“More important is the fact that the content of tradition is nothing other than that which is also preserved in a written form, as Scripture — they are not two different sources. Tradition is not the accumulation of various customs, nor does it provide us with access to knowledge necessary for salvation that is not also contained in Scripture. It is the Gnostics, according to Irenaeus, who appeal to tradition for teachings not contained in Scripture.
“The community founded upon the apostolic Gospel, the Church, is also the community which has recognized certain writings as apostolic and as authoritative Scripture (and will eventually speak of a canon of Scripture). As there were many writings laying claim to apostolic status, the claim to apostolicity, however, was not itself enough to justify the recognition of a particular writing as Scripture. What was essential was the conformity of the writing to the apostolic Gospel which founded the Church, which has been preserved intact, and which had since come to be phrased in terms of a rule/canon of truth/faith. This also means that the apostolic writings are accepted as Scripture within a community that lays claim to the correct interpretation of these writings. Tradition is, as Florovsky put it commenting on Irenaeus, Scripture rightly understood. In Irenaeus’ vivid image, those who interpret Scripture in a manner which does not conform to the rule of truth are like those who, seeing a beautiful mosaic of a king, dismantle the stones and reassemble them to form the picture of a dog, claiming that this was the original intention of the writer (Against the Heresies, 1.8).
“It is not that what is claimed to be the picture of a king can be arbitrarily imposed upon Scripture — Scripture is fixed — it is “the ground and pillar of our faith,” as Irenaeus puts it, modifying Paul’s words, about the Church, to Timothy (1 Tim 3:15; although as Bart Ehrman has noted, parts of the text were modified during the course of the second century to produce a more ‘orthodox’ text). Scripture is that to which one must continually return, to be sure of the ground on which we stand.
“If tradition is essentially the right interpretation of Scripture, then it cannot change — and this means, it can neither grow nor develop. A tradition with a potential for growth ultimately undermines the Gospel itself — it leaves open the possibility for further revelation, and therefore the Gospel would no longer be sure and certain. If our faith is one and the same as that of the apostles, then, as Irenaeus claimed, it is equally immune from improvement by articulate or speculative thinkers as well as from diminution by inarticulate believers (Against the Heresies, 1.10.2). We must take seriously the famous saying of St. Vincent of Lerins: “We must hold what has been believed everywhere, always and by all” (Commonitorium, 2).
“From an Orthodox perspective, there simply is, therefore, no such thing as dogmatic development. What there is, of course, is ever new, more detailed and comprehensive explanations elaborated in defense of one and the same faith — responding, each time, to a particular context, a particular controversy etc. But it is one and the same faith that has been believed from the beginning — the continuity of the correct interpretation of Scripture. And for this reason, the Councils, as Fr. John Meyendorff pointed out, never formally endorsed any aspect of theology as dogma which is not a direct (and correct) interpretation of the history of God described in Scripture: only those aspects were defined as dogma which pertain directly to the Gospel. So, for instance, the only aspect pertaining to the Virgin Mary that was ever recognized as dogma is that she is Theotokos — “Mother of God” — for she gave birth to our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ — it is something which pertains to the Incarnation, rather than to Mary herself. Whilst individual theologians have speculated about other aspects concerning the Virgin herself, and her glorification, items not directly pertaining to the Gospel of Christ’s work of salvation, such as the Assumption and the Immaculate conception, have never been held to have the status of dogma in the Orthodox Church. ”
—Father John Behr
A Talk given at the University of North Carolina / March 23, 1998