Orthodox Tradition Yesterday and Today

Rev John H Erickson, Dean

As a glance at the dictionary suggests, the word "tradition" can mean many things. It can mean, for example, "an inherited or established way of thinking, feeling, or doing." Put more simply, it can mean doing what we've always done - or doing what we think we've always done, doing what we've gotten used to doing. Practically every family has its own special traditions, particularly at holiday times. So do parishes, so do many towns and cities, so do social groups of every description. This is perfectly natural, especially in our rapidly changing world. In our modern society we have come to expect change, like it or not, just as men and women living in the static traditional societies of the past expected no change. And in the face of change, we value anything that will give us a sense of permanence, of stability, of belonging. We like doing what we've always done. We like tradition.

Tradition thus understood no doubt fills an important human need. It may make life more comfortable. But it is far from that "tradition of truth" which the Fathers of the Church speak of so eloquently. Tradition rightly understood does look backward, to the past, but it is not simply a collection of inherited customs and folkways, comforting reminders of simpler days. We Orthodox Christians may value the many traditions we have inherited from our forefathers, but our ultimate point of reference must be the apostolic Tradition, the faith handed down (literally "traditioned") from the apostles. This means, first of all, faith in Jesus Christ. We believe that Jesus Christ is God's "last word" to humankind, that in Himself he revealed the mystery of God's plan of salvation by showing in His death and resurrection the ultimate authority, the full power, of the one whom He called Father. And we also believe that we access to this one God and Father through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit - that Holy Spirit of God who fashions us as anointed ones, as sanctified ones, even as Jesus is the anointed one, the Holy One of God.

Tradition, then, looks to the past, to the apostolic witness. At the same time, enlivened by the Spirit, Tradition looks to the future. It has an eschatological dimension. It looks forward to the ultimate fulfillment of God's plan of salvation, when Christ "will deliver the Kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power" (I Corinthians 15:24). Tradition therefore is not simply a matter of repeating time-honored words and formulas, of doing what we've always done. As Fr Georges Florovsky observes, "Tradition is not only a protective, conservative principle; it is the principle of growth and regeneration.... Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit and not only the memory of words." Fidelity to Tradition requires not just preservation of the faith but also, by the power of the Holy Spirit, its full appropriation. We ourselves must be transformed by the faith, for only in this way will we be able to "tradition" it to others convincingly and effectively. We must "contend for the faith which was once for all delivered (literally "traditioned") to the saints" (Jude 3) not only by words but also by saintly example.

Tradition is revealed as a "principle of growth and regeneration," first of all, in baptism. We today tend to lose sight of the full significance of baptism, but for early Christians it marked the decisive moment in their lives. Baptism was not a single event but rather an entire process of conversion. It began with enrollment in the catechumenate and extended through an extended period of instruction in the truths of the Christian faith and in the practice of Christian living. It included exorcism and the renunciation of false gods, making it a total reorientation of life and values. It included the traditio or "handing over" of the creed to the one who was going to be baptized; and this was followed, at the baptismal pool itself, with the redditio or "giving back" of the creed, when the one being baptized was able to say "I believe...," making this apostolic faith his own.

For us today, appropriation of the apostolic faith begins in baptism, but for us - just as for early Christians - it must be sustained and nourished within a context of communion, in a sustained sacramental fellowship. We must keep this in mind in our parish educational programs. If Tradition is truly to be a "principle of growth and regeneration" in our church life, our programs must aim at the spiritual renewal of the entire human person. They must involve training not only in the truths of the Christian faith but also in the practice of Christian living. We must demonstrate that the "Tradition of truth" of which the Fathers speak is also the Tradition of life.

The integration of truth and life, of instruction and practice, is also is what we aim for in our educational programs at St Vladimir's Seminary. Academic courses in Scripture, dogmatic theology and other disciplines are complemented by field education opportunities in hospital ministry and other forms of selfless service to others. We know that, if pursued in isolation, academic studies can become sterile, lacking in persuasive power. We also know that, if pursued in isolation, selfless service can become selfish service - egocentric self-promotion and self-righteous display. Study and service need to be integrated, becoming a seamless whole. But this can happen only if study and service are grounded in the Church's life of prayer and pursued within the context of communion. At St Vladimir's, regular corporate worship in the chapel is at the very center of seminary life. By praying and worshiping together, we are reminded each day that all our studies, all our service activities, have but one goal: the building up of the body of Christ. This is the true measure of our fidelity to Tradition.