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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part II: Faith and Worship
      • The inner meaning of tradition
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The inner meaning of tradition

Orthodox history is marked outwardly by a series of sudden breaks: the capture of Alexandria,

Antioch, and Jerusalem by Arab Mohammedans; the burning of Kiev by the Mongols; the

two sacks of Constantinople; the October Revolution in Russia. Yet these events, while they

have transformed the external appearance of the Orthodox world, have never broken the inward

continuity of the Orthodox Church. The thing that first strikes a stranger on encountering Orthodoxy

is usually its air of antiquity, its apparent changelessness. He finds that Orthodox still baptize

by threefold immersion, as in the primitive Church; they still bring babies and small children

to receive Holy Communion; in the Liturgy the deacon still cries out: ‘The doors! The doors!’ —

recalling the early days when the church’s entrance was jealously guarded, and none but members

of the Christian family could attend the family worship; the Creed is still recited without any


These are but a few outward examples of something which pervades every aspect of Orthodox

life. Recently when two Orthodox scholars were asked to summarize the distinctive characteristic

of their Church, they both pointed to the same thing: its changelessness, its determination


to remain loyal to the past, its sense of living continuity with the Church of ancient times (See

Panagiotis Bratsiotis and Georges Florovsky, in Orthodoxy, A Faith and Order Dialogue, Geneva, 1960). Two and a half centuries

before, the Eastern Patriarchs said exactly the same to the Non-Jurors:

“We preserve the Doctrine of the Lord uncorrupted, and firmly adhere to the Faith

he delivered to us, and keep it free from blemish and diminution, as a Royal Treasure,

and a monument of great price, neither adding any thing, nor taking any thing

from it” (Letter of 1718, in G. Williams, The Orthodox Church of the East at the Eighteenth Century, p. 17).

This idea of living continuity is summed up for the Orthodox in the one word Tradition. ‘We do

not change the everlasting boundaries which our fathers have set,’ wrote John of Damascus, ‘but

we keep the Tradition, just as we received it’ (On Icons, II, 12 (P. G. XCIV, 1297B).

Orthodox are always talking about Tradition. What do they mean by the word? A tradition,

says the Oxford Dictionary, is an opinion, belief, or custom handed down from ancestors to posterity.

Christian Tradition, in that case, is the faith which Jesus Christ imparted to the Apostles,

and which since the Apostlestime has been handed down from generation to generation in the

Church (Compare Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3). But to an Orthodox Christian, Tradition means something

more concrete and specific than this. It means the books of the Bible; it means the Creed; it

means the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Fathers; it means the Canons,

the Service Books, the Holy Icons — in fact, the whole system of doctrine, Church government,

worship, and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages. The Orthodox Christian of

today sees himself as heir and guardian to a great inheritance received from the past, and he believes

that it is his duty to transmit this inheritance unimpaired to the future.

Note that the Bible forms a part of Tradition. Sometimes Tradition is defined as ‘the oral

teaching of Christ, not recorded in writing by his immediate disciples’ (Oxford Dictionary). Not

only non-Orthodox but many Orthodox writers have adopted this way of speaking, treating

Scripture and Tradition as two different things, two distinct sources of the Christian faith. But in

reality there is only one source, since Scripture exists within Tradition. To separate and contrast

the two is to impoverish the idea of both alike.

Orthodox, while reverencing this inheritance. from the past, are also well aware that not

everything received from the past is of equal value. Among the various elements of Tradition, a

unique pre-eminence belongs to the Bible, to the Creed, to the doctrinal definitions of the Ecumenical

Councils: these things the Orthodox accept as something absolute and unchanging,

something which cannot be cancelled or revised. The other parts of Tradition do not have quite

the same authority. The decrees of Jassy or Jerusalem do not stand on the same level as the Nicene

Creed, nor do the writings of an Athanasius, or a Symeon the New Theologian, occupy the

same position as the Gospel of Saint John.

Not everything received from the past is of equal value, nor is everything received from the

past necessarily true. As one of the bishops remarked at the Council of Carthage in 257:‘The

Lord said, “I am truth.” He did not say, I am custom’ (The Opinions of the Birhops On the Baptizing of

Heretics, 30). There is a difference between ‘Tradition’ and ‘traditions:’ many traditions which the

past has handed down are human and accidentalpious opinions (or worse), but not a true part

of the one Tradition, the essential Christian message.

It is necessary to question the past. In Byzantine and post. Byzantine times, Orthodox have

not always been sufficiently critical in their attitude to the past, and the result has frequently been

stagnation. Today this uncritical attitude can no longer be maintained. Higher standards, of

scholarship, increasing contacts with western Christians, the inroads of secularism and atheism,


have forced Orthodox in this present century to look more closely at their inheritance and to distinguish

more carefully between Tradition and traditions. The task of discrimination is not always

easy. It is necessary to avoid alike the error of the Old Believers and the error of the ‘Living

Church:’ the one party fell into an extreme conservatism which suffered no change whatever

in traditions, the other into a Modernism or theological liberalism which undermined Tradition.

Yet despite certain manifest handicaps, the Orthodox of today are perhaps in a better position to

discriminate aright than their predecessors have been for many centuries; and often it is precisely

their contact with the west which is helping them to see more and more clearly what is essential

in their own inheritance.

True Orthodox fidelity to the past must always be a creative fidelity; for true Orthodoxy can

never rest satisfied with a barrentheology of repetition,’ which, parrot-like, repeats accepted

formulae without striving to understand what lies behind them. Loyalty to Tradition, properly

understood, is not something mechanical, a dull process of handing down what has been received.

An Orthodox thinker must see Tradition from within, he must enter into its inner spirit. In

order to live within Tradition, it is not enough simply to give intellectual assent to a system of

doctrine; for Tradition is far more than a set of abstract propositions — it is a life, a personal encounter

with Christ in the Holy Spirit. Tradition is not only kept by the Church — it lives in the

Church, it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church. The Orthodox conception of Tradition is

not static but dynamic, not a dead acceptance of the past but a living experience of the Holy

Spirit in the present. Tradition, while inwardly changeless (for God does not change), is constantly

assuming new forms, which supplement the old without superseding them. Orthodox often

speak as if the period of doctrinal formulation were wholly at an end, yet this is not the case.

Perhaps in our own day new Ecumenical Councils will meet, and Tradition will be enriched by

fresh statements of the faith.

This idea of Tradition as a living thing has been well expressed by Georges Florovsky:

Tradition is the witness of the Spirit; the Spirit’s unceasing revelation and preaching of good

tidings . . . . To accept and understand Tradition we must live within the Church, we must be

conscious of the grace-giving presence of the Lord in it; we must feel the breath of the Holy

Ghost in it . . . Tradition is not only a protective, conservative principle; it is, primarily, the principle

of growth and regeneration . . . Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit and not only

the memory of words (‘Sobornost: the Catholicity of the Church,’ in The Church of God, edited E. L. Mascall,

pp. 64-65. Compare G. Florovsky, ‘Saint Gregory Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers in the periodical Sobornost,

series 4, no. 4, 1961, pp. 165-76; and V. Lossky, ‘Tradition and Traditions,’ in Ouspensky and Lossky, The

Meaning of Icons, pp. 13-24. To both these essays I am heavily indebted).

Tradition is the witness of the Spirit: in the words of Christ, “When the Spirit of truth has

come, he will guide you into all truth(John 16:13). It is this divine promise that forms the basis

of the Orthodox devotion to Tradition.

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