Holy Tradition is transmitted to the Christian from the Apostles of Jesus Christ both by word of mouth and in writing (II Thess. 2:15, 3:6). The Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky famously described Tradition as “the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.” It is dynamic in its application, but unchanging in its doctrine. It is growing in expression, yet always the same in its essential meaning.
Unlike some ideas about tradition, the Orthodox Church does not see Holy Tradition as something that grows and expands over time, forming a collection of practices and doctrines which accumulate, gradually becoming something more developed and eventually unrecognizable to the first Christians. Rather, Holy Tradition is that same faith that Jesus taught to the Apostles and that they gave to their disciples, preserved in the Church and especially in its leadership through Apostolic succession (Jude 1:3).
At the center of Holy Tradition is the Holy Scriptures, the Bible, the written witness to God’s revelation in the Church. That means that the Scriptures are always interpreted from within the Tradition that was the context for their writing and canonization, a process that lasted until the 4th century—it was not until the year 367 that we see the first list of the 27 books we now know as the New Testament.
Alongside Holy Tradition, Orthodox Christians may also speak about other traditions, which are various customs that help us to express the Holy Tradition—these are things like how certain feast days are celebrated, the exact nature of fasting rules, or details of the Church calendar. These things can change over time, and they have. And that’s okay. What’s important is that the Holy Tradition given by Jesus remains the same.
It is this Holy Tradition that is the basis for our spirituality. So what does spirituality mean for the Orthodox Christian?
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Adapted from St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.