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Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky
Orthodox dogmatic theology

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Sacred tradition.

In the original precise meaning of the word, Sacred Tradition is the tradition which comes

from the ancient Church of Apostolic times. In the second to the fourth centuries this was called

“the Apostolic Tradition.”

One must keep in mind that the ancient Church carefully guarded the inward life of the

Church from those outside of her; her Holy Mysteries were secret, being kept from

non-Christians. When these Mysteries were performed — Baptism or the Eucharist — those outside

the Church were not present; the order of the services was not written down, but was only

transmitted orally; and in what was preserved in secret was contained the essential side of the

faith. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (4th century) presents this to us especially clearly. In undertaking

Christian instruction for those who had not yet expressed a final decision to become Christians,

the hierarch precedes his teachings with the following words: “When the catechetical teaching is

pronounced, if a catechumen should ask you, 'What did the instructors say?' you are to repeat

nothing to those who are without (the church). For we are giving to you the mystery and hope of

the future age. Keep the Mystery of Him Who is the Giver of rewards. May no one say to you,


'What harm is it if I shall find out also?' Sick people also ask for wine, but if it is given at the

wrong time it produces disorder to the mind, and there are two evil consequences; the sick one

dies, and the physician is slandered” (Prologue to the Catechetical Lectures, ch. 12).

In one of his further homilies St. Cyril again remarks: “We include the whole teaching of

faith in a few lines. And I would wish that you should remember it word for word and should repeat

it among yourselves with all fervor, without writing it down on paper, but noting it by memory

in the heart. And you should beware, lest during the time of your occupation with this study

none of the catechumens should hear what has been handed down to you” (Fifth Catechetical

Lecture, ch. 12). In the introductory words which he wrote down for those being “illumined” —

that is, those who were already coming to Baptism, and also to those present who were baptized

— he gives the following warning: “This instruction for those who are being illumined is offered

to be read by those who are coming to Baptism and by the faithful who have already received

Baptism; but by no means give it either to the catechumens or to anyone else who has not yet become

a Christian, otherwise you will have to give an answer to the Lord. And if you make a copy

of these catechetical. lectures, then, as before the Lord, write this down also” (that is, this warning)

(End of the Prologue to the Catechetical Lectures). (These three citations may be found in St. Cyril,

Catetechical Lectures, Eerdmans ed. pp. 4, 32, 5. This strictness with regard to the revelation of the Christian Mysteries

(Sacraments) to outsiders is no longer preserved to such a degree in the Orthodox Church. The exclamation,

“Catechumens depart!” before the Liturgy of the Faithful is still proclaimed, it is true, but hardly anywhere in the

Orthodox world are catechumens or the non-Orthodox actually told to leave the church at this time. (In some

churches they are only asked to stand in the back part of the church, in the narthex, but can still observe the service).

The full point of such an action is lost in our times, when all the “secrets” of the Christian Mysteries are readily

available to anyone who can read, and the text of St. Cyril's Catechetical Lectures has been published in many languages

and editions. However, the great reverence which the ancient Church showed for the Christian Mysteries,

carefully preserving them from the gaze of those who were merely curious, or those who, being outside the Church

and uncommitted to Christianity, might easily misunderstand or mistrust them — is still kept by Orthodox Christians

today who are serious about their faith. Even today we are not to “cast our pearls before swine” — to speak much of

the Mysteries of the Orthodox Faith to those who are merely curious about them but do not to seek to join themselves

to the Church.)

In the following words St. Basil the Great gives us a clear understanding of the Sacred Apostolic

Tradition: “Of the dogmas and sermons preserved in the Church, certain ones we have

from written instruction, and certain ones we have received from the Apostolic Tradition, handed

down in secret. Both the one and the other have one and the same authority for piety, and no one

who is even the least informed in the decrees of the Church will contradict this. For if we dare to

overthrow the unwritten customs as if they did not have great importance, we shall thereby imperceptively

do harm to the Gospel in its most important points. And even more, we shall be left

with the empty name of the Apostolic preaching without content. For example, let us especially

make note of the first and commonest thing: that those who hope in the Name of our Lord Jesus

Christ should sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross. Who taught this in Scripture? Which

Scripture instructed us that we should turn to the east in prayer? Which of the saints left us in

written form the words of invocation during the transformation of the bread of the Eucharist and

the Chalice of blessing? For we are not satisfied with the words which are mentioned in the Epistles

or the Gospels, but both before them and after them we pronounce others also as having great

authority for the Mystery, having received them from the unwritten teaching. By what Scripture,

likewise, do we bless the water of Baptism and the oil of anointing and, indeed, the one being

baptized himself. Is this not the silent and secret tradition? And what more? What written word

has taught us this anointing with oil itself? (That is, anointing of those being baptized; the anointing of the


Sacrament of Unction, on the other hand, is clearly indicated in Scripture (James 5:14).) Where is the triple

immersion and all the rest that has to do with Baptism, the renunciation of Satan and his angels

to be found? What Scripture are these taken from? Is it not from this unpublished and unspoken

teaching which our Fathers have preserved in a silence inaccessible to curiosity and scrutiny, because

they were thoroughly instructed to preserve in silence the sanctity of the Mysteries? For

what propriety would there be to proclaim in writing a teaching concerning that which it is not

allowed for the unbaptized even to behold?” (On the Holy Spirit, ch. 27).

From these words of St. Basil the Great we may conclude: first, that the Sacred Tradition of

the teaching of faith is that which may be traced back to the earliest period of the Church, and,

second, that it was carefully preserved and unanimously acknowledged among the Fathers and

teachers of the Church during the epoch of the great Fathers and the beginning of the Ecumenical


Although St. Basil has given here a series of examples of the “oral tradition,” he himself in

this very text has taken a step towards the “recording” of this oral word. During the era of the

freedom and triumph of the Church in the fourth century, almost all of the tradition in general

received a written form and is now preserved in the literature of the Church, which comprises a

supplement to the Holy Scripture.

We find this sacred ancient Tradition

• in the most ancient record of the Church, the Canons of the Holy Apostles; (See above

note on the Canons of the Holy Apostles)

• in the Symbols of Faith of the ancient local churches;

• in the ancient Liturgies, in the rite of Baptism, and in other ancient prayers;

• in the ancient Acts of the Christian martyrs. The Acts of the martyrs did not enter into

use by the faithful until they had been examined and approved by the local bishops;

and they were read at the public gatherings of Christians under the supervision of the

leaders of the churches. In them we see the confession of the Most Holy Trinity, the

Divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ, examples of the invocation of the saints, of belief in

the conscious life of those who had reposed in Christ, and much else;

• in the ancient records of the history of the Church, especially in the book of Eusebius

Pamphilus, Bishop of Caesarea, (English translation: Eusebius: The History of the Church from

Christ to Constantine, tr. by G.A. Williamson, Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1965) where there are

gathered many ancient traditions of rite and dogma — in particular, there is given the

canon of the sacred books of the Old and New Testaments;

• in the works of the ancient Fathers and teachers of the Church;

• and, finally, in the very spirit of the Church's life, in the preservation of faithfulness to

all her foundations which come from the Holy Apostles.

The Apostolic Tradition which has been preserved and guarded by the Church, by the very fact

that it has been kept by the Church, becomes the Tradition of the Church herself, it “belongs” to

her, it testifies to her; and, in parallel to Sacred Scripture it is called by her, “Sacred Tradition.”

The witness of Sacred Tradition is indispensable for our certainty that all the books of Sacred

Scripture have been handed down to us from Apostolic times and are of Apostolic origin.

Sacred Tradition is necessary for the correct understanding of separate passages of Sacred Scrip-


ture, and for refuting heretical reinterpretations of it, and, in general, so as to avoid superficial,

one-sided, and sometimes even prejudiced and false interpretations of it.

Finally, Sacred Tradition is also necessary because some truths of the faith are expressed in

a completely definite form in Scripture, while others are not entirely clear and precise and therefore

demand confirmation by the Sacred Apostolic Tradition.

The Apostle commands, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and bold the traditions which ye

have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle” (2 Thess. 2:15).

Besides all this, Sacred Scripture is valuable because from it we see how the whole order of

Church organization, the canons, the Divine Services and rites are rooted in and founded upon

the way of life of the ancient Church. Thus, the preservation of “Tradition” expresses the succession

of the very essence of the Church.

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