-Marin Mihalache-


During the third century in the time of Baptismal controversy, among others, it was raised the question of the importance and validity of the “ancient customs”. Referring to this matter Tertullian, besides other controversial considerations, stated that “consuetudines” (customs) in the Church must be examined in the light of the Truth: “Our Lord designated himself, not as custom, but as truth.” (The Viginibus Veliandis). In the same manner, at the Council of Cartage, Saint Cyprian stressed that “antiquity without Truth is the age old error.” (Epist. 74.9) Saint Augustine also wrote that “In the gospel of the Lord says: I am the Truth. He did not say – I am custom” (De Baptismo, III, 6.9). Whether the Christian truth was an “an ancient truth”, this does not mean that necessary any “antiquity” was a truth in itself. But because the Gnostics used first the argument “from tradition”, Saint Irenaeus understood the necessity to oppose to the false “traditions” the concept of the true Tradition which was confirmed by the universal “consensio” of Churches and grew up under the apostolic authority.  


In the 3rd and 4th Century the references to “origin” and “preservation”, besides the Scripture itself the “Apostles” and “Fathers” found the ground and foundation of the right faith in the Tradition of the Church. The ultimate “authority” was vested in the “infallibility” of the Church grounded in the teachings of the Ecumenical Councils. The Church as the “charismatic” and canonical authority was a guarantee of the truth as revealed by the Holy Spirit. This made possible thereafter for the Seventh Ecumenical Council to state that the decision concerning the Holy Icons was taken “following the divinely inspired teaching of the Holy Fathers and the Tradition of the Catholic Church”. In this line Titus Burckhardt in a forward to “the meaning of icons” by Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky states that “in the art or icons, however, it is the content that is the criterion of form”…and…”fundamentally the icon remains always the same: changes of style arise from the meeting between the timeless spirit of Tradition and the circumstances conditioned by time and place, which merely cause the unfolding of diverse potentialities latent in the nature of the icon itself.”  Referring to the same topic of the report between Tradition and traditions, unchanging and changing, eternal and temporary, in general, Vladimir Lossky in his study “Tradition and traditions” stresses that “just as time projected in space presents an obstacle to the intuition of Bergsonian “duration” so too this projection of the qualitative notion of Tradition in the quantitative domain of “the traditions” disguises rather than reveals its real character, for Tradition is free of all determinations, which is limiting situates it historically.” (Vladimir Lossky, “Tradition and traditions”, “In the likeness and image of God”).


For Irenaeus the main criterion which was recognized as valid was Tradition-Apostolic-Sacramental. This concept seems to be accepted in the context and circumstances of a variety of local traditions and local controversies from the third to the fifth century. In this period most of the Christian communities used the appeal to tradition or “antiquity”. But there were also disputes all over the places and such tensions culminated at the Council of Ephesus which was even split into the Ecumenical Council of Saint Cyril and Rome and “the conciliabulum” of the Orient, a split which finally was overcome and the parties reconciled.


The main concern of Christian history was the search for the Apostolic foundations “the initial and original delivery” of the “kerygma”, and later of the “transmission” and “succession”. The issue of tradition and of who has the right understanding of it was part of the 6th century Chalcedonian controversy known as the Three Chapters when in an attempt to bring unity, stability, peace and harmony in the Christendom between the Oriental, Syrian, Egyptian Churches, the Emperor Justinian issued an edict anathematizing the person of Theodore of Mopsuestia, and certain writings of Theodoret of Cyrus and Ibas of Edessa.


During the past controversies concerning Tradition and traditions “antiquity” of certain traditions by itself was not found to be a sufficient proof or the criteria of the true faith. Thus the chance for heretics to claim such authorities was cut off, so that Saint Cyprian could claim justly that the Truth is not only a habit, but the way of living according to the Gospels and Tradition. Accordingly, the true Tradition is the tradition of Truth, as revealed by the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. Thus the Tradition is a living tradition (“depositum juvenescens” – Saint Irenaeus), it is the continuity of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. In this way all the aspects of Tradition are inseparable, historically and doctrinal and in accord with the sacramental nature of the Church, both the Tradition and the Church being in perfect accord and in living continuation with the spirit of the Scriptures and the understanding of the apostleship and hierarchy. Thus in this understanding the Tradition is one of the essential aspect of the true Christian life of the Church and in the Church.


At the same time the Church is in its ethos and spirit of truth unchangeable in the line with Her apostolic doctrine on the Risen Lord, even if the Church lives in a always changing world. Therefore although the Church must proclaim the same apostolic faith and truth She must also change Her ways of expression in time, nevertheless the Church cannot compromise the Truth itself. The Church does not change with the spirit of time, but the times must change in the Spirit of Truth. Thus it appears to be a clear the distinction between Tradition as essence and the so called traditions as cultural extensions and relative expressions of the Tradition. Thus, the traditions are not the Tradition. The traditions are not the Way, the Truth and the Life, the orthodoxy of the Church, but ways, small rivers which runs towards the River. The traditions are beautiful, useful and part of life and cultures flourishing in the Light of Tradition.


The Church of Christ in Her mission of the salvation on man, though is passing through different cultural heritages and traditions remains “free from all” (I Corinthians 9:19) for in Christ “there is neither Jew, nor Greek, there is neither bound nor free, there is neither male nor female, for me are all in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). The freedom of Spirit makes the Church independent of any particular or historical-cultural type, enable Her to transcend all human limitations and pseudo-absolutes human traditions condemned by the Lord Himself: “You leave the commandment of God and hold fast the tradition of man” and “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition.” (Mark 7:8-9)


Thus, the unity of Christians was (and still it is) the unity of faith (in sacraments), even if the early local Church expressed this faith in its own ways (linguistically, liturgically, or even baptismal). In time, exaggerations have led the Western as well as the Eastern branches of same Church to claim and pretend that their own ethos and practices were the only acceptable pattern, though there was enough concern on the necessity of distinction between Tradition and traditions. Thus, Patriarch Photius seems to be the first one who brought up this issue: “Everybody must preserve what was defined by common ecumenical decisions, but a particular opinion of a church or a definition issued by a local council can be followed by some and ignored by others. Thus, some people customarily shave their beards; others reject this practice through (local) conciliar decrees. Thus, as far as we are concerned, we consider it reprehensible to fast on Saturdays, except once a year (on Holy Saturday), while others fast on other Saturdays as well. Thus Tradition avoids disputes by making practice prevail over the rule. In Rome there are priests legitimately married, while our tradition permits man, once married, to be elevated to the priesthood.”


Therefore Patriarch Photius established the faith as a general criterion for judging the legitimate variety of practices and traditions. Thus he further stated that: “when the faith remains inviolate, the common and catholic decisions are safe: a sensible man respects the practices and laws of others; he considers that it is neither wrong to observe them nor illegal to violate them.” (Both quotations taken from “Orthodoxy and Catholicity” by John Meyendorff). In his answer to Pope Leo XIII the Ecumenical Patriarch Anthimos states that the unity of Churches is the unity of faith and does not imply “unification of the order of the holy services, hymns, liturgical vestments or other similar things which, even when they preserve their former variety, do not endanger the essence and unity of faith.” (Idem)


The Tradition is a living reality which transcends the transient and ephemeral forms or cultures. Therefore the distinction between the Holy Tradition and traditions is imposed as a “sine qua non” condition to preserve unaltered the truth about the Truth. The traditions can only be useful inasmuch as they express the living Tradition and don’t remain only by the virtue of habit an ossified body of customs and beliefs. Therefore it is necessary that the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit remain open to the truth and in a permanent and creative process of renewal, discrimination and distinction of what comes from God and what comes from man. For like Saint Irenaeus rightly taught: “where the Church is there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is there is the Church and every kind of grace by the Spirit of Truth.” (Adversus haereses, III, 24)


To distinguish Tradition from traditions does not always mean to separate them, or oppose them when the necessity does not require this. But to bring them together, under the cover of the same umbrella seems also not to be a wise attempt either, especially when the Truth risks to be shadowed by “the particular truths”. Or like Vladimir Losky wrote: “Tradition is free of all determinations which in situating it historically limit it.” Considering the Truth too hard to be grasped in all its integrity by everyone and in order to protect it from the danger of gnostic misinterpreting, the Church Fathers did not reveal some difficult to understand doctrines to the public at large not ready the grasp the fullness of truth. According to Saint Basil, the dogma is the treasury of unpublished and secret teachings that the Church Fathers kept in silence, free from disquiet and curiosity. The Church Fathers knew well to distinguish between what were only noisy opinions or popular customs and essential doctrines of truth. They also displayed discreet silence and reverence for what is holy safeguarding the sacred character of the mysteries from those who tried to compromise and misinterpret such doctrines. (St. Basil, De spiritu sancto 27).  Specifically, Saint Basil taught that it important and necessary to distinguish the truth of Tradition from the “doctrina arcana” of the Gnostics.


 Saint Basil also taught that the Church should made a distinction between “dogma” and “kerigma”. “Dogma” was understood as the body of doctrines proclaimed by the Church as being true, whereas the “Kerigma” was understood as the open proclamation of the doctrinal and canonical truth by preaching and public prayers. Saint Basil exposes in writing the secret of some traditions and at the same time wisely transforming them from inside for the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church (sign of the cross, baptismal rites, blessing of oil, Eucharistic epiclesis…).  Saint Basil considered that the “unwritten customs” or “mysteries of the Church” are very necessary for the understanding of the truth of the living Word. This “gnosis of God” is adopted into the body of Tradition so that the horizontal traditions given by the Lord and transmitted by the apostles meet with the Tradition itself (by the communication and communion of the Holy Spirit). At the deepest level there is a distinction between them although also it is not possible to separate them. To give a clearer picture of this demonstration one can say, for example, that the “Incarnation”, the icons as well the Scripture are expressions of the same inexpressible truth.


However, the new question which arises is finally where it is the bottom line which is detaching the Tradition by something which comes in the name of Tradition but in fact might be a pure innovation of man. The solution according to Saint Ignatius of Antioch is that Tradition is silence: “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even in silence.”  Or in the words of Jesus Himself “He who has ear, let him hear.” (Eph. 15:2). Outside the Spirit of Truth cannot be truth because nobody can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3). Therefore, the Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church. It is independent from the philosophies and all that lives “according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” (Col. 2:8)


Being free from every condition of nature or history the Christian person “will know the Truth” and the truth will make him/she “free” (John 8:32), for “where the spirit of Lord is, there is freedom.” (II Cor. 3:17) Then, only the children of Light, not of darkness, will be indeed free to worship the Father “in Spirit and Truth” (John 4:23-24). Therefore the Tradition must be detached from all “projections” on the worldly plans, from all human traditions, which many time, instead to reveal the Truth they cover it with a “mysterious” veil.


The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, who is present everywhere, is the ultimate preserver of Tradition. By the infusion of His power and wisdom through grace the Holy Spirit enables the Church to distinguish and separate what it is true from what is false, what is wheat from what is chaff. The spirit of discerning the truth apply for both the oral and written traditions. According to Filaret of Moscow the true and holy tradition “does not consist uniquely in visible and verbal transmission of teaching, rules, institutions and rites: it is at the same time an invisible and actual communication of grace and of sanctification.” (Quoted by Fr. George Florovsky, “The Ways of Russian Theology”). Because the Church alone has the Tradition, she is the only one able to discern and recognize what it is “sacred” from what is “profane” due to the knowledge in the Holy Spirit of the Incarnate Word. But this does not mean that the Tradition is a mindless way of thinking and living the truth, totally outside of the minds of individuals. On the contrary, the Tradition has the gift and the capacity of judging in the Light of the Holy Spirit. This is why the struggle for Truth is incessant and Tradition is not inertia or a petrified doctrine but rather consists in the process of elimination in time of everything which has been used by the Church by the force of habit. For not only the heretics are innovators but also those who dare to cling on a “dead bodies” of traditions in the name of Truth, though many times because of ignorance or the sentimental attachment to the ways inherited from the past.


In Tradition there is a continual and dynamic action of the Holy Spirit who is purifying always and anew “the words of the Lord…words that are pure, silver refined in furnace on the ground, purified seven times.” (Psalm 12:6) Therefore it is the Church where the Word is the Living Word and where Tradition is living Tradition. In this act of discernment of the living truth the Tradition separates itself from the “godless and silly myths” (I Tim. 4:7) which are many times piously exalted for the wrong reasons and as a way of circumventing the truth. For this reason, the Church should be at all times vigilant and discerning the truth from the false teachings which can be introduced in the doctrine of the Church in the name of Truth: “We are not ignorant” wrote Origen “that many of these secret writings have been composed by impious man, from among those who make their inequity sound loudest, and that some of these fictions are used by Hypythiani, others by the disciples of Basilides. We must therefore pay attention in order not to receive all apocrypha which circulate under the names of saints, for some have been composed by the opponents, perhaps to destroy the truth of our Scripture and to establish false teachings. But on the other hand we must not reject as a whole all that is useful for throwing light on our Scripture. It is a mark of greatness of Spirit to hear and to apply these words of the Scripture “test everything; hold fast what is good.” (I Tess. 5:21) Origen, Commentary on Matthew 28.


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