Tradition and the Heart

He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.

St. Ignatius of Antioch (To the Ephesians, XV, 2)

The faculty of hearing the silence of Jesus, attributed by St. Ignatius to those who in truth possess His word, echoes the reiterated appeal of Christ to His hearers: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” The words of Revelation have then a margin of silence which cannot be picked up by the ears of those who are outside. St. Basil moves in the same direction when he says, in his passage on the traditions: “There is also a form of silence namely the obscurity used by the Scripture, in order to make it difficult to gain understanding of the teachings, for the profit of readers.” This silence of the Scriptures could not be detached from them: it is transmitted by the Church with the words of the revelation, as the very condition of their reception. If it could be opposed to the words (always on the horizontal plane, where they express the revealed Truth), this silence which accompanies the words implies no kind of insufficiency or lack of fullness of the revelation, nor the necessity to add to it anything whatever. It signifies that the revealed mystery, to be truly received as fullness, demand a conversion towards the vertical plane, in order that one may be able to “comprehend with all the saints” not only what is the “breadth and length” of the revelation, but also its “depth” and its “height” (Eph. 3:18).

Vladimir Lossky, Tradition and Traditions

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There is a modern anxiety about the meaning of Biblical texts. For historical-critical scholars, there is a never-ending debate over the meaning of texts. The past century has seen a succession of waves (not unlike the constancy of the ocean) when one “new” insight overwhelmed the last. To a certain degree, historical-critical studies have become largely superfluous for any study of the Scripture simply because they represent more the concerns of the present moment and almost never the concerns of the texts themselves.

Others still cling to various forms of Sola Scriptura, certain that the Scriptures can be read with no reference to Tradition – they are self-explanatory (or various such claims).

The Orthodox reading of Scripture is done in the context of Tradition – though this is largely misunderstood by those outside the Orthodox faith itself. The Tradition in which Scripture is read (or doctrine is received and accepted) is as much a state of heart as it is anything else. Some will speak of an “Orthodox phronema,” meaning an Orthodox mind, though I think this would be better translated as an Orthodox heart. That heart is related to the silence described by St. Ignatius in the late first century and expounded on in the quote from the modern Russian-exile theologian, Vladimir Lossky.

“The word of Jesus” also has its “silence,” according to St. Ignatius. That silence is the space into which it is spoken. Without this space, the “truth” of the word of Jesus will not and cannot be heard.

From Anthony McGulkin’s The Orthodox Church: An Introduction:

All elements of the Holy Tradition are coherently bonded together in Orthodoxy, and they function to provide the church’s sense of its inner identity as Christ’s people. The fragmentation of the different parts of tradition has always been regarded by the Orthodox as a sign of heterodox ‘loss’ of the sense of the true spirit of Christianity. None of the individual bulwarks of the tradition can be set up in isolation. For example, no single sentence or argument of an individual Father of the Church carries with it an infallible authority, just becuse it came from a Father of the Church. Even more so, no individual bishop is afforded such infallible authority at any time in the church. Just as Homer could nod, so could some of the saints. Even the best works of the greatest among them contain matters, and isolated propositions, which the Orthodox gloss over at times out of reverence for their ‘overall’ contribution to the majestic exposition of the faith.

It is the consensus of voice that matters: reading the Fathers within the Scripture; the Scripture within the horizon of the church; the liturgy within the context of prayer: all together forming a ‘seamless robe.’ The seamless harmony of the whole tradition shores up all the different parts, self-correcting and self-regulating in its wholeness.

The kind of heart that is able to receive such a Tradition, is not primarily governed by the ego or the skepticism of modernity. It is a heart that is birthed in faith in the knowledge of the true and living God. All of the material that make up Scripture and the artifacts of Tradition are completely useless in the hands of a heart that is not prepared to receive them. Many times such hearts take hold of these things and wield them as weapons or as the fodder for arguments.

All of these things, given to us in a “seamless” manner, are of no use to the heart that refuses to receive them. There are Orthodox who do not have this heart and their arguments and actions betray them. There are non-Orthodox, who, though not being instructed in such a heart, have it, nonetheless, and approach the “seamless” witness of Christ with a regard and respect that works to their salvation.

The silence speaks in great eloquence to the heart that can hear it. It is the silence into which the first words were spoke: “Let there be light.” The result is the same creative life that was birthed at that moment. “Behold, if any man is in Christ, there is a new creation.”

Comments

  1. Brian says

    I was struck recently by how current events illustrate the invaluable role of tradition in American life – a tradition that includes, but far exceeds, the text of our Constitution in much the same way that the Tradition of the Church includes, but far exceeds, the text of Holy Scripture.

    Regardless of political affiliation, there was virtually unanimous agreement that a general should be relieved of his duty for making disparaging comments about our Commander-in-Chief. The general’s statements, it was agreed, undermined the constitutional principal of civilian authority over the military. Yet from a purely ‘scriptural’ point of view, there is nothing in our Constitution that prohibits anyone from expressing his views about anything he chooses. In fact, from the standpoint of the bare text, the opposite is true; for the First Amendment of the Constitution protects the freedom of speech.

    Similarly, there is absolutely