Do the Orthodox believe in Sola Scriptura (the Bible alone?) What do you believe about tradition?

Do the Orthodox believe in Sola Scriptura (the Bible alone?) What do you believe about tradition?

This answer has two parts: (1) below, a short reply and (2) a longer reply taken from the forthcoming “Revised Catechism of the Orthodox Faith.”

The short answer:
Orthodox Christianity understands Sola Scriptura versus Holy Tradition as a false dichotomy, pitting the Bible against tradition, because the Bible can also be considered part of tradition.
Note that we are instructed to “stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2 Th 2:15). Thus, Holy Tradition is the deposit of faith given to the Apostles by Christ and then passed on from one generation to the next in the Church without addition, alteration or subtraction. While it is unchanging in dogma, it is dynamic in application. Insisting on Sola Scriptura ignores this reality as well as several key factors about the experience of early Christianity:

  • The first generation of Christians did not have the New Testament at all. The first of St. Paul’s letters weren’t written until at least A.D. 50. The first Gospel wasn’t written until probably at least A.D. 60. The Gospel According to St. John and the Book of Revelation probably weren’t written until at least A.D. 90.
  • There are many Christian writings that were read and admired by early Christians that did not end up in the NT. Some examples: The Shepherd of Hermas, The Letters of Clement and The Proto-Evangelium of James.
  • There are also a plethora of writings that claimed to be Christian, but were rejected by the ancient Church. Some examples: The Gospel of Judas, The Gospel of Thomas, and The Hypostasis of the Archons.
  • The process of determining which books should be in the NT took centuries. For example, The Book of Revelation was popular in the West, but not in the East; whereas Hebrews was quickly accepted in the East but not the West.
  • The first time we see the NT codified as we have received it today was by St. Athanasius in the 4th century.
  • Finally, Sola Scriptura ignores the authority by which this process happened — the ancient Church Herself through the activity of the Holy Spirit.


From the catechism:

1. On Holy Tradition and Holy Scripture

Q001.  How is divine revelation spread to all people and preserved in the Church?

  1. P01.    Christians, both individually and corporately as Church, are called to be witnesses to Jesus Christ:
    But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth. (Act 1:8)
  2.  P02.     The Twelve Apostles (“apostle” means one who is sent) received a special mandate from the Lord Jesus Christ, but all Orthodox Christians are also called to spread and uphold the Truth of the Gospel:
    Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Joh 20:21-23)

    Regarding the responsibility of all Orthodox Christians to know and defend the Faith, the Eastern Patriarchs say:
    [The] protector of religion is the very body of the Church, even the people themselves… (Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs of 1848, 17)
  3. P03.       It is clear, therefore, that divine revelation is the revelation of the mystery of Christ Jesus and inseparably from this, of the mystery of the Church. This Holy Gospel is spread and preserved by the following channels:The oral proclamation of the Word of God (which may include Holy Tradition):
    For this reason, we also thank God without ceasing that when you received from us the word of God’s message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but, as it is in truth: the word of God. And it is at work in you who believe! (1Th 2:13)

    The written transmission of the same proclamation of the Word of God – the living Truth – which is contained in the Holy Scriptures:
    So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter. (2Th 2:15)

Q002.  What is meant by “Holy Tradition?”

  1. P04.     “Tradition” (in Greek: paradosis) can be a confusing word and we must always be clear as to what we mean with the words we use, so as to avoid confusing both ourselves and others.“Tradition” can refer to what is being passed on (the content) or the way (the transmission method) by which it is passed on.

    What is being passed on is (1) the saving Gospel of the Lord and (2) how it is lived in “the Church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth (1Ti 3:15).”

    The way that this is transmitted is (1) in writing and (2) in the liturgical life of the Church.

  2. P05.    The Scriptures are a uniquely authoritative way by which divine revelation is handed down, and as such the Scripture can be considered part of Tradition.
  3. P06.    Regarding the handing down of the Word of God in the life of the Church, apostolic succession is the divinely appointed means by which the deposit of the faith is passed on from one generation to another. As St Paul instructed Timothy:
    What you heard from me among many witnesses, entrust likewise to faithful men who will be able to teach others as well. (2Ti 2:2)
  4. P07.    In a broad sense, Holy Tradition means the doctrine of the faith, the law of God, the sacraments, and the ritual as handed down by the true believers and worshipers of God by word and example from one to another, and from generation to generation.
  5. P08.    In a narrow sense, Holy Tradition can be understood as the right interpretation of the Scriptures. Fr. George Florovsky explains:
    Tradition was in the Early Church, first of all, an hermeneutical principle and method. Scripture could be rightly and fully assessed and understood only in the light and in the context of the living Apostolic Tradition, which was an integral factor of Christian existence. It was so, of course, not because Tradition could add anything to what has been manifested in the Scripture, but because it provided that living context, the comprehensive perspective, in which only the true “intention” and the total “design” of the Holy Writ, itself of Divine Revelation, could be detected and grasped. (The Function of Tradition in the Ancient Church)
  6. P09.    By Apostolic Tradition, we specifically mean the teachings and practices of the Apostles, which were observed by their disciples and passed on by the men which they had appointed as bishops and presbyters in the holy Churches. Often, these Apostolic Traditions, which may not be explicit in the Holy Scriptures, were recorded in writing by their immediate or more distant disciples, such as Origen and St Basil. For instance, Origen writes:
    The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. (Commentaries on Romans, 5:9)
  7. P010.    In addition to providing the right interpretation of the Holy Scriptures through the consent of the ancient fathers, Tradition is vital in regards to the inner life of the Church because the Holy Scriptures mention the existence of the mysteries (sacraments) but not the manner of their administration. As a modern scholar notes:
    Indeed, all the instances of unwritten tradition lacking Scriptural support which the early theologians mention will be found, on examination to refer to matters of observance and practice (e.g. triple immersion in baptism; turning East for prayer) rather than of doctrine as such, although sometimes they are matters (e.g. infant baptism; prayers for the dead) in which doctrine is involved. (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 47)Regarding this important role of tradition, St Jerome writes:
    Do you not know that the laying on of hands after baptism and then the invocation of the Holy Spirit is a custom of the Churches? Do you demand Scripture proof? You may find it in the Acts of the Apostles. And even if it did not rest upon the authority of Scripture the consensus of the whole world in this respect would have the force of a command. For many other observances of the Churches, which are due to tradition, have acquired the authority of the written law. (Against the Luciferians, 8)

    St Basil likewise referred to Holy Tradition as providing necessary information regarding the life of the Church:
    Of the dogmas and messages preserved in the Church, some we possess from written teaching and others we receive from the tradition of the Apostles, handed on to us in mystery.  In respect to piety, both are of the same force. No one will contradict any of these, no one, at any rate, who is even moderately versed in matters ecclesiastical. Indeed, were we to try to reject unwritten customs as having no great authority, we would unwittingly injure the gospel in its vitals; or rather, we would reduce [Christian] message to a mere term. (On the Holy Spirit, 66)

  8. P011.                             There are also traditions (often spelled in this sense with a small “t”) which are simply observances, customs and practices not necessarily received from the Apostles. Sometimes, these traditions or customs are of human origin but wise and useful; and they are often local. However, ‘traditions’ may also be not only of human origin (such as receiving Holy Communion extremely rarely) but even against Holy Tradition, thus falling under the condemnation of the Lord:
    He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. (Mat 15:2, 6)
  9. P012.                             The key point is always to ask where these traditions are from and if they are in harmony (or nullify) the written Word of God which can be understood as ‘certified and assured’ Tradition. For this reason, St Basil also writes:
    We are not content simply because this is the tradition of the Fathers. What is important is that the Fathers followed the meaning of the Scripture. (On the Holy Spirit, 7)
  10. P013.                             Even if they are unwritten, Traditions that in harmony with the Divine Scriptures and attested to by the ancient teachers of the apostolic Churches are binding upon Orthodox Christians, for as St John Chrysostom says:
    Brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or by our letter. From this it is clear that they did not hand down everything by letter, but there was much also that was not written. Like that which was written, the unwritten too is worthy of belief. So let us regard the tradition of the Church as worthy of belief. Is it a tradition? Seek no further. (Homilies on the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, 4:2)

Q003.  Is there any sure repository of Holy Tradition?

  1. P014.    Certainly, the Holy Scriptures can be considered as a uniquely reliable and authoritative repository of Holy Tradition on account of their nature as theopneustos or “God-breathed.”All scripture is inspired by God (theopneustos) and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2Ti 3:16)
  2. P015.    I can be said, therefore, that the Holy Scriptures contain all that is necessary to proclaim the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ (what St Basil called the keryma), provided that the Holy Scriptures are properly interpreted, as St Athanasius writes:The Nicene [Council] is sufficient, as against the Arian heresy, [and] divine Scripture is sufficient above all things. (On the Council(s), 6) But our faith is right, and starts from the teaching of the Apostles and tradition of the fathers, being confirmed both by the New Testament and the Old. (To Adelphius, Letter 60, 6)

    Likewise, the great missionary to Alaska, St Innocent, writes:
    Certainly all that is necessary for us to know for our salvation is revealed quite clearly and in detail in the Scriptures. (Indication of the Way, 1)

  3. P016.    This sufficiency of the Scriptures regarding the Gospel of Christ, however, is not to be equated with the Protestant slogan of “Sola Scriptura” which is deceptive and a cause of schism and heresy. For the Holy Scriptures cannot only function as the rule of faith for the proclamation of the saving Gospel in the context of the Church and communion of the holy apostolic Churches everywhere, since the Church is the place of the Holy Spirit. Morever, as St Basil wisely teaches, the proclamation of the kerygma must be fulfilled by one’s entrance into the life of the Church which is information and regulated by Holy Tradition, for St Paul himself wrote, the administration of the saving Mystery are Christ are handed down by the apostolic succession (1Co 11:23; 2Th 2:15).
  4. P017.    Regarding the teaching of the Apostle Paul to Timothy that the Scriptures make one “complete” (2Ti 3:16-17), we must remember that it applies to “the man of God,” i.e. someone who functions in the Church.[1] Furthermore, the Church, along with her ministers and sacraments, is also “God-breathed:”
    Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23)
  5. P018.                             The Church (in the biblical context, this is referring to the local Church or “diocese,” which is communion with the other apostolic Churches and all true believers united by the holy tradition of the faith, collectively and successively) by the will of God, is therefore a sure repository of holy tradition, or, as St. Paul expresses it:
    The Church of the living God [is] the pillar and ground of the truth. (1Ti 3:15)St. Irenaeus also writes:
    We should not to seek the truth elsewhere, since we may obtain it by asking from the Church. In her, as in a rich treasure-house, the Apostles have laid up in its fullness all that pertains to the truth, so that whoever seeks may receive from her the food of life. She is the door of life. (Against Heresies, 3:4)

    In this catechism, we will therefore discuss what the Church is and how to identify its marks or characteristics.

Q004.  What is meant by “Holy Scripture(s)?”

  1. P019.    The expression “Holy Scripture” refers to certain writings that have their ultimate origin in the ministry of the Spirit of God which revealed spiritual truths to men throughout the ages. These human authors, who were sanctified and illumined by God, are often called “prophets” and “apostles.”As the Apostle Peter writes:
    Know this first of all, that no interpretation  of Scriptural prophecy happens as something private, because no prophecy ever came by human will: holy men of God spoke, being moved by the Holy Spirit. (2Pe 1:20-21)
  2. P020.    In regards to our discussion about the triune necessaty of Church, Tradition and Scripture, the same Apostle continues with a warning that the Scripures can be difficult to understand apart from the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church:
    So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. (2 Pe 3:16)Wisely then, the Ethiopian eunuch, realizing that he was unable to understand by himself the prophecy of Isaiah, sought help from the deacon Philip:
    An Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians… had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And the man replied, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (Act 8:27-31)
  3. P021.    Considering then that human beings have been moved by God to proclaim and write divine revelation, the collection of these books is commonly called “the (Holy) Bible.”
  4. P022.    The word “Bible” comes from the Greek biblios which means “the books” because the Bible is a collection (or library) of sacred books written over centuries by various human authors.
  5. P023.    Today, this name (Bible) signifies that these sacred books are uniquely authoritative witnesses to Jesus Christ. As such, they deserve attention before all others. As the Lord says:

Q005.  What does the word “Bible” mean?

You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me so that you may have life. (Joh 5:39)

  1. P024.    However, within the corpus[2] of the Bible, there is a hierarchy of witnessing power and dogmatic authority. The four Holy Gospels hold a unique place as witnesses to the Truth and only the Gospels are placed on the holy table in the sanctuary.
  2. P025.    The most ancient and original instrument for spreading divine revelation is holy tradition in the form of oral proclation and transmission.

Q006.  Which one is the more ancient, oral tradition or the written word?

From Adam to Moses, there were no sacred books. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself delivered his divine teachings and ordinances to his Disciples by word and example, but not by writing. The same method was followed by the Apostles also at first, when they spread abroad the faith and established the Church of Christ. As St John writes, showing his preference for personal oral teaching over writing:

I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink; I hope to see you soon, and we will talk together face to face. (3Jo 1:14)

  1. P026.    The necessity of tradition is further obvious from the fact that for many centuries, books were available only to a small part of mankind, but tradition (inseparable from the life and structure of the Church) to all.
  2. P027.     Holy Scripture was written according to the wisdom and instructions of God (Exo 17:14; Jer 30:2; Hab 2:2; Rev 21:5). Scripture is a realiable means to ensure that divine revelation might be preserved more exactly and unchangeably.

Q007.  Why, then, was Holy Scripture given?

In Holy Scripture, we read the words of the Prophets and Apostles precisely as if we were living with them and listening to them, although the latest of the sacred books were written about 2,000 years before our time.

  1. P028.    St Athanasius praises the sacred books with these words:
    These are fountains of salvation, si that those who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness (Festal Letter, 39:6)Likewise, St John Chrysostom greatly encourages the prayerful reading and study of the Scriptures:
    It is a great thing, this reading of the Scriptures! For it is not possible, I say not possible, ever to exhaust the mind of the Scriptures. It is a well which has no bottom….How many persons, do you suppose, have spoken upon the Gospels? And yet all have spoken in a way which was new and fresh. For the more one dwells on them, the more insight does he get, the more does he behold the pure light. (Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, 19)

Q008.  Must we follow Holy Tradition, even when we possess Holy Scripture?

  1. P029.    We have seen from the Sacred Scriptures themselves that they can be difficult to understand and even lead unwise Christians to deceit and error. Even the Devil could cite the Scriptures in order to tempt the Savior.
  2. P030.    In order to properly understand the Bible, one must have the gift of the Holy Spirit which is the same Spirit that inspired the writing of the Scriptures in the first place. The Church and Holy Tradition are the divinely appointed means which enable the Scriptures to properly function as rule of faith for the proclamation of the Christian faith.
  3. P031.    Holy Tradition mainly functions in two ways: (1) to properly interpret the Scriptures, (2) to learn about the inner life of the Church (especially the administration of the Mysteries).
  4. P032.    We must therefore follow that Tradition which agrees with Holy Scripture. There are many ways, notably the study of the Fathers (many of whom were bishops) and of ancient liturgies, which enable Christians to ascertain whether particular traditions or practices are apostolic and God-pleasing.  Furthermore, these traditions will always be in harmony with the Holy Scriptures, even when the Scriptures do not say much on a particular topic.
  5. P033.    Two simple examples come to mind: (1) the baptism of infants which is taught in Scriptures but not in a direct and explicit manner, and (2) the practice of praying for the reposed. These are undoubtedly well-attested Apostolic Traditions, and they are fully consistent with the Scriptures rightly interpreted.
  6. P034.    Again, the instruction of the Apostle Paul comes to mind:
    Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or our epistle (2Th 2:15)
  7. P035.    Clearly, St Paul is referring to teachings (oral and written) which may not completely coincide in scope and which may clarify each other. For instance, a person entrusting his house to another will ask the housekeeper to following all his instructions given in writing and by word. Such a request would indicate that what has been said may complement or clarify what has been written.In the context of the writings of St Paul and as attested by St Basil, these oral traditions (Holy Tradition) typically refer to the inner life of Church, especially the administration of the Holy Mysteries or Sacraments. Thus, we find the language of tradition in reference to the Eucharist:
    I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (1Co 11:23-24)

Q009.  Why is tradition necessary even now?

  1. P036.     Tradition has been recorded in the writings of the early Christians and Fathers, as well as in the liturgies. Because Tradition is intimately connected with the life of the Church and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, it is part of what the Holy Fathers have called “the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” It is the same Spirit which is the Spirit of Truth and the Spirit is the indispendable guide to rightly understand the Scripture.
  2. P037.    Tradition, which reflects the life of the Spirit in the Church, is therefore a guide to the right understanding of Holy Scripture, for the right ministration of the sacraments, and the preservation of sacred rites and ceremonies in the purity of their original institution.
  3. P038.    In his book On the Holy Spirit, St Basil the Great explains not only the importance of Tradition but also gives specific examples:
    Of the doctrines and injunctions kept by the Church, we have received some from written instruction, and some we have received from apostolic tradition, by transmission through the mysteries (or “in secret”). Both have one and the same force for piety, and this will be contradicted by no one who has ever so little knowledge in the ordinances of the Church. Indeed, if we were to dare to reject unwritten customs, as if they had no great importance, we should insensibly mutilate the Gospel, even in the most essential points. We would leave the teaching of the Apostles leave as an empty name.For instance, let us mention before all else the very first and most common act of Christians, that they who trust in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ should sign themselves with the sign of the cross. Who has taught this by writing?

    What about turning to the east in prayer? What Scripture do we have for this?

    What of the words of invocation in the change of the Eucharistic bread and of the Cup of blessing? Which of the Saints have they been left us in writing? As it is, we are not content with those words which the Apostle or the Gospel records, but both before them and after them, we pronounce others also, which we hold to be of great force for the sacrament, even though we have received them from unwritten teaching.

    Likewise, by what Scripture do we bless the water of baptism, the oil of unction, and the person who is baptized? Is it not by a silent and secret tradition? What more? Regarding, the very practice of anointing with oil, what written word have we for it? And where does the rule of triple immersion come from? What about the rest of the ceremonies at baptism, the renunciation of Satan and his angels? What Scripture are they taken from? Are they not all from this unpublished and private teaching, which our Fathers kept under a reserve inaccessible to curiosity and profane inquisition, having been taught as a first principle to guard by silence the sanctity of the mysteries? (On the Holy Spirit, 66-68)

  4. P039.    This important distinction between the public proclamation of the Gospel and the inner life of the Church reminds us of the teaching of the Lord:
    Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you. (Mat 7:6)
  5. P040.    These “mysteries of the Kingdom of God” (Luk 8:10) are not to be confused with the so-called ‘secret apostolic traditions, of the ancient heretics, because they were always available and preserved in the ancient Churches established by the apostles themselves, through Apostolic Succession. Concerning this, St Irenaeus writes:
    Let us suppose that the apostles had known hidden mysteries that they were in the habit of imparting to “the perfect” in private and apart from the rest. If that were true, they would have especially delivered such mysteries to those whom they were also committing the churches themselves. For the apostles were desirous that these men should be completely perfect and blameless, considering that they were leaving them behind as their successors…But, again, when we refer [the heretics] to that Tradition which originates from the Apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to Tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to Tradition…

    True knowledge is [that which consists in] the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even to us, being guarded and preserved without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine. (Against Heresies, 4)

In Summary

  1. P041.    The Word of God incarnate and living Truth is Jesus Christ himself.
  2. P042.    The Church of the living God is the pillar and foundation of this Truth (1Ti 3:5)
  3. P043.    The Holy Scriptures are witnesses to Christ Jesus, they are inspired, authoritative, “able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2Ti 3:15).
  4. P044.    The Holy Scriptures are sufficient as regards the revelation and public proclamation of the rule of faith which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ; but the Holy Scriptures are inseparable from the life of the Church and Holy Tradition.
  5. P045.    The expression “Holy Tradition” is rich in meaning and must be carefully defined to avoid confusion and misunderstandings.
  6. P046.    Holy Tradition refers mainly to (1) the correct (orthodox) Apostolic interpretation of the teachings of the Lord which are also found in the Holy Scriptures (2) the proper and authorized way to govern the life of the Church, especially regarding the administration of the Sacred Mysteries.
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