On the Foundations and Principles of Orthodox Theology: Scripture and Tradition

On the Foundations and Principles of Orthodox Theology: Scripture and Tradition

Guest Post by Marcelo P. Souza

In the context of American Christianity, often the question arises as to what constitutes the foundation and authority for doctrine and life. Is it Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura)? Is it Scripture as interpreted by a confession, or by Calvin, Luther, pastor Bob, or the Spirit moving in me? Or something else? How does one understand the words of God and what constitutes a regulatory principle of Christian doctrine and practice? What is source and the task of theology?

Scripture and Tradition

The source of Orthodox theology is Scripture interpreted in the milieu of Tradition, and its task is the preservation and proclamation of the Truth revealed by God. For the early theologians, God was the ultimate author of revelation, but he had committed it to his apostles who were eyewitnesses of the incarnate Word, and they passed it to the Church. Hence, when asked where the authentic faith was to be found, their answer was clear and unequivocal – it is contained two overlapping authorities: the Church’s continuous tradition of teaching, and Scripture. By tradition the fathers usually meant doctrine which the Lord or his apostles committed to the Church, irrespective of whether it was handed down orally or in documents.

St Athanasius, for example, refers to tradition as that teaching and faith of the Catholic Church, which the Lord bestowed, the apostles proclaimed, and the fathers safeguarded: “Let us look at that very tradition, teaching, and faith . . . which the Lord gave (έδωκεν), the Apostles preached (έκήρυξαν), and the Fathers preserved (έφύλαξαν). Upon this the Church is founded” (Ad Serap., I. 28). The passage is highly characteristic of St. Athanasius. The verb έδωκεν (he gave) is related to the term παράδοσις (a giving over, handing down), and so the single foundation (θεμέλιον) of the Church is composed of the tradition – παράδοσις – from Christ, the διδασκαλία (teaching) by the Apostles, and πίστις (faith) of the Catholic Church.

The early Church did not regard the apostolic testimony as confined to written documents. The testimony stood prior to the documents, and the latter were revered because they enshrined the former. The faith of the Church included the common body of facts and doctrines, the Church’s preaching, or proclamation, the liturgical actions, and the catechetical instruction. Especially the Liturgy and the catechesis were viewed as the “pattern of teaching” (Rom. 6:17). For the early Church, Scripture was part of tradition, and Scripture and the rest of tradition were complementary authorities –  media different in form but coincident in content. As St Irenaeus argues, tradition is that which is handed down by the blessed Apostles and preserved by the succession of witnesses (more specifically, presbyters).

The Vincentian Rule

In the middle of the fifth century Vincent of Lerins expressed a universally applicable rule for how to distinguish the truths and Faith of the Church from the heretical falsehoods. Vincent argued that both the authority of the divine law (the Scriptures) and the tradition of the Church were the sources of doctrine. This is not a two-source model, as he considered the Scriptures to be sufficient in themselves; but since Scripture is susceptible to a variety of interpretations, it is necessary to use the “norm of ecclesiastical and Catholic opinion,” to be identified as “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all (quod ubique, quod semper, quod ad omnibus creditum est).” As Vincent argued,

We shall conform to the principle of universality if we confess as alone true the faith professed by the entire Church throughout the world; to that of antiquity if we deviate in no particular from the tenets manifestly shared by our godly predecessors and the fathers; and equally to that of consent if, relying on former ages, we make our own the definitions and opinions of all, of at any rate the majority of, bishops and elders.[1]J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 50.

It is noticeable that, while a useful concise rule can be used (everywhere, always and by all), this needs several qualifications. First, it is often difficult to define those terms individually. As the very existence of heretics made clear, there was often divergence of opinion, so what truths can be said to be believed “everywhere”? Would that be a majority of places, and if so only an overwhelming majority, or a simple majority? The same can be asked about “always” and “by all.” Vincent suggests that the decisions of a general council are to be preferred, and in the absence of such, one should collate and examine the views of representative Fathers, especially those in different times and places who have remained faithful to the Church. Councils can perfect and polish traditional formulae and concepts, to express “old doctrines in new terms,” allowing for an organic development analogous to the growth of a human body from infancy to age, provided this does not result in the least alteration to the original significance of the doctrine.[2]Ibid., 50-51.

In this way, tradition is Scripture rightly understood, to the end that there will be, as St Paul says, no divisions in the Church, that its members be of the same mind (Παρακαλῶ . . . ἵνα τὸ αὐτὸ λέγητε πάντες καὶ μὴ ᾖ ἐν ὑμῖν σχίσματα ἦτε δὲ κατηρτισμένοι ἐν τῷ αὐτῷ νοῒ καὶ ἐν τῇ αὐτῇ γνώμῃ, 1 Cor 1:10). This mind of the Church is contingent upon the work of the Holy Spirit who lives and works in and through the Body of Christ, in its individual members.

Scripture Rightly Understood

For Florovsky, tradition is Scripture rightly understood. This of course requires exegesis, and since Scripture was written in the Church, by the Church, and according to the ecclesiastical faith and practice which already belonged to the Church before the Scriptures were written, it was only in the Church, within the community of right faith, that Scripture could be adequately understood and correctly interpreted. Scripture has a quality that bears a certain analogy to the hypostatic union. As the divine and human natures are united (without confusion, without change, without division, without separation) in the person of Christ, so in a similar way, the human and the divine elements of Scripture are joined.

The Holy Spirit inspires the writing of the record and witness of the work of Christ (and the Trinity), and the inspired human beings write those documents in their own words, from their own perspectives and styles, from their own experiences (primary theology) and research (secondary theology). This becomes part of the fabric of the Church “of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” The Church then is the community, animated by the Holy Spirit, the living God, and thus becomes the pillar and ground of truth, rooted in the apostolic preaching and teaching witnessed by the Scriptures. This is received and lived by faith, as Florovsky says, a faith that was not an arbitrary and subjective insight of individuals, but rooted in the Apostolic kerygma, authenticated by it, and embodied in the rule of faith received and professed in baptism.

In this way, Scripture is, in a sense, born in the Church, canonized by the Church, and interpreted by the Church. This of course requires application of the Vincentian rule in order to define the Church, and the apostolic tradition to regulate the entire organic development. Heretics were in the Church and yet, as St Irenaeus illustrates, distorting the meaning of the Scriptures and the tradition of the Church, by re-arranging the stones, as it were, originally made as a beautiful image of a king, composed of many precious jewels, on another pattern, so as to produce the image of a dog or of a fox. The Apostolic Tradition of faith was the indispensable guide in the understanding of Scripture and the ultimate authority of right interpretation. The Church was not an external authority, judging over the Scriptures as if the latter had an independent existence, but rather the keeper and guardian of that Divine truth which was stored and deposited in the Scriptures.[3]Fr. Georges Florovsky, “The Function of Tradition in the Ancient Church.” In vol. 1 of The Collected Works: Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View. Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1987, p. … Continue reading

Horizontal and Vertical

For Lossky, tradition involves the meeting of the horizontal line of the historical reality and the vertical line of the work of the Holy Spirit. The presence of the Holy Spirit makes the historical reality relevant, as it receives the divine work and manifestation. Tradition consists of both the visible and verbal transmission of teachings, rules, institutions, and rites (the “horizontal” line, in the sense of the human synergy) and an invisible and actual communication of grace and of sanctification (the “vertical” line); he argues that is necessary to distinguish what is transmitted (the oral and written traditions) and the unique mode of transmission, i.e., the Holy Spirit. Yet again, in an analogy with a Chalcedonian rule, these two principles cannot be separated, as every transmission of a truth of faith implies a communication of the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Lossky argues that Church alone possesses the Tradition, i.e., the knowledge in the Holy Spirit of the Incarnate Word. The Church, after having established the canon of Scripture, preserves it in the Tradition in a dynamic way empowered and purified by the Holy Spirit. As St Basil makes the distinction between dogma (the silent safeguarding of the mysteries, or sacramental life of the Church) and kerygma (proclamation which includes doctrinal definitions, the official prescription of an observance, a canonical act, or public prayers of the Church) the revealed truth is not a dead letter but a living Word: it can be attained only in the Church, through initiation by the sacraments into the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints (Col 1:26). The horizontal line of the traditions received from the mouth of the Lord and transmitted by the apostles and their successors crosses with the vertical, with Tradition— the communication of the Holy Spirit.[4]Vladimir Lossky, “Tradition and Traditions.” In In the Image and Likeness of God. Crestwood: SVS Press, 1985, pp. 145-147

The Work of the Spirit

For Fr Dumitru Staniloae, even though supernatural revelation, in a sense, came to its close in Christ (since he fulfilled the plan of redemption and deification), this revelation is still active with a dynamic character, as Christ communicates it through the Holy Spirit in dialogue with the Church. This does not mean that new or further revelations are given, but there is “a prophetic dynamism, a kind of prophecy in motion, the action of revelation to the time of its final goal is entailed in that prophetic dynamism which finds expression in and through the Church.” The task of Orthodox theology, then, through the Holy Spirit to put into effect the revelation fulfilled in Christ, to make Christ effective as the embodiment of integral revelation.[5]Dumitru Stăniloae, The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994), 34-37.

Holy Scripture is a witness to the work of the Spirit that was produced in those who listened to Christ’s words or to the words the Apostles spoke about Christ after his ascension into heaven, based on his sayings and deeds, and in this way the Spirit makes the words of Scripture real in the community of the Church. Tradition gives a permanent reality to the dialogue of the Church with Christ. Scripture is divinely inspired, and so the unchanged meanings received from the Apostles must be preserved but also deepened; Scripture requires a tradition preserving and making use in its continuous effectiveness of that integral revelation fulfilled in Christ. Scripture has an intrinsic dynamism, and the task of Orthodox theology is to make its content known, applied, and lived in an ever-greater depth.

Tradition is the body of ecclesiastical experience and its transmission, as the apostolic explanation of the content of Scripture includes the application of the content of Scripture and the transmission of its content into the lives of human beings through the founding of the Church. As Staniloae argues, “tradition has two meanings: a) the totality of the various ways by which Christ passes over into the reality of human lives under the form of the Church and all his works of sanctification and preaching; b) the transmission of these ways from generation to generation.”[6]Ibid., 48. As Andrew Louth has argued, Orthodox theology in the approach of Fr Staniloae is centered in the tradition of the most influential Fathers of the Church who interpreted Scripture in the mind of the Church and whose teachings were received by the Church as normative, as a consensus patrum:

If one looks at the Greek Fathers who are central to Fr. Dumitru — Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Cyril, Denys, Maximos, Symeon, and Gregory Palamas — a familiar pattern emerges: for these are the Fathers central to the “Neo-Patristic” synthesis that was so dear to Fr. Georges Florovsky . . .  the same Fathers to whom Vladimir Lossky had constant recourse . . . This places Fr. Dumitru and his understanding of Orthodox theology among some of the Orthodox theologians whose names are most familiar in the West. He is not marginal, he is not even simply a bridge between East and West, or between Russian and Greek Orthodoxy: he is at the center of what many would regard as the liveliest and most original movement in modern Orthodox thought.  . . .  His real sources are Orthodox. This means, predominantly the Fathers . . . But it also includes the lived liturgical experience of the Orthodox Church.[7]Andrew Louth, “The Orthodox Dogmatic Theology of Dumitru Staniloae” in   (Oxford: The Center for Romanian Studies, 2002), pp. 53-55.

Scripture as Tradition

The sources of Orthodox theology, then, in one sense, are the Scriptures and tradition; in a more exact sense, Scripture as part of the Tradition that births it, encompasses it, canonizes it, interprets it, and transmits it in the life, faith, and praxis of the Church as the Body of Christ in whom the Holy Spirit indwells and rests. As Meyendorff argues, “Scripture, while complete in itself, presupposes Tradition, not as an addition, but as the milieu in which it becomes understandable and meaningful.”[8]John Meyendorff, Living Tradition – Orthodox Witness in the Contemporary World. (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Press, 1978), p. 16. This nature and task of Orthodox theology is this continuous preservation and transmission of the deposited faith operated and guided by the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. As Florovsky states, the whole conception of the Church (e.g., in St. Irenaeus) was at once “charismatic” and “institutional,” as the tradition was not just a transmission of inherited doctrines, in a “Judaic manner,” but rather the continuous life in the truth as Scriptures becomes alive.[9]Florovsky, pp. 78-80.


1 J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 50.
2 Ibid., 50-51.
3 Fr. Georges Florovsky, “The Function of Tradition in the Ancient Church.” In vol. 1 of The Collected WorksBible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View. Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1987, p. 77.
4 Vladimir Lossky, “Tradition and Traditions.” In In the Image and Likeness of God. Crestwood: SVS Press, 1985, pp. 145-147
5 Dumitru Stăniloae, The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994), 34-37.
6 Ibid., 48.
7 Andrew Louth, “The Orthodox Dogmatic Theology of Dumitru Staniloae” in   (Oxford: The Center for Romanian Studies, 2002), pp. 53-55.
8 John Meyendorff, Living Tradition – Orthodox Witness in the Contemporary World. (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Press, 1978), p. 16.
9 Florovsky, pp. 78-80.
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