St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox SoborSt. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Sobor
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Webmaster's note: In 1998, while still a Protestant Minister, I submitted the story of my journey to Orthodoxy to our denominational magazine, "Fellowship Today." I received several responses to that article, including a letter from one of our denomination's Ministers, whom I'll call Rev. David. The following article is a letter I sent to him, answering some questions and clearing up some misconceptions that he received from the "edited" version of my article.

To Rev. David, Th.D.
Re: "My Pilgrimage From the FCA"
Dear Rev. David,

Several days ago I received a letter of yours, forwarded to me by the Fellowship Press. Your letter was in response to an article I wrote regarding my entering the Orthodox Church. Thank you very much for your response.

After reading your letter several times, I decided to reply to you personally, in order to help clarify certain issues which I’m sure were not made clear in my Fellowship Today article. Unfortunately, time will not allow me to respond to all that you mentioned in your letter, but there are a couple of areas which I would like to address. Perhaps we can discuss the rest at a later time.

In your letter to me, you write, “You talk about ‘oral tradition’ and refer to the ‘truth discovered by the fathers - in the authoritative teaching of the church (through the councils and Sacred Tradition, of which the Scripture is part).’ But Jesus asks, ‘...why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your traditions?’ (Matt. 15:3) and again ‘…you invalidate the word of God for the sake of your tradition.’ (Matt. 15:6)”

First of all, in response to your particular verses listed above, it is true that Christ DID condemn the scribes and Pharisees for following the traditions of men. But that was NOT because they were following Moses. Just the opposite – it was because they were NOT following Moses. And the moment they stopped following the teachings and traditions that Moses handed down to them, they began following the traditions of men (see Mark 7:9-11).

As I reply to your letter, I will quite often be quoting the Church Fathers. At the end of your letter, you indicated that you have a Doctorate of Theology. I am assuming therefore, that you have a working knowledge of the theological writings of the Church Fathers. If you don’t, I would greatly encourage you to read them more extensively. When I first began to learn about the writings of the Fathers, I was challenged by something that John Wesley once said:

"Can any who spend several years in those seats of learning, be excused if they do not add to that the reading of the Fathers? [They are] the most authentic commentators on Scripture, as being both nearest the fountain, eminently endued with that Spirit by whom all Scripture was given." (John Wesley)

Frank Schaeffer, son of the late Francis Schaeffer, also reminds us of this when he says, “It is supremely arrogant to suppose that we, some two thousand years later, have a better idea of God's plan for Church order than did the actual hearers of the Apostles and the second generation of Christian bishops, many of whom were martyred for their faith."

With this in mind, and to address part of your letter to the Fellowship Today magazine, I wanted to write to you in order to clarify what I mean when I talk about Tradition.

For so long we've talked about how we as Protestants, especially of the Pentecostal variety, don't believe in tradition, but only in what the Bible says. But whether we realize it or not, or whether we want to admit it or not, we all have traditions and rituals that we live by and practice.

Depending on what church we are a part of, we will follow certain traditions that have been developed within that denomination: Reformed tradition, Lutheran Tradition, Mennonite Tradition, Anglican Tradition, Roman Catholic Tradition, Pentecostal Tradition.

And then, within those ‘traditions,’ those various denominations, you will have many different groups and factions that have split off from each other, each following their own set of traditions that they've developed over the years.

So then, the question is not, "Do I believe in tradition or ritual?" but, "Which traditions and rituals should I believe in and practice?"

How can we define “Tradition”? It means exactly this: it is that which is "passed on" and "given over" from one to another. Holy Tradition, therefore, is that which is passed on and given over within the Church from the time of Christ's apostles right down to the present day.

George Florovsky, one of the outstanding theologians and writers of our century, made a statement to the effect that he would not isolate himself to his own age. Too many of us do exactly that – we take our beliefs and practices from what our Church leaders of 100 or 200 years ago told us, rather that going back to see what the original Church, with the Apostles and Church Fathers, have taught us.

Isolating ourselves to our own age is precisely what the vast majority of Christians are doing today. We are ignorant of our own spiritual heritage. We have cut ourselves off from our spiritual roots.

Some of us might remember that there were Church Fathers, but most of us are completely ignorant of what they said and taught. And we know even less about the Church’s Seven Ecumenical Councils, even though the Councils’ decisions and directions were understood to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and that the ENTIRE CHURCH had to follow those decisions and directions.

In other words, large parts of Christendom are not benefiting from what the Church has been, said, or done. We are living and thinking as though the Church did not exist until we got on board, or that the Church of the past is irrelevant and has nothing to do with us today. For many people, it is as though the Church ended in Acts 28 and did not reappear again until the sixteenth century Reformation, or for a few, not until the twentieth century. Some even think that the Church died out after the year 100, and was revived again on Jan. 1, 1901, the date some would say that the Pentecostal movement got started.

So, what I’m saying in all of this is simply that many of us have cut ourselves off from what the Church has called Holy Tradition. This has not only created a weak condition among Christians today, but it has also drastically deformed our concept of what the Church is supposed to be like. The unhealthy fruit of this condition is staggering. When people say, "I wish we were more like the early Church, or the New Testament Church," I realize that most of them haven’t got a clue as to what they’re really asking.

Until I read the Early Church writings for myself, I didn’t have a clue what it was like either. I only THOUGHT I knew what it was like back then. You see, it is Holy Tradition that provides us our LIVING CONNECTION with the past. We CAN be like the early Church, if we WANT TO BE, but not without Holy Tradition. It is only through learning the Tradition of the Church that we discover what it really means to be the Church.

Now, you mentioned a couple of verses in Matthew’s Gospel that mentions the problems that certain traditions can cause. Very true. But let’s not stop with simply two verses of Scripture. There’s more to the Bible than just Matthew’s Gospel. What else does the Bible say about tradition?

I Cor. 11:2: "I commend you," Paul says to the Corinthian believers, "because you ... maintain the traditions just as I have delivered them to you."

I Cor. 15:3: "For I delivered (Gr. "traditioned") to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures..."

II Thess. 2:15: "Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle." (Here Paul says that both forms of Tradition are handed down to us, and both are to be equally followed: oral and written).

II Thess. 3:6: "But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us."

So what’s the difference between these verses, and the ones you mentioned? We need to remember that there’s a difference between what the Scripture teaches about Holy Tradition, and the traditions of men. Jesus taught against the traditions of men which went against what the Church taught. If a tradition started being taught that had no foundation in the Scriptures OR in what the Church Fathers taught, then it was to be dismissed as a tradition of man. But in talking about the HOLY TRADITION OF THE CHURCH, the Scriptures are very clear – we are obligated to follow all of them, whether they came to us in writing (Scriptures) or whether they were passed on to us orally (by the Apostles and their successors, the Church Fathers) - II Thess. 2:15 – "Therefore brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or by our epistle (letter)."

In the fourth century, St. Athanasius, one of the key Church Fathers in preventing the Church from falling into the heresy of Arianism, wrote these words: "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 [Tradition] the Church is founded."

Occasionally I’ll hear someone say that the early Church quickly became an apostate Church after the first century. I’ve even read several books that have suggested that. BUT WHAT THEY FAIL TO REALIZE IS THAT, IF THE CHURCH BECAME APOSTATE AFTER THE FIRST CENTURY, THEN THE VERY BIBLE THAT WE HAVE CAN’T EVEN BE TRUSTED – BECAUSE IT WAS THAT VERY CHURCH THAT GAVE US THE BIBLE IN THE FOURTH CENTURY. (Forgive my use of all caps. In some mail readers, the bold and italics emphasis is not transmitted properly, so I’ll use caps).

On the other hand, if we can trust that Church to give us the Bible we have today, why can’t we trust them to tell us what we’re supposed to be believing, and how we’re supposed to be worshipping? If we can’t trust their decisions in these areas, then we shouldn’t be trusting their decision to give us this book we call the Bible – we can’t have it both ways. We can’t pick and choose which parts of the Church we like, and which ones we don’t – we are never given that option – we either accept what the Church has taught as a whole (including it’s beliefs and practices) or we have to believe that it went into apostasy, and we must therefore reject all of what the Church handed down to us (including the Scriptures).

So the question, basically, is this - can the Church be trusted, or can’t it? The Bible says that God has established His Church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. If the gates of Hell prevailed against it EVEN FOR ONE DAY, then that Scripture is wrong. The Bible also says that the Holy Spirit will always teach and guide the Church, and lead it into all Truth. As Christians we have to believe that that Scripture is true, and that God has always preserved and kept His Church alive and well.

Recently I did a series of sermons called the Summer of Saints. One of the Saints we looked at was Polycarp (A.D. 69-155), Bishop of Smyrna (one of the Churches mentioned in Revelation). Eusebius (fourth century), in his book on Church History, tells us that Polycarp was a student (disciple) of the Apostle John, and was appointed by John to be the Bishop of Smyrna. Around the year 180, Saint Irenaeus (a Bishop in France, and himself a onetime student of Polycarp) wrote these words about Polycarp:

"But Polycarp also was not only instructed by Apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by the Apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried (on earth) a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, HAVING ALWAYS TAUGHT THE THINGS WHICH HE HAD LEARNED FROM THE APOSTLES, AND WHICH THE CHURCH HAS HANDED DOWN, AND WHICH ALONE ARE TRUE."

Saint Irenaeus (second century) also says that the true Faith "is being preserved in the Church from the Apostles through the succession of the presbyters." [Presbyter refers to the Bishops and Priests – the word "Priest" is actually a contracted form of the word "Presbyter"]. This tells us that the Church held the same Faith with ONE VOICE as it was handed down by the Apostles and preserved by those Bishops and Church leaders who came after them. In fact, the Early Church considered the Traditions and teachings of the Church not only to have come from the Apostles, but from the Holy Spirit Himself. An example of this is seen in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. After making their decision, James, the presiding Bishop, said "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit AND to us" (15:28).

St. Irenaeus later reaffirmed this when he wrote: "Tradition which expresses the voice of the whole Church is also the voice of the Holy Spirit living in the Church"

So we need to remember that when the Seven Ecumenical Councils brought forth decisions during the first 800 years of the Church, those decisions were considered by the whole Church to be the voice of the Holy Spirit to the Church. And if anyone didn't agree with any of these decisions and teachings of the Councils, then that person was considered to be outside the Church - living in schism - trying to divide the Church. If any local Church rejected any of the Council's teachings, the Church as a whole considered that local Church to be in heresy, and outside the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

Now, the Church Fathers were the theologians, the teachers of the Faith, whom God raised up to give definition to the truth that had been handed down to them. They preserved and developed the Faith in keeping with the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit. There were many heresies being taught in those days – just as there are today. So how did the Church judge them to be heresies? One of the ways was to see if these groups that were teaching the strange teachings had any Church Fathers that could trace their teachings back to the Apostles. And because they didn’t, they were judged by the Church to be heretical, and outside the Christian Faith. In other words, the Church called them "innovators" – they were teaching doctrines and practices that were never part of the Christian faith, and that were not handed down to them by the Apostles and their successors – their thinking was not in keeping with the Tradition that the Spirit had revealed and that the Fathers had preserved. And so they were judged as heretics to the Faith.

In the words of Tertullian (A.D. 140-230):
"But if there be any (heresies) which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs] shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men, --a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement [an associate of Paul mentioned in the Bible] to have been ordained in like manner by Peter. In exactly the same way the other churches likewise exhibit (their several worthies), whom, as having been appointed to their episcopal places by apostles, they regard as transmitters after their blasphemy, what is there that is unlawful for them (to attempt)? But should they even effect the contrivance, they will not advance a step. For their very doctrine, after comparison with that of the apostles, will declare, by its own diversity and contrariety, that it had for its author neither an apostle nor an apostolic man; because, as the apostles would never have taught things which were self-contradictory, so the apostolic men would not have inculcated teaching different from the apostles, unless they who received their instruction from the apostles went and preached in a contrary manner. To this test, therefore will they be submitted for proof by those churches, who, although they derive not their founder from apostles or apostolic men (as being of much later date, for they are in fact being founded daily), yet, since they agree in the same faith, they are accounted as not less apostolic because they are akin in doctrine. Then let all the heresies, when challenged to these two tests by our apostolic church, offer their proof of how they deem themselves to be apostolic. But in truth they neither are so, nor are they able to prove themselves to be what they are not. Nor are they admitted to peaceful relations and communion by such churches as are in any way connected with apostles, inasmuch as they are in no sense themselves apostolic because of their diversity as to the mysteries of the faith."

The same Clement mentioned above, in his "Letter to the Corinthians," explains how this Tradition is passed from one to another: "The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ has done so from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits [of their labors], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus saith the Scripture in a certain place, 'I will appoint their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons in faith.'"

St. Irenaeus, in book 3 of his series "Against the Heresies," writes: "But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. . . It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about... . In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth."

In regards to beliefs and practices which are not clearly spelled out in the written part of Tradition [the Bible], St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) reminds us that the oral part of Tradition is just as valid: "As to those other things which we hold on the authority, not of Scripture, but of tradition, and which are observed throughout the whole world, it may be understood that they are held as approved and instituted either by the apostles themselves, or by plenary Councils, whose authority in the Church is most useful."

And this brings us to the second part of your letter which I wanted to address – the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. In your letter you write to me: "You say the Scripture is only part of the authoritative teaching of the church. The Scripture itself warns not to add to the word (Deut. 4:2, 12:32; Prov. 30:6; Rev. 22:18)… The doctrine of Sola Scriptura is what true Christians go by, even if the fathers of that day held a different concept of 'church.'"

I think that the most troublesome part of Tradition for most people is the relationship of Tradition to Scripture. Most of us tend to put Scripture above the Church, as if the Church was made for the Bible. But in reality, the Bible was made for the Church. We should ask ourselves the question: 'Which came first, the Bible or the Church?' The answer, of course, is the Church. Jesus established His Church, and then used certain people within that Church to write Gospels and letters. The Church later took these Gospels and letters and compiled them into one book which we call the Bible. But that didn't happen until about 400 years AFTER the Church was already established.

In fact, the Church Fathers even taught many teachings that are not clearly spelled out in the Bible. But they didn't teach them as their personal opinion, saying we could take it our leave it. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they met in Councils to determine what the correct Faith of the Church was supposed to be. Under the teachings of the Fathers, certain doctrines began to take shape that are only implied in the Bible (e.g. the Trinity; Deity of Christ; two natures of Christ; relationship of Christ to the Father; etc.). Specific forms of worship and practice, although always there in kernel form, also began to develop, like the rituals and the ceremonies of Baptism and the Eucharist. Now, the Bible says some things about these, but it never gives a clear picture of every detail surrounding these activities. And so, it's through the writings of the Fathers that the gaps are filled in as to what the Early Church believed and practiced.

The Fathers, however, always spoke of their teachings as having "Apostolic" origin. And some people have a problem with these teachings because they don't see them clearly spelled out in the Bible. Someone once said that it might be helpful to think of these so-called "additions" to the Bible as things that might be omitted from a biography. A biography does not completely tell every detail about the life of its subject. We could never say that because such and such a detail is not in a person's biography, therefore, it did not happen, and it's not true. We would recognize that there are many things that can only be learned about a person's life by talking to those who knew that person.

For example, if you really wanted to know about the life of Billy Graham, you wouldn't just read a couple of biographies. You would go to his home town where he grew up - talk with the people who knew him - make an appointment with his son, Franklin Graham. And I'll guarantee you that you'll learn more about Billy Graham than could ever be contained in a few biographies.

It's the same thing with the Scriptures. There is no way that every detail of the Faith could be contained in one little book. There is no way that all the teachings that Jesus gave could ever be contained in the Bible alone. There had to be many things left out. In fact, this is exactly what St. John says: "And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book" (John 23:30). Also, "And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written" (John 21:25).

Acts 1:3 tells about Jesus giving more teachings about the Kingdom of God before His ascension. What were those teachings? The Bible doesn't say. But one example of a teaching that Jesus gave, but which the Gospels don't record Him saying it, is Acts 20:35: "And remember the words of our Lord Jesus, that He said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'" Here was an oral teaching of Jesus that we would never have heard about, except that Paul recorded it. Now, if Paul didn’t record it, but one of the Church Fathers did, this teaching of Jesus would have still been considered valid and true by the Church. Why? Because it was a part of the Sacred Tradition of the Church.

There are also many teachings of St. Paul which are not recorded in the Bible (I Cor. 11:34), as well that of St. John (II John 12). These teachings, if they were passed on (traditioned) to the various Churches, would be just as much from God as if they had been recorded in the Bible.

So, if Jesus and the Apostles had many other things for us to learn, and they weren't all recorded in the Bible, where do we turn to, to find out what those teachings are? We turn to those who were the students nd disciples of the Apostles themselves.

II Timothy 2:2: "And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also." – notice the safeguard "many witnesses." These doctrines were verified as accurate and true by others who heard them. See also II Thess. 2:15, 3:6.

This concept of passing on the teaching of the Apostles from one generation of Bishops to the next is a known as Apostolic Succession. What does that mean? Well, to put it in practical terms, it works like this: For a few moments, let's put ourselves in the place of the early Christians. Suppose you're alive in the time of Jesus, how could you tell if a certain message by someone was really part of the Church's teaching? Ask Jesus. Now he's gone back to heaven. How can you know what is the truth? Ask the Apostles. Now they're gone. What now? Ask those who were taught by the Apostles, and whom the Apostles appointed to become the Bishops and Priests in the Church after them. Now they're gone. Who do we ask now? Ask those who continued to succeed the Apostles as Bishops and Priests of the Church. Do this for the next 300 years. Then the Bible as we know it is given to us - at least SOME of the writings of the Apostles. We don't have all of them. Ie. Another letter to Corinthians is missing; possible letter to Laodicea not included; many other writings of Apostles not in existence today.

That's what Apostolic Succession is all about - passing on the pure Faith to the next generation of Church leaders. And each leader can trace their lineage directly back to one of the Apostles, or to one of the Apostolic men (men who were associates of the Apostles).

One of these Apostolic men was a Bishop by the name of Clement, whom I mentioned earlier. Clement, who lived from approximately A.D. 30-100, and is mentioned by Paul as a fellow worker in Phil. 4:3, was a disciple of Paul who later became the Bishop of Rome. In the Letter of I Clement he writes, "The Message was delivered orally by our Lord to the Apostles and was handed on orally by them to their successors."

Now, this is not someone making this up 500 years removed from the earliest years of the Church. This was someone right on the front lines. This is someone who lived and worked in the time when these teachings were being orally transmitted to the Apostle’s successors. As a worker with St. Paul, if anyone knew how the Church operated and passed on it’s teachings, St. Clement did!

St. Clement goes on to clarify this practice:
"Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier... . Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned, and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry." (Letter to the Corinthians 42:4-5, 44:1-3 [A.D. 80]).

This reference to Bishops by a companion of Peter and Paul can be quite upsetting to someone who doesn’t believe the first century Church had any formal hierarchical organization. Clement says that the Apostles had foreknowledge from Jesus himself that there would be conflict over the office of Bishop and added a requirement that when one died to appoint another [Apostolic Succession]. The Apostles, with foreknowledge from Christ, gave instructions to their disciples to keep the line of Bishops continuing. Was this actually a precept passed down to the Church from Jesus himself? This seemed to be the understanding in the Early Church.

Eusebius wrote in his History of the Church: "Pre-eminent at that time in Asia was a companion of the Apostles, Polycarp, on whom the eyewitnesses and ministers of the Lord had conferred the Episcopate {Office of Bishop} of the Church of Smyrna.." (Eusebius: The History of the Church, Penguin Classics, p. 97, translated by G. A. Williamson)

Apostolic Succession was used in the Church as a major safeguard against false teachings and heresies coming into the Church. The Christians had no doubts about how to determine which Church was the true Church, and which teachings were the true teachings of Christ. The test was simple: JUST TRACE THE APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION OF THE TEACHERS.

J.N.D. Kelly, an Early Church Historian (Protestant), writes: "[W]here in practice was [the] apostolic testimony or tradition to be found? ... The most obvious answer was that the apostles had committed it orally to the Church, where it had been handed down from generation to generation... . Unlike the alleged secret tradition of the Gnostics, it was entirely public and open, having been entrusted by the apostles to their successors, and by these in turn to those who followed them, and was visible in the Church for all who cared to look for it" (Early Christian Doctrines, 37).

Irenaeus explains how the whole Church around the world had one and the same faith and doctrine (compare this to today’s Protestant "Church"): "For although the languages of the world are different, yet the ... tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany DO NOT BELIEVE OR HAND DOWN ANYTHING DIFFERENT, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul [France], nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world….NOR WILL ANY ONE OF THE RULERS IN THE CHURCHES, HOWEVER HIGHLY GIFTED HE MAY BE [AS A SPEAKER], TEACH DOCTRINES DIFFERENT FROM THESE..."

So, it was through the means of Apostolic Succession that the Oral Tradition, or Holy Tradition, came to be handed down from Church to Church, and from Bishop to Bishop. In this way, it was guaranteed that the Faith that was being taught in the year 800, was identical to the Faith being taught in the year 100, and even earlier by the Apostles.
Saint Basil, writing around the year 350, spoke of these unwritten teachings that were handed down by Apostolic Succession as the "unwritten mysteries of the Church," all of which were being taught and believed by the WHOLE CHURCH (not just part of the Church) - and these unwritten teachings were understood to have great authority and were considered absolutely necessary for the preservation of the Christian Faith.

St. Basil (A.D. 329-379): "Of the teachings and proclamations preserved in the Church, some we possess from written teaching, while others we have received in secret from the Tradition of the Apostles; these both have the same validity [ie. authority] for true religion. And no one will deny these points, at least if he is even moderately experienced in Church [matters]." (Concerning the Holy Spirit 27; PG 32:188A).

St. John Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407): "They (namely the Apostles) have not handed down everything in writing, but have also delivered many things in unwritten form. The former and the latter are equally trustworthy, and so we also consider the [unwritten] Tradition of the Church to be trustworthy. Is it Tradition? Then seek no further" (On 2 Thessalonians, Homily 4; PG 62:488).

In explaining the importance of Holy Tradition, Archbishop Paul of Finland writes as follows in his book, "The Faith We Hold": "Moreover, when we take into account how few "books," or manuscripts, there were in those days, and the fact that besides the genuine writings there were other gospels and texts written under the names of the Apostles, it is easy to understand how important the living Tradition of the Church was in safeguarding the true Christian faith. The prime importance of Tradition is plainly shown by the fact that it was not until the fifth century that the Church established conclusively which books in circulation should be regarded as genuinely inspired by God's revelation. Thus the Church itself determined the composition of the Bible."

All of the writings of the New Testament were written by the year 100. But because most of the New Testament is nothing more than letters to certain Churches, not every Church had a copy of all of the letters and Gospels. One Church would have some of the writings, and another Church would have some other ones. One would have a copy of the Gospel of St. Mark, and another would have a copy of Paul's letter to the Ephesians. And whenever possible, each Church would have their letters (or epistles) copied out by hand and sent to other Churches so that they might benefit from the letter as well.

Along with these Apostolic writings, there were many other writings being written and sent around to some of the Churches. Some of these other writings were written by the men who later came to be known as Church Fathers - but OTHER writings would be written by those who were seeking to destroy the Faith by introducing false teachings and heresies into the Church. Very often, these heretical writings would carry the name of an Apostle, as if the Apostle had written it - (ie: "Gospel of Peter," or "Gospel of Thomas") and they would tend to bring some confusion to certain people about what was to be believed, and what was to be considered heresy. With so many letters, and Gospels, being sent around to the Churches, how was anyone supposed to know what to believe?

And so, because of all the false teachings and writings going around, the Church Fathers decided to put together, into one book, some of the writings of the Apostles that were in the Church's possession. And since so many books were being circulated which had an Apostle's name attached to it, the Church needed a standard, a guideline, to help them determine which ones were authentic, and which were fake.

This was one of their main guidelines: If a certain writing, which claimed to have been written by an Apostle, could be verified to have existed in the earliest years of the Church, and if that Gospel, or epistle, taught the same Faith and practices that the Fathers themselves believed and taught, then it was accepted as genuine. But if that epistle or Gospel taught anything different from what the Church Fathers were teaching, or from what Oral Tradition had passed on to them, then that book was rejected. In other words, the books of the Bible were accepted as authentic based upon whether or not they agreed with what the Church Fathers were teaching and practicing. If a certain letter lined up with the Tradition of the Church, then it was included in the Bible. And so history records that the earliest complete listing of all twenty-seven books of the New Testament was not even given to us until A.D. 367, by St. Athanasius, a Bishop in Egypt. So, if you take away the Church and it’s authority, then how do we know that the New Testament we have today is really the writings of the Apostles, instead of the hundreds of other writings that the Church rejected?

And since it was the Church that defined the content of the Bible, then it's also to the Church that we must turn for the interpretation of the Bible. If there are, for example, five different denominations giving five different interpretations on the Scriptures that talk about water baptism, then we must go back to the Early Church Fathers and read what the Church as a whole taught about those Scriptures. They were the ones who gave us that Scripture on water baptism, so they are the ones we must listen to in order to find out what that Scripture means. And that's how we determine what is part of the Faith, and what is not.

Now, this doesn't mean that we can't read the Bible for ourselves and hear God speak to us from that reading. But on the other hand, "private interpretation" is never the basis for our authority (II Peter 1:20, but not in NIV - bad translation in this verse). We've got all kinds of cults and heresies going around (Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses) each claiming that their teachings can be proven from the Bible.

So how do we know they're wrong? By checking to see how the Church has always interpreted those Scriptures. What did the Fathers say about those particular teachings? Is what they're teaching in keeping with the Holy Tradition of the Church (meaning both the Bible plus all the other teachings and practices of the Church that have been handed down to us)?

The judgment of Scriptural interpretation must never be a merely private judgment, but must be a judgment in harmony with the mind of the Church as expressed in Holy Tradition.

To sum up: It is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority, for it was the Church which originally decided which books form a part of Holy Scripture; and it is the Church alone which can interpret Holy Scripture with authority.

I realize that this goes against the grain of many people today. Too many people have become too individualistic, thinking that they can give any interpretation they want to the Scriptures. That's why we often hear people say, "I can believe anything I want," or "Nobody tells me what to believe except the Holy Spirit." We hear those phrases again and again. We freely re-interpret Christ's teachings according to our personal tastes, guided only by our personal liking.

A good example of this is found in this article from the ChristianWeek newspaper, June 10, 1997: "Six out of 10 Americans, including 55 percent of self-described born-again Christians, do not believe in the existence of the Holy Spirit. Yet 84% of American adults embrace the Christian faith, according to a new study by the Barna Research Group. 'America appears to be drowning in a sea of relativistic, non-biblical theology,' says George Barna. 'For the majority of Americans – especially born again Christians – to reject the existence of the Holy Spirit, reflects either incredible ignorance of the basic teachings of Christianity, or a pick-and-choose mentality in which people only believe those teachings from the Bible which they like or understand.' Barna describes those who deny the existence of the Holy Spirit as 'a people whose Christianity is superficial, compromised and inconsistent.'"

Barna was wrong. According to Holy Tradition, and the teachings of the Church Fathers, those who deny the existence of the Holy Spirit are following heresy, and considered outside the Church.

At this point it might be good to ask ourselves the question, "Does the Scripture teach that it is 'all sufficient?'" The most obvious assumption that underlies the doctrine of "Scripture alone" is that the Bible has within it all that is needed for everything that concerns the Christian’s life — all that would be needed for true faith, practice, holiness, and worship. The Scripture that is most usually cited to support this notion is:
“...from a child thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (II Timothy 3:15-17).

Those who would use this passage to advocate Sola Scriptura argue that this passage teaches the "all sufficiency" of Scripture — because, "If, indeed, the Holy Scriptures are able to make the pious man perfect... then, indeed to attain completeness and perfection, there is no need of tradition." But what can really be said based on this passage? To begin with, we should ask what Paul is talking about when he speaks of the Scriptures that Timothy has known since he was a child. Well, one thing we know for sure is that Paul is not referring to the New Testament, because the New Testament had not yet been written when Timothy was a child — in fact it was not nearly finished when Paul wrote this epistle to Timothy, much less collected together into the canon of the New Testament as we now know it. Obviously here, and in most references to "the Scriptures" that we find in the New Testament, Paul is speaking of the Old Testament; so if this passage is going to be used to set the limits on inspired authority, not only will Tradition be excluded but this passage itself and the entire New Testament.

In the second place, if Paul meant to exclude tradition as not being authoritative, then we should wonder why Paul uses non-biblical oral tradition in this very same chapter. The names Jannes and Jambres are not found in the Old Testament, yet in II Timothy 3:8 Paul refers to them as opposing Moses. Paul is drawing upon the oral tradition that the names of the two most prominent Egyptian Magicians in the Exodus account (Ch. 7-8) were "Jannes" and "Jambres" (see The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, vol. 2, "Jannes and Jambres," by A..F. Walls, 733-744). And this is by no means the only time that a non-biblical source is used in the New Testament — the best known instance is in the Epistle of St. Jude, which quotes from the Book of Enoch (Jude 14,15 cf. Enoch 1:9).

As mentioned earlier, when the Church officially canonized the books of Scripture, the primary purpose in establishing an authoritative list of books which were to be received as Sacred Scripture was to protect the Church from spurious books which claimed apostolic authorship but were in fact the work of heretics (e.g. the gospel of Thomas). Heretical groups could not base their teachings on Holy Tradition because their teachings originated from outside the Church, so the only way that they could claim any authoritative basis for their heresies was to twist the meaning of the Scriptures and to forge new books in the names of apostles or Old Testament saints. The Church defended itself against heretical teachings by appealing to the apostolic origins of Holy Tradition (proven by Apostolic Succession, i.e. the fact that the bishops and teachers of the Church can historically demonstrate their direct descendence from the Apostles), and by appealing to the universality of the Orthodox Faith (i.e. that the Orthodox faith is that same faith that Orthodox Christians have always accepted throughout its history and throughout the world). The Church defended itself against spurious and heretical books by establishing an authoritative list of sacred books that were received throughout the Church as being divinely inspired and of genuine Apostolic origin.

By establishing the canonical list of Sacred Scripture the Church did not intend to imply that all of the Christian Faith and all information necessary for worship and good order in the Church was contained in them. One thing that is beyond serious dispute is that by the time the Church settled the Canon of Scripture it was in its faith and worship essentially indistinguishable from the Church of later periods — this is an historical certainty. As far as the structure of Church authority, it was Orthodox bishops together in various councils who settled the question of the Canon — and so it is to this day in the Orthodox Church when any question of doctrine or discipline has to be settled. Even a secular source such as Grolier's Encyclopedia recognizes this, as evidenced by this entry: "Historically, the contemporary Orthodox Church stands in direct continuity with the earliest Christian communities founded...by the Apostles of Jesus" (Orthodox Church, 1993 Grolier Electronic Publishing).

Another important question we must ask ourselves is, "Does the doctrine of Sola Scriptura meet it’s own criteria?" You would think that such a belief system as Protestantism, which has as its cardinal doctrine that Scripture alone is authoritative in matters of faith, would first seek to prove that this cardinal doctrine met its own criteria. One would probably expect that Protestants could brandish hundreds of proof-texts from the Scriptures to support this doctrine — upon which all else that they believe is based. At the very least one would hope that two or three solid texts which clearly teach this doctrine could be found — since the Scriptures themselves say, "In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established" (II Corinthians 13:1). Yet it is clearly evident to anyone who studies the Bible that there is not one single verse in the entirety of Holy Scripture that teaches the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. There is not even one that comes close. Yes, there are many places in the Bible that speak of its inspiration, of its authority, and of its profitability — but there is no place in the Bible that teaches that only Scripture is authoritative for believers. If such a teaching were even implicit, then surely the early Fathers of the Church would have taught this doctrine also, but which of the Holy Fathers ever taught such a thing? Thus Protestantism's most basic teaching self-destructs, being contrary to itself. But not only is the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura not taught in the Scriptures — it is in fact specifically contradicted by the Scriptures (which we have already discussed) that teach that Holy Tradition is also binding to Christians (II Thessalonians 2:15; I Corinthians 11:2).

Not once throughout the whole Bible does Christ say that He has come to establish a Bible. On the contrary, it is clear that He came to establish the Church to carry out his mission. The Church is referred to time and time again. Jesus never spoke of a future book which would be the ultimate authority on Christian matters. But He did say in Matthew 16:18, "...I will build my CHURCH; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Again, in Matthew 18:17, Christ says that a sinner should be taken to the CHURCH for final judgment. It is clear that the Church Christ founded has real authority. Even St. Paul points this out clearly in I Timothy 3:15 – "...but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth." In fact, this idea of sola Scriptura can not be found in ANY writings of the Church Fathers during the first 1000 years of the Church’s history. It is only after Rome broke away from the Church that several Roman Catholic dissidents, such as Huss and Wycliff, paved the way for the Reformation by introducing this new doctrine.

One final question that must be answered is, "Is the Bible, in practice, really 'all sufficient' for Protestants?"
Protestants frequently claim they "just believe the Bible," but a number of questions arise when one examines their actual use of the Bible. For instance, why do Protestants write so many books on doctrine and the Christian life in general, if indeed all that is necessary is the Bible? If the Bible by itself were sufficient for one to understand it, then why don’t Protestants simply hand out Bibles? And if it is "all sufficient," why does it not produce consistent results, i.e. why do Protestants not all believe the same? What is the purpose of the many Protestant study Bibles, if all that is needed is the Bible itself? Why do they hand out tracts and other material? Why do they even teach or preach at all —why not just read the Bible to people? The answer is though they usually will not admit it, Protestants instinctively know that the Bible cannot be understood alone. And in fact every Protestant sect has its own body of traditions, though again they generally will not call them what they are. It is not an accident that Jehovah’s Witnesses all believe the same things, and Southern Baptists generally believe the same things, but Jehovah’s Witnesses and Southern Baptists emphatically do not believe the same things. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Southern Baptists do not each individually come up with their own ideas from an independent study of the Bible; rather, those in each group are all taught to believe in a certain way — from a common tradition. So then the question is not really whether we will just believe the Bible or whether we will also use tradition — the real question is which tradition will we use to interpret the Bible? Which tradition can be trusted, the Apostolic Tradition of the Orthodox Church, or the muddled, and modern, traditions of Protestantism that have no roots beyond the advent of the Protestant Reformation.

I apologize for the length of this response to your letter. I would have liked to address several other points you brought up as well, but time and space would not allow it. If you are interested in discussing these subjects further, please feel free to write me blehr@netscape.net. I realize that all that I have written here may not serve to change your mind on these issues, but I hope they serve to help you understand a little more clearly what the Orthodox Church means when it talks about Holy Tradition, Apostolic Succession, and the Bible. May God continue to lead and guide you in your own spiritual journey.

In Christ,
Brian Lehr
 
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