Holy Tradition #
Understanding of Holy Tradition in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
“Brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or our letter.” (1 Thessalonians 2:15).
Terminology and Meaning: #
The term “tradition” comes from the Latin “traditio,” the Greek term is “paradosis” and the verb is “paradido.” It means giving, offering, delivering, performing charity. In theological terms it means any teaching or practice which has been transmitted from generation to generation throughout the life of the Church.
The roots and the foundations of Holy Tradition can be found in the Sacred Scriptures. For it is only in the Sacred Scriptures that we can see and live the presence of the Holy Trinity: The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit. St. John the Evangelist speaks about the manifestation of the Holy Trinity: “For the Life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us” (1 John 1:2).
The essence of Christian tradition is described by St. Paul, who writes: “But now in Christ Jesus, you that used to be so far apart from us have been brought very close, by the blood of Christ. For He is peace between us, and has made the two into one and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart, actually destroying in His own person the hostility caused by the rules and decrees of the Law. This was to create one single man in Himself out of the two of them and by restoring peace through the Cross, to unite them both in a single body and reconcile them with God. In His own person He killed the hostility… Through Him, both of us have in one Spirit our way to come to the Father” (Ephesians. 2:13-14). He also makes clear that this Trinitarian Doctrine must be accepted by all Christians: “If any man, preach any other Gospel to you than you have received let him be condemned” (Galatians 1:8-9).
Speaking about the Holy Liturgy - Qiddasie, which is a manifestation of the Holy Trinity, St. Paul writes: “For I have received (parelavon) of the Lord that which I also delivered to you” (1 Corinthians 11:23). Again speaking about the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, St. Paul writes: “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received”. Finally he admonishes: “Brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or our epistle” (1 Thessalonians 2:15).
The Apostolic Tradition: Theologians call this teaching of the Sacred Scriptures “the Apostolic Tradition.” It encompasses what the Holy Apostles lived, saw, witnessed and later recorded in the Books of the New Testament. The Bishops and Priests, whom the Holy Apostles appointed as their successors, followed their teaching to the letter. Those who deviated from this Apostolic teaching were cut off from the Church. They were considered heretics and schismatic, for they believed differently from the Apostles and their Successors, thus separating themselves from the Church.
This brings into focus the Church as the center of unity of all Christians. This is the Ecclesiastical or Ecclesiological characteristic of Holy Tradition. The Church is the image and reflection of the Holy Trinity since the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity live, indwell, and act in the Church. The Father offers His love, the Son offers His obedience, the Holy Spirit His comfort. Only in the historical Church can we see, feel, and live the presence of the Holy Trinity in the World.
In describing this reality St. Paul writes: “So he came and proclaimed the good news: peace to you who were far off, and peace to those who were near by; for through him we both alike have access to the Father in the one Spirit. Thus you are no longer aliens in a foreign land, but fellow-citizens with God’s people, members of God’s household. You are built upon the foundation laid by the Apostles and prophets, and Christ Jesus Himself is the cornerstone. In him the whole building is bonded together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you too are being built with all the rest into a spiritual dwelling of God” (Ephesians 2:17-22).
The unity of the Holy Trinity, being the fundamental reality in the Church and of the Church, also requires a real unity among all its members. All the members of the Church live in the bond of love and unity through the Holy Trinity. This truth is described by St. Peter: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called you out of the darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2: 9-10).
This Church was established as a historical reality on the day of Pentecost, with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles: “While the day of Pentecost was running its course they were all together in one place, when suddenly there came from the sky a noise like that of a strong driving wind, which filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues like flames of fire, dispersed among them and resting on each one. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them power of utterance” (Acts 2: 1-4).
Only in this Church, where the Holy Trinity lives and acts constantly could the teaching of Christ, the very revelation of truth, as received and transmitted by the Holy Apostles, abide and be sustained. Thus truth in its fullness does not exist outside the Church, for there is neither Sacred Scripture, nor Holy Tradition. This is why St. Paul admonishes the Galatians that even if an Angel from heaven preaches another Gospel to them, he must be condemned: “If any man preach any other gospel to you than that you have received let him be condemned” (1:8-9). And he writes to his disciple, St. Timothy to follow strictly the “precepts of our faith” and the “sound instructions” he received from him and avoid “godless myths” (1 Timothy 4: 4-7). He also admonishes the Colossians to avoid “merely human injunctions and teachings” (2: 22), and to follow Christ: “Therefore, since Jesus was delivered to you as Christ and Lord, live your lives in union with Him. Be rooted in Him; be built in Him; be consolidated in the faith you were taught; let your hearts overflow with thankfulness. Be on your guard; do not let your minds be captured by hollow and delusive speculations, based on traditions of man-made teaching and centered on the elemental spirits of the universe and not on Christ. For it is in Christ that the complete being of the Godhead dwells embodied, and in Him you have been brought to completion” (Colossians 2: 6-8).
This teaching or Apostolic Tradition was transmitted from the Holy Apostles themselves to their successors, the Bishops and the Priests. St. Clement, Bishop of Rome (second century A.D.), and probably a disciple of the Holy Apostles himself, described this historical truth: “The Apostles preached to us the Gospel received from Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ was God’s Ambassador. Christ, in other words, comes with a message from God, and the Apostles with a message from Christ. Both these orderly arrangements, therefore, originate from the will of God. And so, after receiving their instructions and being fully assured through the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, as well as confirmed in faith by the word of God, they went forth, equipped with the fullness of the Holy Spirit, to preach the good news that the Kingdom of God was close at hand. From land to land, accordingly, and from city to city they preached; and from among their earliest converts appointed men whom they had tested by the Spirit to act as bishops and deacons for the future believers” (Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 42).
One can clearly see how the message of salvation originating from God the Father was taught by Jesus Christ, witnessed to by the Holy Spirit, preached by the Holy Apostles and was transmitted by them to the Church through the clergy they themselves appointed. This became the “unerring tradition of the Apostolic preaching” as it was expressed by Eusebius of Caesarea, Bishop of the fourth century, who is considered the “Father” of Church History (Church History, IV, 8).
The Patristic Tradition: From what has been said so far, it can be seen that there is no Theological distinctions or differences or divisions within the Tradition of the Church. It could be said that Holy Tradition, as an historical event, begins with the Holy Apostolic preaching and is found in Sacred Scriptures, but it is kept, treasured, interpreted, and explained to the Church by the Holy Fathers, the successors of the Apostles. Using the Greek term “Pateres tes Ecclesias” which translates as the “Fathers of the Church,” this “interpretive” part of the Apostolic preaching is called “Patristic Tradition.”
The Fathers, men of extraordinary holiness and trusted Orthodoxy in Doctrine, enjoyed the acceptance and respect of the One, Holy, Catholic (Universal) and Apostolic Orthodox Church by witnessing the message of the Gospel, living and explaining it to posterity. Thus, Apostolic Preaching or Tradition is organically associated with the Patristic Tradition and vice versa. This point must be stressed since many Theologians in the Western Churches either distinguish between Apostolic Tradition and Patristic Tradition, or completely reject Patristic Tradition.
For the Orthodox Christian, there is one Tradition, the Tradition of the Church, incorporating the Sacred Scriptures and the Teaching of the Fathers. This is “the preaching of the truth handed down by the Church in the whole world to Her children” (St. Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, 98). St. Athanasius, the Great “Pillar of Orthodoxy,” the Pope - Patriarch of Alexandria during the fourth century, gives the most appropriate definition of the Church’s Tradition: “Let us look at the very Tradition, Teaching, and Faith of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, which the Logos gave the Apostles preached, and the Fathers preserved. Upon this the Church is founded” (St. Athanasius, First Letter to Serapion, 28). In retrospect, Tradition is founded upon the Holy Trinity, it constantly proclaims the Gospel of Christ, it is found within the boundaries of the Christian Church, and it is expounded by the Fathers.
Universality and Timelessness of Tradition: Another characteristic still needs to be added, namely that the Tradition of the Church is Universal in space and time. St. Vincent of Lerins, an Orthodox Monk and writer in France during the fifth century, writes that “this is the Catholic (Universal) and Apostolic Faith; that we must hold what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” Indeed, the Church with all her members, always, from the time of her inception until the end of time, accepts and teaches everywhere the redemptive work of Christ. This does not mean that the Church and Her Tradition move within numerical, geographical or chronological limits. The Church and Her Tradition, although they live in history, are beyond history. They have eternal value, because Christ, the Founder of the Church, has no beginning and no end. In other words, when the universality of the Church Tradition is mentioned, it refers to the gift of the Holy Spirit, which enables the Church to preserve until the end of time the Apostolic truth unadulterated, unbroken, and unaltered. This is true because Tradition expresses the common Orthodox mind of the whole Church against all heresies and schisms of all times.
It is important here to emphasize both the temporality as well as the timelessness, two fundamental aspects of Holy Tradition. The late Fr. George Florovsky, Professor at St. Vladimir Orthodox Seminary wrote that: “Tradition is not a principle striving to restore the past, using the past as a criterion for the present. Such a conception of tradition is rejected by history itself and by the consciousness of the Orthodox Church… Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit and not only the memory of words. Tradition is a charismatic, not a historical event.”
In other words, Tradition is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a living experience, which is relived and renewed through time. It is the true faith, which is revealed by the Holy Spirit to the true people of God.
Tradition, therefore, cannot be reduced to a mere enumeration of quotations from the Sacred Scriptures or from the Church Fathers. It is the fruit of the Incarnation of the Word of God, His Crucifixion and Resurrection as well as His Ascension, all of which took place in space and time. Holy Tradition is an extension of the life of Christ into the life of the Church. According to St. Basil the Great, it is the continuous presence of the Holy Spirit: “Through the Holy Spirit comes our restoration to paradise, our ascension into the kingdom of heaven, our return as adopted sons, our liberty to call God our Father, our being made partakers of the grace of Christ, our being called children of light, our sharing in eternal glory, and, in a word, our being brought into a state of a ‘fullness of blessing’ (Rom. 15: 29), both in this world and in the world to come…”.
Tradition and Traditions: This description by St. Basil gives the true “existential” dimensions of the Holy Tradition of the Church. For the Orthodox, therefore, Tradition is not a static set of Dogmatic precepts, or the uniform practices of the Liturgical ritual of the Church. Although Church Tradition includes both Doctrinal and Liturgical formulas and practices, it is more properly the metamorphosis, the continuous transfiguration of the people of God, through the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father and the Communion of the Holy Spirit, as experienced in the daily life of the Church. This does not mean that Tradition is something abstract and theoretical or that it ignores the daily needs of human nature. On the contrary, the “rule of faith” becomes every day the “rule of Worship.” Doctrine, prayer, moral guidance, and liturgical practices are indispensable parts of Holy Tradition. Some Theologians speak about traditions with a small “t,” as being the written or unwritten practices of the daily Christian life, in contrast with Tradition with capital “T,” which encompasses the basic doctrines of revelation and our salvation in Christ.
This type of distinction is rather misleading. Tradition and traditions are the integral parts of the life of the Church and they express the totality of the Christian way of life which leads to salvation. The Doctrine of the Incarnation, the historical truth of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the Eucharist, the Sign of the Cross, the threefold immersion in the Baptismal font, the honor and respect due to the Most Blessed Virgin St. Mary and to the Saints of the Church, are all important for the Christian, who wants to find himself/herself in the “boundary” of salvation in Christ. This is what the Church has taught through the centuries. “Therefore we must consider the Tradition of the Church trustworthy,” St. John Chrysostom writes, “it is Tradition, seek no more.”
The Living Tradition of The Liturgy: It is interesting to emphasize another form of Tradition: the Eucharist itself! In the Liturgy - Qiddasie, all Orthodox Christians meet together and in absolute agreement, in Doctrine and practice witness the Presence of the Holy Trinity on the Altar of the Church. The Bishop with the Priests and Deacons pray to God the Father to send the Holy Spirit and change the Bread and Wine into the True Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. All the faithful present are called to receive Holy Communion - Qurban and become active members of the Body of Christ. In the Eucharistic Liturgy, as it was instituted by the Lord Himself, the whole Church meets every time to proclaim and live the oneness and the unity of faith in Jesus Christ. In the many Orthodox Liturgical Liturgies we see all the history of Tradition embodied in the Body and Blood of Christ. One of the Fathers of the Church wrote the following in connection with the Holy Liturgy - Qiddasie: “We hold fast to all the Traditions of the Church, written and unwritten, and above all to the most Mystical and Sacred celebration and communion and assembly, whereby all other rites are made perfect…”
This emphasis on the Eucharistic Liturgy - Qiddasie shows that Tradition is a dynamic way of life unfolding continuously in the liturgical framework of the Church. By participating in the Holy Liturgy - Qiddasie, we proclaim our Tradition as living and active members of the Church. Of course, to live according to the Traditions of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church, to participate, fully, in the life of Tradition is not an easy task. We need the imparting of the Holy Spirit, in order to live in a mystical and mysterious way the life of Christ.
Thus, the Tradition of the Church is a living reality, which the Orthodox Tewahedo Christian must live daily in a mystical way. By adhering to the teaching of the Sacred Scriptures, the Councils, and the Patristic writings, by observing the Canons of the Church, by frequently (Sunday and if possible Daily) participating in the Holy Qurban where Tradition becomes an empirical reality, we are members of the Body of Christ and are led to the “contemplation of and communion with Almighty God.”
Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Tradition, therefore, is not a dead letter, a collection of dogmas and practices of the past. It is the history of salvation. It is the life of the Holy Spirit, who constantly illuminates us in order for all to become sons and daughters of God, living in the Divine light of the Most Holy Trinity.
A Reflection on Tradition #
There are many things that we see in our lives to which the word “traditional” may be attached. It can refer to a style of dress or an understanding of relationships. In the Church it may refer to the use of certain kinds of music or a style of Divine Worship.
Many years ago during my first Parish assignment, I had a young couple who were formerly Methodist and Roman Catholic, who had come to the Church as inquirers. One of their first statements and complaints to me was that the services in my Parish were not “traditional” enough. I was more than slightly puzzled by their remark. The ten o’clock Eucharistic Liturgy - Mass was a Choral - Sung Eucharist, about as traditionally “Solemn” as any typical Sunday Orthodox Parish Liturgy can get. I was also aware that the surrounding Methodist and Roman Catholic Churches were all pretty contemporary in their worship. I should add that the couple was in their early twenties.
They explained away my confusion. By “traditional” they meant: “where are the altar girls - servers, guitars, Eucharistic Lay Ministers, etc?” All I could think at that moment was the old saying: “In the eye of the beholder.”
The same can be said of the contemporary use of the word “traditional” or other phrases such as “ancient,” etc. I know there are experiments out there to bring a more “traditional” style of worship into Evangelical Protestantism (and here “traditional” means, I believe, “liturgical”). In many places an increased emphasis on the Eucharist as the primary service of worship on Sundays is also part of the package.
On the one hand, these efforts can hardly be faulted from an Orthodox point of view. The more people explore the “tradition,” the more likely they are to confront the faith - which was, after all, “once and for all ‘traditioned' to the saints,” for that is the meaning of Jude 1:3. But on the other hand, there is a danger in confusing the outward trappings of “tradition” with “Tradition” itself. For what was once and for all delivered to the saints, was not so much questions of Liturgy and Incense (although all of these ritual and liturgical elements of Orthodoxy do carry with them the content of Tradition - they are not electives), rather the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints was and is indeed the content of the faith - the living union between the true and living God and man. That faith truly reveals to us and makes accessible to us the true and living God, and it also reveals to us and makes accessible what it is to be a truly living human being. The content of the Christian faith, the living Tradition, is the truth of both God and man, and the truth of our salvation through union with God in Christ. The content of the Tradition is not a set of ideas - but a reality - God with us.
And this is the problem that always accompanies attempts to reach that reality through reform. It is not our reformation that is the problem in the first place. We cannot reform ourselves into union with Christ. We can submit ourselves to union with Christ and not much else. We can cooperate with union with Christ.
Invariably, the great stumbling block faced by various attempts to “recreate” or “rediscover” the “early Church,” is that the “early Church,” is not an historical reality. It is a present reality - not simply as the “early Church” (this is not a Biblical phrase anyway). The present reality is the same as the “early Church”: it is the Body of Christ, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, the true and living Way. It never ceased nor was overcome by the gates of Hell. It has lived and thrived in enough places to have picked up many languages, many customs, but always the same faith.
This always comes as a stumbling block, I believe, because the existence of the Orthodox Church stands as a stark witness to the True and Living God - not the idea of a God - but God. In my own conversion, I was utterly shocked by this fact. I had read about Orthodoxy for years. I agreed with it for years. I would have even readily agreed for years to everything the Orthodox Church said of itself, and yet I remained outside. When, at last, I was actually received into the Church, I was staggered by the reality of God. I know that sounds strange (since I had been an ordained Latin Rite Priest for 16 years prior to that) but such was the case. There was no longer any question about discussing God, or refining the tradition, or even debating how all of it was to be applied. I was now in the thick of things and God was reigning down in Canon, Text, Bishop, Sacrament, Penance, Sight, Sound, rubrics (which I could not begin to fathom at first) - everything!
Thus, I surprised friends constantly in my first year or so of Orthodoxy when they asked me what the most important thing about my conversion was. My constant reply (to this day) was: the existence of God.
This, somehow, is the content that sets the Tradition apart from all discussions of appropriating tradition, etc. You do not appropriate something whose content is Almighty God. You are Baptized into it. You are Chrismated into it. You are Absolved for ever having lived apart from it. You are fed it on it, i.e. The Eucharist. You are splashed with it. But you cannot appropriate it. To paraphrase: Your life’s too small to appropriate Almighty God.
Thus many in our time stand at the edge of Tradition. I have written that it is all really about Being - and it is. Thus it is worth going over the edge, to cross from thinking about Almighty God, to being plunged into the heart of it all. Frighteningly, it will come complete with Bishops whom you like and whom you dislike - with stories of contemporary saints - and encounters with contemporary sinners. No different than this living Tradition in any other century.
Does “Tradition” override the Sacred Scriptures? #
Does tradition override the Scriptures? A brief Orthodox Answer.
Some place Scripture and Tradition in opposition to each other, but this is not the Orthodox position. Others place Scripture and Tradition on the same level and set them up as co-equal, but neither is this the Orthodox position. For Orthodoxy, there is but one Deposit of Faith that contains everything that Almighty God has given to the Church via the Holy Spirit. The Sacred Scriptures are part of this Deposit of Faith, and thus are part of Holy Tradition.
The Scriptures are not “overridden” or “trumped” by Holy Tradition, but are the cornerstone of tradition. They are the “canon” - the measuring stick - by which all doctrine must be judged. No Orthodox teaching is in contradiction to the Holy Scriptures, nor can it be, for if it is, it most certainly could not be part of the Deposit of Faith. The Holy Scriptures, as interpreted by the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Orthodox Church, have the final say over any and all matters of faith and practice. They do not have the only say. (see 2 Thessalonians 2:13, 3:6-7; 1 Corinthians 11:1-2; 2 Timothy 2:1-2; 1 Timothy 3:14-15).
The Sacred Scriptures are themselves a product of the oral tradition of the early Church. The Holy Gospels were preached orally, later being written down by the leading of the Holy Spirit. One can also see in the Gospels of Sts. Luke and Matthew usage of the Gospel of St. Mark - the use of prior tradition. The use of oral tradition in the Sacred Scriptures has precedents in both the Old and the New Testaments - the authors were simply following accepted practices. Similarly, both Sts. Luke and Matthew had access to some collection of sayings that they used in common which do not appear in St. Mark. This collection could have been oral, written or a combination of both.
What do the Orthodox think about the Bible? Do you agree with Sola Scriptura? #
Much of the content of Orthodox Divine Worship consists of readings from the Holy Scriptures, especially the Psalms. Readings from the Holy Gospel occur at most services, along with regular readings from the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles.
There are not now, nor have there ever been, any restrictions on the laity with regard to reading the Sacred Scriptures - they are, and always have been, encouraged to read them.
As for the “Sola Scriptura” view; we believe that the Holy Scriptures are the “canon” - the measuring stick - which must be applied to all doctrine, but it is not the only source of doctrine. In other words, not all doctrine is found in the Scriptures, but no Orthodox doctrine contradicts the Sacred Scriptures.