September 2009


This is not a judgment on Holy Tradition, just an observation.

It is inevitable that when discussing tradition, you have to distinguish between what is actually tradition and what people believe is tradition, and even the degrees of tradition. There’s Holy Tradition, and then there’s ecclesiastical tradition, and a lot of times outside observers mistakenly project Rome’s dogmas and definitions onto Orthodoxy.

But it’s important to note that not everyone defines tradition the same way. Tradition in Roman Catholicism is dogmatically defined by the magisterium, while Orthodoxy and the Oriental Orthodox define tradition as “that which has lived on in the life of the church.”

In short, Rome says, “This is tradition because we say it is; we may not have always said it this way, or this strongly, or in this developed a sense, but we maintain it’s tradition of apostolic origin. We just haven’t quite said it this way before, because we didn’t fully understand it in the same sense as we do now.” The eastern churches say, “This is tradition because it is what we have always believed, since the apostles. There’s no need or mechanism (outside an ecumenical council) to define it further.”

(I realize I’m using caricatures, and assuming a doctrinal unity that isn’t always there in either instance. Many Catholics also make the mistake of assuming that they are essentially doctrinally the same as the Orthodox.)

Both give props to an apostolic tradition, but approach it from different directions, or at least one of them takes it two steps further.

And that’s an important distinction to make.

(I think if both are going to make their claims of apostolic tradition, they need to be able to prove them.)

But then there’s ecclesiastical tradition, the non-dogmatic stuff that can still divide.

The Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox could, for the most part, reunite; most of their theologians agree that their disagreement at Ephesus was largely semantic. The problem, however, is the 1,500 years of different ecclesiastical tradition that followed, leading to a few instances where saints the Oriential Orthodox venerate were anathematized by the Orthodox; and as one (secular) commentator put it, people in the east have long, long memories.

These are all terms that need to be defined when having a Protestant-Orthodox discussion.

4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. 6 “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:4-9, NKJV

Lately, we’ve been trying to develop a routine family worship time in the evenings. When I envisioned it, I — perhaps unrealistically — pictured the four of us singing hymns in perfect far-part harmony and having a lovely discussion of Galatians before prayer. So far, it’s been halting and interrupted by evenings away from home, and the actual “service” is just me reading a chapter of Mark aloud, interrupting to explain to Micah what is going on, and asking him a few questions at the end.

And that’s OK. He’s four. The reason for doing this (and ultimately, keeping him in church services even though he is squirmy) is so he will both be used to it and — bit by bit — learn something.

Growing up, we had a family Bible time almost nightly. At times I hated it, and at times I got bored, but family Bible time, probably more than any class I took in the religion department in college, contributed to my biblical literacy. Can I want anything less for my own children, even if they fidget?

Besides, both the Reformed and Orthodox agree: the family is the smallest unit of the Church. Sunday School, after all, was started for the children of unbelievers — the children of believers were expected to be taught at home.