What is the ultimate source of authority in the Orthodox Church? This is a question that plagues inquirers of the faith and can even be a significant stumbling block to a person’s conversion.
For Protestants, the ultimate source of authority is the holy scriptures or the Bible. In this context, the Bible is often pitted against man made traditions or authorities—all of which must be subordinated to the authority of the Bible. This is known as Sola Scriptura, or “by scripture alone,” a principle borne from the spirit of Renaissance Humanism emancipating the individual from any external authority. While several churches of the Magisterial Reformation developed extensive, written catechisms and confessional standards, they were are all subject to the final authority of scripture.
These biases against the idea of tradition can even be seen in popular, modern translations of the scriptures. The single Greek word paradosis is translated as “tradition” when used with a negative connotation, and as “teaching” when positive. For example, paradosis becomes “tradition” when Christ derides the practices of the Pharisees, but is used as “teaching” in 1 Cor. 11:2 and 2 Thess. 2:15 (NLT) as well as 2 Thess. 3:6 (NIV).
And looking past its recent historical appearance—not to mention questionable, epistemic foundations—Sola Scriptura‘s core issue is that not everyone interprets the scriptures the same. And when two people disagree, who gets to determine the correct interpretation? How can we know they’re correct? This dilemma is not unique to our own age, but was considered by the Church as early as the fifth century.
For example, St. Vincent of Lérins writes:
[O]wing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. —Commonitory 2.5
What begins as an attempt to make the scriptures the central authority in the life of the Church results in a confusing mess. A mess that has led to the splintering of the Western church into hundreds, if not thousands of different churches or theological movements, each disagreeing over either minor or major understandings of scripture. But St. Vincent offers a solution:
Therefore, it is very necessary … that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.
For Orthodox Christians, the holy scriptures are not something wholly “other,” pitted against the traditions of the Church. Instead, the scriptures take their place as the heart of everything we call sacred or holy Tradition. Everything that encompasses Holy Tradition is the sole and only source of authority in the Orthodox Church. So what is Tradition?
From an Orthodox perspective, Tradition is the life of the holy Trinity in the life of the Church. It is an apostolic continuation of Christ, delivered first to the apostles and then handed down through history to their successors (paradosis):
For our faith, brethren, is not of men nor by man, but by revelation of Jesus Christ, which the divine Apostles preached, the holy Ecumenical Councils confirmed, the greatest and wisest teachers of the world handed down in succession, and the shed blood of the holy martyrs ratified. Let us hold fast to the confession which we have received unadulterated from such men, turning away from every novelty as a suggestion of the devil. He that accepts a novelty reproaches with deficiency the preached Orthodox Faith. —Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs 20 (A.D. 1848)
St. Athanasius of Alexandria speaks of the “very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, which the Logos gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers preserved. Upon this the Church is founded” (First Letter to Serapion 28). Holy Tradition is still preserved to this day in the Church by the Holy Spirit. It is not a thing of the past, but is a charismatic gift from all eternity, experienced in time in the life of the Church. Dr. George Bebis affirms:
Tradition, therefore, cannot be reduced to a mere enumeration of quotations from the Scriptures or from the Fathers. It is the fruit of the incarnation of the Word of God, His crucifixion and resurrection as well as His ascension, all of which took place in space and time. Tradition is an extension of the life of Christ into the life of the Church.
Tradition is a divine revelation—an apokalypsis or “apocalypse”—a removal of the veil that once separated both heaven and earth, the divine and the created. The purpose of holy Tradition, therefore—as a manifestation of the life-giving unity of the holy Trinity—is the (re-)union of mankind with the Father; the reversal of the curse of Eden.
The fulness of this holy Tradition is experienced in the “mystery of mysteries,” the holy Eucharist. The apostle Paul prefaces his instructions on this mystery as a tradition of the Church: “For I have received (parelavon) of the Lord that which I also delivered (paredoka) to you” (1 Cor. 11:23).
When speaking of Tradition, we are often speaking of theology. And what is theology? While theology literally means “the study of God,” for Orthodox Christians this is largely noetic and spiritual in nature. For example, Evagrius Ponticus has famously stated:
A theologian is he who prays truly; he who prays truly is a theologian.
Theology in the Eastern tradition is more about knowing God than it is knowing about God. The fathers of the Church have warned throughout the centuries to flee from teachers who speak only of ideas or concepts, but are themselves separated from or opposed to the life of the Church. A theologian engaged in a life of prayer and asceticism can offer insights altogether hidden from those outside the Body of Christ, regardless of their academic credentials.
Theology in the primary sense (experiencing or becoming like God) is a prerequisite for theology in the secondary sense (information about or related to God). During the Great Feast of Pentecost, Orthodox Christians sing about the apostles being made into great teachers by the Holy Spirit—men who were once simple fisherman or even uneducated and illiterate. It was only by the Grace of the Holy Spirit—a divine encounter with God himself—that these men could so utterly transform into true teachers of the faith. And as the Gospel exhorts, a childlike faith is preferable to even the most astute and cunning wisdom this world has to offer.
When we do speak of ideas or concepts, all teaching must be tested against both the scriptures and broader traditions of the Church—not vice versa. In other words, new insights that contradict holy Tradition should be treated with immediate and unreserved skepticism on the part of faithful Orthodox Christians. This responsibility to protect and preserve the faith unaltered falls upon both clergy and laity alike. There is a delicate balance to be struck between a faithful, personal obedience to our fathers and clergy, and a healthy watchfulness that seeks to guard the faithful from both wolves and error. This is affirmed throughout the history of the Church.
All true theology is rooted in both Triadology and Christology—that is, the study of the holy Trinity and the study of Christ. This is demonstrated explicitly in the life of the Church, and particularly in the context of the Ecumenical Councils.
At this point, a Protestant might simply counter that interpreting tradition is no different than Sola Scriptura—left to each individual and their own best efforts. So how can faithful Christians discern between true and false theology? Is it really left to each individual to decide?
St. Vincent again offers some helpful insight. [Keep in mind, St. Vincent writes in the midst of the Nestorian controversy and the Third Ecumenical Council. Knowing that his context is the heresy and excommunication of a chief bishop in the Church helps underline the importance of preserving the Orthodox faith in every age, and no matter the circumstances.] He explains that we must prefer the beliefs of the “whole body” to the novelties of “one corrupt member.” And we do this by “clinging to antiquity.”
For St. Vincent, antiquity does not simply mean “older is better,” as the Church herself is timeless. Holy Tradition too is timeless, being a charism of the Spirit in the life and ministry of the Church. The antiquity of the Church is her teaching in the Ecumenical Councils. In their conciliar deliberations is the royal pathway of the fathers, the Truth as it has always been. The Tradition of the Church is no less present for us today than it was a thousand years ago, as it breathes and lives through each one of us constituting the theanthropic (divine-human) Body of Christ.
But what if an Ecumenical Council has not spoken on a particular doctrinal issue, or an area of great controversy afflicting the broader Church? It is in this context—and in this context alone—that St. Vincent offers his oft-quoted, but little-understood “canon”: to “hold fast to that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”—to hold fast to the Catholic faith.
When speaking of the Catholic faith, this carries with it three primary implications (as explained by St. Vincent):
- Universality – The one, true faith as confessed and believed by the one, true Church throughout the world
- Antiquity – The one, true faith as explained throughout Church history by the recognized fathers and Saints of the Church
- Conciliarity – The one, true faith as defined and determined by all; that is, as defined and determined in holy and Ecumenical Councils
Outside of the Ecumenical Councils, faithful Christians can look to the fathers and the Saints, the hymns and liturgies of the Church, and all other “approved authorities,” as he puts it. In some of these areas there is less certainty and more room for discussion (depending on the issue, of course), but the overall boundaries (Greek horos) have been carefully laid by the fathers of the Ecumenical Councils, operating as they were under the divine guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
To conclude, I’d like to take a bit of a step back and examine what constitutes holy Tradition. Following fathers such as Met. Hilarion (Alfeyev), we can break down Tradition as consisting of seven, key areas—and by order of their authority in the life of the Church:1
- The Holy Scriptures – First and foremost are the holy scriptures. For Orthodox Christians, this means the canon and text of the Old Testament as translated into Greek (commonly referred to as the Septuagint or LXX), along with the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. Both the canon and text of the Septuagint are important as they are so widely used and referenced throughout our divine services—and especially during Holy Week—and in the theological writings of our fathers and Saints. The same can be said for the Byzantine and now Patriarchal Text of the New Testament. As the Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs (1848) puts it: “Our Church holds the infallible and genuine deposit of the Holy Scriptures, of the Old Testament a true and perfect version, of the New the divine original itself.” Of secondary importance are other translations and editions of the scriptures as used in the life of the Church, such as Syriac, Latin, Arabic, Slavonic, and Hebrew.
- Liturgical Tradition – Of first importance would be the Divine Liturgies of Saints James, Basil, Chrysostom, and Gregory the Great, along with services accorded with time: Orthros, Vespers, Compline, the Midnight Office, etc., as well as the Octoechos (the book of “eight tones”), the Great Horologion (the “book of hours”), the monthly Menaion (the “Lives of the Saints”), the Festal Menaion, and the services of Holy Week.
- Ecumenical Councils and Creeds – There are seven Ecumenical Councils with universal recognition, culminating with the Second Council of Nicaea in A.D. 787. The most significant creedal “children” of these councils are the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of A.D. 381 and the Synodikon or anathemas of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Alongside these are other great councils—even of Ecumenical authority and scope—such as that under the administration of St. Photios the Great near the end of the ninth century (termed the Eighth Ecumenical Council by the aforementioned encyclical of 1848), and those in Constantinople dealing with the Barlaam-Palamas controversy. There are also Ecumenical statements—e.g. the reply to Pope Pius IX in 1848 by all of the Orthodox Patriarchs—that have authoritative weight in the history of the Church. In addition to this are a number of confessional and catechetical statements (though some are marred by their historical context, and therefore limited). The canons of the Ecumenical Councils are also extremely valuable as applied by our bishops. Some canons have a specific, historical application, and others are superseded by newer determinations, and so this complexity is best left to the bishops in each local church.
- Fathers of the Church – These are the Saints and fathers as commemorated, recognized, and honored in the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church. We look not only to their theological writings on the true faith, but also their lives and the examples of Christlike-ness they set. The fathers and Saints of the Church are not infallible, but they are, generally speaking, an indisputable source of both wisdom and piety in the long history of our faith.
- Other Ancient Teachers – These are various ecclesiastical writers and teachers not properly termed fathers or Saints who are still valuable in a number of ways. They are helpful in certain circumstances, influential in others, but are not held in a higher regard than the aforementioned authorities—they can, and often have, erred. Prime examples of this category of ecclesiastical teacher would be Origen of Alexandria, Tertullian of Carthage (prior to his apostasy), and Clement of Alexandria.
- Secondary Ancient Literature – This would include apocryphal and pseudepigraphal2 literature like the Protoevangelion of James, the books of Enoch, Jubilees, the Apocalypse of Baruch, and the Psalms of Solomon. While portions of these writings have been “canonized” by the liturgical life of the Church, this is not a blanket endorsement of their entirety. In other words, they are not now “a part of scripture.” Both discrection and care are needed to handle these writings properly and with edifying results.
- Miscellaneous Teachers of the Faith (both Ancient and Modern) – This includes essentially every other writer and teacher of the Orthodox Church, and particularly those not condemned (without repentance) in their lifetimes as a heretic or false teacher. While the insights of men like Alexander Schmemann, Georges Florovsky, and even Fyodor Dostoevsky might be both edifying and influential within portions of the Church, they should in no way be used to overrule the above authorities. To do so would be a clear abuse of the concept of authority in the Orthodox faith. All scholarly ruminations on the faith in the modern era fall squarely within this category.