Tradition! Part Two: “By word or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15)

“So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.”- 2 Thessalonians 2:15

“Without counsel, plans go awry, but in the multitude of counselors they are established. “- Proverbs 15:22

As I mentioned in my last post, my wife and I’s journey to Orthodoxy happened in the midst of crisis. (Aside: “crisis” isn’t always a bad thing. The root is the greek word krisis, which denotes “separating, power of distinguishing, decision”. It’s basically a crossroad, a moment when something has to change). Growth can occur in crisis. For us the crisis was not one of faith but of church. Upon further review it was really a crisis of Tradition.

Tradition, as it is used in the scriptures, is the translation of the greek word paradosis, which is the combination of para “to hand over” and dosis (didomi) “from close behind” or “closely alongside”. Tradition is almost more of a verb in how it denotes a clear action that takes place. Tradition is not just something old, nor is it primarily something “codified”. Rather, it is something living, and handed down, from one who is close, close behind, but also alongside.

So if I go back to the heart of our crisis it wasn’t really a lack of “tradition”. There was actually plenty of “traditioning” going on in the faith communities in our circle. I didn’t know then, but I now know that everyone has a tradition, even aggressively “non-traditional” people or communities. There is always a passing along of interpretation of scripture, even of proper worship and moral and ethical standards from one to another. The pastor preaching a sermon is “traditioning” whether he means to or not. Maybe that’s why faith communities would split over what seemed to be small reasons, like personality conflicts. There was a crisis of tradition happening. And even though all claimed to be “bible based” there certainly was no unanimous interpretation or praxis (how you live what you believe). One is left with a sense that either everyone is in this for themselves (‘me and Jesus’) or there is an acceptance that there is such a thing as correct interpretation and praxis. The former is still tradition, it’s just the tradition of individualism, but you still have to buy that interpretation of Christianity in the face of a 2,000 year history of the Church that points to a very different experience. The latter requires one to assume or believe that his or her tradition is trustworthy. But how can one know that? What are the criteria?

A good place to start is actually the Bible. In our journey, the more my wife and I learned and opened up our hearts to the possibility of understanding tradition in a different light, the more we began to see it witnessed to in scripture.

Tradition is something that cannot be divorced from the Christian life in the name of adhering ‘only to scripture’. To do so would be to ignore the example of scripture itself. In the Old Testament there is a constant hearkening to “the God of our Fathers.” When God appears to Moses on Mount Sinai, He first introduces Himself as “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). God does not give Moses an individual experience (even though Moses is the only one on the mountain). It’s not up for individual interpretation. God invited him into Tradition, the handing over from close behind, which is really an invitation to relationship. By hearkening to the experience of the Living God with those who had come before, He was inviting Moses into they Mystery of God’s plan of salvation, of God’s relationship with His creation, which is a “together” experience. Then, he tells Moses to go do some “Traditioning” and share his experience with the people.

When Jesus is pressed on the question of the resurrection of the dead, He repeats what was told to Moses and then, after invoking the names of the Patriarchs, adds “He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:32). The account tells us that the crowd was astonished! Why? Jesus, the Son and Word of God, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets shows the fulfillment of Tradition. He is saying that the stories of your forefathers and mothers, their experience, what they handed down is not just history, and is by no means “dead”. Rather, in Him, in Christ, they are still alive! Furthermore, the wall of separation between the past and the present is being torn down in Him, in His Person, in what He will accomplish in His death and Resurrection!

And this Traditioning doesn’t end when Jesus ascends. When Jesus sent the Apostles, the first ones to take the Good News into the world, He did not send them on their way with Bibles or a prayer to have people recite. To quote Abbot Tryphon: “Never did Jesus say, ‘take, read, this is my book’“. No, Jesus sent them to preach, to heal, to expel unclean spirits, to baptize and make disciples, to forgive sins, to give communion, to be Church,teaching them to obey everything (Jesus) commanded them.” In short, He sent them to Tradition. He sent them to pass along what they had seen and experienced, and to come alongside others as they did it. We get a great picture into this all throughout Acts, but beautifully with the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian who asks Philip, concerning understanding the prophecy of Isaiah which he was reading “how can I understand if I have no one to guide me.”

How can we understand, interpret, or know how to practice our faith without Tradition?

I’ll leave off with that question this time. In the next part I’ll do my best to explain why, for us, this search for one to guide us led us to learning more about the one’s who learned from the first Apostles, which, by the way, are actually available to read. I say that because this was something I didn’t know until I started looking into Orthodoxy. What do the ones who were “Traditioned” by the first Apostles do and practice, and what does that tell us about what the Church is? I’ll also get back to our story, and an early encounter with a priest who gave us some very shocking advice.

NEXT UP: Tradition! Part Three: “She will ask your life of you”