Scripture & Tradition

Many times we hear in church and from our elders how important it is to supplement our liturgical, sacramental lives with readings from the Holy Bible. Without having a proper understanding of what the Bible is and how it can to be, we flip through the pages of the Bible until a word or sentence grabs hold of our attention. Of all the times we thumbed through the pages of the Holy Scriptures (or even at times removed the dust off of them), have we ever paused to asked what exactly is the Bible? What kind of descriptions can we give the Bible? Can we propose a working definition?

Here are some of the conventional definitions or descriptions that I have come across over the years: 'The Word of God', 'The Divine Revelation of God', 'Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth', 'The Good News', 'A Spiritual Sword' and my personal favorite- 'WMD- Weapon of Mass Destruction!', and many more similar to these. Most of these descriptions and definitions may have some truth to them; however, they simply fail to capture the essence of what Holy Scripture really is. As imperative it is to have a good understanding of the content of the Holy Scriptures, it is equally significant to understand what role the Holy Scripture plays in the context of the Church.

Clearing the clouds of uncertainty- What is the Bible?

It is important to realize that in the Orthodox Tradition, the phrase 'Word of God' first and foremost refers to a person. The 'Word of God' is Jesus Christ, as St. John testifies in his gospel account, 'and the Word became flesh' (St. John 1:14). Christ being the Word of God, the Bible contains God's revelation expressed in written form, experienced and recorded by the saints. As Muslims point to the Qur'an as the ultimate revelation from God, Orthodox Christians do not point to the Bible as the ultimate and only revelation of God. Christians point to Jesus Christ, God manifested in the flesh (1 Timothy 3:16), as the ultimate revelation of God.

Many Christians have incorrectly viewed the Bible as the only source and foundation of the Christian faith, forgetting that Christ is the source and foundation of the Christian faith. Every line in the Holy Scriptures is about Christ and his work to save humanity. The Holy Scriptures being an essential part of the tradition of the Church is the written record of the revelation of God. However, it is important to note that the Bible is viewed as only one expression of God's revelation. In addition to the witness of Faith in the Scripture, it is expressed in the Eucharist, in the worship, prayers, hymns, icons, ecumenical councils, dogmas, creeds –all lived out in the life of the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. To be precise, scripture had an organic link to the traditions of the Church. Therefore, scripture is neither above nor below tradition; scripture is part of the written tradition of the Church. As the New Testament scholar Theodore Stylianopoulos writes "The Scriptural books possessed authority because they were part of the tradition, that is by reason of their acceptance and usage in local churches.” (The New Testament: An Orthodox Perspective, vol. I, p. 58).

What is 'Tradition'?

The western world has completely misunderstood the term 'tradition' for centuries. When someone is asked what they think of tradition, they usually comment 'Oh, they are manmade rules and regulations', 'They are not that important' or 'Isn't that something the Catholics came up with?”. The west is quick to conclude that the Holy Scriptures is sufficient for our salvation (the protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura), cutting away 'traditions' that might seem unknown to the Holy Scriptures and contrary to the teachings of Christ. It is noteworthy to see in the gospels Christ condemned many of the 'traditions' of the Pharisees and the Sadducees during His time, primarily for ignoring the commandments of God and forcing their own traditions onto people's lives (Mark 7:1-13). Here Christ is not condemning the traditions passed down by God to Moses, but condemns the traditions that were created by the elders to oppress and to control people. Christ condemns the scribes for putting their own laws and traditions (also viewing the laws of God in a legalistic way, hence, transgressing the law) above the commandments of God. Therefore, it is important to note the distinction between 'manmade traditions' of the scribes to the 'God-revealed traditions' passed down to His chosen race.

The word 'tradition' used in the context of the Holy Scriptures ('paradosis' in Greek) literally means to 'hand down'. The experiences of the saints were 'handed down' both by written (Holy Scriptures) and unwritten (by word of mouth) forms. Therefore, the Church views both forms of tradition equally significant in the life of the Church. Having this view, it is accurate to state that the Holy Scriptures is part and parcel of the Holy Tradition of the undivided Church. One cannot divorce the Holy Scripture from the sacred traditions of the Church. The authority of both written and unwritten traditions of the church receives its value by the virtue of the fact that they go back to the commandments and teachings of Christ, passed down to His disciples, preserved and taught in the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. As St. Iraneaous, Bishop of Lyons from the 2nd Century, disciple of St. Polycarp of Smyrna- who was a direct disciple of St. John, writes against the heresies:

"The preaching of the Church truly continues without change and is everywhere the same, and has the testimony of the Prophets and the Apostles and all their disciples. … That in which we have faith is a firm system directed to the salvation of men; and, since it has been received by the Church, we guard it.” -Against Heresies (3, 24, 1)

Can we trust 'unwritten' traditions of the Church?

One might ask if there any evidence of these 'oral traditions' passed down in the Holy Scriptures. St. John the theologian, in his Gospel exhorts:

"And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” - St. John 20:30-31

"And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” - St. John 21:25

From these quotes from the gospel account of St. John the Theologian, let us not make the blunder of assuming that he is implying somehow the written experiences of the apostles and disciples are more valid and significant than those which are not written. St. John is simply stating that it is a difficult task to have every experience of the disciple in written form, simply due to that fact that there were so many. They were preserved within the life of the Church. However, St. John makes it a point to say that these are written down so that we may come to know that Jesus is the messiah. Therefore the gospel writers, who were writing to a specific audience, wrote their experience of Christ so that the reader may come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and through Him alone is salvation. Furthermore, we see from the writings of the apostles the value they gave for both written and unwritten traditions of the Church. Here are some quotes among many:

"Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus" - 2 Timothy 1:13

"To which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” - 2 Thessalonians 2:14-15

"The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.”- Philippians. 4:9

"Beloved, I now write to you this second epistle (in both of which I stir up your pure minds by way of reminder), that you may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior” - 2 Peter 3:1-2

"You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 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...” - 2 Timothy 2:1-2

"And as they went through the cities, they delivered to them the decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem.” - Acts 16:4

"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.” - 2 Thessalonians 3:6

"Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.” - 1 Corinthians 11:2

"Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct.” - Hebrews 13:7

Why cut ourselves from the fullness of the faith?

It is important to note that in order to properly interpret scripture one must understand the verses of scripture within the context of the Church. We see the effects of the protestant methodology of hermeneutics (interpretation of scripture) on the protestant churches within the past centuries. The unprecedented way of interpreting and understanding scripture devoid of tradition have led the protestant world to establishing numerous churches with various interpretations of scripture, resulting in sacrificing fundamental teachings preserved and taught by the disciples in the early church. Interpretations and commentaries of scripture by the early Church Fathers are available to us today in the English language. It is important to seek out those commentaries and see how the early fathers of the Church, who have acquired the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16) through the life of the Church, understood the words of our Lord. It is by reading the Church Fathers that we realize the Holy Fathers, who passed the traditions of the Church to us, spoke and wrote extensively concerning liturgy, fasting, prayer, prostrations, confession, sacraments, repentance and many more, tracing back their writings to the time of the disciples and the apostles.

As we can observe from the scriptural quotations quoted above, with boldness and great fervor did the disciples preach about tradition. Christianity being more than a religion, the disciples saw the teachings of Christ as a way of life, a path towards healing, preparing us to witness the glory of God, as Fr. John Romanides accurately states, to experience the glory of God as 'light' rather than 'a consuming fire' through the therapeutic methods offered in the Orthodox Church. The Holy Fathers of the Church, who have handed down the traditions of the Church to us have taught us not merely 'what we should do' in our Christian life but rather showed us by their lives 'who we should strive to become'. Such pearls are preserved within the liturgical, sacramental and ascetical life of the Church, which utilizes both the written and the unwritten traditions passed down by the Church.

Let us all sincerely love the Truth

As the Holy Scripture itself testifies to both written and unwritten traditions, the New Testament writers were convinced that many will come to rob them of the truth that was delivered to them. So it is important to realize for us Orthodox Christians to know where the truth in its fullness is available to us. Not merely identifying or associating truth with philosophy or an ideology, but identifying truth as an individual in the person of Jesus Christ. Out of His philanthropia (love towards humankind) has given us His Body, which is the pillar and the bulwark of truth (1 Tim 3:15) - The Church. Let us commend ourselves and each other to Christ our God, as individual members of the Body of Christ to transform ourselves into vessels of the Truth in faith and in holiness./

Written by Rev. Dn. Abraham (Abey) George