Friday, August 31, 2018

Understanding Holy Tradition

Dear Parish Faithful,

It was two Sundays ago that I delivered a homily that included some commentary on St. Paul's extraordinary passage found in I COR. 15:1-11. I simply concentrated on the Apostle Paul's use of the term paradosis which is properly translated as "tradition." 

In this context, and to this day, tradition is that which is "handed over" or "handed down." In the passage under discussion, the Apostle will use the terms "received" and "delivered" to convey the sense of "handing down" or "handing over" the paradosis of the Church - the Tradition that is there from the beginning.  He "received" and then "delivered" the basic Christian proclamation "that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve" (I COR. 15:3-5). 

In other words, the Apostle Paul "received" and "delivered" the very content of the Christian Faith: the Good News of the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ. Tradition is thus conceived as something very positive, even essential, to the ongoing life of the Church.

That is simply a brief introduction to a passage that I wanted to share following that recent homily because of the common subject matter of Tradition. This passage is actually a mere footnote found in the book Rock and Sand by Archpriest Josiah Trentham. For the moment, this footnote is of interest because of what it implies about translations of the Bible. It is a good example of how translation implies simultaneous interpretation

If we like to use the term "Christian America" then we have to acknowledge that that means basically "Protestant America" for it was the early Protestants that shaped American Christianity. And this creeps into fairly recent translations of the Bible which are also and consciously, I would say, interpretations that lean in the direction of a Protestant reading of the Scriptures. And here I am focusing on the New Testament. Allow me to turn to this passage to see what I am getting at:

Translations inevitably reflect theology and hermeneutics, but some Protestant translations advance the cause of Protestant ideology more than they provide accurate translation. A good example of this is the New International Version (NIV), so exceedingly popular amongst Protestant Evangelicals today.
The theological agenda of its translators is all too clear. Take, for instance, the word in the New Testament for tradition, in Greek, paradosis. The New Testament refers to apostolic tradition, ecclesiastical tradition, which is to be embraced by all Christians, as well as man-made tradition, unholy tradition, which nullifies God's word and is to be avoided by Christians.
Conveniently, but not honestly, the NIV translates all references to apostolic "tradition" by the word "teaching" or "teachings" and  all references to man-made "tradition" by the word "tradition." Hence, the innocent reader of the NIV will come to the conclusion that the only tradition that exists is man-made and unholy and will never know that there is such a reality in the New Testament as apostolic tradition.

Again, this translation seems to clearly reveal a particular interpretive lens that does not allow for a positive assessment of Tradition. 

As Orthodox, we clearly distinguish upper-case "T" Tradition from lower-case "t" tradition(s). There is the Apostolic Tradition so splendidly "delivered" by the Apostle Paul in I COR.; and there are "man-made" traditions, some of them quite fine and wholesome - others questionable - but not to be treated as on the same level as Tradition. Thus, Baptism for the forgiveness of sins and the bestowal of life-giving grace belongs to the Tradition of the Church. Yet, various Orthodox Christians throughout the centuries have different traditions around how a Baptism is celebrated. The same could be said for Marriage and even for Funerals. 

As Fr. John Meyendorff has written about this issue:

"No clear notion of the true meaning of Tradition can be reached without constantly keeping in mind the well-known condemnation of  "human traditions" by the Lord Himself. The one Holy Tradition, which constitutes the self-identity of the Church throughout the ages and is the organic and visible expression of the life of the Spirit in the Church, is not to be confused with the inevitable, often creative and positive, sometimes sinful, and always relative accumulation of human traditions in the historical Church." Living Tradition, p. 21.

There is a real urgency to this task of distinguishing Holy Tradition from human traditions argues Fr. John in another passage:

"The very reality of Tradition, a living and organic reality manifesting the presence of the Spirit in the Church and therefore also its unity, cannot be fully understood unless it is clearly distinguished from everything which creates a normal diversity inside the one Church. To disengage Holy Tradition from the human traditions which tend to monopolize it is in fact a necessary condition of its preservation, for once it becomes petrified into the forms of a particular culture, it not only excludes the others and betrays the catholicity of the Church, but it also identifies itself with passing and relative reality and is in danger of disappearing with it."  Living Tradition, 25-26.

One of our main tasks as Orthodox Christians living in the 21st century is to make that clear distinction between the Holy Tradition of the Church — Apostolic in origin and authority — and the many "traditions" that we may enjoy, but which cannot be placed on the same level. Orthodoxy cannot be a museum that deifies the past, but a living Tradition that makes present to every generation the "faith once and for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).

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