Tradition


I seem to be spending most of my free minutes working on a website that is taking longer to get up than it is supposed to! But part of that has involved discovering helpful material tucked away in various corners of the internet. Yesterday I discovered this article on Tradition by Father John Behr on an old site and thought it worth sharing:

The idea of “tradition” is deceptively simple. The word itself simply means “handing down” or “that which is handed down.” It is also something with which we are intimately familiar, for each one of us lives within a web of traditions that influences everything from the ways in which we celebrate family or national events to our general world-view, whether an “enlightened” commitment to rational inquiry or a more religious outlook. To be a Christian also means to stand within a tradition. Even those who, following the Protestant Reformation, claim that Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the only legitimate ground for faith and theology, nevertheless stand within a tradition, inheriting certain assumptions and attitudes. Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, embrace their tradition, laying great emphasis on tradition itself as a fundamental dimension of the Christian faith and of their life in the Church.

But what is this tradition to which Orthodox Christianity lays claim? The Orthodox speak about “tradition” so frequently that the term tends to become rather vague. Heirs to a two thousand year old tradition, we inherit a vast treasury of riches – theological, liturgical, artistic, ascetic. But this very richness creates its own difficulty, for not everything handed down is of equal importance. As St Cyprian put it, “tradition without truth is but the antiquity of error.” We need to know what is true, not simply what is old. Modern Orthodox theologians have rightly emphasized that tradition is not simply a mindless repetition, but a living, creative faithfulness. However, we need to be clear about exactly what it is that we must be faithful to, if we are going to be able to embody this living tradition, speaking the same word of truth to an ever-changing world.

It would be wrong to say that we have both Scripture and tradition, for tradition is not an independent source of authority. Rather, tradition is the continuity of the correct faith, “Scripture understood rightly” as Fr Georges Florovsky put it, which has found numerous expressions, embodying the same truth, over the last two millennia – conciliar statements on doctrine and church order, iconography, liturgical practices and so on. But it would be equally mistaken to claim that Scripture is part of tradition. It is true that the Church was already in existence, granting new birth to Christians through Baptism and celebrating the Eucharist, before the texts of the New Testament were written and collected. Yet we must not lose sight of the fact that the earliest proclamation of the Gospel, upon which the Church is founded, already refers to the Scriptures: the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets, which we now call the “Old Testament.”

In one of the earliest statements of the Christian proclamation, the importance of this reference to the Scriptures is emphasized: “I delivered [literally “traditioned”] to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-5). So significant is this reference to the Scriptures that Paul mentions it twice within a short sentence. What Paul “traditions” as the basis of the Christian faith is the understanding and proclamation of the crucified and exalted Christ “according to the Scriptures,” referring, not to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but to the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. So important is this “tradition” that the reference to the Scriptures is preserved in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed which is the common inheritance of most Christians to this day: we still confess that Christ died and rose “according to the [same] Scriptures.”

The principle that Paul “traditions” is made clear by the Gospels. According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, the disciples abandoned Christ at the time of his Passion; Peter even denied knowing him. Whatever they learned from Christ or witnessed him doing was not enough to persuade them of who Christ truly is. Only in the light of Christ’s suffering and exaltation did they turn again to the Scriptures, under the guidance of the risen Christ, to understand finally who he is: “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself … he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures and said to them ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead'” (Lk 24:27, 45). As Paul says, we no longer know Christ according to the flesh (2 Cor 5:16), but according to the Spirit. The Spirit, whom Christ promised to send, leads us into the fullness of truth concerning Christ (Jn 14:25-26), so that we can confess that he is indeed the Lord (1 Cor 12:3), that is, the one spoken of in the Scriptures. The importance of Christ’s passion in understanding who he is, is also emphasized in the Gospel of John where, unlike the other Gospels, Christ is not abandoned at the Cross, for standing by him are his mother and the beloved disciple. Furthermore, this is the “tradition” which marks out the four Gospels of the New Testament from all the other writings claiming to be apostolic. Each of these Gospels proclaims the crucified and risen Christ by reference to the Scriptures, while a work such as the Gospel of Thomas, even if it contains authentic historical material, does not proclaim the passion of Christ nor does it proclaim him “according to the Scriptures.”

But the Gospel of Christ which we proclaim is still the Gospel of the “coming one” (Cf. Matt 11:3), the one who is seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven, where the true citizenship of Christians lies and from which they await their Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, trusting that he will change their lowly form to be like his glorious body (Phil 3:20). The “tradition” which the apostles have bequeathed to us, therefore, is not fixed in one text (we have four Gospels, after all, presenting the versions of the four evangelists). Rather the “tradition” in which we stand, as Orthodox Christians, is the contemplation of Christ “according to the Scriptures,” remaining true to the deposit handed over by the apostles, yet with our faces towards the future, towards the one who is still coming. The Word “grows,” as Acts puts it (Acts 6:7), in that as more and more people believe in it and reflect on it, the Word is embodied in an increasing variety of ways that express the fullness of that faith which has been delivered from the beginning, the same Gospel, the same Word of God – Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb 13:8).

It is this quest that Christ challenges us with, when he asks “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15). And it is a task that cannot be avoided. Even when his friend John the Baptist was in prison, about to be executed, and sent his disciples to Christ to ask him “are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Christ did not answer him directly. Rather he told them to tell John what they saw, that the blind could see, the lame could walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear (Mat 11.2-5). In other words, Christ himself directed John back to the Scriptures where he would be able to understand these messianic signs and know that Christ is indeed the Messiah. This contemplation of Christ “according to the Scriptures,” is what we do when we gather together in and as the Church, in expectancy of his return and in the confidence of his presence, for we are his body, praising God in and for Christ, in and by the Spirit, using language, images and words, drawn from the Scripture. The hymnography as well as the iconography that adorns the Church and the beauty of the liturgical rites themselves, form a matrix, a womb, in which we are born again in his image, as Christians. The tradition of contemplating Christ “according to the Scriptures” is a task which each of us is called to undertake, in the confidence that when he appears we shall be like him (1 Jn 3:2)

I know that this has been horribly disrupted, but I want to try and finish this series of posts on the opening chapters of Father John Behr’s The Way to Nicaea (previous posts here and here). They may be dense, but the issues they raise are of crucial importance and once I’ve got these posts done I hope to write something that draws on this material to address some of the misunderstandings of Tradition that are all-too-common among contemporary Christians.

Having established the key relationship between Scripture – meaning the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets – and the Gospel, Father Behr turns his attention to the relationship between this symbolic coherence of Scripture – which is effected by the word of the Cross – and the appeal to canon and tradition. This coherence of Scripture which is expressed most explicitly in Saint Irenaeus’ The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, forms the basis for Irenaeus’ appeal to canon and tradition, which he develops in Against the Heresies. This involves a challenge to those, in particular the Valentinians, who “speak the same, but think otherwise.” While they quote Scripture, they have disregarded “the order and connection of the Scriptures” and so distorted it.

They have not accepted the coherence of the Scriptures, as speaking about Christ, but have preferred their own fabrication, created by adapting passages of Scripture to a different hypothesis, attempting to endow it with persuasive plausibility. (32)

To understand Scripture, it is crucially important that one has the correct hypothesis. While for some branches of knowledge finding the right hypothesis may be a tentative and pragmatic thing, we cannot philosophically demand demonstrations of first principles.

This means, as Clement of Alexandria points out, that the search for the first principles of demonstration ends up with undemonstrable faith. For Christian faith, according to Clement, it is the Scriptures, and in particular, the Lord who speaks in them, that is the first principle of all knowledge. It is the voice of the Lord, speaking throughout Scripture, that is the first principle, the (nonhypothetical) hypothesis of all demonstrations from Scripture, by which Christians are led to the knowledge of the truth. (33)

It is these first principles that are the basis for subsequent demonstrations and function as a canon to evaluate other claims to truth. Knowledge is impossible without such a canon, for enquiry would simply degenerate into endless regression and it is for this reason that Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement appealed to a canon to counter the constantly mutating Gnostic claims. Irenaeus writes:

…anyone who keeps unswervingly in himself the canon of truth received through baptism will recognize the names and sayings and parables from the Scriptures, but this blasphemous hypothesis of theirs he will not recognize. For if he recognizes the jewels, he will not accept the fox for the image of a king. He will restore each one of the passages to its proper order and, having fit it into the body of truth, he will lay bare the fabrication and show that it is without support. (34-35)

While Irenaeus enunciates the content of the faith that was delivered to the apostles, and sees this as received through baptism, the forms of this rule of faith is not as fixed as it would later become, for

The point of the canon is not so much to give fixed, and abstract, statements of Christian doctrine. Nor does it provide a narrative description of Christian belief, the literary hyposthesis of Scripture. Rather, the canon of truth expresses the correct hypothesis of Scripture itself, that by which one can see in Scripture the picture of a king, Christ, rather than a dog or fox. It is ultimately the presupposition of the apostolic Christ himself, the one who is “according to the Scripture” and, in reverse, the subject of Scripture throughout, being spoken of by the Spirit through the prophets, so revealing the one God and Father. … For Irenaeus, the canon of truth is the embodiment or crystallization of the coherence of Scripture, read as speaking of the Christ who is revealed in the Gospel, the apostolic preaching of Christ “according to Scripture.” (35-36)

Thus the canon is a mode of interpretation, and

The key elements of the faith delivered by the apostles are crystallized in the canon of truth. This canon expresses the basic elements of the one Gospel, maintained and preached in the Church, in an ever-changing context. The continually changing context in which the same unchanging Gospel is preached makes it necessary that different aspects or facets of the same Gospel be drawn out to address contemporary challenges. However, while the context continually changes, the content of that tradition does not – it is the same Gospel.

Resorting constantly to “that which was from the beginning” requires some justification in an age when people like to regard the novelty of a thing as a standard of its value. … Why this high esteem for “what was handed down” and this unique rank that is accorded to the “beginning”? Or in a more personal vein, addressing the writer of these lines: Why does he not speak, rather, of his own experience, instead of bringing up his holy Fathers all the time? (17)

Father Gabriel (Bunge) begins the first chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, aptly entitled “No one after drinking old wine desires new,” by addressing the theological nature of tradition. In contrast to human traditions which can and perhaps should be discarded, for the writers of Sacred Scripture, “that which was from the beginning,” (1 Jn 1:1), the “traditions which you were taught” and which we are to “hold,” (2 Thess 2:15) this connection with “the beginning,” is of fundamental importance.

This fellowship (koinonia) of believers among themselves and with God is what Scripture calls “Church” and “Body of Christ. …

Whoever wants to have “fellowship with God”, therefore, can never disregard those before him who were made worthy of this fellowship! … Hence only that Church is genuinely “Christ’s Church” which stands in an unbroken, living fellowship with the apostles, upon whom the Lord, indeed, founded his Church. (20)

Just as “the good thing committed to thy trust” (2 Tim 1:14) has been set down in the writings of the apostles, so it has also been passed on in an analogous way in unwritten forms and, according to Saint Basil the Great, “with regard to piety, both have the same force.” Hence,

Both forms of apostolic tradition possess what one could call the “grace of origin”, since it was in them that the deposit entrusted to us at the beginning took shape. (21)

This same attitude is found in Basil’s disciple Evagrius who emphasises “the pattern of sound words” which we have heard from the Fathers. We are receivers and need to be guided by them in order to avoid the danger of introducing novelties that would lead us astray and make us “a stranger to our Saviour’s way,” thereby estranging us from the Lord Himself. However, this does not mean that we are to imitate everything the Fathers did as to do so would only make us the laughing stock of the demons. Indeed, the Fathers could themselves “distinguish very well between a ‘personal charism’ and ‘tradition’.” (23)

Thus the preservation of tradition is first of all the preservation of fellowship.

Whoever wants to have fellowship with the Father can attain this only by “way” of the Son. One reaches the Son, though, only by way of “those who walked before us along the way” and thereby became themselves a living part of the “Way”. (24)

By adhering to such a living fellowship, we enter into a mystery beyond space and time. This is something that we cannot do of our own effort. Rather

Guarding “the good thing committed to our trust” is always the fruit of “the Holy Spirit who dwells in us” [2 Tim 1:14] and there “bear[s] witness” [Jn 15:26] to the Son. He it is, also, who does not only “guide [us] into all the truth [Jn 16:13] but also for ages to come causes the testimony of the Master himself to be recognized in the testimony of the disciples. (27)

Father Boris Bobrinskoy continues his discussion of Tradition in the ninth chapter of The Compassion of the Father by citing Father Georges Florovsky on the need for an “ecumenism in time” in addition to the “ecumenism in space” that had come to dominate the ecumenical movement, for “the Church is not only defined in space, but also in time, with respect to our Fathers and the two millennia of Christian life in the communion of saints.” (165) While Protestantism has tended to downplay tradition, and Roman Catholicism has tended to place Tradition above Scripture and to emphasise “the fundamental and prime magisterium of the pope,”

In Orthodoxy, the Tradition is alive. It is a permanent miracle in which the Church does not pretend to possess the truth, but rather is possessed by it. The Church does not hold the truth but manifests it in fullness and in permanence, in a eucharistic relationship, an epiclesis, where it invokes the Holy Spirit so that He penetrates the gifts – the bread and the wine – the assembly, and, consequently, the very mouths of those in charge of keeping the Church and the entire people of God in the faith and in truth.

This dimension of the invocation – of the epiclesis – of the dependency of the entire Church upon the Holy Spirit, is a reality we forcefully maintain. The entire people of God are found permanently in the influential sphere of the Spirit. Thus, all dimensions of the Tradition converge in the one crucible of holiness, for the possession of the truth is inconceivable without personal and ecclesial holiness. The reality of the truth, known and preserved in the Church, must be defined as the responsibility of the entire people of God. (165-6)

While Orthodoxy does not offer a “recipe” for evaluating human traditions, Father Boris suggests certain principles that it offers us. These include the desire to be faithful to the Church, a sense of the mystery of the beyond which is aware that human concepts cannot exhaust the fullness of the apostolic faith, a process of spiritual growth leading to a maturation of the instinct for truth, a listening to the prophetic Spirit, and brotherly love, especially towards the week. This means that Orthodoxy is both profoundly the same and profoundly diverse.

It is the same in the sense that we recognize one another – without needing an external authority, a common magisterium that dictates teaching and doctrine – as identical in faith, worship, spirituality, and testimony. It is diverse in the sense that the tonalities of Orthodoxy, its language and preoccupations, may vary greatly from one place to another. (167)

However, faithfulness to the Tradition does not mean that it cannot be questioned. Indeed the Fathers sometimes had to oppose certain notions of Tradition in order to assert the mystery of the faith. Father Boris gives the examples of the use of non-traditional terminology in the struggle against Arianism, the defence of icons, and the development of hymnography and feasts. In the same way, contemporary Orthodoxy is in need of self-reflection and purification and topics for consideration include questions of married bishops, the iconostasis, the “secret” prayers during the Divine Liturgy, the frequency of the reception of Holy Communion, and the female diaconate. Such questions mean that

The Church concretely must ponder over the actualization of Tradition at the end of the second millennium of Christianity. For this, we must be listening to the Spirit, in whom Tradition and newness are allied, the permanence of the message of salvation and renewal of the ecclesial structures. Only in the Holy Spirit may the complete fidelity to the received Tradition and the most radical freedom of the children of God be realized and maintained without contradiction. (170)

Father Boris ends by quoting Saint Irenaeus who wrote:

This faith, which we have received from the Church, we preserve carefully, because through the action of the Spirit of God, like a deposit of great price enclosed in a good vessel, it rejuvenates ceaselessly, and causes the vessel containing it to renew its youth also. (170)

Father Boris Bobrinskoy continues the ninth chapter of The Compassion of the Fatherby pointing to the subtle dialectic between the direct action of the Holy Spirit and listening to our fathers in the faith. We see this in the experience of Saint Paul.

Following his “enlightenment” on the road to Damascus, and after spending three years in Arabia – a stay of which we know nothing – St Paul wanted to return to Jerusalem to meet James and Kephas (Peter), the pillars of the Church at that time. This intervention is very interesting because it reveals that, from the beginning of the Church, two basic moments co-existed: on the one hand, the direct illumination of the road to Damascus where St Paul met the living Christ and was taught by the Spirit; on the other hand, the concern to verify his teaching, his knowledge, his preaching, and his language with the apostles, with the Church.

In this way, the Church lives in the permanent breath and the permanent fire of the Pentecost of the Holy Spirit. If this fire does not set us aglow, then all the truths of the Tradition would forever remain as dead, alien externals to us.

In the Christian faith, we should never omit any dimension of the spiritual begetting, whatever the relays of transmission may be: the “father,” the “charismatics,” those who are “filled with the Holy Spirit.” For we have only one Lord: Jesus Christ; one Master: the Holy Spirit; and one Father: our heavenly Father. The more we mature in the faith, the more the apostolic and ecclesial Tradition becomes our own. Then the gospel is accomplished, when Jesus tells His disciples: “I no longer call you servants; … Instead, I have called you friends, for everything I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:15). (162-3)

Thus the Tradition is not simply the transmission of the living faith, but is also the content of faith. It has an objectivity that parallels our own subjective faith.

Objective faith is basically the mystery of Christ, the revelation of this mystery in Jesus, transmitted by the apostles and evangelists: the announcement of the good news. This is what St Irenaeus calls “the deposit of the transmitted faith,” which has remained unchanged over the centuries. This deposit crystallizes in ecclesial doctrine, a doctrine which we have a tendency to call “orthodoxy” and which cannot be separated from worship, prayer, and adoration. Two dimensions are included in the word “orthodoxy”: doxa not only means thought, prayer, and opinion, but also glory and praise. Consequently, only to the extent that our praise is true does doctrine emerge from inside the language of Christian worship.

We can go even further: doxa is not only the glory given to God, but also the glory of God. Thus “orthodoxy” is above all the glory of God who communicates Himself to us in the life of the Church, that is, the living experience of God, crystallized at the same time in the language of worship and in theological thought.

Theology acquires a genuine objectivity in the dogmas, the definitions of the councils, the teaching of the magisterium, and the authority of the Church. That is very important, for it is there that we touch upon the basic mystery of the Church where the Body resembles the Head, Christ being the Head. The entire Church is divine-human or “theanthropical.” In other words, everything in the life of the Church is divine-human: worship, the sacraments, the icon, and theological language, taking into account our approximations. From this point of view, the doctrine of the faith acquires a genuine objectivity; the human word becomes capax Dei (“capable of God”), that is, capable of transmitting, carrying, and singing (rather than reciting) the truth of God, His mystery. (163-4)

Father Boris Bobrinskoy continues his discussion of Tradition in the ninth chapter of The Compassion of the Father by distinguishing between the “horizontality” of what is transmitted in the Church and the “verticality” of the work of the Holy Spirit. In the work of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons we find the explication of Tradition as something whose content is one and the same and cannot be added to nor diminished, but which is also not impoverished by human transmission “because the Holy Spirit always makes us contemporaries to the history of salvation.” (159) By expounding on the doctrine of apostolic succession, Irenaeus showed the continuity of transmission in the Church. However,

the living apostolic Tradition is, above all, a transmission. In a transmission, there is, indeed, a double movement. First, there is a reception through the ages, through the centuries: we receive, and what we receive becomes a part of ourselves, or rather, we become that which we receive; we assimilate one another, identify ourselves with the content of the Tradition. Next, there is a transmission through us, of what has been received in a chain unbroken to the end of the ages. In this respect, it is appropriate to make another distinction between Tradition as a living transmission and Tradition as the content of the faith. (160)

This living transmission is the work of the Holy Spirit and it is fundamentally relational.

the Tradition is the work of the Spirit who penetrates into the content of the deposit of the transmitted faith, and who enlightens the one who receives it. This transmission is always of the order of a relationship and of personal progress, of a dialogue from heart to heart, from mouth to ear, of an interiorization. More than a phenomenon, we are faced with a true mystery: spiritual fatherhood.

For the deposit of faith to be transmitted unchanged and unchangeable from generation to generation, to retain its integrity, fullness, and simplicity – such as it has been uttered, carried out, and realized in Jesus Christ – the Holy Spirit must act and allow those who have received it and are in agreement with this life and message faithfully to transmit it. In this sense, the concept of spiritual fatherhood, of spiritual begetting, most appropriately expresses what constitutes the nerve, axis, and spinal cord of this living reality of the Tradition – irreducible to the external transmission of a truth or a philosophy. (160)

While the concept of fatherhood is a broad one, and while various forms of fatherhood exist in the Church, it is fundamentally connected to the transmission of life itself.

Transmission becomes a genuine experience. What is transmitted is fire. As long as truths remain on the intellectual, cerebral plane, there will be no chance of transmission because they are aloof and cold. Only that which burns can illumine and kindle the core of a being. (160)

Thus,

This fatherhood is an essential act of the Holy Spirit, in which the two dimensions meet: “horizontality” and “verticality”; “horizontality” because it is uninterrupted since the first centuries until today and will remain so until the end of time; “verticality” because, beyond all human mediations and pedagogies, God is and remains our only Father, Christ our only Lord, and the Holy Spirit our only physician in the growth of the faith. (161)

The ninth and final chapter of The Compassion of the Father is an essay on “Sacred Tradition and Human Tradition,” in which Father Boris Bobrinskoy broaches the delicate subject of the relationship between Tradition as a constituent element of Orthodoxy that belongs to the very essence of Christianity, and the human traditions that are linked to religious psychology and which can lead to internal tensions within Orthodoxy and need to be considered in the light of the passions.

Memory is fundamental to the biblical narrative and also to the modern world. However, biblical memory involved an interiorization that led to a conflict between of the representatives of the law and the prophets.

For the Christian, the coming to earth of Christ represents the peak of revelation. He is the reference, at the same time first and last, of all future generations until the end of time. He appears as the one who closes the lineage of the prophets, the one who is the key and the subject of all Scriptures and of the apostolic preaching. As in the conversation with the disciples of Emmaus, He interprets in all the Scriptures what concerns Him: “These are the Scriptures that testify about me” (Jn 5:39). Starting from this, all of sacred Scripture becomes normative for church doctrine, the first link of the apostolic Tradition, inside of which it will develop. (154-155)

However,

if Jesus is the key to Scripture, the Holy Spirit appears as the one who gives us the revelation of this, who reveals “the code” to us, the use of this key. The Holy Spirit gives us the instinct, the sense of the truth. He sets our hearts aglow and makes us recognize and profess Jesus as Lord. (155)

Father Boris then proceeds to argue for a Trinitarian interpretation of Christian Tradition. This is not simply a human interpretation, for

As a constituent dimension of the Church, the Body of Christ, this trinitarian interpretation is profoundly divine-human and belongs to the very mystery of the Church: that, in many ways, to the extent that a look at the mystery of faith must correspond to faith itself. (155)

Christ is sent by the Father and so sends the apostles.

Thus, Jesus transmits to us the words of the Father. He is the living Word. He is the living Gospel that He announces to us. St Ignatius of Antioch writes, “He is the Word which proceeded from the silence of the Father.” In a remarkable study on the Tradition, resumed in In the Image and Likeness of God, Vladimir Lossky introduces an altogether unusual concept about the Tradition and the mystery of the Church: silence. From where does silence come when we speak of Tradition? To explain this, the author cites another passage from St Ignatius of Antioch: “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.”

In the writings of St Ignatius of Antioch, the theme of silence appears, on the one hand, as a characteristic, almost as an attribute of the heavenly Father, and, on the other, as an attribute of the bishops. That may seem contradictory, to the extent that bishops are called to announce and bring the living Word to the people. Nonetheless, St Ignatius says that “a bishop is never so much a bishop as when he keeps silent.”

“The Tradition is silence,” Vladimir Lossky writes. This is not a definition, but a first element of the Tradition. We should hear “even the very silence of Jesus,” that is, understand that the words come from an unexpected depth and that they carry in themselves a reality “from beyond.” This is true of the entire sacramental life, of all language that is our own; if our language seeks to exhaust our intelligence, it becomes hollow very quickly, at the end of its resources. It is only when it seeks to suggest and to sing about depth rather than exhaust it, that language becomes truly eloquent. (156)

The words of Jesus turn us toward the Father, but they are words that do not break silence, but rather introduce us into it.

The living Word of the Father, Jesus Christ, is the permanent content, I would say, even the only content of the Tradition. The latter is the mystery of Christ, dead and risen, which the Church announces and presents as a memorial to the world. This very important point lessens the danger in Orthodoxy to forget that Christ is the subject of its preaching and to cover Him with alluvial deposits and the gilding of time. Thus, we speak of and preach the silence of the Father, the living Word, Christ, who is the living content of the Tradition, but also the Holy Spirit who performs the permanent miracle of the Tradition, the identity of the message over the centuries.

“Thus,” Vladimir Lossky says, “Tradition is not the content of Revelation, but the light that reveals it; Tradition is not the word, but the living breath which makes the word heard at the same time as the silence from which it came. Tradition is not the truth but a communication of the spirit of Truth, outside of which the truth cannot be perceived: ‘No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.’” (157)

We can therefore speak of Tradition as the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, which constitutes the breath of knowledge and the light of vision, and in which we find a reciprocal relationship between the Son and the Spirit.

To be continued…

The question of authority has stood for centuries in the very center of the issues between East and West. Writing in the middle of the last century the Russian lay theologian A. S. Khomiakov defined the issue in the form of a somewhat romantic overstatement, which, however, remains quite suggestive today. ‘The Church is not an authority, just as God is not an authority and Christ is not an authority, since authority is something external to us. The Church is not an authority, I say, but the Truth, and at the same time the inner life of the Christian, since God, Christ, the Church, live with him with a life more real than the heart which is beating in his breast and the blood flowing in his veins. But they are alive in him only insofar as he himself is living by the ecumenical life of love and unity, i.e., by the life of the Church.’ Khomiakov’s main reproach to the West is that it has transformed authority into external power: the magisterium in Roman Catholicism, Scripture in Protestantism. In both cases, he concludes ‘the premises are identical.’

Khomiakov’s notion of an ‘internal’ knowledge of the Truth, independent of ‘external’ criteria and authorities, would appear to be pure romantic subjectivism if it were read outside the context of the Greek patristic understanding of God and man. For the Greek Fathers knowledge of God is based on the idea of communion, transfiguration, and deification of man. It implies the theory of the ‘spiritual senses,’ i.e. an utterly personal experience of the Living God, made accessible through the sacramental, communal life in the Body of Christ. This gnosiology does not suppress ‘authorities’ and ‘criteria,’ but it conceives them as clearly internal to the Christian experience. They furnish an authenticity which is incomprehensible to anyone who has not first personally accepted the validity and tasted to the reality of the experience.

The experience is that of Truth itself, not simply of a means for attaining the Truth. It involves the ‘uncreated’ and divine presence of God in man through the Holy Spirit. It is the Truth therefore that authenticates authority, and not vice versa. It is precisely this understanding of authority which made the East resist so stubbornly against accepting the institution of papacy as the criterion of Truth. Because of this the Orthodox reaffirm consistently that it is the faith of Peter which conditions primacy, while primacy itself is not a guarantee of infallibility. Here, in fact is the traditional issue between Rome and Orthodoxy.

Father John Meyendorff, Living Tradition: Orthodox Witness in the Contemporary World(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978), 76-78.

I haven’t actually read this book but found this quote saved by a friend and thought that it expressed better than I can some of the things that I’ve been feeling but not quite getting to articulating. Something else to put on the “to-be-read” list!

A process of reevaluation of tradition from the point of view of its relevance to the “needs of the time” and the “questions of contemporary man” is occurring right now in western Christianity. And the criterion for what is eternal and what is obsolete in Christianity is almost without any argument declared to be “contemporary man” and “contemporary culture.” In order to suit these, some are ready to discard from the Church everything that appears to be “irrelevant.” This is the eternal temptation of modernism, which periodically disturbs the church organism. And therefore, when people talk about this or that obsolete custom or tradition, it is always necessary to show the utmost care and to put the question not in terms of its relevance or irrelevance to what is “contemporary,” but in terms of whether it expresses something eternal and essential in Christianity, even if it outwardly seems “obsolete.”

Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist. Sacrament of the Kingdom. (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988) 86.

Alexander Schmemann was right on target in his vision of what liturgy is in the life of the Church, a vision we need today in my view more than ever. For it is ironic that, as we celebrate today the achievements in liturgical theology of Alexander Schmemann, one must note a recent and to me unwelcome shift in American liturgical writings from a prescriptive to a descriptive view of what Christian liturgy is. As if liturgy is not what Christians ought to be doing at their worship but whatever they in fact happen to be doing. I hold, on the contrary, that Christian history has left us an objective and, yes, prescriptive, liturgical tradition, one that views Christian worship not as whatever Christians do in church but as what they ought to be doing, one that draws them to participate in a common heritage far nobler and richer than any individual’s choice or creation. Those who seem to foster this descriptive view cite the rhetorical question of the late James F. White, one of the major voices of the Protestant liturgical establishment of my generation. He writes: “Do we want to say that a preaching service each week and a thirteenth Sabbath Lord’s Supper as among the Seventh Day Adventists is not authentic Christian worship? Do we want to disqualify those for whom the major events in the liturgical year are children’s Sunday, homecoming, revival and rally day? Any scheme that totally ignores the worship life of about sixty percent of American Christianity is highly questionable.” As with most rhetorical questions the anticipated politically correct reply is: “Of course not.” Alas, I must confess to the diametrically opposite view. Reversing the rhetoric, I would ask, rather: “How can one consider authentic the Christian worship of those for whom the major events in the liturgical year are not Lent and Easter, Christmas and Theophany, and on Sundays the Holy Eucharist. So in my view, far from it being time to move beyond the Schmemann … line of liturgical theology, we need it more than ever.

Robert Taft, SJ, in the podcast I mentioned a couple of posts back: “The Liturgical Enterprise 25 Years After Alexander Schmemann – The Man and His Heritage.”

I was struck by this quote, for this is far from being simply an American or a Protestant problem. I have noticed a similar underlying dynamic in certain European Catholic liturgical studies, notably in the emphasis on ritual studies and rehabilitating popular religion. While anthropological insights into human beings as ritual creatures can indeed be helpful, when they become cut off from a broader understanding of liturgy as bearer of tradition, then they end up becoming a sort of phenomenological study of religion rather than a vital aspect of Christian theology.

This reminded me of something I wrote on the relationship between ritual studies, liturgy and theology a few years ago – and which I never got down to publishing in English; a Dutch version was published in Monastieke Informatie, 225, September 2006 – and I thought I’d publish an extract from it here…

 

…ritual language is really a form of text. While we are used to thinking of texts as written objects, Paul Ricoeur in his important essay “The model of the text: meaningful action considered as text” has shown that actions too constitute “texts” for they involve the fixation of meaning in actions which have become disassociated from the mental intentions of their “authors”. They are a form in which meaning is passed on to a broad public.[1] Thus texts are not only verbal or written but can also be visual, spatial, ritual and so on. They comprise all of our means of communication.

The Christian Tradition – with a capital ‘T’ – is never accessible in itself, but is always mediated through different forms of texts that serve to pass on the faith of the Church. One of these important mediators is the liturgy, whose importance in theology can be seen in the widely quoted maxim lex orandi est lex credendi, or, the law of praying is the law of believing.[2] Liturgy is not simply the application of theological truth to our ritual acts, but is rather the matrix that gives birth to theology. It is the ongoing proclamation, that which is handed down to us and which forms subsequent generations of Christians.

It is here that we discover that liturgy, as poetry and ritual, has a particular role as bearer of revelation for it is able to provide access to that which is beyond words. Through the fully incarnational use of symbol, music, silence, space, movement and colour, it allows a glimpse of that which is beyond cerebral expression. As Yves Congar tells us: “The celebration of the Eucharist communicates the whole reality: the merest sign of the cross is an entire profession of faith in the Redemption.”[3]

Thus we see that, while Christian liturgy is indeed rooted in the human need for ritual, liturgy is much more than simply ritual studies, for liturgy is a witness to a much larger and all-embracing Tradition. Liturgy is an aspect of the language which the Church uses to express the revelation of God in Christ and is formative for our Christian faith. While clearly a human activity it is also much more than a human activity, for it is one of the privileged places for encountering revelation. In the oft-quoted words of Dom Prosper Guéranger: “It is in the liturgy that the Spirit who inspired the Scriptures speaks again; the liturgy is Tradition itself at its highest degree of power and solemnity.”[4]


[1] Paul Ricoeur. 1981. “The model of the text: meaningful action considered as text” in J. Thompson (ed). Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 210.

[2] Aidan Nichols. 1991. The Shape of Catholic Theology. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press. 181.

[3] Yves Congar. 1964. Tradition in the Life of the Church. London: Burns and Oates. 127.

[4] Ibid. 125.

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