By: Fr. Anthony Alevizopoulos
When we speak about Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition, we do not mean two separate or opposing things, but a harmonious whole: God’s complete revelation about the grace of man’s salvation.
St. Basil the Great summarizes this teaching of Orthodoxy in the following words: “From the dogmas and the truth which the Church safeguards, some we have received from written teaching and some, which have secretly reached us, we received through the tradition of the apostles. Both have the same importance for the faith. And no one with even a meager knowledge of ecclesiastical teachings will raise objection... Since if we asserted that we should abandon as many “practices” that are unwritten, because supposedly they’re not of great importance, we would damage – without realizing it – the essence of the Gospel, or rather we would transform the Gospel into “a name empty of meaning.”
St. Basil the Great does not fail to mention specific examples of the Church’s “practices” in his time, which no one would dispute, yet are not found in any written tradition:
“For example (so as to recall the first and most common of all), who taught in writing that whoever hopes in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ shows this faith by making the sign of the cross? To turn towards the East during prayer, which written text teaches this? The words of the Church during the blessing of the bread and the holy cup at the Holy Eucharist, which of the saints left them behind in writing? We certainly do not confine ourselves to the things the Apostles or the Gospel acknowledge, but before the eucharist and after it, we also say other things, since we were taught by unwritten teaching that they have great power in the celebration of the mystery.”
However, the father of the Church himself also mentions the celebration of other holy mysteries. “We bless,” he says, “the water of baptism as well and the oil of chrism and the one who is being baptized. From which written texts did we get these things? Do we not know about them from the tacit and secret tradition?... Do all these things not precede from the teaching which our fathers kept secret and which was not publicized, which our fathers preserved in silence, without much scrutiny and inspection, since they had learned correctly that in silence we must protect the decency of the mysteries?”
This preservation “in silence” was in the mindset of the Apostles and referred to the correct attitude of the faithful towards the mysteries of God.
“The apostles and the fathers who set up institutions in the Church from the beginning, sought to safeguard the secrecy. Moreover, when something is easily perceived by someone, it ceases to be a mystery; this is the meaning of unwritten tradition,” St. Basil concludes. However, afterwards he brings it up again, he uses the confession during holy baptism as an example:
“From which written tradition do we have the confession of faith in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit? For, if based on the tradition of baptism we make our confession [of faith] as an essential element of the baptism (i.e. Triadic), since from consistency to piety we ought to believe as we are baptized, let us again from consistency to piety, offer doxology in a consistent manner with the faith (i.e. Triadological). If, however, they reject this manner of doxology as unwritten, then let them present us with written proof concerning the confession of faith and the other things we have mentioned.”
Therefore, there is not a significant difference between the written and unwritten revelation of God, between the written and unwritten tradition of the Church, which goes back to the first centuries of the Church and comprises an integral part of the life of the Church throughout the centuries.
We emphasize that the Gospel message is preserved and conveyed by the Church. The Apostles entrusted the teaching of Christ to the pastors of the Church, who were in unbroken apostolic succession and guaranteed the pure and certain propagation of this teaching to the following generations. This “tradition” or “heritage,” which was received “once and for all” from the saints and transmitted without “gaps” or “interruption” from one generation to the next, does not made up of “mandates of men” but is the product of the constant presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, whose head is Christ.
Christ did not come to write books, but to guide the scattered children of God to unity under the same Head. This was the primary message of the Old Testament, which is correctly understood with the person of the coming messiah at the center. For Christians, the new, central event is not the gathering of some books, which were called the New Testament, but the event itself of salvation in Christ. The Apostles received the command to “increase” the body of Christ, building on the one foundation – Christ. Their work was not to write books, and even the texts they wrote were gathered together after their deaths by the Church itself and constituted the New Testament. They were situational texts, presupposing verbal preaching and not rendering it unnecessary, nor replacing it.
One cannot understand the “Canon” of the New Testament (the catalogue of books belonging to the New Testament) without [understanding] the course of Church history. Without the Church we cannot cogently answer the question, “which books belong to Holy Scripture and for what reason,” nor can we make progress in the interpretation of Holy Scripture without running the risk of creating ceaseless separate groups, schisms and heresies which put man’s salvation in danger.
The erroneous beliefs of all heretical groups, which put forward a different “Canon” of Scripture or which deviate from the truth of Holy Scripture are due to the following one reason: they rejected the Church and cut themselves from communion with it. Thus, they lost the stable measure of judgement and point of reference which would ensure them communion “with all the saints” and a share in the salvific faith which was delivered “once and for all” to the saints (Jude 3). When anyone rejects the Church, they themselves become a point of reference and measure of judgement; they inevitably fall victim to subjective fallacy, they are removed to “another Gospel” (Galatians 1 6:8).
If man preserved the purity of his heart, God would continue to communicate in a more immediate way with him; the written word would not be needed. This means that the books of the Holy Scriptures were given as a type of medicine which the sick person uses. However, this does not mean that the written word is left to itself and made absolute, seeing as it is a part of the “heritage,” not all of it. The Church’s holy tradition is all of it and it is not understand outside the Church.
It’s a matter of the sacred message of the Church, of the common experience “of all the saints,” not mandates made by men. It is apostolic succession, which is directly connected to the apostolic teaching and is expressed as the common conscience of the Church, with the “mouth” of the Ecumenical Councils.
An excerpt from the book Our Orthodoxy.
Translation by: Holy Monastery of Pantokrator
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