Between Tradition and Reasoned Interpretation

Priest Georges Massouh | 10 September 2016
Between Tradition and Reasoned Interpretation
Fr. Georges Massouh

There are those who believe that the venerable tradition of the Church is transmitted by the faithful from generation to generation without utilizing their mind or making effort according to social and cultural changes and without taking historical context into consideration.

Tradition is not merely receiving what Christian thought has produced over the ages. Being a living tradition, it is also bringing it up to date so that it is appropriate to the circumstances. It is subject to interpretation, addition, and revision. This a distinction must be made between that which is essential and unchanging within it on the one hand and that which is unessential and mutable on the other. A lack of distinction between these two things may lead to a deadly rigidity and a literalism that eliminates the true spirit of faith.

The only things that are fixed in tradition are the Bible, both the Old and the New Testaments, and dogma as decided by the ecumenical councils. As for canons, rituals, and arts, they are, at least in theory, subject to modification. In saying this we are not necessarily calling for their modification today. If we take, for example, the question of choosing bishops from among married priests, we find that until the seventh century the Church did not reject the consecration of married bishops. In theory, then, there is nothing to prevent us from returning to this tradition once more, if the Church deems it necessary to revive what was in the past the predominant practice.

Not all tradition is fixed. Additions have been made to it over successive eras of the Church’s history. If it were fixed, then we would be content with what was produced by the first generation of Christianity as it grew, the age of the Apostles. But since tradition was not closed off at a specific point in time, this means that it is capable of absorbing that which is good in every place and time, as long as the Church accepts and adopts it. This has happened in numerous circumstances through history.

The Church believes the the living Jesus Christ guides His Church through history. She believes that He is present in His body, which is the Church, and is active within it. This truth of the faith applies in every place and time. This is tradition that goes back to the apostles and has been transmitted from generation to generation and there is the real presence of the Lord that accompanies the Church along her path through history, which causes her to not fear keeping pace with changes that are in line with the essential foundations of the faith.

Saint Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (d. 202), wrote “This faith that was passed down in the Church is the same one that we preserve. This faith, which comes from the Spirit of God, resembles a treasure in a precious vessel that continually renews itself. This causes the vessel that bears it to be renewed in a similar fashion… Where the Church is, there too is the Spirit of God and every grace. The Spirit is the truth.” Thus the Church must be constantly renewed without hesitation, fear masquerading as concern for tradition, so long as the treasure is within her.

Tradition is not frozen. It is alive because Christ is alive in His Church. Tradition is not frozen because it is guided by the Holy Spirit. Khomiakov (d. 1860), one of the renewing Russian Orthodox theologians, believed that the Orthodox people themselves bear the Holy Spirit, who is the principle of tradition. Tradition is not merely the process of transmitting what is old. It is a living connection that is only lived in the communion of the Church. Thus, tradition cannot but be the work of the Holy Spirit who guides the Church in the fullness of truth. Yes to reasoned interpretation.

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