Tradition in the Orthodox Church
|by George S. Bebis PH.D.|
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.
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:
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). [Back to top]
The Apostolic Tradition
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:
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).
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:
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
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).
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).
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
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).
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:
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).
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). [Back to top]
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
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.
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:
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.
[Back to top]
Universality and Timelessness of Tradition
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:
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.
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:
[Back to top]
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
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.|
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). [Back to top]
The Ecumenical Councils
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.
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).
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."
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.
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. [Back to top]
Other Councils and Confessions of Faith
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.|
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. [Back to top]
The Living Tradition of the Eucharist
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
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).
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.
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:
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).
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.).
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.
[Back to top]