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September 21, 2010

What is Divine Revelation?

By Fr. Anthony Alevizopoulos

According to the Orthodox faith, the Church is not founded on written texts but on the confession that Christ is God-Man (Theanthropos), namely that in the person of Christ, God was joined with man, “indivisibly, immovably, unmistakably, inseparably,” and man has come into actual communion with God, and in the person of Christ, God and man were hypostatically united, in one unique hypostasis.

The Son and Word of God continues to be hypostatically united with His body and as the Head of the Church, He is always united with us (Matt. 18:20; 28:20). The presence of Christ is activated by the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church (1 Cor. 12: 3). This is why the Church is also “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15; 1 Cor. 2:7-11).

Our holy faith was delivered to the body of Christ, “to the saints once and for all” – and whoever does not belong to this body cannot properly interpret Holy Scripture (2 Thess. 3:6; 2 Peter 3:16; Jude 3-4). In this sense Holy Tradition is the experience of the Church, the holy memory of the Church, which is guarded as a precious treasure (2 Tim. 1:13-14).

Holy Scripture does not contain the fullness of the divine revelation. Already in the Old Testament the importance of oral tradition and the care of its passing down from generation to generation is highlighted (Ps 43:2, 44:1; Joel 1:3). The New Testament mentions that it does not have the completeness of the words and works of Christ (John 21:15).

The same Holy Scriptures make use of Tradition (Num. 21:14-15; Matt 2:23; Acts 20:35; 2 Tim 3:8, Jude 14). Christ did not exhort His disciples to write books but to preach, promising that He would always be with them (Matt. 28:20) and that He would send them the Holy Spirit to be with them (John 14:16), to teach and to remind them of His teaching (John 14: 25-26), to guide them “to the whole truth” by revealing to them the deeper meaning of the words of Christ, all those things that they were not able to “bear” by their own power to (John 16: 12-15).

The apostles were also not limited to written texts – they passed on to the first Christians much more than what was written “with paper and ink” (2 John 12; 3 John 13-14; 1 Cor. 11:34). Some of those things written proved to be relevant to the time, because they were not maintained by the Church, such as the number of deacons (Acts 6:3), the order of widows (1 Tim 5:9), the washing of feet (John 13:14).

At the center of Holy Scripture is the person of Christ (John 5:38-39; Gal. 3:24). Without Christ, we cannot understand Holy Scripture (2 Cor. 3:14). Therefore, union to the body of Christ, namely to the Church, assures the purity of the Gospel truth (1 Tim. 3:15).

Holy Scripture is not intended for just anyone, but for the faithful, who are gathered in one body. Holy Tradition is the atmosphere in which the body lives and understands the truth properly; it is the constant experience of the Church, her conscience – not personal opinions, teachings and writings of men (Isaiah 29:13; Matt. 15:3,4,9; Mark 7:8; Col. 2:8).

Based on the treasure of the holy memory of the Church, the study of Holy Scripture leads to unity, and not the breakdown of the Church. This way the will of Christ for the unity of the faithful is fulfilled (John 17:20-21). That is why the apostles advised Christians to hold onto the traditions – that is, the treasure with which they entrusted them (1 Cor. 11:2; Phil. 4:9) “either by word or by epistle” (2 Thess. 2:15; 2 Tim. 1:13).

The shepherds of the Church were placed in this position to remain alert, namely to be guards [episcopos (bishop) = overseer] of the purity of the life and of the teaching of the Church (Acts 20:28-31): “Stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands… Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me… that good thing which was committed unto thee keep by the Holy Spirit which dwelleth in us” (2 Tim. 1:6,13,14), “and the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2).

In other words, apostolic succession goes together with apostolic teaching. In this way, we understand the words of Saint Ignatius (110): “Because Jesus Christ, our true life, is the mind of the Father, just like the bishops who have been appointed all over the world are with the mind of Jesus Christ ('mind in Jesus Christ'). Therefore, you too follow the mind of the bishop, something you already do, for the worthiness of your ministry’s name which is also worthy of God, and joined together with the bishop, like the strings with the guitar” (Ignatius, Eph. 3, 2-4, 1).

This teaching is not a recent one – it is a conviction from the beginning of Christianity: “From the dogmas and the truths that the Church guards, some we have received from written teaching while others that have mystically reached us we have received from the tradition of the apostles. Both elements, written and oral traditions, have the same importance for the faith. And no one who has even a little knowledge of ecclesiastical practices raises any objections concerning them. For if we set out to abandon whatever customs are unwritten, that somehow they do not have great importance, without realizing it we would harm the essence of the Gospel or rather we would turn the message into a name void of meaning” (Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, 27:66).

During the time of St. Basil the Great, whoever had even “a little knowledge of the ecclesiastical practices” agreed that divine revelation was mystically guarded by the Church in its fullness. As an example, St. Basil mentions the custom of “those hoping in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” showing their faith “by making the sign of the Cross.”

Here, therefore, we have a basic difference with the Protestant world. Their claim “Sola Scriptura" (Scripture Alone) leaves Scripture itself bare, exposed to the “authentic interpretation” and the “infallibility” of each pastor.

Holy Scripture cannot be made absolute, because it would replace the living Christ with the letter of the Bible, becoming divine and isolated from the life of the body of Christ, from the life of the saints (Jude 3). Holy Scripture is the “word about God which passed through the hearts of the saints, it is the word of God concerning God” (G. Metallinos), the truth delivered “once and for all” to the saints (Jude 3), and in fact not the fulness of truth but a part of it. It cannot be understood separately from the Church (1 Tim. 3:15).

Source: Manual on Heresies and Para-Christian Groups.