How to see Tradition

There are variations in how people view Tradition. This post will briefly consider what may be two major views, although undoubtedly there are a number more and a range of nuances.

The first suggested view is that Tradition is some form of living thing that grows and develops over time and place such that how Tradition is manifest at the present time and place is how Tradition should be manifest. This means that the Tradition as presently practiced by churches in Greece is the Tradition of the Orthodox Church as it should be and this also applies in Russia, Serbia and all nations with an established Orthodox Church. While the Roman Catholic church, which sees Tradition somewhat in this manner, has centralised control over this, at least in theory, the Orthodox Churches do not have such centralised control and so Tradition becomes varied from place to place, as it has from time to time. Each variation in each place/time is seen as legitimate Tradition, even if it may be contrary to the Tradition held elsewhere because it is a continuation of that living Tradition foundered by the Apostles. An aspect of this view is that past expressions of the Tradition are no longer legitimate expressions of Tradition because they are not the expression of Tradition now. To revive such expressions becomes an innovation because they are not part of the living Tradition which only encompasses those practices/believes held now and there. This is also true of regional variations. A legitimate practice in one region is not necessarily legitimate in another because it is not the Tradition as it is in that region. The only question to legitimacy of this type of Tradition is whether one can remain in communion with other Orthodox regions. Mission is passing on the particular Tradition of the missionary in its full local form. This is because there is no means to distinguish a Church Tradition from a local custom; the two are almost synonymous. Authority, in this view, resides in the decisions of a recognised hierarchy, or the whole people, in itself. The authority is not constrained by the past, if though informed by it.

The other suggested view is that Tradition is a fixed set of teachings and practices that are passed on from generation to generation without change. This Tradition is the same in every time and place and variation from this Tradition due to time and place is not legitimate. The test for legitimacy is that of St Vincent:

This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.

This view requires continuance of the Tradition to continue to be orthodox; churches retain vigilance with each other and challenge the legitimacy of change and break communion should the change be considered a breach of Tradition because the one changing is effectively denying the unity of faith. While regions can leave orthodox Tradition, they can also repent and return to orthodox Tradition. This view does not reject variation in practices unless they are contrary to the fixed practices of Tradition. Thus, a legitimate practice in the past remains legitimate at any time, excepting pastoral reasons otherwise. Legitimate ancient practices can be revived and given life again because they are expressions of the Tradition, which lives above any particular local continuance of the Tradition. Missionaries pass on the fixed Tradition, which can be distinguished from local customs, and can permit local variation in expression among those receiving the Tradition. Authority, in this view, must always be exercised in conformity with the past. Since nothing new is added, authority is always exercised in faithfulness to the past and it can be tested and judged by such.

Both views can overlap and so one with the first view can recognise a continuity with the past and one with the second view can see temporal and spacial variation.


8 Responses to How to see Tradition

  1. Orthodox Christianity says:

    The greatest danger this approach seems to avoid is the conflation of form and syncretism.

  2. Tradition for Christians is that which, if we abandon it, we cease to be Christians. The whole of the Tradition circles around the belief that Jesus is the Christ who came into the world to save repentant sinners.

  3. Fr Maximus,

    I also appreciate diversity. While I think that we should uniformly follow the practices of Tradition closely, these practices can be expressed legitimately with a considerable degree of diversity and then all local customs should be encouraged to express diversity rather than narrow uniformity.

  4. Fr. Maximus says:

    Fr. Patrick,

    This is logical, because to a great extent theology is the use of verbal symbols. I think that within the range of permitted expressions there are some forms of expression which are superior and some which may be inferior. The Church may tolerate the inferior for a while, but if the inferior form of expression (whether verbal or physical) begins to create a mindset which is antithetical to a proper Orthodox understanding, then the Church may actively campaign against it. For example, the Filioque can be understood in an Orthodox manner a la St. Maximus, but at best it is a confusing terminology, and historically it led to deep heresy. Or on another level, western-style iconography (or the icon of God the Father?…) was used for centuries with no great harm to piety, but the Church realized that it was inferior and hence the modern revival of Byzantine iconography.

    You state that “Due to limits in creation, form cannot be exactly maintained in the same way in all times.” This seems to imply that diversity of practice is basically undesirable. Personally, I enjoy the diversity of ecclesiastical cultures and would not want to see them replaced by total uniformity. I see diversity as a reflection of the multiple energies of God, since the object of a symbol (in the context of the Church) is always a divine energy.

  5. David,

    Yes the distinction is correct. I wrote the post because I believe that some consider big “T” Tradition in the same light as small “t” and consider it on the same terms.

  6. Fr Maximus,

    The post also applies to belief. The main issue about the different views is not that practice varies but how we teach about practice varying. I understand that this teaching on practice is part of the teaching of the faith and belief of the Church, just as the practice of baptism is part of the Creed. The post is relevant to various theology schools, toll-house teaching and particularly the filioque addition.

    The purpose of the post is to address the framework of understanding that underlies approach to both aspects that you mention.

    I agree that Tradition is a form of culture. My understanding of practice that is passed on in Tradition is that it is part of realising Christ incarnate. Because created matter has definable form then practices of Tradition also have definable forms and these need to be preserved as well as any spiritual aspects because the form is part of the reality and identity. Due to limits in creation, form cannot be exactly maintained in the same way in all times, which explains variation and more flexibility in maintaining practices than with expressing tenets of faith.

  7. David Lindblom says:

    From what I’ve read both of your descriptions are true but the first describes what has been called little “t” tradition while the other is the unchangeable big “T” Tradition. Is this correct?

  8. Fr. Maximus says:

    Fr. Patrick,

    You seem to be speaking here of tradition mostly in terms of practice… do you also mean this in terms of belief? For example, the characteristic approaches of the Antiochian vs. the Alexandrian schools of theology, or in modern times something like the toll houses?

    With respect to practice, the tradition of the Church is in many respects a form of culture. What I mean is that it is the symbolization of sacred things through the material world or through human actions. Obviously there has been a lot of variation in the Church in different times and places, but the realities being symbolized are always the same and most of the symbols fall within a limited range, or at least share the same metaphysical principles. Thus, for example, while traditional Chinese painting could serve as the basis for an indigenous form of iconography, modern cubism could not.

    Is the purpose of your post to establish the legitimate boundaries of expression within tradition? or to establish what is the authority which makes such a judgment?

    Fr. Maximus

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