition of Christ is preserved in the Church’s life – through successive generations. He always lives and acts in the Church – yesterday, today and tomorrow – inspires her life and makes it a continuity of life, faith and love and not a mechanical repetition of the past.”[29]

Vladmir Lossky says,

“Tradition is not the content of revelation, but the light that reveals it; it is not the word, but the living breath which makes the words heard at the same time as the silence from which it came; it is not the truth, but a communication of the Spirit of truth, outside which the truth cannot be received. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians XII: 3).[30]

It is also important to realise that this life is not limited to our “faith” alone, but also embraces the Church’s spiritual and ethical witness and her liturgical life. Tradition represents the ‘one’ life of the Church and cannot be separated into faith, spiritual teaching and worship. The Apostle St Paul, writing to the Colossians (II: 6-7, says: “Just as you received (paralambano) Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in Him, rooted and built up in Him, strengthened in the faith, as you were taught.” And to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians IV: 1) he writes, “As ye have received (paralambano) of us how ye ought to walk and to please God” and “Keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received (paralambano) from us.” (2 Thessalonians III: 6) To the Philippians (IV: 9) he writes, “Whatever you have learned and received (paralambano) or heard from me, or seen in me, put it into practice.”

In the Christian tradition, faith is correlated with this spiritual and ethical life. The Mother of God is an archetype of the Church. She kept “The word of God in her heart”, not as a passive memory, but as the living word of God acting within her life. When the pagan Autolycus asked St Theophilus of Antioch in the second century, “Show me your God”, St Theophilus wisely replied, “Show me your man and I will show you my God” – in other words, show me your soundness of the inner man in your heart then you will be able to see God and I will show Him to you. Thus faith is correlated with our life.

Ecclesiastical tradition does not put the voice of the past in the place of the voice of the present: in it the past does not overwrite the present, but gives it full force. There is the paradox that tradition must be creative and at the same time, conservative. There is no contradiction between these two elements as they are essential and indispensable to each other. Tradition cannot be conserved unless it is continually developed; and it cannot be developed unless it stands on the shoulders of the past. “Conservatism” and “Development”, these two facets of the same process which we call Holy Tradition.

For all the Fathers, tradition is a total body of wisdom, not simply embracing truth that is necessary for salvation but the very secrets of creation as well. Knowledge about man and about the world, contributes to the better understanding of Scripture, for it comes from the same source as Scripture, from God.

The Orthodox Church seeks to testify in the spirit to the fullness of tradition; and tradition for her is the stream of spiritual life that has its source in the risen Christ, and from the apostolic revelation flows by way of the Fathers and councils down to the church today, the vital centre where it discloses the quickening activity of the risen Christ and His spirit.

            What I want to express, therefore, is that continuity in Christian thinking is not just standing at the other end of an historical time-line; it is also about drawing together the past, the present and the future as one, almost a concertina effect on time. Perhaps the events of Holy Week enable us grasp this concept. During Holy Week, as we trace the events of our Lord’s life through the Gospel accounts read in church, although living in this year of grace 2014, we can also – in a spiritual sense – be there at the Last Supper; we can stand in the crowd watching him hanging upon the cross (“When I survey the wondrous cross on which the prince of glory died”) and rejoice with the myrrh-bearing women at the proclamation of the angels that He is risen (“Jesus Christ is Risen today”). We proclaim Christ is risen, not Christ has risen because it has an immediacy, a relevance to the here and now. This is reinforced in the Orthodox service books which state, “Today the Lord of Glory …..” Yet also whenever we partake of the Holy Communion we are, by anticipation, caught up into the great Marriage Supper of the Lamb at the end of time: past, present and future converge in our personal encounter with the Lord.

Some of the fathers of the church, writing about Holy Tradition, liken it to a mighty river flowing through history. It moves onwards to fulfilment with an unstoppable force, it is vital and life-giving, it runs through different lands and diverse peoples but from its origin until it completes its course it is the same stream and its source is identical.  Writing in the nineteenth century, Cardinal Newman saw the church fathers as:

“In the flow of living Tradition that continues from the beginning of Christianity over the centuries up to our present time, they occupy an entirely special place which makes them stand out compared with other protagonists of the history of the Church. They laid down the first basic structures of the Church together with the doctrinal and pastoral positions that remain valid for all times.”[31]

Understood in this way we have moved from a static, backward-looking, stale repetition of the past into something which is dynamic, capable of energizing and transforming our present condition with a power of renewal. At the end of time Christ declares, “Behold I make all things new” (Revelation XXI: 5).

Abba Seraphim

[1] Epistle 73.

[2] “Scripture and Tradition in the New Testament” in F.F. Bruce & E.G. Rupp, Holy Book and Holy Tradition (Manchester: 19868), see also Tim Grass, F.F. Bruce. A Life (2011).

[3] Spiritu Sancto, 27.

[4] American Edition Luther’s Works (ed. Jaroslav Pelikan & Helmut T. Lehmann), Vol. 54, “Table Talk”, pp. 33-34.

[5] Luther’s Works, op.cit.,  no. 5677, p. 476.

[6] Father Professor Kondothra M. George, Holy Scripture: its use and misuse, Reformed-Oriental Orthodox Theologoical Dialogue, Amsterdam, September 1994.

[7] On the Soul and Resurrection (NPNF v. 439),

[8] XXXIX Articles of Religion, No. VI “Of the Sufficiency of the holy Scriptures for salvation”.

[9] XXXIX Articles, op.cit., No. XX “Of the Authority of the Church.”

[10] XXXIX Articles, op.cit., No. XXXIV “Of the Traditions of the Church.”

[11] Cyril Garbett, The Claims of the Church of England (London: 1947), p. 23.

[12] John Jewel, Apology of the Church of England, (1562), part II.

[13] Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book V, 8:2; Folger Edition 2:39,8-14

[14] George Park Fisher, Hubert Cunliffe-Jones (editors), Benjamin Drewery (assistant ed.), A History of Christian Doctrine: International Library Series (T.& T. Clark, Edinburgh: 1978), p. 361.

[15] Colossians II: 8.

[16] Doug Focht, Jr., “Religion and the Bible”, Growing in Grace, Vol. 1 #1, May 5, 1996.

[17] The Commonitory, chapter 25.

[18] The Commonitory, chapter 27.

[19] Ad Constantium Augustum, 2, 9

[20] G. Florovsky, “The Function of Tradition in the Ancient Church”,  The  Greek Orthodox Theological Review (IX.2. 1963).

[21] G. Florovsky, op. cit.

[22] Jerome, Commentary on Galatians I, 1. 2 (PL 26, 386).

[23] 2 Peter III: 15-16.

[24] Matthew XIX: 6.

[25] Fr. Tadros Malaty, The Orthodox Concept: Tradition & Orthodoxy (Alexandria: 1979).

[26] Jordan Bajis, Common Ground. An Introduction of Eastern Christianity for the American Christian, (1996), p.68.

[27] Georges Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View (1972), p. 47.

[28] Sergius Bulgakov, “The Church as Tradition – The Nature of Church Tradition”, The Orthodox Church (London: 1935), p. 38.

[29] Fr. Tadros Malaty, op.cit.

[30] Vladimir Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God (1985), pp. 141-168.

[31] Congregation for Catholic Education, “Instruction on the study of the Fathers of the Church in the formation of priests, 10 November 1989, published in L’Osservatore Romano (English edition), 15 January 1990, No. 18.

1 of 1