BASIC DOGMATIC TEACHING
An Orthodox Handbook
by Protopresbyter Fr. Anthony Alevizopoulos (1931 – 1996)
Dr. of Theology, Dr. of Philosophy
Chapter 13 – The sacred trust of the Church
1. The genuine carriers of the trust
The Apostle Paul reminds Timothy that he should guard well the “trust” which was entrusted to him, and avoid the “profane and idle babblings and contradictions” of the heretics (1 Tim.6:20).
“Guard” – he said – “that good thing which was committed to you, through the Holy Spirit Who dwells in us” (2 Tim.1:14). The Apostle regards this opus so basic, that he adds that without this “trust“, one is in danger of “straying, concerning the faith” (1 Tim.6:21). In these verses, we notice that Christ’s salvific truth is not a “dry letter”, which could be preserved by recording it in a book. This treasure was given by the Lord to the Apostles, so that those who would be joined to them would be guaranteed of having the truth.
The Apostles assigned this opus to the bishops. It is furthermore obvious that bishops fulfil this Mission, provided they remain joined to the Body of Christ -the Church- in which acts the Holy Spirit (John 14:26, 15:26, 16:13). In other words, when they don’t express their own opinions, but the opinion of the Holy Spirit which is found within the Church (Acts 15:28, John 16:13, cmp. Psalms 81:1-8). This is why Saint Ignatius – who sees in the person of the Bishop the guarantee of the Church’s unity and the victory over the assaults of Satan and the delusion of heretics – characteristically says in his Epistle to Hebrews:
“Because Jesus Christ – our true life – is the opinion of the Father, as are the Bishops who have been installed in all parts of the world who are of the same opinion as Jesus Christ (the in-Christ opinion). So, you too must also follow the opinion of the Bishop – which in fact you do – because the worthiness of the name of your Presbyter which is also worthy by God is linked to the bishop, like the strings are to the harp.”
With all the above it is proven that Christ’s salvific truth can only be secured within the organic relations of the Church. When we speak of the organic relations with the Church, we mean the overall Church, or, as mentioned in our liturgical texts, the communion “with all of the Saints”.
The “trust” therefore which the Apostle speaks of is not a book; it is the result of the perpetual presence of the Holy Spirit, Who leads to the full truth (John 16:13). It is life within the Church, Which comprises “the pillar and the ground of the truth (1 Tim.3:15). This “trust” was delivered to the “saints” and it can only be received by those who are in communion with the “saints” (Jude 3). On the contrary, those who are not inside this communion are irreverent and heretic people, who do not possess the truth. This is what Jude’s Epistle also testifies to, when he mentions that the author felt the need to write that Epistle “…exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain men have crept in unnoticed…” (Jude 1:3-4).
When man is far from the Spirit of God Who works inside the Church, and is also far from the life of the Saints, he cannot quench his thirst because the “water and the Spirit” (John 3:5) which become the “inner source of water that springs forth unto eternal life” (John4:14) do not exist there. Even the very Bible cannot be comprehended correctly, outside the Church. Which is why this leads – not to salvation, but to perdition (2 Peter 3:16).
2. The Lord in relation to the Holy Bible
As known, Christ did not come in order to write the Holy Bible, nor did He write any book whatsoever. Christ became incarnate, He preached, He was crucified, He died and was resurrected; He completed the opus of man’s salvation with His Church, which is none other than His own, God-human Body; He ascended into the heavens; He sent forth the Holy Spirit on the day of the Pentecost. To His disciples He gave the instruction to go forth to all the nations and attract people to the faith and through Baptism render them members of the Church. But at the same time, He reassured them : “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20) and that also with them would remain the Consoler forever (John 14:16), Who would lead them to Christ Himself (John 14:26, 15:26) – that is, to the fullness of the truth (John 16:13).
However, all these do not signify that Christ abolished the laws and the prophets of the Old Testament. On the contrary, He very frequently quotes them, in order to underline that their words were fulfilled in His person (Luke 4:21, John 5:38-39).
In other words, the true significance of the Holy Bible is not found in the letter, but in the Spirit, Who gives life to the letter (2 Cor. 3:6) and leads to the revealing of the Son and to the personal union with Him inside the Church.
The center, therefore, of the entire Holy Bible is the Person of Jesus Christ.
The Old Testament consists of the sacred books that preceded His incarnation, wherein is narrated the creation of the world and mankind, man’s fall, Israel as the chosen people of God, their liberation from the bondage of the Egyptians, God’s special Testament on Mount Sinai, the conquest of the Promised Land, the establishing of Kings, the Mission of Prophets, the Babylonian Captivity, the return from captivity and up until the era of Alexander the Great and his successors.
Beyond all these historical events, the entire Old Testament has as its centre God’s promise regarding the coming of the Messiah, as well as the summoning of God’s new people – that is, the Church.
In the Old Testament it is the Triadic God Who speaks; or, better still, it is the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit, and He pre-announces through the mouth of the Prophets the event of man’s salvation in the Person of Christ. The Apostle Peter says characteristically:
“Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels desire to look into. (1 Peter 1:10-12. cmp also 2 Peter 1:21).
However, the Old Testament constitutes the “shadow” of the New (Hebr.10:1). Its deeper meaning is found within a “veil” which only “in Christ is taken away” (2 Cor. 3:14) This is confirmed by the Lord Himself, Who told the Judeans that the Father had witnessed in the Old Testament regarding Christ, through the mouth of the Prophets, but that “you do not have His word abiding in you, because the One whom He sent, Him you do not believe. You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; these testify of Me, but you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.” (John 5:38-39).
The “new people” which the Holy Bible speaks of is no longer dependent on a certain nation, nor does it recognize any difference between nations and peoples (Rom.10:12-13, 1 Cor.12:13, Gal.3:28).
Consequently, if the core of the Old Testament is the expected Messiah and God’s new people, we – in order to properly comprehend the deeper meaning of the Old Testament – need to examine it from the viewpoint of how it relates to that central purpose: to Christ and the Church. Differently, we will not be able to grasp the cardinal meaning of the Old Testament.
With regard to this matter, the Apostle Paul mentions that the law – that is, the Old Testament – was given as “… our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” (Gal.3:24). “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal. 3:28-29)
In the New Testament, God no longer speaks through the Prophets but “in the Son” – through the Person of the Son (Hebr.1:2)
Consequently, we cannot separate the Holy Bible from the Person of Christ. Otherwise, we would be in danger of turning the Holy Bible into a legal codex, which knows only cold paragraphs that any one can interpret in their own manner. In other words, we are in danger of not moving on, to the life-giving Spirit, but remaining stuck to the letter and be condemned to death: “…God, Who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Cor.3:6).
3. The place of the Apostles
Christ’s disciples were given a specific Mission by the Lord, which they fulfilled in their lifetime: they preached, they catechized, they baptized those who believed, and they organized the spiritual life of the Churches that they founded.
During the time of their activity, and in order to respond to certain needs of the Christian communities (because it was not possible for them to be near them all the time), they wrote Epistles and other books, which they sent to certain Churches – to the heads of those Churches – or to other ecclesiastic personages. These books were collected at a later date and that is how the New Testament was formed.
The above are proof that the books of the New Testament were written for specific reasons, with the sole purpose of confronting certain needs of one or more local Churches (for example the Church of Corinth, the Church of Thessaloniki etc.) and were not intended to comprise books of the New Testament.
The fact is, these sacred authors conveyed the word of God to the Christian communities with those books, having written it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul’s reassurance that “every scripture is divinely inspired” (2 Tim.3:16) does not only pertain to the books of the Old Testament, but for the entire Holy Bible.
4. The sole interpreter of the Holy Bible
Pursuant to the above, the following question is posed: Who is the authentic interpreter of the Holy Bible?
It is a basic requirement of each Christian that he be aware that the Holy Bible is not addressed to people who are scattered, but to the Christians who are assembled into one body – the Body of Christ. Consequently, the interpretation of the various books of the Holy Bible is the work of specialized people, who have been dedicated – by the Spirit of God – to be the shepherds of the Church. (Acts 20:28). Therefore it is not possible for just anyone to arbitrarily interpret the Holy Bible; the sole interpreter is the Holy Spirit, Who leads the Church (John 16:13, 14:26) and renders Her “the pillar and the ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). In this way – that is, inside the Church – the Holy Bible continues to be the eternal word of God, which regenerates and saves. It is not a human word; it is God’s word, which had been uttered by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of those sacred authors. In order to correctly comprehend the divine word, that immense gift by God, we need to have “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) and have “the Spirit Who is from God” (1 Cor.2:12). The Spirit of God must reside within us (1 Cor.6:19); however, this is possible, only inside the Church (1 John 2:18-28)
The Apostle Paul told the Ephesians that he prayed to God on his knees, “… that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height— to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:14-21)
When distanced from the Church – from the Body of Christ – the truths of the Holy Bible remain incomprehensible and are misinterpreted. “ For who of man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so, no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.” (1 Cor.2:11-12) The sole therefore interpreter of the Holy Bible is the Holy Spirit. Everything that Christ said and did, is taught and interpreted correctly, by the Holy Spirit (John 14:26).
When the Holy Bible is distanced from the Spirit of God, it becomes nothing more than a “dry letter” for mankind. And, because every person interprets every word differently, they reach their own conclusions, which do not coincide with the conclusions of others, nor with the true meaning of the Holy Bible – which exists in the Church. The heretics’ mistake is not that they study the Holy Bible, but that they isolate it from the life of the Church and thus are unable to interpret it correctly.
In Paul’s Epistles – the Apostle Peter tells us – as in the rest of the books of the Holy Bible, “there are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked.” (2 Peter 3:16-17).
When we isolate the Holy Bible from the Church, God’s written word is left with no steadfast basis for us humans. Because, who would then reassure us of the divinely inspired status of those books of the New Testament which were not authored by the disciples of the Lord? For example, there is the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, which the Church included among the books of the New Testament, albeit Luke was not a disciple of the Lord.
But we know that these books are not without a stable foundation: It was the Church, Who designated the books of the Holy Bible. And She did this, based on the presence of God’s Spirit, Who leads the Church to the truth (John 16:13, 1 Tim. 3:15).
All of the above also prove something else to us: That without the Church, we would not have the New Testament – that is, the Holy Bible – today.
The Church, therefore, is something far broader than the Holy Bible, and we cannot confine Her to writings only. It is because the Church is Christ Himself and the life of the Church is the very life of Christ – Christ’s entire life, not just a segment of it (cmp. John 21:25). This life of Christ, therefore, and His entire opus is delivered both in writing (Holy Bible) as well as unwritten tradition within the Church.
Whoever denies the Church, cannot claim: “I have the word of God”.
5. The sacred Tradition of the Church
The faithful Christian who lives the life of the Church, participates in the living and perpetual experience of the Church. We are referring to the sacred memory of the Church, in which the truth – the message of man’s salvation – has been preserved. Here, we are not talking about the memory or the experience of an individual, but about the living faith and the conscience of the entire Church, Which remains stable and unchanging throughout the ages (1 Tim.3:15, Matth. 16:18). And we are not talking about a personal opinion, but about a universal witness. This witness is referred to as “Sacred Tradition” by our Church.
When addressing the Corinthians, the Apostle characteristically said:
“clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart. And we have such trust through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Cor.3:3-6).
Here, therefore, it is not about “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matth.15:9, Isaiah 29:13) – which are condemned by the Lord because they “lay aside God’s commandment” (Mark 7:8); it is about an “epistle of Christ […] written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God,[…] on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart“, of the faithful. (2 Cor.3:3). In other words, it is about the “sacred memory” of the Church, whose purity and clarity is guaranteed by the Spirit of God (John 16:13).
The aforementioned reveal that the Holy Bible does not contain the entire opus of the Lord (John 21:25) and every kerygma of the Apostles.
John the Apostle writes characteristically: “Having many things to write to you, I did not wish to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, that our joy may be full.” (2 John12, also 3 John 13-14 and 1 Cor.11:34).
The Apostle Paul writes the following to Timothy: “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim.1:13).
Also: “You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim.2:1-2)
He addresses the same exhortation to the Christians of Thessaloniki (2 Thess.2:15) and he praises the Corinthians for keeping the traditions exactly as they had received them from him (1 Cor. 11:2).
The kerygma, therefore, of the Church was always based on the “sacred memory” of the Church (cmp. also Luke 1:2-4); that is, on the basis of the overall “in-Christ” truth.
The above helps us to comprehend that the criterion of this sacred tradition is the Church Herself. In other words, it is possible to discern between what the experience of the Church and sacred tradition are – as opposed to the opinions of people – and what the salvific truth is (which remains eternally unchanging and binding for all) – as opposed to what is passing and changing – only on the basis of the universal experience of the Church
In view of this, the Holy Bible on its own is not “complete”, inasmuch as it also includes many passing elements (for example, the number seven in Acts 6:3 (Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business); the order of widows in 1 Timothy 5:9 (Do not let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number, and not unless…); the covering of the women’s heads in 1 Corinthians 11:5 (But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved) and the washing of others’ feet despite the Lord’s commandment in John 13:14 (If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.), which have not been observed in practice by the Church. In the continuing life of the Church, we do not only discern between what the sacred tradition is, to which we must remain steadfast (2 Thess.2:15) and what the “commandments of men” are (Matth.15:9, Isaiah 29:13) which we should avoid, but also discern between what is eternal and what is temporary.
In this way, the Church always remains steadfast upon Her original foundations; She safeguards Her own identity, and preserves the unity of Her faith through the ages, in accordance with the Lord’s will. (John 17:20-21)
We need to pay special attention to this last detail, because it helps us to understand why the heresies that did not keep the sacred tradition of the Church have split up and have not retained any unity amongst themselves, whereas Orthodox Christians, albeit having lived apart externally on account of political situations, remained united in the faith and the way of life.
The dogmas which were formulated by the Church in the Ecumenical Councils were not personal opinions of the Fathers who participated in them; they were the experience of the Saints of our Church, who were Christ-bearers and spirit-bearers (1 Cor. 2:16). The Fathers of the Councils partook of that experience also, given that they also partook of the common body of the Church.
Thus, when we refer to Orthodoxy’s sacred tradition, we do not see it as something that belongs to the past and as such, its place should be in a museum; we regard it to be the living word of God – Who is forever inside the Church – and that it is addressed to every person of every era, with the aim to animate him.
In other words, Sacred Tradition is that very life-giving presence and energy of the Holy Spirit within the Church, thanks to Whom the Church can interpret the divine revelation with authority, and be led to the possession of the full truth (John 16:13, 1 Tim. 3:15).
For this reason, they who deny the tradition of the Church, also deny Her divine nature; that is, the Church Herself. They furthermore deny – as we have seen – the very Bible itself, because the Holy Bible is the written trust of the Church, and only inside the Church does it find its safe support and its authentic interpretation (cmp.also 2 Peter 3:16-17).