A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Dead Traditionalism Cannot Be Truly Traditional

How is the Orthodox Christian to maintain and witness to his faith in the complicated and changing world of the twentieth century? There can be no answer to this challenge of our age without living tradition.

Of necessity, any Orthodox theology and any Orthodox witness is traditional, in the sense that it is consistent not only with Scripture but also with the experience of the Fathers and the saints, as well as the continuous celebration of Christ's death and resurrection in the liturgy of the Church. However the term "traditional theology" can also denote a dead theology, it it means identifying traditionalism with simple repetition. Such a theology may prove incapable of recognizing the issues of its own age, while it presents yesterday's arguments to confront new heresies.

In fact, dead traditionalism cannot be truly traditional. It is an essential characteristic of patristic theology that it was able to face the challenges of its own time while remaining consistent with the original apostolic Orthodox faith. Thus simply to repeat what the Fathers said is to be unfaithful to their spirit and to the intention embodied in their theology.

The great Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century-- St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa-- are true pillars of Orthodox Christianity because they succeeded in preserving the faith in the face of two great dangers. The first was the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ, and the second was the influential challenge of ancient Greek philosophy. The latter had ruled the minds of educated people for centuries; and precisely because it appeared as so attractive, so traditional, and so prestigious, it prevented many educated Greeks from adopting the new biblical faith of Jesus' disciples. The Fathers faced both of these problems clearly and dealt with them specifically. They did not simply anathematize the Arians but also provided a positive and contemporary terminology to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity: the terminology enshrined in the Church's creed. They did not simply deny the validity of Greek philosophy but demonstrated as well that its best intuitions could successfully be used in Christian theology, provided one accepted the Gospel of Christ as the ultimate criterion of truth.

Thus for us to be "traditional" implies an imitation of the Fathers in their creative work of discernment. Like them we must be dedicated to the task of saving human beings from error, and not just maintaining abstract propositional truths. We must imitate their constant effort to understand their contemporaries and to use words and concepts which could not truly reach the minds of the listeners. True tradition is always a living tradition. It changes while remaining always the same. It changes because it faces different situations, not because its essential content is modified. This content is not an abstract proposition; it is the living Christ Himself, who said, "I am the Truth."
John Meyendorff, Living Tradition, 1978.

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