That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life–the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us–that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have communion with us; and truly our communion is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1Jo 1:1-3 NKJ)
There is an old saying in English, “He cannot see the forest for the trees.” The phrase often comes to mind when I am discussing the place and role of tradition in Orthodox Christian life. It is a reality that so surrounds and permeates our existence that we easily overlook it. We discuss tradition as though it were a tree, when, in fact, it is the forest. This is nowhere more true than in the Scriptures.
In some corners of the Reformation, tradition was accorded a place within the sources of authority. Classical Anglicanism (as expounded by Richard Hooker) described the so-called “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Reason and Tradition. Hooker rightly recognized that tradition could not be discarded when thinking about the Christian faith. How the Church read the Scriptures evidenced in the Councils was not something he was prepared to jettison. A number of other reformers recognized this same dynamic and sought to find ways to give a more nuanced expression of sola scriptura. A weakness within Hooker, and similar approaches, was to reduce tradition to a manageable body of knowledge. They sought to turn the forest into a tree.
It is this contextual character of tradition that makes it so difficult for people to understand. Tradition is the context in which anything takes place. If the context changes, then no matter how carefully all else is preserved, its essence has shifted and its meaning has changed. But context can be very difficult to perceive.
The Scriptures are a primary example of this phenomenon. What was the context in which the Scriptures of the New Testament came to be written? For although they are clearly the primary text of Christianity, they are not simultaneously their own context. The quote from St. John’s first epistle points to the primitive, indeed, the primal context of the faith:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life…
St. John is not referencing the Scriptures. He is speaking of the living experience of the incarnate Son of God – “which we have heard – which we have seen with our eyes – which we have looked upon – and our hands have handled…” It is this living experience that “we declare to you.” And the purpose of this declaration is more than the relay of information. St. John tells his readers that these things have been declared to them “that you also may have communion with us; and truly our communion is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” [This is one of those sad verses where English translators have rendered koinonia (κοινωνία) as “fellowship” a meaning that is almost bizarre in its failure to render the Greek.]
The communion to which St. John refers is itself the tradition, the context without which his letter cannot be rightly read. And it is clear that St. John believes that this communion is something that can be given. His word for this transmission is rendered “to declare,” translating the Greek, apaggello (ἀπαγγέλλω – related to the word for gospel). St. John’s declaration is the equivalent of St. Paul’s favorite term, gospel (εὐαγγέλιον, evangel), which is itself frequently misunderstood in its meaning and import.
What does St. Paul mean when he says gospel, the good news? Our first instinct is to find a way to summarize his preaching. Thus the gospel is “Christ died for our sins,” or some such phrase. But St. Paul clearly has an almost global meaning for the word:
For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, (1Th 1:5 NKJ)
It is used to mean God’s revealed plan wrought in the death and resurrection of Christ. It is the preaching of Christ. It is the content of the preaching. But like St. John’s communion, the gospel is not “word only” but also “power.” Thus it is not the proclamation of an idea or a set of ideas, nor the announcement only of an event in history. Gospel is the living power of the communion with the Father through His Son in the Spirit. That living communion is our participation in the crucified and risen Christ.
But St. Paul is also quite clear that this gospel is given by tradition.
Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you– unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. (1Co 15:1-5 NKJ)
Here the Apostle uses the technical word delivered, translating paradidomi (παραδίδωμι), the verb form of tradition, paradosis (παράδοσις). The gospel preached is what St. Paul understands as that which has traditioned to the Corinthians. And it is this tradition which saves (if we hold fast to it).
The written words of the New Testament are a form which the tradition came to take. Interestingly, the verses that mention the “Scriptures” in the New Testament do not mean the New Testament itself, but the Scriptures of the Old Testament. The New Testament is a written form of the tradition, the gospel, the preaching, the declaration, the communion given by the Apostles to the Church, the living communion of the one gospel of Christ. But the contex