The Orthodox Faith – Sources of Christian Doctrine (3)

There are some Protestant Christians who think that all Christian doctrine and practices have to be based on the Bible alone. If something is not explicitly found in scripture it should not be taught or practiced. For example, in the Orthodox Church we have several feasts based on the birth, life and death of the Mother of God. Much of the material for these feasts are not found in scriptures so Protestants do not celebrate these feasts. There are differences in practice, too.
For example, we do not find the veneration of icons in the New Testament, so many Protestants reject them. As Orthodox we accept these things because they are part of Holy Tradition.
It is true that in the Bible Jesus sometimes criticizes tradition, but this is not Holy Tradition.
You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:8)
What is tradition? Our English word tradition comes from the Latin word “tradere”, meaning to hand something over. For example
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (I Cor 11:23-26)
When St. Paul writes “received” or “delivered” he is describing the very practice of tradition. In this passage we see how St. Paul received the tradition about Holy Communion from the apostles and how he is handing it over to his followers. In the Jewish tradition, it was very important to hand over exactly what one had received, without adding to or diminishing it. This is the origin of Holy
Tradition. St. Paul tells his followers how important it is to follow tradition. He writes
“So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thes 2:15).
But it is important not to think of Scripture and tradition as two separate sources of believe and practice. Rather the Bible is the heart of tradition, although tradition includes the writings of the church Fathers, the decisions of the ecumenical councils, liturgical texts, icons, etc. All of these things form Holy Tradition and one cannot isolate any one of them. So when we read the Bible we interpret it through the writings of the Fathers, the decisions of the councils, the liturgical texts and so on.
The Bible does not exist by itself. Even Protestants who deny Holy Tradition read the Bible through ‘tradition’. There are distinctly Lutheran and Calvinist ways of reading the Bible. This is sneaking the tradition in by the back door, so to speak. However here we truly have the tradition of men as opposed to Holy Tradition. Or to put it another way, the Bible is the most important part of Holy Tradition, but the Bible never remains alone,
it is always read through the lens of Tradition. So Holy Tradition is the sum total of Christian belief and practice handed over from one generation of Christians to another.
However, it must be said that no every practice in the church forms part of Holy Tradition in the strict sense. Sometimes theologians distinguish between Tradition with a capital “T” and tradition with a lower case “t”.
For example, the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation, the very heart of Tradition. On the other hand, we have smaller traditions. For example, in the marriage ceremony the Russian Orthodox tradition is to use actual metal crowns held over the heads of the bride and groom. However, in the Greek tradition the bride and groom have crowns of flowers place on their heads. This is an example of a small “t” tradition.
There is nothing wrong with the lesser traditions of the church but we should see things for what they are.
In addition to traditions with a big “T” and a small “t” there are false traditions which sometimes exist in the church. For example, many people believe they should receive Holy Communion, perhaps only once or twice a year. This is a pseudo-tradition, which contradicts the nature of Holy Communion.
Finally, Holy Tradition is not some static body of faith and practice handed over by rote. Tradition has to be received by every generation of Christian. Tradition can develop and grow without forgetting what is gone before. Tradition will continue to grow. For example, the Fathers of the Church are not exclusively men of the past. In the 20th century we had St. Siloam the Athonite and his disciples, Archimandrite Sophrony, who transmitted what they had received while at the same time adding their own insights. The age of the Fathers is never over, not is tradition merely a relic of the past.

Fr. John