On Holy Tradition

From The Truth of Our Faith: A Discourse from Holy Scripture on the
Teachings of True Christianity,
By Elder Cleopa of Romania

Archimandrite Cleopa (Ilie; 1912–1998) was a well known twentieth century writer and spiritual elder of Romania. One chapter in his book, The Truth of Our Faith, is dedicated to the defense of the Orthodox teaching on Holy Scripture against criticism by Protestants. This chapter, organized as a dialogue, is a helpful aide in apologetics, and explains the significance of Tradition in the Orthodox Church.

Inquirer: What is the Holy Tradition that the Orthodox consider to be the second source of Holy Revelation and equal to Holy Scripture?

Elder Cleopa: Holy Tradition is the teaching of the Church, given by God with a living voice, a portion of which was later written down. Like Holy Scripture, Holy Tradition also contains Holy Revelation, and is therefore fundamental for our salvation. Holy Tradition is the life of the Church in the Holy Spirit; and, in concord with the enduring life of the Church, it is a wellspring of Holy Revelation, and thus it possesses the same authority as Holy Scripture.

According to the old chronologies, 3,678 years passed from the time of Adam to Abraham; if we add 430 years of the Israelites’ time in Egypt, we have 4,108 years. Throughout this period of time Holy Scripture did not exist, nor was the Sabbath observed among the people. For thousands of years the faithful and chosen people were guided on the path of salvation by Holy Tradition alone—namely, from the teachings about God which they received from a living voice. Only during the 1,400 years from the time of Moses until the advent of Christ were they guided by the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament.

Just as people were guided in the knowledge of God and on the path of salvation by Holy Tradition alone (that is, by a living voice—oral tradition) during the period of time before the books of the Old Testament were written, so were the people similarly guided before books of the New Testament were written. Holy Tradition was the guide by which the first Christians were directed to the path of salvation. The first Person to bring the teachings of the New Testament with a living voice to the ears of the people was our Saviour Jesus Christ Himself, Who taught the people continually for three and a half years, spreading His Gospel without writing any of it down. Inasmuch as He was fulfilling His obedience to His Father, He did not send His Apostles to write the Gospel, but rather to preach it to the whole world, saying: Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen (Mat. 28:19-20). From its establishment in (33 AD) until the year 44 AD, when the Holy Apostle Matthew wrote the first Gospel,[1] the Church was governed without the Scriptures of the New Testament, but by Holy Tradition, only part of which was later recorded. Although there were many other writers who were considered inspired and faithful scribes of the Apostles, it is the Church which did or did not recognize them, for She is unerring. The Church lived the truth of the Gospel even before anything was committed to writing, having lived by Holy Tradition from the outset.

Thus, Holy Tradition is this: the source and the root of the two Testaments—the Old and the New—and this is why we call it a source of Holy Revelation, for it carries the same weight as Holy Scripture.

Inq.: Yes, but it is said that because Holy Scripture is the word of God it must not be substituted by or exchanged for Tradition, which is the word of man, as is written in the Gospel: Why do you also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? . . . Ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition. Ye hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying: This people . . . in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrine the commandments of men. (Mat. 15:3, 6-9; Mk. 7:13). Thus, we have no need to replace or supplement the law of God, contained in Holy Scripture, with the tradition of men.

EC: What your friends have told you is not at all true, since the law of God is not contained in Holy Scripture alone. Listen to what the divine Evangelist John says: And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen (Jn. 21:25). Again, the same Evangelist declares in one of his epistles: Having many things to write unto you, I would not write with paper and ink: but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full (2 Jn. 1:12). So you see that when the holy Evangelist had the opportunity, he taught his disciples more by the living voice of Tradition than by his epistles to them. While your friends observe at all costs only what is written, they do not take into account that the Saviour and the majority of His Apostles did not leave any writings, but rather taught orally, with the living voice of Tradition.

Inq.: In that case, I don’t know how Christians are to understand the statement that we must not be seduced by the false teachings of men, especially those who are religious and rely on Scripture. After all, the Apostle counsels us: Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ (Col. 2:8). It is our responsibility, then, to preserve ourselves from the false traditions of men.

EC: Dearest to Christ, you do not discern the difference between the teachings of human traditions and those that proceed from the apostolic and evangelical tradition. You have brought an excerpt here from Holy Scripture that refers to the tradition of human teachings and pseudo philosophy that has no relationship whatsoever to the evangelical and Apostolic Tradition of the Church of Jesus Christ. Holy Tradition is neither a tradition of men, nor a philosophy, nor some kind of trickery; it is the word of God which He personally delivered to us. The great Apostle Paul teaches and exhorts us to fervently keep the traditions, saying; Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle (2 Thess. 2:15). Some people to the contrary advise weaker Christians to slander and abandon the Apostolic and evangelical traditions, not understanding that Holy Scripture itself is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and it grew out of the roots and tree of Holy Tradition.

Inq.: Why isn’t Holy Scripture sufficient for faith and salvation, with no need whatsoever of Tradition? This is apparent from the words of the Apostle Paul to Timothy: And that from a child thou hast known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:15-16). These words are clear. It is unnecessary to add anything to Holy Scripture.

EC: Here he is speaking only of Old Testament Scripture, for the New Testament had not yet been written. Paul wrote to Timothy that a good teacher could use the Old Testament to support his faith in Christ and his instruction in Christianity. According to the notion that you mistakenly assert, it would follow that not one book of the New Testament—those written after the epistles of the Apostle Paul to Timothy—should be accepted. It is enough instead for us to recognize the Old Testament books mentioned in the passage to which you refer.

Inq.: Some people don’t acknowledge Tradition because they say that with the passing of time it yielded to many illegitimate elements; so that, especially today, we are no longer able to discern the true Apostolic Tradition from the false.

EC: The Church of Christ determined the truths of the Faith, according to the long course of Tradition, through the teachings and canons of the holy Ecumenical Councils, decrees and the Symbol of Faith [The Creed], and by confessions [of Faith] made by holy and wonderworking hierarchs at the many local synods which have been held continuously since days of old. At these synods, the authenticity and genuineness of the holy Orthodox Faith was firmly established, primarily in those areas where it was attacked by the existing heresies of the time. The irrevocable and inalterable content of Holy Tradition emerges from the totality of those synods. This can be understood by closely examining the essence of the following precepts:

- Do not sanction concepts that contain inconsistencies or contradictions with Apostolic Tradition and Holy Scripture. (A teaching is to be considered worthy of the name “Tradition” when it stems from the Saviour or the Holy Apostles, and is directly influenced by the Holy Spirit.)

- Tradition is that which has been protected by the Apostolic Church, and has an uninterrupted continuity up to today.

- Tradition is that which is confessed and practiced by the entire universal Orthodox Church.

- Tradition is that which is in harmony with the greater part of the [Church] fathers and ecclesiastical writers.

When a tradition does not fulfill these stipulations, it cannot be considered true and holy, and consequently cannot be considered admissible or fit to be observed.

Inq.: Notwithstanding all the efforts which you say the Orthodox Church has made and continues to make relative to the truth of Tradition, some believe only the teachings which are contained in Holy Scripture. For the first Christians—they say—accepted only such writings as were contained in Holy Scripture, as it is written: These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind and searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so (Acts 17:11). From this it follows that we should observe the teachings we find in Holy Scripture.

EC: The great Apostle Paul, however, commends the Christians of Corinth not because they kept the written teachings, but because they obeyed him and diligently observed the oral teachings that they had received from him. Listen to what he writes; Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and even as I delivered to you, ye are holding fast the traditions (1 Cor. 11:2). I wonder which is better for us to do: to observe only the written teachings, or to follow the great Apostle Paul who extols those who keep the unwritten tradition as well? Furthermore, we have established that the Holy Apostles and Evangelists believed and preached abundantly from Holy Tradition, which they inherited from of old, and which is not written anywhere in Holy Scripture.

Inq.: Where specifically does it appear that the Holy Apostles taught anything other than what was written in Holy Scripture?

EC: Here are two testimonies: The Holy Apostle Jude says in his catholic epistle, including in verse nine: But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, disputed about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a reviling judgment upon him, but said, The Lord rebuke thee (Jude 9). Dearest to Christ, search all of Holy Scripture and see if you will find this citation. Still further down in the same epistle the Apostle refers to the prophecy of Enoch, saying: And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying, Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousand of his saints, to execute judgment upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him (Jude 14-20). However, the Apostle Jude is not the only one to speak from Tradition. Listen to what the illustrious Paul says in his second epistle to Timothy: Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith (2 Tim. 3:8). And again the renowned Apostle Paul, guiding the priests of Ephesus, says: Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). Now I ask you who insist on only putting faith in the written word: From where did the two Apostles—Jude and Paul—take these words? For you will not find them anywhere in Holy Scripture.

Inq.: Still, I question the possibility of preserving Holy Tradition to this day unadulterated and genuine in all respects, as it was in the beginning. Shouldn’t we possess more assurances from the written teachings of Holy Scripture?

EC: You saw how the famed Paul commends the Christians of Corinth for carefully and mindfully keeping the unwritten traditions they had received from his very lips. Moreover, you heard that the Apostles Paul and Jude employed words in their preaching taken directly from Holy Tradition, such as those referring to the prophecy of Enoch, and others. I also pointed out to you by what means Holy Tradition was preserved throughout the ages. Furthermore, the same Apostle Paul exhorts and directs the Christians of Thessalonica to be very attentive and vigilant to keep the Holy Tradition: Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle (2 Thess. 2:15). And in another place he says: But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed (Gal. 1:8). In other words, he is speaking of the Gospel that he handed down to them with a living voice and not only by the written word.

Inq.: How was this Canon of Holy Tradition in the Church preserved over the span of thousands of years? In our age, some allege that the clergy and ecclesiastical writers alter from day to day the truth of Holy Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition, which in the beginning was authentic and genuine? They say that if you have in your hand a book that was published 50 years ago and you put it next to one published recently, they would have nothing in common. It therefore follows that if the hierarchs and priests have done this with the sacred books, they would do the same with the Holy Tradition which the Orthodox boast they have preserved unscathed from [the time of] the Holy Apostles.

EC: What your companions have accepted is not at all correct. The teachings of the Church of Christ are guarded by the Holy Spirit and cannot err (Mat. 10:17-20, John 4: 16-26, 1 Tim. 3:15). The very founder of the Church, Jesus Christ, governs it in an unseen way, until the end of the ages (Mat. 28:20). If some ecclesiastical writers, hierarchs, priests or laity translated the Bible from another language, or amended some passage containing an expression which does not correspond to our present-day speech, this would only be an adjustment and modification of the expression, and not a serious alteration of the substance of the Biblical text. If a Romanian from the time of the Elder Mirtsea or Stephan the Great (1504) were resurrected today and you wanted to speak with him, you would only with difficulty understand him, because the language has developed into something that is not exactly what was spoken then. This is precisely what has happened with respect to the books. With the passage of time, the writers’ words or expressions were amended with appropriate present-day language—without however, changing the meaning of the profound and sacred writings. I previously referred you to the foundation upon which Holy Tradition rests, and the means by which its authentic, original image is reliably preserved and conveyed throughout the ages. I am referring to the ancient Symbol of Faith (The Creed), the Apostolic Canons, and the dogmatic decisions of the Seven[2] Ecumenical Councils. To these can also be added the following monumental and meaningful testaments—assurances of the unimpaired preservation of Holy Tradition:

- The acts of the early Church are witnesses by the company of the Apostles, amongst whom are Saint Ignatius the God-bearer (+104 AD), a disciple of the Apostles, and Saint Polycarp of Smyrna (+106 AD). These Fathers admonished the faithful of their day to guard themselves from the teachings of heretics, and to fully maintain only the Apostolic Tradition (Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History, 2:36).

- Eusebius tells us that Hegessipus attempted to collect the whole of apostolic tradition, and he nearly accomplished this, gathering more than five volumes of material that Eusebius had studied. Unfortunately, with the passage of time, these books were eventually lost (Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History, 4:8).

- Saint Irenaeus (+202 AD) and Clement of Alexandria (+215 AD) inform us: “Those who explain Scripture without the help of the Church’s Tradition cut asunder the significance of truth” (Stromatis, p. 7).

Further behold those brilliant witnesses representing the faith of apostolic times and the period immediately following them up until the fourth century. The acts of the ancient Church are an important testimony to the value of the Holy Tradition, and to the honor shown it from those times until today.

- Origin (+250 AD) says: “Preserve the Holy Tradition in the Church.”

- St. Epiphanios (+403 AD) writes: “It is necessary to hold to the Tradition because it is not possible for everything to be found in Holy Scripture. The Holy Apostles handed down some things via the written word, while others via the spoken.”

- Saint John Chrysostom (+407 AD) says: “Hence it is clear that the Holy Apostles did not deliver everything by epistle; rather many things they handed down via the spoken word which is also trustworthy. If there is Tradition, then don’t ask for anything more” (4th Homily on 2 Thess. See verse 2:45)

- Saint Gregory of Nyssa (+394 AD) writes: “We have the Tradition established for us by the Fathers as an inheritance by Apostolic succession, transmitted via the saints” (Against Eunomius, Book 40).

- Saint Basil the Great (+379 AD) in his writings provides similar testimony. Here is how he expresses it: “Among the dogmas and kerygma (evangelical truths) that are safeguarded in the Church, some we have from the written teachings, while others we have received orally from the Tradition of the Apostles through hidden succession. The latter hold the same legitimacy and force as the written texts” (On the Holy Spirit).

We must uphold Holy Tradition with great reverence and godliness, for not all that is needful to effect our salvation is found within Holy Scripture. Holy Scripture instructs us to do many things; however, it does not manifest the light to us. For example, it instructs us to be baptized, but it doesn’t explain to us the method. Likewise, it guides us to confess our sins, to receive Communion, to be sacramentally wed; but nowhere does it specify the rite enabling us to fulfill these mysterion (sacraments). Furthermore, it instructs us to pray, but doesn’t tell us how, where, and when. It tells us to make the sign of the Holy Cross in front of our chest according to the psalmist: Lord, lift Thou up the light of Thy countenance upon us; but it doesn’t show us how. Who teaches us in writing to worship facing east? Where in Scripture are we told the words of the epiclesis (invocation) of the Holy Spirit for the sanctification of the all-holy Mysteries? Which teaching from Holy Scripture instructs us to bless the water of Baptism and the oil of Holy Chrismation? Which passage in Scripture teaches us about the threefold denunciation and the renunciations of Satan before Holy Baptism? The prayer of glorification toward the Holy Trinity—“Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit”—from which passage did it come to us?

Posing these questions to the slanderer of Tradition, Saint Basil the Great says: “If we consent to abandon the unwritten traditions on the pretext that they don’t have great worth, we err in great and elevated matters, rejecting the Gospel.”

Therefore, the order by which the Church upholds the unwritten is as follows: Whatever is of Apostolic origin and is practiced by the Fathers becomes valid as tradition, and has the power of law in the Church of Christ (The Rudder, Neamts Monastery, 1844, Canons 87, 91). It must be preserved accordingly, because its importance and benefit springs from the relationship that exists between it and Holy Scripture. It is true that both have remained within a reciprocal unity and intimate relationship—a relationship based upon the fact that both comprise the holy Revelation of God, and are the fount and source of Revelation for us. Hence, it is not possible for an inner contradiction to exist between the two, or for us to exclude one from the other. Holy Scripture possesses its unique witness of scriptural canon, as well as its dogmatic character (its divine inspiration), only in and with Holy Tradition; while Holy Tradition is able to prove the authenticity of its truth only together with Holy Scripture.

Translation from Romanian by Orthodox Advices

Edited by Pravoslavie.ru/OrthoChristian.com

[1] There are scholars who believe that in fact, “the time of the writing of the first three Gospels is … around the year 70 AD.” (J. Karabidopoulos, Introduction to the New Testament, p. 104 [In Greek])

[2] The Elder here is referring to the well-known Seven Ecumenical Councils. However, the Church also essentially accepts an eighth (879), which confirmed the rejection of the “filioque” clause, in the presence and with the support of the Church of Rome; and a ninth (1341), which rejected the humanistic-scholastic theology of Barlaam, and supported the Hesychasts and St. Gregory Palamas. The truths expounded by these two councils have helped to uphold the Church against the theological distortions which have been brought to bear over the past 650 years—first in the West, and soon thereafter in the East.

Andrew Karres9/2/2016 1:34 am
I enjoyed this article. Thank you.
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