Orthodox Tradition: Is the Orthodox Tradition Apostolic?

Article ID: DE177 | By: Paul Negrut
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The following is an excerpt of article DE177 from the Christian Research Journal. The full article can be downloaded by clicking the link below the excerpt.


Like evangelical Protestants, the Orthodox believe all theological knowledge is based upon God’s self-revelation. The Orthodox, however, argue that this revelation is conveyed to the world not only through Scripture but also through Apostolic Tradition; that is, Christ entrusted the divine revelation to the apostles, and they entrusted it to the church, which became the custodian and the interpreter of revelation. This heritage, or Deposit of Faith, is not to be understood as a set of normative doctrines but as a new reality or new life made available to the world by the incarnation of the Word and through the operation of the Holy Spirit.11

Generally speaking, the Orthodox hierarchy affirms that the Orthodox churches have kept the Deposit of Faith undistorted, just as the apostolic church received it.12 Under the influence of modern scholarship, however, a growing number of Orthodox theologians affirm that the Apostolic Tradition underwent transformations in the process of transmission and interpretation that resulted in the formation of a distinct ecclesiastical (church) tradition. Although these two traditions are not mutually exclusive, the Greek Orthodox theologian C.Konstantinidis, who is very active within the ecumenical movement, asserts that the “Apostolic Tradition is also ecclesial, but the ecclesiastical is large enough to contain some other forms of tradition, which are forms of tradition in the Church, but not directly apostolic.”13 This raises questions about the distinction between the two forms of tradition: Apostolic and ecclesiastical.

While all Orthodox scholars agree on the concept of the Apostolic Tradition, they disagree concerning both the mode of transmission and the content of what has been handed down. Generally speaking, there are two theories that attempt to explain this process: first, the “two-source” theory, which has been dominant in the Orthodox world since the Middle Ages; and second, the “one-source” theory, which is widely accepted among Orthodox scholars who participate in the ecumenical dialogue.

The “Two-Source” Approach

The Roman Catholic church at the Council of Trent (1546-1563) declared that “both saving truth and moral discipline” are “contained in the written books and the unwritten traditions, and it belongs to holy mother church…to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures.”14 This declaration strongly influenced the two-source approach.

Similarly, the Orthodox claim that the content of revelation has been transmitted in the Scriptures and the Holy Tradition. The 1962 Almanac of the Greek Archdiocese of North and South America states, “Eternal truths are expressed in the Holy Scripture and the Sacred Tradition, both of which are equal and are represented pure and unadulterated by the true Church established by Christ to continue His mission: man’s salvation.”15 Advocates of this view argue that the church received revelation in the form of oral tradition, which was prior to Scripture and from which the content of the New Testament was compiled. Since the New Testament does not contain the whole revelation, the church has guarded the Deposit of Faith both in the written and unwritten tradition of the Word of God. The last of the inspired apostles completed the written tradition that formed the canon of the New Testament. Meanwhile, the unwritten tradition has been preserved in the church “first orally and then in the form of the literary monuments, as the great Tradition of the Church.”16 Konstantinidis continues, “Only in a perspective such as this can one understand why we, Orthodox, consider Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition as two sources of revelation of equal weight and authority, as two equivalent sources of dogma and of supernatural faith.”17

In other words, neither Scripture nor Tradition independently contain all the facts of revelation or the key for accurate interpretation of those facts. Archbishop Michael of the Greek Archdiocese of North and South America asserts: “There exists in Tradition elements which, although not mentioned in the New Testament as they are in the Church today, are indispensable to the salvation of our souls.”18 This approach claims that there is no conflict between these two sources. Indeed, they are viewed as complementary because both are legitimate expressions of the source of ultimate authority — that is, the self-disclosure of God. Yet Konstantinidis distinguishes between the Holy Tradition, which concerns the faith and has the same authority as Scripture, and the ecclesiastical tradition, which is changeable and has only relative authority. Such a distinction requires further clarification concerning the origin, content, and theological use of the ecclesiastical tradition.

The “One-Source” Approach

Other Orthodox theologians repudiate the two-source view on the grounds that it introduces an unnecessary dichotomy. The 1976 Moscow Agreed Statement (between Anglicans and Orthodox) says, “Any disjunction between Scripture and Tradition such as would treat them as two separate ‘sources of revelation’ must be rejected. The two are correlative…Holy Tradition completes Holy Scripture….By the term Holy Tradition we understand the entire life of the Church in the Holy Spirit.”19

According to this view, Holy Scripture is simply part of the Holy Tradition. Nevertheless, this approach calls for clarification concerning the relationship between Tradition and Scripture. Orthodox scholar Timothy Ware (who at his ordination as an Orthodox priest in 1966 received the name Kallistos Ware), for instance, argues that the church must decide this issue because Scripture is not an authority set up over the church, but lives and is understood within the church. “Scripture owes its authority to the Church. It is the Church likewise that alone constitutes the authoritative interpretation of the Bible…the decisive criterion for our understanding of Scripture is the mind of the Church.”20

Yet, as Orthodox theologian E.Clapsis asserts, even when Orthodox scholars agree that the church is the only agency to give authentic interpretation to Scripture, disagreements continue concerning the how of this interpretation.21 Despite such disagreements, all Orthodox scholars believe the church has absolute authority to interpret and teach God’s revelation. The teaching organ of the church is the episcopate (bishops) individually and in councils. Their teaching is authoritative because it is grounded in the infallibility of the church.22

If the Orthodox church is infallible, the teachings of its churches must necessarily be consistent and coherent. To determine whether this is the case we need to investigate the content of Tradition.

The Content of Tradition

Orthodox scholars do not always speak the same language when they refer to the content of Tradition. This is true not only between adherents of the one-source and two-source approach but also among those who belong to the same trend.

Konstantinidis and Archbishop Michael, for example, belong to the two-source trend, and yet disagree concerning the content of Tradition. Konstantinidis affirms that Tradition includes: (1)the valid and authentic interpretation of Scripture in the church; (2)official formulations and confessions of faith; (3)the formulations, definitions, and creeds of the Ecumenical Councils; (4)the larger accords of the teachings of the Fathers and ecclesiastical authors (Consensus Patrum); and (5)the forms, acts, and institutions and liturgies of the early church. Everything else can be ecclesiastical tradition, but “not the Holy Tradition of dogma and saving faith.”23 Except for the definitions of the Ecumenical Councils, however, the Eastern Orthodox church has never formally accepted the points in Konstantinidis’s diagram. Moreover, after the Council of Chalcedon (451), the non-Byzantine Eastern churches did not participate in the councils considered ecumenical by the Byzantine Orthodox.

Alternatively, Archbishop Michael affirms that the oral tradition was handed on “from generation to generation until it was embodied and codified in the works of the major Fathers of the Church and in the resolutions of the seven Ecumenical and the ten local synods of the Church.”24 Since Archbishop Michael indicates neither who are the major Fathers nor which are the ten local councils, it is again impossible to distinguish between the Apostolic and ecclesiastical traditions. In the absence of such clarification, the church runs the risk of placing the canonical Scriptures on the same footing with a supplementary body of teachings and practices and of ascribing apostolic authority to certain teachings and practices that could well have merely ecclesiastical origin.25

Similar disagreements exist among those who follow the one-source theory. Ware asserts that Tradition includes: (1)the Bible, (2)the Seven Ecumenical Councils and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, (3)local councils, (4)the Fathers, (5)the liturgy, (6)canon law (officially established church rules governing faith and practice), and (7)icons.26 In order to avoid conflicting authorities within Tradition, he proposes a “hierarchy” of Tradition within the church. The contemporary church is the final authority in interpreting the Scriptures, the later councils, and the Fathers, while the definitions of the Ecumenical Councils are taken as irrevocable.27 He considers the liturgy and icons beyond any question, while canon law is subject to change by the contemporary church.28

Alternatively, other adherents of the one-source approach argue, “By the term Holy Tradition we understand the entire life of the Church in the Holy Spirit. This tradition expresses itself in dogmatic teachings, in liturgical worship, in canonical discipline, and in spiritual life.”29

Clapsis notes, “The Orthodox Church has only a small number of dogmatic definitions, forming the profession of faith obligatory for all its members. Strictly speaking, this minimum consists of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which is read during baptismal service and the liturgy, and the definitions of the seven ecumenical councils.”30 Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff, however, adopts a less concise approach: “The Orthodox, when asked positively about the sources of their faith, answer in such concepts as the whole of Scripture, seen in the light of the tradition of the ancient Councils, the Fathers, and the faith of the entire people of God, expressed particularly in the liturgy. This appears to the outsiders as nebulous, perhaps romantic or mystical, and in any case inefficient and unrealistic.”31

As we’ve seen, despite this bewildering variety of views, Orthodox scholars agree that certain teachings and practices are not apostolic. Ware asserts, “Not everything received from the past is of equal value, nor is everything received from the past necessarily true. As one of the bishops remarked at the Council of Carthage in 257 ‘The Lord said, I am the truth. He did not say, I am the custom.’”32

Rather than sorting through its heritage, the Orthodox church has preferred to hide behind the claim that the Holy Spirit guards it from errors. Hence, they fail to argue their claims effectively, whether historically or theologically. Moreover, Orthodox theologians avoid systematic formulation of their teachings, choosing instead a different approach to theology than that of Western Christianity.