In the Nicene Creed, recited by the faithful at every divine liturgy, the Church confesses that Jesus Christ was crucified and rose again “according to the Scriptures.” This language is taken directly from St. Paul in 1 Cor. 15:4, and is thereafter a common expression among the apostolic fathers.
Most of us today–somewhat naturally–take this to mean that Christ was crucified and rose again in accord with the account of those events as recorded in the New Testament documents. But, in reality, this expression was about the continuity of the apostolic kerygma, or proclamation, of Jesus Christ as God incarnate, crucified and risen for our salvation, with the Scriptures–that is, with the Law, Psalms, and the Prophets. 1 How could it have been otherwise in St. Paul and the early fathers’ usage?
The subject of the continuity of the old covenant with the new, of Israel and the Church, of the God of the Old Testament and Jesus Christ, was a subject of some controversy for the early church. There were some heretics who theorized that Jesus Christ was a completely separate God from the God of the Old Testament, thereby introducing a radical discontinuity between old covenant and new. On the other hand, in Judaizing camps, it was claimed that the Law was still in effect in an unaltered, unfulfilled manner, despite Christ’s incarnation and all His mighty saving acts. The Church, in her wisdom, rejected both radical discontinuity with the Scriptures–that is, the Law, Psalms, and Prophets–and a continuity so absolute that Christ’s work would make no difference. And she did so in accord with Christ’s own words on the matter in Matt. 5:17.
Likewise, confessing that the apostolic kerygma, the gospel, was “according to the Scriptures” was nothing more than a reiteration of what Christ says in John 5:39: “You search the scriptures [i.e. the Old Testament], because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me.” Christ himself alerts the apostles of the Scriptures–the Law, Psalms, and Prophets–testifying of him, and he does so again on the road to Emmaus, after his resurrection: “and beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Thus, the revelation of Christ as the Word of God takes place uniquely in the milieu of the apostolic preaching of the crucifixion and resurrection in engagement with the Scriptures–the Law, Psalms, and Prophets.
Fr. John Behr, in his text The Way to Nicaea, explicates this point when interpreting a passage by St. Irenaeus of Lyons’ Against Heresies:
[T]he apostles certainly delivered a new manner of reading the Scriptures, proclaiming Christ “according to the Scriptures,” but, according to Irenaeus, what they handed down, both in public preaching and in writing, remained tied to the Scripture. Rather than standing within this tradition of the apostolic engagement with Scripture, in which Christ is revealed, the Word which is not man’s but God’s, those who distort this canon think that the truth resides in their own interpretations, their own fabrications, and so end up preaching themselves. 2
It’s only in the apostolic kerygma “according to the Scriptures” that the gospel is constituted and delivered to the world. In other words, it is only within the apostolic tradition that the gospel is rightly proclaimed. This tradition itself has both written and unwritten aspects (cf. 2 Thess 2:15), as the authority of the apostles was not confined to the times they wrote letters to churches, but included their exhortations, laying on of hands, performance of miracles, and live preaching.
But if the Tradition of the Church is authoritative, doesn’t that diminish the authority of Scripture? No, the two are complimentary and inseparable. It’s precisely this unity of Scripture in Tradition that distinguishes an Orthodox approach to the faith from all others. In opposition to this, those who claim to have access to some tradition of the apostles that can’t be demonstrated from the Scriptures (i.e. the Old Testament) are shown to be heretics. Behr continues:
Irenaeus’ appeal to tradition is thus fundamentally different to that of his opponents. While they appealed to tradition precisely for that which was not in Scripture, or for principles which would legitimize their interpretation of Scripture, Irenaeus, in his appeal to tradition, was not appealing to anything else that was not also in Scripture. Thus Irenaeus can appeal to tradition, to establish his case, and at the same time maintain that Scripture cannot be understood except on the basis of Scripture itself. 3
The Church’s life and tradition, then, is the space within which Scripture comes into being and is handed down and interpreted rightly—in accordance with the apostolic preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and by the vivifying power of the Holy Spirit.