To understand anything it often helps to know its history, to explore the factors that made it what it is. I wrote recently to make the point that every religious community must necessarily follow some sort of tradition, whether that tradition be derived from the Apostles, or the ancient Fathers and Mothers of the Church of the first centuries, or St Thomas Aquinas, or Martin Luther or John Calvin, or even L. Ron Hubbard. The difference between the different denominations is not whether or not they are traditional, but which tradition they follow. Of course, a Church may be either more or less faithful to its original tradition, and to be sure, Protestants tend to be more comfortable with changing their traditions than Orthodox or Catholics.
What do we mean by ‘tradition’? And which tradition characterises the Orthodox Christian Church? We mean here a faith, worldview and way of life that defines who we are and directs all that we do. Orthodox tradition has its roots in the life and teachings of Christ Himself, and is a long unbroken chain passed down faithfully through the millennia in an unbroken line. It includes the things we believe, most succinctly summarised in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed that we often recite when we pray formal prayers. It includes the interpretations of that Creed expounded by the leading lights of the early Church who studied and wrote and taught in the generations after the Apostles and received their faith either directly or indirectly from them. It includes the Books of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, including the Deuterocanonical Books, and preferably in the Septuagint Translation which was the version used by Christ, His Apostles and the ancient Fathers.
Tradition is not something you put up on the wall and admire every now and then, but generally ignore when you go about your ‘real’ life. Tradition is something that fills our hearts and thoughts and colours our every word and action. To live as an Orthodox Christian means to live in a certain way, according to certain principles of morality and ethics, to practice love in an unconditional way reflecting the divine love of Christ, through whom we touch the ineffable divine love of the Father, aided by the grace of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us and enables us to overcome our weaknesses and love as we could never love by ourselves. The tradition of the Church teaches us that the God of Love longs to draw us up into the ‘circle’ of love that exists between the Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our faith, our worldview and our way of life are all directed at achieving this one goal, being transformed and becoming thereby the pure image and likeness of God He had always intended us to be. Tradition must be lived, or else it is an empty, lifeless husk.
To be Orthodox means to be part of this ancient tradition. It matters for at least one important reason: authenticity. The scholars of all Christian denominations spend a lot of time on things like making sure that the text of the Bible we have today is as accurate as possible, as close as possible to the original manuscripts. We care about this because we want to know exactly what the authors of the Bible wanted to say, what Jesus Himself really said and did. But there is another important step in this process authentication. Any text must be interpreted. Non-Apostolic Churches (Protestants) have done their best over the past five hundred years to interpret the Gospel as Christ intended, but they laboured under a serious disadvantage. They worked from the text alone, and chose to ignore how the Church had interpreted that text for one and a half thousand years. They had some reason for this, for European Christianity in the sixteenth century had indeed degenerated in many deplorable ways. What they did not take into account is that together with the later, erroneous interpretations of the Roman Catholic Church, there were mixed many very ancient interpretations that had come from the time of the Apostles themselves and their immediate successors. In choosing to interpret the Bible anew with little regard for that tradition of interpretation, they were very much throwing out the baby with the bath water.
The Eastern Church, isolated as it was geographically, politically and culturally from the West, never adopted many of those medieval Roman Catholic innovations. We shall look at the differences in theology between East and West in a later post. But here we are interested in the best way to get at the most authentic, most accurate interpretation of the Christian Gospel. Any text is open to any number of different interpretations. How are we to know the right one, the one intended by Christ and the authors of the Bible? Sure, I could just sit down with my Bible and pray for God to illuminate me, and just work it out from scratch, as the Protestants do. But clearly this method has its flaws, otherwise we would not have the bewildering variety of interpretations we find among the thousands of Protestant denominations, many of which are complete opposites of each other. How can I be sure that it is indeed the Holy Spirit giving me this interpretation, and not just me deluding myself? Wouldn’t it be great to be able to ask the authors of the Bible themselves what they meant? Well, short of a time machine, that’s not going to happen, but we do have the next best thing; a tradition that was given by the Apostles of Christ themselves and passed down from generation to generation of how to understand and live the Gospel of Christ.
Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.
But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us.
(2Thessalonians 2:15, 3:6)
Nor do we have to rely on fallible human memory alone, for we are blessed to have a large body of writings from the first generations of Christians, together with a lot of other evidence like inscriptions, implements and so on that tell us an awful lot about how they interpreted and lived the Gospel. Our Orthodox tradition turns out to be remarkably faithful to all we can find out about that ancient form of Christianity, as many seekers and converts to Orthodoxy often point out. In the few areas where it has diverged, sometimes we can and should revise what we are doing now to restore that ancient tradition, and sometimes the divergence does not touch the heart of the tradition but is a necessary response to a changing world that is worth preserving. Remember that tradition is not a static, dead museum piece, but something that is living and vibrant and responsive to those who live it and their world. Something that will help us here is the distinction made by some between capital ‘T’ Tradition and small ‘t’ tradition.
Not everything received from the past is of equal value, nor is everything received from the past necessarily true. As one of the bishops remarked at the Council of Carthage in 257, ‘The Lord said, I am truth. He did not say, I am custom.’ There is a difference between “Tradition” and “traditions”: many traditions which the past has handed down are human and accidental—pious opinions (or worse), but not a true part of the one Tradition, the fundamental Christian message. (Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, 1993, “The Orthodox Church”, page 206)
I think this is a very useful distinction to make. Capital ‘T’ Tradition is the faith and core principles, the underlying truths of Christianity. It is something we cannot tamper with and should not try, anymore than you can tamper with the laws of physics, for it reflects the deep reality of God and of the world He created, including us. Small ‘t’ traditions, however, are those ideas and practices people have developed to express and live that Tradition in their world. This latter type of tradition would include things like the languages and tunes we use for worship, whether we sit down for a full Middle Eastern meal after the liturgy or just for coffee and cake, as well as how we go about our business around the Church in general. Now I am not saying that we can just change these traditions willy-nilly. Change for change’s sake is rarely a good thing. But when it is necessary to change some of these traditions, we should not be dismayed. St Paul suggested that we should be willing to become all things to all men in order to win them to Christ, and if we need to let children play the drums in an African liturgy because that is their language of worship, then so be it – we have not in any way damaged the Tradition of the Church. Rather, by adapting our traditions we have made the Tradition more accessible to them, and brought them closer to Christ – which we must not forget, is what it is all really about.
Some of the things we are used to doing are expressions of Tradition. Thus, something like the Kiss of Peace we perform during the liturgy is a Biblical and Apostolic Tradition that expresses our unity of heart, mind and spirit, and the love between us that overcomes any differences we might sometimes have. The Kiss of Peace is so important in its message that it might well be considered part of the capital ‘T’ Tradition. However, if we were to get bogged down on the technicalities of how we exchange the Kiss of Peace: one hand or two; what do you say when you exchange it; and so on, we would be falling into the mistake of confusing tradition for Tradition. Down that road lies the kind of superficiality that we need to avoid at all costs. This is what Pelikan was trying to say, I think, in his famous quote:
“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living”
Those who mistake tradition for Tradition and insist upon the former with the same vehemence as they do the latter fall into the error he calls traditionalism, where traditions of convenience devised by humans become almost the object of worship; become, in fact, a false idol. That way lies the kind of Pharisaism that Christ so strongly condemned in His own society. And that is why it is so important for us to carefully distinguish between the two, so that we know what to fight for, and what to give up when it is helpful to do so.
NEXT: The Bible