Elements of Holy Tradition
Now that we have looked at what the Holy Tradition of the Church is, let us begin to explore some of its elements - some of the ways that the Church's life and faith have been passed down from one generation to the next.
- Holy Scripture. This is the collection of writings that are used in various ways in the life of the Church. There are many writings or sacred texts which form part of Holy Scripture. They were all written by different people, in different places, at different times, and for different reasons.
Some date from before the time of Christ, and include mythical literature, history, poetry, prophecy, hymnody, books of the law, and others. Others date from the time of the early Church after the coming of Christ, and include theology, pastoral letters to the new church communities in different parts of the world, a record of the early days of the spread of the Church, and records of the life and wonders of Christ. Collectively, these sacred texts are referred to as The Bible, which literally means "the books" or "the scrolls". There are also other ancient Christian writings which are not included in the Bible but which have always been revered as sources of information and Christian doctrine.
Within the Church, Holy Scripture is used in different ways: proclamation and explanation during public worship, private meditation and study at home or in groups, as the basis for texts by bishops and theologians to help express the Church's teaching, and some parts (such as the Psalms) continue to be used as prayer and hymnody during worship, as they always have been.
The Holy Scriptures are the core part of the written record of the life of God's people, through which He reveals Himself to all who will hear.
We must always be suspicious when people tell us what "The Bible says". Firstly, the Bible is not a single publication written for a particular purpose: it is a collection of different texts spanning a millennium, which were later compiled together by the Church, and secondly, all of these writings were created from within the community of the Old and New Testament Church, it is the Church that decided which writings to include and which to exclude, and it is through the ongoing life of the Church that they are interpreted. To try to understand Holy Scripture apart from the wider Tradition of which it is part is bound to lead to misunderstanding and error.
An in-depth Bible study, grounded in Orthodox Tradition, may be found here.
- The Councils of the Church. From time to time, within the life of the Church, new situations arise which we haven't encountered before, and the scale or importance of these matters means that they can only be resolved by the whole Church, together, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When the need arises, the bishops (and sometimes others) gather in council to resolve the new questions.
The first such Council is actually documented in the Bible, in the Acts of the Apostles (chapter 15). It is the Council of Jerusalem, and was called to address the matter of how to receive non-Jews into the Church. The early Christians had for the most part been Jewish, and had already undergone the ritual signs of entering into a covenant with God. As the good news of salvation in Christ began to spread, non-Jews also wanted to become Christians, and the matter of how to receive them into the Church had to be addressed and settled.
As the centuries passed, various matters arose which threatened the unity and harmony of the Church. Sometimes these were practical matters and at other times they were serious matters of faith. So how were they to be settled?
In St Matthew's Gospel, the Saviour gives authority to his Apostles to ensure that the Church will remain faithful to the Truth.
'Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.'
- Matthew 18: 18In his second letter to St Timothy, St Paul reminds him of his duties as a bishop, as a successor to the Apostles:
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
- 2nd Timothy 2: 15So, it is the duty of bishops to ensure that the Holy Tradition is passed on intact to the next generation. This is why a minimum of two, but ideally three bishops must take part in the consecration of a new bishop, so that all three of them must agree that the new candidate is of sound faith before he can become a bishop.
Over the following centuries there were a number of councils of bishops addressing local issues. Those addressing matters that affected the whole Church came to be known as the Ecumenical Councils. While reference is often made to the Seven Ecumenical Councils, there are only three that are universally recognised as being truly Ecumenical, that is, having the authority over the whole Church. However, although we may not agree on exactly how to categorise the four remaining Great Councils, (due to the condemnations of certain people and legitimate local practices which, with hindsight, might have been unjust), all Orthodox Christians still fully embrace and affirm the doctrinal teachings of these Councils and incorporate them into our life in Christ.
- Prayer & Worship. A saying that is often heard in the Orthodox Church is, "A theologian is one who prays".
This is because prayer is how we enter into communion with God, how we come to know God intimately, and how that intimacy with God comes to permeate our lives.
However, there is a second level of meaning to this expression. In the Church's worship, in her prayers and her liturgies, is to be found the actualised expression of what she believes.
- What does this mean?
It means that the way we worship God is based on and expresses what we believe about God, and the faithful Christian who regularly takes part in that worship and prayer will be surrounded by constant reinforcements of the Faith.
Do we want to find out if the Church requires intellectual understanding of faith before allowing people to become Christians? We only need to look at the Church's worship for the answer, and we will see that babies are regularly baptised into Christ, and have been for 2000 years.
Do we want to learn if bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ or if they are a mere representation? Go to the Mass and see the reverence with which those Holy Things are treated. Look at the ceremonies surrounding them and listen to the words spoken and sung about them. There can be no doubt that the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present.
Do we want to know if the human body is just a vessel for the soul, and becomes nothing more than an empty shell when we die? Go to church and see people worshipping with their bodies - bowing, prostrating, kissing holy things, crossing themselves, being immersed in water, being anointed with oil, eating and drinking the Body and Blood of the Lord. Go to a funeral and see what reverence is given to the body, and how the people come forward and kiss their loved one goodbye. See how we kiss and treasure holy relics - the bodily remains of the saints - and enshrine them in our churches and altars. Listen to the Creed, where we affirm our belief in the resurrection of the dead. We can be left in no doubt that the body is just as much a part of the human person as the soul.
A famous Latin expression that sums this up well is legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi (the rule of prayer establishes the rule of belief). That is to say that we pray what we believe, so that we may believe what we pray.
This is why the way in which we worship is not just a matter of personal taste. We do not maintain the ancient Christian ceremonies, chanting, incense, reverence towards the Body & Blood of Christ, prostrations, hymnody, the practice of all of the Sacraments, and much else because this is our preferred option among many valid options. These things are not optional extras for people who like That Sort Of Thing. Rather, we do these things and many others because the way we worship is a conduit for the fullness of the Faith, and because the omission or pedestrianisation of elements of our worship of God is no less serious than removing books from the Bible or disregarding the Councils of the Church.
A warning to clergy from a faithful bishop and one of the great saints of the 20th century:
'The divine services in their composition contain all the fullness of the dogmatic teaching of the Church and set forth the path to salvation. They present invaluable spiritual wealth. The more fully and precisely they are fulfilled, the more benefit the participants receive from them. Those who perform them carelessly and who shorten them by their laziness rob their flock, depriving them of their very daily bread, stealing from them a most valuable treasure. The shortening of the services which comes about through lack of strength must be done wisely and performed circumspectly in order not to touch that which should not be tampered with.'
- St John the Wonderworker
- The Lives of the Saints. The purpose of the Christian life is to become a saint - to grow into the likeness of God. Over the course of the Church's existence, there have been Christians who have served as examples of those who have achieved theosis (transformation of being and union with God) and who now share in the life of the Holy Trinity. We call them saints, and we honour them and ask them to pray for us, as they are much closer to God now than we are, still on our earthly journey.
Their lives serve as examples for us to follow. They were ordinary people, like us, trying to serve God and work out their salvation in their various situation, like us, and like us they had their struggles and trials along the way. Yet they show us how, through faith, prayer, fasting, acts of charity, the participation in the sacramental life of the Church, they achieved union with God.
Sometimes we find saints who remind us of ourselves, whose stories we can identify with, and we might find in them hope. For we can see that if God can work holiness and wonders through their lives, He can do the same in ours.
When new Orthodox Christians are baptised into the Church, they choose a patron saint, and take that saint's name. We develop a devotion to our patron saints and ask for their prayers, and we celebrate their feast days with prayer, celebration, and often by receiving gifts from our family in Christ.
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
-Hebrews 12: 1-2
- The Writings of the Saints. Many of the saints have left us writings from their time on earth. These writings take various forms: some are records or descriptions of the worship of the Church in various times and places; others are spiritual works, inviting us to enter more deeply into a life of prayer and fasting, good works, or the communal worship of God; and yet others are explanations of some of the more complicated theological matters that raised questions at one time or another. Many of the authors of the last group of texts are known as the Fathers or Doctors of the Church.
Not every individual saint is without fault, and sometimes there are occasional errors that are to be found in their writings, but those that have been affirmed as true expressions of the Christian Faith are embraced as part of the Holy Tradition of the Church.