Holy Tradition: The Road That Leads Home, Part 1


The Reverend Dorraine Snogren has been a United Methodist pastor for over thirty years. In the past several years he has come to feel increasingly that most Christians today, while they might have a certain reverence for Church history, are in fact quite ignorant of this heritage. This ignorance can largely be explained by the entire approach to Christianity that emphasizes the freedom of the individual to arrive at his own beliefs, guided only by his interpretation of the Bible. The Christian message, cut off from its heritage, is becoming more and more arbitrary and indefinite.
An Evangelical Protestant who desires to make a careful study of Church history must overcome certain difficulties. This article is a record of such a study, the difficulties encountered, and the conclusions that presented themselves. It was written by a Protestant minister as a help in formulating his own conclusions, and to share with certain members of his congregation.
In the tenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we read the account concerning Cornelius the centurion, a Roman living in the midst of Romans in Caesarea, the administrative capital of all of Judaea, who yet was "a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always," (Acts 10:2) one who also was accustomed to fast until the ninth hour (v. 30). On these accounts he is worthy of praise, as Saint Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans, "But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek: for there is no respect of persons with God" (Romans 2:10–11). Virtue has its own value, wherever it is to be found. And yet these virtues are insufficient in themselves, without faith in Christ and reception into His Church. Before meeting the Apostle Peter, Cornelius neither believed aright concerning God, or taught others the truth. But God, beholding his diligence in that which he knew, and foreseeing also how willingly he would embrace the truth, brought him to know Christ in a wondrous manner. When Cornelius had fasted until the ninth hour of the day, and was in prayer, an Angel appeared to him, announcing to him that his prayers and alms had arisen before God for a memorial, and commanding him to summon the Apostle Peter, who would tell him what he should do. The Apostle Peter was himself prepared to receive the messengers from Cornelius by a vision and a voice telling him, "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common," and he was commanded by the Holy Spirit to accompany the messengers from Cornelius. In such a wondrous and extraordinary manner was the Apostle Peter brought to Cornelius, and having heard the Apostle Peter, Cornelius and those with him straightway believed and were baptized. Saint John Chrysostom, commenting on this passage, has written, ". . . if He did not overlook the Magi, nor the Ethiopian, nor the thief, nor the harlot, much more them that work righteousness, and are willing, shall He in anywise not overlook." The righteousness of Cornelius was not overlooked by God; it prepared him to receive the Gospel and so to be joined to the Church, wherein was the fulfillment and reward of that righteousness.
The Reverend Dorraine Snogren aptly writes, " ... just because God in His grace and mercy has met us where we are and adapted Himself to our unique cultural and religious circumstances in no way means He has abandoned His original plan." Truth is found in the Church, and those who would apprehend the truth must unite themselves to the Church. If God could in so wondrous a manner provide for the illumination and salvation of Cornelius, who was from among the pagans, how much more will He provide for those who seek Him from among the Protestant denominations.
How diligent we Orthodox should be, who have as our heritage the "Faith which was once delivered unto the Saints" (Jude 1:3), received from the very Apostles, and preserved within the Church unto our own days as that living and holy Tradition. And how we should rejoice, beholding the earnestness with which the Reverend Dorraine Snogren has sought the truth, and discerned it in the Orthodox Church.
Some years ago, one of the Reverend Dorraine Snogren's four sons entered the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, where he has since been tonsured a monk, receiving the name Philaret. In the years since that time, Father Philaret's three brothers have also converted to Orthodoxy. His oldest brother, Andrew, also a former Methodist minister, together with his wife Alexandra and their two children, Krista and Hilary, live in Wentworth, New Hampshire, and are members of the Church of the Dormition of the Theotokos, in Concord, New Hampshire. Another brother, John, with his wife Valerie and their son Nicholas, live in Washington, D.C., and are members of the Church of Saint Cosmas of Aitolia, in Riverdale, Maryland. A third brother, Constantine, lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, and attends services at both the Holy Transfiguration Monastery and the Church of Saint Anna, in Roslindale, where he is one of the chanters.
Since writing this article, the Reverend Dorraine Snogren has resigned from the ministry of the United Methodist Church, and he and his wife Ruth have moved to Concord, New Hampshire, where they plan to become members of the Church of the Dormition of the Theotokos there.
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I am on my way home to the Orthodox Church. For me this is a most unlikely journey. Where I have been doesn’t seem to support where I am allegedly going. Here I am, an evangelical, charismatic, Protestant, having served the Lord faithfully for over thirty years as a United Methodist pastor, now considering becoming Orthodox. It doesn’t make sense. Or does it? It makes a lot of sense when one begins to understand the meaning and function of Tradition in the early Church.
I believe Tradition is the most formidable barrier a Protestant must deal with in his pursuit of the historic and authentic expression of the Faith. And if my experience is at all typical, once one begins to understand Tradition as understood and expressed in the early Church, then Tradition as barrier gives way to Tradition as a road map that leads one safely home to Orthodoxy.
Needless to say, that statement needs a lot of explanation. Let me quickly proceed.

Part I: The Meaning and Function of Tradition

Georges Florovsky, one of the outstanding theologians and writers of our century, made a statement to the effect that he would not isolate himself to his own age.
That thought is not only provocative but also disconcerting. For isolating ourselves to our own age is precisely what the vast majority of Christians are doing today. We are ignorant of our spiritual heritage. We have cut ourselves off from our spiritual roots.
We might recall that there were Church Fathers, but we are completely ignorant of what they said. Our recollection of the Church’s Seven Ecumenical Councils dims even more, even though the Councils’ decisions, definitions, and directions were understood to be the irrevocable mind of the Spirit upon which the entire Church was forever to be secured and defined.
In other words, vast segments of Christendom are not benefiting from what the Church has been, said, or done. We are not building on the mind of the Spirit, which was pursued so faithfully and defended with such meticulous care by our spiritual forefathers. We are living and thinking as though the Church did not exist until we got on board or that the Church of the past is irrelevant and inconsequential. For many it is as though the Church ended in Acts 28 and did not reappear until the sixteenth century Reformation, or for a few, not until the twentieth century.
What we are saying in all of this is simply that many of us have cut ourselves off from what the Church has called Holy Tradition. This has not only created an anemic condition among us; it has drastically deformed our concept of the Church. When some of my friends say, "I wish we were more like the early Church," I fear they do not know what they are asking and would be reluctant to pursue the only avenue that leads to its restoration. You see, it is Holy Tradition that provides us our living connection with the past. We can be like the early Church, but not without Holy Tradition. It alone "contemporizes" the past with integrity. It alone introduces us to the mind of the Spirit, which never contradicts itself.
I recognize, however, that for many, Tradition has a lot of negative associations. It speaks of man-made rules and regulations; of things antiquated, irrelevant, and formalized; of quaint ideas suited best for a museum. It speaks of a restrictive adherence to the past that handicaps our freedom to pursue the fresh breeze of God’s Spirit. But possibly most damaging is the assumption that Tradition speaks of things that Jesus forthrightly condemned. People erroneously equate Jesus’ condemnation of the "tradition of the elders" with the Church’s Holy Tradition. They fail to see that those human precepts were substitutes for the Gospel, while the Church’s traditions are the very framework that opens the Gospel up to us.
We commonly think of tradition as something handed down to us from the past. Christian Tradition is that, but much, much more. Holy Tradition has to do with the Faith which our Lord imparted to the Apostles and which, since Apostolic times, has been handed down from generation to generation in the Church. It is that understanding and those practices, which have been tested by a long time and were permanently lasting. But let me be more specific.

A Common Understanding

Tradition, first of all, has to do with a body of material, a common understanding, an accepted way of interpreting and dealing with the Faith. The importance of this presumed unity is seen clearly in Scripture. The Apostle Paul passionately appeals to the Christians at Corinth, "that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment" (I Cor. 1:10). He insists that all church leaders "hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it" (Titus 1:9). Our Lord’s prayer for unity in John 17 has everything to do with His followers being sanctified "in the truth" (v. 17). And again, His promise to be present with those who gather in His Name is predicated by His saying, "if two of you agree . . ." (Matt. 18:19). Then, of course, there is Paul’s unparalleled reference to "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph. 4:5).
From the time of our Lord there began developing a body of truth, a particular interpretation of the divine events; and the Church leaders from the time of the Apostles were given to preserving and building on that sacred "tradition." So the Apostle Paul exclaims, "stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter" (II Thess. 2:15). "I commend you," Paul says to the Corinthian believers, "because you . . . maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you" (I Cor. 11:2). [2]
And so, Saint Vincent of Lérins echoes the attitude of the early Church in the matters of faith when he wrote, "We must hold what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all." 

The Mind of the Church

Seeing Tradition as encompassing this common understanding, the appeal to Tradition also becomes an appeal to the mind of the Church. It is the thinking capital of the Church. So the fourth century Greek Father Athanasius encourages a Church Bishop: "Let us look at that very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers preserved. Upon this the Church is founded." 
Thank God the Church has a mind. It is healthy. It retains. It doesn’t forget. There is an ecclesiastical understanding that lives in the Church. We don’t have to be "tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men" (Eph. 4:14).
Occasionally someone suggests that the early Church quickly became an apostate, but this is so incongruous with the integrity with which the mind of the Church was maintained. If ever there were "fundamentalists," in the best sense of the word, they lived in those early centuries. They were sticklers for the truth. In dealing with heretics, the defenders of the Faith always appealed to the mind of the Church, to that Faith which had been once delivered and faithfully kept.
So instead of becoming apostate, just the opposite was taking place. As one writer said, "In the divine economy of Providence it was permitted that every form of heresy that was ever to infest the Church should now exhibit its essential principle and attract the censures of the faithful. Thus, testimony to the primitive truth was secured and recorded: the language of catholic orthodoxy was developed and defined, and landmarks of faith were set up for perpetual memorial to all generations."
So we have Saint Irenaeus (ca. 130–215) writing of Polycarp:
But Polycarp also was not only instructed by Apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by Apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried (on earth) a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the Apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. 
Saint Irenaeus further states that the true Faith "is being preserved in the Church from the Apostles through the succession of the presbyters." This speaks of the Church holding the same Faith with one voice as handed down by the Apostles and preserved by the successive witnesses.
Reflecting this mind of the Church, one writer penned it so beautifully:
We preserve the Doctrine of the Lord uncorrupted, and firmly adhere to the Faith He delivered to us, and keep it free from blemish and diminution, as a Royal Treasure, and a monument of great price, neither adding any thing, nor taking any thing from it. 
So appealing to Tradition is appealing to the mind of the Church, to an ecclesiastical understanding; indeed, it is our living connection with the fullness of the Church experience. It is the total life of the Church transferred from place to place and from generation to generation as it is inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit. "For tradition which expresses the voice of the whole Church is also the voice of the Holy Spirit living in the Church." How comforting and securing it is to be a part of that stream of consciousness, that river of truth.

Patristic as Well as Apostolic

Our understanding of Tradition is further enhanced when we realize that the early Church considered itself Patristic as well as Apostolic. Apostles and Fathers were coupled together. The Fathers were the theologians, the teachers of the Faith if you please, whom God raised up to give definition to the truth recorded in Scripture. They preserved and developed the Faith in keeping with the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit.
The book of Acts begins with Luke reminding his readers that in his previously written Gospel he "dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach" (Acts 1:1). The implication is that our Lord continued His ministry and teaching long after His Ascension. This is in keeping with Jesus’ promise to His disciples that after His departure, "When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth" (John 16:13). The Church believed that one of the critical evidences of the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit was in and through the Fathers of the Faith. 
The mind of the Church and conforming to the Traditions of the Fathers are synonymous. The heretics were judged by the Church because they had no Fathers. They were innovators; their thinking was not in keeping with the Tradition that the Spirit had revealed and that the Fathers had preserved. And so the eighteenth century monk, Starets Paisii, sums it up well in a letter to a friend:
I plead and ask you from my whole heart to have undoubting faith in the Fathers and in the teachings contained in them, for they agree in all respects with the Divine Scriptures and with the minds of all the ecumenical teachers and the entire Holy Church, because one and the same Holy Spirit was working in them. 

Scripture and Tradition

Undoubtedly the most troublesome facet of Tradition for the Protestant is the relationship of Tradition to Scripture. The Protestant puts Scripture above the Church. It is as though the Church was made for the Bible, when in reality the Bible was made for the Church. One must begin by realizing that the Bible and Tradition are not two different expressions of the Christian faith. Holy Tradition is the source of Holy Scripture. The Bible is given to us in Tradition. Holy Tradition is the faith of which Holy Scripture is an expression.
The Scriptural message was given to men not in paper and ink. God’s Word was first placed in men’s souls; His words were engraved and imprinted in spirit and not by letter. Our Lord’s message was first presented orally and only later written down (see Luke 1:1–3).
Early in the Church the Word of God began to develop and take on specific form and expression. A common understanding, a "tradition," if you please, began developing under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. The Apostles and their converts taught and founded churches all over the Mediterranean world and left them with its oral Tradition (see Acts 2:42; II Thess. 2:15, 3:6, etc.).
Some might say, "Didn’t Tradition get out of hand and impose a lot of excess baggage on the Bible?" It is true that certain doctrines began to take shapes that are only alluded to in the Bible (e.g., the Trinity). Specific forms of worship and practice also began to develop, like the rites of Baptism and the Eucharist. The Fathers, however, always spoke of these as having "Apostolic" origin. It is helpful to think of these so-called "additions" to the Bible as what might be omitted from a biography. A biography does not exhaust the life of its subject. One would never say that because such and such is not in the biography, therefore, it did not happen. Saint Basil (ca. 330–379) spoke of these as the "unwritten mysteries of the Church," all of which were flourishing in the fourth century and were understood to have great authority and significance and were considered indispensable for the preservation of the right Faith. "Some things we have from written teaching," said Saint Basil, "others we have received from the Apostolic Tradition handed down to us in a mystery; and both these things have the same force for piety."
"But shouldn’t the Church be identical with the Church of the Apostles? The Church in the Acts of the Apostles appears so simple." That is like comparing your picture as an adult with your picture taken as a child. There is a correspondence, but something would be woefully wrong if your appearance remained identical. A seed has an entire tree hidden in its smallness. As the seed begins to grow, phenomenal changes take place. However, its identity and continuity with the seed is never lost. Even if that tree should live for one hundred, two hundred, or more years, every single leaf that shall ever appear will have had its origin and existence in that tiny seed from which the tree sprang forth. Apple seeds don’t produce cornstalks. So it is with the Church. The Gospel starts like a seed, but as it takes root and develops, changes do take place. The Spirit, however, does not contradict Himself; so the Church’s development in its self-awareness, doctrine, and practice had to be meticulously in line with the mind of the Spirit as He had always been known and expressed.
Just because an idea was ancient did not automatically make it authentic. Something became a part of Holy Tradition only if a comprehensive consensus of the ancients could be satisfactorily demonstrated. And that consensus, as such, was not conclusive unless it could be traced back continuously to Apostolic origins.
Tradition was never regarded as adding anything to Scripture; it was the means of ascertaining and expressing the true meaning of Scripture. Tradition, therefore, is the true interpreter of Scripture. We would say Tradition is Scripture rightly understood.

Scripture Rightly Understood

It is important to realize that the Church existed before the New Testament was written. Little by little the Gospels and Epistles began to appear. One writer rightly observed:
Moreover, when we take into account how few "books," or manuscripts, there were in those days, and the fact that besides the genuine writings there were other gospels and texts written under the names of the Apostles, it is easy to understand how important the living Tradition of the Church was in safeguarding the true Christian faith. The prime importance of Tradition is plainly shown by the fact that it was not until the fifth century that the Church established conclusively which books in circulation should be regarded as genuinely inspired by God’s revelation. Thus the Church itself determined the composition of the Bible. 
As the Church defined the content of the Bible, it is to the Church that we turn for the interpretation of the Bible.
No, this does not mean that we can’t read the Bible for ourselves and hear God speak to us from that reading. But on the other hand, "private interpretation" (II Peter 1:20) is never the basis for our authority. The judgment of Scriptural interpretation must never be a merely private judgment, but must be a judgment in harmony with the mind of the Church as expressed in Holy Tradition.
It is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority, for it was the Church which originally decided which books form a part of Holy Scripture; and it is the Church alone which can interpret Holy Scripture with authority. [16]
Saying this puts one on a collision course with what the vast majority of Western Christians believe today. Today we have bowed to the cult of proud individualism. "I can believe anything I want," or "Nobody tells me what to believe except the Holy Spirit" are heard time and again. We freely re-interpret Christ’s teachings according to our personal tastes, guided only by our personal liking. As Georges Florovsky put it, "We are in danger of losing the uniqueness of the Word of God in the process of continuous reinterpretation.". We might preach salvation in Christ, but it is a salvation in egocentric isolation from the Church. As someone observed, the Protestant in protesting the Pope has promoted each individual to the rank of infallible Pope. Private opinion reigns.
The Christian message is becoming increasingly indefinite and appearing as only one more teaching in the series of teachings ancient and new. And all of this because "without the Church the possibility is open for an innumerable quantity of the most arbitrary and mutually contradictory understandings.". Because "the faith of Christ becomes clear and definite for man only when he unhypocritically believes in the Church; only then are the pearls of this faith clear, only then does the faith remain free from the pile of dirty rubbish of all-possible, self-willed opinions and judgments.".
We need the Bible. We need Tradition. We need the Church. George Cronk in his book The Message of the Bible summarizes it well:

Since scripture is given within the context of tradition, it must also be read, interpreted, and understood within that context. And since as we have seen, tradition is the total life and experience of the Church, it follows that the Church is the sole authoritative interpreter of the Bible. Christ is the founder and head of the Church, and the Church is the body of Christ (see Eph. 4:1–16 and 5:21–33). This means that Christ lives in, inspires, and guides His Church through the Holy Spirit. Christ, in and through the Church, provides the correct interpretation of the Bible and of other aspects of holy tradition. It is only within the living Tradition of the Church and the direct inspiration of Christ’s Spirit that the proper interpretation of the Bible can be made. 

Source:  The Road That Leads Home by the Reverend Dorraine S. Snogren, with an Introduction by Bishop Ephraim