The Dogmatic Tradition of the Orthodox Church

His Eminence Metropolitan Maximos of Pittsburgh

Orthodoxy, a way of life, is known for its experiential approach to faith and doctrine. Rooted in the Bible, its faith and doctrine is enriched by the living commentaries of the lives of the saints of the past and the present. It is enriched by the theological speculations of the Fathers and Teachers of the Church, and by the decrees of the various councils which dealt with doctrinal aberrations (heresies). As an introduction to the Doctrine of the Orthodox Church, we will deal with the Tradition of the Church and the Holy Bible, part of this tradition, as the source of our Christian faith and doctrine.


The source of the faith and doctrine of the Orthodox Church is called"Sacred Tradition." Unlike Western Christianity, which professes a kind of dichotomy between the Bible, considered to be the revealed word of God, and the tradition of the Church, considered to be:

  1. as important as the Bible (Roman Catholic Church) or
  2. secondary, and even negligible (Protestantism), Orthodoxy holds the position that the Tradition of the Church includes the Bible, for the Bible is an epiphenomenon, an "outward form" of our Christian Tradition.

What is this Tradition? What are its external forms, of which the Bible is one?

The Sacred Tradition of the Church

The tradition of the Church is nothing else but the life of the Church, a life in the Holy Spirit. From a Christian point of view, the Church is not a mere human society such that we could identify tradition with the history of this society. The Church is the living Body of Christ, with a history as far as its human members are concerned, but also with an internal life that escapes the eye of the historian, and is only seen by the eye of faith. In this sense we distinguish between an inner force which guides that history and a spirit which inspires it, this force and Spirit being the Holy Spirit of God, and the external, human manifestations of the life of the Spirit in the Church.

The teachings of the Lord, proclaimed by the Apostles, whether the Twelve or the larger group of Apostles (the Seventy, for example), or the missionary Apostles like Saint Paul, were handed down to the apostolic community. This faith, once handed down to the Saints, continued to live in the Christian community that succeeded apostolic times.

The "Living Continuity"

There is a living continuity between the apostolic community of the early Church and the community that succeeds it. The same faith, teachings, doctrine, and Christian life continue to be present and perpetuate themselves throughout the history of the Church. In this sense, the Church continues to be apostolic, that is, in living continuity with the early Christian, apostolic Community. Tradition, as the life of the Church, is seen in terms of this living community with our Christian origins.

By the end of the first century of our Christian era, the major teachings of Christ and facts regarding His life and saving work were added to the Christian scriptures. They became part of what by the end of the second century was called the Canon of the Bible, containing forty-nine books of the Old and twenty-seven of the New Testament. However, many more of the teachings of the Lord and of His deeds were not included in this Christian Bible (John 21: 24-25). They remained part of the life of the Church, the inheritance of the apostolic community perpetuated through history.

Saint Basil the Great speaks of the importance of this inheritance of the "unwritten words" of Christ, and this "light of the Tradition" in which one should see the Holy Scriptures. Without this light, St. Basil says, "the Scripture is reduced to a mere letter." The tradition of the Church is not only the context in which one can understand the Bible; it is its living commentary, clarification and completion of its meaning as well.

Tradition, being living continuity with our Christian origins, is not "immobility," or "repetition of sterile formulas." Change is possible within the tradition. There is at the same time continuity with and faithfulness to the origins, but there is also discontinuity. Continuity in the tradition is a creative faithfulness and continuity. The essentials of the Christian faith, doctrine, and life are always the same. The expression of that faith may vary according to the concrete historic circumstances in which this faith is proclaimed.

A favorite distinction among theologians is the one between Tradition andtraditions. Tradition, with a capital T, is the life of the Spirit of the Church. It is this life that makes the continuity of Truth and Life in the Church, and gives to it its stability, continuity, and unchangeability. While traditions (with a small t) are the concrete and historic manifestations of that Tradition, they may change. As in the Bible one distinguishes between the letter and the spirit, so in the tradition of the Church in general one distinguishes between the context and its expression.

One distinguishes various traditions that express the One Tradition of the Church: the scriptural, patristic, doctrinal, canonical, artistic, architectural,and liturgical traditions are specific expressions of the Spirit of the Tradition of the Church. What matters most, in terms of the faith, is the so-calleddogmatical, or doctrinal tradition of the Church. However, since all these aspects and these manifestations of the one Tradition of the Church are interwoven, one should consider all the forms that express the spirit of the One Tradition in establishing the context and the very meaning of the Christian faith and doctrine.

In order for anyone to understand this Tradition of the Church, it is imperative for him or her to be part of this Tradition. One can only understand the life of the Spirit in the Church, if he lives this life himself. The "come and see" of the Bible (John 1:46) applies to the Christian Tradition in general.

"If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit" (Gal. 5: 25): if one lives by the Spirit he should also walk by the Spirit, and vice versa, one cannot walk by the Spirit and understand His promptings and workings, unless he also lives by the Spirit. Tradition, as the life of the Spirit in the Church, is also witness to His presence and His workings in its everyday life.