One great difference between Orthodox and Evangelicals is their reaction to the little word “tradition”. The former regard it as a kind of armour and as an immune system, while the latter regard it almost as a disease to guard against. The Orthodox therefore usually speak of “holy Tradition”, while Evangelicals usually speak of “man’s tradition” or (more often) of “dead tradition”. For them, all tradition is dead, and even deadly, for it functions as a rival to Holy Scripture. The choice for them is clear: either Holy Scripture, which is the pure and divine Word of God, or dead tradition, which contradicts the Word of God and dilutes the truth. It is therefore not surprising that Evangelicals have been known for their negative view of tradition. Orthodox references to “Holy Tradition” tend to make them twitch, and they regard the term as an oxymoron.
When asked why they have this dim view of tradition, Evangelicals will usually refer to Mark 7:13, where our Lord inveighs against the tradition of the Jewish elders regarding the necessity of washing the hands before meals as an example of “making void the Word of God through your tradition”. (Note: the issue here was not personal hygiene—the reason your mother told you to wash your hands before supper—but avoiding possible ritual impurity.) Evangelicals might also refer to Colossians 2:8, where St. Paul warns, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world rather than according to Christ”. On the basis of these texts Evangelicals feel that all tradition is the tradition of men, something that rivals, contradicts, and makes void the Word of God. And with that, they close their Bibles (and often their minds) and consider the matter sufficiently settled.
This is unfortunate, for if they had left their Bibles opened a bit longer they would have read about tradition of another kind. The word “tradition” in Greek is παράδοσις/ paradosis. The verb form of the noun paradosis is παραδίδωμι/ paradidomi, usually translated in English as “to deliver”. The para– part of the words mean “beside” (as in “para-church”, something along side the church), and the dosis/ didomi part of the words means “to give”. Thus the verb paradidomi means to give something to the person beside you, like handing on a baton in a relay race, or delivering a package to someone. The noun paradosis refers to what is delivered. Thus, whether a paradosis/ tradition is good or bad obviously depends entirely upon what is being delivered. The noun “tradition” and the verb “to deliver” refer solely to the mode of transmission, and say nothing about the content of what is being received.
If what is delivered is the oral Jewish tradition of the elders which stands in opposition to the written Torah, obviously that tradition is bad. If what is delivered is the all-too-human teaching of the Gnostics seeking to corrupt the pure faith that the apostles preached in Colossae, that tradition is bad too. But the apostles also handed on their traditions as well and expected those receiving them would in turn hand them on to others. Thus we have in the New Testament examples of Jewish tradition and human Gnostic tradition (both of which were bad), and of apostolic tradition (which was good).
If one leaves one’s Bible open and keeps reading, one finds references to this apostolic tradition in a number of places. Paul received many traditions from the Church and he faithfully delivered them to his new converts, expecting they would keep the traditions. The Christians in Corinth kept these apostolic traditions, so that Paul wrote to them, “Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions [Greek paradosis], just as I delivered [Greek paradidomi] them to you” (1 Corinthians 11:2). He again referred to this saving apostolic tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3 where he said, “I delivered [Greek paradidomi] to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures”. He referred again to the fundamental importance of verbal apostolic tradition in 2 Thessalonians 2:13 where he commanded them to “stand firm and hold to the traditions [Greek paradosis] which you were taught, whether by word or by epistle from us”.
Note well this last citation: St. Paul refers here to the traditions (in the plural) and places them on par with the epistle he had just written them (i.e. 1 Thessalonians). What was authoritative therefore in the Church was the teaching of the apostles, which could be found in two forms—“by word [i.e. by word of mouth] or by epistle”. Both were equally authoritative, for Paul commanded that they “stand firm and hold fast” to both of them—and he mentioned the verbal traditions first, presumably because the Thessalonians had by then received many such traditions, but only one epistle. From this we see the authority of apostolic tradition, and also why the Orthodox refer to it as “Holy Tradition”. St. Paul expected that his converts would heed everything he taught them, not just the things he would later write if he happened to write them an epistle. That is why he was upset when some of the Thessalonians were becoming idle as they waited for the Second Coming, and why he told them to “keep aloof from every brother walking idly and not according to the tradition which you received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6). Apostolic tradition was given to be obeyed.
This understanding of Tradition remained in the Church, as Christians remembered, treasured, and lived out the traditions that the apostles had given them. Thus St. Basil wrote, “Concerning the teachings of the Church, whether publicly proclaimed or reserved to members of the household of faith, we have received some from written sources, while others have been given to us secretly through apostolic tradition. Both sources have equal force in true religion. No one would deny either source—no one, at any rate, who is even slightly familiar with the ordinances of the Church” (On the Holy Spirit, chapter 27).
We see then that by “Tradition” the ancient Church meant the apostolic teachings transmitted verbally by oral word and retained in the Church’s life. Given that part of the teachings of the apostles was contained in their letters and memoirs (i.e. the Gospels), and that these also were handed down throughout the generations along with such verbal teachings, one might say that the term “Tradition” can be used to encompass the entire apostolic inheritance. Holy Tradition in this sense includes both the New Testament Scriptures and the oral teachings of the apostles. Speaking about “Scripture and Tradition” as if they were two separate (and incompatible) sources is nonsensical; it would be like speaking about “the New Testament and the Bible” as if they were two separate sources. Obviously the New Testament is a part of the total Bible, and in the same way the New Testament Scriptures form a part of the total apostolic Tradition.
This is why the Orthodox feel reverence for their Tradition. Tradition is not a rival source to be placed over against Holy Scripture, threatening Scripture’s sovereign authority. Tradition is the context in which Scripture is read. It is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the sacred and life-giving river of truth running through the dry desert of this age, slaking the thirst of all who receive it. It is what makes the Church to be apostolic. In a world filled with assaults on our faith and teeming with spiritual disease, it indeed functions as our apostolic armour and as our immune system. Secure in the pure teaching of the apostles, we can withstand the blows that the world aims at us, and remain healthy in the midst of the deadly pandemic of worldly error.