Sources of Orthodox Tradition


Holy Ascension Orthodox Church Mt. Pleasant, SC

The ongoing life of God’s People is called Holy Tradition…The New Testamental or Christian Tradition is also called the apostolic tradition and the tradition of the Church. The central written part of this tradition is the New Testament… This Christian tradition is given over from people to people, through space and time. Tradition as a word means exactly this: it is that which is “passed on” and “given over” from one to another. Holy Tradition is, therefore, that which is passed on and given over within the Church from the time of Christ’s apostles right down to the present day. Fr. Tom Hopko

There are five basic sources that comprise Orthodox Tradition, passed down from one generation to the next, from Christ to the Apostles, in written and unwritten forms. The first (and of primary importance is Holy Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. The second source is the Liturgy, which includes the entire body of the Church’s common and public worship (including the sacraments of the Church). The third are the councils of the Church, the first one recounted in the Book of Acts (Acts 15), and their subsequent creeds and canons. The fourth are the Saints of the Church, especially the writings of a particular group of saints called the “church fathers”. The fifth source of Church Tradition is Church art. Saint John of Damascus said that words written in books are “images,” as are material images like icons. Art is the use of the material to express the intangible and the revelation of God.

rublevtrinityWe count fasting or kneeling in worship on the Lord’s day to be unlawful. [ed. note: Jesus rose on the Lord’s day, so it was for rejoicing only.] We rejoice in the same privilege also from Passover to Pentecost.  At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign [i.e., of the cross]. If, for these and other such rules, you insist upon having positive Scriptural injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and faith as their observer. You will perceive that reason will support tradition, custom, and faith, or you will learn from someone else who knows. Meanwhile, you will believe that there is some reasoning [behind these traditions] to which submission is due. Tertullian, c. A.D. 200 in De Corona 3

Looking Ahead: tomorrow’s blog will be on our primary source of holy tradition; the Scriptures



Filed under Sources of Orthodox Tradition: Series

4 responses to “Sources of Orthodox Tradition

  1. What is the objective truth upon which Eastern Orthodox tradition is based? Tertullian’s statement, that there essentially is no “positive Scriptural injunction” but only tradition, begs the question, is tradition an equal authority alongside the Bible? Is the Bible incomplete thus needing further revelation from God? Who/what is the determining factor as to whether or not tradition is/is not heresy and/or an extra-biblical revelation from God?

    I readily admit that the protestant reformed tradition of which I am part has its own nuances and specificities of which one could point to and call “church tradition”, yet there is not one that can be looked to and readily admitted that it has no “positive scriptural injunction”. I suppose I should wait for your post tomorrow (!) to read what you have to say about the source of tradition, but it confuses me that the source of Orthodox tradition would be the Scriptures if Tertullian is stating that the Scriptures do not, in fact, outline the specific traditions of the church which are held.

    And I ask out of curiosity and interest, not in an antagonistic, wanting to fight it out kind of way — As we strive to know and live by the truth, there is much to learn and discuss. Please receive my questions in love as they are intended.

    • Nick: While, like you, I don’t know what Fr. James is going to say in his post tomorrow, I’d like to offer you something I picked up along the way as we journeyed to the Orthodox faith and Church. It’s a sort of “bumper sticker” summary that can serve as an entry point to the topic of your question:
      “Roman Catholics say, ‘The Bible AND Tradition’; the Protestants say, ‘The Bible NOT Tradition’; the Orthodox say, ‘The Bible IS Tradition.'” There are several elements as a part of this understanding. The first is that the Bible belongs to the Church; and can only be fully understood within the context of the Church. That is to say, we share the belief that the Bible was written by men inspired by God; but what is not always understood in the Protestant realm is that the contents of the Bible were established by the Church — again, by men inspired by the Holy Spirit; using the “measure” of the teaching in each proposed book when compared to the teaching of the apostles. Those books determined to be consistent with the oral tradition were included, while those books which were not consistent were excluded. Trying here to be brief, one other “bumper sticker” statement: Is the Bible the Word of God? It has been my experience that most Protestants will agree with this statement. By contrast, the Orthodox might say (here’s the bumper sticker), “The Bible is not the Word of God — Jesus is the Word of God. The Bible is ‘the word about the Word.'” Summing up, the Bible is the principle authority for us; but there are other sources to guide us, as Fr. James has mentioned — the Divine Liturgy, and the teachings of the Church Fathers (which include many, many books about the holy Scriptures) being important among them. As such, we neither teach nor practice what is contrary to the Bible; but look to other Church-related sources of authority for those things we do, about which the Bible is silent.

    • s-p

      If I may, at the risk of being shamelessly self-promoting, point Nick to the four part series on “Sola Scriptura” in the audio archives of that begins on the April 17, 2005 program. I think it will help.

  2. Remember always that the New Testament was written years after The Resurrection of our Lord. Many hundreds of our fathers and mothers in faith lived their lives without the written New Testament Gospels – many went gladly to martyrs deaths – FOR THE GOSPEL – without ever having imagined that it could be written down.

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