The Communion of Tradition

Christ_PantocratorThat 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 context of that writing was the living tradition (gospel, preaching, declaration, communion) of the Church.

How did the primitive Church recognize the authenticity of writings presented to it? The question is extremely important. There is evidence of the question within the New Testament texts themselves. In both Colossians and 2 Thessalonians, the text refers to St. Paul’s own signature. St. John’s gospel has a closing affirmation by a community that his gospel is by the beloved disciple. But to a large extent, such tokens are but tokens and not by any means proof of authorship (forgeries were abundant in the ancient world).

Ultimately the acceptance of writings as authoritative rests entirely on tradition (particularly tradition as context). The Church recognized the authentic voice of the Church in the writings – i.e. the writings agreed with the gospel as it had already been received. St. Paul specifically describes this manner of recognition:

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. (Gal 1:8-9 NKJ)

Here again, St. Paul uses gospel in a manner synonymous to tradition (paradosis). And he again invokes the technical word for the reception of tradition, paralambano (παραλαμβάνω). No writing, even from St. Paul himself, is to be accepted if it is not in harmony with the tradition as it has been received. That tradition (gospel, declaration, communion) judges all things for it is the true life of Christ within the Church. Christ promises this as a specific work of the Spirit:

However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. (Joh 16:13 NKJ)

St. John references the same thing in his first epistle:

But the anointing [chrism] which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing [chrism] teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him. (1Jo 2:27 NKJ)

This work of the Spirit is not the quasi-magical notion taught by many Pentecostals, nor is it the testimonium internum of Calvin. Both of these misinterpretations imagine an interior working or voice which warns the believer of error, etc. It certainly has an inner component, but it is not some unique charisma. Rather, it is the living witness, the abiding presence of the same Christ, the continuing, authentic voice of that which was once delivered within the Church. 

St. Ignatius of Antioch, immediate successor to the Apostles, writing in the early second century bears witness to the presence of this voice: “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.” Ep. to the Eph. XV

All Christians have something of this authentic voice in their midst. Anyone who names Jesus as Lord with the full and true intent of those words affirms that authentic voice. But it is greatly diminished by the various ideologies and unexamined cultural assumptions that crowd contemporary Christianity. The ideologies of sola scriptura, in which the culture of the reformers or other latter-day leaders is substituted for that authentic voice create an alternative silence, a context in which the words of Scripture take on meanings foreign to gospel once delivered to the Church.

Many times we cannot see the forest for the trees. It is even more difficult if the trees have been transplanted into a strange land.


For an excellent description of the shape of the Apostolic context read Fr. John Behr’s The Mystery of Christ.