HOLY TRADITIONHome > Spirituality > HOLY TRADITION
Again Magazine Volume 15, Number 3 September 1992 Page 13-17
Guardian of the Scriptures
By Fr. Gregory Rogers
True tradition is the result of the living witness of the Spirit in the Church, and will continue to develop and live
As long as the Church is infused with the Holy Spirit.
The word itself conjures up many different images to our minds. To Tevye, the venerable patriarch of Fiddler on the Roof, tradition represented nothing short of life itself. The very word evoked within him a profound sense of order and stability. For Tevye and his community, tradition provided a way of perpetuating values, defined the meaning of life, and offered a viable procedure for making decisions.
Sadly, for many Christians today the word tradition, when applied to their unique faith and heritage, evokes quite the opposite response. Some Christians even fear tradition, viewing it as something dangerous, something to be set in opposition to the Scriptures, much as Jesus Himself rejected the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees, accusing them saying: “laying aside the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8).
At the same time, particularly in this present political season, many Christians are quite vocal about the need for our nation to return to “traditional values.” Generally, this means the affirmation of family and societal values, including fidelity, responsibility, compassion, patriotism, and the search for peace, justice, and freedom. Interestingly, it is often the same group of Christians who vociferously denounce tradition on the one hand, yet proclaim loudly our need to return to “traditional” values on the other.
How should we as Christians view tradition in the experience of our Faith? How does it affect our understanding of Christian doctrine? Is tradition something to be rejected at any cost, something to be received with caution, or something to be appreciated and embraced wholeheartedly?
TRADITION IN THE SCRIPTURES
In actuality, the Scriptures themselves affirm the importance of tradition. Saint Paul applauds the faithfulness of the Corinthians saying, “Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions as I delivered them to you” (I Corinthians 11:2). The traditions in this context have to do with conduct in and around the Church’s worship.
In another context Saint Paul says, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (II Thessalonians 2:15). Both written and oral traditions are acknowledged here, and both are viewed as authoritative. The written tradition is, of course, the epistle of Paul; the oral, the teaching he made personally and that which is practiced in the community. There is no division between the life of the Church, the teachings of the Apostles, and the written Scripture. Each are essential to the fullness of life in the truth.
Tradition in the Scripture extends to moral conduct as well, and to the practice of discipline in the community. “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” (II Thessalonians 3:6).
Tradition in the teaching of the New Testament is really the work of the Spirit in the life of the Church. The Apostolic teaching is led by the Spirit, of Whom Jesus said, “He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). It is the milieu in which the people lived, the Apostles taught, the Church worshiped, and the Scriptures were written.
Unfortunately, many Protestant Christians seem to have the mistaken notion that the Scriptures were dropped from heaven as a constitutional blueprint for the organization and systematic theology of the Church. Quite the opposite is in fact true. The Scriptures were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the context of a living community, and they must be understood in the context of the life of that community. It is ”the Church of the living God,” the community of the Spirit, which is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (I Timothy 3:15).
ALIVE AND WELL IN GOD’S CHURCH
Scripture and tradition must therefore never be placed in opposition to one another. Rather, both are to be seen as the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. This is not to say that everything “traditional” is to be accepted without evaluation, application, and question. True tradition is the result of the living witness of the Spirit in the Church, and will continue to develop and live as long as the Church is infused with the Holy Spirit. The teaching and expression of the Church’s unchanging Faith has had to address different issues and questions in each era of her life and must be free to continue to do so. It is just as easy to kill tradition by fossilizing it as it is by ignoring it altogether.
The late Father John Meyendorff put it this way: “True tradition is always a living tradition. It changes while remaining always the same. It changes because it faces different situations, not because its essential content is modified. This content is not an abstract proposition; it is the Living Christ Himself, who said, ‘I am the Truth’” (Living Tradition, Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press).
The Lutheran scholar, Jaroslav Pelikan, states, ‘Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living” (The Vindication of Tradition, Yale University Press).
UNDERSTANDING THE BIBLE
One of the most important areas where we must involve the tradition of the Church is in the interpretation of the Scriptures themselves.
Many evangelicals hold that the highest authority is the person standing alone with the Bible in hand. The interpretation of Scripture is then left to the individual; it means what it means to me. There are at least two major problems with this viewpoint: it isn’t scriptural, and it doesn’t work!
The Scriptures themselves teach that they are not subject to the whims of private interpretation. Listen to the words of the Apostle Peter.”.. .knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Peter 1:20-21). God had a message that He intended to communicate through the Scriptures, and it is not subject to the individual ideas of every interpreter.
The responsibility of the interpreter is to discern what God is saying to His people. This must be consistent with what He has said to His people throughout history. I am highly suspicious of any interpretation of Scripture that is “original”—an approach that no one ever thought of before now. If the Faith has been “once for all delivered to the saints,” true Christianity in our time will be consistent with how it has been understood and lived throughout the centuries.
Practically speaking, private interpretation of Scripture has proven to be a complete failure in the Protestant Church. In America there are over 2600 groups of Christians all claiming that their interpretation of the Scriptures is correct. If private interpretation worked, it would build the unity of the people of God, and there would be no such multiplicity of sects.
I myself was raised in the Christian Church/Church of Christ, a group founded on the promise that Christian unity would be had by doing away with ecclesiastical governing structures and returning to a pure, simple, and honest reading of the Bible. After a promising beginning on the American frontier of the nineteenth century, the group fragmented into three major divisions and many minor divisions, all on issues involving the interpretation of Scripture and the authority of one interpretation over another. In fact, a simple appeal to the Scriptures cannot always provide satisfactory answers to the heresies of non-Christian cults, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who also appeal to their private understanding of the teaching of the Scriptures.
THE MYTH OF OBJECTIVITY
It is also important to note that no interpretation of Scripture stands outside of tradition. To begin with, it is the tradition of the Church which tells us which books are canonical and authoritative. The canon itself developed out of the experience of the Church.
Secondly, every translation is an interpretation in and of itself. No language can be translated literally to another, meanings must be derived and conveyed as accurately as possible. This involves interpretative judgement on the part of the translator. One need note only the differences between the main English versions of the Scriptures to see this. For one extreme example, note the slants given in translation by the Jehovah’s Witnesses in their New World Translation. Bias is evident in the choices made. So even when one reads the Scriptures in English, one is already participating in the transmission of a traditional interpretation of Scripture.
Most Protestant Churches have actually developed a very long-standing tradition of their own—the tradition of not having respect for tradition! Further, they have developed traditional doctrinal positions on sacraments, creeds, salvation, Christology, ecclesiology, and every other issue. Each Protestant sect takes a different traditional position. Baptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists, and so on, all differ in their traditional approaches to these issues. So it really is not a question of tradition or no tradition, but which tradition?
A FIFTH CENTURY CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
So how are we to understand the Scriptures? How are we to tell the true interpretations from the false? How are we to decide between the various ”traditional” approaches to Scripture?
One of the best approaches to the interpretation of Scripture was outlined long ago by a fifth century Christian named Vincent, while living on the island of Lerins off the coast of modern France. In his famous work, The Commonitories (meaning “Memoranda” or “Reminders”), Saint Vincent offers the following sage advice concerning the proper interpretation of Scripture:
“Within the Church itself, we must take all possible care to hold that Faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. . . This rule is what we will be following if we hold to universality, antiquity, and consent” (Commonitories, II, 6).
Let’s look more closely at these criteria of interpretation.
1) EVERYWHERE. By the first criteria, that of universality, Saint Vincent means that the Faith which is to be believed is that which is held universally throughout the Christian world, not just in one place or one time. If one small group holds something against the rest of the Church, the faith of the whole is to be preferred. For example, in the second century a group of persons in Asia Minor began to teach that one Montanus was the incarnation of the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit. For the most part, that teaching was confined to one narrow geographic area and rejected throughout the rest of the Christian community. Thus, on the ground of universality, the teaching of Montanus would be rejected.
2) ALWAYS. But what if the entire Church seemed to be caught up in a teaching that one believes to be erroneous? Such was the case in the fourth century when much of the Christian world was under the sway of the teachings of the heretic, Arius. Then, Saint Vincent says, we should have recourse to antiquity. Was this doctrine taught by the Apostles, and is it rooted in the Scriptures? If it can be shown that the doctrine is a later development, a novelty, then it is not part of the Faith that was once delivered to the saints.
But if a doctrine is true, it has to be found, at least in seed, in the teachings of the Apostles. So, for example, when Athanasius and others were able to show that the ancient Church had not taught that Jesus was of a different nature than the Father, and that His divinity was affirmed both in the Scriptures and the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, the Arian doctrine was rejected.
Saint Vincent allowed that the expression of doctrines had to be allowed to develop overtime. “At this point someone will probably ask: ‘If this is so, is there to be no progress in Christ’s Church?’ The answer is: Of course, in every possible respect, for there must be progress. . .Yet there are conditions: it must be true progress, not a changing of the Faith. Progress requires a thing to grow within itself, but change implies that one thing is transformed into an-other” (XXIII, 54).
He likens the development of doctrine to the growth of the human body. Even though there is a great difference in size, appearance, and maturity between a baby and an adult, they nonetheless are the same person. A doctrine may be more clearly understood, expressed in a different way, developed more fully, its implications more clearly drawn, or a stronger emphasis placed upon it, at different times in history. Nonetheless, if it is a true Apostolic doctrine, it remains the same.
For example, the earliest credal statements referred to Jesus as the Son of God, without qualification. It was understood what was meant. Under the attack of the Arians, it was necessary to use the word homoousios (consubstantial) to define the relationship between God the Father and His Son. This did not represent a change of doctrine or a distortion, but a development in kind, thus a true development.
3) BY ALL. Antiquity is not enough in and of itself to commend the truth of a doctrine. What if a doctrine can be shown to have roots in antiquity, yet we are not sure of its truth? On what basis can it be accepted or rejected? Gnosticism, for example, had its roots in the Apostolic age, and even made spurious claims that its doctrines were secretly taught by the Apostles and persons close to them. The teachings of the Gospel of John, the epistles of John, and Colossians are directed against the teachings of the Gnostics.
In these cases, Saint Vincent appeals to consent. By this he means two things. First, did a general council of the Church rule on this issue? If so, the matter is to be considered settled. For example, at the Council of Nicea, the teaching of Athanasius that Jesus Christ is of one essence with the Father was affirmed against the Arians. Thus, we are bound to continue to confess the Faith embodied in the Nicene Creed. In the Orthodox Church we acknowledge the authority of Seven Ecumenical Councils. Their doctrinal decrees deal primarily with issues surrounding the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation of Christ. These matters are thus settled for all believing Christians. Those who do not hold to these teachings are considered outside the Faith of the Church.
But not all issues were considered by the Ecumenical Councils. What if the doctrine with which we are concerned is one of those dealing with the sacraments, the role of Mary and the saints in the life of the Church, or the structure of the Church? In cases like these, Saint Vincent advocates the seeker must “gather, consult, and dig into the opinions of the ancients—that is, those who, though living at various times and in different places, nevertheless remained in the communion and faith of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Faith, and who stand out as approved and reliable authorities. Then, he must believe whatever he has found to have been believed, written, and taught—not just by one or two of these authorities, but by all, equally, with one consent, and openly, frequently, and persistently. This, he must understand, he himself is obligated to believe without doubt or hesitation” (Commonitories III, 8).
The safest approach to doctrine, according to Saint Vincent, is to believe those teachings which can be affirmed by the appeal to universality, antiquity, and consent. All three are essential, like the legs on a three-legged stool. Without any of them, the structure collapses.
LISTENING TO THE HOLY SPIRIT
Of course, Saint Vincent’s methodology won’t answer all questions that may be posed from era to era. But it does give us a practical way that we can bring our interpretations of Scripture out of the darkness of our own feeble understanding and into the light of the understanding given by the Holy Spirit to His Church in every age. It will prevent us from majoring in things that are less important, and force us to face the core issues of life in the Kingdom of God and salvation.
Jesus Christ Himself is the Truth. His life and teachings are embodied by the Spirit in “the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). To be afraid of the tradition of the Church is to be afraid of the living power of the Spirit who lives in the Church. It is in this spirit that we need to be open to the work of God in us through the tradition of the Church.
Let us pray for the day when we “moderns” are freed from the tyranny of our egotistical self-centeredness and are able to return in humility to the Spirit-filled life and experience of God in the tradition of the Church. And may the tradition ever be living to the glory of God.
Without our tradition
our lives wou1d be
as shaky as
a fiddler on the roof”
Fr. Gregory Rogers
Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church