Orthodox America

Sacred Tradition - Part II

(continued from OA 109)

Do not works precede Scripture and Tradition?   Does not Tradition precede Scripture?  Were not the works of Noah, Abraham, the Forefathers and representatives of the Church of the Old Testament pleasing to God? And did not the tradition exist among the Patriarchs, beginning with Adam, the forefather of all? Did not Christ give liberty to  men and teaching by word of mouth before the Holy Apostles by their writings bore witness to the work of redemption and the law of liberty? Wherefore, between Tradition, works and Scripture, there is no contradiction, but, on the contrary, complete agreement.

A. Khomiakov, The Church is One

And so, what constitutes Sacred Tradition? Its component parts may be described as follows:


If we ask ourselves on what basis we acknowledge only four Gospels as God-inspired and reject a whole list of others, the so-called apocryphal books, there can be only one answer: such is the tradition of the Christian Church. These four Gospels were not given from heaven as were the Ten Commandments to Moses. They were written on earth by God-inspired men. At the same time, other writers wrote many other gospels. The holy Apostle Luke testifies to this at the beginning of his book (Luke 1:1). There likewise appeared several epistles whose authorship, although unconfirmed, is attributed to the Apostles. Together with the Word of God appeared the word of men. What was to be done? After all, nowhere in Sacred Scripture is there an indication of what books are to be considered divinely inspired and what books are not. What is a person to do if he wants to save his soul? How is he to distinguish truth from falsehood? Here the Holy Church, which is concerned for the salvation of its children, comes to his aid. It subjected all these writings to careful scrutiny and, through the mouths of its God-inspired teachers and its Councils, pronounced its judgment. Such and such books it acknowledged as the word of God, while others it rejected. And it handed down this determination to its members to be kept by them. These early Christians began at first to copy by hand and then to print those books recognized by the Church, calling them the New Testament Sacred Scripture. This is how the Church tradition concerning the content of Sacred Scripture was established, and this tradition has been preserved by Christians down to the present time. If we did not have this tradition, we would not be able to distinguish the books written at the inspiration of the Holy Spirit from books written by ordinary people, and what we recognize as Holy Scripture would be arbitrary.

We see that even those Christians who reject Sacred Tradition recognize as the Word of God those same books which we recognize, and they try to guide their lives according to what is written in them. In so doing they could not manage without Holy Tradition; they accept and faithfully preserve it, and, we should add, they do well to do this.


Holy Scripture is the Word of God, the Words of the Holy Spirit. Its depth is unfathomable. To us-ordinary people, a significant part of it is simply incomprehensible. This applies not only to the books of the ancient prophets and the Book of Revelation. Even in the epistles of St. Paul there are many places difficult to understand. The Gospels are most accessible to our understanding, but even here a great deal is written in parables, whose symbolic and spiritual meaning is hidden from ordinary people. The depth of the words of the Holy Spirit may be understood only by those who have received the grace of the Holy Spirit, to whom God has opened their understanding that they might understand the scriptures (Luke 24:45). The carnal man cannot receive that which comes from the Spirit of God, and cannot comprehend it (I Cor. 2:14). And almost everyone falls into this category of people. Here, too, the Holy Church comes to our aid. She gives us the spiritual explanation of the Scripture.

As we have already said, Christ Himself explained a great deal to the Apostles. He always spoke in parables to the people, but to His disciples, when they were alone together, He expounded all things (Mark 4:34). These explanations, given by the Lord, were kept alive in the Church, being passed on from the Apostles to their disciples. The Apostles themselves received the gift of understanding the Scripture, especially after the Holy Spirit descended upon them. And every man who makes himself worthy of the gifts of the Holy Spirit receives this same gift. The Teachers of the Church-the Holy Fathers-, having cleansed themselves by great ascetic deeds and unceasing prayer, having expelled from themselves human passions, having fulfilled the commandments and having acquired His mercy, received these gifts. Although the Holy Spirit did not descend visibly upon them, as It did upon the Apostles in the form of tongues of fire, they nevertheless possessed Its gifts. In evidence of this are the miracles they performed and their supernatural gifts of prophecy and clairvoyance. All these are testimonies from Heaven, by which God testified concerning His faithful servants. To all these may be applied the words which the Lord said of Himself: The works which the Father hath given Me to finish, the same works that I do, bear witness of Me, that the Father hath sent Me (John 5:36). The works that I do in My father's name, they bear witness of Me (John 10:25). Yes, and even today every faithful servant of God receives the gift of understanding the Scripture, according to his spiritual stature. To the degree that a person cleanses himself from passions, to the degree that he turns from his self-will, to the degree that he submits himself to God's will and constantly compels himself to fulfill God's commandments, to the same degree does he make himself worthy to receive God's gifts-including the gift of understanding the spiritual meaning of the Scriptures. Many Holy Fathers and ascetics of the Church, according to the grace given them by God, have written commentary on various books of Holy Scripture, and these commentaries have entered the Church's treasury of spiritual wisdom. To this day all its faithful children nourish themselves on them.

Anyone who has ever read the works of the Holy Fathers has been impressed by their astonishing unity of thought. Living in different countries, in different periods of time, the Holy Fathers had the same outlook, the same perspective. Clearly, it is One and the Same Holy Spirit that acted and spoke through them all. Whosoever desires to comprehend the wisdom of the Holy Scriptures would do well if he does not trust to his own powers but, casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ (II Cor. 10:5), would humbly accept the wisdom from the Church's treasury. The mind of the Church is the mind of Christ. We have the mind of Christ (I Cor. 2:16).

What can be more beneficial for us? To receive from the Church the true understanding of things, or to proudly remain in our delusions? For this reason all true servants of Christ prefer to accept the wisdom of the Church and to shun their own as useless. Only under this condition can we fulfill the commandment of Apostle Paul concerning likemindedness among Christians: I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you: but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment (I Cor. 1:10); fulfill ye my joy, that ye be likeminded (Phil. 2:2). And in many other places the holy Apostles speak of this same likemindedness. From this it is clear what great importance he placed on this subject. And this is understandable: only given such likemindedness can there be preserved the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3). Only given this is true love possible among Christians. If there is no likemindedness, there will be only quarrels, disagreements and divisions. Writing to the Galatians, Apostle Paul says that while he was there among them, they looked at things through his eyes (Gal. 4:15). We too should look at things with the eyes of the Church. If we look with the eyes of our own unenlightened mind, each of us will see and understand in our own way. And the result will be-division.

To many it seems an inconceivable constraint for the mind to renounce its own judgments and submit itself to the judgments of the Church. But this is only an apparent constraint. St. Paul writes to the Corinthians: Ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own bowels (II Cor. 6:12).

So it is with us: it is not constraining for us in the Church, but only seemingly, since we have become accustomed to the evil and falsehood of this world and we don't want to renounce them. We must convince ourselves that in accepting the mind of the Church we accept truth and in this way we draw closer to Christ, Who is the Truth (John 14:16). These judgments of the Church concerning various matters, including commentary on Scripture, consisting chiefly of the works of the Holy Fathers, also belong to the sphere of Sacred Tradition, and all faithful members of the Church conform themselves to these judgments.

Clearly, in the area of Scripture commentary it is simply not possible to manage without Sacred Tradition. Otherwise each individual would have to interpret the entire body of Scripture from scratch. We see that every religious confession, every sect has its traditional explanation of Scripture, or at least of certain parts, and one can say that these explanations are the tradition of that particular confession. The authors of these explanations are, for the most part, pastors and preachers. Is it not better to take the commentary of Holy Scripture from the ancient Saints, who acquired the Holy Spirit and who have received testimony from above, than from people like ourselves?

(To be continued)

(Translated from the Russian in Vechnoye, Paris, July-August, 1963.)