October 19, 2017

Fr. Ernesto on tradition and old habits

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Note from CM: We have often suggested that one of the most fundamental problems in American Christianity, revivalist groups in particular, is lack of appreciation for tradition. Especially the “Great Tradition” of the ancient and historic church. Of course, there is another side to all of this. Those who respect “tradition” can easily fall into “traditionalism” of various kinds. Today we welcome Fr. Ernesto, long-time friend of IM, who has experience of these matters from many places along the spectrum of views. He writes about the Orthodox church and some of the issues they face with what it means to be “conservative” and to honor “tradition.” Perhaps you can relate as you think of some of the characteristics of your own tradition.

Fr. Ernesto blogs at OrthoCuban.

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On tradition and old habits
by Fr. Ernesto Obregon

As Orthodox, we pride ourselves in conserving the Holy Tradition that we have received from the Fathers. We pride ourselves on the surprise people get when they read some of the Early Church fathers and find that it sounds like some of what the priest said this immediate past Sunday. We like seeing a photograph of the inside of an ancient church and seeing that it does not look all that different from the inside of what our church looks like. That is what it means to be conservative Church. It means to conserve what has been received. It theoretically means to conserve the doctrines and practices of the Church. It does not mean that changes cannot happen, otherwise there would be no iconostas today.

I like to tell my temporary congregation that if they hear something from me that does not sound like something that they have heard sometime before, then they should be cautious and check out what I said. I do not mean if they hear something said in a preaching style that they have not heard before, but rather that if the content of what I say does not match what they have heard before then they should be cautious of what I say. Again, this does not mean if I simply disagree with some of what the previous priest has said, since we can all make mistakes, but rather if I appear to be disagreeing with one of the major themes of church doctrine or practice.

But, I am more and more conscious that there is a tendency among some to interpret conservative as meaning that the church buildings must look like a Greek or a Slavic church building, or that if the bishops make a joint pastoral change that they must be opposed because they are destroying Holy Tradition, or even that if a better translation or a better musical rendition is published, it must be opposed because somehow this is against Orthodoxy. That is not conserving Orthodoxy, but rather a desire to maintain things the way they were when one was younger. That is old-age reactionary thinking, not true conservation of what was received.

Sadly, I also do see some tendency to a museum mentality among some Orthodox. For instance, why do so many Orthodox assume that a church building or a parish building must look like something from the Old World? As best I know, there is no Ecumenical canon that restricts outer building design to only European architecture. (Notice that I am carefully staying away from the inside of the building.) We have another group of Orthodox who vehemently argue what few, if any, still argue, that the English of the King James version is the Liturgical English that must be used. One of them recently had a near meltdown online because at some conference someone dared to put one of the troparia in a slightly more modern English.

What makes the King James argument even more odd, to me, is that no one actually uses King James English. The English that we call King James English actually is an 1860’s revision of the 1600’s actual original King James English. Thus, those who vehemently argue for the King James English have to argue that not only did God guide the original translation, but then also directly guided the 1860’s revision into both American English and English English. Then God stopped guiding and insisted than an 1800’s English is the only English he accepts for worship. This is no longer conserving but misusing history as though it were Holy Tradition.

But, I am not speaking of just the King James version in particular, as I pointed out above. I am speaking of a set of attitudes that go beyond conserving into what I call a museum mentality, where everything is preserved as one remembers it without consideration or evaluation of whether what has been received is Holy Tradition or merely cultural, personal, or other habit.

Let us be people who know how to evaluate and not merely how to maintain a museum of personal preferences.

Comments

  1. Klasie Kraalogies says:

    Old traditions were once new-fangled innovations too.

    That is a supportive comment, by and large.

    I would comment that often the problem with any tradition or dogma is mindfulness vs mindlessness. Seeking after the new and abandoning the old, or clinging to the old and criticizing the new; withou careful consideration is the problem.

    • –> “…the problem with any tradition or dogma is mindfulness vs mindlessness.”

      Excellent way to say it!

      –> “Seeking after the new and abandoning the old, or clinging to the old and criticizing the new; withou careful consideration is the problem.”

      Bingo! (Translation: YES!)

    • The only niggling small reply I would make is that the Orthodox would say that when Paul says to hold fast to the Traditions, he meant not merely Scripture but also some basics with regard to practice and to worship. And, we would also say that just like the Solomonic Temple and worship were not like the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, neither was it God’s intent that the worship of Christians remain as it was right at the beginning. There was a temporariness about that worship just like there was with the Tabernacle in the Wilderness.

      It is worth reading about some of the adjustments that Russian believers had to make during Soviet rule so that one can see how worship can quickly devolve to more basic forms when it is needed. Thus there were hidden Divine Liturgies celebrated in houses, nuns that lived in apartments near each other, went to work, and returned home to put on their habits in the secret of their apartments, and so on. But, when the fall of the Berlin Wall happened, many Orthodox were able to return to more public expressions of the faith, and a fuller worship experience has returned.

      I would argue the same would be true of the Early Church. Once they were truly free, they were able to “unfold” their worship and follow more of the pattern that you see in the Book of the Apocalypse (Revelation).

      • when Paul says to hold fast to the Traditions, he meant not merely Scripture but also some basics with regard to practice and to worship. This is almost certainly the case, as extant documents like the Didache support. However, in my experience this position always ends up boiling down to “whose traditions”. Believe it or not – as bafflingly ignorant as it is – there are actually Baptists who believe and teach that they are passing down the “real” “original” traditions of the church.

        • Yes, the sadness of the massive schism that the Church underwent and then the Catholic Church repeated less than 300 years later is that any claims to original are usually dismissed. It has cost all of us greatly in the public sphere.

        • Baptists

          Landmark Baptists have to say that. It’s a fallout of them holding that Catholics are evil. If they hold that then they can’t admit their church evolved from the Catholic faith so they have to claim a lineage going back to the apostles.

  2. I’m Orthodox, hubby is not, but attends with me. We both question the wisdom of holding on to certain elements simply because they are “tradition.” Some questionable practices were instituted in medieval times when general knowledge was quite limited. Orthodoxy could and should be updated to reflect current knowledge and also to minimize confusion, especially in regards to hymns to the Theotokos – example: the troparion that includes, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” Ask a priest about this language and you just might get a most convoluted answer that in the end, results in him saying Mary doesn’t save us, Jesus does.

    • I Timothy 4:16 says, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

      So, according to Paul, Timothy can save others. I need not give a convoluted answer. I just quote this verse and point out that even in Scripture the word “save” is used in more than one way in Scripture. For you who read Greek, the word is ??????, which is the standard verb for save. When we speak of Mary and the saints, we are using the verb save in the exact same way in which Paul used the verb save with Timothy, nothing more, nothing less, nothing convoluted.

      • Sorry, apparently the Greek lettering did not transfer well. The word is “sosei”.

        • That would be the third person singular. The infinitive is sosein. First person singular is sozo. The zeta takes a “d” sound prior when preceded by omega, so the transliteration would be “sodzo” with the “o”s both long. And you’re right – it means save, plain and simple. But you probably know by now that Protestants can’t exist without redefining and reinterpreting every single instance of any given word until it fits their preconceived ideas of correct doctrine. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

  3. Ronald Avra says:

    Appreciate the perspective

  4. Oh, gosh…there are a lot of good nuggets in your post, Fr. Ernesto.

    –> “I like to tell my temporary congregation that if they hear something from me that does not sound like something that they have heard sometime before, then they should be cautious and check out what I said.”

    I’ve said something similar to the adult Sunday school class I lead. “If ever you hear me saying things that sound weird and different, please examine it and challenge me if you find it isn’t in the gospel.”

    That said, my understanding of the Good News and of Jesus/God/Holy Spirit has changed so much over the past 5 years that I HOPE my lingo has changed…LOL.

    –> “The English that we call King James English actually is an 1860’s revision of the 1600’s actual original King James English. Thus, those who vehemently argue for the King James English have to argue that not only did God guide the original translation, but then also directly guided the 1860’s revision into both American English and English English.”

    Someone could probably craft a pretty clever/witty screenplay around this.

  5. Excellent post!!

  6. “The English that we call King James English actually is an 1860’s revision of the 1600’s actual original King James English. Thus, those who vehemently argue for the King James English have to argue that not only did God guide the original translation, but then also directly guided the 1860’s revision into both American English and English English.”

    KJV-Onlyism is still present among a lot of old-schoolers in the Baptist tradition. I’ve heard and read all the arguments as to why the KJV is supposedly superior to all other English translations (which means all translations in any language and even the original Greek and Hebrew in some people’s minds), but, so far, I haven’t come across anything that holds water rationally or historically. Heck, even the translators of the original KJV included a foreword in which they apologized for any errors they might have made and encouraged future scholars to improve on their work. The original work also included alternate verse translations in the margins in cases where the translators thought translating it one way or another came down to a judgement call. The scholars who worked on the KJV didn’t seem to be aware of any special divine involvement in the project. And no-one said a thing about special divine guidance regarding the KJV until the mid to late 1800’s, when fundamentalists started harping on it — apparently in reaction to a flood of new English translations and new “scientific” methods of biblical interpretation.
    I guess that’s one example of how something new can evolve from novel to standard acceptance to carved-in-stone dogma in a relatively short period of time.

    • They are idiots with air-tight arguments that you can only step away from entirely to win.

      And never, ever let them say “King James Bible”. It’s the King James VERSION. Semantics but it matters.

      • I try not to judge them too harshly or be confrontational with them, even though I cringe every time they start harping on it. I suspect that for them the unquestionable perfection and inerrancy of the KJV is a kind of religious security blanket. Some people just can’t leave room for doubts or grey areas in their thinking. They have to know the “correct” answer to put in the blank — otherwise, they malfunction. That’s just the way they’re wired or something. To them, a perfect, God-authorized translation of the Bible is a prerequisite on which their faith depends.

      • >> And never, ever let them say “King James Bible”. It’s the King James VERSION. Semantics but it matters.

        Nor was it ever the Authorized Version, in spite of what may be printed in front or on the cover. Appointed to be read in churches, yes, but so were some of its forbears. Not officially authorized by King Jim or anyone else. I keep a facsimile printing of the original around in case I ever get the chance to tell a KJ onlier that what they are reading is a corrupt revision. It really is hard to read in the original, and intentionally so, as many folks thought the old black letter print was more pious along with the already becoming obsolete language from a hundred years back, not to forget the arbitrary spelling. On the other hand, it is arguably the peak of English literature, which is why it stayed on top for 350 years, and still holds its own.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        And then there are the KJV1611-Onlyists to whom the KJV-Onlyists are Heretics.

        It’s Judean People’s Front vs the People’s Front of Judea…

    • Well I don’t suppose you could call me a KJV only person but then I’m not a fundamentalist so to me it’s all ancient literature. I favor the KJV for one reason and that is its value as English literature. In many places it actually improves on the Greek original. And if you can’t read koine you’ve never actually read the New Testament anyway so in the end perhaps this is much ado about very little.

      Working my way right now through the Tyndale Bible which the translators of the KJV had the good sense to “cut and paste” with abandon. Boy oh boy them old guys could certainly write themselves some english prose!

      • It can get really hard to deal with the KJO crowd when they start telling people who don’t have English as their first language that it’s the only correct way to read the Bible.

  7. I have no personal experience with this, but it is said that much of Emergence thought and practice and study is greatly influenced by the Orthodox tradition. I have no idea if the reverse ever occurs.

    • It does. Every group in America has a flow of people from other traditions into them and from their tradition out of them to other groups. This does cause a constant ferment and mixture of traditions. For instance, at least one Orthodox jurisdiction has a biennial Bible Bowl with both adult and youth division. I quite guarantee you that no such thing existed among the Orthodox forty years ago. The Orthodox conserve, but that does not mean they cannot adopt some new thoughts.