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June 29, 2007 / Daniel


My friend Levi and I have been having lately a great conversation on the role of oral and written tradition in the church.  (BTW Levi and I were actually in a band together in college).  Levi has now converted to Orthodox Christianity. 

Our discussion has centered around this question, “What traditions should we base our beliefs on?”  In Scripture, we have the earliest traditions of the church written down and preserved for us.  However, we also have other traditions that were passed down orally through church history.   What happens when there appears to be some conflict between the written traditions of the church and the oral traditions of the church? 

Should we say that our own understanding of the written traditions is flawed and let the consensus of church history trump our understanding of Scripture? 

Or should we, based on a careful study of the written traditions, trump the oral traditions? 



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  1. Dennis / Jul 1 2007 2:29 am


    This is a very interesting post.

    When you think about it logically, the oral tradition preceded the written tradition. Before any Gospel was written or before any epistle from Paul, John, or Peter was sent, all they had was the oral tradition.

    That oral tradition is key to understanding Christ and the Scriptures.

    The written word complements the oral tradition and should never conflict with it.

    If a person’s understanding of the written word conflicts with an oral tradition that is historically traceable to the first century, then that person should do further investigation and meditiaton as to what the written word truly means.

  2. fiester25 / Jul 1 2007 3:14 am

    Technically speaking, most of the “oral traditions” have been preserved in writings by church fathers.

  3. Levi Michael / Jul 2 2007 12:35 pm

    And, what I have said for those who have deny the authority of Tradition is this:
    If your interpretation of Scripture leads you to deny something that is the historical consensus of the ancient church, then you’re wrong.

    On the other hand, in Orthodoxy the Tradition is not just the church fathers, or the councils or the Didache, but it is a living thing which includes the ikons, the liturgy, the hymnody and the ongoing life of the historic Church.

  4. fiester25 / Jul 2 2007 2:15 pm

    What about something in which tradition is divided? Or something that clearly isn’t 1st century church tradtion but 4th century church tradition (i.e. purgatory)?

  5. Levi Michael / Jul 2 2007 5:03 pm

    I would say that where there isn’t a consensus in Tradition, then we have no dogma.
    Anything outside of that consensus would be ‘theological ideas’ in the Orthodox mind. Not harmful, but not necessary.

  6. Levi Michael / Jul 2 2007 5:05 pm

    Oh, and a link contrasting the Orthodox holistic conception of salvation/justification with the western juridical model:
    Pilgrims From Paradise
    Check out the other podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio too!

  7. Dennis / Jul 2 2007 6:09 pm

    I think Orthodox have a somewhat similar view to Purgatory, they just don’t call it that. I don’t think officially that the Orthodox Churches have made a stand one way or another allowing the individual some freedom probably due to the fact that it has never been challenged about it the way that Catholic Church has.

    Correct me if I’m wrong but Orthodox still pray for the repose of souls after death. If that’s being done then there must be some temporal place where a soul is purged of impurities be it Purgatory or some other name and praying for the dead has been something that has been done in the Orthodox churches since the time of Christ.

    The Catholic Church did not officially adopt the dogma of Purgatory until the 16th century. Not because it just created the doctrine but rather because the concept of Purgatory was being challenged by the fledgeling Protestant churches.

    Praying for the dead to get to heaven doesn’t make sense unless there’s some kind of Purgatory or temporal state and has been an Oral Tradition since the time of Christ. Additionally, it does not conflict with the written word as 1 Corinthians3:15 tells us that a righteous man who has impurities must be saved “as through fire” which to me means that his impurities must be burned and he be made pure the way that gold or silver are made pure (“as through fire”) and all impurities (straw or hay) will be burned up in the fire and he enters heaven clean.

    One thing I should note is that in Catholicism, there are two kinds of tradition. There’s Tradition (with a Capital ‘T’) and tradition (with a small ‘t’). The capital ‘T’ Tradition has been handed down to us from the Apostles–given to them by Christ. That Tradition cannot change as it is our Deposit of Faith. This Tradition should be the same between Catholics and Orthodox.

    Now, as for tradition (small ‘t’) which includes Veneration of Icons or not eating meat on Friday or priestly celibacy, etc. These did not come from the Apostles and is subject to change. Catholics (and Orthodox) are expected to honor these traditions but they are not part of the Deposit of Faith and either Church can change these which allows for different rites and methods of worship (all of which are valid).

  8. Doug / Jul 3 2007 5:00 pm

    An oral transfer of knowledge is a flawed human process and certainly after centuries is heresay evidence and is not proof of the validity of its purported concepts or spiritual origins. The chain of custody of the written documents has been broken many times and many mistranslations done. Therefore none of the traditions can be proven except by present-day miracles or some other proof of the efficacy of the beliefs. It is possible, but not necessarily so that all of the beliefs are entirely human created wishful thinking or metaphorical fantasy. There is no way to tell by what one person would tell or teach to another in the present day. No person today can be considered to be fully trustworthy. “My teacher, or clergy person, taught me with dramatic and convincing, elegant language that such and so doctrine is true…” Such is not sufficient to know the truth. It might be true. It’s yet to be shown in the modern era.

  9. fiester25 / Jul 4 2007 4:21 pm

    An oral transfer of knowledge is a flawed human process and certainly after centuries is heresay evidence and is not proof of the validity of its purported concepts or spiritual origins.

    That makes sense if you’re operating within a framework where there’s no supernatural power watching over the transfer of knowledge.

    As a Christian, I believe that God has revealed himself through oral and written communication (i.e. the Bible and the oral traditions of the apostles). Thus, he safeguarded the process from every sort of error.

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