Reading Tradition

For those who are unused to the place of Tradition in the understanding and interpretation of the Christian faith, it is easy to assume that Tradition is simply an additional set of texts to be read alongside and in addition to Scripture. There are certainly texts which belong to Tradition (indeed the Church would consider the texts of Scripture itself to be part of Tradition). The teachings of the Apostles were “handed down” to us – which is the simple meaning of the word paradosis, Greek for “tradition.”

I recall Stanley Hauerwas at Duke using the example of brick-laying to illustrate the nature of tradition. It is a skill that can be taught up to a certain point – but finally can only be mastered by working with a master brick mason. It is a skill that is “handed down.” In point of fact, most human learning has something of this element.

You go to high school and college – perhaps even graduate school. However, once you find yourself in the world of work, having to apply things that have been learned, tradition becomes essential. Theory and practice are separate experiences. My father received training as an aircraft mechanic during the Second World War. He became an auto mechanic after the war. The training was somewhat transferrable. His father was also a mechanic – but one who had no training. He learned by experience and the tradition that is the practice of being a mechanic. Both were very intelligent men and quite skilled in their field. But they knew things that were never taught in school.

We learn to cook in the same manner – a recipe never being sufficient of itself. Such examples could be almost endlessly multiplied. It is essential to human life and always has been.

The Christian life is no different – for it is not a set of ideas to be memorized – but a life to be lived. For this reason, Christ had disciples. For this reason the Church had a catechumenate that often lasted for three years. We learn the Christian life by doing it. We learn to pray by praying and praying along with those who know how to pray. We read Scripture with those who have read it before us and from them we learn how it is that a Christian reads Scripture. Those who have not been trained in such a manner are like children building a house with bricks. They may have the proper ingredients – but the result is likely to be a house that falls down.

Modernity has an assumption that those who live in the present always know more than those who have gone before us. Thus we always expect our children to be able to program a digital clock when an adult cannot.

I have taught four children how to drive. It is a tradition. Over the years I hope to have taught them how to live the Christian life. It is a tradition. To learn from a tradition requires a humility and a recognition that not everything worth knowing can be expressed in words. It requires that we accept that a disciple is not greater than his master. The child is not greater than the adult.

As the bumper sticker says: “If you can read this – thank a teacher.”


  1. Barbara says

    I have been a teacher of literacy and I now teach literacy teachers. We have a saying in our tradition – “A love for reading is caught, not taught”. Your post reminded me of this saying, but also made me think about the necessity of loving tradition in order to learn to live tradition (or loving the person who is sharing the tradition, or being loved by the person who loves/lives the tradition). This saying is not intended to set up a false dichotomy – direct teaching of theory/skills vs contextualized practice – however it does highlight something quite ‘magical’ about the process, something beyond our control and yet within our grasp.

    Thank you for this helpful and thought provoking post!

  2. Kerry Reed says

    I love the picture… and this post. I try to explain tradition but always fall short. THANKS!

  3. Sandra Harding says

    Father, I have learned much from your blog, and I have struggled for a long time with the decision, if it is that, to become an Orthodox Christian. It is because of what you wrote in this post that I have not yet made that decision. It is a daily struggle for me, because I have received so much from my own teachers and pastors. I have also received much from the fathers of the Church and other Orthodox Christians, including yourself through your own posts. How do I give up everything I have received throughout my entire life for another tradition, even if I have come to believe that Orthodox Christianity is that tradition which is the true, apostolic tradition?

  4. Sharon says