The Holy Bible and Orthodox Tradition
The Orthodox Church governs her life by Holy Tradition. The word “tradition” comes from the Latin traditio, which is translation of a Greek word used frequently in the scriptures, paradosis. Translatedliterally, this word means something that is handed on from one person to another, in the same way that a baton is handed over in a relay race. Something that is “traditioned” passed on from one person or group of people to another.
In Galatians 1:11, St Paul says, that the tradition of the Church is “not according to man”. in other words, it is revealed by God. It is not a human product.
Tradition means an experience, an entire life-not simply a series of teachings, but the living out of those teachings that have come from the God who has revealed Himself to us. Tradition is the living out of the revelation of God by His people.
Five Sources of Christian Tradition
- The Holy Scriptures (Bible)
- The Liturgy
- The Councils (Synods)
- The Saints
- The Church Art
The Holy Scriptures
The first place we give to the Holy Scriptures: the Bible, Old and New Testaments. The Bible is understood by the Orthodox Christians to be the principal written record of the experience by God’s people of God’s revealing Himself to them. It is understood that the Church, therefore, wrote the Bible. The Bible is the word of God, but the word of God was not written directly and personally by God. The Holy Scriptures did not fall from Heaven in a full complete form. Instead, they were written by human beings who were inspired by God. What they write is the truth about God.They write what they write as members of God’s people.
For example, in the early years of the Christian Church, those most important books of Holy Scripture that we call the Gospels did not exist.Several decades passed afterPentecost before the first Gospel was written. It was the end of the first century by the time all four Gospels were written. Three hundred more years passed before a decision was made in the Church that there would be only four Gospels.
The books that are in the Holy Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, are there because God’s people, through those who were set aside as having the authority to make the decision, decided that these books would be part of the Bible, and other books would not. The Church, as God’s people inspired by God, wrote the Bible. The Church produced the Bible. The Bible did not produced the Church.
The Holy Scriptures are the principal and most honourd written record of God’s revelation to His people. But it is the understanding of the Orthodox that Holy Scriptures cannot be completely, truthfully understood unless they are understood within the context of the Church that produced them, that declared them to be what they are.
So, the Bible is the Book of the Church, the first source of the Christian Tradition.
I will try to write on the Bible in greater detail later on.
The second source of the Christian Tradition is the liturgy of the Church.”Liturgy” is a word that means in Greek, common work. The liturgy of the church means the work of the church when it comes together to be the people of God and to worship God. Liturgy includes the whole body of the Church’s common worship: the services for the various hours of the day, the days of the week, the feast days and seasons of the Church, the sacraments of the Church, like baptism, the holy Eucharist, marriage and other.
In all the public prayer of the Church we have a record of what the Church believes. In fact, there is a saying that has been popular among the Orthodox from the beginning; the rule of faith, the standard of what we believe, is established by the way we pray.
The Councils (Synods)
The third source of the Christian Tradition is the councils of the Churchman council is meeting of those in the Church who have been given the authority to decide what is faithful to the Tradition of the Church and what is not. The first council that we hear described in the Act of Apostles chapter 15 takes place in the Church of Jerusalem. This council was convened to decide the question of whether Gentiles could becomes Christians and whether they should be required to obey the Jewish Law. This was a situation that Jesus had not specifically prepared His Apostles to deal with. But he has given them the authority in the Church to distinguish between what was true and what was not, so they met to decide what to do with the Gentiles who wanted to become part of the Church.
The result of the Jerusalem council was a compromise: the Gentiles would be required to keep a few core principles of the Jewish law, but the rest of it was not binding on them. Moreover, the Apostles made it very clear that this was not merely a human decision. They were so boldly as to say, “It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us that this is how we answer this question. (Acts 15:28).
Many councils have met through the centuries of the Church’s life and they have decided many Questions. The answers they give to the questions that have to be resolved come in two forms: creeds and canons.
The Oriental Orthodox Family including Indian Orthodox Church accepting the first three Ecumenical Councils:
- Council at Nicea on AD325
- Council at Constantinople on AD381
- Council at Ephesus at AD 431
The most important of the Church’s statement of faith is contained in the creed called the Nicene Creed. It is called “Nicene” because it was written at the first Ecumenical Council in Nicea in AD 325
The fourth source of the Christian Tradition is the lives of the saints and the teaching of one particular group of saints who are called the Fathers, includes some mothers.
In every generation in the life of the Church, there have been people who lve the teachings of Christ faithfully, heroically, who attain while living in this world the destiny for which we as Christians believe God has created us: to share His own life.
The ultimate promise concerning the Christian revelation is that it is true. “You shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free”. Free from what? Free from error, free from sin, free from emptiness, and ultimately free from death in the negative sense. Those are the things that God frees from us from. But He does this so that we can be free for something that is indescribably greater: to reach our destiny as partakers of the life of God Himself.
A certain group of those saints is called the Fathers. By a Father of the Church, we mean one who by his or her wisdom in teaching or defending Church doctrine, often at the cost of his or her life or in the face of great suffering, bore witness to the Tradition of the Church. When we read the Gospel here is what the Church has always believed. In the same sense, when we read the writings of the great Fathers, we can find in them a faithful and true testimony to what the Church has always believed and experienced about God.
The Church Art
The final source of the Christian Tradition is the Church Art. It might come as a surprise to some that along with such exalted things as the Holy Scriptures and the Liturgy of the Church and the Saints and the Fathers, we would speak of Church art. In the minds of some people, art is simply a kind of decoration, a secondary thing.
In the Orthodox understanding of the nature of human being, of how God has made us, how God has revealed Himself to us, is that material creation is very much involved. One could say that the Orthodox Faith, the Orthodox experience is a holistic one. It involves the whole into the material world, God becoming man, God becoming matter-is uniquely at the heart of the Christian Faith.
Art is, by definition, the use of material things as the medium for the revelation of God. So for the Orthodox, art is not icing on the cake; it is something very central to what we know of how God has revealed Himself to us. One goes in to the Orthodox Church building and is immediately surrounded by all sorts of things that appeal to the senses.
We could divide them into the three categories:-
- Iconography: the way in which the images of Christ, His life, His Mother, and the saints are portrayed in the Church.
- Church Music: the way our Church services are sung, the chants that are used in the liturgical services.
- Church architecture: even the way an Orthodox Church is traditionally built is a visible testimony to the Faith of the Church as it has been experienced throughout the ages.
None of these is understood to be merely accidental or a frill. Rather, they are at the heart of our experience in the Church as the people of God.
So we have these five basic sources of the Orthodox Tradition, what has been passed on from one generation of the faithful to the next, from Christ and the Apostles even to the present time: the scripture, the liturgy, the creeds and canons that have come from the Church Councils or Synods, the lives of the saints and the teaching of the Fathers, and finally Orthodox Christian Art.