TRADITION AND TRADITIONS (I)

 

-Marin Mihalache-

 

“So than, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter”. (2 Thessalonians 2:15) 

 

According to the Holy Scripture, the Tradition of the Body of Christ is inspired by the Holy Spirit and reflects the Light of Christ since everything in the Bible leads up to Christ, is fulfilled in Christ and speaks and teaches about Him (Luke 24:44). The divine message of the Bible comes from God, is inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is the Word of God but at the same time the faithful community acknowledges the word spoken and testifies to its truth by faith “the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrew 1:1). The Bible shows the intimate relationship of God with man and of man with God. It is not only the voice of God (Word of God) but also the voice of man answering Him in human words of prayer, thanksgiving, adoration, hope and despair. God Himself is expecting the answer and response of man but this same God who “dwells in light unapproachable” does not compromise his divine transcendence.

 

Therefore, the Bible in its integrity is understandable only in the Church because the reality revealed by the Bible is the reality which is alive in the Church, the reality of God making himself known through the Word in the Spirit. In this light the Church has selected and canonized certain writings as the true expression of the divine revelation. At the same time the Church’s Tradition – liturgy of hymns, prayers, rituals, writings of the Church Fathers, the lives of the saints, the canons, dogmas, Church art, inspiring books - interpreting and illuminating the Truth and enriching the understanding of the Truth (all under the guidance of the Holy Spirit) work with the Bible for a single and same goal: our salvation.

 

Tradition is the Body of Christ Himself. It is not an addition to the New Testament, but interpretation of Jesus’ event without being limited by written witness. The Church only can read Scripture. Outside of the Church we can read the Bible but not understand it rightly, or understand it each in his own way, we see what we seek to validate our prejudices or mental patterns. For this reason the mirror of the Church appears as being broken in so many pieces each reflecting only one part of the same reality, or the same reality small print. The Church reads the Scripture liturgically in sacramental actions when the Church is what she is, the true and living Body of Christ. The Eucharist is the very function of the Church and summarizes the true relation between God-man and the world. It is not supposed to be a pietistic exercise, but the very Church’s participation in the heavenly banquet of the risen Christ.

 

For the Church’s Tradition and its expression are at the same time and measure inspired by the Holy Spirit and also contain the same Word of God. In other words, the Church is the living witness of Tradition and Tradition the witness to the Spirit. There is one Holy Tradition which constitutes the self-identity of the Church throughout history. But the organic and evident expression of the life of the Spirit does not consist in a relative accumulation of human “traditions” in the historical Church. Tradition is the very life of the Church as it is inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit. It cannot be separated from the Church which is catholic and apostolic and which possesses the immediate certitude of the truth.

 

Therefore all that is sinful, erroneous or devious and is not done by grace of the Holy Spirit stand under the judgment and condemnation of the authentic and genuine Holy Tradition which comes from God. The judge is not the word of man but the Word of God, the voice of “the living Breath” of the Holy Spirit coming from the silence and peace of God. For “no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (I Cor. 12:3). In this light, Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church revealing, leading up to the proclaiming Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life of all.

 

The term tradition in general comes from the Latin “traditio”, the noon of the verb “tradere” which like the Greek “paradidonai” aorist “paradonnai” meaning to transmit, to deliver. Thus, in general, the sense of tradition or transmission is the very principle of the whole economy of salvation: “We must keep what the churches have received from the apostles, the apostles from Christ and Christ from God.” (Tertullian, Praesc. 21.4)

 

Thus it is well understood then why from the beginning it is necessary to be made the demarcation between the truth and legend, real and mythic, essence and form, Holy Tradition and human “traditions”. In fact the understanding of Tradition was and still it is the main issue of contention upon which the Christianity was and is divided historically and geographically. This paradigm is well expressed and explained by the theologian scholar and ecumenist, Yves Marie-Joseph Congar: “Tradition is an offering by which the Father is communicated to a great number of people throughout the world, and down the successive generations so that the multitude of people physically separated from it by space and time are incorporated in the same unique identical reality, which is the Father’s gift, and above all the saving truth the divine Revelation made in Jesus Christ. Tradition is sharing of a treasure which itself remains unchanging; it represents a victory over the time and its transience, over space and separation caused by distance.” (Yves Marie-Joseph Congar ,“Tradition and traditions; The meaning of Tradition”, page 17).

 

Tradition it is not the transmission of the whole Christianity without distinction of its elements, but it is the living transmission which means that although nothing from what was “vital” was let outside, the external things with justification in history or nature, by their alien origins, have not place in this body. This does not mean that the Church does not hold the fullness of apostolic transmission as such. On this view of Tradition it is said that in fact, in the last extent, the entire history of the Church is characterized by the tension between the ideal of “plenitude” and the ideal of “purity”. (J.M. Pauport, “What is the Gospel?”)

 

Taking in consideration all those aspects of Tradition and traditions, Yves Marie-Joseph Congar even has tried to make a classification of what it is included in both categories. Thus he distinguished between Active Tradition (transmission of fait) and the content of what is transmitted (passive tradition). According to the origin or the author (agent of active tradition) he makes a distinction between divine, apostolic or ecclesial.

 

According to the subject matter in the ground of the passive tradition, Yves Marie-Joseph Congar distinguishes between what it concerns the faith or concerns morals, “behavior”, ceremonies, ways of conducting the ceremonies, practical and disciplinary rules. The “traditions” can also be perpetual or temporary, universal or particular and local. Some “traditions” are justified, either by the original texts, scripture or decisive arguments, other are not. But anyway the so-called “accepted ideas” or “traditional” things are not in themselves sufficient arguments for their justification in the Christian life and faith.

 

Therefore, according to the theologian Yves Marie-Joseph Congar the right position of the Church concerning those “traditions” might be not ultra-conservative, but also not ultra-progressive because one extreme leads to a false sentimentalism, the other, considering all as “purely human traditions” may lead to an unjustified adventurism.

 

The divine guidance and guarantee of our fidelity to the faith must be always the Holy Spirit. For “where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God” (Saint Ireaneus). This is the heart of the mystery of the Church. In the final analysis, this is where the infallibility of Church lies: in God’s faithfulness, not in acts of man. For the life of man is like the waves of the sea always fluctuating, unstable, depending the influences from above, beyond, but also on the movement of other waves which are pushing one into the other, trying to go ahead. But God, the Logos, is the steady rock, the so called ground of Being, the Essence always stable and reliable, assuring the permanency and continuation, the limits within which the waves can flow, the energies and essence takes their shape.

 

The Christian teaching is a permanence, is not of matter of a certain time and space only: (Saint Vincent of Levius, Commonitorium, 2). In the same way, Saint Paul exhorts the faithful: “So than, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Saint Irenaeus also says the same thing when he is writing about the faith “which is being preserved in the Church from the Apostles through the succession of presbyters.”

 

According to Tertullian the key to understand tradition alike Scripture is the “the rule of faith” (“regula fidae”): “For only where the true Christian teaching and faith are evident will the true Scripture, the true interpretations, and all the true Christian traditions are to be found”. But what is curious is the fact that for Tertullian not only the written Tradition, but many times customs also gives authenticity to the faith. Taking into the consideration the time when Tertullian lived and wrote, but also the general reservation which the Punic Fathers of the Church had for the Tradition established both in the Latin and Greek philosophical, theological and cultural milieus, it seems understandable why there is an emphasis here on the fact that the “true Christian teaching and faith are evident…” where “all the true Christian traditions are to be found”.

 

The Church is not an external authority over the Scripture but rather the guardian over the Divine Truth found in the Holy Writ. This continuous preservation and transmission of the true faith was guided by the Holy Spirit. Thus, “Tradition” was in Saint Iraeneus’ understanding a “ depositum jurenescens” (a living tradition) which was given to the Church as a new breath of life: “where, therefore, the ‘charismata’ of the Lord have been deposited (posito sunt), there is it proper to learn the truth, namely from those who have that succession of the Church which is from the Apostles…”. Thus, Apostolic Tradition was and is an integral factor of Christian existence. In a letter to Bishop Serapion, Saint Athanasius wrote: “Let us look at that very tradition, teaching and faith of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the fathers preserved: upon this the Church is founded.” (Saint Athanasius, Ad Serapion, I, 28).

 

Thus, a first conclusion on the issue of Tradition as understood by the primary Church can be that in a sense the Church actually preaches Christ, and not just the “Scripture”. It was the Church which kept alive the reality of the Word, reflecting this in her life and structure. Faith and life went together inasmuch as the worship of the Church has in fact solemnly proclaimed her Faith. Saint Basil also speaks about “unwritten Tradition”: “The Apostles and Fathers who from the very beginning arranged everything in the Church, preserved the sacred character of the mysteries in silence and secrecy.” (Saint Basil, “De Spir. 5.66) He stresses also that some “traditions” were kept “unritten” in order to prevent the profanation by the infidels. Also, the Tradition of faith was for Saint Basil the indispensable guide for the true and correct interpretation of the Scriptures, as long as, besides of the fact that the Apostolic “kerygma” was endowed with the Holy Spirit, the Scripture itself was the major part of the Apostolic “deposita”. Therefore, according to a wise perception and a sound theological understanding, to appeal to Tradition is to appeal to the mind of the Church.

 

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