As Orthodox Christians, we often speak of the traditions of our Church. In fact, Orthodoxy is usually referred to as a “traditional” church and many people associate us with the customs and traditions of our food festivals and the unique celebrations during Holy Week and Pascha. While these and other aspects of our faith are truly essential to the praxis of life, a sharp distinction should be drawn between them and something we term as “Holy Tradition.” Let me stress: we consider our traditions to be a significant part of our faith, but they are by no means substitutes for our Orthodox understanding, our Holy Tradition.
From the moment of Christ’s Ascension into Heaven, the Apostles held the belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the Divine Son of God who was incarnate for our sakes, was crucified and rose again from the dead. This belief was born from their understanding of Scripture (which for them only included what we call the Old Testament as the New Testament was not completely written and compiled yet) and applied to their current situation. This Traditional understanding of the Lord Jesus was normative for the early Church and was believed everywhere by everyone calling him or herself a Christian. It also established the fact that Tradition is in its roots Apostolic.
The belief of the early Church found itself sedimented in the writings of the New Testament. What that means, is that this Traditional understanding/belief of the Lord Jesus is witnessed to successive generations (i.e. you and I!) through the Apostolic writings and thus for the Orthodox Christian Church, Holy Scripture is the sole source of the revelation of our God. Scripture is, in the words of St. Vincent of Lerins, “perfect and self-sufficient.” (ad omnia satis superque sufficiat) Most of us regard the Bible as such and ascribe to it the rightful place as the Word of God.
At first glance, this may seem like the end of the story, but upon deeper examination we have found that this logic can be pushed to extremes. One such extreme is the well known Protestant doctrine of “sola Scriptura” which basically implies that Scripture is all that any Christian needs and each man can interpret it, privately by himself. But herein is precisely where the problem lies. You see, Scripture can be interpreted differently by different people. Some of these interpretations were (and are) incorrect. For example, an obvious misunderstanding of the Apostolic writings was put forth by the fourth century heretic Arios, who said that the Word and Son of God (the Second Person of the Trinity) was a creature that was made by God the Father. This is in direct contradiction to numerous passages in the Bible, not the least of which is John 1:1 which says, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
To safeguard against this type of “private” interpretation, an authoritative explanation –or rather, interpretation—must be given. What is ultimately sought then, is the “Orthodox” interpretation of the Word of God, where the word “Orthodox” means “right/correct understanding.” St. Vincent offers the “common” mind of the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church as that authority. And this “common” mind of the Church is precisely that Holy Tradition that we have been speaking of! For St. Vincent, Tradition did not add anything to Scripture, nor was it a complimentary source of faith, but rather Holy Tradition was the only means to ascertain the true meaning of Scripture. Tradition was, in fact, the authentic interpretation of Scripture and thus co-existent with Scripture. In his own words, “Tradition is actually Scripture rightly understood.”
When applied to our Church, it becomes clear why the major aspects of our faith are as important as they are. For starters, we constantly refer to the “Fathers of the Church.” The importance of these holy men (and women) is found in their writings which teach us about God and His will for us and use Scripture as the proof for their arguments. They correctly taught the precepts of the Faith by adhering strictly to the Tradition that had been handed down to them in an unbroken line from the Apostles themselves. To see that their works are simply the correct exegesis of Scripture, one only needs to examine the writings of St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great, St. Irenaeus, St. John of Damascus and St. Athanasios.
Second, the Holy Tradition is manifest through the Creeds and Councils of the Church. The Seven Ecumenical Councils professed the proper beliefs in God and formulated them in creedal statements. The most obvious of those is the Nicene Creed which was produced at the first Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 325 A.D. It should be noted that every word in the Creed comes directly from Scripture except “of one essence” (homoousios) which caused great debate because it was “non-Scriptural”. It was eventually accepted and inserted in the Creed because it was believed to adhere to the Church’s Traditional understanding of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Next, we see—or rather, hear—the Tradition of the Church sung at every Divine Service. The hymns of the Divine Liturgy and the other services, correctly expound the true teaching of God. Take a moment and reflect on the Second antiphon (O Only Begotten Son and Word of God who art immortal…) that we sing every Sunday. This hymn, along with all the others, expresses what the early Church has always maintained, that the Son of God is from everlasting and not a creation of God the Father. (Note: the Second Antiphon is one of the oldest hymns of the Christian Church, from about the second century A.D.)
Lastly, we see the Tradition of the Apostles handed down through the iconography of our Church. By no means is an icon an attempt to paint a portrait of the Lord, if it were it might be more naturalistic (in fact Orthodox iconographers don’t “paint” an icon, they “write” it). Rather, icons teach us the truth about Christ. If you examine the two icons on either side of the Royal Doors, for example, you will see the Traditional belief of Christ portrayed. The icon of Christ always portrays the Lord in a red undergarment with a blue outer garment. Red is a symbol for divinity and blue a symbol for humanity. The statement is that Christ in His essence is divine who clothed himself with humanity. To look at the icon of the Theotokos, we see that she is clothed in a blue undergarment with a red outer garment. That statement is that she is human and took within her womb the Divine Son of God who willed to become incarnate. Thus, to look at icons is not simply to see fancy pictures, but rather, a correct expression of the Apostolic Faith.
While there are many other aspects of Holy Tradition, such as the lives of the Saints and the Sacred Canons, let the previous discussion suffice to remind us that we are part of a living Tradition that is guided by the Holy Spirit within the Church. It is our responsibility, therefore, to see that this Holy Tradition continues in the life of the Church through the lives of her members. I leave you with the words of the Synodikon (Confession of Faith) which is said every year during the Sunday of Orthodoxy:
As the prophets beheld, as the Apostles have taught, as the Church has received, as the teachers have dogmatized, as the Universe has agreed, as Grace has shown forth, as Truth has revealed, as falsehood has been dissolved, as Wisdom has presented, as Christ has awarded, thus we declare, thus we assert, thus we preach Christ our true God, and honor His Saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in Holy icons; on the one hand worshipping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord; and on the other hand honoring as true servants of the same Lord of all and accordingly offering them veneration. This is the Faith of the Apostles, this is the Faith of the Fathers, this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith which has established the Universe!