Tradition = Scripture, Rightly Understood

“So, for Irenaeus, both the true apostolic tradition maintained by the churches, and the apostolic writings themselves, derive from the same apostles, and have one and the same content, the Gospel, which is itself, as we have seen, ‘according to the Scripture.’  ‘Tradition‘ for the early Church is, as Florovsky puts it, ‘Scripture, rightly understood.’ Irenaeus’ appeal to tradition is thus fundamentally different to that of his opponents. While they appealed to tradition precisely for that which was not in Scripture, or for principals which would legitimize their interpretation of Scripture, Irenaeus, in his appeal to tradition, was not appealing to anything else that was not also in Scripture. Thus Irenaeus can appeal to tradition, to establish his case, and at the same time maintain that Scripture itself, using its own hypothesis and canon.”  (John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology: The Way to Nicea, p. 45)

Antiquity Alone Does Not Confirm Truth or Tradition

The Orthodox Church prides itself on faithfulness to Tradition.  We often boast about how old some of our liturgical practices are.  Yet, even in the ancient Church they recognized that the age of a practice does not guarantee its correctness.  St. Vincent of Lerins (d. 445AD)  famously defined Tradition as “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”  But he already in the  5th Century said that just because practices come down to us from antiquity doesn’t prove they were right in the first place.  There are ancient sins which continue to be commonly practiced and there are ancient heresies which people tenaciously hang on to.  Georges Florovsky writes:
However, “antiquity” by itself is not yet an adequate proof of the true faith. Archaic formulas can be utterly misleading. Vincent himself was well aware of that. Old customs as such do not guarantee the truth…
12th Century Byzantine Icon
12th Century Byzantine Icon
Thus, “tradition” in the Church is not merely the continuity of human memory, or the permanence  of rites and habits. Ultimately, “tradition” is the continuity of divine assistance, the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. The Church is not bound by “the letter.” She is constantly moved forth by “the spirit.” The same Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, which “spake through the Prophets,” which guided the Apostles, which illumined the Evangelists, is still abiding in the Church, and guides her into the fuller understanding of the divine truth, from glory to glory.  (Aspects of Church History, pp. 15-16
12th Century French Icon
12th Century French Icon

Tradition: Catching the Wind of the Holy Spirit

In a previous blog, Tradition: The Ship of Salvation’s Sail Not Its Anchor, I noted that while some see Tradition as an anchor holding the Church in place, it really is more appropriately to be considered the sail of the ship which catches the blowing of the Holy Spirit which takes the Church on its great sojourn to the Kingdom of heaven.  Here is another very similar thought from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware:

“I was particularly impressed by the manner in which Orthodox thinkers, when speaking of their Church as the Church of Holy Tradition, insist at the same time that Tradition is not static but dynamic, not defensive but exploratory, not closed and backward-facing but open to the future. Tradition, I learnt from the authors whom I studied, is not merely a formal repetition of what was stated in the past, but it is an active re-experiencing of the Christian message in the present. The only true Tradition is living and creative, formed from the union of human freedom with the grace of the Spirit. This vital dynamism was summed up for me in Vladimir Lossky’s lapidary phrase: ‘Tradition…is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.’ Emphasizing the point, he adds: ‘One can say that “Tradition” represents the critical spirit of the Church.’ We do not simply remain within the Tradition by inertia.” (The Inner Kingdom, p 9)

Tradition is not about orienting us to the past, for that is the wrong direction for the Church.  We are not anchored in the past like some maritime museum.  Rather, the Church is living and breathing the breath of the Holy Spirit, that wind which blows where it will (John 3:8).  We are always to be moving toward the eschaton, toward God’s Heavenly kingdom.  If we remain mired in the past we will never make that great voyage to the Kingdom.  As St. Paul says in Philippians 3:13-14 –

Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Tradition is not supposed to anchor us to the past.  What is supposed to be unchanging is the ship of salvation, not the location of the ship!


I will also add that the ship of salvation is not supposed to stay anchored in some calm haven, but is more like Noah’s ark which is a place of salvation amidst the surging storm of life.  In the Akathist, “Glory to God for All Things,”  we praise God for His Church:

“Glory to You, building your church, haven of peace in a tortured world.”

The world is awash in sin, sighing, sorrow and suffering.  The Church is to be that haven in the midst of all of this.  But that is only one thing the Church is to be, for it also must be a light to the world and the salt of earth, the Body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit.

The Sin of Anger

St. John Cassian (d. 435AD) writes:

“If then we wish to receive the Lord’s blessing we should restrain not only the outward expression of anger, but also angry thoughts. More beneficial than controlling our tongue in a moment of anger and refraining from angry words is purifying our heart from rancor and not harbouring malicious thoughts against our brethren. The Gospel teaches us to cut off the roots of our sins and not merely their fruits. When we have dug the root of anger out of our heart, we will no longer act with hatred or envy. ‘Whoever hates his brother is a murderer’ (1 John 3:15), for he kills him with the hatred in his mind.

The blood of a man who has been slain by the sword can be seen by men, but blood shed by the hatred in the mind is seen by God, who rewards each man with punishment or a crown not only for his acts but for his thoughts and intentions as well.

As God Himself says through the Prophet: ‘Behold, I am coming to reward them according to their actions and their thoughts’ (cf Ecclus. 35:19); and the Apostle says: ‘And their thoughts accuse or else excuse them in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men’ (Rom. 2:15-16). The Lord Himself teaches us to put aside all anger when He says: ‘Whoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of judgement’ (Matt. 5:22). This is the text of the best manuscripts; for it is clear from the purpose of Scripture in this context that the words ‘without a cause’ were added later. The Lord’s intention is that we should remove the root of anger, its spark, so to speak, in whatever way we can, and not keep even a single pretext for anger in our hearts. Otherwise we will be stirred to anger initially for what appears to be a good reason and then find that our incisive power is totally out of control.” (The Philokalia:Volume 1, pg. 86)

The above words by St. John Cassian are an important challenge to us to overcome the passion of anger in ourselves.  The great problem with anger is it quickly burns out of control, wildly,  igniting a powder keg in us setting off an uncontrolled emotional explosion.  As wisdom says: “keep your anger to yourself as nobody else wants it.”

Cassian JohnIt is also interesting that in the above passage St. John Cassian acknowledges that there exist different manuscript traditions through which the Scriptures have come down to us.  Such a concern is not just that of modern biblical scholars but was known in the 5th Century!  He is convinced that a phrase that in his day existed in the received tradition was a later addition to the original text to ‘soften’ the text by making it more palatable and ‘reasonable.’   Cassian will have none of it because he believes it is the very ‘sharpness’ of the text which is so challenging and true to the spiritual life.  It is not easy to take up one’s cross and deny one’s self, and Cassian doesn’t want to accept a text that tries to make that road an easier one.   Even the saints have a critical eye for the received Tradition.


Typikon: E Pluribus Unum

Growing up Orthodox in a small city that had a number of different ethnic Orthodox parishes, it was easy to be aware that though there was a common belief in the unchanging nature of Orthodoxy there was a great deal of variation in liturgical and pious practice among the different Orthodox communities.  Local custom was not always distinguished from what was more properly called the Tradition of the Orthodox.  Russian Orthodox did things differently than Carpatho-Russians, or Serbs, or Romanians or Greeks or Arabs.   What I never heard about early on in my life in Orthodoxy was the Typikon, the book of liturgical rules that officially guides how services are to be done.

When I went to seminary the variety of liturgical experience and pious practice was even more pronounced – more traditions and variations within different ethnic traditions.  At seminary typikonchiks were those few folks fascinated by all of the minutiae of the Typikon’s rules and sometimes they became rabidly fanatical about following the rules – but disagreements among them indicated there were more than one Typikon to which one could appeal as authoritative.  One could for example see that for the most part the books governing a baptism in Greek and Russian tradition reflected a similarity in services, but the actual parish practices varied greatly.

After seminary I came to appreciate that whatever the Typikon might prescribe for liturgical practice, the reality was parishes followed practices which they had inherited, or based on texts available, or what the choir could do or the ethnic tradition typically did. Different traditions and pastors followed different ideas as to how to ‘edit’ the services when the parish was not able to follow the complete monastic Typikon.   Small mission parishes offered challenges for what to do liturgically when one doesn’t even have a regular church building.   The Typikon was not designed for mission situation, nor for how to be evangelical or introduce new peoples to salvation through Orthodox teaching.  The Typikon was designed for monks who are committed to living as full an Orthodox liturgical life as possible, not for thinking how to proclaim the Gospel in an Orthodox manner to those not acquainted with Orthodoxy.

Typikon DecodedArchimandrite Job Getcha’s new book THE TYPIKON DECODED offers some historical insight into the development of the Typikon but also contains the basic descriptions for the liturgical services as they are prescribed in current Orthodox practice.   I personally have never been that attracted to the mechanics of liturgical practice (what at seminary long ago was referred to as liturgics), but was far more inspired by liturgical theology especially as taught by Fr. Alexander Schmemann.   So, no doubt, I read the book through that same lens.   I was more intrigued by his historical comments than the formulae for doing liturgical services.  There is in Orthodoxy often a strong push for a monolithic interpretation of everything, but that effort to homogenize all things liturgical does not completely correspond to the reality of a variety of liturgical practices and typikons which have been Orthodoxy’s history.

In the rest of this blog, I will point out some of the aspects of the book which attracted my attention.  First is an understanding of the liturgical books of Orthodox Tradition.

“These ancient books contained in generally rough fashion liturgical material that could be sung, rather than what had to be sung.”  (p 35)

While today some want the liturgical tradition to be without variation or change, historically this wasn’t always true.   The liturgical tradition offered hymns and practices that could be done but were not perceived of as laws that must be obeyed.  A more rigidly fixed and monolithic idea of tradition is oddly enough the innovation.

“As we know, before the invention of the printing press each monastery or church had its own Typikon (ordo) and resolved liturgical issues in its own way.  While differences between the various typika were not that numerous, liturgical scholars have discerned three large families of typika: Constantinople (of the Great Church), Studite, and Sabaite (or Hagiopolite).”  (p 40)

“… there were in Constantinople and throughout the empire, and even among the Slavs, two different types of daily offices: one used in secular churches and following the Typikon of the Great Church, the other used by the monks, which followed either the Studite or Sabaite ordo.” (p 54)

So we learn from history that the liturgical books of the church underwent many changes through the centuries, and the liturgical practices were varied throughout the Orthodox world – even though on a grand scale there appears to have been commonality between the typikons.  Monasteries and parish churches used different typikons up until about the 14th Century when the monastic practices became predominant throughout the churches of the Orthodox world.

And the Typikon itself as a book is the most recent development of all in Orthodox liturgical books.

“… the Typikon is the most recent among the liturgical books , because it implies the existence of all the other books it seek to regulate.” (p 40)

So the Typikon is part of that evolving tradition of the Church.

Next:  Typikon: A History of Change

Tradition is in the Life of the Church

“The faithfulness to Tradition is not a loyalty to antiquity but rather the living relationship with the fullness of the Christian life. The appeal to Tradition is not so much the appeal to earlier patterns as it is an appeal to the “catholic” experienced of the Church, to the fullness of her knowledge.   […]

The scope of Tradition cannot be established simply by historical research. That would be a very dangerous path. That would mean a complete disregard for the spiritual nature of the Church. Tradition is known and understood only by belonging to the Church, through participation in her common or ‘catholic’ life.”

(Georges Florovsky, Creation and Redemption: Volume 3 in the Collected Works, pg.37)

Spiritual Exegesis

In the modern Protestant world, much of the discussion on Genesis 1 and 2 is limited to whether or not it is to be read literally.  For the Orthodox Church, whether or not the Genesis creation stories are read literally, they offer to us the understanding of what it is to be human.  They are thus more about each of us and who we are as humans than about merely relating the story of the first human beings.  Adam and Eve are a type of us all and we learn about who we are through their story.

The Orthodox Church has a long history of making use of scriptural texts for all manners of wisdom, spiritual teachings and insight into the very nature of the Word of God.

“All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”  (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Rather than use the above quote for the dubious purpose of proving that scripture must be read literally, the Orthodox have  woven scriptural texts and images into their large collection of hymns to teach, reprove, correct, train and equip.  Take for example the IKOS hymn from Matins for the Holy Apostle Philip (November 14).  Note that the hymn gives clear reference to the creation of the world, but then ties it in to our daily lives.  The text is not seen mostly as ancient factual history, but  a treasury to inspire us in our daily lives.  The Genesis 1-2 creation text is not so much science or history as a spiritual treasury to help us live as God’s children in His world.

Lord, as You created the nature of water,

grant me a flood of teaching!

Strengthen my heart, Compassionate One, as You established the earth by Your word.

Enlighten my mind, as You are covered with light as with a garment,

that I may speak and chant what is fitting to praise Your friend, MOST MERCIFUL CHRIST!

St. Paul and the Gospel Tradition

“But it is noteworthy that, except for the words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper themselves, Paul does not in any of his epistles quote the exact words of any of the sayings of Jesus as we now have them in the Gospels. Nor does he mention a single event in the life of Jesus – again except for the institution of the Lord’s Supper – between his birth and death on the cross. From the writings of Paul we would not be able to know that Jesus ever taught in parable and proverbs or that he performed miracles or that he was born of a virgin. For that information we are dependent on the oral tradition of the early Christian communities as this was eventually deposited in the Gospels, all of which, in their present form at any rate, probably appeared later than most or all of the epistles of Paul. Everyone must acknowledge, therefore, Christian tradition had precedence, chronologically and even logically, over Christian Scripture; for there was a tradition of the church before there was ever a New Testament, or any individual book of the New Testament.” (Jesus and Mary Through the Centuries, Jaroslav Pelikan, pg. 10)

St. Paul’s Received Tradition

In 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, St. Paul speaks about “tradition” – in his words “I delivered” that which “I received.”  The sense of tradition in Orthodoxy is that we receive from the previous generation the revelation which God has given in Jesus Christ, and then we hand on this exact same tradition to the next generation.  This is how Orthodox can claim an unbroken tradition of receiving the Gospel and passing it along to the next generation.  Tradition is preserved in the Scriptures, in the apostolic succession of bishops, in the Liturgy of the Church, as well as in our doctrines and dogmas.  In St. Paul’s words:

“I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you; unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures…”

The great 20th Century Russian Orthodox theologian Fr.  Georges Florovsky says:

“That is why loyalty to tradition means not only concord with the past, but, in a certain sense, freedom from the past, as from some outward formal criterion. Tradition is not only a protective, conservative principle; it is, primarily, the principal of growth and regeneration. Tradition is not a principle striving to restore the past, using the past as a criterion for the present. Such a conception of Tradition is rejected by history itself, and by the consciousness of the church. Tradition is authority to teach, potestas magisterii, authority to bear witness to the truth. The church bears witness to the truth not by reminiscence of from the words of others, but from its own living, unceasing experience, from its catholic fullness.” (in The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture, pg. 98)

Ecumenical Councils in the Church

“The first truly ‘ecumenical’ action was the Council in Nicea, in 325, the First Ecumenical Council. Councils were already in the tradition of the Church. But Nicea was the first Council of the whole Church, and it became the pattern on which all subsequent Ecumenical Councils were held. For the first time the voice of the whole Church was heard. We do not find in our primary sources any regulations concerning the organization of the Ecumenical Councils. It does not seem that there were any fixed rules or patterns. In the canonical sources there is no single mention of the Ecumenical council, as a permanent institution, which should be periodically convened, according to some authoritative scheme. The Ecumenical Councils were not an integral part of the Church’s constitution, nor of her basic administrative structure. In this respect they differed substantially from those provincial and local Councils which were supposed to meet yearly, to transact current matter and to exercise the function of unifying supervision. The authority of the Ecumenical Councils was high, ultimate, and binding.”    (Georges Florovsky, Christianity and Culture: Volume 2, pg. 94)