There is one single tradition in both the Old and the New Testaments.
“The Orthodox understanding of tradition is very like the perceptions that exist in the positive sciences. The aim in every positive science is to produce a descriptive analysis of the field with which that science is concerned, to enable the young people entering that science to be taught. Then, as they learn this science, with the help of books and live teaching, classes giving examples — such as an operation in the operating-theatre — and living praxis, the achievements of the science will be repeated, so that it will be perpetuated and improved. Thus there is a relationship between teacher, book, pupil and training. Training is also involved.
Well, all these elements make up the Orthodox tradition. Here there is Holy Scripture, which is the reference book for the subject of Orthodoxy. Then there are the writings of the Fathers of the Church. There are spiritual fathers and spiritual children. The relationship between the spiritual father, the spiritual child and the book are exactly the same as the relationship between the doctor and the medical student. Knowledge and practice are passed on from teacher to pupil. This has been going on for twenty centuries now, and the whole endeavour revolves around the liturgical texts preserved in our liturgical books.
Take any of the services and you will see that all the interest revolves round three factors: purification, illumination and glorification. These are the foundations. Apart from purification, illumination and glorification there is nothing else. That is to say, there is no theology.
There may be points of interest, or someone may be interested in what Nebuchadnezzar or Samson or David did and take all these things as history. These are all historical records and may occupy a historian who can use them as historical sources. However, although it is possible for these figures to be studied independently of the science of Orthodox theology, this means using these texts for a purpose for which they were not intended. It is not the purpose of the texts simply to provide historical or philological information or to narrate the history of the kings and so on. Their aim is to relate the progress of a people that had devoted itself to doing the will of God. And they learned the will of God from people called Patriarchs or Prophets, who were their leaders.
Anyone who reads the Old Testament carefully to see who these Patriarchs and Prophets were will see something strange. They are the same people. In the lives of the saints and in the New Testament, a Patriarch or Prophet is someone who has reached glorification — the Fathers call glorification divine vision. He has passed through purification and arrived at illumination.
When the Fathers of the Church read the Old Testament, they read it as if already in the Old Testament there was purification and illumination, constant remembrance of God and noetic prayer, and they interpret the Psalms accordingly. The Psalms are interpreted as sacred songs expressing this experience of purification, illumination and glorification.
It makes no difference whether this is actually the case or not. We are not concerned about what the reality is. We are simply concerned about how the Fathers perceived this reality. This is a difficulty that you can encounter with professors of the Old Testament. Because our own Old Testament professors do not accept the Fathers’ authority to interpret the Old Testament.”
Tradition is not simply a study of the past. It is not archaeological remains from the past, but the method of purification, illumination and glorification, which is handed down and transmitted from generation to generation.
“He (St John the Forerunner) is the connecting link between the Old and New Testaments and this fact shows how the Fathers understand the essence of the tradition.
Tradition is not simply a matter of receiving archaeological monuments from the past and giving them to future generations. Pre-eminently it is this method of purification, illumination and glorification, which is handed on from one generation to the next and constitutes the core of the tradition. All the other things are at the periphery of the tradition. The essence of the tradition is the transmission of this experience. So this tradition is transmitted now from the Old Testament to the New Testament by means of the Forerunner, and suddenly Christ Himself appears, teaching with human words and with miracles…”
Whatever contributes to the illumination of the faithful is the tradition; whatever does not lead to this end does not constitute the essence of the Orthodox tradition. There is the core of the tradition and the secondary element of the tradition.
“We have the history of the Church, which is essentially the history of the tradition. If you want to define Orthodox tradition, you could draw a parallel with other traditions. For example, there is the tradition of medical science, the tradition of astronomy, the tradition of biology, chemistry and so on.
To enable you to realise the significance of tradition from the patristic point of view, you should think of the Church as essentially a group of people in the state of illumination, who are making sure that one illuminated generation passes on illumination to future generations.
The criterion for what belongs to the tradition and what is superfluous to the tradition, from the patristic viewpoint, is, I think, simple. Anything that is conducive to the illumination of the faithful is part of the tradition, and anything that is not conducive to illumination either does not belong to the tradition, or else is something secondary in the tradition. As means exist to guide or help man to progress from purification to illumination and from illumination to glorification, these means are indispensable for the Orthodox faith.”
Tradition is whatever leads from rational worship to noetic worship.
“Rational worship is the foundation of the tradition. Starting from rational worship, afterwards the Spirit Himself turns it into noetic worship and conveys it to the nous in the state of illumination.
Among the Hindus the following takes place: they do natural exercises by which they separate the nous from the rational faculty. They simply empty the nous and proceed no further. They stop there. This emptying has certain effects on man’s character, because through this emptying he becomes gentler and kinder.”
This emptying of the rational faculty is not enough, however. The nous must acquire noetic worship. The shift from rational worship to noetic worship becomes clear through noetic prayer, which can also be found in the tradition of the Old Testament.
“Why are the Psalms so very important for the Church? Because the Psalms were prayers that were for noetic prayer. It seems that in the Hebrew tradition, in the prophetic Hebrew tradition, but also in the ancient Christian tradition, noetic prayer was not only prayed with prayer, what we call prayer today, but with psalms. That is why the Apostle Paul says, “I will pray with the spirit and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing [psalo] with the spirit, and I will also sing [psalo] with the understanding” (1 Cor. 14:15).
So noetic prayer is not just prayer but also psalmody, spiritual songs. We have examples from the tradition that noetic prayer was also prayed with psalms, in certain traditions. One example of this is St John Cassian, because St John Cassian teaches noetic prayer with Psalms. There is quite is quite a lot of evidence for this practice.”
This tradition is ascetic in character.
“Studying the issues from this point of view, we realise that the core of the tradition is the inheritance of the ascetic method, which leads to illumination and glorification. Theology is the expression of this experience of glorification. Above all else, our theology is an expression of glorification, with the aim of leading everyone to the same experiences that all those who expressed this theology had. Then we see that there is an amazing similarity with any other science.”
With these presuppositions, we can speak of linking theology with piety, and piety is distinguished from pietism.
“In the Orthodox tradition, theology and piety are exactly the same thing. There is no difference at all. These two, piety and theology, are identical and inseparable in the Orthodox tradition.”
“The priests, at least, were supposed to be in the state of illumination. For that reason the bishops went round finding men who were illuminated in order to ordain them. That was the tradition.”
Man’s progress through purification of the heart and illumination of the nous to reach glorification represents the stages of man’s spiritual therapy. The Orthodox tradition is clearly therapeutic in character.
“What emerges from the patristic tradition is that theology is purely therapeutic in character. The aim of theology is not to lead man to an understanding of God or to utterance about God, because expressions and concepts and words about God have one single purpose: man’s healing. This is achieved when he passes from illumination to glorification.”
When man’s nous is not illumined, when it does not function according to God, he does not have uninterrupted remembrance of God. He is ill and needs treatment.
“For that reason the Orthodox tradition always regarded man as a sick sinner, in the sense that his soul was sick, not in the sense of philosophical ethics.”
It becomes obvious that the Fathers define illness of the soul (psyche), differently from secular psychiatry.
“The patristic tradition contains things that neither psychiatry nor psychology even imagines exist.”
The fact that someone whose nous is darkened is psychologically ill is clear in the apostolic tradition. Passing on the apostolic tradition means handing down the diagnosis and the cure.
The criterion for the patristic tradition is curing people and the success of the treatment. However, when “the therapeutic tradition is interrupted, there is no cure.” The same happens in all the sciences. When a Christian knows the therapeutic method, it means that he is an expert who carries on the Orthodox tradition.
Heresy is expressed by the fact that it does not cure people.
“The correct perception of the patristic tradition is that what cures man is Orthodox. What destroys man is heresy.”