The word “Tradition,” in Greek, as it is mentioned in the New Testament, is “Paradosis” which does not mean “imitation” but “delivering something and perpetuating it.” Its cognate verb is “paradidomill” which means “handing over or delivering a thing by hand.” The closely associated verb is “paralambano,” that means “receiving a thing or taking it.” In Hebrew there are two terms corresponding to these two Greek verbs, “maser,” meaning “to hand on or deliver” and “qibbel” meaning “to receive.” Thus, the word “Tradition” means Biblically “delivering the faith and perpetuating it throughout generations.”
The subject of Christian Tradition
In fact, Christ did not deliver His disciples and apostles a written document, but they followed Him everywhere; listening to His teachings and watching His miracles. He spent the forty days after His resurrection with them, teaching them the things pertaining to the heavenly kingdom (Acts 1:3). At last He sent them His Holy Spirit, not only to remind them of His own words, but also to help them to follow His example (John 14:26).
The “Tradition,” according to St. Jude is “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), i.e. the “Gospel” written in our lives and engraved within our hearts. It is a living thing, received by the apostles, who delivered it to their disciples by the Holy Spirit, who bears witness to Christ within the life of the Church. In other words, the action of transmission is realized not only by the apostles’ writings, but rather by the Holy Spirit who guided their feelings, attitudes, worship, behavior and their preaching. He granted them the new life, that is, “the life in Christ.” It is the action of the Holy Spirit that the “tradition of Christ” is preserved in the Church life through the successive generation, as He always lives and acts in the Church yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Thus, tradition is the living stream of the one life of the church, which brings up the past with all its aspects as a living present, and extends the present towards the morrow without deformation.
Tradition in the Apostolic Age
In the apostolic age, the New Testament books were already in existence. Tradition was the only source of Christian faith, doctrines and worship. Its role in the Church life of that period may be summarized in the following points:
Tradition and the Gospel
In fact, the Church received the “word of God” before it was written on paper. She enjoyed the good tidings and understood the deepest meaning of the word of God by the Holy Spirit, through the oral tradition, not only by words but also as a mode of life. She received her life before she had the written New Testament by more than twenty years. When the evangelists and apostles wrote it by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Church accepted it, venerated and understood it as a life she had previously practiced.
St. Paul the apostle told his people repeatedly that he had delivered to them the tradition of the “gospel of salvation,” the “word of hearing” or the “saving deed of God” which he had received from the Church. He says, “Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also you have received and wherein you stand... For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that He was buried, and that He rose again on the third day according to the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:1; cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:13).
The apostles received this “Gospel of Christ,” which is “the Gospel of the Church,” not written on paper but received it orally, in order to deliver it unto the Church by the oral tradition as well as by the written one. The oral tradition does not stand side by side with the written works, as if they are two things, a “scripture” and “tradition,” but as they are one. Whether St. Paul’s teaching was given orally or in writing, it equally carried apostolic authority; hence he can encourage the Thessalonians to “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).Thus, the Gospel is not strange from tradition, but the first is a part of the latter. Both declare the “One Truth,” and explain the nature of the Church.
Perhaps one may ask if oral tradition was cancelled by the appearance of the books of the New Testament. It is obvious that the apostles themselves, in their letters to the early Christian communities, often reminded the believers of oral tradition, from which they may gain an understanding of the Christian truth.
· “Having many things to write unto you, I would not write with paper and ink, but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full” (2John 12).
· “I had many things to write, but I will not with ink and pen write unto you. But I trust I shall shortly see you and we shall speak face to face” (3John 13, 14).
· “And the rest (remaining matters) will I set in order when I come” (1Corinthians 11:34).
· St. Paul wrote to his disciple Titus saying, “For this cause I left you in Crete that You should set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain presbyters in every city” (Titus 1:5).
· He also said to his disciple Timothy, “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed to you, keep by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us” (2 Timothy 1:13, 14).
The Apostle Paul commands his disciples to preserve tradition, deliver it unto others without change, and to keep up with the traditions which they were taught either by word of mouth or by letter. He commanded his disciple Timothy Saying, “The things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). He also commanded the believers to withdraw themselves from every brother walking disorderly and not according to the tradition which they had received (2 Thessalonians 3:6). He also charges us to be aware of every tradition of men against faith saying, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).
Tradition and Church Life
As we understand, the church tradition is the continuous stream of the church life in Jesus Christ, by the work of the Holy Spirit. This life is not limited to our “faith” but also embraces the church’s spiritual and ethical scheme, besides the church order of worship.
The spiritual scheme of the tradition as we see it in St. Paul’s sayings:
· “As therefore you have received (paraimbano) Christ Jesus the Lord, so live in Him, rotted and built up in Him and established in the faith, just as you were taught” (Colossians 2:6, 7).
· “As you have received (paralambano) from us how you ought to live and please God” (1Thessalonians 4:1).
· “Keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition which you received (paralambano) from us” (2Thessalonians 3:6).
· “What you have learned and received (paralambano) and heard and seen in me, do” (Philippians 4:9).
Moreover, in the early Church, many nations converted to Christianity, although they had no translations of the Bible, as yet, in their own languages, and could not therefore learn the truth from it, but from the oral tradition. St. lrenaeus, in the second century, is the first to argue out the matter of tradition. He puts the question - supposing, as might have happened, that we had no Scriptures, to what should we have to make our appeal? “Should we not have to go back to the most ancient Churches, in which the apostles lived, and take from them... what is fixed and ascertained? What else could we do? If the apostles themselves had not left us writings, should we not be obliged to depend on the teaching of the tradition which they bequeathed to those to whose care they left the Churches?”
Tradition Preserves the Bible
The Holy Bible is the book of the Church, which we receive through the Church tradition. By tradition, the “canon” of the holy books which affirms their inspired character is established. St. Basil the Great says, “It is worthy to note that Church tradition gives testimony to the Holy Scripture, and that the Scripture itself is a part of the
Church tradition, but this does not lessen the Scripture’s uniqueness. It preserves its own nature as the word of God, the eternal revelation of divinity, addressed not only to this age but also to the ages to come.”
By tradition we receive the holy gospels, which contain the deeds and words of Christ. The disciples and apostles heard many sayings, preserved them, lived them, but did not record all of them in the gospels. Our teacher St. John concludes his gospel by saying, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did: which if they should be written every one, I think that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25). For instance we mention what the apostle Paul says,
· “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35)
· “Even so has the Lord ordained that they who preach the gospel should live of the gospel” (Corinthians 9:14)
· “And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, let not the wife depart from her husband” (1Corinthians 7:10)
These Lord’s commandments were not recorded in the Gospels, but the Apostle Paul received these commandments and sayings from the disciples and the apostles, who heard the Lord and examined them by Spirit, preserved and delivered them unto others.
Concerning the deeds of Christ, the Apostle Paul also says, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which He was betrayed took bread...” (1Corinthians 11:23). The apostle did not receive this deed directly from the Lord in the night of His suffering, but he received it from the Lord by the oral tradition in a vision (Galatians 1:11, 12). The apostle did receive many direct visions and revelation, but the Lord through the Church tradition delivered this deed from one generation to the next. What is wonderful is that the ancient liturgies, as that of the
“Apostolic Tradition” of St. Hippolytus, quoted the same expression of St. Paul in the “Narrative of Institution.” It is because the apostolic tradition reflects a general tradition in the early Church.
Tradition and the Interpretation and Understanding of the Scriptures
In the second century, the Gnostics exploited the Holy Scripture to their own ends, by quoting some verses and using it far away from the meanings and concepts of the Scriptures as a whole and from the tradition of the Church. Many early Fathers of the church faced the Gnostics and argued their opinions. One of those Fathers is St. lrenaeus, who is called “the Father the Ecclesioastical Tradition.” His thought of “tradition” may be summarized in the following points:
From the Apostolic age, the Christian Church did not neglect the living traditions of the Jews. She refused those traditions which opposed the word of God, and accepted others after Christianizing them, to serve the new faith. Some examples of the New Testament indicate the influence of the old tradition of the Early Christianity, which are not mentioned in the Old Testament, but are quoted from the old tradition:
Tradition and Church Worship
Through tradition we accepted our “Church life in Jesus Christ,” not only through the Christian beliefs, doctrines, Holy Scriptures and ethical scheme, but also through the Church liturgies, rites, canons and all that belongs to our worship. We received a true life of worship in an apostolic and patristic spirit, which strengthens our true faith.
Tradition is the source of our Church liturgies of Baptism, Eucharist, Marriage… etc. At the same time these liturgies are tradition itself at its highest degree of power and solemnity. The church rite is an essential element of the liturgical, family and personal worship, for it meant the participation of the body and spirit in worshipping God. The rites we received by Tradition are not accidental in the life of the Church. In their symbolic meaning they are more than an expression that brings the senses and mind to the realities of faith.
Tradition does not mean “rigidity” but simply gives special attention to the past as a basis for the present, and to the present as a basis for the future. “Tradition is the mystery of church growth and vitality and not of rigidity.”