Tradition and Traditions

Reading Leonid Ouspensky’s the Meaning of Icons, Introduction ‘Tradition and Traditions’ by Vladimir Lossky

At the beginning of Leonid Ouspensky’s the Meaning of Icons, a chapter of Vladimir Lossky’s In the Image and Likeness of God serves as an introduction entitled Tradition and Traditions. At first this may seem like an obvious fit – icons are a traditional part of the Orthodox Church. Except, icons are barely mentioned in the text and it is not until half way through the introduction that we begin to understand the relevance of this text. I’ll attempt in my own meagre way to explain the essay in brief, and perhaps point to why this essay is at the start of this book.

NB Vladimir Lossky is an Orthodox Christian theologian exploring the ideas within the Orthodox Church, his essay focuses on the concepts of Scripture and Tradition which are a common theme of Orthodoxy.

Scripture and Tradition

Lossky begins with the well-known dichotomy of Scripture and Tradition. Commonly we consider this to be two sets of ‘revelation’. One of the written word, one of ‘unwritten, other words’ – i.e. liturgy, ecumenical councils etc. This dichotomy has had a great effect on Christianity in the world. Put simply, the concept of ‘sola scriptura’ is reliant on the idea that one of these means of revelation is true, and the other is not. However, Lossky denies this dichotomy. Tradition is not the ‘traditions’ (emphasis on small t). Tradition is not the quantitative traditions of history – it is outside of history, it is something else. Short of being able to define it – as the term has been ‘secularised’ and lost its meaning – Lossky will seek to describe it.

Written and Spoken

So, in a process of slowly unveiling the false dichotomy of Scripture and Tradition and thereby reveal to us the meaning of Tradition, Lossky begins to peel back the first layer of assumptions. What underlies the assumption of Scripture and Tradition as two separate categories of revelation? Perhaps It is that one is written revelation, and one is spoken. However, this would indicate that Tradition is superior to Scripture – as the traditions embody all of the teachings of Scripture within them. Also the medium is not the point – Scripture would still be Scripture if it was passed orally. Tradition is more than this.

Public and Secret

Tradition, Lossky says, sometimes receives secret teaching not divulged to the unitiate. He points to St Basil who distinguishes dogma from preaching. Here dogma means almost the opposite of our current understanding, it is the hidden teaching of the church, as opposed to that which is publicly preached.

The Mysteries are for all the faithful who are participating in the sacramental life. It is said that the Gospel of John was only read by catechumen once they had entered the Church and were baptised. Also, still in the liturgy today, the catechumen are (in theory) dismissed before the Eucharist. These mysteries have been ‘unveiled’ and made public – which Lossky describes as sometimes a necessary part of the Church’s work. He alludes to the dichotomy of both not casting your ‘pearls before swine’, and ‘there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed’. Something can be available for all, but only when they are suitably ready for this – Lossky will talk more about this idea later.

Public and Secret supercedes written and oral as categories, as there can be hidden oral teachings within the Church, such as the ‘sea of apostolic tradition’ of the church without which the gospel would lose meaning. Lossky refers to the sacraments, the liturgical life of the church, making the sign of the cross, baptismal rites, blessing oil and more. All these elements come from teachings handed down through the Church. These unwritten traditions give the ‘outline’ or the boundary line of Tradition proper. New knowledge and understanding can be received through grace through these small t traditions. Lossky here describes traditions as a horizontal axis to Tradition’s vertical axis.

Word and Silence

Lossky explains then that the last element that links Tradition and Scripture still is the concept of ‘Word’; which he defines as ‘a content defined intelligibly assuming a body’.

This shift redefines for us all the elements we have thought of as ‘small t’ traditions as elements of Scripture, rather than Tradition. The ‘pleroma’ or fullness (the Greek word is used to describe the crew of a ship) of these Scriptures show it to be the living body of truth. All that can express revealed Truth is related then to Scripture. Here, finally, Lossky mentions icons, which he shows to be part of the ‘Scripture’ of the Church, containing the fullness of its teachings. These icons are possible due to the fact of the incarnation of the Word.
‘The same holds good for the dogmatic definitions, exegesis, the liturgy, for all that, in the Church of Christ participates in the same fulness of the Word as is contained by the Scriptures and, if all were in fact to become ‘scripture’, ‘the world itself could not contain the books that should be written (John xxi, 25). But since the expression of the transcendent mystery has become possible by the fact of the Incarnation of the Word, since all that expresses it become some sort of ‘scripture’ where finally is the Tradition that we have sought by detaching progressively its pure notion from all that can relate it to the scriptural reality?

The opposition to this Word, then, is Silence. Lossky says ‘the words of Revelation have then a margin of silence which cannot be picked up by the ears of those who are outside’, alluding to Christ’s words of ‘He that has ears to hear, let him hear.’ For Lossky, Silence is present in the obscurity of Scripture. It’s difficulty to understand is as a result of the condition of the receiver. There is a depth and height to Scripture that can only be comprehended correctly when one is in the right condition.

An Aside

At first this may sound like the move of a sophist, and if this idea is making you feel uncomfortable I suggest you consider any possible field of knowledge or understanding and consider how you interact with it. In the first instance, you will read a book – let us say on physics – that gives a broad introduction to its concepts. You must have an understanding of the ‘fullness’ of the teachings of physics to first be able to apprehend the subject. Only then, when in the right state of mind and having been fully instructed on these fundamentals, may you begin to understand the more complex ideas of Physics. Once you have done this, you may even reread previous texts and find more depth to them than you had ever known in your first interaction with them. This is a kind of ‘relevance realisation’, in which the more you know about something, the better you are able to perceive it and the better you perceive it, the more you are able to know. This is, in my view, a basic description of how we are able to learn anything.

Mode of Expression and Mode of Reception

Finally then, Lossky points us to the indivisible unity of Scripture and Tradition in the following categories. Scripture is that which expresses, and Tradition is the mode in which we receive. Tradition is breath which makes words head and the silence from which it came. In short, Tradition is ‘the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church’ which gives us means to receive the truth – as opposed to ‘human’ reason. This ties with the concept of ‘phronema’ within Orthodoxy that is to gain the ‘mind of the fathers’ – to understand as they understood.

Word of God and Holy Spirit

The Holy Tradition then is not just visible and verbal, but the invisible and actual communication of grace and sanctification – it is a mode of receiving the teachings of the Church. This implies then that Tradition is not ‘automotive’, it is a kind of consciousness that one can gain, and in doing so discern Truth. It is a ‘critical’ spirit. As much as some wish to preserve errors and interpolations, Lossky implores us to be not credulous, but to read things such as Apocrypha in the light of this Spirit. It need not be thrown out entirely, but it also should not be accepted wholesale. Work will need to be done to make such judgements, and Lossky warns against being seduced by habitual forms. Tradition should be a vivifying power that renews, not an inertia. But we must be careful to not wield the scalpel without the correct frame of mind, without the guidance of the Spirit and without this correct mode of receiving the Scripture, mistakes will be made. This is not a ‘scientific’ exercise. Theology within the Orthodox Church is united with prayer.

Neither should ‘progress’ be made for progress’ sake. This is not a slow revelation of the Truth – remember the ‘fullness’ is always there, the crew is always manning the ship – but our spiritual maturity will reveal more mystery to us. The Church Fathers were not primitive in their understanding, they were mature in their faith. Dogma must live within the Tradition, neither closed or incomplete. That which is not explicit is not the same as the inexpressible. Doctrine cannot overtake Tradition.

At the core of this distinction of Scripture and Tradition then is the interaction of the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. Lossky speaks of this interactive cycle of deeper and deeper understanding. The Holy Spirit (Tradition) reveals the coming of the Word (Scripture) to Mary, and Christ as the Logos then builds a following who then are imbued with the Holy Spirit (Tradition) at Pentecost. These apostles then go to found Churches (Scripture) which then become hosts for the Holy Spirit (Tradition) and so the process continues to the eventual conversion of Rome and the rest is …history.

Structure and Hierarchy

An ontological structure is revealed within this explanation. It is the image of Creation. From silence to word to scripture. So from Mind to formulation to formulated. Invisible and formless to formation to body. This is how the world is manifested.

Also shown is a hierarchy of Scripture. Nothing need be cut away but everything just kept in its right place. Local legends and customs all can participate in Scripture, so long as they point back to the highest, to the Word – which itself is always perfectly submitting to the Father. In this introduction we understand how Heaven can descend to Earth and how the Earth can raise it up to meet it. This is the image of the mountain, the location of Paradise, and the New Jerusalem.


Lossky’s essay is dense and he doesn’t make it easy to follow by diving straight into his thesis rather than explaining at the outset his aims – although this may be a result of extraction from its original text – but when followed closely it contains a rich set of ideas that has begun to transform my understanding of theology. By making ourselves outsiders to our own Tradition, in protestation or disbelief, we have weakened our own ability to understand that which we have inherited. No wonder then we struggle to find relevance to the life of the Church in our world – we are outsiders to our own Tradition. And worse still, as we stand outside the house of our forefathers, we are critics that have not even set foot inside the building. We critique the shell without knowing what it contains.

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