Scripture and Sacred Tradition
From an Orthodox Christian Perspective
Many modern day Christians have varied concepts of the term Sacred Tradition. Quite often it is interpreted as the tradition of man or the tradition of a church, which is under the supreme authority of a man who claims he is Christian tradition.
In the historic Orthodox Church, Sacred Tradition goes back to our Lord Jesus Christ and His Apostles. The Tradition of the Apostles, not the tradition of men, is Sacred Tradition because God is its source. Sacred Tradition is that which Jesus taught to His Apostles by word of mouth and which they in turn taught the Church. The Apostle Paul writes, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). This Tradition can translate, interpret and clarify teachings and acts of Jesus Christ and His Apostles that are not detailed in the Bible, but are a part of Christianity today. It has existed from the beginning of the Christian era, before the New Testament Scriptures were written, and has been kept alive, since then, in the “Conscience of the unchanged, historic Church.”
The early Christians had nothing like the New Testament, as we now know it. Their faith was founded on the Sacred Tradition of the Church that they received from the Apostles and faithfully kept as directed by the Apostles who were guided by the Holy Spirit. Christ left us with the Spirit of Truth and the Church, not the New Testament Bible.
In the late 4th century, Orthodox bishops of the undivided Church carefully examined a number of scriptures for the formulation of the original Greek New Testament. The Church had received many scriptures, which coincided with Sacred Tradition that could have been used and there were also unusable false ones. Finally, the bishops approved 27 Scriptures and the whole Church accepted them as sufficient.
The New Testament, which was written as a witness to Christ and His Apostles, and to help keep us on the path of Sacred Tradition cannot be, nor does it claim to be a self-sufficient reference book of Christian belief and worship. It does not contain all that Christ said and did. John the Apostle wrote: “And there are many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). Today the Bible is understood differently by different people. If it were meant to be self-sufficient, this would not be the case. In (2 Peter1:20), it is written, “knowing this first, that no prophesy of Scripture is of any private interpretation.” One of the most important roles of the unchanged, historic Church has been to guide the interpretation of the New Testament Bible, since it was formulated, by a community united in the Spirit of God’s love. The Apostle Paul spoke of the Church itself as the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The Bible should not be seen as something outside of the Church, but as a part of it.
In Orthodox Christianity, the original Christian communion, Sacred Tradition is understood as God’s foundation for Scripture and not as an independent source of religious truth. Sacred Tradition and the Greek New Testament, whose translation has been preserved by the unchanged, historic Church, which is fluent in the Greek language, work hand in hand with one another. The New Testament in its original language is God’s infallible Word. All translations have derived from the original language. However, God’s inspiration is confined to the original language not the many translations. Yet, the translations have been extremely helpful for keeping the different speaking nations on the path of Sacred Tradition, but they are not sufficient for formulating doctrine of the Church. Doctrine requires reference to the Tradition of the Ancient Church and to the New Testament in its original language. Unfortunately, in the history of this Church, divine truths revealed by Sacred Tradition and the Greek Scriptures have needed clarification by Church Fathers and Church councils to refute the errors of heretics.
Christianity is indebted to the Tradition of the early Church for many things that cannot be found in the Bible. For example, Christ commanded the Apostles to baptize, but the service for baptism is not described in the Bible. It is, however, found in the Tradition of the early Church. The same thing can be said about the service of worship centering around the Lord’s Supper. Early church worship services, which are not defined in detail in the Scriptures, have been revealed by Church Tradition in apostolic writings (such as; the Didache-1st century), writings of the Early Church Fathers (such as; Justin Martyr-2nd century) and through the continuous worship of the original, unchanged Church. There are many other things accepted in much of Christianity today that are only found in the Sacred Tradition of the Church.
Christians rely on traditions to some degree, whether they are aware of
it or not. However, some rely on traditions that are contrary to the
Faith. The real question, then, is not whether or not to rely on
but on which tradition to rely--- the tradition of men or the Sacred
of God, as revealed through the Apostles, which has been preserved and
kept unchanged by the historic Orthodox Church.
George Kutulas +