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  • Daniel Klassen

Orthodoxy and Tradition

Every Christian has their tradition, but not everyone is orthodox. These two categories are distinctly separate in the fact that orthodoxy is confined to truth while tradition can be determined by cultural and societal influences. However, because certain traditions in the history of the Church rose to prominence, they claimed to be the orthodox tradition. This particularly happened whenever the state and the church joined hands, but it also happens every time a Christian believes their tradition over against the clear teaching of Scripture.

When we deal with orthodoxy, two things can be meant by the word. The first is that it is merely describing what a particular religious tradition believes, while the second is that it describes what the whole religion believes. These distinctions can be easily muddled, and so we are quick to dispose of the word as being unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

But it is important. It is important to strive for orthodoxy in regards to the whole of the Christian religion, especially at the expense of the orthodoxy of the tradition.

In the history of the Church, one place this importance stands out is in the Schism of 1054. From the 5th Century, the Eastern Church and the Western Church had grown apart. The Eastern Church, though rooted in Greek philosophy, experienced much opposition from other religions in the area (i.e. Islam) and were themselves often at odds with one another. They were much weaker than their Western counterpart. The Western Church was rooted in Roman law and experienced more peace than their Eastern counterpart. When the pope (Western Church) who resided in Rome, and the patriarch (Eastern Church) who resided in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey) excommunicated each other at the same time, the Church split in two.

Instead of each side striving for orthodoxy in the whole of the Christian religion, they held fast to their tradition, each claiming to have true orthodoxy. This was largely due to the fact that tradition had replaced orthodoxy, and so there was no hope of reaching orthodoxy without serious renovation to the current tradition.

In our modern day, we each have a tradition. I have often heard people state that they do not have a tradition, claiming only to follow Christ and the Bible. However, when they are asked to explain what they believe about certain doctrines, their tradition makes a grand entrance into the conversation. In everything we believe, we are influenced by the teachings of others. We are not alone in our personal understanding of certain doctrines and dogmas of the Christian religion. Even if we claim not to have any doctrine, but that we simply follow Jesus, that is itself a doctrine and a tradition.

When it comes to orthodoxy, the secondary issues such as church liturgy (order of service), baptism, communion, etc., are traditions that do not necessarily determine the orthodoxy of the church. It is the foundational doctrines such as justification, or the Trinity that make up orthodoxy. They must be of utmost importance in the unity of the church, for that is where our true unity resides.

Most modern denominations agree on the foundational truths of the Christian religion. We have similar traditions in regards to the foundational beliefs. The trouble appears when the secondary issues are granted preeminence in the tradition. When this happens, it is not long until the foundational beliefs are forgotten or changed. And this is the point I want to make in this article: we must always test our traditions against the orthodoxy of God’s Word.

This means we first must hold our traditions—our preconceived beliefs—in open hands. What we firmly grasp hold of is Scripture. Scripture must be the judge of our tradition. This is why the Reformation happened. It is why we believe the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, or Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons are not orthodox in their confessions.

In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he encourages Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it” (2 Tim. 3:14). Here, Paul instructs Timothy to continue in the tradition of his mother and grandmother. But Paul does not stop there. He continues: “...and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). Timothy was not to blindly follow the tradition of his mother, but follow that which was found in “the sacred writings.” Timothy was to make certain that his tradition was orthodox.

We must hold our traditions loosely when we come to the Word of God so that they can be formed into orthodox traditions. Traditions are good, only as long as they are in agreement with Scripture. Let us not blindly assume that what we hold to as tradition is what is true, but let us test everything according to God’s Word.

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