Tradition: The Ship of Salvation’s Sail not its Anchor

Paul3cSt. Paul’s Epistles represent an interpretation of the Scriptures of Israel.  St. Paul is steeped in the Jewish Scriptures, and the Tradition which interprets those Scriptures.   It is the interpretation of the Torah which causes such tremendous conflict between Jesus and the rabbis of the Pharisaic Tradition.   Paul follows Jesus in interpreting the Scriptures of Israel and does so by claiming that he and Jesus are in fact the faithful interpreters of the Tradition.  It is Jesus who is the fulfillment of the God-inspired Tradition; thus Christianity is faithful to Tradition and the correct interpreter of this tradition.   Tradition, like Scripture, is not  made holy by being carved into stone, but rather by being interpreted within a community, by being the heart of the community’s relationship to God and the world.  Tradition is thus alive and constantly relating to the world, not written in stone and frozen in some past understanding.  For St. Paul Tradition is dynamic, creative, vivifying and renewing and keeps people focused on the goal – where God is leading us to, not the past and where we were.   Tradition is not the ship’s anchor, but its sail.   It consists not of repeating past teachings, but of interpreting God’s Word for the current generation.

When a tradition is handed on unchanged it loses its potency and has little meaning for the present. Some would go so far as to say that an unchanged tradition is dead, it has been killed…a vibrant tradition must be not only a conserving (conservative) force, but also an innovative one. The past tradition needs to be revivified for a new cultural and historical context….The only hope for survival lies in a tradition’s ability to provide a fresh word of hope in a new situation…this dynamic can be described as the interpretation of tradition; what gives a tradition its life is an effective interpretation for a new time and context. The success or failure of such interpretation (or re-interpretation) can result in either the life-giving continuation of the tradition, or its lifeless end… In addition, in a situation of crisis, fraught with uncertainty, entrenchment seems a safe path to walk… To those in the Galatian community, who would revert to the tradition unchanged, Paul emphasizes that this tradition must not be merely mimicked. It cannot be simply passed on unchanged, the community in Galatia needs to hear the word of God’s radically new thing, of God’s revelation in Jesus, of the end of order. For this community Paul ‘defines and defends the radically new in terms drawn from the old’… That is why abandoning the tradition is not an option for him. However, that importance is evident partly in the ability of the tradition to provide a fresh word of hope for a new situation…. He transforms tradition so that it continues in the living world.  (Sylvia C. Keesmaat, “Paul and His Story: Exodus and Tradition in Galatia”, Early Christian Interpretation of the Scriptures of Israel)

16 thoughts on “Tradition: The Ship of Salvation’s Sail not its Anchor

    1. Fr. Ted

      After writing this blog, I fortuitously came across this quote last night from Robert Hill’s READING THE OLD TESTAMENT IN ANTIOCH in which he amazingly describes the role that St. John Chrysostom’s preaching played in the life of the church of the 4th Century:

      “a sail for the Spirit’s breath to carry the believer’s forward on their journey.” (p 186)

      If that is the role Chrysostom played in the 4th Century, then surely that is why we also read him today – the preaching of the Fathers has not been converted from sail to anchor!

  1. Pingback: Fr Ted & Tradition « Journeying Home

  2. Pingback: Tradition: Revealing the Eschaton Not Seeking the Past | Fr. Ted’s Blog

  3. Fr. Ted,

    How does the Church balance innovation with faithfulness to what’s been received? And practically, what does it mean to “interpret Tradition?” I’m interested in how this differs from what the Anglican group I was a part of would call “contextualization,” which amounted to liturgical innovations or omissions based upon developments in contemporary culture (i.e. consumer culture).

    1. Fr. Ted

      I will offer two thoughts:
      1) Tradition is not the mere rote repitition of the past.

      2) Tradition is geared not toward the past, but toward the eschaton.

      Tradition is not supposed to be pure rote – I think we see Jesus Himself rejecting that form of traditionalism in the Pharisees and it resulted in people marveling at Jesus teaching with authority, unlike the Pharisaic rabbis. The purpose of Tradition is to keep the revelation alive and fresh for every generation. Thus when the Church accepted the word “Trinity” as applying to God, they were innovating for this is not a word that is recorded in the earlier revelation found in our Scriptures. But the word was “coined” to help give the Christians a language in which to express what the revelation of God is. It wasn’t a new theology, but a new terminology to allow the revelation to be expressed to a new generation. This is Tradition being faithful to the past while innovating for what is pastorally needed in the present. “Trinity” was not a new revelation but became the accepted way to express and understand the revelation which had been given. Often as new problems, ideas and debates arise as the Church moves through history, it has to creatively innovate terms and concepts to be able to say, “this is what we mean.” Tradition thus clarifies what was received to allow it to speak to the new contingencies always arising.

      And if Tradition is geared to the eschaton and preparing us for that end, it is not just trying to “be relevant” to the contemporary culture, but rather understands culture as the land through which we must sojourn to arrive at that upward calling to which we are striving to arrive. So Tradition is always grappling with how to express oursevles in the current culture – we must be able to do that to fulfill the Great Commission – while at the same time affirming that the truth is one and the same, it is only that we must find the ways to express that truth in a comprehensible way to the current culture with the intention of enlightening that culture with the truth rather than cementing the truth to that contemporary situation. One one hand this is as simple as now expressing that truth in Greek, now in Russian, now in English as we move through history and cultures. On the other hand it also means being able to speak to rationalists, romanticists, modernists and post-modernists. Again, the message we have is universal and so in some ways is translatable to every culture (at least by tradition the Gospel is even proclaimed in Hades to the dead so there must be some way for the Gospel to be put into a language that the denizens of Hades can understand). We are always translating the Gospel (which may be quite different than “contextualizing” it).

  4. Thanks, Fr. Ted. A very helpful answer.

    I think there is, perhaps, a difference between translating and contextualizing. In the Anglican setting I mentioned before, the pastors’ efforts centered on contextualizing liturgy, which essentially meant they would employ or eschew various liturgical forms on Sunday mornings, based upon what would be most palatable to the congregation. They termed this “speaking the culture’s language.” This meant no vestments, a very, very relaxed Eucharistic rite (if one could call it that), playing contemporary styled music, etc.

    For the Orthodox, does liturgical practice ever come into discussion when “translating” the gospel for contemporary society? Or is the worshiping life of the Church separate from its innovations in communication?

    1. To clarify, I know the Liturgy is now done in English. But beyond that, is it ever appropriate that how the Liturgy is expressed in other ways be subjected to the same sort of review and creativity you advocate? Why or why not?

      1. Fr. Ted

        First, I don’t want to make any comparisons with how Episcopalians or anyone else has “contextualized” their liturgies, as I am not familiar with the processes they may have used.
        Second, anyone who has read church history or the history of liturgy would be well aware that changes, even signifcant ones, have taken place over time. The pre-Constantinian liturgy was altered by the imperial rite of Byzantium, altered again by monastic influences, altered again by the Turkish conquest of Byantium.
        So the liturgies have undergone change over time, and I would guess often there was felt to be pastorally sound reasons and even needs for the changes.
        So does the Church adapt its liturgical practices to different cultures, again I would say yes, you can see variation in how Russian Orthodox vs. Greek Orthodox do various liturgical practices, and then how those practices were affected by say coming to America. Different things get emphasized in different traditions, though on another level I think many Orthodox feel there is a lot of continuity and similarity in practice between the different traditions.

        Do I think the Liturgy is totally unchanging and unchangeable? No. Obviously it has changed over time and adaptations were made in it. Hopefully, the changes that were made was that so the Liturgy more exactly and fully expressed the Faith of the Apostles. Might there be changes to the Liturgy that could help the Church better express that Faith to 21st Century people? I would venture yes, though I don’t have anything particular in mind. Perhaps one idea is that modern people are more “clock conscious” than people in ancient times and so the Liturgy will be shortened to help the Church express its message in a way more comprehensible to modern people.

  5. Thanks for taking the time to respond. I’m glad to have your perspective, as these are questions I’m often faced with when talking to non-Orthodox friends.

  6. Pingback: Tradition: It’s not an anchor to weigh you down but a sail to move you forward

  7. It certainly can be a sail. As long as it helps keep us focused on Christ and His gospel for real sinners.

    If it doesn’t help along those lines that it may just be tradition, for the sake of tradition.


  8. Pingback: Tradition: The Ship of Salvation’s Sail not its Anchor | Fr Stephen Smuts

  9. Pingback: Tradition: It’s not an anchor to weigh you down but a sail to move you forward

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