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Saturday, January 17, 2009

What do we mean by Tradition?

The Metropolitan Timothy(Kallistos) Ware:
""Orthodox are always talking about Tradition. What do they mean by the word? A tradition is commonly understood to signify an opinion, belief or custom handed down from ancestors to posterity. Christian tradition in that case, is the faith and practice which Jesus Christ imparted to the Apostles, and which since the Apostles' time has been handed down from generation in the Church. But to an Orthodox Christian, Tradition means something more concrete and specific than this. It means the books of the Bible; it means the Creed; it means the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Fathers; it means the Canons, the Service Books, the Holy Icons — in fact, the whole system of doctrine, Church government, worship, spirituality and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages. Orthodox Christian of today see themselves as heirs and guardians to a rich inheritance received from the past, and they believe that it is their duty to transmit this inheritance unimpaired to the future.

Note that the Bible forms a part of Tradition. Sometimes Tradition is defined as the oral teaching of Christ, not recorded in writing by His immediate disciples. Not only non-Orthodox but many Orthodox writers have adopted this way of speaking, treating Scripture and tradition as two different things, two distinct sources of the Christian faith. But in reality there is only one source, since Scripture exists within Tradition. to separate and contrast the two is to impoverish the idea of both alike.
Orthodox, while reverencing this inheritance from the past, are also well aware that not everything received from the past is of equal value. Among the various elements of Tradition, a unique pre-eminence belongs to the Bible, to the Creed, to the doctrinal definitions of the Ecumenical Councils: these things the Orthodox accept as something absolute and unchanging, something which cannot be cancelled or revised. The other parts of Tradition do not have quite the same authority. The decrees of Jassy or Jerusalem do not stand on the same level as the Nicene Creed, nor do the writings of an Athanasius, or a Symeon the New Theologian, occupy the same position as the Gospel of St. John.
Not everything received from the past is of equal value, nor is everything received from the past necessarily true. As one of the bishops remarked at the Council of Carthage in 257: 'The Lord said, I am truth. He did not say, I am custom.' There is a difference between 'Tradition' and traditions': many traditions which the past has handed down are human and accidental- pious opinions (or worse), but not a true part of the one Tradition, the fundamental Christian message.
pages 196-197 [1]

"The Bible and the Church. The Christian Church is a Scriptural Church: Orthodoxy believes this just as firmly, if not more firmly, than Protestantism. The Bible is the supreme expression of God's revelation to the human race, and Christians must always be 'people of the Book'. But if Christians are People of the Book, the Bible is the Book of the People; it must not be regarded as something set up over the Church, but as something that lives and is understood within the Church (that is why one should not separate Scripture and Tradition). It is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority, for it was the Church which originally decided which books form a part of Holy Scripture; and it is the Church alone which can interpret Holy Scripture with Authority. There are many sayings in the Bible which by themselves are far from clear, and individual readers, however sincere, are in danger of error, and individual readers, however sincere, are in danger of error if they trust their own personal interpretation. 'Do you understand what you are reading? Philop asked the Ethiopian eunuch; and the eunuch replied, 'How can I, unless someone guides me?' (Acts viii, 30-I). Orthodox, when they read the Scripture, accept the guidance of the Church. When received into the Orthodox Church, a convert promises, 'I will accept and understand Holy Scripture in accordance with the interpretation which was and is held by the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church of the East, our Mother.'" pages 199-200 [2]

Clark Carlton:
"Furthermore, the Orthodox Church has never accepted the Roman Catholic assertion that there are two sources of authority. The Church recognizes one and only one source of Authority for Her faith and practice: the apostolic tradition. The Divine Scriptures are part-albeit the most important part-of the tradition. To set Scriptures up as something over and apart from tradition is to have the tail wagging the dog." pages 135-136 [3]

Anthony M. Coniaris:
"Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos, Professor of New Testament at Holy Cross School of Theodore Stylianopoulos, Professor of New Testament at Holy Cross School of Theology, asks us to look upon the Bible as a record of truth and not truth itself. He writes, ''. . . there emerged in Orthodox tradition the position that the Bible is the record of truth, not the truth itself. . . According to the Church Fathers, the truth itself is God alone." Such an approach to the Bible according to Fr. Stylianopoulos leaves room for "other records of the experience of God, such as the writings of the Church Fathers, the liturgical forms and texts, and the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. It rescues the Church from an exclusive focus on the Bible. . .and thus guards Orthodox life from the error of idolatrous veneration of the text of Scripture (bibliolatry)." In other words, God kept on talking even after His book had gone to press. This is what Sacred Tradition is all about. Even though the Orthodox Church distingushes between record and truth, and esteems also other records of the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, "the Bible still remains the primary record in the theological tradition and worship of the Church. . .The main source of patristic theology is Holy Scripture. . . No other treasure in the tradition of the Church equals the accessibilty, value and authority of the Bible. . .The Orthodox Church does not have a fundamentalist but it does have a fundamental view of the sanctity and authority of the Bible."" [4] page 155

"Since the Bible was written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it is the Holy Spirit abiding in the Church who is the Proper Interpreter of the Bible. The Church, in other words, is the custodian, the caretaker, the interpreter of the Bible. It is the Holy Spirit abiding in the Church Who has guided, and continues to guide, the Church through the centuries to the proper interpretation of the Scriptures." [5] page 156


"Sacred Tradition plays an important role in the interpretation of Scripture. By Sacred Tradition we mean, "the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church" (Vladimir Lossky). The Holy Spirit has been abiding in the Church since Pentecost guiding it to all truth, i.e., to the proper interpretation of Scripture. The Orthodox Church does not ignore what the Spirit has taught in the past regarding Scripture. On the contrary, it treasures this revelation which comes to us through the Church Fathers and the Councils of the Church. Thus Scripture and Tradition belong together. Both came from the same source: the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Because of this, we believe that the Bible needs Sacred Tradition as the living interpreter of God's word, just as Sacred Tradition needs the Bible as its anchor and foundation. Those who deny Sacred Tradition replace the entire 2000 period of the life and work of the Holy Spirit in the Church with one person's interpretation of Scripture, ........(I skipped a few lines).......We read the Bible not as indivduals but as members of God's Church. The whole Church reads it with us and we read it with the whole Church.
Fr. Kallistos Ware writes, "....we do not read the Bible as isolated individuals, interpreting it solely by the light of our private understanding. . .We read it as members of the Church, in communion with all the other members throughout the ages. The final criterion for our interpretation of Scripture is the mind of the Church. And this means keeping constantly in view how the meaning of Scripture is explained and applied in Holy Tradition: that is to say, how the Bible is understood by the Fathers and the saints, and how it is used in liturgical worship."
[6] page 157

The Protestant evangelical scholar Daniel B. Clendenin:
The Primacy of Holy Scripture
"In general we can say that for Orthodoxy the Spirit speaks to the church through the gospel tradition (paradosis), this tradition being defined as a living and authentic continuity with the apostolic past. "The Apostolic Tradition is the gospel, the word and event of salvation, entrusted by Jesus to His disciples who received the authority to proclaim it to the world." Paul transmitted this paradosis to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:2, 23; 15:3), and referred to it on three occasions as an entrusted deposit which the church must guard (1 Tim. 6:20; Tim. 1:12, 14). Whatever authority or criteria of truth the church possesses resides in its fidelity to this original apostolic paradosis. In a comprehensive sense the apostolic tradition finds expression in any number of external forms, all of which are means used by the indwelling Spirit. Timothy Ware, for example, lists seven: Scripture, the seven ecumenical councils, later councils and their dogmatic statements (Orthodoxy's so-called symbolic books), the Fathers, liturgy, canon law, and icons. These external forms constitute an organic whole, and it is only for discussion's sake that we treat them separately. For convenience we can think of them as tradition that is both written (Scripture) and unwritten (extracanonical sources) or, to use a common distinction, written Scripture and oral tradition.

Not all the external forms of the Spirit's witness are of the same nature or value. Tradition is uniquely expressed in our present canon of written Scripture. Although Orthodoxy refuses to consider Scripture apart from the broader context of other forms of tradition, and does not limit authoritative tradition to the biblical canon, it nevertheless accords a unique status to the Bible. Liturgically, this can be seen not merely in Orthodoxy's intense veneration of holy Scripture (the elevating, incensing, and kissing of the Bible, and its being given the primary place of honar in various processions), but especially in the rich biblical content of the liturgy itself. Doctrinally, and contrary to a common Protestant misunderstanding, Orthodoxy does not endorse a "doctrine of homogenized and unstratified authority," but instead "affirms unequivocally the primary position of Scripture."
[7] pages 108-109


The Necessity of Holy Tradition
"While the apostolic deposit finds unique articulation in the written tradition of canonical Scripture, it is not confined or limited to the biblical text, but finds fuller expression in extracanonical tradition. Written Scripture is primary but not exclusive; the tradition of the councils and the Fathers are indispensable for a number of reasons. First, both the church itself and the apostolic kerygma existed for nearly three centuries before the ecumenical councils and the establishment of the scriptural canon. In the Acts of the Apostles the precanonical "word of God" that the apostles preached about Jesus continues to grow and flourish, and even seems to be equated with the church itself (Acts 12:24; 19:20). We also know that Jesus did many things that were never written down (John 20:30-31;25), and that Paul urged the early Christians to accept (John 20:30-31;21:25), and that Paul urged the early Christians to accept both the written and unwritten apostolic paradosis that he passed on to them (2 Thess. 2:15; 1 Cor 11:2). The oral message preached to the Thessalonians was rightly received by them as "the word of God" (1 Thess. 2:13; cf. Col. 1:25 and 3:16). Oral tradition is thus a necessary complement or supplement to written Scripture, for the gospel kerygma is not exactly contiguous with the canon of Scripture.

Second, Orthodoxy would insist that nobody operates with a clean slate, a tabula rasa, and, accordingly, noncanonical traditions are a practical and hermeneutical inevitability. Although someone might claim to interpret the Scripture de novo in principle, in practice we all read the text not only with theological or denominational presuppositions, but also through the space time prisms of our individual cultures and experiences. Furthermore, even if a neutral reading were possible, it would hardly be desirable because it would likely lead to arbitrary and errant understandings of the text. Thus it becomes all the more important tolocate oneself within the apostolic oral tradition that serves as a hermeneutical context for written Scripture. Third, liturgical precedent also reveals the importance of noncanonical tradition. We saw in the last chapter that when defending the use of icons, both John of Damascus and Theodore the Studite based their cases squarely on the importance of extrabiblical liturgical tradition. According to Orthodoxy, there are many similar aspects of the life and liturgy of the church that, while not explicitly contained in or demanded by Scripture, are of undisputed significance to believers. Pertinent here is a celebrated passage from Basil's On the Holy Spirit. In defending the deity of the Holy Spirit, Basil appealed to the fact that widely used doxologies of the church confessed, "Glory to the Father and to the Son with the Spirit." While the preposition with was not found in Scripture, it had all the weight of liturgical precedent, which Basil was of enormous significance: "Concerning the teachings of the Church, we have received some from written sources, while others have been given to us secretly, through apostolic tradition. Both sources have equal force in true in true religion. No one would deny either source-no one, at any rate, who is even slightly familiar with the ordinances of the Church. If we attacked unwritten customs, claiming them to be of little importance, we would fatally mutilate the Gospel, no matter what our intentions-or rather, we would reduce the Gospel teachings to bare words." Basil goes on to list some of the uncontested ancient liturgical customs of the church: certain baptismal practices, and the renunciation of Satan and his angels. For Basil, not only are certain liturgical traditions of great importance, "they are indispensable for the preservation of right faith." Tertullian had made the same point, in a similar manner, more than a century earlier. Citing important liturgical practices such as the renunciation of the devil at baptism, threefold immersion, celebration of the Eucharist early in the morning and only by a bishop, prayers for the dead at the Eucharist, celebration of the Eucharist on the anniversary of the deaths of martyrs, abstinence from fasting and from praying in a kneeling position on Sundays, prevention of any part of the bread and wine from falling onto the ground, and other such practices, Tertullian remarks: :If you demand a biblical rule for these observances and others of the same sort, you will find none written. Tradition will be alleged to you as the authority and custom to support them and faith to practice them. You yourself will either see the reason which supports the tradition and the custom and the faith, or you will learn it from someone who will have seen it. Meanwhile you will believe it to be not lacking in authority to which to which obedience should be owed." In short, in Basil and Terullian we see a practical example in which the lex orandi defines the lex credendi. Unless we wish to denude and mutilate the apostolic tradition, according to Basil and Tertullian, we will accept the authority of the liturgical precedent, even though it is not contained in Scripture alone.

Fourth, the necessity of the extrabiblical tradition finds broad-based support in the theological methodologies of any number of early fathers, a fact which is of no small significance for Orthodoxy. Tertullian invoked the "rule of the faith" and Irenaeus the "canon of truth" against the heretics of their day. Athanasius, the champion of Nicene orthodoxy, had to defend the council against the Arian charge that its conclusions (specifically the term homoousios) were innoations. He was nevertheless thoroughly apostolic. In contending against the Arians, who wished to limit the argument to Scripture alone, Athanasius appealed to the larger "scope" (skopos) or "rule" (kanon) of faith, the tradition and teaching of the catholic church. The stalwart defender of orthodoxy, Ephiphanius, noted that some elements of the apostolic faith were "delivered to us through the Scriptures, the others through the Tradition delivered to us by the Holy Apostles." Chrysostom, commenting on 2 Thessalonians 2:15, pointed out that the apostles :did not deliver all things by epistle, but many things also unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other worthy of credit. Therefore let us think the Tradition of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a tradition; seek no farther." Augustine confessed that "I should not have believed the Gospel, if the authority of the Catholic Church had notmoved me." And so, according to Orthodoxy, when we appeal to the apostolic tradition outside of sola scriptura, we stand on the firm ground of the early patristic consensus and theological method. Of all the justification for invoking the extrabiblical apostolic tradition a hermeneutical necessity. Hilary of Poitiers noted that "Scripture is not in the reading but in the understanding," a sentiment repeated by Jerome, who rebuked certain heretics because, not having the help of the Holy Spirit, they turned the divine gospel into a human word: "We do not think that [the] Gospel consits of the words of Scripture but in its meaning........In this case Scripture is really usefull for the hearers when it is not spoken without Christ, nor is presented without the Fathers, and those who are preaching do not introduce it without the Holy Spirit." The problem of misunderstanding as a result of private interpreting and twisting of the Scripture exposes the inadequacy of reading the Bible alone and confirms the hermeneutical necessity of its larger patristic context. This is precisely the problem with heretics, as George Prestige so sptly observed: "Heretics showed that they could be as painstaking in their use of Scripture as the saints. The fact soon became obvious to any intelligent thinker that the principle of 'the Bible and the Bible only' provides no automatically secure basis for a religion that is to be genuinely Christian." Irenaeus and Vincent of Lerins made this point in special ways. Irenaeus employed two striking analogies. He compared heretics' treatment of Scripture to people who take a beautifully crafted mosaic of a king, rearrange the pieces to depict a dog or a fox, and then have the audacity to claim that their rearrangement is the authentic mosaic because it contains the original materials. Heretics are also like people who arbitrarily rearrange the poetry of Homer so that, while the verses themselves are original, the meaning has been grossly distorted. In other words, it is one thing to have at one's disposal the original material of Scripture, and quite another to us it properly. Only by adhereing to the apostolic tradition and the rule of truth will we avoid the hermeneutical distortions of heretics and not mistake foxes for kings or paltry paraphrases for the real Word.
When searching for a means to distinguish the true apostolic faith from heresy, Vincent of Lerins noted that while Scripture is "for all things complete and more than sufficient," even heretics appeal to Scripture. It seems, Vincent of Lerins noted that while Scripture is "for all things complete and more than sufficient," even heretics appeal to Scripture. It seems, Vincent observed, that "owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it with one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters". To "detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the catholic faith," we need the authority of tradition, specifically, "that which has believed everywhere, always, by all." This ecumenicity of time and space serves as a hermeneutical prism so that, in the words of Hilary and Jerome, we do not merely read the text but understand it rightly. For Vincent, as Florovsky notes, "Tradition was, in fact, the authentic interpretation of Scripture. And in this sense it was co-extensive with Scripture. Tradition was actually 'Scripture rightly understood.' And Scripture for St. Vincent was the only, primary, and ultimate canon of Christian truth."
[8] pages 110-113


[1]pages 196-197, [2]pages 199-200 from the book "The Orthodox Church: New Edition" by the Metro Timothy (Kallistos) Ware, Penguin books @ 1997

[3]pages 135-136 from the book "The Way" by Clark Carlton, Regina @ 1997

[4]page 155, [5]page 156, [6]page 157 from the book "Introducing the Orthodox Church: Its Faith and Life" by Anthony M. Coniaris @ 1982

[7]pages 108-109, [8]pages 110-113 from the book "Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A western Perspective" by Daniel B. Clendenin, BakerAcademic @ 2003


Tony said...

Thanks for posting this!

Jnorm said...



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