Tradition in the Orthodox Church
George Bebis, Ph.D.
Terminology and Meaning.
The term "tradition" comes from the Latin traditio, but the Greek term is paradosis and the verb is paradido.It means giving, offering, delivering, performing charity. In theological terms it means any teaching or practice which has been transmitted from generation to generation throughout the life of the Church. More exactly, paradosis is the very life of the Holy Trinity as it has been revealed by Christ Himself and testified by the Holy Spirit.
The roots and the foundations of this sacred tradition can be found in the Scriptures. For it is only in the Scriptures that we can see and live the presence of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. St. John the Evangelist speaks about the manifestation of the Holy Trinity:
"For the Life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us" (1 John 1:2).
The essence of Christian tradition is described by St. Paul, who writes:
"But now in Christ Jesus, you that used to be so far apart from us have been brought very close, by the blood of Christ. For He is peace between us, and has made the two into one and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart, actually destroying in His own person the hostility caused by the rules and decrees of the Law. This was to create one single man in Himself out of the two of them and by restoring peace through the Cross, to unite them both in a single body and reconcile them with God. In His own person He killed the hostility... Through Him, both of us have in one Spirit our way to come to the Father" (Ephes. 2:13-14).
He also makes clear that this Trinitarian doctrine must be accepted by all Christians:
"If any man preach any other gospel to you than you have received (parelavete) let him be condemned" (Gal. 1:8-9).
Speaking about the Holy Eucharist, which is a manifestation of the Holy Trinity, he writes:
"For I have received (parelavon) of the Lord that which I also delivered to you" (paredoka) (1 Cor. 11:23).
Again speaking about the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, St. Paul writes:
"For I delivered to you (paredoka) first of all that which I also received" (parelavon).
Finally he admonishes:
"Brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions (tas paradoseis) which you have been taught, whether by word or our epistle" (2 Thessal. 2:15).
The sole source and cause and principle of the Trinitarian unity is the Father Himself (Ephes. 4:4-6).
The Apostolic Tradition.
Theologians call this teaching of the Scriptures "the Apostolic Tradition." It encompasses what the Apostles lived, saw, witnessed and later recorded in the books of the new Testament. The bishops and presbyters, whom the Apostles appointed as their successors, followed their teaching to the letter. Those who deviated from this apostolic teaching were cut off from the Church. They were considered heretics and schismatics, for they believed differently from the Apostles and their successors, thus separating themselves from the Church. This brings into focus the Church as the center of unity of all Christians. This is the ecclesiastical or ecclesiological characteristic of Tradition. The Church is the image and reflection of the Holy Trinity since the three persons of the Holy Trinity live, indwell, and act in the Church. The Father offers His love, the Son offers His obedience, the Holy Spirit His comfort. Only in the historical Church can we see, feel, and live the presence of the Holy Trinity in the World. In describing this reality St. Paul writes:
"So he came and proclaimed the good news: peace to you who were far off, and peace to those who were near by; for through him we both alike have access to the Father in the one Spirit. Thus you are no longer aliens in a foreign land, but fellow-citizens with God's people, members of God's household. You are built upon the foundation laid by the Apostles and prophets, and Christ Jesus Himself is the cornerstone. In him the whole building is bonded together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you too are being built with all the rest into a spiritual dwelling of God" (Ephes. 2:17-22).
The unity of the Holy Trinity, being the fundamental reality in the Church and of the Church, also requires a real unity among all its members. All the members of the Church live in the bond of love and unity through the Holy Trinity. This truth is described by St. Peter:
"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called you out of the darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were no people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy." (1 Peter 2: 9-10).
This Church was established as a historical reality on the day of Pentecost, with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles:
"While the day of Pentecost was running its course they were all together in one place, when suddenly there came from the sky a noise like that of a strong driving wind, which filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues like flames of fire, dispersed among them and resting on each one. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them power of utterance" (Acts 2: 1-4).
Only in this Church, where the Holy Trinity lives and acts constantly could the teaching of Christ, the very revelation of truth, as received and transmitted by the Apostles, abide and be sustained. Thus truth in its fullness does not exist outside the Church, for there is neither Scripture, nor Tradition. This is why St. Paul admonishes the Galatians that even if an angel from heaven preaches another gospel to them, he must be condemned:
"If any man preach any other gospel to you than that you have received (parelavete) let him be condemned" (1:8-9).
And he writes to his disciple Timothy to follow strictly the "precepts of our faith" and the "sound instructions" he received from him and avoid "godless myths" (1 Tim. 4: 4-7). He also admonishes the Colossians to avoid "merely human injunctions and teachings" (2: 22), and to follow Christ:
"Therefore, since Jesus was delivered to you as Christ and Lord, live your lives in union with Him. Be rooted in Him; be built in Him; be consolidated in the faith you were taught; let your hearts overflow with thankfulness. Be on your guard; do not let your minds be captured by hollow and delusive speculations, based on traditions of man-made teaching and centered on the elemental spirits of the universe and not on Christ. For it is in Christ that the complete being of the Godhead dwells embodied, and in Him you have been brought to completion" (Col. 2: 6-8).
This teaching or Apostolic Tradition was transmitted from the Apostles themselves to their successors, the bishops and the presbyters. St. Clement, Bishop of Rome (second century A.D.), and probably a disciple of the Apostles himself, described this historical truth:
"The Apostles preached to us the Gospel received from Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ was God's Ambassador. Christ, in other words, comes with a message from God, and the Apostles with a message from Christ. Both these orderly arrangements, therefore, originate from the will of God. And so, after receiving their instructions and being fully assured through the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, as well as confirmed in faith by the word of God, they went forth, equipped with the fullness of the Holy Spirit, to preach the good news that the Kingdom of God was close at hand. From land to land, accordingly, and from city to city they preached; and from among their earliest converts appointed men whom they had tested by the Spirit to act as bishops and deacons for the future believers" (Letter to the Corinthians, ch. 42).
One can clearly see how the message of salvation originating from God the Father was taught by Jesus Christ, witnessed to by the Holy Spirit, preached by the Apostles and was transmitted by them to the Church through the clergy they themselves appointed. This became the "unerring tradition of the Apostolic preaching" as it was expressed by Eusebius of Caesarea, bishop of the fourth century, who is considered the "father" of Church History (Church History, IV, 8).
The Patristic Tradition.
From what has been said so far, it can be seen that there is no theological distinctions or differences or divisions within the Tradition of the Church. It could be said that Tradition, as an historical event, begins with the Apostolic preaching and is found in Scriptures, but it is kept, treasured, interpreted, and explained to the Church by the Holy Fathers, the successors of the Apostles. Using the Greek term Pateres tes Ecclesias, the Fathers of the Church, this "interpretive" part of the Apostolic preaching is called "Patristic Tradition."
The Fathers, men of extraordinary holiness and trusted orthodoxy in doctrine, enjoyed the acceptance and respect of the universal Church by witnessing the message of the Gospel, living and explaining it to posterity. Thus, Apostolic Preaching or Tradition is organically associated with the Patristic Tradition and vice versa. This point must be stressed since many theologians in the Western churches either distinguish between Apostolic Tradition and Patristic Tradition, or completely reject Patristic Tradition.
For the Orthodox Christian, there is one Tradition, the Tradition of the Church, incorporating the Scriptures and the teaching of the Fathers. This is "the preaching of the truth handed down by the Church in the whole world to Her children" (St. Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, 98). St. Athanasius, the Great "Pillar of Orthodoxy," who was bishop of Alexandria during the fourth century, gives the most appropriate definition of the Church's Tradition:
"Let us look at the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the catholic Church from the very beginning, which the Logos gave (edoken), the Apostles preached (ekeryxan), and the Fathers preserved (ephylaxan). Upon this the Church is founded (tethemeliotai)" (St. Athanasius, First Letter to Serapion, 28).
In retrospect, Tradition is founded upon the Holy Trinity, it constantly proclaims the Gospel of Christ, it is found within the boundaries of the Christian Church, and it is expounded by the Fathers.
Universality and Timelessness of Tradition.
Another characteristic still needs to be added, namely that the Tradition of the Church is universal in space and time. St. Vincent of Lerins, a bishop and writer in France during the fifth century, writes that "we must hold what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all" (Common, 2). Indeed, the Church with all her members, always, from the time of her inception until the end of time, accepts and teaches everywhere the redemptive work of Christ. This does not mean that the Church and Her Tradition move within numerical, geographical or chronological limits. The Church and Her Tradition, although they live in history, are beyond history. They have eternal value, because Christ, the Founder of the Church, has no beginning and no end. In other words, when the universality of the Church Tradition is mentioned, it refers to the gift of the Holy Spirit, which enables the Church to preserve until the end of time the Apostolic truth unadulterated, unbroken, and unaltered. This is true because Tradition expresses the common Orthodox mind (phronema) of the whole Church against all heresies and schisms of all times.
It is important to emphasize both the temporality as well as the timelessness, two fundamental aspects of Holy Tradition. The late Fr. Georges Florovsky wrote that:
"Tradition is not a principle striving to restore the past, using the past as a criterion for the present. Such a conception of tradition is rejected by history itself and by the consciousness of the Orthodox Church... Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit and not only the memory of words. Tradition is a charismatic, not a historical event" ("The Catholicity of the Church" in Bible, Church, Tradition, p. 47).
In other words, Tradition is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a living experience, which is relived and renewed through time. It is the true faith, which is revealed by the Holy Spirit to the true people of God.
Tradition, therefore, cannot be reduced to a mere enumeration of quotations from the Scriptures or from the Fathers. It is the fruit of the incarnation of the Word of God, His crucifixion and resurrection as well as His ascension, all of which took place in space and time. Tradition is an extension of the life of Christ into the life of the Church. According to St. Basil, it is the continuous presence of the Holy Spirit:
"Through the Holy Spirit comes our restoration to paradise, our ascension into the kingdom of heaven, our return as adopted sons, our liberty to call God our Father, our being made partakers of the grace of Christ, our being called children of light, our sharing in eternal glory, and, in a word, our being brought into a state of a 'fullness of blessing' (Rom. 15: 29), both in this world and in the world to come..." (St. Basil of Caesaria, On the Holy Spirit, XV.).
Tradition and traditions.
This description by St. Basil gives the true "existential" dimensions of the Holy Tradition of the Church. For the Orthodox, therefore, Tradition is not a static set of dogmatic precepts, or the uniform practices of the liturgical ritual of the Church. Although Church Tradition includes both doctrinal and liturgical formulas and practices, it is more properly the metamorphosis, the continuous transfiguration of the people of God, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit, as experienced in the daily life of the Church. This does not mean that Tradition is something abstract and theoretical or that it ignores the daily needs of human nature. On the contrary, the "rule of faith" becomes every day the "rule of worship." Doctrine, prayer, moral guidance, and liturgical practices are indispensable parts of Holy Tradition. Some theologians speak about traditions with a small "t," as being the written or unwritten practices of the daily Christian life, in contrast with Tradition with capital "T," which encompasses the basic doctrines of revelation and our salvation in Christ.
This type of distinction is rather misleading. Tradition and traditions are the integral parts of the life of the Church and they express the totality of the Christian way of life which leads to salvation. The doctrine of incarnation, the historical truth of the crucifixion and resurrection, the Eucharist, the sign of the cross, the threefold immersion in the baptismal font, the honor and respect due to the Virgin Mary and to the saints of the Church, are all important for the Christian, who wants to find himself in the "perimeter" of salvation in Christ. This is what the Church has taught through the centuries. "Therefore we must consider the Tradition of the Church trustworthy," St. John Chrysostom writes, "it is Tradition, seek no more" (Second Letter to Thessal.: Homily).
The Ecumenical Councils.
As has already been noted, the authority, the power, and the impact of Tradition are found in the Scriptures and the Patristic teaching as a total and unified expression of the revelation of the Holy Trinity in the world. Christ, as the ultimate and supreme Teacher, Shepherd and King, exercises His authority in the Holy Spirit through the Apostles and their successors. The Apostles, their successors and the whole people of God are the Body of Christ extending throughout the ages. "There is no private teaching save the common doctrine of the Catholic Church," wrote St. Maximos the Confessor (seventh century; Migne PG, 90, 120C). In the reply to Pope Pius IX in 1848, the Eastern Patriarchs wrote that "the Defender of the faith is the very Body of the Church, that is the people, who want their faith kept constantly unvarying and in agreement with the Fathers." Thus the clergy and the laity are both responsible for the preservation of the authentic and genuine Holy Tradition in and through the life of the Church. In this context, particularly, the Ecumenical Councils of the Church, and more generally, the Local Councils of the Church are of great importance. The first Council Synod of the Church was the Apostolic Synod, which took place in Jerusalem in 51 A.D. Later, bishops used to meet either locally, or on the "ecumenical" or universal, the all-encompassing level of the universal Christian empire, the oikoumene, in order to discuss and solve serious dogmatic and canonical issues which had arisen.
The Orthodox Church accepts the following seven Ecumenical Councils:
- The Council of Nicea in 325, which discussed and condemned Arianism.
- The Council of Constantinople in 381 which principally condemned Apollinarianism.
- The Council of Ephesus in 431, which condemned Nestorianism.
- The Council of Chalcedon in 451, which condemned Monophysitism.
- The Second Council of Constantinople, in 553, which condemned Origen and other heretics.
- The Third Council of Constantinople in 680-81, which condemned Monothelitism.
- The Second Council of Nicea, in 787, which condemned Iconoclasm.
The Orthodox Church also assigns ecumenical status to The Council in Trullo in 692, which took place in Constantinople. Eastern bishops took part in it, and they passed disciplinary canons to complete the work of the Fifth and the Sixth Ecumenical Councils and, thus, it is known as the Fifth-Sixth (Quinisext or Penthekti).
These Ecumenical Councils became instruments for formulating the dogmatic teachings of the Church, for fighting against heresies and schisms and promoting the common and unifying Tradition of the Church which secures her unity in the bond of love and faith. Although convened by the emperors, the Church Fathers who participated came from almost all the local dioceses of the Roman Empire, thus expressing the faith and practice of the Universal Church. Their decisions have been accepted by the clergy and the laity of all times, making their validity indisputable. The Fathers followed the Scriptures as well as the Apostolic and Patristic Tradition in general, meeting under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. St. Constantine the Great, who convened the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea, wrote that:
"... the resolution of the three hundred holy bishops is nothing else than that the determination of the Son of God, especially of the Holy Spirit, pressing upon the minds of such great men brought to light the divine purpose." (Socrates, Church History, 1:9).
In the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, it was stated that:
"The Fathers defined everything perfectly; he who goes against this is anathema; no one adds, no one takes away" (Acta Concil. II, 1).
Sabas, the bishop of Paltus in Syria in the fifth century, speaking about the Council of Nicea said:
"Our Fathers who met at Nicea did not make their declarations of themselves but spoke as the Holy Spirit dictated."
"Following the Fathers" becomes a fixed expression in the minutes and the declarations of the Ecumenical Councils as well as of the local ones. Thus, the Ecumenical Councils and also some local councils, which later received universal acceptance, express the infallible teaching of the Church, a teaching which is irrevocable.
Are the Ecumenical Councils of the Church the only infallible and correct instruments in proclaiming and implementing the faith of the Church? Certainly, no bishops by themselves, no local churches, no theologians can teach the faith by themselves alone. The Ecumenical Councils are among the most important means which inscribe, proclaim, and implement the faith of the Church, but only in conjunction with Scripture, and the Tradition. The Ecumenical Councils are an integral part of the ongoing Tradition of the Church. Thus, the Orthodox Church claims that she has kept intact the faith of the first seven Ecumenical Councils.
Other Councils and Confessions of Faith.
There are also other means of re-affirming the universality of the Orthodox faith. There are, for instance, Councils which were convened during the fourteenth century in Constantinople dealing with the Palamite controversy, that is, the teaching of Gregory Palamas concerning the distinction between divine essence and divine energy. These councils are accepted as having ecumenical status. There are the writings and Confessions of Faith written by great teachers of the Church during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Examples might include the letter of Mark of Ephesus (1440-1441) to all Orthodox Christians; the correspondence of Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople with the German Reformers (1573-1581); the council of Jerusalem (1672) and the Confession of Faith by Patriarch Dositheos of Jerusalem (1672), and the writings of St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, who published the Rudder, a book of great canonical and theological importance (1800). Also to be included are the encyclical letters of the Ecumenical patriarchate and the other Orthodox patriarchates dealing with important and significant issues of the Church. A collection of most of these Orthodox documents with ecumenical importance has been made and published by Professor John Karmires, a distinguished Orthodox theologian in Greece. There is still no English translation of this important collection.
In sum, the Ecumenical Councils, together with the Scriptures and the Patristic writings, are the universal voice of the Church. The position of the Ecumenical Councils in the Church and their universal authority is enhanced by the fact that they issued not only dogmatic definitions of faith, but also formulated important canons of the Church which concern Orthodox spiritual life and help the individual in the growth of his life in Christ. Not all these canons have the same value today as they had when first written; still, they are like compasses which direct our lives toward a Christian lifestyle and orient us towards a high spiritual level. Canons which concern our moral life, fasting, and Holy Communion are indeed important for our daily life as good Orthodox Christians.
The Living Tradition of the Eucharist.
It is interesting to emphasize another form of the Synodical system, which accentuates the importance of Tradition: the Eucharist itself. In the Eucharist, all Orthodox Christians meet together and in absolute agreement, in doctrine and practice witness the presence of the Holy Trinity on the altar of the Church. The bishop and the priest pray to God the Father to send the Holy Spirit and transform the bread and wine into the very body and blood of Christ. All the faithful present are called to receive Communion and become active members of the Body of Christ. In the liturgy, as it was instituted by the Lord Himself, the whole Church meets every day to proclaim and live the oneness and the unity of faith in Jesus Christ. In the Orthodox liturgy, we see all the history of Tradition embodied in the body and blood of Christ. St. Gregory Palamas writes the following in connection with the Holy Eucharist:
"We hold fast to all the Traditions of the Church, written and unwritten, and above all to the most mystical and sacred celebration and communion and assembly (synaxis), whereby all other rites are made perfect..." (Letter to Dionysius, 7).
This emphasis on the Eucharist shows that Tradition is a dynamic way of life unfolding continuously in the liturgical framework of the Church. By participating in the Eucharist, we proclaim our Tradition as living and active members of the Church.
Of course, to live according to the Traditions of the Orthodox Church, to participate, fully, in the life of Tradition is not an easy task. We need the imparting of the Holy Spirit, in order to live in a mystical and mysterious way the life of Christ. As St. Gregory Palamas wrote:
"All those dogmas which are now openly proclaimed in the Church and made known to all alike, were previously mysteries foreseen only by the prophets through the Spirit. In the same way the blessings promised to the saints in the age to come are at the present stage of the Gospel dispensation still mysteries, imparted to and foreseen by those whom the Spirit counts worthy, yet only in a partial way and in the form of a pledge" (Tomos of the Holy Mountain, Preface).
Thus, the Tradition of the Church is a living reality, which the Orthodox Christian must live daily in a mystical way. By adhering to the teaching of the Scriptures, the Ecumenical Councils, and the Patristic writings, by observing the canons of the Church, by frequently participating in the Eucharist, where Tradition becomes an empirical reality, we are members of the Body of Christ and are led to the "contemplation of God" to repeat a beautiful expression of St. Neilos (fifth century). St. Gregory Palamas, in summing up the Patristic doctrine of Christian life, suggests that the ultimate purpose of man's life is theoptia, that is, seeing God. (In Defense of the Hesychasts, 1, 3, 42) or to use St. Gregory of Nyssa's words, man's life is a strenuous and endless ascent towards God, that is, deification (theosis). (On the Life of Moses, ed. by W. Jaeger, 112ff.).
Orthodox Tradition, therefore, is not a dead letter, a collection of dogmas and practices of the past. It is the history of salvation. It is the life of the Holy Spirit, who constantly illuminates us in order for all Orthodox Christians to become sons and daughters of God, living in the Divine light of the All-blessed Trinity.
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING
G. Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View,Belmont, Mass., 1972.
V. Lossky, "Tradition and Traditions", in In The Image and Likeness of God, ed. J.H. Erickson and T.E. Bird, Crestwood, N.Y., 1974, pp. 141-168.
J. Meyendorff, "The Meaning of Tradition," in Living Tradition, pp. 13-26.
G.S. Bebis, "The Concept of Tradition in the Fathers of the Church," Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Spring 1970, Vol. XV, No. 1, pp. 22-55.
C. Scouteris, "Paradosis: The Orthodox Understanding of Tradition," Sobornost-Eastern Churches Review, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 30-37.