What is “Tradition?”

Ignatius speaks about conducting ourselves in the unity of our flesh and spirit in the same manner that Jesus Christ conducted Himself in the Spirit in unity with His own humanity. The Incarnation indicates to us that God cherishes our humanity by embracing it and making it His own. Because there is union between God, His own humanity in the Person of Jesus Christ, means our humanity is united to God and fully sanctified in Him. Human activity was grounded in the love of God towards us enfleshing Himself in Jesus Christ.  His human activity was the outward expression of His own Divine Being towards the human race He loved.  In receiving His love, we can live out in His incarnate reality and love others as we are loved. So we live by the Spirit in our flesh, the two go hand in hand.

To be a bishop in such a time was to be a representative of the this Incarnate reality of Jesus Christ. They were custodians of the tradition which they received into their hands almost within reach of the very Apostles of Jesus Christ. Ignatius, in particular was a disciple of Apostle John and, along with Polycarp, they took the banner of the tradition from the Apostle John to their sees. They allowed the mantle of the personal witness of John to fall upon them.

Yet many scratch their heads as to what the tradition might be. The church of Rome believe their is a ‘secret tradition’ which is privy only to the select and ordained leadership.  The bad press they have received of late might raise suspicion as to why their so called ‘secret tradition’ has been kept so secret! However, in the ancient church this was not the case. There was nothing secret about their tradition. The was nothing in regard to any sort of secret tradition privy for the select few. People in many communities were not literate. In such cases, these illiterate Christians were provided with what was known as ‘formal statements’ which was committed to memory.  These statements were kept as simple as possible to serve this purpose. It appears that upon reading the early fathers that this tradition was well-known and widespread throughout the church in the ancient world.

An example can be found in Irenaeus Against Heresies Bk 1.10.1

“The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all . . . “

After making this statement he says in the next paragraph such a statement above is the universal tradition of the Church Bk 1.10.2:

“As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.”

And in another place  Ch 3.4.2, Irenaeus says

“To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent. Those who, in the absence of written documents,  have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom. If any one were to preach to these men the inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears, and flee as far off as possible, not enduring even to listen to the blasphemous address. Thus, by means of that ancient tradition of the apostles, they do not suffer their mind to conceive anything of the [doctrines suggested by the] portentous language of these teachers, among whom neither Church nor doctrine has ever been established.”

By accepting statements in paragraph 1 (Bk 1.10.1) above is stating union has occurred between God and humanity through this One Human Being, Jesus Christ.  In those early years, it was as simple as that.  However, the heretics would twist these statements to support their erroneous claims leading many Christians away from the truth. To preserve the tradition these informal statements had to be refined to reflect its precise meaning leaving nothing open for this tradition to be misrepresented by wild and extraneous opinions.  Communities formed their own baptismal creeds to try and keep the heretics at bay.  As time went on, more precise statements had to made and creeds refined. Some 130 years or so later, the Nicene Creed was formed as the precise collection of formal statements that properly reflected what the Bishops felt at that time to best represent the tradition handed to them by the Apostles themselves. Athanasius says in Ad Afros 4: “This enables us to see, brethren, that they of Nicæa breathe the spirit of Scripture . . . “ and again in De Synodis:  . . . but about the faith they wrote not, “It seemed good,’ but, Thus believes the Catholic Church;’ and there upon they confessed how they believed, in order to show that their own sentiments were not novel, but Apostolical; and what they wrote down was no discovery of theirs, but is the same as was taught by the Apostles.’”

This may give us clues as to the kind of leadership we can expect in the Church today.  We need to go behind all the statement of beliefs of modern churches and return to what it was the Apostles handed to us from the very beginning. The authority of any leader in the body we call the Church does not lie within the label they carry, ie pastor, reverend, priest, bishop, apostle, evangelist etc.  Their authority should be seen as a witness to the confession first delivered to us by the Apostles and their ability to stand firm on it. When we study the formal statements in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, they can be found in many writings of the fathers dating back as early as Irenaeus with some traces in Ignatius and Justin the Martyr. If leaders today are sceptical in anyway about the tradition and the strength and validity of Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, then any authority or power they have been given, I can guarantee, is misplaced and the gospel they hold to is more than likely no gospel at all.

In paragraph 2 of Irenaeus, (Bk 1.10.2 & 3.4.2) there are indications these formal statements in paragraph one above were universal. Wherever one travelled in the world, the church had one voice regarding these statements; statements which were rigorously grounded and defended in Scripture.  Such statements were upheld because their underlying truth were seated deep within each one who confessed them with the knowledge that when Jesus Christ was born, God united Himself to humanity.

Therefore the bishop and the leaders within the church community had no authority of their own.  None of what they taught was arbitrary.  To be designated a ‘bishop’ (πίσκοπος) was a person who was ‘right on the mark’ with the teaching of the Apostles; ie Scripture and Tradition. The bishop and the leader’s power came only to empower others with the very same that empowered them. This power was the reality of God Incarnate in the Person of Jesus Christ, God and humanity united forever. Their task was to keep Christians in their communities empowered with the truth. To undermine the Incarnation in any way means people are no longer empowered by the gospel. Instead they hand their power over to ordinary men and relinquish what was given to them freely by the Spirit of Christ. There can be no holding back, no hesitation, no doubt with no possibility of overstating such a fact as the reality of the Word made flesh. It is the only place where we can be assured people are truly free and united in the loving and freedom of our Triune God.

There need not be any ambiguity regarding what the ancient tradition was.  They are formal statements of which no one can claim ownership.  They are statements from the Master Himself.  No one is greater than the Master, Jesus Christ.  The Church believes in “one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all . . . ”

Now compare these second century “formal statements” with the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed:

We believe in One God, the Father Almighty Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from his Father before all ages, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance (Being) with the Father, through whom all things were made; who for us men and our salvation, came down from heaven, and was made flesh from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father. And he shall come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead; his kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We confess one baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

By making this creed our own confession, we are all lining up to and agreeing with the “Tradition” handed to us from the very hands of the Apostles.  If we are to accept this as our confession then we are speaking the same as the Apostles spoke and standing by all the ancient Bishops who took on the Apostles mantle to ensure the same confession continues.  The formal statements in those early years of the Church were simply laid out.  As other opinions pressed in on the Church, she had not choice but to make clear and precise their universal confession.  The Nicene Creed was first formulated in 325AD, (to make it clear Jesus is not a creature) expanded at Constantinople in 381AD (to make it clear the Holy Spirit also is not a creature) and then confirmed at Chalcedon in 451AD and became the universal declaration of the apostolic confession.  There really is no room to ignore this confession because it places squarely on our table the truth and validity of the Incarnation of the Word, the Word made flesh, the fact that God came to be with us and for us as man. Leaders and teachers who ignore this means their gospel is no gospel at all. These leaders and teachers must be ignored. The are no other other alternatives. When we hold onto this eternal truth portrayed in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, then we can rest secure in our union with God in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.