THE HOLY TRADITION 

Published by Jacob P Varghese on

 

       “Guard the deposit” (1 Tim. 6:20).

Tradition

A tradition is an opinion, belief, story or custom that is memorized and handed down from generation to generation, from ancestors to posterity, originally without the need for a writing system. Its etymology is Latin, from the verb ‘tradere’ (traditio), which means “to give, to hand in, to deliver it, to pass on, to offer or to transmit directly.” Whether it is good or bad, depends on what is handed over, and why, and to whom. In the Bible the traditions of men is sometimes contrasted with the word of God; (Mk. 7:1-13) for example Jesus told the Pharisees “You revoke God’s word by your tradition (man made traditions) that you have handed down. And you do many other similar things.”

Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” (Matt. 15: 2; Mk. &: 3, 5). This is an example of a tradition, which means ‘practices’ and is entirely different from what we call as Sacred Tradition. These are not part of the Divine Revelation, but human customs practiced or behaviors that are passed on from generations.

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. Judas Iscariot, delivered Christ to his enemies, who handed over him to Pilate, who delivered him to be crucified (John 18:2, Jn. 19: 11, 16). So not all “tradition” is good,

But when Orthodox Christians speak of 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 Greek word used is “Paradosis“.

The Holy Tradition are the teachings delivered by our Lord Jesus Christ, to His disciples, who in their turn kept it alive in their hearts and passed to the believers through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Tradition is the deposit of the faith, passed on from generation to generation. The Holy Tradition is the “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). It includes everything that Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and the Apostles have given to the Church. It is the apostles’ teaching that was ‘continued’ in the Christian community from the day of Pentecost. Much teaching was transmitted orally by the Apostles has come down to us in Sacred Tradition.

Our Lord Jesus Christ said that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth (Jn. 14: 26). Jesus Christ also said I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now, when the Spirit of Truth comes He will guide you in all truth” (Jn. 16: 12, 13).God the Holy Spirit speaks to the Church and leads us to the Truth. This leading of the Holy Spirit is what we call Holy Tradition. There are excellent Scripture verses that tell us exactly what is meant by the words “Holy Tradition.” 

“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: 2). “What you heard from me, keep as a pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the deposit that was entrusted to you……., with the help of the Holy Spirit (2 Tim. 1: 13-14). These orally said things that were heard, are equally important in keeping the Holy Tradition of the Church as a lively sign of the growth of the Church. 

Therefore brethren, stand fast, and hold to the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle” (2 Thess. 2: 15). These traditions, then, are partly written (scripture) and partly oral. “You keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (2 Thess. 3: 6).

The Church preserves “whatever you have learned or received or heard from me or seen in me, put it into practice” (Phillip. 4: 9) and “live according to the pattern we gave you” (Phillip. 3: 17).  

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first received…..” (1 Cor. 15: 3; 1 Cor. 11: 23).St. Paul here links himself with the early Christian Traditions. He says that he was not the originator, as he did not receive from the Lord directly, but his source of knowledge was from other Christians. “I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions (teachings) I just passed them on to you (1 Cor. 11: 2). He says to the Hebrews “Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away (Heb. 2: 1).

Our Church fathers set to record the teachings, they had received from the Apostles and these gave the final form of Church worship, prayers, rites and liturgies. It could be said that Tradition, as an historical event, begins with the Apostolic preaching and is found in Scriptures, but it is kept, treasured, interpreted, and explained to the Church by the Holy Fathers, the successors of the Apostles. This ‘interpretive’ part of the Apostolic preaching is called ‘Patristic Tradition’” This is “the preaching of the truth handed down by the Church in the whole world to Her children” – St. Irenaeus. The Great ‘Pillar of Orthodoxy’, St. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria during the 4th century, gives the most appropriate definition of the Church’s Tradition:

Let us look at the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Church from the very beginning, which the Logos gave (edoken), the Apostles preached (ekeryxan), and the Fathers preserved (ephylaxan). Upon this the Church is founded (tethemeliotai)”

In other words, Holy Tradition is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a living experience, which is relived and renewed through time. It is the true faith, which is revealed by the Holy Spirit to the true people of God. Holy Tradition, therefore, cannot be reduced to a mere enumeration of quotations from the Scriptures or from the Fathers. It is the fruit of the incarnation of the Word of God, His crucifixion and resurrection as well as His ascension, all of which took place in space and time. Tradition is an extension of the life of Christ into the life of the Church. According to St. Basil, it is the continuous presence of the Holy Spirit. In short, Holy Tradition is the deposit of the faith, passed on from generation to generation. It includes everything that Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and the Apostles have given to the Holy Church. It is Holy Tradition that provides us our living connection with the past. We can be like the early Church, but through Holy Tradition.

  • St. Augustine said, “There is no clear cut limit separating the works of dating after the apostolic age, from the books of the Old Testament from which we have received its authority from the Apostles and all through the succession of Bishops”.
  • St. Basil said “Part of the beliefs preserved by the Church come from written books; while part of it we have received according to the tradition of the Apostles and both parts are effective in worship” 

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