A Meeting Place for Evangelicals, Reformed, and Orthodox Christians

Tradition: Family, Friend, or Foe?

Contributed by “Nicodemus”

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes,our ancestors.   It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.  Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton

Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.  The Vindication of Tradition, Jaroslav Pelikan

First, let us establish Orthodoxy’s reverence for Scripture as the inspired Word of God right up front.

We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. For it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed “perfect knowledge,” as some do even venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles.” (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, Book 3, 1, 1)

Without passages like this, our Protestant friends to would have little to quote when they wish to pretend the Fathers prove their notion of Sola Scriptura! Ah, but it’s not so simple as a few truncated quotes. In this same article, Irenaeus continues with this:

Even if the apostles had not left their writings to us, ought we not to follow the rule of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they committed the churches? Many barbarian peoples who believe in Christ follow this rule, having [the message of their] salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit without paper and ink. (in Cyril Richardson’s Early Christian Fathers 1970:374-375)

Orthodoxy’s reverence for Holy Scripture does not rest upon selective quoting of the Fathers. So please stay with us as we set a context for understanding Scripture within the Tradition which eventually gave us the New Testament. In this we avoid falling for a simplistic fundamentalism which divorces Scripture from its birth and use within Church history.


Icon – The Holy Forefathers

There was no Scripture before Moses. Though blunt and even shocking, this sentence will not likely make most of our Protestant friends uneasy. The reason is because evangelical Protestants have little problem assuming Adam began a long history of what became a carefully maintained Oral Tradition, one passed down to Noah as the truth, all the way to Moses.  Nor do human frailties, like errors in memory or transcription cause Protestants to blush. This is because they trust the Holy Spirit to secure the truth in oral transmission, so Moses (via Adam’s/Noah) wrote the revelation of God. (Note: Many early OT patriarchs were contemporaries: OLD TESTAMENT GENERATIONS LISTED ADAM TO MOSES)

So what do we know of the making of the OT canon of Scripture? Like the New Testament, it did not fall from the sky one day all neat, tidy and complete. It took centuries for the books and writings to be identified. Much is learned of from the making of the Greek version of the Old Testament. I will not repeat what is found in these excellent articles. But I do commend them to you for your instruction and edification. Read them here – NT canon, here – OT canon, and here – Which Came First.

There was no broadly recognized New Testament canon of Scripture before 350 AD. I suspect this blunt sentence stirs up more squirming in our Protestant friends.  Marcion’s list was likely the first listing of gospels and letters. But Marcion and his list were both too hostile and anti-Jewish for broad acceptance by the early Church. He excluded James, Mathew and others. But if Adam’s Oral Tradition handed down to Moses for a thousand+ years does not upset Protestants, why would a similar Oral Tradition upset them for the New Testament the first 350 years of Church history?

Christ did not write a book. Nor does he urgently press His Apostles to write. They waited several decades to begin writing the New Testament. But we do have His promise of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit’s presence in the Church. Meanwhile, they taught their disciples their doctrine, rule of faith, sound words, Tradition – repeatedly exhorting them to guard and protect it. Protestant are defensive, if not panicked, by the reality of there being “No New Testament Cannon before 350 AD.”

The Gospel of Mark was likely written in the early 50s, 20+ years after the Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost, then soon I Thessalonians. All the New Testament books were completed by the end of the 1st century (70 years after Pentecost). But these circulated in the early Church with a host of other gospel accounts and letters. Settling upon which Gospels and letters would comprise the New Testament, and which would be excluded, took several centuries. Protestants often instinctively obfuscate or blur the facts of historic scholarship. But simplistic fundamentalism does not stand the test of serious examination.

There is a natural unsettledness for Protestants to imagine life in the historic Church without neatly printed and bound Bibles (scrolls). Yet the Church not only existed but multiplied, flourished and covered the entire Roman world without a recognized New Testament Bible for a  few hundred years.  Even if you grant earlier dates to some writings, most books were local “letters” not broadly published. And when all finally became extant, they still had limited circulation, not to mention severe printing restrictions of book publishing in the ancient world. How did this early Church know what to do, and how to live without a settled New Testament?

Of course, the letters of Paul and the four Gospels (among many other writings) eventually trickled throughout Asia Minor and Palestine and eventually to Alexandria and Carthage (Egypt) and to Rome. But this took decades, and there were comparatively few copies printed by hand and quickly wore out. Fact is, few Christians, maybe even many Priests/Pastors and Bishops of the Church had a complete Bible as we know it, before 350AD. (Be it the seven decades the New Testament was being written, or the several hundred years of settling afterwards, the ahistoric nature of Sola Scriptura is inescapable during this period, regardless of how the Fathers related them to Tradition.)

Given the reverence for Holy Scripture Evangelicals have, it’s amazing how ignorant most are about the history of how the Bible (Old or New Testament) came to exist. Let me challenge my Protestants friends to read and think carefully about this by yourself. Talk with others later, after reading outside your own camp, thinking for yourself first. A good place to start is with The Emergence of the New Testament Canon.


Frankly, one reason Protestants regard Holy Tradition as a likely enemy is because they’ve been led to believe loving Holy Tradition equals hating the Bible! But this (almost comically) is not true. Nor does Scripture itself assume all Tradition, the traditions of men, like the Pharisee tradition or worse yet, Roman Catholic tradition. Here is another simplistic fundamentalism that “would be laughable if not so tragic” situation. There are indeed traditions of men. The tradition of the Pharisees is certainly one man-made tradition.

But there is also another Tradition hidden and obscured from most Protestants – in the Bible – commended to the Church by the Apostles themselves.  A good place to start is with Robert’s Blog post here: ‘IF NOT SOLA SCRIPTURA THEN WHAT? The Biblical Basis for Holy Tradition.’  Here he patiently reviews all the biblical texts relating to holy tradition like:

I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions, just as I passed them on to you. (I Corinthians 11:2)

Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care (I Timothy 6:20). What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you–guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. (II Timothy 1:13-14)

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the tradition you received from us. (II Thessalonians 3:6)

There are many other passages of Scripture and Mr. Arakaki covers them all in a thorough but concise way most Protestants have never seen, much less seriously considered. I challenge you to read this article very carefully and completely alone, prayerfully asking the Holy Spirit to guide your thinking.

Holy Tradition is similar to the oral tradition Adam handed before Moses before wrote the Torah. Yet there is a difference worth noting. Holy Tradition is not only promised by Christ, it is clearly and positively commended in the text of Scripture. It is the Tradition of the Apostles, supernaturally inspired by Christ and the Holy Spirit to lead the Church to the Discipling of the Nations. We must understand Paul’s commission to Timothy in this light. (2 Timothy 2:2) What the early Church did, lived, how they worshiped (liturgy Acts 13:2), how they answered the heretic(s) in their Councils, is Holy Tradition.

This Holy Tradition has been reverenced by the Orthodox Church since the Patristic Fathers walked the earth. This Tradition can be studied, like the Greeks, Romans, Celtics, American Indians and Old South. However, there is far more here than merely the customs, habits and traditions of men.

Prof. Clark Carlton

 Lessons from Prof. Clark Carlton

In his conversion Journey to Orthodoxy, Associate Professor Clark Carlton, Ph.D. makes several very important observation about the place of Holy Tradition. Reared as a Southern Baptist, he attended a Southern Baptist Seminary just as he’d begun to study Orthodoxy. There while he was at a Baptist seminary he came face to face with Holy Tradition.


Among the books I read was The Vindication of Tradition by Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan. In it Pelikan drew a distinction between the intellectual rediscovery of tradition and the existential recovery of tradition. In other words, there is a great difference between simply recognizing what has gone before and genuinely claiming it for oneself. I had discovered the Church of history, the wisdom of the Fathers, and the liturgy, but I had yet to come to grips with all that such a discovery entails. (emphasis added)

In this insightful observation Professor Carlton differentiates how we see, then embrace Tradition. First, there is an intellectual discovery. We notice a tradition that is out there. A particular tradition shows up on your mental radar, perhaps due to a college roommate, teammate or class you take. You see the tradition much like a German student might see tradition in a Spanish Latin culture. But knowing and learning about its peculiar distinctives is very different from embracing it and claiming it as you own. Professor Carlton says, “I had discovered the Church of history, the wisdom of the Fathers, and the liturgy, but I had yet to come to grips with all that such a discovery entails.(emphasis added)

But this is not all that confronted him. Professor Carlton continues:

Actually, I would amend Pelikan’s formula slightly at this point, for a further distinction needs to be made. There is also a great difference between claiming tradition for oneself and being claimed by tradition. I, along with Webber (Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, Robert Webber) and the contributors to his book, was perfectly willing to claim the historic Church and the liturgy for my own understanding of Christianity. Yet, I was still in control! I, in true Protestant fashion, was judge and jury of what would and would not fit into my kind of Christianity. I was willing to claim the historic Church, but I had yet to recognize Her claim on me.” (From First Baptist to the First Century)

Here Professor Carlton implies more than a Christian philosophy of history being the providential unfolding of God’s plan in time, in Creation. He gives us an excellent glimpse into the modern Protestant mind when it is forced to confront Church History and Holy Tradition.

The Protestant Christian stands outside of history and Tradition. Regardless of its attractiveness to him, he observes from a safe distance. From outside he can lay selective claim to as many or as few elements of that traditions he wishes to taste and embrace. He is like a careful diner before a vast smorgasbord. He might like a bit of sacramental this, and a taste of liturgical that. Yet he will take his doctrinal cuisine from yet another table. Professor Carlton says,

“Yet, I was still in control! I, in true Protestant fashion, was judge and jury of what would and would not fit into my kind of Christianity. I was willing to claim the historic Church, but I had yet to recognize Her claim on me.” (emphasis added)

Recently, some Protestant scholars and pastors have been exposed to historical studies and critical scholarship.  They have been compelled to adopt Tradition as Useful Tool. The result has been an eclectic hodgepodge in which they pick and choose as they like from the ancient church and try to blend it with the Reformed tradition.  The results have often been interesting, but all too much like Professor Carlton above.  They are yet in control of how Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Reformed their Churches shall be.

Professor Carlton’s observation is striking. Can tradition have a claim upon a person? We might pause to ask how this is possible. We noted Adam’s passing on Truth via oral tradition did not bother Protestants much because they assume it was preserved from error by the providential guidance of the Holy Spirit. Here is our first hint, the unnoticeable introduction of a divine element into the passing on of Oral Tradition. If God Himself is managing, in ways we cannot see, the integrity of Oral Tradition, then those who like Moses end up writing it need not worry if they got it right. Scripture grows supernaturally, via the Holy Spirit, out of Oral Tradition.

Holy Tradition is thus the substance of divine providence. It is the work of the Holy Spirit in history. This providence and history is of a nature that we at some point can no longer hold it at arm’s length and pick and choose what has a claim upon us. If Holy Tradition is the work of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost in the Church) then it cannot be so easily ignored or jettisoned like some cultural folk lore.

Tradition in the Familial Body

Here, Holy Tradition is comprehended in a whole new light. With Pentecost as the cause, Holy Tradition changes everything. It never was merely the traditions of men. Indeed, the sure promise of Christ and the active presence of the Holy Spirit is our surety.  If the Holy Spirit is the author and giver of Holy Tradition, then I am not only bound to embrace it – it has a sacred claim upon me. Like the law of God given through Moses was no take-what-you-want-of-it tradition of men, Holy Tradition is the gift of the Holy Spirit in history, our cherished joy, our wisdom and glory before the nations – and our duty to preserve and pass on! (See also this excellent article on the evangelistic nature of Holy Tradition in the Divine Liturgy.)

In sad contrast we saw recently in a Pentecost Blog where a Protestant scholar saw the Protestant view of Pentecost as BOBO theology: Blink-On, Blink-Off. The Holy Spirit comes and goes, for centuries at a time! History becomes practical Deism for hundreds if not a thousand years.  Pentecost is thus series of temporary phenomena in Church History. The Holy Spirit is God with us, sometimes. Yet Christ promised He would never leave or forsake His Church, Bride and Body. By the Holy Spirit He is Emmanuel, God with us. This is why the Protestant view of Pentecost, as well as church history might be regarded as damnable. Again, Professor Carlton says:

It would take a great deal more reading and an even greater amount of prayer before I would be able to accept the historical Church on Her own terms and be judged by Her….[others] helped me to understand that the Holy Tradition of the Church is not merely historical continuity or rootedness. It is the context in which the Church lives out Her divine life and carries out Her divine mission. Tradition is, to use Vladimir Lossky’s phrase, the Life of the Holy Spirit in the Church. (emphasis added)

Gradually I came to recognize the fact that Holy Tradition has the same claim upon my life as the Gospel itself, for Tradition is nothing other than the Gospel lived throughout history. It is not my place to judge the Apostolic Tradition and decide how or if to incorporate it into my own religious tradition; rather Holy Tradition judges me and calls me to account for how I have handled that Good Deposit that has been committed to Christians. I finally began to understand Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians-a passage I had never heard preached on in a Baptist church-”Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15) (emphasis added)

Protestants rarely get this far in their thinking about history and Holy Tradition. (It’s likely many Orthodox have more caught this claim of Tradition upon them, than have been taught it?) What is particularly sad, is to see bright young Protestants come right to the edge of Holy Tradition’s claim upon them, only to lose their nerve and shy away. They see and know it well. But they fear to embrace it. They settle for holding it at a distance. What was once only intellectually unsettling has now become a crisis of moral courage. Will they follow through, or back away?

Refugees Leaving Their Homes

Honestly, it takes no small amount of courage to depart from a beloved tradition, especially one filled with many good things. Family pressures and the misunderstandings (hostility?) of friends, even the glory and name one might make for himself in the Protestant world, causes many to lose heart. So, they deny the claim upon them they know Holy Tradition and the Church has on them. They clothe themselves with what they know are spurious arguments, to only settle for far less than the full Orthodox Faith they know is the deposit of Apostolic Faith.

But what of those who do muster the moral courage to become Orthodox Christians?  I’m thinking not only of Frs. Peter Gillquist (recently reposed), Jack Sparks, Richard Ballew, Gordon Walker and others who lead 2,000 parishioners into Orthodoxy in 1988. I’m also thinking of hundreds more Baptist, Lutheran, Reformed and Charismatic Pastors, Anglican Priests and the many laymen who have come to Orthodoxy since. In large measure they view their departure from Protestantism more an act of humble obedience than one of courage. The same is likely true of recent Protestant pastors, unmercifully savaged by many who do not know them, or the personal details of their departure. (Jason Stellman resigned from the PCA for reasons of conscience).  These men made the wrenching decisions to switch church homes after much wrestling in thought and prayer.  They deserve our prayers more than our condemnation.

It is interesting how Protestants tear up when admiring the courage of Martin Luther against the corrupt Roman Church of the late middle-ages. Luther’s plea was for the liberty to follow the dictates of his conscience: “because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.” Is it not just a tad hypocritical that sincere men leaving Protestantism are not granted the same liberty of conscience Luther claimed? This is especially so given their appeal is not to the leading of their private, jiminy-cricket, individual consciences. Rather, those leaving Protestantism are most often gripped by far broader and historic claims than their private consciences – the Scriptures speaking within the Church and Holy Tradition like Professor Carlton.

So what do we say in conclusion? Our modern world surrounds us with more and more progressive, ever Reforming Protestant and Roman Catholic theological innovations? Do these lead us to a deeper love and reverence for the Faith and Worship the Apostles once for all delivered to the Church? No, they boldly presume to lead us away from Tradition toward that forever-in-flux new & improved promised land of progress. Much could be said here, but I will conclude with an excellent and potent quote. In his Amazon review of Pelikan’s The Vindication of Tradition, ”Matt” beautifully sets the weighty place for Holy Tradition within our modern context.

“After all, is not progress, that dogma of the modern era, the antithesis of tradition? Not quite, writes Pelikan. Only within the context of a tradition that has as its hallmark the ability to both hold the person within its embrace, while at the same time pointing beyond itself, can true progress be both understood as such and achieved, connected to the past and yet living within the potential of new growth. The modern error, and that of so many of the greatest heresies, is that it fails to maintain a connection with the whole. This is the modern iconoclastic temptation- to break the image of the past in the hopes of inventing it anew. It is destined to fall short.” (“Matt”)




  1. Raphael

    Wonderful…thank you for this Nicodemus. Leaving behind sola scriptura was brutally hard for me. I am fortunate to have a wise spiritual father who has been so very patient. It meant exposing my narcissistic arrogance and submitting to Christ. I truly thought I had done this and lived it as a Protestant (I speak only for myself…I don’t assume this to be the case for all Protestant). In the end…I couldn’t escape (and believe me…I tried through all my rationalism and deductive logic) the questions -what is the Church?…what is the Body of Christ? And if my prior assumptions as a Protestant were correct Christ was wrong and the gates of hell did triumph

  2. Chris

    Excellent post. One of the things that bothers most Protestants is subjectivity. Most trust that a grammatical, literal hermeneutic will lead them to an objective understanding of the Scriptures. As one evangelical pastor told me, “we can’t trust church history to have done the right thing but we can trust Scrpture.”. What evangelicals really trust is their own ability to interpret the Scrptures. It is amazing to me that since Protestants hold the Scriptures in high regard most are totally ignorant of how these Scripures came to be. When I was in seminary I took 6 hours out of 122 hours in church history. Why? We teach what we believe is valuable and what we value tells us what we really believe is important. This is why one pastor boldly proclaimed to me that he could care less what the Nicean Creed or any Ecumenical Councils said. It’s his Bible with his Greek lexicon following his hermeneutic that determines truth.

    • Raphael

      Hi Chris…I checked out your blog…great stuff! Keep writing brother….

  3. Nicodemus

    Thank You Raphael & Chris. 

    You are both welcome. Prof. Carlton helps us very much to see our enslavement to our “narcissistic arrogance…through all my rationalism and deductive logic…” (Raphael). This is not dissimilar to Chris’s excellent observation of the Protestants war against subjectivity. Every distinct Protestant group believes “their literal hermeneutic will lead them to an objective understanding of the Scriptures.” Ultimately, these point to the Western cosmological construct, the absence of supernatural history, or more specifically Pentecostal History. IF the history of the world is merely the doings & traditions of man, then the West’s secular worldview is normative. However, what if in the fullness of time, the Incarnation (physical presence) & Pentecost (spiritual presence) re-sacralized History? Then, as Prof. Carlton says, Holy Tradition is Emmanuel, God with us, has a claim on our submission and obedience. This is true even when it all does not make perfectly rational sense to us. The secret things do belong to the Lord our God. This assures us of Mystery. Word becomes flesh, bread becomes Body, wine becomes Blood, axes float, the sun stands still, and we do not fully understand.  Let us pray that in humble submission, we will come to know the true Shalom of the Spirit, and thus also increase in our understanding.


    • Raphael

      And what a joyous and humbling experience to live in that Mystery. To have tears of repentance when I kneel before my Lord in repentance. I have never experienced such profound sadness and yet such gentle and embracing love. One can read about Orthodoxy all they want but it must be lived and yes…it claims you. I fear protestants think that if they cannot fully understand something that it is not “true” and perhaps that’s why many of the mainline churches no longer hold classic Christian doctrine. They cannot understand how Christ could be resurrected so it must be metaphorical. It is faith in my intellect rather than God…As the heavens are higher than the earth so are my ways higher than your ways, My thoughts higher than your thoughts…Lord have mercy…

  4. Raphael

    Nicodemus, Another point I thought of was the literacy of the community. I remember reading at one time that the average person was often illiterate…and some priests as well. They relied on the the liturgy, memorized of course, to guide them into the truth of the Gospel. To think that the average Christian could simply read and interpret the Scriptures, even if available may be a long shot. Is the phenomenon of so many being able to read and such ready access to the Bible a very recent phenomenon? I was wondering if you have any information on this and thoughts? Thank you…

  5. Doubting Thomas

    Some good observations regarding the the conventional Evangelical Protestant view of Sola Scriptura.

    However, I would nuance your statement somewhat regarding ‘no canon before AD 350’. While it is true that there is no official list which exactly matches our 27 book NT before AD 367 (Athanasius’s letter), the core of the canon was fairly well established by mid-2nd century (4 Gospels, Acts, Paul’s epistles, 1 John and 1 Peter) and there is a list found in the Muratorian fragment dated around AD 200 which contains most of this core and a couple of other books (though not all).

    Still, the problem remains for the typical modern evangelical solo scripturists–if they can accept the Church’s consensus about the official boundaries of the canon (arrived at late 4th/early 5th centuries) why don’t they accept the same Church’s consensus regarding the sacraments, soteriology, the episocopacy, etc? Seems inconsistent to me, which is the main reason I abandoned my Southern Baptist upbringing.

  6. Outlaw Presbyterian

    *** the problem remains for the typical modern evangelical solo scripturists–if they can accept the Church’s consensus about the official boundaries of the canon (arrived at late 4th/early 5th centuries) why don’t they accept the same Church’s consensus regarding the sacraments, soteriology, the episocopacy, etc?***

    I really don’t want to get into the discussion, but simply to point out as a legal fact that an appeal to a witness is not the same thing as an acceptance of every detail and surrendering to an absolute authority. Perhaps they should and no doubt, as Perry R. has indicated on several threads elsewhere, rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft (in such case, i am both witch and rebel), but an appeal to this or that father as an historical witness is not enough to overturn Protestantism.

    For example, in court a crack-head may actually be a good witness for a case, but no one wants to view him as an authority on all matters.

    And for the love all that is holy, please no one read more into my example than warratned!

  7. Raphael

    350 Bishops i.e. the seventh ecumenical council is hardly simply ” an appeal to this or that father”

  8. John

    I would like to bring a little balance and historical sense into this “Tradition” debate.

    For the Church to have an authentic and legitimate “Tradition”, its methodology and approach must be rooted in the Jewish Tradition so as to obey the 5th Commandment in a corporate sense. That is, in this context, honoring your Father (the Jews) and your Mother (Judaism).

    I remind you of the famous aphorism by Rabbi Moredecai Kaplan in ‘Not So Random Thoughts’, p263:

    “The ancient authorities are entitled to a vote, but not a veto.”

    The “ancient authorities” he referred-to were the Sages of the Targums and the Talmud etc.

    In a Church sense, this HAS to mean this (and mean nothing else):

    “The Church Fathers are entitled to a vote, but not a veto.”

    Translating and expanding this into something we can all understand,

    “The Church Fathers are entitled to make a contribution to our theology, but they cannot veto our contemporary theology to insist on their version of theology from another era set in sepia (or is that formaldehyde?!?) for all time!”

    Elements of their “Tradition”, perhaps almost all of it from their era may not be either relevant or appropriate to our era.


    I illustrate this from a well-known anecdote from the Jewish Scene, with its “translation” into an Orthodox Church setting. This Jewish anecdote only subtly varies in each re-telling. The main point, however, remains the same.

    Two young boys are having their bar-Mitzvah in shule on the same day.

    The first boy spends his allotted 5 mins on the Torah-portion for the day, with at least a dozen quotes from the Sages of the Targums down (including the Talmud) from a tightly-typed 4 pages of notes. At the conclusion of his speech, he is politely applauded, and he sits down.

    The second boy, with hardly a dozen lines on the single sheet of paper in front of him, launches into a passionate and creative interpretation of this same Torah-portion without a single Sage or Rabbi quoted. As he begins to sit down, amidst thunderous applause, the shul insists that he goes on for another ten minutes.

    Towards the end of that ten minutes, he plaintively asks to sit down so that he can listen to the shule’s Rabbi on that Torah portion. The shule agrees with great reluctance amidst even greater applause. The service continues, but the Rabbi remains silent.

    After the service, the two boys are swamped with well-wishers:

    The first is surrounded with lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, all offering him a generous scholarship to a prestigious university, and then guaranteed employment in their respective firms. He chooses law, and 25 years from that speech is safely on the Bench of a State Supreme Court. He retires from that Bench some 25 years later in a blaze of glory.

    The second, however, is surrounded by a smaller group, far more homogenous in their “trade”. Only Rabbis are in this group. They all actively compete to offer the boy entry into their Yeshiva alma-mater (or should that be ‘alma-pater’?) With a guaranteed tutorship in that Yeshiva until a sufficiently-prestigious shule can be found for him.

    The shule’s Rabbi is asked two questions:
    1. Why did you not speak on the Torah-portion during the Service? and
    2. Why are only Rabbis surrounding the second boy?

    The Rabbi pauses for a half a minute and then, filled with almost prophetic sagacity says slowly:

    “To the first (question), he did a far better job on that portion than I ever could.
    And to the second, he is a brilliant and Original Theologian. When both I and all those Rabbis surrounding him have died, for the next generation of Jews he will have the answers to questions that we as yet have not encountered, but which will arise when he is a senior Rabbi. And he will play a major part in the preservation of our glorious Jewish Tradition.”


    Let us now “translate” this scene into an Orthodox setting. Since the Church does not have bar-Mitzvah’s, we have to place it in the setting of an Essay-Competition – the nearest thing to the above context. With both boys reading their respective essays on the Gospel Reading for the next Sunday.

    The first boy spends his allotted 5 mins, with at least a dozen quotes from the Church Fathers, Bishops and Monastics from a tightly-typed 4 pages of notes. As he begins to sit down, amidst thunderous applause, the audience insists that he goes on for another ten minutes. He politely declines and sits down.

    The second boy, with hardly a dozen lines on the paper in front of him, launches into a passionate and creative interpretation of this same Gospel Reading without a single Church Father, Bishop or Monastic quoted. At the end of his time, he sits down amidst silence.

    After the service, the first boy is swamped with well-wishers, but the second only has a small handful around him:

    The first is surrounded with Bishops and Monastics all offering him a free entry to a prestigious seminary or Monastery. After some discussion, he chooses the Monastic life, for he recognizes that in time he can be both a Bishop and a Monastic.

    The second is surrounded by this smaller group, far more diverse in their “trade”. Only artisans, musicians, writers, poets, artists, dancers, and operatic luminaries are in this group. Clergy and Monastics are conspicuous by their absence. These “arts people” all actively compete to offer the boy entry into their alma-mater. With a guaranteed tutorship in that institution which will launch their career. He chooses poetry and eventually becomes the nation’s poet-laureate.

    The Parish Priest is asked only one question:
    # Why are only Clergy and Monastics surrounding the first boy?

    The Priest pauses for a half a minute and then, says:

    “To that question, he is a brilliant and Original Theologian. He will remain faithful to the Church’s Tradition when both I and all those Clergy and Monastics surrounding him have died.”

    And what of the second boy? Well, that day, as he leaves the Church hall where those speeches were made, he leaves Church property for good, never darkening a Church door again!


    For our Jewish boys, both remain loyal members of their respective shules until their deaths.

    The Orthodox Church is the poorer for its perverse and corrupt definition of an “Original Theologian” which defines its concept of loyalty to its “Tradition” and which drives the second boy from its bosom.

    On “Tradition” . . .

    To only slightly paraphrase the Bible: “Which Tradition is blessed in God’s eyes?”

    Here endeth the Lesson for the day.


    • Jnorm

      Hey John, what is your spiritual / religious back-ground again? Did you ever mention it before?

      • robertar


        I think Jnorm has a good point here. As I read your eloquent exposition I’m not sure what to make of it. Knowing your faith orientation would help a lot.


    • Canadian

      I think there is room in the Orthodox tradition for “both Orthodox boys”. And I agree that there likely has been many a soul “driven” from the church because of narrow views or methods. The creativity though must have Conciliar and definitive boundaries to work within, which take precedent over the retaining for life of those with intense creativity but abberant theology. Freedom on things that are not stated dogma is great, but development in the Roman or Protestant sense is too far reaching with disastrous results.
      Adaptability in every generation is very important, I agree and the young and brilliant have an inside role for their generations, but the deepest answers to every generations deepest issues can only come with creative and penetrating deliverance of the ancient truths which are always “relevant and appropriate”.

      The fifth commandment can be applied in the corporate sense for the Orthodox too, can it not? “Obey those that have the rule over you” says the NT, “submit yourselves as to those who must give an account.”

      Maybe I am way off what you were intending, hope to hear from you.

      • Jason

        I’m sorry, but a comparison between Orthodox Christianity and Orthodox Judaism in this regard is a bit specious. The Church Fathers have not been elevated to supremacy over God, as Rabbis have been in Judaism (Babylonian Talmud (BT) Bava Metzia 59b). That particular nuance is important here as regards the relationships between the worshippers, Scripture, and their respective clergy and elders. In addition, the second part regarding the Orthodox Christian child omits the part where he asks to listen to the Bishop expound on the Scripture, as the Judaic child does of his Rabbi. For, should the Bishop expound on the Scripture, he will undoubtedly cite Church Fathers and Saints who were fully grounded in Holy Tradition, thereby showing his love of such sources.

  9. Outlaw Presbyterian

    I, too, am curious.

  10. david


    Unlike my normal practice, I read past your first few paragraphs…and regretted it. Not a clue what your point is. Are you saying Orthodox Church Tradition is meaningless? Or, as Prof. Carlton says (with Vladimir Lossky) attested, the work of the Holy Spirit on earth in the Church? If you think it’s meaningless…I completely missed your argument in the long story of Jewish boys. If you agree (mostly) with Carlton & Lossky…then what’s your point? Short, clear writing makes interacting far easier brother. Too much work (and time) trying to figure out what you are trying to say. And I too would love to know your Eccle. background and status…one short sentence would do it.
    in His tender mercies,

  11. Outlaw Presbyterian

    I think I know what John is getting at. If the faith once for all delivered is interpreted to preclude new theological moves, then the task of the theologian is simply to restate truths in AD 97 in new language.

    And for the most part, that is good. However, as Fr Sergei Bulgakov has demonstrated in Lamb of God and *The Comforter,* it’s not always so easy to claim to have done that. For example: for all the brilliance of St Cyril’s Christology, it is mostly dialectically-construed. He relies on the arguments and faults of his opponents to construct his own Christology (I am summarizing Bulgakov here). In many cases he simply cut the Gordian knot instead of untying it.

    As Bruce McCormack has commented on that, Chalcedon took some ambiguities in Cyril’s christology and hardened them, namely, what is the unity between the two natures? All Chalcedon does is state that they are united yet distinct. Therefore, Bulgakov, following an ancient Platonic tradition, suggested a way out: Divine Sophia as the unity between the two natures.

    Yet Bulgakov’s theology was condemned as heretical (even if the arguments for this condemnation were less than convincing).

    Now back to John’s post: Bulgakov saw a problem in classical Christology as a creative theologian, sought to address it for the good of the church. Yet, if we take the view that all new theology was finished in AD 97, then what’s the point?

    • robertar


      You’ve certainly read a lot of books but that’s not what theology is about, at least not from the Orthodox standpoint. For the Orthodox, theology is not thinking thoughts about God but attaining knowledge of God through union with God. There is a saying: A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is truly a theologian. In the early Church the kerygma (proclamation of the Gospel) led to the worship life of the church, in particular through the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. It is in the Eucharist that the Church expressed its understanding of God. It is in the Eucharist that people encountered the mystery of the Trinity and so became theologians. It is important to keep in mind that much of the theologizing done by the Ecumenical Councils were defensive in nature, not creative.

      You set up two opposites: Christian faith and unchanging stasis vs. Christian faith as a creative process. Orthodoxy has a dynamic understanding of the nature of tradition. Jaroslav Pelikan in The Vindication of Tradition wrote: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” (p. 65) When we look at Athanasius the Great’s rebuttal of the Arian heresy we see a conserving motive behind his creative expressions upholding Christ’s divinity. This in time was appropriated by the church councils in their repudiation of Arianism. So while Orthodoxy does allow for creativity for the expressing of Tradition it does not support creative theology for its own sake. If one want creative theology, all one needs to do is visit the United Church of Christ with its motto: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” See my earlier blog posting where I discuss the creative theologizing done in the United Church of Christ.

      Theology in the Orthodox Church is done collectively. Thus, reception is an important part of how theology is done in Orthodoxy. A priest or seminary professor can write a brilliant theological book but it depends on whether it is accepted by the church. I’m not familiar with the controversy surrounding Bulgakov, but if the church refuses to receive a new or creative teaching (theological findings or paradigm), then others in the Orthodox Church need to take heed of this. If you find the arguments against Bulgakov less than convincing, you have the freedom as a Presbyterian to incorporate Bulgakov and McCormack into your church’s theological tradition.

      One last point, I assume from your using AD 97 as the cut off mark as referring to the time of the death of the last of the twelve Apostles which then implies that no more of the New Testament letters would be written. If so, that would betray a Protestant biblicist bias inherent to your theological methodology. For the early Christians of AD 97 and the Orthodox Christians of AD 2012 the obligation remains the same to be faithful to the Tradition of the Apostles until Christ returns in glory. The year AD 97 is an arbitrary marker in light of the fact since Pentecost the river of God’s grace has been flowing through human history continuously to the present day in the Orthodox Church. See my posting: “Pentecost and the Promise of God Fulfilled.”


  12. Outlaw Presbyterian

    I understand that Orthodoxy is more than books, but propositional communication through written words cannot be eskewed either, hence your reply to me.

    As to my dating: I was just guessing when St Jude (verse 3) wrote his epistle. And I was quoting Orthodox arguments about the faith once delivered to all the saints.

    I do find it ironic that you mention “Protestant biblicism” when the entirety of most post was a brief summary of the first 100 pages of Fr Sergii’s book *The Lamb of God.* The arguments on static vs dynamic tradition were taken straight from Fr Sergii.

Leave a Reply