We Orthodox Christians hear this question quite often — "Why
do we need the Saints and Early Church Fathers? Isn't the Bible
enough?" — In fact, it strikes a much deeper issue,
namely, the issue with Holy
Tradition, which incorporates works by the Holy Fathers.
Here is a 101 on Holy Tradition and why, according to the Church,
you can’t understand the Bible without it.
Is the Bible Enough?
The correlation between Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition has been
hotly contested between the Orthodox and Protestants for centuries.
It was as early as the 16th century that Protestants
proclaimed their famous doctrine of Sola
Scriptura (Latin for “only the Scriptures”),
claiming that the text of the Bible is enough for proper Christian
living. They declared that the Bible contains just enough
information for our salvation, and that the Tradition was a later
and useless invention, which Christians had to get rid of as quickly
Orthodox theologians radically oppose this approach.
The Church teaches that the Holy Tradition is the earliest way of
transmission of the Divine Revelation.
The Holy Tradition existed before Holy Scripture and served as its basis. It isn’t hard to grasp it: even during our
everyday lives we experience something first, and later express our
experiences in written form, if necessary.
Aside from that, even the Bible admits that Holy Tradition comes
first. Thus, we learn from the book of Genesis that God talked with
Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses directly. We see that Abel
knows how to make a sacrifice of “the
firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof “ to God (Gen. 4:4). Noah
knows which animals are “clean” and which are
“unclean” (Gen. 7:8). Abraham
the tradition of tithing when he gives tithes to Melchizedek, king
of Salem (Gen. 14:20).
It is worth pointing out that none of them read the Scriptures,
weren’t any written Scriptures at those times. Old Testament
characters lived without the sacred texts of the Scriptures for many
Likewise, early Christians did without the written New Testament,
because they tuned their spiritual and everyday lives in accordance
with the oral Tradition of the Church.
Therefore, the Scriptures are essentially the recorded part of the
Tradition, which is why the former cannot exist without the latter.
Furthermore, the very fact that the Divine Revelation had to be put
to paper, according to Saint John Chrysostom, indicated a steady
decline of morals and spiritual deafness, which was spreading among
“In fact, we shouldn’t need the Scriptures; instead, we should lead a
life so pure that we could use the grace of the Holy Spirit instead
of books; and to the extent that books are written with ink, our
hearts should be written on by the Spirit. Given that we have
rejected that grace, let’s at least use the second way."
[i.e., the written Scriptures]
“Blank Spots” in Holy Scripture
Interestingly enough, if we “remove” Holy Tradition from the Divine
Revelation, there will appear “blank spots” in the biblical text
immediately—and it’s impossible to fill in those gaps without
For example, Jacob tells his son Joseph in Genesis: “Moreover
I have given to thee one portion above thy brethren, which I took
out of the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow.”
(Gen. 48:22). However, nowhere in the Scripture (in the book of
Genesis) do we find any mention of military actions that Jacob
undertook against the Amorite with his “sword” and his “bow”.
The Apostle Paul matter-of-factly writes 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) Again, here is the question: Where did Paul read about
it if there isn’t any mention of a Jannes and a Jambres and their
conflict with Moses in the Bible?
Archdeacon Stephen informs the Jews, “And Moses was learned in
all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in
deeds. And when he was full forty years old, it came into his heart
to visit his brethren the children of Israel.” (Acts
7:22-23) And again, there is
no mention of Moses’ age, “when it
came into his heart to visit his brethren”.
There are plenty of similar examples in the Bible.
There is a more fundamental problem, too. Readers of the New
Testament must have faced it when they read the entire biblical
corpus, but could not find a detailed doctrine regarding certain
basic tenets of Christianity, such as the Sacraments.
The question is: Why is the Bible silent about all those matters?
This question can’t be resolved within the Sola Scriptura mindset.
Besides, the structure of the New Testament without the Holy
Tradition appears vague due to discrepancies and incomprehensible
For example, what does Jesus Christ have in mind when He refers to
the Heavenly Bread, to the grapevine, and to the water that flows
into the eternal life? What does Apostle Paul urge us to do when he
says, “Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that
bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh
unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning
the Lord’s body” (1 Cor. 11:28-29)? What do the grapevine,
the water, the bread, and the cup refer to? The New Testament text
doesn’t provide us with a clear explanation.
However, all those questions disappear as soon as we put the
Scripture into its original context, i.e., Tradition. Archpriest
John Meyendorff stresses that the aforementioned words of Jesus
“cannot be fully appreciated without knowing that Christians of the
1st century performed baptisms and celebrated the
Sayings about the cup, the grapevine, and the bread become clear as
soon as we put them in the context of the Tradition. Again, it shows
that Scripture and Tradition are
reciprocally connected and inseparable. Their unity is the
prerequisite for the conceptual completeness of the Divine
Holy Tradition is a prerequisite for the true understanding
of Scripture, a point of reference based on centuries-long reading
and analysis of the Bible, which allows every Christian to read
God’s Revelation without the risk of distorting its meaning.
Remember the story from the book of Acts where Apostle Philip asked
the Eunuch who was reading the Old Testament, “Understandest
thou what thou readest?” The eunuch replied, “How can
I, except some man should guide me?” (cf. Acts 8:30-31)? It
is the Holy Tradition that “guides” a believer. It instructs us not
only how to read the Scriptures, but also how to get saved.
There’s Neither Tradition Nor Scripture Without The
Holy Tradition and Holy Scripture both exist only for the Church, and
only within the
Church. There is neither Holy Scripture nor Holy Tradition outside
of the Church.
Hieromartyr Hilarion (Troitsky) emphasizes that the Holy Scripture
is part of the general grace-filled life of the Church. There is no
Scripture, in the real sense of this word, without the Church.
Alexei Khomyakov pointed out
that people who stay away from the Church are unable to comprehend
the Scriptures, the Tradition, and the practices of the Church.
At first, these statements might appear too straightforward and
alienating. Yet, if we put them in the right context, all
misunderstandings will be resolved.
Let’s imagine that I want you to discover Stravinsky’s music. I know
a lot about his works; I can even give you a lecture on them, and
then equip you with several good scholarly papers for additional
reading. You will listen to my words, read the papers, and learn the
facts, but you won’t discover Stravinsky’s music for yourself. The
most important factor is missing: your personal encounter with his
music, full immersion, and direct interaction with live performance
of Stravinsky’s music.
Same with Scripture and Tradition. You can speak about them for as
long as you wish and read hundreds and thousands of scientific
papers about Scripture and Tradition. Sadly, without a personal
encounter and the unmediated experience of building your own life on
Scripture and Tradition, they will merely remain curious artifacts
of human history.
You can encounter them and discover them only in the Church, which
has lived and breathed Scripture and Tradition for multiple
millennia already. The Church has an uninterrupted succession of
those who dedicate themselves to preserving Scripture and Tradition,
i.e., the Saints.
Holiness means that a certain person lives according to the
Tradition and the Scripture, that the fullness of Divine Revelation
is fully embodied in the lives of certain people but first of all in
the life of Jesus Christ.
Stravinsky’s music is revealed to us only if we listen to it
live. Similarly, Tradition and Scripture are fully revealed to us
only if we are in the Church, if we participate in Her holiness. The
most profound experience of Tradition is possible only through the
Sacrament of Eucharist. The Eucharist is the crossroads where
Tradition and Scripture meet.
The fullness of the Divine Revelation was given to the Church only
once, on the Day of Pentecost. The Christians of the subsequent
centuries merely unveiled and gradually explained this diverse
Tradition. Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, doctrines of the
Church, works by Holy Fathers, iconographic canon, church
architecture, and the biblical canon—all of those are parts of the
Therefore, Church doctrine doesn’t evolve or develop in any way. It
is expressed in the history of the human race and in the lives of
holy people. Saint Augustine — who discovered Tradition and
Scripture only after he met Saint Ambrose of Milan — wrote the
following paradoxical words: “I wouldn’t believe the Gospel, if not
for the authority of the Orthodox Catholic Church.”
We can rephrase the saint’s words and declare, “I wouldn’t believe
the Tradition if it were not for the authority of the Orthodox
Catholic Church.” The authority in the Church is the Holy Spirit who
dwells in it.