Not too long after I started attending my local Orthodox Church, I received push back from a few Evangelical Christians who took issue with the idea of Tradition. One person told me that I should quit thinking about tradition and accept Jesus “as my personal Lord and savior.” This was quite unsolicited and I was not even in a dialogue with him about Church or doctrine. Another gentleman said I should “run” out of the church as fast as possible because of our doctrine of baptism as recited in the Nicene Creed. And recently, a young lady felt compelled to explain that her tradition believes in a priesthood of all believers and not a specific ‘mediating’ priest.
These concepts and ideas all came from those whose beliefs regarding Christianity are strictly from their understanding of what the Bible teaches. The benefit to being challenged about the faith is that, at least in my case, it causes me to study more about the Church’s doctrines. While most evangelicals embrace only the Bible as a source of authority, Orthodox do understand Christianity through Tradition. The disconnect seems to come from the idea by evangelicals, and even some Orthodox, that Bible and Tradition are two separate sources to the Church. They are not. So, what is Tradition from an Orthodox standpoint?
One must first acknowledge the Church as it relates to the Christian life. And because we are relating the Church, Tradition, and Bible, we will use the Bible itself as basis for these teachings.
Christ Himself established the Church.
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” Matt 16:18
Christ did not say I build my Bible on this rock. He built the Church and the Church assembled writings from among Her leaders and chose which texts would comprise the Bible. The Church had many early Fathers and writers, but the leaders of the Church, the bishops, decided to assemble biblical texts from Apostolic writings. The Church still regards the other texts very highly, but the Biblical texts have always taken a place of primacy among the early teachings and writings. As far as I know, modern “Bible-based churches” have never challenged the early leaders’ choices for the writings that comprise the current assembly of biblical texts.
So Christ established the Church, chose its first leaders, and made a proclamation that it would not fall. It did not cease to exist for a thousand years at which point various persons could simply erect their own church bodies independent of the historic church on grounds that they are teaching Jesus through the Bible. The Bible itself has no precedent for this. In fact, the Church is the Body of Christ (Col 1:24).
“Christian Tradition is the faith and practice which Jesus Christ imparted to the Apostles, and which since the Apostles’ time has been handed down from generation to generation in the Church” (Kallistos Ware). The Bible is part of this Tradition, not independent of it. Tradition to Orthodox Christians incorporates the Bible, the Creed, the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, the writings of the Church Fathers, the Canons, the Service Books, and the Holy Icons. So Tradition does not only mean oral traditions that are not recorded in writing. The Orthodox Church IS a scriptural Church–it believes that the Bible is the supreme expression of God’s revelation to the human race, and Christians must always be people of the book. But the Bible is not ‘over’ the Church, it is understood within the Church–Tradition and Scripture are not separate. The Bible derives its authority from the Church– it was the Church that decided which books would comprise the Bible as we know it today. Naturally, the Church has authority to explain and interpret the the content of the Bible. There are many elements in the Scriptures which are not easily understandable in the least. Many feel that they can understand through divine inspiration. There are over 2,000 denominations of Protestant sects who think they know. They can’t all be right. Even the most sincere of readers is in danger of error when relying on his own interpretation. The Bible itself mentions both Tradition and the need for help to understand what is written in Scripture.
“So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thess 2:15)
“So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.” (Acts 8:30-31)
The Orthodox Church attributes great importance to the Bible and holds it central to her worship. The entire Psalter is recited each week through the Liturgical cycle, Matins, and Vespers–and twice per week during Great Lent. Additionally, the entire New Testament, minus Revelation, is read over the cycle of the Church’s year. According to one scholar, the Church uses 98 quotes from the Old Testament and 114 from the New Testament through the course of one Liturgical service.
Ecumenical Councils, one of which confirmed the content of the New Testament writings, and the Bible itself are the most important elements of Holy Tradition. In future blogs, I hope to address some of these other elements previously mentioned, and their place within the Church’s teachings.