Holy Tradition

Holy Tradition is the deposit of faith given by Jesus Christ to the Apostles and passed on in the Church from one generation to the next without addition, alteration or subtraction. Vladimir Lossky has famously described the Tradition as “the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.” It is dynamic in application, yet unchanging in dogma. It is growing in expression, yet ever the same in essence.

Unlike many conceptions of tradition in popular understanding, the Orthodox Church does not regard Holy Tradition as something which grows and expands over time, forming a collection of practices and doctrines which accrue, gradually becoming something more developed and eventually unrecognizable to the first Christians. Rather, Holy Tradition is that same faith which Christ taught to the Apostles and which they gave to their disciples, preserved in the whole Church and especially in its leadership through Apostolic Succession.

Holy Tradition in the Bible

As understood by many protestants (especially those of the more evangelical persuasion), Tradition stands in contrast to Scripture. However, there are number references in Holy Scripture to Holy Tradition. For example:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. Luke 1:1-4 (Note: In this instance, the oral word preceded the written word. Hence Holy Tradition.)

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.John 20:30-31

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. John 21:25

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 1 Corinthians 5:9-10 (Note: Here Paul makes a reference to a letter written to Corinth before the letter we know today as 1st Corinthians. This letter is unknown to modern scholars.

Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 1 Corinthians 11:2

And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea. Colossians 4:16 (Note: The “epistle from Laodicea” is not available to us today is written form.)

So then, brothers, stand firm, and cling to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. 2 Thessalonians 2:15

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 2 Thessalonians 3:6

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The Veneration of the Holy Virgin in the Ancient Church

It is only in relatively recent times that we have Christians teaching that Mary had children after the birth of the Saviour. All the early reformers, including Luther and Calvin, believed Mary to be Ever Virgin. The practice in biblical times was to refer to all cousins as siblings, and none of the early Christians believed Mary had born any children other than Jesus.

The veneration of the Virgin did not begin with the Medieval Church, but began in the Early Church. The designation of Mary as Theotokos (Birthgiver of God) is found on an Egyptian papyrus fragment from the year 250 A.D., proving it was not a later invention. The prayer reads, “Under your mercy we take refuge Mother of God; may our petitions not be abandoned into temptation, but from danger deliver us, only pure and blessed.”

The problem with viewing the Bible as the only authority for the Christian life, is that everyone who buys into the personal interpretation of Scripture becomes the authority, and the memory of the teachings and practices of the Early Church are forgotten, replaced with the mess that followed the division of the Western Church into denominations.

When we do not have Holy Tradition and Holy Scripture held side by side in importance, we go astray. The key to Orthodoxy’s claim to being the Ancient Apostolic Church preserved in all her purity, can be seen in her insistence that Holy Tradition has kept her way of worship, and her dogma, unchanged. No need for change, for the Church knows the truth of the words, “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints (Jude 1:3)”.

It is liberating to discover we need not search the Bible to understand the meaning of the Word of God for ourselves. There is no need to reinvent Christianity for this modern age, in a feeble attempt to make Christianity relevant. We can even avoid the prideful arrogance of thinking we can decipher the meaning of the Bible, for we need only look to the Church for the truth that has been preserved from the very beginning. We can say with certainty that we keep to the faith of our fathers. The veneration of the Holy Virgin Mary is but one example of our connection, unbroken, with the Early Apostolic Church.

With love in Christ,
Abbot Tryphon

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About padrerichard

I am a Priest with ROCOR and serve as Rector at St. Joseph of Optina Parish in Virginia Beach, VA
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