What Is “Sacred Tradition”?
The Orthodox Church explains this concept in this manner:
“Sacred Tradition includes the following: the oral teachings of Jesus Christ, lectures, and other events in the history of the gospel. The church exists in parallel with the Scriptures and adds to them… but things that are not recorded in the Gospels. John the Evangelist states that if a list of everything in detail had been compiled, the world would not be able to preserve these books. (John 21:25) Many events are still transmitted by spoken word (and not through the written Scriptures). For example the Scriptures do not contain stories about the Mother of God, including her birth, her presentation at the temple, and her glorious Assumption.”
“What is Sacred Tradition? It includes all of the spiritual treasures that we inherited from our holy ancestors, and which are in perfect harmony with the Holy Scriptures, and thus help us to correctly understand Scripture. Which is older, Holy Scripture or Holy Tradition? Holy Tradition. Which is greater? Holy Tradition. St. John the Evangelist confirms this, saying: ‘Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.’ (Jn.21:25).”
“Sacred Tradition includes:
1. Brief articulation and formulation of our Orthodox faith;
2. Doctrines of the seven holy Sacraments, and the order in which they are performed;
3. Apostolic laws (canons);
4. The dogmas (canons) of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, which include:
I. Nicaea in 325 A.D. with 318 holy fathers
II. Constantinople in 381 A.D. with 150 holy fathers
III. Ephesus in 431 A.D. with 200 holy fathers
IV. Chalcedon in 451 A.D. with 630 holy fathers
V. Constantinople in 533 A.D. with 160 holy fathers
VI. Constantinople in 680 A.D. with 170 holy fathers, and
VII. Nicaea in 787 A.D. with 367 holy fathers.
(A total of 2,000 representatives of Christian churches from around the world attended these Seven Ecumenical Councils);
5. Canons and rules of the local synod, or council;
6. Laws of church discipline as put forth by St. Basil the Great and other saints;
7. Writings of the Holy Fathers of the Church;
8. Liturgy and other religious worship;
9. Christian hagiographies of saints and martyrs;
10. Pious customs, meanings, and symbols as expressions of our faith, hope and
In a nutshell, Eastern Orthodoxy believes that Sacred Tradition precedes the Holy Scriptures. It believes that Holy Tradition is older than, embellishes, and even is Concept of “Tradition”
The apostolic writings of the New Testament contain several references to the word “tradition”. When Jesus Christ used the term “tradition” in the Gospels (Mt.15, Mk.7), He always viewed it in a negative light. In these passages, Christ condemned the Jewish religious leaders for their manmade traditions. He made it very clear that their upholding and adhering to the traditions of their ancestors abrogated the commandments of God revealed in His Word. Thus, it follows that the Jewish “tradition” was contradictory to the Holy Scriptures (at that time, only the Old Testament) and in direct opposition. Jesus declared that people who held to this manmade tradition rendered religion to God that was useless as it was based merely upon human commands and worldly wisdom, rather on God’s Word.
The word “tradition” appears several times in the apostolic epistles: 1 Cor. 11:2, 23 and 15:3, 2 Thess.2:15 and 3:6, Gal.1:14, and Col.2:8.
The Epistle to the Galatians
“For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.”
The previous verses say nothing about legends that describe events in the Orthodox confession such as the Mother of God etc. about which the apostles would have known, but had not written down. In fact, when the apostle Paul refers to “tradition” in the Galatian epistle, he views it in an extremely negative context relative to the Gospel of Christ. He justifies his opposition to “tradition” because his extreme zeal and ancestral customs were blind to the actual spiritual reality that encircled them.
The Epistle to the Colossians
When the same apostle in Colossians mentions this term, he sternly warns faithful Christians to abstain from false knowledge and philosophy that arise from human speculation (tradition) to the detriment of true knowledge of the Gospel. Paul described this “tradition” that was present in the first century and was being spread by false “new apostles” as “vain deceit”:
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”
Among other false teachings, this tradition obligated Christians to worship and serve angels, instead of exclusively the only true God.
The First Epistle to the Corinthians
However, the remaining verses that speak of tradition (1 Cor.11:2, 23, and 15:3, 2 Thes.2:15, 3:6) suggest that the apostle Paul regarded this subject in a positive light under certain circumstances. Specifically, during the first twenty years of the Christian Church in the decade of the fifties of the first century, the apostles preached the gospel by the spoken word that was not written down. With the constantly increasing number of Christians and churches established in many cities of the Roman Empire, there also appeared at the same time false teachers who denied the Lord’s teaching. The apostles needed to record the true teachings of Christ to be spread throughout the New Testament communities. As such, during the first two decades of the growth of Christianity, the apostles were preaching and teaching their disciples the Christian faith via the spoken word. Thus, when the apostle Paul mentions the word “tradition” in the Epistle to the Corinthians, he reminds the local believers of the earlier preaching that they heard while he was still among them:
“Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.”
“For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread…”
“Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day )according to the Scriptures…”
As the writer of this epistle was not one of the original twelve apostles and thus did not personally witness Christ’s death and resurrection, Paul notes that which he has made known to them (acceptance by faith) is what he himself received (the knowledge and belief) of others. In fact, Paul in other chapters of this epistle repeats the content of what he preached to the Corinthian believers several years ago. Apparently, some were disturbing the faith of others by saying that there was no resurrection from the dead (verses 11-19), probably under the influence of Greek thought and religion, which Paul rejected.
In Orthodox literature, among other examples, one can read statements like the following that attempt to prove that the apostles obligate modern believers to keep the Orthodox tradition:
“The New Testament commands (1 Tim. 6:20, 2 Tim.2:2) and praises (1 Cor. 11: 2) us to adhere and preserve the Holy Tradition.”
Milan Vukomanović, a sociologist of religion, however, correctly states the view that the term “tradition” which the apostles mention in no way could equate to the “tradition” of which the “Church Fathers” and contemporary Orthodox believers speak:
“Of course, it is important to notice that which the apostle [Paul] calls the oral tradition of preaching is a tradition that should be kept in mind. Seven centuries after this Pauline epistle, the Byzantine scholar John of Damascus in his discourse on icons stated that the original meaning of “tradition” is remembrance, even collective memory. According to John of Damascus, tradition touches on eternal borders, and thus remains permanent and unchanging. However, the content of the Christian tradition in the first century, in Paul’s time, is not the same as the tradition in the eighth century… When Paul refers to Tradition, he has in mind only the oral preaching of Jesus, His death and resurrection, the sacrament of baptism, some rudimentary form of the Eucharist, and the Old Testament. On the other hand, when John of Damascus speaks of Tradition, he refers to many different elements, or layers, of Christian tradition, including the New, not just the Old, Testament, the Nicene Creed and dogma of the Trinity, religious and political precedents, at least six Ecumenical Councils, developed forms of the liturgy, the Eucharist, of church fathers, and finally, the icons – “unofficial”, but in John’s time, a widely prevalent form of Orthodox worship.”
On the other hand, the “praise” that he gives to the Corinthian believers for keeping the traditions applies only to their memories of Paul’s exemplary Christian life and
his earlier sermons preached on various spiritual truths, as the text clearly shows (11:1-2). However, although this apostle ended up writing more than what he had previously taught by the spoken word, we find nothing that would contradict or add superfluous details to the gospel narratives and the teachings of Jesus. Legends such as the “Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple” were communicated to, but not necessarily accepted by, believers of other churches.
The Second Epistle to the Thessalonians
The other two verses penned and verbally stated by the first teacher of the Church clearly reject the possibility that they include the present Eastern Orthodox traditions of Christianity. In the first verse, the apostle Paul encourages believers in Thessalonica to stand firm and steadfast in their faith by directing them to adhere to what they have learned from his spoken words in preaching and the letter which he along with his assistants wrote them a few years earlier (which we call the first epistle to the Thessalonians):
“So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.”
This was of particular importance because the Thessalonians, like other Christians throughout the Roman Empire, did not have the complete revelation of God in written form from which they could learn (unlike believers in later centuries up to today). At that time, circulation of different interpretations of the original evangelical messages and letters (epistles) to the churches also included works of unknown authors who attempted to falsify the signatures of the apostles. However, their heresies found reception among new believers. Such traditions and epistles had a very negative effect on the stability of spiritual individuals and churches and ruined the faith of many. Several examples of this situation occur in the New Testament:
“…that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.”
“But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus…”
It is obvious based on these verses that we have no basis to conclude that Paul leads believers to keep the memory of the traditions of the Virgin Mary and saints. Rather, he exhorts believers to uphold the fundamental truths of New Testament Christianity such as the resurrection of the dead and the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. The final passage that mentions the word “tradition” is also found in Second Thessalonians, which states:
“Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.
As is obvious from the very verse and its entire context, Paul gives instructions to this early community of exemplary Christian living, which, unfortunately, not everyone obeyed. Specifically, some people wanted to freeload at the expense of their brothers and sisters of faith and refused to work or be productive (verses 7-12). So the Apostle repeats his warning again in writing which he had previously spoken to them in the form of “oral tradition” (verse 10):
“For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.”
The Verse Most Frequently Quoted by Supporters of “Sacred Tradition”
Finally, I want to address the verse most often quoted by Orthodox authors that try to misrepresent its meaning in order to rationalize their confession. The specific text is in the last chapter of the Gospel of John:
“Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”
This verse is a favorite among Orthodox theologians. In their view, this verse would seem to demonstrate evidence that even the apostles would uphold the historicity and veracity of traditions that comprise the dogma of Eastern Orthodoxy. These traditions will be discussed in detail in subsequent chapters. However, in addition to the verse in John previously mentioned, there is yet another passage that is generally ignored and cleverly circumvented by Orthodox theologians. They avoid it because this passage undermines their alleged proof. This passage states:
“Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
The meaning of these verses, like of the one from the twenty-first chapter, are more than clear even for the reader who is reading the Bible for the first time. It does not require deep analysis to figure out what these verses do not say. The only thing that these texts emphasize is that Jesus did more deeds and miracles during His earthly ministry before the apostles that ended with His ascension than is recorded in the gospels. The apostle John emphasizes these words: “which are not recorded in this book” which convey the idea of the book that he just recorded which we call the Gospel of John. John himself in his gospel recorded many less miraculous works of Christ than did the other evangelists. For example, John mentioned fewer than ten of Christ’s miracles in his report, which certainly represents a drop in the ocean of miraculous events related to the Savior’s life. Therefore, if the honest reader of the Bible wants to know about more of the miracles that John did not record, he should read the other Gospels. What is more interesting to mention is that John says the following:
“Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”
The fact is that when we read the four gospels, we find many examples of Christ’s miraculous works. Some of them are described in some detail (for example, as described in the Gospel of John), while others have brief mention (for example in Matthew 4:23-25, when Jesus healed a great multitude of people of their diseases and problems). Such events were not rare in Christ’s messianic itinerant ministry of three years. Since the apostle John was a witness to all the events (even those not recorded by the other apostles), and because certainly hundreds of people were cured, free of evil
spirits, or raised from the dead, the evangelist indeed wrote accurately when he said it would require much time and a large quantity of writing material (papyrus and ink, e.g. “books”) to write them all down (“every one of them”).
The “Sacred Tradition” of Eastern Orthodoxy – including the events related to the “Mother of God” and the numerous saints and “miracles” attributed to their lives decades or even centuries after they lived – certainly do not belong to the category of “miracles that Jesus performed in the presence of His disciples” as John states.
However, John 20:31 reveals one crucial fact: although many of Christ’s deeds were not recorded, nor many of his teachings (recall the statement of Paul in Acts 20:35, in which he cites a quote from the Lord Jesus Christ that is not recorded in the gospels: “It is more blessed is to give than to receive”), what is written in the New Testament is more than enough to give any reader who sincerely believes in Christ to have eternal life:
“But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
So in conclusion, we can see that the verse most touted by Orthodox apologists to defend “Sacred Tradition” does not support their view from a Biblical perspective.
Is “Sacred Tradition” Older than Holy Scripture?
It is noteworthy that this analysis flies in the face of the claims of Eastern Orthodoxy that “Sacred Tradition” is older than the Holy Scriptures. Namely, the decisions of Ecumenical Councils, doctrines of the sacraments, canons and rules of local synods and councils, the rules of St. Basil and other saints, the writings of the Holy Fathers and their hagiographies and other “components” of the Orthodox tradition were created centuries after the completion of writing the Bible and the death of Christ’s apostles!
All the problems that Eastern Orthodox theologians actually want to solve by declaring “Sacred Tradition” equal to Scripture run into the conflict that their beliefs consist of a long series of dogmas that have no support or foundation in the sacred texts of Christianity (New Testament). Many “Sacred Traditions” in fact directly contradict the apostolic theology.
Ivan Nikolin Orthodox author and teacher at the Moscow Clerical Seminary, acknowledged the reason for the excessive emphasis on the importance of tradition derived from this:
“The importance and necessity of tradition in one form or another remain intact. If ‘Sacred Tradition’ would not correspond to Holy Scripture, it would bring important implications on a lot of religious issues (veneration for the saints, icons, prayer for the dead) and would not leave them without a favorable verdict.”
Thus, only solution remained for the theologians of the Eastern Orthodox churches. They have resorted to proclaiming that doctrine based on “Sacred Tradition” is consistent with the Scriptures, texts inspired by God and received from the writings of personal disciples of Jesus Christ. According to the view of Orthodox teachers, people without exception are unable to read and understand the Bible apart from the teachings of the Holy Fathers. They note that anything outside of them consisted of “false and tempting thought” :
“The teaching of the Church derives on two sources: Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition, with the Scriptures being the offspring of Sacred Tradition. Therefore, Holy Scriptures can only be interpreted within the framework of Sacred Tradition.”
A good response to this claim was given by the Orthodox Bishop George Popovic (Bishop of Nis and Temeşvar who died in 1757). A Serbian educator named Dositej Obradovic recorded his words:
“God the just and merciful created man to be free, to give him intelligence and logic to blossom and flourish. The elders thought for themselves (the Bishop’s views on the Holy Fathers – author’s note), and we also ought to think for ourselves, not just listen solely to my thoughts. People are logical, endowed by God with reason, and in our hands we have the Gospel of Christ and the apostolic knowledge. So why then do we need others to drag us by our noses? This is neither just nor fair.”
If they had studied the Biblical texts independently of the teaching of the numerous “Holy Fathers” exactly as they should study them (although the Orthodox believe that to do this would produce tempting thoughts), a study of the Bible would reveal that the Lord would condemn a great portion of their religious practice. Future chapters will demonstrate that the Word of God forbids Orthodox practices including: the veneration of icons, prayers for the dead, the prayer addressed to the “holy saints”. The Word of God contradicts Orthodoxy regarding the doctrines of salvation, Baptism, Eucharist, the resurrection of the dead – to mention only a few items. If only they would take off the “dark glasses” of “Sacred Tradition” and look at the Bible as God plainly revealed it, they would realize that much of Orthodox belief is derived from the opinions of later church authorities. (These authorities in many ways contradicted each other – which will also be proven in this book.) God would condemn the Orthodox introduction of various innovations in Christian worship, not at all from the original Christian confession. The humble person will realize that the “most holy faith” of Eastern Orthodoxy is not authentic.
This truth has been noticed by one of the greatest and most popular writers of modern times, the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. Although not a member of an evangelical Christian church, nor did he agree with many of their beliefs, Tolstoy wrote several works in which he openly showed dissent with the teachings of the Orthodox Church – which ultimately broke out into open conflict and excommunication from organizations to be mentioned later. Amongst other things, here is an excerpt of what Tolstoy wrote in comparing the original teachings of Christ with many his interpretations that arose during the later centuries:
“And I began to seek Christianity in the Christian teaching that guides such men’s lives. I began to study the Christianity which I saw applied in life and to compare that applied Christianity with its source. The source of Christian teaching is the Gospels, and in them I found the explanation of the spirit which guides the life of all who really live. But together with this source of the pure water of life I found, wrongfully united with it, mud and slime which had hidden its purity from me: by the side of and bound up with the lofty Christian teaching I found a Hebrew and a Church teaching alien to it.”
The end of the statement confirms that Orthodox belief, in general, is based not only on the Bible, but also the legends that are constantly evolving. Accordingly, we come to learn that the teachings of Eastern Orthodoxy constantly add new revelations that become incorporated into its dogma:
“’Sacred Tradition’ still lives on, and no less than in the past, ‘Sacred Tradition’ is alive and being created.”
It is precisely because the Orthodox tradition continues to constantly add new details (not only new, but also contrary to the teachings of the apostles). Let us once again listen to Bishop George Popovic who properly represents the Biblical perspective:
“But are we free to conclude that it is possible for the Holy Spirit to inspire what Paul taught and bound could also inspire the Holy Fathers? In this way, the Holy Spirit would be contradicting Himself, teaching one thing one day and then tomorrow changing His mind. It would not be possible to believe in the former or the latter. But we should never regard the Holy Spirit in this matter. Whatever the Holy Spirit once establishes as an institution, it must be unchangeable in life and remain holy. People often contradict themselves and break the law because they are prone to error. However, the Spirit of God, Who is of eternal truth, sinless, and perfect, can never do what they want or can not contradict himself nor commit lawlessness or sin.
Therefore, if the holy fathers work against Paul, we cannot forgive them. They are wrong and have sinned against the revelation of the Holy Spirit, against the preaching, ordinances, and wisdom that Paul taught…
So what if there were many Holy Fathers? It is useless to try to convince them. Even if one thousand angels came to visit them and the entire world to teach heretical knowledge against the apostolic teachings, we should neither receive nor believe them. It does not say this, but I have the Holy Spirit that reveals what the Apostle Paul said.
‘Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are of God’ teaches us the same from those who accepted the wisdom taught by the Savior. (Author’s note: 1 John 4:1) How we will, therefore, test the spirits?… Is it in accordance with the firsthand knowledge of the Holy Spirit? And if it is not, then it is not of God or His will. Therefore, it must be heresy.”
Fully agreeing with the statement of the wise bishop, in the following sections I will continue with the presentation of the Orthodox Patristic understanding of Christianity and comparing it to original sources – the texts of the Old and New Testaments, as well as many other historical facts. Based on this analysis, every reader of this work will conclude that the Eastern Orthodox Church definitely does not deserve the name “holy, catholic and apostolic” (an adjective which is always presumed yet lacks any factual basis). The reader will see how the “Sacred Tradition” of the church contradicts God’s Word, as well as was the case with Jewish tradition, which the Lord condemned and declared as “worship in vain”. (Mt. 1:1-8, Mk. 7: 1-13). consistent with Holy Scripture (specifically the New Testament). Of course, it is not very difficult to compare the texts of the Bible with Orthodox tradition to determine whether they agree with one another. That is to ascertain if they agree in all matters (not just some) of Christian faith. What this means firstly and most importantly is that if “Sacred Tradition” is actually true, then it must fully correspond to the teachings of ancient times, two thousand years ago, that were written in the holy texts of the Apostolic Church of the first century, which we call Holy Scripture. The God-inspired books of the Old and New Testament, which were written by over forty writers during the extended time period of over 1500 years, contain not a single contradiction in their teachings and declarations. In spite of their differing educational, personal, national, and intellectual backgrounds, the apostles of Christ under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit wrote the New Testament books over the course of fifty years (in the second half of the first century AD) and did not contradict each other in any way.
However, as we shall easily see by comparing the Word of God with “Sacred Tradition”, in fact, Orthodox doctrine makes many statements of dogma that do not even come close to reflecting the teachings of Christ and the apostles in the New Testament. However, before we proceed to compare these two sources of faith (contained in subsequent chapters of the book), let us pause and look at some quotations by Eastern Orthodox theologians who attempt to prove that the early Christian communities honored the traditions that today’s Eastern Orthodox churches uphold.