The idea of “tradition” is deceptively simple. The word itself simply means “handing down” or “that which is handed down.” It is also something with which we are intimately familiar, for each one of us lives within a web of traditions that influences everything from the ways in which we celebrate family or national events to our general world-view, whether an “enlightened” commitment to rational inquiry or a more religious outlook. To be a Christian also means to stand within a tradition. Even those who, following the Protestant Reformation, claim that Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the only legitimate ground for faith and theology, nevertheless stand within a tradition, inheriting certain assumptions and attitudes. Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, embrace their tradition, laying great emphasis on tradition itself as a fundamental dimension of the Christian faith and of their life in the Church.
But what is this tradition to which Orthodox Christianity lays claim? The Orthodox speak about “tradition” so frequently that the term tends to become rather vague. Heirs to a two thousand year old tradition, we inherit a vast treasury of riches – theological, liturgical, artistic, ascetic. But this very richness creates its own difficulty, for not everything handed down is of equal importance. As St. Cyprian put it, “tradition without truth is but the antiquity of error.” We need to know what is true, not simply what is old. Modern Orthodox theologians have rightly emphasized that tradition is not simply a mindless repetition, but a living, creative faithfulness. However, we need to be clear about exactly what it is that we must be faithful to, if we are going to be able to embody this living tradition, speaking the same word of truth to an ever-changing world.
It would be wrong to say that we have both Scripture and tradition, for tradition is not an independent source of authority. Rather, tradition is the continuity of the correct faith. “Scripture understood rightly” as Fr. Georges Florovsky put it, which has found numerous expressions/embodying the same truth, over the last two millennia – conciliar statements on doctrine and church order, iconography, liturgical practices and so on. But it would be equally mistaken to claim that Scripture is part of tradition.
It is true that the Church was already in existence, granting new birth to Christians through Baptism and celebrating the Eucharist, before the texts of the New Testament were written and collected. Yet we must not lose sight of the fact that the earliest proclamation of the Gospel, upon which the Church is founded, already refers to the Scriptures: the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets, which we now call the “Old Testament.”
In one of the earliest statements of the Christian proclamation, the importance of this reference to the scriptures is emphasized; “I delivered (literally “traditioned”) to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (I Cor. 15:3-5). So significant is this reference to the Scriptures that Paul mentions it twice within a short sentence. What Paul “traditions” as the basis of the Christian faith is the understanding and proclamation of the crucified and exalted Christ “according to the Scriptures,” referring, not to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but to the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. So important is this “tradition” that the reference to the Scriptures is preserved in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed which is the common inheritance of most Christians to this day: we still confess that Christ died and rose “according to the (same) Scriptures.”
The principle that Paul “traditions” is made clear by the Gospels. According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, the disciples abandoned Christ at the time of his Passion; Peter even denied knowing him. Whatever they learned from Christ or witnessed him doing was not enough to persuade them of who Christ truly is. Only in the light of Christ’s suffering and exaltation did they turn again to the scriptures, under the guidance of the risen Christ, to understand finally who he is: “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself… he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures and said to them. Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead'” (Lk. 24:27, 45). As Paul says, we no longer know Christ according to the flesh (2 Cor. 5:16), but according to the Spirit The Spirit, whom Christ promised to send, leads us into the fullness of truth concerning Christ (Jn. 14:25-26), so that we can confess that he is indeed the Lord (I Cor. 12:3), the one spoken of in the Scriptures. The importance of Christ’s passion in understanding who he is, is also emphasized in the Gospel of John where unlike the other Gospels, Christ is not abandoned at the Cross, for standing by him are his mother and the beloved disciple. Furthermore, this is the “tradition” which marks out the four Gospels of the New Testament from all the other writings claiming to be apostolic. Each of these Gospels proclaims the crucified and risen Christ by reference to the Scriptures while a work such as the Gospel of Thomas, even if it contains authentic historical material, does not proclaim the passion of Christ nor does it proclaim him “according to the Scriptures.”
But the Gospel of Christ which we proclaim is still the Gospel of the “coming one” (cf Matt 11:3), the one who is seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven, where the true citizenship of Christians lie’ and from which they await their Savior, the Lore Jesus Christ, trusting that he will change their lowly form to be like his glorious body (Phil 3:20) The “tradition” which the apostles have bequeathed to us, therefore, is not fixed in one text (we have foul Gospels, after all, presenting the versions of the foul evangelists). Rather the “tradition” in which we stand, as Orthodox Christians, is the contemplation of Christ “according to the Scriptures,” remaining true to the deposit handed over by the apostles, yet with our faces towards the future, towards the one who is still conning. The Word “grows,” as Acts puts it (Acts 6:7), in that as more and more people believe in it and reflect on it, the Word is embodied in an increasing variety of ways that express the fullness of that faith which has been delivered from the beginning, the same Gospel, the same Word of God – Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb 13:8).
It is this quest that Christ challenges us with, when he asks “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). And it is a task that cannot be avoided. Even when his friend John the Baptist was in prison, about to be executed, and sent his disciples to Christ to ask him “are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Christ did not answer him directly. Rather he told them to tell John what they saw, that the blind could see, the lame could walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear (Matt. 11,2-5). In other words, Christ himself directed John back to the Scriptures where he would be able to understand these messianic signs and know that Christ is indeed the Messiah. This contemplation of Christ “according to the Scriptures,” is what we do when we gather together in and as the Church, in expectancy of his return and in the confidence of his presence, for we are his body, praising God in and for Christ, in and by the Spirit, using language, images and words, drawn from the scripture. The hymnography as well as the iconography that adorns the Church and the beauty of the liturgical rites themselves, form a matrix, a womb, in which we are born again in his image, as Christians. The tradition of contemplating Christ “according to the Scriptures” is a task which each of us is called to undertake, in the confidence that when he appears we shall be like him (Jn. 3:2).
By Father John Behr