In a Facebook discussion from two years ago, the question was asked,
“So…if Eastern Orthodoxy is THE church founded by Jesus and the Apostles, and Catholicism and Protestantism are merely heretical groups which branched off of the original church…how is it you guys, exclusively, have managed to maintain true doctrine all of these years?”
I promised to answer the question when I was on a computer rather than a phone, but life happened and I completely forgot about it. Now, two years later, Lucas has reminded me of the question and I will attempt to answer it as best I can. This will be at best and introduction to the topic.
Tradition – This word carries a lot of baggage in today’s Protestant Christian world. Fond of quoting Jesus’ remarks about nullifying the commandments of God in order to keep the “traditions of men”, it is then thought that all tradition is bad and evil. But St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, said otherwise.
“Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” – I Corinthians 11:2
You will find in many modern translations (and even the KJV) that “traditions” has been variously translated as “ordinances”, “commandments”, “directions”, and “practices”. While all these words are acceptable translations, why would they NOT use “traditions”? The Greek work is “paradosis” which means:
“a giving over which is done by word of mouth or in writing, i.e. tradition by instruction, narrative, precept, etc.
objectively, that which is delivered, the substance of a teaching
of the body of precepts, esp. ritual, which in the opinion of the later Jews were orally delivered by Moses and orally transmitted in unbroken succession to subsequent generations, which precepts, both illustrating and expanding the written law, as they did were to be obeyed with equal reverence”
This is the sense in which the Orthodox Church uses the word, a handing down or transmitting, without change, a practice, doctrine, teaching, or ritual.
When the Apostles established churches during their travels, they ordained reliable men to continue teaching after they had departed the area, and ultimately, departed this life. We see St. Paul instructing Titus to do this very thing.
“[Tit 1:5 KJV] 5 For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee:”
The “elders” here are “presbyters” from which we get the English word “priests”.
Go ahead and read through Timothy and Titus and you will find the kind of men that St. Paul sought to put in charge of the Churches he established. The other Apostles did the same thing. These men then continued to pass on to their congregations and succeeding generations, the “faith once delivered to the saints.”
Of course, during the first few decades of the Church, they had no New Testament. Christians relied solely on the Apostles teachings and interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures, written in Greek (called the Septuagint). This was the most common version of the OT that was in use in the time of Christ in Israel. The majority of the OT quotations In the NT come from the Septuagint version. This is why when you go to look up Old Testament quotes in your modern Bible, they often don’t match. (See here for more information on that fascinating topic.)
Once the Gospels were written down, they began to be copied and spread over the known world along with the Epistles of Paul, Peter, James, and Jude. Many spurious writings appeared, claiming to be Apostolic in origin, but were rejected by the Church because they either contradicted the Gospels and Epistles and the known Tradition or just outright taught things that were known to be untrue about Jesus the Christ. The gnostic cults generated much of these writings. It wasn’t until sometime much later that a New Testament canon was actually codified by the Church to what we have today.
The Tradition as received and the Scriptures form the basis for all Orthodox life and practice.
Apostolic Succession is the tracing of a direct line of apostolic ordination, Orthodox doctrine, and full communion from the Apostles to the current episcopacy of the Orthodox Church. All three elements are constitutive of apostolic succession. (Orthodox Wiki).
Notice that for Apostolic Succession to be valid, the three elements of apostolic ordination, Orthodox doctrine, and full communion must exist. If one element is missing, there is no succession. The Roman Catholics, the Anglicans, and some Lutheran bodies can claim the first, but not the second or the third. Each Orthodox Bishop or presbyter (priest) can trace his ordination directly back to an Apostle. An Orthodox bishop must be ordained by at least three Bishops in good standing with the Church (meeting the three criteria set forth above.)
Scripture – The Orthodox Church codified the New Testament. These books, originally written in Greek for the most part, are cherished by the Church. Through them, we maintain the basic dogmas of the faith. So why does the Orthodox Church have so many practices that are rejected by Protestants, such as prostrations, veneration of icons, written prayers, and the rejection of reformation doctrines? Consider that Sts Paul and Peter did not write down everything they passed on to their disciples. St. Paul himself said that he passed things either by word or by letter. In other words, he spoke some thing and wrote some things down. He preached all day and all night, so long that Eutychus fell asleep and fell out of the window! Those sermons were not written down. What was he telling them? The Tradition. How to act in church, how to live a godly life, what the Old Testament scriptures actually meant. How to worship God in a pleasing manner.
God gave Moses specific directions on how worship was to be conducted. Do you think He just threw all of that out the window after Pentecost? Not hardly. The first Christians were Jews and they worshipped God in Christ in the same manner as they had always worshipped Him, except there was no need for a temple or animal sacrifices. The liturgy was maintained, priests wore vestments, reverence for God was the watchword in all the assemblies. The Gospels and Old Testament and Epistles were read at every Divine Liturgy. The gifts of bread and wine were consecrated by the bishop or the priest and consumed by the people as the very body and blood of Christ. Have you received Christ? Why yes, yes I have!
Christians are made through baptism by triple emersion and are then chrismated (anointed with oil) to receive the Holy Spirit of God. These were the practices of the first Christians and continue to be the practices of the Orthodox Church today. In contrast to the Roman Catholics and the Protestant groups, Orthodoxy has held fast to the “faith once delivered”, unchanged through the centuries. Through martyrdom, Muslim conquest, communism, the Church has survived.