Word Magazine October 1960 Page 3-4


By Father Michael Azkoul

Spring Valley, Ill.

The Church is “the Body of Christ” and is therefore essentially an organism. Orthodoxy is a growing thing, a living Body. She is the “extension of the Incarnation,” as the Fathers used to say. There is “one” Christ, therefore, the Church is “one”; He is “holy,” therefore, She is “holy”; Christ is “catholic,” thus, She is “catholic”; Christ is “apostolic,” She is “apostolic.” The Church is understood in terms of the Person of Christ.

Tradition is likewise “one,” existing in the “one” Church of God; it is “holy” because the Church is “holy”; it is “catholic” because, like the Church, Tradition is entire and not limited to one place and time; and it is “apostolic” or “sent forth” with the Church which has a foundation of Christ and the Apostles. What, then, is “Tradition”?

First, let us distinguish it from custom. A custom is a practice which has become habitual in some particular place and time, or perhaps in the whole Church, such as ringing the bells at the time of the Doxology; or presenting 5 loaves of bread for the Proskomedie: or not permitting menstrous women to receive Communion, etc. Customs appear to meet the needs of the time, They remain if the need remains. Customs may be changed. The Bishop may give dispensations for any custom. They are disciplines or methods or techniques or procedures. Some are important, like fasting before Communion; some are nice, like using grapes to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration; and some are positively wrong and must be dropped, like receiving Communion but once a year.

Tradition or “Paradosis” in Greek (from paradidomi”: “to hand over,” “deliver,” “entrust”) is different. It includes the entire repository of the Christian Faith. It is handed over to the Church by God, it is entrusted to Her care. It includes, for example, “dogma” and “doctrine”: a “dogma” is the precise formulation of some revealed truth by a council accepted by the entire Church; a “doctrine,” which is equally as binding, equally as necessary for salvation, has no exact form. That Christ is both human and Divine, is a “dogma,” whereas the number of Sacraments is a “doctrine.” Usually, Tradition is confused with custom or with something which is done over and over again, i.e. if we have seen or heard something which is repeated we label it clumsily, Tradition. If we have read a little more, we think of it as a belief orally transmitted and contrasted with the written record, the Bible. None of this is entirely true,

Tradition is both written (traditio scripta) and unwritten (traditio non scripta), either by word of mouth or letter (II Thess. ii, 15). Tradition is historical, factual. It can grow and it does: continually, consistently, higher, deeper, wider, but is always the same. For instance, a man grows, but is the same man whether at birth, at 10 years old, at 20 or 30. Our understanding of the original deposit of the Faith increases.

Oral or Tradition by word of mouth is called by Bulgakov, “the Memory of the Church.” Like the human memory which stores away experiences and ideas, the Memory of the Church shapes the attitude of the Church. She remembers that God was incarnate, that He taught spiritual and ethical truths and values, that he was betrayed by Judas, that He was crucified, dead, buried, resurrected, ascended, that the work of Christ was continued by the Apostles and their successors, that She had enemies like Arius, that She fought the destroyers of the icons (Iconoclasts), that the Latins separated from Her and so on. Each experience of the Church caused the deposit to grow like a cake in the oven. Tradition, whether written or unwritten, is not human opinion, but truths received from the Apostles who were instructed by Christ. They, the Apostles, handed over, delivered, entrusted these truths to their successors which are taught by them and preserved in the hearts and conscience of all believers. It is for this reason that Origen (185-125) wrote in the preface to On Principles: “That alone must be believed to be truth which differs in nothing from the ecclesiastical and Apostolic Tradition.”

Now, the original deposit of Tradition was recorded in several books some 30 years after the ascension of Christ. These books, the New Testament, were added to an older collection of books, called, the Old Testament. They were called “Biblos” (Gr.) or the Book, popularly known as “the Bible.” The logic here is this: a man doesn’t write down everything he knows, neither does he leave it all unwritten. The Church was the same. Like the serious man who has knowledge, She clarifies Her thoughts by writing them down. The New Testament is a diary of Her early experiences. It was the first of Her writings and all subsequent records depends upon it. The New Testament is the most important of all Her documents. The Old Testament was added to it because it was inspired by God for the purpose of foretelling of the Messiah. The New Testament, as we know, is the written record of His life and work and its continuation by the primitive Church. But as Khomiakov says: “The collection of Old and New Testament books, which the Church acknowledges as Hers, are called by the name Holy Scriptures. But there is no limits to Scripture; for every writing the Church acknowledges as Hers is Holy Scripture” (The Church is One, p. 24). “Scripture” or “script” or writing includes, therefore, the Holy Bible, the writings of Orthodox Church Fathers, the dogmas of Ecumenical Councils and even of local Councils when they rightly express the Faith of the Church.

The Orthodox Church believes in an oral Tradition which, with the Bible, is the source of the Christian Faith. The Bible never claimed to be the only source of it (John xxi, 25) as Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, argued in the 16th century. Without an oral tradition the Bible would be a dead letter, because it is often obscure and hard to understand (Acts viii, 30-31; Tim. i, 13-14). It mentions the oral Tradition (II Thess. ii. 15; II Tim. i, 13-14; ii, 2); and in many passages tells us that the divine teachings of Christ are transmitted by teachers accredited by God (Matt. xxviii, 18-18; Mark xvi, 15-16; Luke x, 16; xxiv, 27, 48; John xiv, 16-17; 25-26; xv, 26-27, xvi, 13). Jesus never wrote anything nor did He instruct His followers to write, but rather that His teachings were to be interpreted by the Apostles and their successors (Rom. x 14-18) who always represented themselves as the ambassadors of God (Rom. i, 5; xv, 18; Cor. ii. 16; iii, 9; I John iv, 6). Thus, we see that the truths of the Church are not exclusive to the Bible. The Bible is the work of the Church, not Christ Himself.

The Tradition of the Church is both written and unwritten. The written record is the infallible Bible, as well as all those writings the Church admits to be Her own. The New Testament includes teachings given to the People of God by inspired writers; the Old Testament includes teachings given to a people who were once God’s. The Old Testament is infallible as far as it goes; the New Testament completes it. The New Testament cannot be understood without the Old Testament. Christ is foretold by the Old Testament and its prophecies are fulfilled in the Person of Christ of which the New Testament is a witness. But the New Testament relies upon the oral Tradition for its facts, either by eye-witnesses, such as St. John, or by one who learned of the happenings indirectly, such as St. Luke. As for the rest of the New Testament, the tradition was made by those who wrote down their experiences with God and man. The Bible cannot be understood without the oral Tradition, as Protestantism continually proves by its disunity and the confusion of sects divided many times by a single verse. The Tradition of the Church, written and unwritten, is inspired by the Holy Spirit. All of Her dogma and doctrine are inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Bible, it must be noted, was inspired by the Holy Spirit for the benefit of God’s People. The New Testament is infallible because the Church accepts it, because Her members wrote it. It was written by and for and in the Church wherein dwells the Holy Spirit.

The Bible proves that the Church’s claims were the same in the beginning as they are now; it proves that the oral Tradition grows in one direction and never contradicts itself. The Church appeals to the Bible as a contemporary record of historical facts. The Tradition, then, is not something repeated over and over again, but it grows and its growth is preserved in writings substantiated by word of mouth. The growth takes place within and along with the Church. It accumulates and piles up in organic fashion. Nothing is ever accepted from the outside and nothing is ever subtracted from it. The Bible, which is a part of Tradition, is one of a collection of documents testifying to the beliefs of the Church. The Bible is for the Church, not the Church for the Bible. The Bible cannot contradict oral Tradition either, because it was entrusted, delivered and handed over to the Church from Christ and the Apostles. The Tradition as a whole is then both written and unwritten and will grow till the Lord comes again.