Father Louth proceeds to consider Saint Basil’s understanding of tradition in which he distinguishes between kerygma (or proclamation) and dogma. While the former is preserved in written teaching, the latter is given to us “in secret”. Basil is clearly not referring to gnostic secret knowledge, and the examples that he gives are all liturgical practices such as the sign of the cross, prayer towards the East, the epiclesis at the Eucharist and so on. Louth comments: “The secret tradition is not a message, but a practice, and the significance of such practice. We come back to the fact that Christianity is not a body of doctrine that can be specified in advance, but a way of life and all that this implies.” (86)

Louth sees tradition as the tacit dimension of Christian life, and it is Saint Basil’s appeal to such a dimension that is his ultimate defence of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The arguments that he uses in On the Holy Spirit revolve around the Christian experience of the life of grace. By being cleansed from the passions we become spiritual and like God, something that is only possible in the Spirit. It is in the light of the Spirit that we are enabled “to contemplate the Image of the Archetype, the Son of the Father.” (87) Yet it remains difficult to state anything objectively about the Spirit “for he is not what we perceive, but that in virtue of which we perceive anything at all.” (88) Ultimately, says Louth, “the tradition of the Church is the Spirit, that which is passed on from age to age in the bosom of the Church is the Spirit, making us sons in the Son, enabling us to call on the Father, and thus share in the communion of the Trinity.” (88)

Following Saint Basil, Louth highlights the centrality of liturgy in bringing us into contact with this tradition: 

Here we see the importance of liturgy for the realization, and continuity, of tradition, and thus why it is that when Basil appeals to a tradition that goes beyond Scripture, he appeals to the liturgy. For it is, most fundamentally, in the celebration of the liturgy, and especially in the celebration of the Eucharist, that we realize and celebrate the mystery of Christ, that we share in and come to know the Son’s offering himself to the Father in love and obedience. For the heart of the Christian faith is not simply something conceptual: it is a fact, or even better, an action – the action, the movement, of the Son sent into the world for our sakes to draw us back to the Father. … Liturgy is not something we ‘make up’, nor is it something that can be simply ‘understood’: it is something we participate in, not just as minds, but with all that we are – body and soul. (89)

Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983).


I’m summarising Father Louth’s arguments in this chapter in some detail as I find this chapter to be crucially important – not that the other chapters are not important of course – and plan to do a separate post (or posts) highlighting the issues that it raises for me, once I have finished presenting the summaries in the next post.

One related thing though: while writing this I was reminded of the quote from Yves Congar below, which has stayed with me since reading him about twelve years ago, and which I’ve quoted on more than one occasion. I was surprised that Louth hadn’t quoted it as connects directly with what he’s arguing here, and then realised that it’s not from Tradition and Traditions (which Louth interacts with extensively) but from his shorter and less well known Tradition in the Life of the Church (London, Burns & Oates, 1964), p. 127:

The celebration of the Eucharist communicates the whole reality: the merest sign of the cross is an entire profession of faith in the Redemption.