St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox SoborSt. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Sobor
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Webmaster's note: These are teachings which I gave to a Protestant Church in which I was Pastoring. They were prepared prior to my becoming Orthodox.

Faith of our Fathers: Rediscovering the Faith and Practice of the Early Church
Lesson 3: Tradition and Scripture

I think that the most troublesome part of Tradition for most of us is the relationship of Tradition to Scripture. Most of us tend to put Scripture above the Church, as if the Church was made for the Bible. But in reality, the Bible was made for the Church. To the question, which came first, the Bible or the Church? The answer is the Church. Jesus established His Church, and then used certain people within that Church to write Gospels and letters. The Church later took these Gospels and letters and compiled them into one book which we call the Bible. But that didn't happen until about 400 years AFTER the Church was already established.

In fact, as was already mentioned, the Church Fathers taught many teachings that are not clearly spelled out in the Bible. But they didn't teach them as their personal opinion, saying we could take it our leave it. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they met in Councils to determine what the correct Faith of the Church was supposed to be. Under the teachings of the Fathers, certain doctrines began to take shape that are only implied in the Bible (e.g. the Trinity). Specific forms of worship and practice also began to develop, like the rituals and the ceremonies of Baptism and the Eucharist. Now, the Bible says some things about these, but it never gives a clear picture of every detail surrounding these activities. And so, it's through the writings of the Fathers that the gaps are filled in as to what the Early Church believed and practiced.

The Fathers, however, always spoke of their teachings as having "Apostolic" origin. And some people have a problem with these teachings because they don't see them clearly spelled out in the Bible. Someone once said that it might be helpful to think of these so-called "additions" to the Bible as things that might be omitted from a biography. A biography does not completely tell every detail about the life of its subject. We could never say that because such and such a detail is not in a person's biography, therefore, it did not happen, and it's not true. We would recognize that there are many things that can only be learned about a person's life by talking to those who knew that person.

For example, if you really wanted to know about the life of Billy Graham, you wouldn't just read a couple of biographies. You would go to his home town where he grew up - talk with the people who knew him - make an appointment with his son, Franklin Graham. And I'll guarantee you that you'll learn more about Billy Graham than could ever be contained in a few biographies.

It's the same thing with the Scriptures. There is no way that every detail of the Faith could be contained in one little book. There is no way that all the teachings that Jesus gave could ever be contained in the Bible alone. There had to be many things left out.

  • Read John 20:30,31; 21:24,25; Acts 1:3 ("speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.")
  • Example is found in Acts 20:35
  • Acts 20:31
  • II John 12
  • I Cor. 11:34

So, if Jesus had many other things for us to learn, and they weren't all recorded in the Bible, where do we turn to, to find out what those teachings are? We turn to those who were the students and disciples of the Apostles themselves.

  • Read II Thess. 2:15; 3:6; II Tim. 2:2 (safeguard: "many witnesses"); I Tim 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:14
Concept Known As Apostolic Succession

Let's make it practical.

For a few moments. let's place ourselves in the place of the early Christians. Suppose you're alive in the time of Jesus, how could you tell if a certain message by someone was really part of the Church's teaching?

Ask Jesus.

Now he's gone back to heaven. How can you know what is the truth?

Ask the Apostles.

Now they're gone. What now?

Ask those who were taught by the Apostles, and whom the Apostles appointed to become the Bishops and Priests in the Church after them.

Now they're gone. Who do we ask now?

Ask those who continued to succeed the Apostles as Bishops and Priests of the Church. Do this for the next 400 years. Then the Bible as we know it is given to us - at least some of the writings of the Apostles. We don't have all of them. Ie. Another letter to Corinthians is missing; possible letter to Laodicea not included; many other writings of Apostles not in existence today.

That's what Apostolic Succession is all about - passing on the pure Faith to the next generation of Church leaders. And each leader can trace their lineage directly back to one of the Apostles, or to one of the Apostolic men (men who were associates of the Apostles).

One of these Apostolic men was a Bishop by the name of Clement.

  • Clement (30-100) - Phil 4:3
  • Disciple of Paul, later became Bishop of Rome

"The Message was delivered orally by our Lord to the Apostles and was handed on orally by them to their successors." (I Clement xlii)

"Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier... . Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned, and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry." (Letter to the Corinthians 42:4-5, 44:1-3 [A.D. 80]).

Apostolic Succession was used in the Church as a major safeguard against false teachings and heresies coming into the Church. The Christians had no doubts about how to determine which Church was the true Church, and which teachings were the true teachings of Christ.

The test was simple: Just trace the apostolic succession of the teachers.

  • J.N.D. Kelly, an Early Church Historian, writes:
    "[W]here in practice was [the] apostolic testimony or tradition to be found? . . . The most obvious answer was that the apostles had committed it orally to the Church, where it had been handed down from generation to generation... . Unlike the alleged secret tradition of the Gnostics, it was entirely public and open, having been entrusted by the apostles to their successors, and by these in turn to those who followed them, and was visible in the Church for all who cared to look for it" (EarlyChristian Doctrines, 37).
  • Irenaeus of Lyons
    "It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to look at the Tradition of the Apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to count those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about" (Against Heresies 3:3:1 [A.D. 189]).
  • Irenaeus of Lyons
    "Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time" (ibid., 3:3:4).
  • Irenaeus of Lyons
    "For although the languages of the world are different, yet the ... tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul [France], nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world….Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be [as a speaker], teach doctrines different from these..."
  • Tertullian (Greatest Theologian of Second Century)
    "But if there be any [heresies] which are bold enough to plant [their origins] in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [their first] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men - a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter" (ibid., 32).

So, it was through the means of Apostolic Succession that the Oral Tradition, or Holy Tradition, came to be handed down from Church to Church, and from Bishop to Bishop. In this way, it was guaranteed that the Faith that was being taught in the year 800, was identical to the Faith being taught in the year 100, and even earlier by the Apostles.

Saint Basil, writing around the year 350, spoke of these unwritten teachings that were handed down by Apostolic Succession as the "unwritten mysteries of the Church," all of which were being taught and believed by the whole Church (not just part of the Church) - and these unwritten teachings were understood to have great authority and were considered absolutely necessary for the preservation of the Christian Faith.

  • St. Basil
    "Of the teachings and proclamations preserved in the Church, some we possess from written teaching, while others we have received in secret from the Tradition of the Apostles; these both have the same validity [ie. authority] for true religion. And no one will deny these points, at least if he is even moderately experienced in Church [matters]." (Concerning the Holy Spirit 27; PG 32:188A).
  • St. Basil
    "Some things we have from written teaching, others we have received from the Apostolic Tradition handed down to us in a mystery; and both these things have the same force for piety."
  • Augustine
    "As to those other things which we hold on the authority, not of Scripture, but of tradition, and which are observed throughout the whole world, it may be understood that they are held as approved and instituted either by the apostles themselves, or by [Ecumenical] Councils, whose authority in the Church is most beneficial."
  • St. John Chrysostom
    "They (namely the Apostles) have not handed down everything in writing, but have also delivered many things in unwritten form. The former and the latter are equally trustworthy, and so we also consider the [unwritten] Tradition of the Church to be trustworthy. Is it Tradition? Seek no further" (On 2 Thessalonians, Homily 4; PG 62:488).
  • Archbishop Paul of Finland, The Faith We Hold:
    Moreover, when we take into account how few "books," or manuscripts, there were in those days, and the fact that besides the genuine writings there were other gospels and texts written under the names of the Apostles, it is easy to understand how important the living Tradition of the Church was in safeguarding the true Christian faith. The prime importance of Tradition is plainly shown by the fact that it was not until the fifth century that the Church established conclusively which books in circulation should be regarded as genuinely inspired by God's revelation. Thus the Church itself determined the composition of the Bible.

All of the writings of the New Testament were written by the year 100. But because most of the New Testament is nothing more than letters to certain Churches, not every Church had a copy of all of the letters and Gospels. One Church would have some of the writings, and another Church would have some other ones. One would have a copy of the Gospel of St. Mark, and another would have a copy of Paul's letter to the Ephesians. And whenever possible, each Church would have their letters (or epistles) copied out by hand and sent to other Churches so that they might benefit from the letter as well.

Along with these Apostolic writings, there were many other writings being written and sent around to some of the Churches. Some of these other writings were written by the men who later came to be known as Church Fathers - but other writings would be written by those who were seeking to destroy the Faith by introducing false teachings and heresies into the Church. Very often, these heretical writings would carry the name of an Apostle, as if the Apostle had written it - (ie: "Gospel of Peter," or "Gospel of Thomas") and they would tend to bring some confusion to certain people about what was to be believed, and what was to be considered heresy. With so many letters, and Gospels, being sent around to the Churches, how was anyone supposed to know what to believe?

And so, because of all the false teachings and writings going around, the Church Fathers decided to put together, into one book, some of the writings of the Apostles that was in the Church's possession. And since so many books were being circulated which had an Apostle's name attached to it, the Church needed a standard, a guideline, to help them determine which ones were authentic, and which were fake.

This was one of their main guidelines: If a certain writing, which claimed to have been written by an Apostle, could be verified to have existed in the earliest years of the Church, and if that Gospel, or epistle, taught the same Faith and practices that the Fathers themselves believed and taught, then it was accepted as genuine. But if that epistle or Gospel taught anything different from what the Church Fathers were teaching, or from what Oral Tradition had passed on to them, then that book was rejected. In other words, the books of the Bible were accepted as authentic based upon whether or not they agreed with what the Church Fathers were teaching and practicing. If a certain letter lined up with the Tradition of the Church, then it was included in the Bible.

And since it was the Church that defined the content of the Bible, then it's also to the Church that we must turn for the interpretation of the Bible. If there are, for example, five different denominations giving five different interpretations on the Scriptures that talk about water baptism, then we must go back to the Early Church Fathers and read what the Church as a whole taught about those Scriptures. They were the ones who gave us that Scripture on water baptism, so they are the ones we must listen to in order to find out what that Scripture means. And that's how we determine what is part of the Faith, and what is not.

Now, this doesn't mean that we can't read the Bible for ourselves and hear God speak to us from that reading. But on the other hand, "private interpretation" is never the basis for our authority.

  • Read II Peter 1:20 (not NIV - bad translation in this verse)
  • We've got all kinds of cults and heresies going around (Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses) each claiming that their teachings can be proven from the Bible.
  • So how do we know they're wrong? By checking to see how the Church has always interpreted those Scriptures. What did the Fathers say about those particular teachings? Is what they're teaching in keeping with the Holy Tradition of the Church (meaning both the Bible plus all the other teachings and practices of the Church that have been handed down to us)?

The judgment of Scriptural interpretation must never be a merely private judgment, but must be a judgment in harmony with the mind of the Church as expressed in Holy Tradition.

To sum up:

It is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority, for it was the Church which originally decided which books form a part of Holy Scripture; and it is the Church alone which can interpret Holy Scripture with authority.

This goes against the grain of many people today. Too many people have become too individualistic, thinking that they can give any interpretation they want to the Scriptures. That's why we often hear people say, "I can believe anything I want," or "Nobody tells me what to believe except the Holy Spirit." We hear those phrases again and again. We freely re-interpret Christ's teachings according to our personal tastes, guided only by our personal liking.

"It is supremely arrogant to suppose that we, some two thousand years later, have a better idea of God's plan for Church order than did the actual hearers of the Apostles and the second generation of Christian bishops, many of whom were martyred for their faith."(Frank Schaeffer)

Everything we have said thus far has to do with defining Tradition and seeing its role in the Church. But we can't stop with that. The critical issue facing us now is not what tradition means but what Tradition says. Once we begin developing an appreciation for Tradition, and once we understand the great role that Holy Tradition played in the Early Church, then we have to find out what the teachings of Holy Tradition are. And that's what we'll be doing for the remainder of the is course.

Webmaster's Note: Due to a variety of reasons, this course was not continued.

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St John Chrysostom
Words of Wisdom
To love Christ -means not to be a hireling, not to look upon a noble life as an enterprise or trade, but to be a true benefactor and to do everything only for the sake of love for God.
- St John Chrysostom