Paradosis and its Noetic Base: Towards a Spiritual Statement of Tradition in Orthodox Thought

Reaching, as we have, a decisive point in the development of our discussion of Scripture and Tradition in the Eastern Church, it is perhaps judicious to recapitulate the major themes of the foregoing chapters. In so doing, we might also stress that no single chapter in our presentation is meant to preponderate; rather, we have presented, in each chapter, topics which all form a crucial piece of the composite mosaic which the section at hand designs to portray. In chapter one we set forth the basic problem under Investigation: the role of Scripture and Tradition as sources of authority in the Church. This problem was delimited by a brief historical treatment of the development of the canon of Scripture, rendering two critical observations. Firstly, it was noted that the canon of Scripture was established by the Early Church Councils' pronouncements on the "inspiration" of various among the books then in circulation in the Christian community. Secondly, we pointed out that the pronouncements of the Church on the canon of Scripture were deictic in nature; they were directives which carried with them authority. Thus in defining the Scriptural rule of faith, the Church became, in a very special and spiritual sense, the source of that rule. These two considerations, taken together, shaped the contour of our examination of the interplay between the Traditional authority of the Church and the Scriptural rule of faith.

We maintained, in chapter two, that Scripture and Tradition were essentially equal in authority, in the view of the Early Church Fathers. This perspective we characterized as the consensus patrum, the unified voice of the Fathers confessing that Christian truth is revealed both through Scripture and Tradition. And the unified voice of the Fathers, we further argued, is nothing more than the "general conscience of the Church [he genike syneidesis tes ekklesias]." [1] The Patristic consensus expressed the authority of the Church. In chapter three we accentuated the Orthodox acceptance of the unity of authority in Scripture and Tradition together, by a comparison with Western perspectives on the nature of that authority. It was pointed out that the Protestant notion of the separability of Scripture and Tradition is unacceptable to the Orthodox. The Roman Catholic view of Scripture and Tradition, formulated on a legalistic interpretation of their interconnection and tied, as it is, to the papal magisterium, was deemed equally discordant with the Orthodox outlook.

Chapter four was intended to survey the thought of contemporary Orthodox theologians on Scripture and Tradition. Prefatory to that survey we argued that Orthodox theology, in its strictest sense, proceeds from the Patristic witness, from the "canon of theology" found in the consensus patrum. In any consideration of the authoritative relationship between Scripture and Tradition, we then maintained, the purpose is not one of understanding the theoretical relationship between Scripture and Tradition (from the standpoint of reconciling them), but is, rather, an attempt to understand why the Fathers accepted them as joint sources of authority and insisted on speaking of their unity. The question is one of understanding the consensus patrum from the thinking of the Fathers themselves, not one of recognizing a consensual stand among the Fathers and then accounting for such a stand by virtue of arguments extraneous to the thinking of the Fathers. This latter focus we portrayed as the aim par excellence of Orthodox theology: to capture the "mind" of the Fathers—to understand the unity of Scripture and Tradition from the visional perspective of the Fathers.

In the actual survey, in chapter four, of contemporary Orthodox theologians, one figure stood forth as having faithfully followed the course of theology which we consider to be genuinely Orthodox: Father Georges Florovsky. Instead of offering a theologically speculative explication of the unity of Scripture and Tradition, Father Florovsky treats their unity as an idee fixe, in the Fathers' thinking, which needs no justification. His attention is consequently turned to the "mind" of the Fathers, to their consensus in thought itself. He rightly observes, in this context, that the Fathers conceived of the unity of Scripture and Tradition, not because they came to some common understanding (or common speculative formulation) regarding that unity, but simply because they expressed the universal "mind" of the Church. That is, they immersed themselves in the mystical "general conscience of the Church" [vide supra], which was the same authority that proclaimed the Scriptural canon. The Fathers have by nature, then, the very authority of Scripture, since both originate in the same source: the phronema tes ekklesias. As we noted, in Father Florovsky's own words, "'the mind of the Fathers' is an intrinsic term of reference in Orthodox theology, no less than the word of Holy Scripture, and indeed never separated [emphasis ours] from it." [2] Tradition and Scripture are related one to another in the sense of one aspect of the Church recognizing another aspect. Their joint authority and truth lie in the Church.

We come now to a traditional, spiritual understanding of the authoritative interrelation between Scripture and Tradition. For the Orthodox, Scripture and Tradition are not separate sources of authority as such; they are two aspects of authority drawn from a single source. This affirmation is at very core of the consensus patrum to which we have invariably turned. The problem of Scripture and Tradition is not one of understanding the nature of their unity, but of apprehending the spiritual source from which their authority arises. It is one of knowing the nature of Scripture and Tradition from within their source. The practical question, "authority by Scripture or Tradition?," becomes, "by what authority can we identify Christian truth, both as Scripture and Tradition?" The question sine qua non is, given the absolutely unified witness of Scripture and Tradition for the Orthodox, one of recognizing true Scripture and Tradition, of separating truly "inspired" Scripture and Tradition from merely human writ and custom—of capturing their source.

As we commented, Father Florovsky has contended that the authority of Scripture and Tradition rests ultimately in the "mind" of the Fathers [ie., the "mind" of the Church]. How do we know that the writings of the Fathers themselves, the liturgical practices and customs of the Church, and even Scripture itself are true and inspired? Not alone by the decrees of the first seven Œcumenical Synods accepted by the Orthodox, Father Florovsky argues; [3] certainly, as we have maintained, not by some idea of the teaching authority of the Church or a personal magisterium [the papacy]; but by the "mind" of the Fathers [which is the "mind" of the Church]. The "mind" of the Fathers is the source and manifestation of truth, a faculty for acknowledging, recognizing, and affirming truth that is universal, that speaks through all of the Fathers "as though with one mouth." [4] It is a faculty which constitutes a Tradition above and beyond tradition as we normally define it. As one spiritual writer of the Orthodox Church defines the "official expression" of this Tradition, it includes, "... first, the Word of God laid down in Holy Scripture; secondly, the definitions of the Councils... ; thirdly, the liturgical texts; and, lastly, the writings of the Fathers." [5] The Tradition embodied in the "mind" of the Fathers encompasses, unifies, and is the source of all ecclesiastical Tradition and of Scripture. It is the criterion by which valid revelation is judged, the faculty, as Lossky writes, "of judging in the Light of the Holy Spirit." [6]

Tradition, then, we can understand as the faculty for knowing truth that resides in the "mind" of the Fathers and of the Church. Tradition is, as one Orthodox theologian views it, "the measure and the criterion of the presence and action of God, through the Church, as well as of the genuineness of the penetration of the wishes and the pursuits of the human spirit by the 'true Knowledge."' [7] Truth, in short, is judged by Tradition. Tradition is the faculty for recognizing truth; but more than this, Tradition is itself a mystical truth. The "mind" of the Fathers is the "mind" of the Church. And the "mind" of the Church is part of the mystical Body of Christ, which constitutes the Church. Thus Tradition not only serves to make truth self-evident, but it can also serve to generate the very same self-evident truth. It can, in fact, bear forth every true tradition and expression of the Church—indeed, Scriptures themselves. Nowhere is this better stated than by Archimandrite Sophrony:

Suppose that for some reason the Church were to be bereft of all her liturgical books, of the Old and New Testaments, the works of the Holy Fathers—what would happen? Sacred Tradition would restore the Scriptures, not word for word, perhaps—the verbal form might be different but in essence the new Scriptures would be the expression of that same 'faith which was once delivered unto the saints.' They would be the expression of the one and only Holy Spirit continuously active in the Church, her foundation and her very substance. [8]

In the last chapter, it will be recalled, we pointed out the failure of Father Florovsky, in his discussion of Palamite theology, to link theosis, or divinization, with the direct reception of Christian truth (with the "mind" of the Fathers and of the Church, with that "mind of Christ" to which St. Paul alludes [I Corinthians 2:16]). We wish to suggest that the noetic faculty, the source of spiritual vision for the divinized man, is the very "mind" of the Fathers. The universal and consensual acceptance by the Fathers of Church customs and traditions and of Scripture reflects their noetic vision. Thus their witness, on the noetic level, Is a single one; they embody truth at that level. To follow the Fathers is to attain their spiritual vision, through theosis, and to know the crucial, veritable elements of revelation, from Tradition to Scripture. In Orthodoxy, one follows the Fathers faithfully, not because they have some legalistically formulated authority, but because one shares, in noetic awareness, their vision and perspective. One appropriates that "mind" in which Scripture and Tradition have their authority and, thereby, continues in an unbroken succession of spiritual practices. To perpetuate Church customs is not to adhere blindly to what is ancient, or to what the Fathers have done in the past; it is to live (and repeat) the behavior of the Fathers simply because one takes upon himself the Tradition of their perception. [9]

Let us investigate further the nature of divinization and noetic vision. We have elsewhere observed that the Athanasian aphorism, that God became man that man might become divine, is the Ursprung of Orthodox theology. [10] This notion of the divinization of man is, for the Orthodox Church, not merely rhetorical. We might stress this point by reference to Origen's treatise against Celsus. He rebukes Celsus for interpreting the meaning of the Incarnation as the necessity of God, on account of the fact that He is "difficult to see," becoming man so that mortals might "hear Him and become acquainted with Him." [11] Origen insists that God did not become incarnate simply "...because God was 'difficult to see'..., [for] ... the Son also is 'difficult to see,' because He is God the Word, through whom all things were made, and who 'tabernacles among us.'" [12] Orthodox, along with (and more accurately than) Origen, envision the Incarnation in a much more profound manner. For them, Christ became man so that man, in a very literal sense, might reach divinity through Grace. [13]

The divinization of man is a primary goal of Orthodox spiritual practice. The formalization of such practice is clearly epitomized in the hesychastic exercises of St. Gregory Palamas. Palamite hesychasts engage in a number of physical disciplines (prostrations, fasting, and regulated breathing among them) connected with the repetition of the "Jesus Prayer." This prayer usually takes the following form: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." The mastery of "unceasing prayer" (I Thessalonians 5:17), or the constant repetition of the prayer, activates the noetic faculty. In this process,

the noetic faculty is liberated by the power of the Holy Spirit from the influences of both the body and the discursive intellect and engages uninterruptedly and ceaselessly in prayer alone. The fascinating thing about this actual state of prayer ... is that, although the physical and intellectual faculties no longer exercise any influence whatsoever on the noetic faculty, they are themselves, however, dominated by the noetic faculty's unceasing prayer in such a fashion that they are spiritually cleansed and inspired and at the same time may engage in their normal activities. [14]

The activation of the noetic faculty, culminating in theosis, cleanses and inspires the physical and intellectual faculties. But more importantly, that activation brings one into conformity, as we have said, with the "mind" of the Fathers, of the Church and of Christ, George Barrois has succinctly described this process in affirming that " . . . man is called to partake vitally of the divine energy... . This is real, not a hyperbolic manner of speech... . It spells nothing less than the conformity of the Saints with Christ. . . ." [15] Thus the Fathers are regarded as authorities because Christ has come to live in them, to transform them. Because of the divinity which fills these men, they can do nothing but reflect and affirm the words of Christ and the Apostles. So it is that "Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8). The Holy Fathers might differ in style, and even sometimes in nomenclature, but at the deepest and most authentic level, at the noetic level, they, the Apostles, and Christ are stating together the same thing, proclaiming a single truth in a Tradition, the true paradosis, which bespeaks man divinized.

We have written in another place that the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas denounce any idea of innovation in spiritual life. [16] This ostensible tenor of conservatism is thought by many to characterize the Orthodox insistence on Tradition. However, we have argued, in relation to Palamite hesychasm, that innovation is alien to Orthodox spiritual practice because the activation of the noetic faculty affords a conformity, albeit mystical in nature, both in thought and action. The physical and mental faculties of man come to serve the universal, corporate " mind" of Christ—a "mind" exemplified in the consensus patrum and actualized in the Church. By the same token, the Orthodox insistence on the witness of Tradition is based, not in some exclusivistic intransigence but on a profound concept of the reflection, in external customs and practices (traditions), of the noetic Tradition of the Holy Spirit. All traditions, all acts, customs, and experiences of the Church, are united in a perfect harmony in Tradition. Tradition, as Father Pomazansky has hinted, is the internal force which guides and determines the externals of the Church.[17] As the externals reach a final form, they make manifest the content of Tradition. It is a noetic understanding of customs and practices in the Church [of traditions] that reveals their source in Tradition. And, paradoxically, the noetic vision itself is part of Tradition: the truth of the Church is revealed by a vision encompassed by that truth.

With a noetic outlook on the Patristic witness, we come to a clearer understanding of the consesus patrum. The consensio of St. Vincent Lérins, that which is believed "ubique," "semper, " and "ab omnibus," [18] takes on a new meaning when seen in the light of noeticism. His appeal, we think, is to the universal "mind" of the Church, which indeed unites all in a single belief which is always and everywhere the same. St. Irenaeus' "canon of truth" [19] we see as none other than the noetic faculty, rendering, as it does, St. Athanasios' "scope of faith." [20] "Speaking by the spirit," [21] as St. John expresses it, or, as St. John Damascus writes, following the "teaching of the Holy Spirit," [22] all of the Fathers constitute a noetic Tradition. It is in this way that all of the Church speaks, again, "as though with one mouth." [23] Or, as St. Paul so eloquently writes,

... be transformed by the renewal of your mind that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2).


1. Papadopoulos, "New Testament and Holy Tradition," p. 98

2. Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, p. 107.

3. Ibid., p. 111. We might add that Father Florovsky very correctly remarks on the relatively modern formula by which some Orthodox theologians imagine that the whole of Orthodox theology is based on the infallibility of the first seven Œcumenical Synods. In addition to being a gross misunderstanding of the Orthodox acceptance of the authority of the Councils, this crude theory, in the words of Father Florovsky, "tends ... to restrict or limit the Church's spiritual authority to the first eight centuries" [ibid.]. In fact, "the Church is still fully authoritative as she has been in the ages past" [ibid.]. Neither is the truth, for Orthodox, defined in the automatic acceptance of certain ecumenical decrees as infallible, not is its true source limited by historical boundaries.

4. Velichkovsky, "Procession," p. 203.

5. A Monk of the Eastern Church, Orthodox Spirituality: An Outline of the Orthodox Ascetical and Mystical Tradition. London, 1968, p. vii.

6. Lossky, Vladimir, In the Image and Likeness of God, Ed. John H. Erikson and Thomas E. Bird, New York, 1974, p. 155. Lossky speaks of this faculty as constituting Tradition, which he sharply distinguishes from the historical traditions of the Church: "...One does not remain in ... [this]... Tradition by a certain historical inertia, by keeping as a 'tradition received from the Fathers' all that which, by force of habit, flatters a certain devout sensibility. On the contrary, it is by substituting this sort of 'traditions' for the Tradition of the Holy Spirit living in the Church that one runs the most risk of finding oneself finally outside the body of Christ" [p. 165]. While we follow Lossky's understanding of Tradition as a faculty of judgment, we do not, in our distinction, mean to imply that historical traditions [tradition] are [is] separate from Tradition. They proceed from that Tradition and manifest, as it were, its content.

Professor Constantine Cavarnos, in a brilliant review of Professor Lossky’s In the Image and Ukrness of God [see The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Vol. XX, Nos. I and 2 (Spring-Fall 1975), pp. 85-86] has also taken issue with the nature of Lossky's distinction between Tradition and traditions. However, Professor Cavarnos contends that the very distinction itself is not Patristic. He writes that in his "extensive reading of the Fathers" [p. 87] he has not encountered such a distinction, and chides Lossky for having failed to support his view from the Fathers' writings. One might take exception, in this latter sense, with an unequivocal acceptance of Dr. Cavarnos' statement. Citing a number of contemporary Orthodox theologians and Patristic sources for the notion of an ecclesiastical faith [Tradition] and variable ecclesiastical customs, Prof. Bebis ("Concept of Tradition," p. 42), for example, argues that a distinction between Tradition and tradition is not wholly without Patristic fidelity. In understanding Tradition as a faculty for judging the validity of historical traditions we are in concord with Bebis in insisting that ". . Tradition and traditions lead to each other and none can survive without each other" [ibid.]. It is on this point exactly that we differ with Lossky.

7. Kaloghirou, John, "Sacred Tradition: Its Sources and Its Task in the Church," The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Vol. XI, No. 1 (Summer 1965). p. 116.

8. Archimandrite Sophrony, The Monk of Mount Athos: Staretz Silouan (1866-1938), Tr. Rosemary Edmonds. Crestwood. N.Y., 1973, p. 55.

9. Our argument here stresses in another way the point made in note three immediately above, that truth, for the Orthodox, is not limited by historical boundaries. The "mind" of the Fathers is not something of antiquity or of some Patristic "Golden Age." It is a mind beyond historical limits and normal temporal parameters.

10. Archimandrite Chrysostomos, Contemporary Thought.

11. See the text, "Origen Against Celsus," in Roberts, Fathers, IV, p. 605.

12. Ibid.

13. We cannot overemphasize the deep spiritual reality of the nature of theosis. This is not to belabor the point needlessly. Being alien to a Western theological outlook, the spiritual sense of theosis, as found in the Patristic literature, is often even distorted as witnessed by various indefensibly mistranslated passages from the Greek. An egregious example of this tendency is found in Schaff and Wace's English presentation of St. Gregory Nazianzus' first oration, "On Easter and His Reluctance" (Fathers, VII, pp. 203-204). St. Gregory is quoted as exhorting us to "become God's for His sake, since He for ours became man" [p. 203]. This incredible translation is a rendering of the Greek, "genometha theoi di' auton, epeide kakeinos di' emas anthropos" (PG. XXXV, col. 397). We find the following the only suitable translation: "Let us become gods for Him [His sake], since He for us [our sake] became man." It is simply impossible to find in the words "genometha theoi di' auton" genitive expression "become God's [emphasis ours] for His sake." We can only presume that the theological sensibilities of the translator prevailed over good scholarship, resulting in a fraudulent translation.

14. Romanides, "Palamite Controversy," p. 229.

15. Barrois, George. "Palamism Revisited," St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly, Vol. IXX, No. 4 (1975). p. 228.

16. Archimandrite Chrysostomos, Contemporary Thought.

17. Pomazansky, "Liturgical Theology," ut supra.

18. PL. L. col. 640.

19. PG. VII, cols. 545-546.

20. PG. XXVI. col. 400.

21. Schaff, Fathers, XIII. p. 36.

22. Schaff and Wace, Fathers, p. 79.

23. Velichkovsky. "Procession," p. 203.

Ch. V of Scripture and Tradition (Etna, CA:   Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1994 [1984]), 67-75.