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Petros Vassiliadis
Ass. Prof. of the University of Thessaloniki

Tradition from a Mission Theology perspective

Tradition (in Greek παράδοσις=paradosis) is the entire set of historical facts, beliefs, experiences, social and religious practices, and even philosophical doctrines or aesthetic conceptions, which form an entity transmitted from one generation to another either orally or in a written and even in artistic form. Thus, tradition - we may safely say - constitutes a fundamental element for the existence, coherence and advancement of human culture in any given context.

In the wider religious sphere – taking into consideration that culture is in some way connected with cult – tradition has to do more or less with the religious practices, i.e. with the liturgy of a given religious system, rather than with the religious beliefs that theoretically express or presuppose these practices, without of course excluding them.

In Christianity, paradoxically, tradition was for quite an extensive period of time confined only to the oral form of Christian faith, or more precisely the non-biblical part of it, both written in later Christian literature or transmitted in various ways from one generation to another. Thus, tradition has come to be determined by the post-reformation and post-Trentine dialectic opposition to the Bible, which has taken the oversimplified form: Bible and/or (even versus) Tradition. Only recently, from the beginning of the ecumenical era, has tradition acquired a new wider sense and understanding, which nevertheless has always been the authentic understanding in the ancient Church. Tradition no longer has a fragmented meaning connected to one only segment of Christian faith; it refers to the whole of Christian faith: not only the Christian doctrine but also to worship.

It is not a coincidence that the two main references in the Bible of the term in the sense of “receiving” (in Gr. παραλαμβάνειν) and “transmitting” (in Gr. παραδιδόναι) as recorded by St. Paul in his 1st epistle to Corinthians (ch.11 and 15) cover both the kerygma (doctrine in the wider sense) and the Eucharist (the heart of Christian worship).

Thus the importance of tradition in Christianity underlines a sense of a living continuity with the Church of the ancient times, of the apostolic period. Behind it lies the same determination that kept the unity of the two Testaments against the Gnostic (Marcion) attempt to reject the O.T. Tradition in this sense is not viewed as something in addition to, or over against, the Bible. Scripture and Tradition are not treated as two different things, two distinct sources of the Christian faith. Scripture exists within Tradition, which although it gives a unique pre-eminence to the Bible, it also includes further developments - of course in the form of clarification and explication, not of addition - of the apostolic faith.

In a catalytic statement world Christianity, across confessional boundaries, has admitted that “we exist as Christians by the Tradition (paradosis) of the Gospel (evangellion, kerygma), testified in Scripture, transmitted in and by the Church, through the power of the Holy Spirit” (IV World Conference on Faith and Order of WCC, Montreal, 1963). The modern (ecumenical) conception of Tradition (with capital T) is distinguished from the various local or regional or even temporal traditions (with small t), which obviously cannot claim a universal authority in the life of the Church. Yet, there is a close connection between the two. “The traditions in Christian history are distinct from, yet connected with, the Tradition. They are expressions and manifestations in diverse historical terms of the one truth and reality which is in Christ” (ibid.)

At first glance the very concept of tradition seems to be a contradiction, since the Holy Spirit who guides the Church to all truth (Jn 16:13), cannot be limited by traditional values only, for the “pneuma blows wherever he (or she) wishes” (Jn 3:8). If we take the trinitarian and eschatological principles of Christian faith seriously into account, the Church as a koinonia proleptically manifesting the glory of the coming Kingdom of God, i.e. as a movement forward, toward the eschata, a movement of continuous renewal, can hardly be conditioned by what has been set in the past, with the exception of course of the living continuity and of the communion with all humanity - in fact with all the created world - both in space and in time.

Thus, tradition can hardly be considered as a static entity; it is rather a dynamic reality, it is not a dead acceptance of the past, but a living experience of the Holy Spirit in the present. In other words it is a relational principle, completely incompatible with all kinds of individualism and with the absolute and strict sense of objectivism. In G. Florovsky’s words, “Tradition is the witness of the Spirit; the Spirit’s unceasing revelation and preaching of the Good news... It is not only a protective, conservative principle, but primarily the principle of growth and renewal”.

This dynamic understanding of tradition, in fact goes hand by hand with the development in modern missiological terminology. For from the wide range of terms and notions involved in current missiological discussions, expressed by such words as mission, conversion, evangelism, evangelization, christianization, witness or martyria, only the last two have been widely adopted in “ecumenical” circles as the more appropriate for a genuine and authentic Christian mission, whereas the imperative validity of all the other have been retained as the sine qua non of the Christian identity of those belonging to the “evangelical” stream of our Christian tradition.

Furthermore, with regard to a modern understanding of mission, it has been argued in recent times that human experience is the only approach to the divine and the only safety valve that can check the excesses of exclusivism and objectivism in theology and keep it healthy. The obvious variety of human experiences, formed in differing social, cultural, economic, political etc. contexts eliminates the very possibility of a single universal theology and a universal application of Christian mission. In a given situation, therefore, a true and effective mission has very little to do with tradition, being transformed into something “local”, “temporal” etc. Hence the importance for an authentic understanding of mission of the theology of struggle (for liberation, for hope etc.), or the theology of spirituality and ascetic life, of liturgical theology and so on and so forth. Obviously, then, tradition, as well as the theology of mission becomes “contextual”.

The question posed by contextual theology, in contrast to classical theology, is not so much whether and to what extent the theological positions are in agreement with the tradition, but if these positions have any dynamic reference and relation at all to the given conditions of today's world. A characteristic example taken from the area of Christian witness is the shift that has taken place within ecumenical missionary circles with regard to Christian responsibility and accountability. In the earlier ecumenical period the Churches were interested in charitable diakonia, with concrete expressions that were directed toward the results of social indifference and injustice. After some time, an interest in social diakonia began to develop within the WCC, and the concrete expressions of that interest likewise shifted toward the causes of social indifference and injustice.

The same holds true on a purely theological level: nothing can serve as an authoritative basis for dialogue, common witness etc., even if attested by “tradition” (Holy Scripture or Church tradition in general), since every experience of the Church is conditioned by a certain (and therefore relative?) context. Some argue that the argument “from tradition” no longer constitutes an unshakable and unchangeable point of reference for any contested issue relevant to Christian witness (e.g. the question of the ordination of women, or of the inclusive language, or even the trinitarian basis of Christian faith etc.). This also applies to the dialogue to achieve the visible unity, the minimum required for an effective and faithful to the divine call common Christian witness.

Contextual theology, taking as its point of departure the certainty that the Church is a “sign” of the Kingdom of God and of the “given by the triune God unity”, calls into question the ability of the established institutions to advance on the road toward an egalitarian community of men and women, both within the Church and in the society at large. Similar questions might be raised both about the relationship between the eternal and inviolable “Gospel” and all finite “culture(s)”, and even more pointedly about the dialogue of Christianity with other living religions, taking especially for granted that Christian mission is evolving in contexts that are heavily influenced by the presence of people of other faiths.

It is natural, then, that the understanding, and to some extent also the application, of mission can be better achieved as the natural consequence of the inner dynamics of the Triune God, i.e. of the communion and love that exists within the Holy Trinity. This trinitarian basis can not only have tremendous effect in helping the Church to overcome all kinds of imperialistic or confessionalistic attitudes, we experienced in the past; it also gives a new and liberating meaning to tradition. In Ion Bria’s words, “the trinitarian theology points to the fact that God’s involvement in history aims at drawing humanity and creation in general into this communion with God's very life. The implications of this assertion for understanding mission are very important: mission does not aim primarily at the propagation or transmission of intellectual convictions, doctrines, moral commands etc. (i.e. does not depend on a static understanding of tradition), but at the transmission of the life of communion that exists in God”.

In ecumenical circles, therefore, this dynamic understanding of tradition has immensely helped modern ecumenical missiology to move away from the old “universal proselytizing mission” concept. And this is not the result of the failure of Christianity to convert the entire inhabited world, or of the disillusion and disappointment caused by the end of the China mission, the most ambitious missionary enterprise in modern Christian missionary history. It was rather the natural consequence of the authentic identity of the Church and the rediscovery of the forgotten Trinity. More particularly it was the result of the reinforcement of Pneumatology into the missiological reflections. And this can be clearly shown that in the following brief presentation of the development of the mission theology throughout the history of the Church.


The Early Church began as a charismatic movement. It had no property, no program and no institutional center. The first Christians wanted to affirm their identity in a hostile world by remembering Jesus and anticipating the end. Their mission was simply inviting others to join the movement and prepare themselves for the end of this age.

As Christianity spread throughout the Greek speaking world, Christian ideas of mission were influenced by Greek philosophy. Christianity lost its preoccupation with the immediate return of Jesus and settled into this world. It inevitably became an institution with a mission to lift human nature up into the Divine. The Church, as sign and symbol of God’s presence in the world, called people to mysterious communion with God. The most important biblical text for the Greek speaking Church was John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only-begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” God loved us and Christian mission was to love and worship God.

Concepts of Christian mission, however, continued to change. When Christianity entered into Western Europe it borrowed from the legacy of Roman civilization and became legalistic. The medieval European Church focused upon the sinfulness of human beings and insisted on the promise of salvation through belief in Christ. As a consequence the Latin Church understood mission as an obligation, rather than devotion. Its prominent feature was that Christian civilization and its mission was to sustain its power and expand its influence around the world. The important biblical text for the Medieval Latin Church came from Luke 14:23, “The master said to the servant, Go out into the roads and the lanes, and compel the people to come to my house, so that it may be filled.” The Latin Church launched crusades to carry out its message. What, however, came out of this missionary attitude was the spread of Christian civilization, rather than the Kingdom of God.

As the centuries passed many people and religious leaders became critical of the imperial and authoritarian assumptions of Western Christianity. Protestant reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin challenged the prevailing legalistic understanding of Christian mission. They emphasized a theology, which stated that God offers a gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. Protestant reformers insisted that human nature was sinful and fallen, totally dependent upon Divine grace. They insisted that salvation depends solely on the scriptures (sola scriptura), rather than on the sacraments of the Church. There were many biblical texts used by Protestants to support a variety of understandings of mission. When they emphasized faith they quoted Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” When they recaptured the urgency of the early Church and its anticipation of the coming rule of God, they quoted Matthew 24:14, “And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come”. When they reached out to correct injustice and uplift the social condition of humanity they used John 10:10, “I [Jesus] came that they might have life and have it more abundantly”. That is why so many missionaries provided goods and services to educate, heal and sustain human conditions.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, despite of these various motivations for mission, the universalistic understanding of mission eventually prevailed throughout Christianity and focused upon only one text: Matthew 28:18-20 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always to the close of this age”. Mission understood in this way was ultimately grounded in the command of Jesus to “go forth.” With a theology reminiscent of the Medieval Church, modern missions argued that Christians engage in mission out of “obedience.” Mission, therefore, was understood not as a desire to share God’s love, but as obedience to God’s command. Mission, thus, was taken as an order rather than an invitation. It might be called a “holy burden.” God saved humankind and demanded them, the argument goes on, to believe; and good Christians are obliged to respond to this Divine decree.

Unfortunately, although the “Great Commission” did mobilize hundreds of Christian missionaries to found schools and hospitals and do many good works in the name of God, it also created problems. It often generated an exclusiveness, which refused to other expressions of Christian witness. It tended to use biblical texts arbitrarily, not based on a sober critical biblical scholarship. Ironically, the very text of the “Great Commission” of the Gospel of Matthew was stripped of its strong Trinitarian character, and eventually of its holistic understanding. Yet the “Great Commission,” became the most quoted biblical text in the modern ecumenical movement. It is not a case for mission based on the Gospel as “good news,” but of mission out of obedience to God’s command.

Furthermore, Great Commission mission thinking also borrowed heavily from the 18th century Western Enlightenment. As David Bosch has noted, modern missionaries accepted most of the modern intellectual/scientific agenda: the separation between subject and object, the confidence that every problem and puzzle could be solved, and the idea of the autonomous individual. Enlightenment thinking nurtured a lofty view of human nature as “reasonable” leading Westerners to develop superior attitudes towards “primitive peoples”. It caused missionaries to deal with peoples of other cultures and even Christian traditions - including the Orthodox - as inferior. God’s mission was understood to have depended upon human efforts, and this is why we came to hold unrealistic universalistic assumptions. Western Christians came to believe that they could correct the ills of the entire world, and thus we experienced colonial expansion and the founding of Western type churches around the globe. The Great Commission mission thinking tried to incorporate Enlightenment individualism and reinforced Western superiority feelings and prejudice, or created rational relativistic attitudes towards all other tradition and beliefs.

In recent years modern mission theology is changing! Christians in the ecumenical era after a great deal of serious reflection – in many respects due to Orthodox theological input – are questioning all the above assumptions of the Enlightenment. If there is a text for this new Christian mission theology, I would imagine 1 Peter 3:15-16: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence”.

Lit. D.J.Bosch, Transforming Mission. Paradigm Schifts in Theology of Mission, New York, 1991; I.Bria, The Sense of Ecumenical Tradition: The Ecumenical Witness and Vision of the Orthodox, Geneva 1991; idem (ed.), Go forth in Peace. Orthodox Perspectives on Mission, WCC Mission Series: Geneva 1986; E.Clapsis, "Tradition: An Orthodox-Ecumenical View," Orthodoxy in Conversation. Orthodox Ecumenical Engagements, WCC Publications/HCO Press Geneva/Massachusetts 2000, pp. 11-39; Y.Congar, “Christianisme comme Foi et comme Culture,” Evangelizzatione e Culture. Atti del Congresso Internationale scientifico di Missiologica, Rome1975, 1976, vol I, pp. 83-103; G.Florovsky, “The Function of Tradition in the Ancient Church,” GOTR 9 (1963), pp. 181-200; R. Hoeckmann, “A Missiological Understanding of Tradition,” Angelicum 61 (1984) pp. 649-670; Tradition and Traditions. Faith and Order Paper 40, Geneva 1963; K.Raiser, Ecumenism in Transition, Geneva 1991; P.Vassiliadis, Eucharist and Witness. Orthodox Perspectives on the Unity and Witness of the Church, WCC Publications/HCO Press Geneva/Massachusetts 1998; idem, “Orthodoxie und kontextuelle Theologie”, Oekumenische Rundschau 42 (1992) pp. 119-125; Ware K., “Tradition and Traditions”, in N.Lossky and others (eds.), Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, WCC Publications, Geneva (2nd edition) 2002, pp. 1143-1148.

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