Tradition: An Additional Window Through Which to See the Present

On the 7th Sunday after Pascha (which also is the Sunday after the Ascension), the Orthodox Church commemorates the Holy Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council.

Remembering historical events as a normal part of the liturgical year helps Orthodox Christians to understand contemporary issues and current events in the context of the long experience the Christian Church has had in dealing with challenges to the Faith and problematic questions that have been raised.

In recent times a number of media driven questions have through the use of fiction distorted the historical record of Christianity and challenged the faith of some.  Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code is in this genre. 

What commemorating the Ecumenical Councils can do for 21st Century Christians is to remind them that there was plenty of open controversy and public debate within Christianity about how to understand Jesus.  The First Ecumenical Council is held in the year 325AD – 300 years after the death of Jesus Christ the Christians are openly, not secretly, and hotly debating issues regarding who Jesus Christ is and what His miracles and His resurrection from the dead say about Him.   Notions of conspiracies to secretly suppress “alternative” interpretations of Jesus are non-sense.  The Christians spent a great deal of energy in public debate and disagreement about who Christ is and what it means to consider him as the Son of God and as God the Son.    The debaters in these controversies read each others’ writings and were well aware of the controversial “apocryphal” lives of Jesus and his named early men and women disciples.  

In fact it was in these very open and heated debates that the Christians decided that some of these writings though ancient were not within the original Tradition of the apostles.   This was not a secret conspiracy, but open and public debate with leaders taking sides and presenting reasonable arguments to defend or reject ideas and documents.

And notions that the Roman government conspired with the Church leaders is absurd as is well known in history for the first 300 years of its existence the Christian Church was persecuted by the Roman Government not collaborating with it.   That is partly why the First Ecumenical Council is so significant because for the first time in its history the Church found itself being encourage by the State to resolve its disputes.   And this relationship between Church and State got off to a shaky start, for the Emperor Constantine who summoned the First Ecumenical Council at first accepted the decision to oppose the teachings of Arius (one of the main disputants of that day), but later began supporting the followers of Arius.   To think that the Church and state could collaborate when the state’s position on theological issues was not wholly settled, and when the Church’s own position was in tumultuous debate is ludicrous. 

The unsettled times of the 4th Century rather give us a rather public view of how open the church was to debate and how diverse were the opinions of the Christians.   They were searching for ideas and terminology they all could agree on and in this public process they also determined that there were some ideas and some writings that were outside the agreed Tradition and were not consistent with the earliest witness of the Church.

When Christians today lose sight of the Church’s history and think that whatever people are thinking today must be what God is thinking, then the Christian people are at risk for having their Faith undermined by every claim that comes along that challenges Tradition.   For this reason it is important to have an agreed upon body of Scripture, which must be referred to in its entirety when new discussions and debates arise.  And not only are the Scriptures important but the history of how those Scriptures were handled in the Tradition of the Church become significant for how they are used in dealing with contemporary controversies.   It is the bringing forth of the Scriptures and the historical discussions on them which constitutes a living Tradition and helps prevent the past from becoming legalistic chains which inhibit the Church from engaging the world.  Knowing that in the past Christians engaged the world and each other in debate, discussion and disagreement gives us a template for how to deal with controversy in our day. The past, Tradition, in this way nurtures discussion, creativity, thoughtfulness and reason as we look at the Scriptures from our 21st Century viewpoint and look at the 21st Century with a foundation in the Scriptures and how the Church has at all times and in all places handled them.

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