One of the distinctive characteristics of the Holy Orthodox Church is its living continuity with the ancient Church. This continuity may be summed up in one word: Tradition. As St. John of Damascus says, “We do not change the everlasting boundaries which our fathers have set1, but we keep the Tradition, just as we received it”2.

The biblical word paradosis literally means handing over — as a relay runner passes a baton to the next runner. Scripture uses the word both negatively, to rebuke the Pharisees for adding to the commands of God, and positively, referring to the teaching and order given to the Church by Christ through the apostles. Saint Paul wrotes. “Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you3 …Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.4 …But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us.5

To an Orthodox Christian, Tradition means above all the Holy 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, etc. In essence, it means the whole body of doctrine, ecclesiastical government, worship and art which the Church has received from the apostles and articulated over the ages6.

Orthodoxy does not artificially set up Scripture as opposed to Tradition. The Holy Bible is an intergal part of the Tradition received from the apostles. It does not lie outside of Tradition — rather it is the foundation and plumbline of the Tradition. It is squarely in the middle of this apostolic deposit of faith that the Bible was written, preserved, and interpreted.

There is a distinction to be made between the Tradition and traditions or customs. The holy Scriptures, the Creed, and the doctrinal definitions of the universal Church hold primary place. Local variations in culture are natural since the Church transcends national and ethnic boundaries. At the Council of Carthage in 257, one of the bishops remarked, “The Lord said, ‘I am Truth.’ He did not say, ‘I am custom’”7.

Orthodox loyalty to Tradition is not something mechanical or lifeless. Tradition is a personal encounter with Christ in the Holy Spirit, as Bishop Kallistos affirms: “Tradition is not only kept by the Church — it lives in the Church, it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church”8. Thus Tradition must be seen and experienced from within. Tradition is a living experience of the Holy Spirit in the present. While inwardly unchanging (since God does not change), Tradition at times develops new outward forms, supplementing the old, but not superceding it.

The Lord tells us that “when the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth,”9 and this promise forms the basis of Orthodox respect for Holy Tradition. Thus, as Fr. Georges Florovsky expresses this idea:

Tradition is the witness of the Spirit; the Spirit’s unceasing revelation and preaching of good things. To accept and understand Tradition we must live within the Church, we must be conscious of the grace-giving presence of the Lord in it; we must feel the breath of the Holy [Spirit] in it. Tradition is not only a protective, conservative principle; it is, primarily, the principle of growth and regeneration. Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit and not only the memory of words 10.

Abridged from These Truths We Hold — The Holy Orthodox Church: Her Life and Teachings. Compiled and Edited by A Monk of St. Tikhon’s Monastery. ©1986 by the St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, South Canaan, Pennsylvania 18459.

Notes

  1. Proverbs 22:28
  2. On the Holy Icons, II, 12
  3. Bishop Kallistos (Ware), The Orthodox Church, p.204
  4. 1 Cor 11:2
  5. 2 Thessalonians 2:15
  6. 2 Thessalonians 3:6
  7. The Opinions of the Bishops on the Baptizing of Heretics, 30
  8. The Orthodox Church, p.206
  9. John 16:13
  10. “Sobornost: the Catholicity of the Church,” in The Church of God, pp. 64-5