So, brethren, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.
Perhaps no other Christian confession is as well known (or notorious) as Orthodoxy for the centrality of ancient tradition to its life and worship. As most ex-Protestant converts may know, a positive sense of “tradition” (paradosis) has biblical roots and features throughout the early centuries of Christian theological thinking. But the revival of interest in Christianity’s ancient tradition should raise a concern: Is our thinking about tradition as stable as the tradition itself? With more militant expressions of radical traditionalism on the rise in both the US and historically Orthodox countries, this question has never been more pressing.
At least in North America and Europe, it seems that Orthodox Christianity has deeply imbibed the modern idea of tradition as a discourse that constitutes an essential aspect of a person’s identity within a certain community and context in history. The notion that tradition thereby provides a stable grounding for faith and morals represents a kind of “right-wing postmodernism” that is associated (very roughly) with renowned philosopher and ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre and popularized by books like The Benedict Option. Though written some decades prior to MacIntyre’s After Virtue, Vladimir Lossky’s claim that Orthodox tradition is “the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church” offers fertile soil wherein this late 20th-century rediscovery of tradition—which also inspires Roman Catholic and even Protestant Christians—might flourish and take on a distinctive character, but not without a unique set of difficulties.
For Orthodoxy, the heritage of the fathers, ecumenical councils, apostolic preaching, liturgy, and Holy Scripture has always been somewhat difficult to define in its totality. Still, each of these will variously influence an Orthodox Christian’s life, thinking, and core identity. As a foil to prevailing Roman Catholic theories on papal infallibility, the “mind of the fathers,” or Orthodox phronema, is often cited today as the criterion for a truly Orthodox judgment on a matter of faith or morality. (Vladimir Lossky, John Romanides, and Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos are perhaps most responsible for popularizing this notion. It is a hallmark of neopalamite [alternatively, neo-hesychastic] theology.) Thus, one who best embodies the ethos of this tradition as we understand it—e.g., through liturgical reverence, ascetic effort, piety, etc.—bears a certain charismatic authority.
But this criterion is shortsighted. It equates Orthodoxy as such with the tradition merely as we’ve experienced it in the past. Thus in importing Orthodox tradition to the West, we often unwittingly import its context, as well. (Thanks to Father Isaac Skidmore who, in a private conversation, articulated this so clearly in these exact words.) Examples of this range from the minutiae of daily practice to the realm of church dogmatics, and include the recurrent debates concerning women and headscarves, fasting rules, liturgical observance, and inter-church relations.
There is some virtue in this belief insofar as the phronema derives from time-tested norms of faith and practice. Further, it is true that, for the Church to participate in the mystery of the Lord’s incarnation, there is a sense in which the content of Orthodox faith is grounded in history and inextricable from its context. Just as God reveals Himself not only in but as a 1st-century Jewish man, the Church is indelibly conditioned by its history in terms of language, geography, polity, etc. The centrality of the Eucharist in Orthodox worship entails that the Church always exists in a concrete fulness inhabiting time and space. But can this “grounding” be said equally of every aspect of the tradition, as if each component of the tradition (e.g., Scripture, liturgy, patristic texts, paraliturgical devotions, ecclesiastical administration, etc.) bears equal authority?
Indeed, through the Incarnation, Christianity grounds us in history. But there’s also a contrary principle at work: the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost shows us that Christianity flourishes in translation, taking root in foreign soil without respect for nation or race. And if we accept that Jesus Christ became incarnate as the New Adam to show us how to be properly human, then one cannot escape the conclusion that Jesus is Himself both a Jewish man and the Universal Human Being. Thus, to enter into the mystery of the Incarnation through the life of the Church, and so to participate in the tradition as “the life of the Holy Spirit,” is no mere grafting into a tradition in the historical sense. The underlying reality visible only to the eyes of faith is that we are grafted into an entirely new lineage, that of the “man from heaven” (1 Cor 15:47), “without father, or mother, or genealogy” (Heb 7:3). The “life of the Holy Spirit” grounds us simultaneously in a concrete communion of believers and in the radical transcendance of God’s uncreated grace.
Perhaps this is why it is so often that the interventions of God in salvation history, from Abraham to Moses to Jesus and the apostle Paul, occur in a manner and mode that seems innovative and thus antithetical to the established canons for belief and practice. In some cases it is all too easy to exaggerate this conflict, and yet the New Testament is replete with examples of salvation occurring on the outermost limits, or even totally outside, of what was considered to be God’s elect inner circle. Against the natural unfolding of the normative discourse of the tradition in time, within which the people of God grow “in wisdom and in stature,” the Spirit will frequently “drive us into the wilderness” by forcing upon us a new and eschatologically reorienting extraordinary discourse. The conversion of the first Gentiles (cf. Acts 10; Gal 2) may be one of the most pertinent examples of this. Indeed, one might even consider St. Paul the patron saint of these kinds of innovations: the contrast of the “newness” of the Spirit against the moribundity of the Law is a central focus of many of his epistles.
It is in these “wilderness” moments, when we feel most disoriented, that disentangling the content of the faith from its context may be most necessary. There are occasions when we want the tradition to be more clear and defined than it is. And, especially for those of us who’ve converted and struggle to assimilate to Orthodoxy as adults, we might find that these moments coincide with an insecurity about our own place within that tradition. And so we wonder: Would a good Orthodox Christian do this? Think this? Like this? Is this in line with the phronema or ethos of the Church? All of this is a way of asking a single question: How can I continue to identify as an Orthodox Christian and still engage in that which is alien from my tradition as I’ve understood it so far? But clearly tradition, if it is truly “the life of the Spirit in the Church,” is not something we inhabit or merely emulate in pious behaviors through play-acting according to the “Orthodox phronema.” Rather, if the tradition is truly of the Spirit, it inhabits us. And “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17), i.e. the freedom to follow the best and most selfless instincts of our conscience, wherever they might lead us and regardless of what a “good Orthodox Christian” might do.
Orthodox Christian tradition, if it is truly “the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church,” simply cannot be an inexorable conscience-crushing conformism. For the extraordinary discourse of the Spirit enacts itself through the consciences of particular people. In the case of circumcision, St. Peter and St. Cornelius were decisive agents, though perhaps slightly less so than St. Paul. In the case of certain theological disputes, it’s been an Athanasius or a Basil or a Maximus. But in the case of our own age, we are the decisive agents. How will we respond when the newness of the Spirit calls us into the unknown? When we are faced with a pressing new problem, one which demands a response that we’d rather not give, do we have a reflex to retreat into the safety and familiarity of the tradition as we already understand it, or do we reorient ourselves to the movement of the Spirit, “the love of God poured into our hearts” (Rom 5:5), which shapes our conscience and convictions should we prayerfully make room for Him to do so? When someone asks a hard question, in good faith, about Orthodox doctrine or practice, great care must be taken not to object to the question itself and so potentially quench the stirring of the Spirit. Radical traditionalists run into exactly this danger foretold in the grim wisdom of Gamaliel in Acts 5: beware, or you may find yourselves fighting against God.
Instead of thinking about Orthodox tradition as a set of prepackaged ideas and practices that define “our people,” what if we thought of the tradition as an open book that tells us the story of an ever-widening circle of divine-human fellowship and unity? Not only does this strike me as an objectively more compelling vision, but it is also more consonant with the divine purpose of election: that God’s chosen “might be a blessing for all people” (Gen 22:18).
Daniel Nicholas holds a BA in philosophy and biblical studies from Eastern University near Philadelphia and teaches English at a public high school in central Texas. He serves as a reader in the Diocese of the South of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), and writes a scrap or two of poetry in his spare time. You can follow him on Twitter.