The Orthodox Church embraces what is known as “Holy Tradition.” Sometimes Christians have a problem with this position because they confuse “Holy Tradition” with what the Bible calls “the tradition of men.” But if we look closely at Scripture, we find that Scripture commends us to follow and practice “Holy Tradition.” Let’s learn a little more about the difference between the two.
The tradition of men
In Matthew 15:1-9 the Pharisees criticised the disciples of Jesus for not keeping their man-made rules concerning hand washing. This is soundly condemned by Jesus, quoting Isaiah 29:13, He describes this as “teaching as doctrine the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9). St. Paul warns (Colossians 2:8):
Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.
This refers to systems of knowledge that oppose Christ’s teachings.
By contrast, Holy Tradition is the link we have with the Church of ancient days, which is to be preserved, for God, is its source. This Tradition cannot change; it is Truth! This is because it is the faith and practice which Christ imparted to His Apostles and which has come down to us throughout twenty centuries. But it is more. Tradition includes the books of the Bible, the Creeds, the Church Fathers and their teachings, the decisions of Ecumenical Councils (which we believe to have been guided by the Holy Spirit) and the Liturgy, the canons and the entire system of Church government and worship, which are given to us to preserve, protect, and defend. The Apostles and their successors taught the Church, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in their instructions as they visited the churches and in their writings. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit we adhere to Holy Tradition as it is present in the Apostle’s writings and as it is resident in the Church to which the truth was promised. Note Christ’s words to the disciples at the last supper (John 16:13):
When He, the Spirit of truth, has come He will guide you into all truth.
The word ‘tradition’ comes from the Latin traditio, which is a translation of a Greek word paradosis. Translated literally, this word means something that is handed on from one person to another, rather like handing over a baton in a relay race. This can be pictured when we read 2 Timothy 2:2:
… and the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.
Tradition is discussed in the Bible
We see how the first Christians, on whom the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, were guided by the Apostles in the way they practised their new faith (Acts 2:42):
And they continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers.
This refers to the 3,000 who gladly received Peter’s words and were baptised on the very first Pentecost.
In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Paul exhorts the brethren:
stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.
And in 2 Thessalonians 3:6:
… but we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us.
We see from these verses that this apostolic tradition took two forms: it came by word and by epistle. This teaches us that the traditions, which the apostles passed on, included what they said and what they wrote.
The Apostles were chosen by Christ to be the foundation-builders of His Church, they were empowered by the Hoy Spirit for the task, and their instructions have been passed on through the ages and are still intact today.
The Bible is an important source of Holy Tradition. The Old Testament was written over several centuries by numerous authors. The New Testament was written from about A.D. 50-95. Though a consensus existed regarding most of the New Testament books for many years beforehand it was not until the Synod of Carthage, which met in A.D. 397 that we find the final list of the biblical canon, as we know it today. This was later confirmed at the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451A.D.) We may ask how the Church knew which books were doctrinally sound and thus to be included in the canon, the answer is: on the basis of the doctrines passed down through Holy Tradition. So we begin to see how the Bible was the Book of the Church rather than the Church the Church of the Book! The Holy Scriptures are the principal and most honoured written record of God’s revelation to His people. The Holy Scriptures are a product of Tradition and have come down to us from the earliest days of the faith, and are at the very core of our lives as faithful followers of the Lord.
Interpreting the Bible
Because of the depth of the Scriptures, they are not interpreted in the same sense by everyone. One understands a text to mean one thing and another thinks it means something else. This has led to the splintering of Protestantism. There is such an array of modern and divergent interpretations of scripture there is a confusing choice before us. The Presbyterians have their traditional understandings of the Bible, the Pentecostals have theirs, and the many forms of Anglican have an assortment of interpretations to choose from.
If the Holy Spirit leads Christians into all truth, the fact that so many disagree on so many fundamental truths suggests that not everyone is being guided by the same Spirit. There is conflict over every issue imaginable: charismatic gifts, the right way to worship, communion, Church government, discipline in the church, morality, evangelism, social action, the relationship of faith and works, the role of women, ecumenism, etc. The fruit of this conflict has been the creation of thousands of independent churches and denominations. How different things would have been if we had remained in union with the Church that produced the New Testament allowing her to guide us into a proper understanding of Holy Scripture.
On a personal level we should seek to formulate our understanding of the writings of the Apostles in harmony with the interpretations of the early Church Fathers who were closest to the minds of those who wrote them. (The Orthodox study Bible helps us to do this by means of footnotes.)