Vladimir Lossky


nat Theotokos 2
Today the barren gates are opened and the virgin Door of God comes forth. Today grace begins to bear its first fruits, making manifest to the world the Mother of God, through whom things on earth are joined with heaven, for the salvation of our souls.

from Vespers of the Nativity of the Mother of God

In recent months I have sometimes thought of writing on the differences between a Roman Catholic approach to the Mother of God and an Orthodox one. This is not that post, which may or may not get written, and I am a little hesitant about writing it, both because it is not a clear cut topic and would need to be written with a fair bit of nuance, and because I am unsure to what extent I am simply reflecting my own experience, and my own earlier blindness. While that certainly does play a role, I’m pretty sure that there is more to it than that, but that is another topic for another day.

But what I have been struck by in recent years – and certainly becoming Orthodox has played a large role in this – is how deeply biblical our understanding of the Mother of God is. I remember years ago having discussions with Protestants on the supposed paucity of biblical references to Mary, and the discussion then focused on the historical references in the Gospels and (fleetingly) in the Apostle Paul. But what I have realised more recently is that Scripture, rightly understood, is full of references to her, precisely because it is – again, rightly understood – entirely focused on the bringing forth of Christ to the world so that He may conquer death by death.

And today’s feast is a striking example of this. From one perspective, we do not have scriptural evidence for it – i.e. the biblical writers do not speak directly about the birth of the Virgin Mary. But from the perspective of the believing Christian, all of Scripture, or at least all of the Old Testament, speaks of it. For what is the birth of the Mother of God about if not the culmination of God’s long work of preparation in the history of Israel? In the words of Vladimir Lossky:

Like the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, the birth of the Mother of God, promised by an angel after the parents had long been sterile, finds Old Testament antecedents which are habitually considered as prefigurations of the Resurrection. But the Nativity of the Mother of God is more than a figure; for in the person of St. Anna – a woman freed from her sterility to bring into the world a Virgin who would give birth to God incarnate – it is our nature which ceases to be sterile in order to start bearing the fruits of grace. The miraculous birth of the Holy Virgin is not due to an arbitrary action of God, entering in to break historical continuity: it is a stage of the Providence which watches over the safety of the world, arduously preparing the Incarnation of the Word, a stage which precedes the last decisive act – the Annunciation, when the chosen Virgin will assent to be “the King’s Palace, in which is accomplished the perfect mystery of the two natures reunited in Christ” [Vespers hymnography].

Vladimir Lossky, “The Birth of the Holy Virgin” in Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons(Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983) 146.

It is no longer an opposition between the a!grafa and the e!ggrafa, oral preaching and written preaching. The distinction between Tradition and Scripture here penetrates further into the heart of its subject, ranging on the one side that which is kept in secret, and for this reason must not be recorded in writing, and on the other, all that is the subject of preaching and that, once having been publicly declared, can henceforth be ranged on the side of the “Scriptures” (Grafai). Did not Basil himself judge it opportune to reveal in writing the secret of several “traditions”, thus transforming them into xhrugmata? This new distinction puts the accent on the secret character of the Tradition, by thus opposing a hidden fund of oral teachings, received from the Apostles, to that which the Church offers for the knowledge of all; hence it immerses “preaching” in a sea of apostolic traditions, that could not be set aside or under-estimated without injury to the Gospel. Even more, if one did this “one would transform the teaching that is preached (to\ xh/rugma) into a simple name”, devoid of meaning. The several examples of these traditions offered by St. Basil all relate to the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church (sign of the Cross, baptismal rites, blessing of oil, eucharistic epiclesis, the custom of turning towards the east during prayer and that of remaining standing on Sunday and during the period of Pentecost, etc.). If these “unwritten customs” (ta\ a1grafa twn e0qwn), these “mysteries of the Church(a1grafa ths  0E/xxlhsi/av musth/ria), so numerous that one could not expound them in the course of a whole day, are necessary for understanding the truth of Scripture (and in general the true meaning of all “preaching”), it is clear that the secret traditions point to the “mysterial character” of Christian knowledge. In effect, the revealed truth is not a dead letter but a living Word: it can be attained only in the Church, through initiation by the “mysteries” or sacraments into the “mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints” (Col. I, 26).

Vladimir Lossky, “Tradition and Traditions” in V. Lossky and L. Ouspensky, The Meaning of Icons (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982). 13. 

My apologies for the messy Greek – I’ll try and learn how to do this properly soon!

In opposing Tradition to Holy Scripture as two sources of Revelation, the polemicists of the Counter-Reformation put themselves from the start on the same ground as their Protestant adversaries, having tacitly recognised in Tradition a reality other than that of Scripture. Instead of being the u`póqesiv itself of the sacred books, their fundamental coherence due to the living breath passing through them, transforming their letter into “a unique body of truth”, Tradition would appear as something added, as an external principle in relation to Scripture. Henceforth, the patristic texts which attributed a character of “pleroma” to the Holy Scripture became incomprehensible, whilst the Protestant doctrine of the “sufficiency of Scripture” received a negative meaning, by the exclusion of all that is “Tradition”. The defenders of Tradition saw themselves obliged to prove the necessity of union between two juxtaposed realities, each of which remained insufficient alone. Hence a series of false problems like that of the primacy of Scripture or of Tradition, of their respective authority, of the total or partial difference of their content, etc. … How is the necessity of knowing the Scripture in the Tradition to be proved, how is their unity which was ignored in separating them to be found again? If the two are “fullness”, there could be no question of two “pleromas” opposed to one another, but of two modalities of one and the same fullness of the Revelation communicated to the Church.

Vladimir Lossky, “Tradition and Traditions” in V. Lossky and L. Ouspensky, The Meaning of Icons (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982). 11.                                                                                            

Father Louth’s discussion of this essay by Vladimir Lossky resulted in me looking it up again. I don’t have time to comment much on it, but may post a quote or two. It’s worth noting, though, that the possibility of recognising Scripture and Tradition as two rival sources of authority was already present in late medieval theology, as was the suggestion of an “invisible” Church. It is becoming increasingly apparent to me that many of the false alternatives that the Western Church faces today have their roots in deep-seated shifts in this period, although I still need to get a much better understanding of many of the dynamics involved!