On Holy Tradition
(Taken from “The Truth of Our Faith”: A Discourse from Holy Scripture on the Teachings of True Christianity)
By Elder Cleopa of Romania
Inquirer: What is the Holy Tradition that the Orthodox consider to be the second source of Holy Revelation and coequal with Holy Scripture?
Elder Cleopa: Holy Tradition is the teaching of the Church, God-given with a living voice, from which a portion was later written down. As with Holy Scripture, so, too, Holy Tradition contains Holy Revelation, and is, therefore, fundamental for our salvation. Holy Tradition is the life of the Church in the Holy Spirit and, consonant with the enduring life of the Church, is thus a wellspring of Holy Revelation, such that, consequently, it possesses the same authority as Holy Scripture.
From the time of Adam until that of Abraham, according to the old chronologies, 3,678 years passed, and if we add 430 years when the Israelites remained in Egypt, we have 4,108 years. Throughout this period of time Holy Scripture neither existed nor was the Sabbath considered as a feast among the people. During this period of many thousands of years the faithful and chosen people were guided to the path of salvation only by Holy Tradition, namely, from the teachings about God which they received from a living voice. Only for the duration of 1400 years – from the time of Moses until the advent of Christ – were they guided by the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament.
Just as before the books of the Old Testament were written the people were guided in the knowledge of God and on the path of salvation only by Holy Tradition (Tradition with a living voice, orally), so too were they precisely before the writing of the books of the New Testament. The Holy Tradition was the guide by which the first Christians were directed to the path of salvation. The first to impart the teachings of the New Testament with a living voice to the ears of the people was our Saviour Jesus Christ Himself, who for three and a half years continually taught the people, distributing His Gospel without, however, writing anything. Inasmuch as He was carrying out obedience to His Father, He didn’t send His Apostles to write but to preach the Gospel to the whole world, saying to them: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Mat. 28:19-20). From the day of its establishment (33 AD) until the year 44 AD, when the the Holy Apostle Matthew wrote the first Gospel , the Church was governed without the Scriptures of the New Testament, but only with the Holy Tradition of which only a part was later recorded. Although there were many other writers for whom it was claimed that they were inspired and faithful scribes of the Apostles, the Church is She who did or did not recognise them, for She is unerring. The Church lived the truth of the Gospel even before anything was committed to writing, having lived with the Holy Tradition from the outset.
So then, this is the Holy Tradition: The source and the root of the two Testaments – the Old and the New – and thus the reason why we call it a source of Holy Revelation, since it carries the same weight as Holy Scripture.
Inq.: Yes, but it is said that Holy Scripture as God’s word is not permitted to be substituted or exchanged with Tradition, which is man’s word, as is written in the Gospel: “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? . . . ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition. Ye hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying: ‘This people . . . in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrine the commandments of men” (Mat. 15:3, 6-9; Mk. 7:13). Thus, it is not necessary for us to replace or add the tradition of men to the law of God, which is contained in Holy Scripture.
Elder Cleopa: What your friends have told you is not at all true, since the law of God is not only contained in Holy Scripture. Listen to what the divine Evangelist John says: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen” (Jn. 21:25). Again the same Evangelist declares in one of his epistles: “Having many things to write unto you, I would not write with paper and ink: but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full” (2 Jn. 1:12). So, you see that the holy evangelist, when he had the ability, taught his disciples more with the living voice of Tradition than by sending them epistles. While your friends keep at all costs only so much as is written, they don’t take into account that both the Saviour and the majority of His Apostles did not leave anything written, but rather taught orally, with the living voice of Tradition.
Inq.: In that case, I don’t know how Christians are to understand the statement that we must not be seduced by the false teachings of men, especially those which are religious and rely on Scripture. After all, the Apostle counsels us: “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Col. 2:8). It is our responsibility, then, to preserve ourselves from the false traditions of men.
Elder Cleopa: Dearest to Christ, you do not discern the difference between the teachings of human traditions and those that proceed from the apostolic and evangelical tradition. You brought here an excerpt from Holy Scripture that refers to the tradition of human teachings and pseudo philosophy that has no relationship whatsoever to the evangelical and apostolic Tradition of the Church of Jesus Christ. Holy Tradition is neither a tradition of men, nor a philosophy, nor some kind of trickery, but is the word of God that He delivered to us personally. The great Apostle Paul teaches and exhorts us to keep with vigour the traditions, saying; “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle” (2 Thess. 2:15). On the contrary, some counsel weaker Christians to slander and abandon the apostolic and evangelical traditions, without understanding that Holy Scripture itself is a fruit of the Holy Spirit that grew out of the roots and tree of Holy Tradition.
Inq.: Why isn’t Holy Scripture sufficient for faith and salvation, without having any need whatsoever of Tradition? This appears to be the case from the words of the Apostle Paul to Timothy: “And that from a child thou hast known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:15-16). These words are clear. Any addition to Holy Scripture is unnecessary.
Elder Cleopa: Here he is speaking only about the Scripture of the Old Testament, for the New Testament had not yet been written. Paul wrote to Timothy that a good teacher could use the Old Testament for the support of his faith in Christ and his instruction in Christianity. According to the notion that you mistakenly asserted, it follows that not one book of the New Testament – from those that were written in the period that followed these epistles of the Apostle Paul to Timothy – should be accepted. Rather, it is enough for us to recognize the Old Testament books mentioned here in the passage to which you refer.
Inq.: Some people don’t acknowledge the Tradition because they say that with the passing of time it yielded to many illegitimate elements, so that, especially today, we are no longer able to discern the true apostolic Tradition from the false.
Elder Cleopa: The Church of Christ determined the truths of the faith, according to the long course of Tradition, through the teachings and canons of the holy Oecumenical Councils, decrees and the Symbol of Faith [The Creed], and with confessions [of Faith] by holy and wonderworking hierarchs such as were made at the many local synods which have been held continuously since the days of old. At these synods the authenticity and genuineness of the holy Orthodox Faith was firmly established, primarily therein where it was attacked by the existing heresies of the time. From the totality of such synods appears the irrevocable and inalterable content of Holy Tradition. This is understood when you examine closely the essence of the following conditions:
– Do not sanction conceptions that contain inconsistencies amongst themselves or contradictions with the apostolic Tradition and Holy Scripture. (A teaching is to be considered worthy of “Tradition” when it stems from the Saviour or the Holy Apostles and is directly under the influence of the Holy Spirit.)
– The Tradition is that which has been safeguarded from the Apostolic Church and has an uninterrupted continuity until today.
– The Tradition is that which is confessed and practiced by the entire universal Orthodox Church.
– The Tradition is that which is in harmony with the greatest portion of the fathers and ecclesiastical writers.
When a tradition does not fulfil these stipulations, it cannot be considered true and holy, and consequently cannot be considered admissible or fit to be observed.
Inq.: Notwithstanding all the efforts which you say the Orthodox Church has made and makes relative to the truth of Tradition, some believe only the teachings which are contained in Holy Scripture. For the first Christians – they say – accepted only such writings as were contained in Holy Scripture, as it is written: “These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind and searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11). From this it follows that we should keep those teachings find written in Holy Scripture.
Elder Cleopa: However, the great Apostle Paul commends the Christians of Corinth not because they kept the written teachings, but because they obeyed him and observed with diligence the oral teachings that they had received from him. Listen to what he writes; “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and even as I delivered to you, ye are holding fast the traditions” (1 Cor. 11:2). I wonder, what is better to do: for us to keep only the written teachings or to follow the great Apostle Paul who extols those who keep the unwritten tradition as well? Furthermore, we’ve established that the Holy Apostles and Evangelists believed and preach-ed abundantly from Holy Tradition, which they inherited from of old and is not written anywhere in Holy Scripture.
Inq.: Where specifically does it appear that the Holy Apostles taught other teachings aside from those which are written in Holy Scripture?
Elder Cleopa: Here are two testimonies: The Holy Apostle Jude in his catholic epistle, verse nine, among others, says: “But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, disputed about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a reviling judgement upon him, but said, The Lord rebuke thee” (Jude 9). Dearest to Christ, search all of Holy Scripture and see if you will find written this utterance. Still further down in the same epistle the Apostle refers to the prophecy of Enoch, saying: “And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying, Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousand of his saints, to execute judgement upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him” (Jude 14-20). Yet, the Apostle Jude is not alone in speaking from Tradition. Listen to what the illustrious Paul says in his second epistle to Timothy; “Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith” (2 Tim. 3:8). And again the renowned Apostle Paul, guiding the priests of Ephesus, says: “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Now, I ask you, who insist on putting faith only in the written word, from where did the two Apostles – Jude and Paul – take the foregoing words, for you will not find them written anywhere in Holy Scripture?
Inq.: Still, I question if it is possible for Holy Tradition to be preserved until today unadulterated and genuine in all respects as in the beginning? Shouldn’t we possess more assurances from the written teachings of Holy Scripture?
Elder Cleopa: You saw above that the famed Paul commends the Christians of Corinth for keeping, with care and mindfulness, the unwritten traditions, such as they had received from his very lips. Moreover, you heard that the Apostles Paul and Jude employed in their preaching words taken directly from Holy Tradition, such as those that referred to the prophecy of Enoch, and others. Further, I also pointed out to you by what means Holy Tradition was preserved throughout the ages. Furthermore, the same Apostle Paul exhorts and directs the Christians of Thessalonica to be very attentive and vigilant to keep the Holy Tradition: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle” (2 Thess. 2:15). And in another place he says: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). In other words, he is speaking of the Gospel that he handed down to them with a living voice and not only by written word.
Inq.: How was this Canon of Holy Tradition in the Church preserved over the span of thousands of years? In our age some allege that from day to day the clergy and ecclesiastical writers alter the truth of Holy Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition, which in the beginning was authentic and genuine? They say that if you have in your hand a book that was published 50 years ago and you put it next to one published recently, they would have nothing in common. It follows, then, that if the hierarchs and priests have done this with the sacred books, they would do the same with the Holy Tradition of which the Orthodox boast as having preserved unscathed from the Holy Apostles.
Elder Cleopa: That which your companions have accepted is not at all correct. The teachings of the Church of Christ are safeguarded by the Holy Spirit and cannot err (Mat. 10:17-20, John 4: 16-26, 1 Tim. 3:15). Its very founder, Jesus Christ governs it in an unseen way, until the end of the ages (Mat. 28:20). If some ecclesiastical writers, hierarchs, priests or laity translated the Bible from another language or amended some passage of which an expression does not correspond to the present-day speech of our people, this would be an adjustment and modification of expression and not a serious alteration of the substance of the Biblical text. If today a Romanian from the time of the Elder Mirtsea or Stephan the Great (1504) were resurrected and you wanted to speak with him, you would understand him with difficulty, the language having developed, no longer being exactly that which was spoken then. That’s exactly what happened regarding the books. With the passage of time the writers’ words or expressions were amended with suitable present-day language, without however, changing the meaning of the profound and sacred writings. Previously, I referred you to the foundation upon which Holy Tradition rests and by what means the preservation of its authentic original image is ensured and is conveyed through the ages. This refers to, namely, the ancient Symbol of Faith (The Creed), the apostolic canons and the dogmatic decisions of the seven  Oecumenical Councils. To these can also be added the following monumental and meaningful testaments – assurances of the unimpaired preservation of the Holy Tradition:
– The acts of the early Church, the witnesses of the company of the apostles, amongst whom are Saint Ignatius the God-bearer (+104 AD), a disciple of the Apostles and Saint Polycarp of Smyrna (+106 AD). These Fathers admonished the faithful of their day to safeguard themselves from the teachings of heretics and to maintain in the full only the Apostolic Tradition (Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History, Bk 2:36).
– Hegessipus, Eusebius tells us5, attempted to collect the whole of the apostolic traditions and nearly managed it, gathering more than five books worth of material that Eusebius studied. Unfortunately, with the passage of time, these books were eventually lost (Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History, Bk 4:8).
– Saint Irenaeus (+202 AD) and Clement of Alexandria (+215 AD) inform us: “Those who explain Scripture without the help of the Church’s Tradition cut asunder the significance of truth” (Stromatis, pg 7).
Behold, further, those brilliant witnesses representing the faith of apostolic times and the period immediately following it up until the fourth century. The acts of the ancient Church are an important testimony to the value of the Holy Tradition and honour shown it from those times until today.
– Origin (+250 AD) says: “Preserve the Holy Tradition in the Church.”
– St. Epiphanios (+403 AD) writes: “It is necessary to hold to the Tradition because it is not possible for everything to be found in Holy Scripture. The Holy Apostles handed down some things via the written word, while others via the spoken.”
– Saint John Chrysostom (+407 AD) says: “Hence it is clear that the Holy Apostles did not deliver everything by epistle; rather many things they handed down via the spoken word which is also trustworthy. If there is the Tradition, then don’t ask for anything more” (4th Homily on 2 Thess. See verse 2:45)
– Saint Gregory of Nyssa (+394 AD) writes: “We have the Tradition set out for us from the Fathers like an inheritance by apostolic succession and transmitted via the saints” (Against Eunomius, Book 40).
– Saint Basil the Great (+379 AD) in his writings provides similar testimony. Here is how he expresses it: “Among the dogmas and kerygma (evangelical truths) that are safeguarded in the Church, some we have from the written teachings while others we’ve received orally from the Tradition of the Apostles by a concealed succession. The later hold the same legitimacy and force as the written texts” (On the Holy Spirit)
We must uphold with great reverence and godliness Holy Tradition since all that is needful to effect our salvation is not found within Holy Scripture. Holy Scripture instructs us to do many things; however, it does not make manifest to us the light. For example, it instructs us to be baptized, but it doesn’t explain to us the method. Likewise, it guides us to confess our sins, receive communion, be crowned (married) – but nowhere does it specify the rite of carrying-out these mysterion (sacraments). Furthermore, it instructs us to pray, but doesn’t tell us how, where and when. It tells us to make the sign of the Holy Cross in front of our chest according to the psalmist “Lord, lift Thou up the light of Thy countenance upon us,” but it doesn’t show us how. Who teaches us in writing to worship facing east? Where in Scripture are we told the words of the epiclesis (invocation) of the Holy Spirit for the sanctification of the all-holy Mysteries? Which teaching from Holy Scripture instructs us to bless the water of Baptism and the holy Unction of Holy Chrismation? Which passage in Scripture teaches us about the threefold denunciation and the renunciations of Satan before Holy Baptism? The prayer of glorification toward the Holy Trinity – “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit” – from which passage did it come to us?
Posing these questions to the slanderer of Tradition, Saint Basil the Great says: “If we consent to abandon the unwritten traditions on the pretext that they don’t have great worth, we err in great and elevated matters, rejecting the Gospel.”
The ordering, therefore, by which the Church upholds the unwritten is: whatever is of apostolic descent and is practiced by the Fathers receives the validity of tradition and has the power of law in the Church of Christ (The Rudder, Neamts Monastery, 1844, Canons 87, 91). Accordingly therefore, it must safeguarded since its importance and benefit springs from the relationship that exists between it and Holy Scripture. It is true that both have remained within a reciprocal unity and intimate relationship – a relationship based on the fact that both comprise the holy revelation of God and for us are the fount and source of Revelation. Hence, it is not possible for there to exist an inner contradiction between the two or for us to exclude one from the other. Holy Scripture possesses its unique witness of the scriptural canon and its dogmatic character (its divine inspiration) only in and with Holy Tradition, while Holy Tradition is able to prove the authenticity of its truth only together with Holy Scripture.
1 There are scholars who believe that, in fact, “the writing of the three first Gospels is placed. . . around the year 70 AD.” (J. Karabidopoulos, Introduction to the New Testament, p. 104 (In Greek))
2 The Elder here is referring to the well-known seven Oecumenical Councils, however, in essence the Church also accepts an eighth (879), which confirmed the rejection of the “filioque” clause in the presence and with the support of the Church of Rome, and a ninth (1341), which rejected the humanistic-scholastic theology of Barlaam in support of the Hesychasts and St. Gregory Palamas. The truths expounded by these two councils have helped to uphold the Church against the theological distortions which have been brought to bear over the past 650 years, first in the West, and soon thereafter in the East.
On the Presuppositions of our Personal Salvation
Inquirer: Father, earlier you spoke about our “personal salvation.” Can you tell me more about this?
Elder Cleopa: Some religious confessions teach that personal salvation presupposes the action of Divine Grace alone, according to Calvin, or the grace of faith, i.e. of trust in God, according to Luther, by which the “merits” or virtues of our Lord Jesus Christ are conferred upon man. Therefore, to give a general outline, there are Protestant Christians who believe that salvation stems only from faith and that on the part of man himself there is placed no condition or requirement for his salvation.
Our Church, however, teaches that our personal salvation is neither a gift, nor a simple work, but rather a process and an undertaking that matures or develops gradually and is realized in the co-operation of two persons: God and man. On the part of God, Divine Grace (His uncreated Divine Energy) is offered to us, while for man’s part, faith and righteous deeds are necessary. Consequently, the prerequisites for our personal salvation are the following: the Divine Grace or uncreated Divine Energy of God and the faith and virtuous deeds of man.
Our objective salvation is realized only in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, whereas our personal or subjective salvation, which in the language of the New Testament is called “righteousness,” “holiness,” or “salvation” (in the narrow sense), is realized as a continuance of this objective salvation, with our personal energy or activity acting in co-operation with Divine Energy or Grace.
On the part of God, Divine Grace is absolutely necessary, for we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and we are justified by His grace, redeemed in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:23-24). “For it is God who worketh in you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Philp. 2:13). “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and not that of yourselves: it is the gift of God – not by works, lest any man should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath beforehand ordained, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2: 8-10).
From this it is clear that divine Grace is necessary for our personal salvation. This truth is also evident in the words of the Lord: “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you” (Jn. 15: 5-7).
Hence, the Grace of God is for us the fluid that runs from vine to the vine branch. On the part of man, saving and actualized faith is necessary, i.e. “faith which worketh by love” (Gal. 5:6). Without this contribution of man’s, salvation is not held out for any man. Conscious faith in God, without good deeds, the demons, too, possess, for they also “believe and tremble” (Jas. 2:19). Holy Scripture itself makes clear that good works are necessary for salvation. Holy Scripture is filled with passages which refer to good deeds as a necessary prerequisite of our salvation (Mat. 25:34, Jn. 5:29, Rom. 2:6-13, 2 Cor. 5:10, Jas. 2:14-26, Rev. 20:12, and others).
Inq.: I have gathered from different discussions I have had with representatives of various confessions that they are of the opinion that divine Grace operates by force and irresistibly. For them, it is not possible to speak at all of freedom, nor of a certain worthiness of man in whatever pertains to his salvation. It is said that this is apparent from the parable of the Lord: “And the Lord said unto the servant, go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled” (Lk. 14:23). Elsewhere the Lord also said: “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn. 6:44). It is claimed that with this meaning in mind the Apostle Paul says the following: “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). It would seem clear from all of these citations that there does not, in fact, exist freedom of will and that God alone, independent of our disposition, grants salvation.
Elder Cleopa: Holy Scripture teaches us clearly that man is created by God free and self-governing, that is, with freedom of will, as the Holy Spirit tells us: “O Lord as with a shield of Thy good pleasure hast thou crowned us” (Ps. 5:13). Elsewhere it says, “He Himself made man from the beginning, and left him in the hand of his counsel,” (Eclus. 15:14) and again, “He hath set fire and water before thee: stretch forth thy hand unto whichever thou wilt” (Eclus. 15:16). Furthermore, in another place in Holy Scripture it is said: “Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse; a blessing if ye obey the commandments of the LORD your God” (Dt. 11: 26-27). And further on it is said: “See, I have set before thee this day life and death, good and evil . . . I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live” (Dt. 30: 15, 19).
The freedom of the will of man, as well as the dependence of salvation upon his freedom, appears more clearly from the words of the Saviour Himself. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Mat. 23:37, Lk. 11:20) Whereas to the rich young man He said, “If thou wilt enter into Life, keep the commandments” (Mat. 19:17, Heb. 4:11, Rom. 2:4).
Through the mouth of His prophet Isaiah, God says the following: “If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land. But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword” (Isa. 1: 19-20). And again to the rich young man He says, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Mat. 19:21).
In all of these passages it is positively obvious that God fashioned man with freedom of will and does not compel the will of anyone to draw nigh to salvation. For if the will of man is coerced into accepting salvation then any compensation in the future life would be meaningless. Likewise, God would cease to be the just judge the Holy Scriptures customarily refer to Him as being. If our salvation is accomplished without our personal will then that which the great Apostle Paul says would be incomprehensible to us: “For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). And likewise, “Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour” (1 Cor. 3:8).
Inq.: Fair enough, but I still have serious doubts. Isn’t it possible that God, from before the ages, determined the fate of each one of us? In other words, some are to be saved and some to be punished, analogous with the decisions rendered from time immemorial, out of His sovereign pre-ordination for each one of us? The following words of the Apostle Paul appear to support this opinion.
“For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth; It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?” (Rom. 9: 11-21).
The same Apostle says elsewhere,
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestined us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will.” (Eph. 1: 3-4).
From this it seems evident that salvation is offered according to the decision of God from before the ages. For the Apostle says likewise elsewhere: “But we are bound to give thanks always to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:13-14). Furthermore, the following is written in another passage: “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory” (1 Cor. 2:7). And elsewhere it is said: “what hast thou that thou didst not receive? Now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” (1 Cor. 4:7). “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Hence, consequently the problem is posited as follows: No one is saved except those who were pre-elected and predestined by God from before the ages. Man in this life follows the lot proscribed for him by God without the possibility of changing or replacing it.
Elder Cleopa: Holy Scripture contains within it unanswerable passages or, as Saint Gregory of Nyssa puts it, “strong bones.” Some would like to break these bones of Scripture with their wisdom teeth as of yet still only suitable for sucking milk. However, such a thing they would never be able to manage. All who have desired to plunge into the depths of Scripture have drowned in the fathomless ocean that is the wisdom of God. Such was the portion shared by Origen, Arius, Macedonius, Nestorius, Sabellius, Dioscorus, Eutyches and all the other chiefs of the ancient heresies who have been swallowed up in the unfathomable sea of Holy Scripture. The profundity and depth of Scripture was not the cause of their fall and drowning, but rather they themselves were the cause, due to their own insufficiencies, of being drowned in the depths of the mysteries of the Scriptures.
Holy Scripture is like a fountain or an endless spring, of the wisdom of God in which we must be steeped and partake in accordance with our level of wisdom and spiritual maturity. Just as we take water from the well with a bucket, empty it into our pitcher and then into our glass in order to quench our body’s thirst, so must we also do with our spiritual thirst when we are urged to drink of the deepest ocean of wisdom, the Holy Scriptures. Thus, spiritually speaking, if we draw more water from the well of Scripture than is drinkable (out of desire for the purity of our intellect (νούς) and heart), due to our pride and inquisitiveness we will be destroyed in our attempt to grasp the incomprehensible with our limited human faculties. If, for example, we were to see a child from the first grade trying to learn and to teach others that which is taught at the university, how much laughter and amusement would it provoke in us! The same and worse happens to those who desire to scrutinize and unravel the incomprehensible mysteries of the Scriptures with an intellect inexperienced and unenlightened by the Holy Spirit.
The divine Prophets and Apostles, as well as the holy Fathers of the Church, while by the purity of their lives attaining to the simplicity and innocence of infants, at the same time also, on account of their wisdom, became as “perfect spiritual men” (Eph. 4:13). Nevertheless, they were never so bold as to delve into the impenetrable mysteries of the wisdom of God. Before these elevated notions and expressions they remained as if enraptured saying, “How great are Thy works, O Lord, exceeding deep are Thy thoughts,” (Ps. 91:6) and “Great is our Lord, and great is His strength, and of His understanding there is no measure” (Ps. 146:5). Still further, in another place, it is said: “Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? There is no searching of his understanding” (Is. 40:28). Listen also to the vessel of election, the Apostle Paul, as he says with wonderment; “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been his counsellor?” (Rom. 11: 33-34).
You understand, therefore, my friend, that this fathomless depth of the wisdom of God cannot be approached by any intellect among His creatures, neither those found in the heavens, nor those on earth. Much more difficult is it for those who, without purifying their intellect (νούς) and heart from the passions, and being bereft also of divine enlightenment, presume on their own to penetrate the unbounded abyss of the Scriptures.
My dearest to Christ, earlier you referred me to certain passages that appeared to you to underscore a type of absolute predestination for man, however, the truth of things is entirely otherwise.
The first passage refers to the call of man toward the grace and righteousness which is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 9: 11-21). The Apostle desires with this example to illustrate that the call and righteousness of men do not depend on the “works of the law” but on the goodness of God Who calls by His Grace all men to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles (see above: Rom. 9: 22-24). Without the grace of God, men are powerless to accomplish anything with regards to their salvation. Here the Apostles is underscoring the importance of the presupposition of our objective salvation or sanctification (i.e. the salvation of the race of man collectively), without repeating again the personal presupposition: the freedom of man in co-operation with the grace of God, with faith and good works.
Furthermore, in no sense is it maintained that the foreknowledge of God exists as a basis for the predetermination of the soul or the predestination of each one of us. This is unstated yet implicit when the Apostle says that there are those whom God chastens and hardens since they had become “instruments of wrath,” God tolerating them with forbearance. God perceives everything in advance and is not dependent upon the passing of time to know that between the two sons of Isaac one would be the conveyor of His messianic promise. Thus, it is nothing to marvel at when He says: “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.”
If it is said that God has mercy on whomever He wishes and punishes whomsoever He wishes, then we must ask: Upon whom does God want to show mercy and upon whom does He desire to inflict punishment? If He loves him that He has predetermined for salvation, who in this life would be evil? Likewise, if He punishes those who reject Him, who in this life would be good? Or does God want certain among the good to become evil and certain among the evil to become good, without any righteous judgement or requital? Yet, in this case, where is righteousness? Where is equity or impartiality? Where is wisdom and all of the other attributes of God? Not even among men is it possible for such things to occur, and yet even when men are given over to arbitrariness it is a tragedy and setback.
As for the other passages you cited, they do not refer to some type of categorical predestination of the eternal life of the soul, but rather to the election or call of the soul to the Christ-sent grace. The call or election of the soul is not based on its worth or virtue but rather solely on the goodness of God. This invitation is not expressed and offered to a few, as is maintained by the followers of unqualified predestination, but rather to every human being, since the Apostle is speaking only in the plural and thereby showing that it is not that some are preferred and especially invited in the sense of predestination.
It is with this understanding that the Apostle Paul says: “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself as a ransom for all, to be testified in due time” (1 Tim. 2: 3-6). If from this text we wanted to expound an unconditional predestination for the heavenly majesty, a predestination of this sort would have to be understood according to the letter and spirit of the text, i.e. as unrestricted and unbounded. However, this would mean that salvation comes automatically to everyone, and it is well known that it does not. Furthermore, the very followers of predestination themselves maintain that the number of the predestined for salvation is restricted.
The truth is that Christ has brought salvation to everyone, something theologians have labelled general (or objective) salvation. And yet, everyone does not actualize this objective salvation, only those who seek and pursue it. While objective salvation is granted to every human being, subjective or personal salvation depends on the intent of man. Those who desire to be saved and work toward that goal receive divine Grace as their aide and guide. This Grace does not work in us violently; rather it abides with us peren- nially as a specific offering for the work of our salvation. Subsequently, it is not possible for us to speak of an unconditional predestination and its inadequate presuppositions for salvation. The truth concerning the predestination, fate and life of man can be summed up as follows.
A. Holy Scripture speaks often of a kind of predestination that carries with it the meaning of pre-knowledge. At times it is spoken of directly, being referred to variously as “foreknowledge” and “predestination,” (Acts 2:23 Rom. 8:29) “the counsel of His will,” (Eph. 1:11) “the mystery which hath been hid from the ages,” and the “book of life” (Col. 1:26, Eph. 3:9, Rev. 20:15, Lk. 10:20)
This predetermination is based on the life and works of man, which are plainly evident to our All-knowing God. Indeed, Holy Scripture speaks precisely: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the first-born among many brethren. Moreover those whom he predestined, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified” (Rom. 8:28-30).
We know also that at the future judgement there will be specific criteria upon which all will be judged. No one will be judged arbitrarily for that judgement will be righteous and unprejudiced. The Apostle says, “For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ; that everyone may receive the things done in his body, according to what he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (2 Cor. 5: 10, 1 Cor. 3:8). “But this I say, he which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully” (2 Cor. 9:6).
Furthermore, Holy Scripture sets forth this teaching with more clarity in other ways. It is often repeated that God does not want the death of any sinner, that He is “not willing that any should perish,” (2 Pet. 3:9, Eph. 4:6, Rom. 3:29) that all are called to salvation, and that God gave His grace to overflowing (Mat. 28:19, Rom. 10:18), precisely there where sin abounded, in order to provide all men with the possibility of salvation. All of this would be made a lie if the number of the chosen were in fact limited.
B. History certifies with all of the Church Fathers and theologians of great authority, together with the entirety of Holy Tradition and its incontestable substantiating elements, that the teaching on divine foreknowledge has always existed within the Church.
– Saint Irenaeus (+202 AD) says: “God who knows everything has made ready the proper dwelling: for to those who seek after and yearn for the unapproachable light God in His goodness grants them that light.”
– Saint John Chrysostom (+407 AD) says: “God has not foreordained us for salvation only out of love, but also on account of our good deeds, because if this (salvation) were dependent only upon our good works then the coming of Christ and everything which He has effected for our salvation would be as though unnecessary.”
– Saint Hilary (+367 AD) writes similarly: “That which God foresaw, He also foreordained.”
– Blessed Jerome (+420 AD) writes: “For that which God knew would happen in the life of His Son, that He also permitted (preordained) for His Son.”
– Saint Ambrose (+397 AD) says: “God did not predetermine without seeing first that which He foreknew. Likewise, in those whom He foresaw worthiness, to those He also preordained a spiritual reward.”
Inq.: If grace is always necessary for salvation, whatever the case, and if salvation is a gift of God given with grace, do we have a part in the working out of our salvation?
Elder Cleopa: Yes, we certainly do have a part to play but grace is also necessary for our salvation, for man cannot be saved on his own. We are not like logs or stones with which God does whatever He likes.
If grace were to work on its own – indifferent to us – it would mean that we would walk to our salvation without our will. In this case if some are lost to perdition they would not be to blame, but rather grace would be responsible since it did not compel them to be saved. This teaching, as we have said previously, is not a teaching of the Christ’s Church but of the Calvinists who have themselves termed it unconditional election or predestination. According to this teaching, God decided from before the ages to save certain men and destroy others. This He does in accord with His liking, not according to the way man would work but through His grace – grace that He decided to give in order to save some. To a few Grace is given – grace that compels them to work according to His will – while to others grace is withheld. Such is the teaching of the Calvinists.
Inq.: And the teaching of the Orthodox Church is different from that?
Elder Cleopa: Previously, I showed you the Church’s teaching clearly enough and at quite some length, and yet I will add for you also the following: “God our Saviour will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). Grace does not compel anyone. Men have the God-given freedom to accept it and to work with it or to reject it. Those who embrace it are saved and those who withdraw from it are lost. Guard well, my son, that which you have heard that you may be illumined by it and believe as a true Orthodox Christian.