Scripture and Tradition - Part 3: Tradition
Dn. Michael Hyatt · October 18, 2008
What do Orthodox Christians say about Tradition and how does that compare with Roman Catholic and Evangelical assumptions?
This is Part Three in kind of a miniseries as we’ve set up this course on what Orthodox Christians believe. And we’ve been looking at Scripture and Tradition, and before I go any further, I want to say how heavily indebted I’ve been to Clark Carlton’s book “The Way” which has got a whole section on Scripture and Tradition, and it’s fantastic. And then Gail bought for me, last night, at the bookstore a book called “Sola Scriptura” by Father John Whiteford which is also excellent and surprisingly parallels much of what we’ve talked about. But I read it last night. It’s very short, and you can read it almost in one sitting.
Let me just go back. The first class we looked at the presuppositions behind Scripture and Tradition and particularly the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, and just by way of reminder, if this is the first time you’re in this class, Sola Scriptura means “scripture alone.” And the Reformers, from which this phrase came, were big on trying to distinguish those things that they felt were of the essence of the faith, and they felt that the Roman Catholics had muddied the waters, so to speak, by bringing in all these traditions that obscured the pure knowledge of the gospel. And so, they wanted to remove that and get back to Scripture alone. They felt this way about many things, including the doctrine of faith and works, that if you could just clear away the works and get back to pure faith, that that was really the task before the Church of that day.
Unfortunately, as I said last week, in trying to avoid one danger, they fell into another. Instead of running off side of the road, they overcorrected and ran off another side of the road. So, we looked at the presuppositions in the first week, and then last week, we looked at some the proof-texts that are typically used in proving the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, including II Timothy 3:16-17, and just let me give you a quick two-minute review. That’s the passage that says “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The problem with that verse is that if indeed proves anything, it proves the sufficiency of the Old Testament because that would’ve been the only Scriptures that St. Timothy would’ve had access to from his childhood which is what St. Paul refers to in the verses immediately preceding this.
So, it really kind of over-proves the point, and indeed all through the New Testament, when the Scripture refers to “the” Scriptures, it’s referring first and foremost to the Old Testament Scripture. It would be at least three centuries before the New Testament canon would be collected and widely distributed and agreed upon. So, we sometimes, I think, as moderns think that everything that we have today somehow they had back then, and so that the early Church gathered together for Bible study, and they just didn’t. There weren’t Bibles to study in those days. There were scrolls, there were Scriptures that were being circulated, and there certainly were the Old Testament texts which they could study, and in them, they found them speaking of Christ, but there wasn’t a New Testament as we know it today. So, we looked at a lot of those Scriptures last week, and this week what I’d like to look at is turn really from our consideration of Scripture to a consideration of Tradition. And that’s really the topic for today.
In defending Sola Scriptura, Protestant apologists invariably use Roman Catholic theology as a foil. Now, you have to understand and have a little bit of sympathy for the Reformers. They didn’t have access, like we do, to the writings of the Eastern fathers. Many of those were unknown to them. The writings, for example, of St. Ignatius of Antioch were unknown to the Reformers, which clearly lays out the kind of Church government that the Church really practiced throughout Church history until the Protestant Reformation. But they didn’t have access to that, and they often used Roman Catholic theology as a foil. They assert that Roman Catholics accept two sources of authority, Scripture and Tradition, and that Tradition is given equal weight with Scripture. And according to the Protestant apologists, Roman Catholic reliance on Tradition has resulted in the modern doctrines of the Immaculate Conception, purgatory, papal infallibility, etc. And they believe that Sola Scriptura is really the only safeguard against said aberrant doctrinal developments.
Well, how do we respond as Orthodox Christians? Well, the doctrinal aberrations of the Roman Catholic Church, in our view, are manifestly not part of the universal Tradition of the Church. So, in that sense, we would stand in agreement with the Protestant Reformation in that these things that they were reacting to, many of these things, we would also regard as aberrant. In particular, we oppose the Roman doctrines of universal papal jurisdiction, papal infallibility, the filioque, purgatory, the Immaculate Conception, precisely because, from our perspective, they’re untraditional. They are not part of the universal Tradition of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The Orthodox Churches never accepted the Roman Catholic assertion that there are two sources of authority within the Church. This is really important to understand because if we’re not careful, as we talk to Evangelicals and as we try to understand their world view, we can fall kind of into the assumption or the presupposition that there are, in fact, two sources of authority within the Church. Our position as Orthodox Christians would be no, there’s only one source of authority within the Church, and that’s Apostolic Tradition, and it is manifest in two forms: the written form and the oral form, but it all flows from the same fountainhead. So, from our perspective, Scripture and Tradition cannot be pitted against one another. It’s a false dichotomy. Tradition is one. However, it does come, and we acknowledge, in two forms.
Now, let’s just admit from the get-go here, that if you look at the New Testament, Jesus does seem to rail often against tradition. And these texts, in fact which we’re going to look at in just a moment, become the source of often throwing the baby out with the bathwater, of completely nullifying the importance of Tradition at all. So, for example, let’s look at Matthew 15:2. Matthew 15:2, and if you’re following along in the Orthodox Study Bible, I’m going to give you the page numbers here, but it’s page 1296. Matthew 15:2, Jesus says — actually it’s the Pharisees saying to Jesus:
Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.
Now, the word tradition comes from the Greek word paradosis, which just means “to hand over, to deliver.” It’s really just the same idea as running a relay race where one runner hands a baton to the next runner. It’s the passing along of what one has been taught to subsequent generations. And so, the Pharisees accuse Jesus and his disciples of transgressing the tradition of the elders. And it seems fairly trivial. They’re not washing their hands. That’s a big deal in the Jewish tradition. And in verse 3, “He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?” So even Jesus here seems to pit tradition and the commandments of God against one another, but as I’ll show in a moment, he’s really not doing that. He says:
For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God” then he need not honor his father and mother. Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you…
Then he goes on to talk about what Isaiah said about these people who honor God with their lips but not with their hearts, and so he, again, seems to pit Tradition and Scripture against one another. There are actually thirteen verses in the New Testament that use the word “tradition.” Ten of these verses are used in a negative sense. Three of these verses are used in a positive sense, and I want us to look at those first because all the other ones that I could list — and let me just give you some other ones if you want to look them up later. Mark 7:3,5,8,9, and 13. You can look at Galatians 1:14 or Colossians 2:8, but these are the ones that use tradition in the negative sense. But in three of these verses, tradition is used in a positive sense. The first one is I Corinthians 11:2, and that’s on page 1563. And again, St. Paul says,
Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.
So here’s something that St. Paul had that he very carefully and methodically delivered to the Corinthians, and he’s now exhorting them that they keep these traditions. So on the one hand, Jesus seems to condemn it: traditions, and here St. Paul says it’s a positive thing, it should be passed along and believers, in fact, ought to adhere to it. OK, another passage. II Thessalonians 2:15, and I’ve got that on page 1631. This is a really important verse. You know, if you’re going to underline a verse about this doctrine, this would be one to underline. “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or by our epistle.” So, St. Paul here to the Thessalonians says, stand fast, hold steady, don’t give it up. Resist, hold fast, he says, and how do you do that? And “hold the traditions” which you’ve been given.
Now, the interesting thing here is that he delineates these two forms because he says “whether by word or by our epistle.” So at that time, there are some epistles circulating, and St. Paul is saying we need to adhere to those, those are authoritative in the Church, but also our word, what we’re orally communicating is also authoritative in the Church. One source, Apostolic Tradition, two forms: oral and written. And both of them have equal authority in the Church. II Thessalonians 3:6, this is on page 1631. St Paul says, “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.” So somebody not walking according to the tradition which had been received from St. Paul is enough for St. Paul to exhort the Thessalonians to withdraw themselves from such a person. So, it was authoritative. It is interesting by the way, I just have to note this as a Bible publisher, that the New International Version of the Bible always translates paradosis as “tradition” when it’s used in the negative sense, and the same Greek word, they translate “teachings” when it’s used in a positive context. But it’s the same exact Greek word. You think there might be some pre-suppositional commitment there before they translate? I think so.
Well, clearly there are two kinds of tradition we have to acknowledge. There is tradition that Jesus himself condemns, and there is tradition that the apostles esteem. How do we reconcile these two things? Well it’s actually simpler than you think. It has to do with the source of the tradition because in the case of the Pharisees’ tradition, Jesus refers to it again and again as the “traditions of men.” That’s what’s condemned. And particularly when the tradition of men, which is also inevitable, it happens in every Church, every parish, but when those are elevated, the traditions of men, above the word of God, even above Apostolic Tradition, then they get in the way of what God is trying to accomplish through his word and through Tradition.
On the other hand, the source of the Tradition that St. Paul esteems is none other than God himself and through Christ to the apostles. This is the gospel that’s passed along from one generation to the other in two forms: both written and oral. So it’s the source, and I think we still have to ask ourselves that question today. There are many things that even in the Orthodox Church that are fine traditions, but they aren’t “the” Tradition of God. Capital T. And the way I had it explained to me, and I think it’s a good way to think of it is there’s Tradition, capital T, the Holy Tradition, Tradition which is binding upon us as Christians, and traditions, small t, which is sometimes not only not a good thing, sometimes it actually opposes the gospel and opposes Tradition. So, we have to distinguish those two things, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Tradition is inescapable. If it’s not going to be Apostolic Tradition, it’s not like this book just sits up, this Bible, and speaks to us about what it means. And as I pointed out last week, if it was so clear that anyone unaided by anything except human reason could understand it, then everybody would agree what it said. But the fact of the matter is, that there are thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of commentaries and Christian books written to try to explain what it means. And there’s thousands upon thousands of Protestant denominations who agree on really nothing other than the fact that the Scripture can stand on its own, and we see where that leads us: to all these disparate opinions, all these different viewpoints, all these denominations. So in a way, Tradition is kind of a fence. It’s a context. It’s a place where we stand as we read the Scripture so we can understand the sense of what is meant there.
Adherence to Sola Scriptura sometimes acknowledges that initially there was valid oral tradition, however when the last of the Scriptures were completed, there was no longer any need for oral tradition. What they forget, though, is that the canonization process, the process of the letters then in circulation, became Scripture, or at least were acknowledged as Scripture, it took centuries. It wasn’t until the fourth century that we have a list of the 27 books of the New Testament. Now, certain books were distributed and were beyond dispute, but there were many books that were being distributed that didn’t make it, ultimately, because they were regarded as spurious or false. Nowhere does St. Paul or any other apostle instruct his readers to forgo oral tradition once they have received written instructions, in fact the contrary point is made in II Thessalonians. He acknowledges that there was a written tradition, but there’s also an oral tradition, and not everything is committed to writing.
I was talking to one of my daughters this morning about this, and I said it’s almost like in a family. You know, if you got my will, and you’ve got certain letters I’ve written to Gail, and you’ve gotten some other documents that we have as a family, insurance documents, you could piece together part of our lives. But you would miss the essence of it because there’s a lot of things that we do in our family that aren’t documented. I mean, we have a tradition in our family that when we get together and eat a meal, one of the first things that Gail asks, and she’s trained me to ask, is what was the best thing that happened to you today? Nowhere do we have that documented. This is the liturgy of our table that we practice every time we eat a meal together, but there are thousands of things just like that that occur in our family that if you just took the written documents and tried to distill the essence of our family, you would miss it entirely.
And the same thing, yeah, there are written documents—many of the New Testament epistles were written to correct problems, but you don’t find a comprehensive pattern of worship in the New Testament. You don’t find a communion service. So, in the absence of that, guess what happens? It’s not like anybody just takes what’s written in the Scripture and they do that and nothing more. No, instead they concoct another tradition. The Reformed tradition has a certain way of doing it, the Lutherans have a certain way of doing it, the Baptists have another way of it, and there becomes a tradition that builds up, but it’s the traditions of men. It’s not Apostolic Tradition. It’s not that which was passed along. Contrary to this, consider the words of St. John Chrysostom commenting on II Thessalonians 2:15. Again that’s the one about the written and the oral traditions. This is what St. John Chrysostom says, and he quotes the verse first. He says:
“Therefore brethren stand fast and hold the traditions you have been taught whether by word or by letter.” From this it is clear that they did not hand over everything by letter, but there was much also that was not written. Like that which was written, the unwritten too is worthy of belief. Let us regard the Tradition of the Church also as worthy of belief. Is it Tradition? Seek no further.
And he writes that in the homilies — his homilies on the second epistle to the Thessalonians, his chapter 4 and verse 2. The problem is that many Protestants use the Bible to create a system of doctrine as opposed to connecting them to the source of life. And that’s what the Scriptures were intended to be all along: a signpost that points us to Christ in whom is our life. That’s what the sacraments are for. Everything in the Church exists to “effect” our union with Christ. That’s what baptism is about, that’s what chrismation is about, that’s what every sacrament in the Church is about: connecting us to Christ. And so it’s not just that we learn about Christ in reading the Scriptures, but we are joined with him as we read the Scriptures and as we interpret within the context of Holy Tradition. St. Basil makes it clear that Holy Tradition is more than a set of ideas. It just isn’t an idea sourcebook for preachers to come up with some message on a Sunday morning. It’s more than that. St. Basil says,
Concerning the teachings of the Church, whether publicly proclaimed, the kerygma, or reserved to members of the household of faith, dogmata, we have received some from written sources while others have been given to us secretly through Apostolic Tradition. Both sources have equal force in true religion. No one would deny either source, no one at any rate who is even slightly familiar with the ordinances of the Church. If we attacked unwritten customs claiming them to be of little importance, we would fatally mutilate the gospel, no matter what our intentions or rather we would reduce the gospel teaching to bare words.
And that’s from his book on the Holy Spirit, paragraph 66. Boy, it’s almost like he foresaw what was going to happen in the 16th century and warned against it, that you can’t just get back to the bare words and somehow create Church out of that. St. Basil goes on in the same book to explain why not everything was written down.
Are not all these things found in unpublished and unwritten teachings which our fathers guarded in silence, safe from meddling and petty curiosity? They had learned their lesson well, reverence for the mysteries is best encouraged by silence. The uninitiated were not even allowed to be present at the mysteries.
By the way, in the liturgy, when the deacon says “the doors, the doors”, that’s a remnant to remind us that those who had not been baptized and chrismated were not permitted in the service to observe the mysteries beyond that point. In the early Church, those that were baptized had never seen baptism. Those that communed were, for the first time, present in the liturgy. It was not something that was open to the public. St. Basil goes on — let me back up to get the context again. “The uninitiated were not even allowed to be present at the mysteries. How could you expect these teachings to be paraded about in public documents?”
We’re used to the services being opened to everyone, and as I said, it wasn’t so in the early Church, but it was precisely because the uninitiated wouldn’t understand them. You know, you sometimes wonder, why is it so hard to follow? Well it is sometimes hard to follow to the uninitiated and even to those of who have been again and again, there’s something to learn isn’t there? St. Cyril of Jerusalem also explains why these traditions existed and why they weren’t made public.
I long ago desired trueborn and dearly beloved of the Church to discourse to you these spiritual and heavenly mysterious, but knowing well that seeing is far more persuasive than hearing, I waited until this season that finding you more open to the influence of my words from your experience, I might take and lead you to the brighter and more fragrant meadow of the present paradise, especially as you have been made fit to receive the more sacred mysteries having been counted worthy of divine and life-giving baptism.
In other words, I could’ve explained this to you all beforehand, but it would’ve fallen on deaf ears because until you see it, you’re not going to understand it. He goes on:
In remaining therefore to dress for you a boarded more perfect instruction, let us now teach you exactly about these things that you may know the deep meaning toward you of what was done on that event of your baptism.
So, he’s going to teach them after they’ve experienced the sacrament. This is a key distinction between western and eastern learning because in the West, so often the assumption is, if you can explain it to me and I can buy off it, on my reason, then I’ll embrace it. And in the Psalms, the Psalmist says, “A good understanding have all those who do thy commandments.” In other words, doing precedes knowing. We often dismiss this in the West, but there are some things you won’t understand until you actually do them. And there were a lot of things that I accepted by faith when I became Orthodox that I didn’t fully understand and wasn’t entirely comfortable with, but the scales began to fall off my eyes, and I began to understand them as I began to participate in the services. And I think that’s true for all of us. I think we can enter in and embrace it, and as we do, we begin to understand it. Note here the emphasis on experience. Converts were not taught about the mysteries of the Church until they had been initiated into the sacramental life of the Church through baptism and Holy Chrismation.
And that’s why I encourage people who are not Orthodox but who are interested, if you confine yourself to simply reading Orthodox books, I fear you will probably never really get it. You can get to a point, yes, but I want to say “come and see.” Come and experience. And don’t just come once because you’ll probably be confused the first time, but I encourage people who come for the first time to the Orthodox Church, make a commitment to come at least three times, at least. Then you’ll begin to see that there is an order to it, you begin to see what it’s about, but until that, you’re not going to understand it. I don’t care how many books you read.