Tradition is of vital importance in the Bible, and of what it means to be a Christian. Holy Tradition is to be preserved by the Church, as God is it’s source. It is what was given to the apostles by Jesus Christ, who in turn then taught it under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit (1). Matthew 15:1-9, Colossians 2:8, etc. indeed do condemn traditions of men, however it is not referring to Holy Tradition. I seek to show the importance of tradition, it’s biblical support, and the distinctions from the early church fathers by the grace of God. May it be edifying to whomever reads it, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
While the negative mentions of the word “tradition” can be hyper-focused in on, there are several instances where Holy Tradition is proclaimed in a positive manner in Scripture. There is an important distinction observed between traditions of men and Holy Tradition. The apostle Paul states, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” – 2 Thessalonians 2:15. Paul reveals a clear distinction that not all tradition is evil, as he tells us to hold to the ones we were taught. It wouldn’t make sense for him to tell us to hold to traditions of men that are condemned in other parts of Scripture, it would be contradicting. He emphasizes tradition was also given by spoken word as well, that it can be passed down orally, not only by letter.
1 Corinthians 11:2, “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” 2 Thessalonians 3:6, “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” Once more, Paul instructs to maintain tradition.
John 17:6, “I have manifested Your name to the men whom You have given Me out of the world. They were Yours, You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word.” The apostles are the men whom have been given. Through them along with apostolic succession, God’s word and Holy Tradition are handed down successively generation to generation. I include this verse for it shows Christ’s words that the apostles have kept the word. Christ uses men in the Church to preserve the Holy Word, and in the Holy Church He preserves men. Those who say all tradition is tradition of men that can’t be trusted or should be avoided because it’s from men, must reconcile how God not only calls men to give us His word but has called so many men throughout history to do His will.
2 Timothy 2:2, “And the things you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” A distinct chain of witnesses to oral tradition is being established by Paul. This tradition is vital to be preserved and passed down.
Luke 1:1-4, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” Note that Luke is saying the oral word proceeded the written word as it was handed down first and then did the apostles write the gospels by divine inspiration. Luke was not a disciple from the beginning, yet he has a perfect understanding of the gospel because his sources were the apostles themselves (1). Even further, John is the only New Testament writer who introduces himself in his writings, the others we rely on tradition whom the authors are. The word Trinity does not appear in the Bible yet through tradition we know He is three persons in one essence. As Christians, we rely on tradition much more than we think.
John 20:30-31, “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.” John 21:25, “And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, that I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.” John is appealing to something outside of the written word, that the apostles could not possibly write down everything Christ did – pointing to an ongoing oral tradition within the Christian Church.
Philippians 4:9, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” The word ‘learned’ implies the faith has content which must be taught by someone who truly understands it, the word ‘heard’ illustrates learning by oral tradition and not solely by a written tradition.
The Holy Bible itself is part of Holy Tradition as it exists and found its formulation within tradition. It is not until the fourth century that we see the first list of books being introduced as the New Testament canon (11). Holy Tradition is that same faith that Jesus taught to the apostles and that they gave to their disciples, preserved in the Church and especially in its leadership through apostolic succession (Jude 1:3).
Vladimir Lossky described it as “the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.” This tradition has been expressed in things such as the Bible, the Ecumenical Councils, the Church Fathers, Sacraments, Iconography, etc. There are also customs in feast days, fasting rules, the church calendar, style of vestments, making the sign of the cross, etc. I will go into what St Basil says about this later on. We know that Christ taught us to fast, but His Holy Tradition tells us when. We know that Christ taught us to be baptized, His Tradition tells us how.
The essentials of the Christian faith, doctrine, and life remain unchanged in Orthodox Christianity. The expression of that faith may vary according to the concrete historic circumstances in which this faith is proclaimed (ie. liturgies). Tradition is the pipeline of the Christian faith, “we do not change the everlasting boundaries which our fathers have set,’ wrote John of Damascus, ‘but we keep the Tradition, just as we received it.” (2). There is a big difference between man-made tradition and apostolic tradition. The former meaning heathen or non-Christian beliefs, and the latter being things which will help the Church grow together in Christ.
Jesus Christ didn’t write anything down, He taught people personally, which is also what we ultimately strive to do too. We truly teach Christ to others when He lives in us, to experience God is to know God. To read about God, to listen to others about God, has tremendous value which I would never discourage but that is to know of Him – not necessarily to know Him yourself. The apostles also first taught personally too, and only later did they begin to write it down. The faith is certainly inside Holy Scripture but it is also outside of it in what we term as Holy Tradition, not to confuse that Scripture and Tradition are separate for they are intimately linked. Christ promised the Holy Spirit to continue to teach us everything (John 14:26), key-word being continue. Christianity didn’t stop with the New Testament, nor will it. It didn’t stop before there was a biblical canon ever formed for centuries of it’s existence, and it won’t stop if every Bible were to be destroyed. God is above all and out of love He chose to dwell in us so that we may dwell in Him.
The church fathers are so valued in Orthodox Christianity because they were nearest to the foundation of Tradition/Scripture and some were even disciples of apostles themselves. Through apostolic succession this has been passed to us today, of whom we are entrusted (through our bishops) to keep it for the next generation, just as Christ entrusted it to His disciples. I will close with this last section reflecting on quotes from fathers such as St. Basil The Great, St. Ireneaus, and St. Cyprian who make far better cases and distinctions than I could for this topic. Before so, I would humbly state tradition is the very life of the Holy Trinity as it has been revealed by Christ Himself and testified by the Holy Spirit. It is not a collection of lifeless dogma, it is a living thriving reality meant to aid us in our endless ascent reaching towards God. This means you too, must actively live it.
Tradition In The Church Fathers
Cyprian’s first quote distinguishes human tradition from a divine one, while the second quote he is speaking on apostolic tradition. “…what presumption, to prefer human tradition to divine ordinance, and not to observe that God is indignant and angry as often as human tradition relaxes and passes by the divine precepts … for custom without truth is the antiquity of error.” – Cyprian, Epistle 73:3,9 “…you must diligently observe and keep the practice delivered from divine tradition and apostolic observance, which is also maintained among us, and almost throughout all the provinces.” – Cyprian, Epistle 67:5
Tradition wasn’t blindly accepted as anything anyone said, as evidence of early church fathers opposing gnostics, of whom St. Ireneaus illustrates they completely objected to tradition, how prevalent is this ideal in modern Christianity today? Tradition was only followed if it came from Jesus Christ, through apostolic teaching of whom our Lord gave power to (John 20:23), whether by written tradition or by spoken tradition. Traditions of men is referring to those who stray from this holy tradition, too often those forget that Christ became man, entrusted men with His teachings, in order to save man. The first quote of St. Ireneaus below cites Gnostic heretics protesting tradition, saying their own personal interpretation is better than the apostles. The second quote is the emphasis on holy tradition that is preserved in the church from the apostles to this very day.
“But again, when we refer them (the gnostics/heretics) to that tradition which originates from the apostles, which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles.” (5). St Ireneaus again emphasizes that, “by (apostolic) succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles … which has been preserved in the church from the apostles until now.” (Against Heresies III, 3:3). St. Ireneaus was the disciple of Polycarp who was the disciple of the apostle John himself. John opposed gnostics as well, especially Cerinthus, so it is no surprise that they would object to both apostolic succession and holy tradition.
Lastly, St. Basil The Great, a true giant of the Christian faith leaves us with invaluable quotes, writings, and teachings. The first quote reiterates what Paul tells us about oral tradition, that both written word and spoken word are of the same force (tradition), and that we should never discount the unwritten customs. “Of the dogmas and messages preserved in the Church, some we possess from written teaching and others we receive from the tradition of the apostles, handed on to us in mystery. In respect to piety, both are of the same force. No one will contradict any of these, no one, at any rate, who is even moderately versed in matters ecclesiastical. Indeed, were we to try to reject unwritten customs as having no great authority, we would unwittingly injure the gospel in its vitals; or rather, we would reduce [Christian] message to a mere term.” (7).
The second quote, St. Basil shows how opponents of the Christian faith in his day sought to destroy the foundation by removing apostolic tradition while always demanding only the validity of written proof and tossing out anything that may be of an oral tradition. Does this not also sound eerily similar to sentiment seen across parts of Christianity today? “The one aim of the whole band of opponents and enemies of “sound doctrine” is to shake down the foundation of the faith of Christ by leveling apostolic tradition with the ground, and utterly destroying it. So like the debtors, – of course bona fide debtors. – they clamor for written proof, and reject as worthless the unwritten tradition of the Fathers.” – St. Basil The Great, The Holy Spirit, 10:25
St. Basil The Great reminds us that the faith has been severely persecuted, so much so that Christians had to protect the faith in silence “not to speak of the mystery to Thine enemies,” this was done not to hoard Christianity as some secret only for the select few but to ensure it’s survival from Pagans who sought every means to infiltrate and destroy Christianity. This last quote shows us that not every tradition is written down, and that apostolic witness was revealed just as much in the mysteries (unwritten) as it was in the written for the necessity to abide by both. “For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is there 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 apostle 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.” (9).
1. The Orthodox Study Bible, page 1631.
2. St. John of Damascus, Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images, 2015 edition.
3. Cyprian, Epistle 73:3,9
4. Cyprian, Epistle 67:5
5. St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies III, 2:2. Harvard College Library, 2004. James Parker & Co. Oxford 1872.
6. St. Ireneaus, Against Heresies III, 3:3. Harvard College Library, 2004. James Parker & Co. Oxford 1872.
7. St. Basil The Great, The Holy Spirit 27:66 [A.D. 375]
8. St. Basil The Great, The Holy Spirit, 10:25 [A.D. 375]
9. St. Basil The Great, The Holy Spirit, 27:66 [A.D. 375]
10. G. Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, 1972.
11. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick and St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church.