A Series of Articles for Ongoing Adult Christian Education to help
“strengthen the religious and moral life of our parishioners…”
The mission of our parish is to keep, practice, and proclaim the Word of God and strengthen the religious and moral life of our parishioners in accordance with the Holy Traditions and Canons of the Church in its fullness as faithful members of the Body of Christ. (Parish Mission Statement)
When you hear the words, “Holy Tradition”, what comes to mind? Certainly as Greek Orthodox Christians, we have lots and lots of traditions. Some are big “T” traditions (like the tenants of The Creed) and some are little “t” traditions (like eating lamb at Pascha, at food festivals, on your birthday, just for the fun of it…). What’s the difference, and why is it important to us? Certainly, one page is not enough to fully answer this question. But hopefully, what follows will wet your appetite to learn more about Holy Tradition and what is means for the entire world. If you would like to read more than just the excerpts below, then consider reading The Orthodox Church, by Timothy Ware, chapter 10; Introducing the Orthodox Church, by Anthony Coniaris; or by visiting our Archdiocese website and looking at some of the articles under “Our Faith” (www.goarch.org\, select “Our Faith”, then pick one of the tabs like “Theology”, or many of the others). Many of the following excerpts are from Timothy Ware’s book.
Holy Tradition: The Source of the Orthodox Faith
When Orthodox Christians are asked to sum up the distinctive characteristics of their Church, one thing stands out: Living Continuity, a changeless connection with the very foundation of our Christian faith and heritage. A permanent contact and link with the past, flowing through the present, and directing us to the future. The idea of living continuity is summed up for the Orthodox in the one word Tradition. ‘We do not change the everlasting boundaries which our fathers have set,’ wrote John of Damascus, ‘but we keep the Tradition, just as we received it.’
Christian Tradition is the faith and practice which Jesus Christ imparted to the Apostles, and which since the Apostles’ time has been handed down from generation to generation in the Church. It includes the whole system of doctrine, Church government, worship, spirituality and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages.
The Holy Tradition of the Orthodox church includes Scripture, for it is from within the Tradition of the Church that Scripture was authorized (remember the Synod of Carthage in 397 A.D. ?).
Holy Tradition is far more than a set of abstract propositions — it is a life, a personal encounter with Christ in the Holy Spirit. It is not a static concept but a dynamic and living discovery of the Holy Spirit in the present.
This Holy Tradition of the Church is expressed in seven outward forms:
1) The Bible
2) The Seven Ecumenical Councils
3) The Later Councils
4) The Fathers
5) The Divine Liturgy
6) Canon Law
1) The Bible – The Orthodox use the Septuagint text of the Old Testament which includes the deutero-canonical books such as Esdras, Tobit, Judith, etc. All of these can be found in the new Orthodox Study Bible with both Old Testament and New Testament texts. The New Testament is the same for all Christians. The Bible is the supreme expression of God’s revelation to the human race. It is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority… and it is the Church alone which can interpret Holy Scripture with authority. Personal interpretation of the Scriptures has never been accepted by the Church.
Within the context of worship, both the Old Testament and the New Testament are used or quoted at length. It has been calculated that the Divine Liturgy contains 98 quotations from the Old Testament and 114 from the New. Orthodoxy regards the Bible as the verbal icon of Christ, and it is venerated along with the Icons of the Church according to the decree of the 7th Ec. Council.
2) The Seven Ecumenical Councils – The doctrinal definitions of an Ecumenical Council are infallible. Thus in the eyes of the Orthodox Church, the statements of faith put out by the seven councils possess, along with the Bible, an abiding and irrevocable authority.
The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed stands as the most important of all statements to come out of these councils as it defines and protects the doctrine of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
3) Later Councils – Many councils followed the 7th Ec. Council in 787 A.D. Although not holding “Ecumenical” authority, they did help shape the local and global practices of the Orthodox Church. Many of the decrees of these councils are no longer applicable to the Church today as the situations they addressed at the time no longer exist. (See #6 Canon Law for more information on this issue).
4) The Fathers – The Orthodox Church has never attempted to define exactly who the Fathers are. Nor does the Church attempt to rank or classify them in order of importance. Many of the writers of the 4th century hold special esteem for the Church, as well as some of later centuries. The Three Hierarchs are especially revered: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom. Indeed, some contemporary Orthodox writers may one day be considered “Fathers” in the years to come.
5) The Divine Liturgy – The Church’s worship preserves an inner ‘Tradition’ that has been handed down in a mystery. You could say this is part of the “word of mouth” spoken by the Apostle Paul to Timothy when he says “hold to the Traditions you have received from us, whether by word of mouth or by letter…” Orthodox faith is expressed in its worship and in its prayer. Although it is possible to study and dissect each of the many services within Orthodox worship, one cannot truly understand the faith intellectually: it must be experienced through actually participating in the prayer and worship of the Church through the services.
6) Canon Law – (Yes, Judith, there is a Sainted Clause: If you didn’t catch the joke, ask me about it later…) The Church has many rules of government for its organization and discipline. Although one may categorize these rules in a variety of ways, four focuses may be highlighted: Administration Codes, Penitential Codes, Procedural Codes, and Monastic Codes. Canon Law may be considered simply “the attempt to apply dogma to practical situations in the daily life of each Christian.”
7) Icons – The art of the Church helps express our Tradition and Theology. Through Icons the Orthodox Christian receives a vision of the spiritual world. Orthodox Iconography has rules and regulations as to what can and cannot be done at the hands of the Iconographer. These guidelines help preserve the continuity and accurate teachings a particular Icon may portray. Also, Icons are not painted; they are “written” as they “express the theology of the Church in line and color”.
See you next time with another chapter of Orthodoxy 101.