Orthodox, while reverencing this inheritance. from the past, are also well aware that not everything received from the past is of equal value. Among the various elements of Tradition, a unique pre-eminence belongs to the Bible, to the Creed, to the doctrinal definitions of the Ecumenical Councils: these things the Orthodox accept as something absolute and unchanging, something which cannot be cancelled or revised. The other parts of Tradition do not have quite the same authority. The decrees of Jassy or Jerusalem do not stand on the same level as the Nicene Creed, nor do the writings of an Athanasius, or a Symeon the New Theologian, occupy the same position as the Gospel of Saint John.
Not everything received from the past is of equal value, nor is everything received from the past necessarily true. As one of the bishops remarked at the Council of Carthage in 257:‘The Lord said, “I am truth.” He did not say, I am custom’ (The Opinions of the Birhops On the Baptizing of Heretics, 30). There is a difference between ‘Tradition’ and ‘traditions:’ many traditions which the past has handed down are human and accidental — pious opinions (or worse), but not a true part of the one Tradition, the essential Christian message.
It is necessary to question the past. In Byzantine and post. Byzantine times, Orthodox have not always been sufficiently critical in their attitude to the past, and the result has frequently been stagnation. Today this uncritical attitude can no longer be maintained. Higher standards, of scholarship, increasing contacts with western Christians, the inroads of secularism and atheism, have forced Orthodox in this present century to look more closely at their inheritance and to distinguish more carefully between Tradition and traditions.
The task of discrimination is not always easy. It is necessary to avoid alike the error of the Old Believers and the error of the ‘Living Church:’ the one party fell into an extreme conservatism which suffered no change whatever in traditions, the other into a Modernism or theological liberalism which undermined Tradition. Yet despite certain manifest handicaps, the Orthodox of today are perhaps in a better position to discriminate aright than their predecessors have been for many centuries; and often it is precisely their contact with the west which is helping them to see more and more clearly what is essential in their own inheritance.
True Orthodox fidelity to the past must always be a creative fidelity; for true Orthodoxy can never rest satisfied with a barren ‘theology of repetition,’ which, parrot-like, repeats accepted formulae without striving to understand what lies behind them. Loyalty to Tradition, properly understood, is not something mechanical, a dull process of handing down what has been received. An Orthodox thinker must see Tradition from within, he must enter into its inner spirit. In order to live within Tradition, it is not enough simply to give intellectual assent to a system of doctrine; for Tradition is far more than a set of abstract propositions — it is a life, a personal encounter with Christ in the Holy Spirit. Tradition is not only kept by the Church — it lives in the Church, it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church. The Orthodox conception of Tradition is not static but dynamic, not a dead acceptance of the past but a living experience of the Holy Spirit in the present. Tradition, while inwardly changeless (for God does not change), is constantly assuming new forms, which supplement the old without superseding them. Orthodox often speak as if the period of doctrinal formulation were wholly at an end, yet this is not the case. Perhaps in our own day new Ecumenical Councils will meet, and Tradition will be enriched by fresh statements of the faith.
This idea of Tradition as a living thing has been well expressed by Georges Florovsky: ‘Tradition is the witness of the Spirit; the Spirit’s unceasing revelation and preaching of good tidings . . . . To accept and understand Tradition we must live within the Church, we must be conscious of the grace-giving presence of the Lord in it; we must feel the breath of the Holy Ghost in it . . . Tradition is not only a protective, conservative principle; it is, primarily, the principle of growth and regeneration . . . Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit and not only the memory of words (‘Sobornost: the Catholicity of the Church,’ in The Church of God, edited E. L. Mascall, pp. 64-65. Compare G. Florovsky, ‘Saint Gregory Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers in the periodical Sobornost, series 4, no. 4, 1961, pp. 165-76; and V. Lossky, ‘Tradition and Traditions,’ in Ouspensky and Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, pp. 13-24. To both these essays I am heavily indebted).
Tradition is the witness of the Spirit: in the words of Christ, “When the Spirit of truth has come, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). It is this divine promise that forms the basis of the Orthodox devotion to Tradition.