In the original precise meaning of the word, Sacred Tradition is the tradition which comes from the ancient
One must keep in mind that the ancient Church carefully guarded the inward life of the Church from those outside of her; her Holy Mysteries were secret, being kept from non-Christians. When these Mysteries were performed — Baptism or the Eucharist — those outside the Church were not present; the order of the services was not written down, but was only transmitted orally; and in what was preserved in secret was contained the essential side of the faith. St. Cyril of
"When the catechetical teaching is pronounced, if a catechumen should ask you, 'What did the instructors say?' you are to repeat nothing to those who are without (the church). For we are giving to you the mystery and hope of the future age. Keep the Mystery of Him Who is the Giver of rewards. May no one say to you, 'What harm is it if I shall find out also?' Sick people also ask for wine, but if it is given at the wrong time it produces disorder to the mind, and there are two evil consequences; the sick one dies, and the physician is slandered" (Prologue to the Catechetical Lectures, ch. 12).
In one of his further homilies St. Cyril again remarks:
"We include the whole teaching of faith in a few lines. And I would wish that you should remember it word for word and should repeat it among yourselves with all fervor, without writing it down on paper, but noting it by memory in the heart. And you should beware, lest during the time of your occupation with this study none of the catechumens should hear what has been handed down to you" (Fifth Catechetical Lecture, ch. 12).In the introductory words which he wrote down for those being "illumined" — that is, those who were already coming to Baptism, and also to those present who were baptized — he gives the following warning:
"This instruction for those who are being illumined is offered to be read by those who are coming to Baptism and by the faithful who have already received Baptism; but by no means give it either to the catechumens or to anyone else who has not yet become a Christian, otherwise you will have to give an answer to the Lord. And if you make a copy of these catechetical lectures, then, as before the Lord, write this down also" (that is, this warning; End of the Prologue to the Catechetical Lectures). (These three citations may be found in St. Cyril, Catetechical Lectures, Eerdmans ed. pp. 4, 32, 5.)
This strictness with regard to the revelation of the Christian Mysteries (Sacraments) to outsiders is no longer preserved to such a degree in the Orthodox Church. The exclamation, "Catechumens depart!" before the Liturgy of the Faithful is still proclaimed, it is true, but hardly anywhere in the Orthodox world are catechumens or the non-Orthodox actually told to leave the church at this time. (In some churches they are only asked to stand in the back part of the church, in the narthex, but can still observe the service). The full point of such an action is lost in our times, when all the "secrets" of the Christian Mysteries are readily available to anyone who can read, and the text of St. Cyril's Catechetical Lectures has been published in many languages and editions. However, the great reverence which the ancient Church showed for the Christian Mysteries, carefully preserving them from the gaze of those who were merely curious, or those who, being outside the Church and uncommitted to Christianity, might easily misunderstand or mistrust them — is still kept by Orthodox Christians today who are serious about their faith. Even today we are not to "cast our pearls before swine" — to speak much of the Mysteries of the Orthodox Faith to those who are merely curious about them but do not to seek to join themselves to the Church.)
We find this sacred ancient Tradition
- in the most ancient record of the Church, the Canons of the Holy Apostles; (See above note on the Canons of the Holy Apostles)
- in the Symbols of Faith of the ancient local churches;
- in the ancient Liturgies, in the rite of Baptism, and in other ancient prayers;
- in the ancient Acts of the Christian martyrs. The Acts of the martyrs did not enter into use by the faithful until they had been examined and approved by the local bishops; and they were read at the public gatherings of Christians under the supervision of the leaders of the churches. In them we see the confession of the Most Holy Trinity, the Divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ, examples of the invocation of the saints, of belief in the conscious life of those who had reposed in Christ, and much else;
- in the ancient records of the history of the Church, especially in the book of Eusebius Pamphilus, Bishop of Caesarea, (English translation: Eusebius: The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, tr. by G.A. Williamson, Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1965) where there are gathered many ancient traditions of rite and dogma — in particular, there is given the canon of the sacred books of the Old and New Testaments;
- in the works of the ancient Fathers and teachers of the Church;
- and, finally, in the very spirit of the Church's life, in the preservation of faithfulness to all her foundations which come from the Holy Apostles.
The witness of Sacred Tradition is indispensable for our certainty that all the books of Sacred Scripture have been handed down to us from Apostolic times and are of Apostolic origin. Sacred Tradition is necessary for the correct understanding of separate passages of Sacred Scripture, and for refuting heretical reinterpretations of it, and, in general, so as to avoid superficial, one-sided, and sometimes even prejudiced and false interpretations of it.
Finally, Sacred Tradition is also necessary because some truths of the faith are expressed in a completely definite form in Scripture, while others are not entirely clear and precise and therefore demand confirmation by the Sacred Apostolic Tradition.
The Apostle commands:
"Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle" (2 Thess. 2:15).Besides all this, Sacred Scripture is valuable because from it we see how the whole order of Church organization, the canons, the Divine Services and rites are rooted in and founded upon the way of life of the ancient Church. Thus, the preservation of "Tradition" expresses the succession of the very essence of the Church.
Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky