Considering Orthodoxy & Tradition (Part 2)

I begin this post with a confession of sorts. I have been exploring and writing about my encounter with the Orthodox Church, but I am largely ignorant of much of that which I write. I should not pretend to know what I do not understand. I am not a member of the Orthodox Church. Only once have I visited an Orthodox Church. I have done some reading, but very little. I am an outsider. Take everything I say, every claim I make about Orthodoxy with a grain of salt. But one additional confession I make is that I am loving this topic of study. The texts I am reading are rich and provocative. The insights stir my soul. I still have many questions and some apprehensions. That is why I am writing these posts; I may be foolish to do so, but it is my way of thinking through it all. I pray that God will continue to guide me and bless this project.

Vladimir the Great getting baptized

The life of the Church in its essence is mystical; the course of its life cannot be entirely included in any “history.” (Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, p. 231)

Tradition is the witness of the Spirit. [. . .] It is this divine promise that forms the basis of the Orthodox devotion to Tradition. (Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 199)

However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you. (The Gospel of John 16:13-15, NKJV)

The Orthodox Church claims to be the keeper of the Holy Tradition of the Church. The practices of the Orthodox Church look and feel very different from the Protestant traditions I grew up with, which look rather anemic in comparison (though I have very little first-hand experience or knowledge of Orthodoxy). I believe it is natural for anyone outside the Orthodox Church to look in and wonder at not only the apparent strangeness of it all, but how does the Orthodox Church claim to know what is Christian Tradition?

Hidden Tradition

Although the Old Testament is full of liturgy (leitourgia), the New Testament is nearly devoid of specific directions on how to “do church” or even how to do Bible study. Yet, as far as I know, the historical evidence shows an early church that was vibrant, was concerned with preserving the teachings handed down by the Apostles, and was deeply liturgical. It is interesting that the early church, which seemed so wild and radical on Pentecost ended up so quickly with a way of doing Christianity. In other words, from the beginning it appears the Church was liturgical. Why wasn’t it all written down? According to Saint Basil the Great (330–379) much of the early Church’s Tradition (Orthodox Tradition) was transmitted orally and preserved in secret or “in a mystery.” In his work On the Holy Spirit he writes:

Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us “in a mystery” by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay; no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as having no written authority, on the grounds that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is well-known, content with what the apostles or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and besides this the catechumen who is being baptized. On what written authority do we do this? Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition? Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught? And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice? And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels? Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation? Well had they learnt the lesson that the awful dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence. What the uninitiated are not even allowed to look at was hardly likely to be publicly paraded about in written documents.

We can see in St. Basil’s understanding a kind of intersection between the vertical line of Tradition, that is the relationship between God and man, and the horizontal line of traditions, that is the specific actions of believers in light of, and within that vertical Tradition. Vladimir Lossky states:

The unwritten traditions or mysteries of the Church, mentioned by St. Basil, constitute then the boundary with Tradition properly so-called, and they give glimpses of some of its features. In effect, there is participation in the revealed mystery through the fact of sacramental initiation. It is a new knowledge, a “gnosis of God” (γνῶσις θεοῦ) that one receives as grace; and this gift of gnosis is conferred in a “tradition” which is, for St. basil, the confession of the Trinity at the time of baptism: a sacred formula which leads us into light. Here the horizontal line of the “traditions” received from the mouth of the Lord and transmitted by the apostles and their successors crosses with the vertical, with Tradition–the communication of the Holy Spirit, which opens to members of the Church an infinite perspective of mystery in each word of the revealed Truth. Thus, starting from traditions such as St. Basil presents to us, it is necessary to go further and admit Tradition, which is distinguished from them. (In the Image and Likeness of God, pp. 147-148)

Thus to separate Tradition and traditions is to create a false dichotomy. They are inextricably linked in the life of the Church, which is the witness of the Holy Spirit.

But if it is true that there were teachings handed down from the Apostles and early church fathers verbally and not in written form, and that some traditions were handed down that way because of the need to preserve a kind of secrecy around aspects of the Gospel or Christian worship and liturgy, then where do we find those teachings and traditions? Naturally this is going to be a challenge, and I confess I am not up to the task. Neither am I a historian or a diviner of hidden histories. At some level I have to take some claims on faith. I have to look at that list of elements of Orthodox Tradition presented by Bishop Kallistos (see my previous post) and decide whether it makes sense or not. I have to decide if St. Basil’s understanding of hidden Tradition handed down in secret makes sense–and whether Basil himself is trustworthy. I have to seek wisdom and trust in my God-given rationality. I have to turn to God and rest in His love–His love for His Son, His children, His Church.

I can also look at writings, like those of Saint Justin (103–165), and read what he says in his First Apology on “doing” Church:

But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to genoito [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.

My notes: Notice the convert must be baptized and must believe in the teaching before he can go to the place where the other brethren are assembled. This would imply that the assembly is, in a sense, off-limits to others until they have gone through significant steps of initiation. If this is true then the idea of a hidden tradition as described by St. Basil is supported by St. Justin. Also notice the “steps” they go through with this gathering. Although the details are simple, there is a specific liturgy in place.

And this food is called among us Eukaristia [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus [my italics] who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.

My notes: Here St. Justin argues the Eucharist is “the flesh and blood of that Jesus.” This early Christian perspective would seem to contradict a merely symbolic understanding of the Eucharist (which is the view I was taught). To support his understanding he cites the “memoirs” of the Apostles–remember this is a couple of centuries before the New Testament was pulled together. It also seems clear that there is a Tradition that is being handed down and preserved. Thus, we have a liturgical and a sacramental Church already fully in place in the second century.

And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.

My notes: Here we have the weekly liturgy described in some detail. There is a Sunday gathering, readings from scripture, teaching, prayers, and an offering taken. The Eucharist is part of this gathering every week. There is an emphasis on the commonality of believers and the importance of Sunday beings the day of weekly gathering. Again we see a picture of a very early liturgical Church.

From these three paragraphs we see the early Church had a Tradition, based in scripture (the Old Testament), the writings of the Apostles (their “memoirs”), what must be oral teachings handed down from the Apostles, and specific actions (baptism, communion, etc.) also handed down. This text likely dates from around 156 A.D. St. Justin was young enough to have known some who had been directly taught by the Apostles. His own experience was of almost the earliest Church, and certainly as an inheritor of the early Church traditions. What we have here are descriptions of a process and a way of “doing church.” Though not elaborate, nonetheless we have a liturgy and a sacramental “mind-set.” And we can see that one does not enter into the practices of the Church until one has been baptized, etc. The Church “hid” its liturgy from those who are not baptized. Thus St. Basil is right to say that much of Church Tradition was delivered out of sight of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation.

The fact is, though, that whether hidden or revealed, whether written or spoken, whether canonical scripture or verbal traditions, there still remains the common denominator of the word. Lossky states:

The two [Tradition and Scripture] have this in common, that, secret or not, they are nonetheless expressed by word. They always imply a verbal expression, whether it is a question of words properly so-called, pronounced or written, or whether of the dumb language which is addressed to the understanding by visual manifestation (iconography, ritual gestures, etc.). Taken in this general sense, the word is not uniquely an external sign used to designate a concept, but above all a content which is defined intelligibly and declared in assuming a body, in being incorporated in articulate discourse or in any other form of external expression.

If such is the nature of the word, nothing of what is revealed and makes itself known can remain foreign to it. Whether it be the Scriptures, preaching, or the “apostles’ traditions guarded in silence,” the same word λόγος or λόγια can equally be applied to all that constitutes expression of the revealed Truth.

Thus we see that separating Tradition and Scripture is to tear apart the very Church itself. It also (like separating Tradition and traditions) creates a false dichotomy at the very heart of the λόγος. The issue is not whether something is visible or hidden, but whether it is true; it is about content. However, our experience shows us the further one gets away from certain traditions the stranger they become. In other words, as the Western Church altered or disregarded what is held by Orthodoxy to be the Tradition of the Church, and as the Western Church contributed to the building up of societies and cultures based on those alterations or negations, then those who embody such societies and cultures will find the claims of Orthodoxy very foreign indeed.

For a long time I have held a rather unformulated view that the early Church turned away from Apostolic teaching very early, maybe even while the Apostles were still alive. We read in the New Testament epistles of various problems within various churches; think of the church in Corinth and also in Galatia. But is this view accurate? I am more or less convinced that my views were formed by a Protestant way of thinking, a way that is committed to seeing the historical church (read Roman Catholic) as apostate in order to legitimize its “necessary” rebellion. If one is going to refer to the office of the Pope as the Antichrist then one cannot really accept anything that is Catholic. So how far back does one have to go to be rid of the Catholic stain? All the way to the Apostles and no later? Not only is this a “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” way of thinking, but it is entirely blind to the existence of Orthodoxy. I am more and more convinced that not only was the Reformation a somewhat dubious affair, but there is a tendency in modern Protestant-influenced cultures to dismiss most of church history. More than this, much of Protestantism is based on a nearly overpowering negative relationship to Catholicism such that its theology might be warped too far towards sola scripture, sola fide, et al. and not nearly as evenly balanced as it might suppose, or should be. In this context Orthodoxy can be a fresh wind, but also an alternative reality. Certainly Orthodoxy is a challenge to Protestantism, not merely at a doctrinal level, but as a whole reorientation of basic principles and perspectives. Orthodoxy is a different set of lenses.

The Anchor, an early Christian symbol of hope

The Holy Spirit

Christians believe that the establishment of the Church really began on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Apostles and those with them. The Church also grew and the Gospel was carried throughout the world because of the continued outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Do we trust this is true? Do we believed the Holy Spirit was present in the early Church, or do we let our skepticism guide us away from the post-Apostle-era Church? Was there Pentecost, a few years of missionary work, then darkness? Or did the Holy Spirit continue to guide the Church, open the eyes of Christians to the truth, and establish traditions of doctrine and worship? We know the Apostles and their immediate followers had a high view of the transforming and continuing work Holy Spirit:

For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. (1 Thessalonians 1:4-5a, ESV)

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5, ESV)

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:16-21, ESV)

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7, ESV)

But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. (2 Timothy 1:11b-14, ESV)

The rest of the Churches, in honour of Jesus Christ, also salute you. Fare ye well in the harmony of God, ye who have obtained the inseparable Spirit, who is Jesus Christ. (from the Epistle of St. Ignatius to the Magnesians, circa 105-115 A.D, Chapter 15)

The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done sol from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Spirit, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus says the Scripture a certain place, “I will appoint their bishops s in righteousness, and their deacons in faith.” (First Clement, Chapter 42, circa 80-140 A.D.)

Do we believe that Christ promised to establish His Church on this earth and that He will maintain it until He returns? To say yes to this question is to say yes to the continuing work of the Holy Spirit since the day of Pentecost. In the Gospel According to Saint Matthew (28:20) Jesus says to His disciples, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Earlier in St. Matthew (16:18) Jesus says, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Do we believe that Jesus has been with His Church always from the beginning? Do we believe that the gates of hell have never prevailed? One can easily get the impression from Protestant theology (at least of the Radical Reformation) that the answer to both these questions is no, that is, until the Reformation. And even then Protestants have a tendency to say that Jesus has not remained, and the gates of hell have prevailed, when it comes to Protestant denominations other than one’s own. Does it not make more sense, however, to understand that it is Christ and His Church that has prevailed all along, that the Holy Spirit has always preserved the Church from the Apostles to the early Church to the later Church, and that in times and places where it would seem this is not true it is, in fact, merely the particular waxing of human sinfulness and foibles (or our own understanding) that is to blame–but that in general the Church has always remained? And if this is so, should we disregard the first 1,500 years of Church history?

From the very beginning creation has been contingent and dependent on God. The Church from its beginning, likewise, has always been contingent and dependent on God. The Church could not have grown as it did, spreading throughout the world as it did, without the work of the Holy Spirit. We know that “no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor. 12:3) This truth was proven in the early centuries of the Church through persecution and by the blood of the martyrs, who died by the thousands. The fact of martyrdom acts as a kind of certification of authenticity the way the miracles of Christ authenticated His ministry and His messianic claims. If we want to compare the early Church (a church that was liturgical and sacramental) with the Church of our own age, and then ask the question which Church exhibits the greater working of the Holy Spirit, my money would go on the early Church. Regardless, we know that it is God, and always has been God, who opens our eyes to the light of truth regardless in what age we live. “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6)

Concluding thoughts

My first “encounter” with Orthodoxy came in the air over Alaska. My father was a private pilot. It was the summer of 1982. We were flying a small plane from Soldanta to Homer. At one point we flew over a small town, a village really, with simple, brightly colored buildings. My father said the town was a Russian Orthodox community. I didn’t know what that meant, but the idea of an isolated village of people who were Russian and Orthodox and here in America (remember 1982 was still the Cold-War era) fascinated and perplexed me. They were the “other” in almost every way, yet I have always wanted to go back, at ground level this time, and visit. I feel that same way now in my present studies; I am in the clouds, immersed in my world of books and web sites, looking down at the “other,” but this time I feel like I’m the other. I want to come down to earth, but I worry of what I will find, of what I might become. The fear I have is that, for superficial reasons, I would embrace and become enamored with something that is not true. The greater fear is that, because of my Protestant “indoctrination” or my pride or even just the inertia of staying with what I am comfortable, I would confront the Truth and turn away. I do not know for sure if the Orthodox Church has preserved the Tradition (and the traditions) handed down from Christ and the Apostles, but I think is probably has. I do not know if the Orthodox Church represents most fully the activity of the Holy Spirit in forming and sustaining the Church, but I think it probably does. If all this is true, what does it mean for me? What does it mean for you?

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