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Holy Tradition and Holy Scripture

by Stephen Methodius Hayes

In the past Western Christians were roughly divided into those who believed in an infallible pope, and those who believed in an infallible Bible, and great were the arguments between them. Nowadays the arguments have become somewhat muted, as many Protestants have stopped believing in the Bible, and many Roman Catholics have stopped believing in the infallibility of the Roman Pope.

Orthodox Christians do not generally feel themselves to be part of this argument, because if we believe in anything infallible, it is an infallible God. If you press it a bit further it is God the Holy Spirit who speaks to the Church, and our Lord Jesus Christ said that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth. And this leading of the Holy Spirit is what we call Holy Tradition.

Someone asked a question in response to one of the other articles, about what Orthodox Christians thought of the Bible, and the merits of the various English Bible translations. And someone else has already pointed out that the Orthodox Church does not officially endorse any English translation. For Orthodox Christians the "Authorised Version" is the Septuagint in the Old Testament, and the Textus Receptus for the New Testament.

But one thing that can be said for the King James English version is that it gives a more accurate translation of II Thess 2:15 than a lot of modern English translations: "Therefore brethren, stand fast, and hold to the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle". These traditions, then, are partly written (scripture) and partly oral.

In the minds of many Western Protestants, tradition is assumed to be a bad thing - to such an extent that when translating the Greek word "paradosis" into English, it is translated by "tradition" when a bad meaning is intended, and by some other word when a good meaning is intended. And it is very hard for Orthodox Christians to see this as anything other than wilful distortion of the meaning of Holy Scripture!

Tradition (Greek "paradosis", Latin "traditio") means to hand something over, to deliver it, to pass something on. Whether it is good or bad depends on what is handed over, and why, and to whom. Christians who handed over the scriptures and other treasures of the Church to the police in times of persecution were called "traditores", and it was not a good thing - it was giving what is holy to dogs, casting pearls before swine. And that meaning has come into English as "traitor", one who hands over, or delivers, his country to the enemy. And Judas delivered Christ to his enemies, who delivered him to Pilate, who delivered him to be crucified (John 18:2, cf Jn 19:11,16).

So not all "tradition" is good, but when Orthodox Christians speak of "Holy Tradition" they mean the handing on of the good news of the kingdom to those who are willing to receive it. Evangelism is thus tradition, because it is passing on the good news. The Holy Tradition is what is believed always, everywhere and by all. It is the apostles' teaching that was "continued" in the Christian community from the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:42).

The tradition of the Church is therefore not the idiosyncratic visions of the few. If people have visions or revelations they must be tested against the tradition. If people produce written documents that purport to proclaim revelations of God, they too are tested against the Holy Tradition - and that is how the canon of Scripture was formed. And this is how the Church distinguishes between "traditions of men" and the authentic tradition of the Holy Spirit, who leads us into all truth.

The Church has declared that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the authentic embodiments of the Holy Tradition of the Church. This is a living tradition, transferred from place to place and generation to generation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It has been recorded in the Bible, in the decisions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils and other local councils that are generally accepted, in the writings of the church fathers, in the ikons, in the Divine Liturgy, and in the whole life of the Church.

For Orthodox Christians, tradition is holistic. It belongs to the whole Church, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It cannot be reduced to the printed words of the Bible alone, or the pronouncements of one man. The Bible without the Church is a mutilation of tradition, ripping it from its context. This is why Orthodox Christians do not accept the slogan "sola scriptura" (which is in any case itself an extra-biblical tradition, since it has no warrant in the Bible).

When we think about the Bible then, for Orthodox Christians the "traditions of men", such as "sola scriptura" or "verbal inerrancy" or any other human views of the Bible are not what are most important. What matters is not so much what we decide about the Bible, but rather that in the Bible we read what Christ has decided about us.

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Created: 27 September 2001
Updated: 28 May 2006