The Lost Tradition


Many people think of the loss of various pieces of “Tradition” when they think of the modern, non-Orthodox, churches. Some may think of the loss of liturgical riches or the loss of the canons. Others may see a wholesale change in the spiritual teachings of the Christian faith. When I think of the loss of “Tradition” I think of the loss of fullness – of various truncated versions of Christianity, which, though often true inasmuch as they say (quoting Scripture and the like), nevertheless lack the full context of those Scriptures and vital parts of the Christian faith, without which it is difficult to share correctly or fully the Gospel of Christ.

I am especially struck by this when I consider the Tradition and its teachings on the passions. The spiritual writings of the Orthodox Fathers constitute an unreplaceable treasure of the Christian life. More than “Tradition” in some antiquarian sense, their writings represent the fruit of lives lived in obedience to the Gospel and a roadmap in the struggle against that which is common to us all. I think of the writings of St. Maximus the Confessor and his insights into the actual character and makeup of the passions and why they work as they do – as well as how we may successfully struggle against them.

To this can be added such classics as St. John Climacus’ The Ladder, The Philokalia, and St. Ignatius Brianchaninov’s The Arena. I could add tens of volumes to such writings and only mention these because of their recognized universal value. They transcend the culture of their time and especially, the culture of our time. Without them we lack essential parts of the Christian experience and its testimony. Without them we are like kindergartners trying to make our way in an adult world. We are clueless.

There are great Western Christian classics as well. Even the classic Protestant Pilgrim’s Progress is largely unknown or unused by modern Protestant Christians. At least C.S. Lewis knew the Christian classics – and they made his own writings mature on a level unknown in many modern writers.

Conversations on the passions and our warfare with them should not be some peculiar province of the Orthodox – it should be a common conversation for all who love Christ, His Cross, and our call to be conformed to His image. A common knowledge and language exists in the writings of the Fathers, including those of the first five centuries that are recognized as of particular value by many modern Protestants.

The world is too dangerous and too much in need of a Savior and the truth of the Gospel for such parts of the Tradition to be neglected by any. God forbid that only Orthodox Christians stand and say that the passions are killing us (God help the Orthodox to at least say this much!). But we should have a common voice that speaks to the culture. Slavery to greed, envy, sloth, gluttony, as well as other such passions, is killing us and our children. A common voice should say to everything around us, “Enough!” And to one another, “Join the struggle! Let us follow Christ!”

The Tradition may be resisted by some on ideological grounds. But they do so to their own impoverishment. These treasures are there for all. May God give us grace to know them and use them.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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19 responses to “The Lost Tradition”

  1. artisticmisfit Avatar

    If we can make God anonymous when speaking about our religion to people outside of it, then we make it accessible to those people. People are thirsty for our God and our truths, if they can swallow them. We can reveal to them later who our God is and what the name of our religion is once they get to know us, or once they ask what the name of our religion is.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    If salvation is by grace, we need not “sneak up on people.” God will prepare their hearts. We need no human strategy, particularly if it might later be seen as less than forthright. The Gospel preached is either underwritten by the Holy Spirit, or we need to quit.

  3. Isaac Crabtree Avatar

    Why did the fathers use this term– “passion” to describe our fallen state? I know that at least in Latin it means something like “suffering” but I’m unfamiliar with the Greek meaning of “pathos”… We speak of the Lord’s “passionless Passion” but only in the sense, I’m guessing, of “sinless suffering.”

    Congratulations on your recent milestone… your blog is exactly what an Orthodox web-presence should be.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    The word does have the sense of suffering, or more the sense of passive, as in we are not active in these things so much as they are various “hungers”. The fathers classify some passions as natural (rooted in our bodies) and some as rooted in our souls. But in every case, it is a desire that has been disordered. Because we are spiritual beings, we have a natural desire for the infinite (only God is infinite). When this infinite hunger is turned towards finite things (objects, etc.), then they become insatiable. We “suffer” from them – they become wounds in our lives. Only the work of the Holy Spirit can heal these disordered desires.

  5. Christopher Hall Avatar

    I blogged briefly about the change from the Patristic use of “passion” to its contemporary meaning and connotation here.

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen for another excellent post!

  6. michellespagefornonni Avatar

    I am so thankful God has given us various traditions within the world of Christianity. It makes for such richness and depth. We have so much to learn from one another. I’m glad I found your site.


  7. Isaac Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    This particular post reminds me of a question I have struggled with as a catechumen. While I certainly read Orthodox books, I also find myself reading Western Christian authors like Chesterton or, especially at the moment, NT Wright. I suppose I spend a lot of time with Wright because I get the sense that he is speaking where the conversation is at when it comes to Christianity in scholarly circles. I am wondering what your thoughts are on spending time with non-Orthodox books vs. the vast treasure of books that come out of the fullness of the Church which may not ever be read because I have chosen to read these other books. Can fullness be seen as something akin to “all the answers you seek can be found within the tradition” or is it actually a healthy habit to “keep up” on what the other traditions of Christianity are writing?

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    I am certainly guilty of not reading very much outside Orthodox Tradition. Primarily because I read so much outside before I became Orthodox, frankly the better part of it was less than edifying. There are doubtless some things worth reading depending on your circle of conversation.

    My own reading is primarily in the Orthodox Tradition. I have another 30 or 40 years of life – far too little time to read all I would like.

  9. Alice C. Linsley Avatar
    Alice C. Linsley

    “Conversations on the passions and our warfare with them should not be some peculiar province of the Orthodox – it should be a common conversation for all who love Christ, His Cross, and our call to be conformed to His image.”

    This is true, but many have substituted an easy, no personal cost, health, wealth and prosperity counterfeit. Unfortunately, this world views this counterfeit and thinks that it is seeing Christianity.

  10. MuleChewingBriars Avatar

    I remember doing a lot of reading in the Puritans about the struggle against “indwelling sin”, but I don’t remember it being very optimistic. There are Protestant Christians (and Catholic Christians) who take the struggle against sin very seriously, but it appears that there is something awry.

    Is there any validity in the view that Western Christianity puts the locus of sin in the fallen nature and not in the person? Is there a mapping between the Orthodox teaching on the passions and the Western idea of Original Sin?

  11. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I really would be interested in some Orthodox engagement with the biblical scholarship of N. T. Wright. If you haven’t read him, do you know of any prominent Orthodox figure who has?

  12. fatherstephen Avatar


    I don’t think there is a mapping between them. Orthodox treatment of the passions is largely addressed through ascesis, but as noted, the approach will vary according to one’s spiritual father. I tend to prefer the approach exhibited in the Elder Porphyrios, for example.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar


    I don’t get to talk very often with prominent Orthodox figures. 🙂

    I’ve not heard any of them comment on Wright. I think he’s interesting, but I don’t completely trust his work, if I can explain. He’s working within the Anglican evangelical tradition, which is heavily Lutheran and Calvinist. Thus he’s doing a revision of that stuff, and I think there is a limit to what he can do or say. The politics of Anglicanism come in to play in various ways.

    I would rather read a good solid Orthodox treatment (if we had a recent one) than Wright. It’s more of “who’s his audience” rather than not trusting him. He’s a fine gentleman. I once edited him in a collection that I edited when I was an Anglican. He was Dean of Lichfield at the time.

  14. Lucy Avatar

    I agree very much with this post. I’ve been very, very slowly, working my way through Fr. Joseph Honeycutt’s book Defeating Sin. There are lots of quotes and passages from Church Fathers. Personally, the main reason I have for not reading more of this type of thing is that it’s pretty tough sledding for my modern brain. The writing and thoughts are so complex that I have to concentrate really, really hard. LOL! And honestly, I’m not a slouch in the reading department! I am, however, a mother of small children.

    I think the key is for those who know the Tradition to live it. I speak as one who utterly fails in this department. But I believe that part of the way we bring Tradition back to the whole church is to BE it, to strive for the holiness without which none will see the Lord. Because you’re absolutely right: our passions ARE killing us. And they’re killing both our bodies and our souls. Lord have mercy. And give us more monasteries. 🙂

  15. […] the article The Lost Tradition on Glory to God by Father Stephen […]

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    On this basis a genuine ecumencial understanding could be reached perhaps freeing us from the stultifying, heresy producing Ecumenical Movement which all to often becomes a religion the unites no one except in a miasma of platitudes, political correctness and ideology.

  17. artisticmisfit Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I wasn’t suggesting that we sneak up on people. I was suggesting that when we speak about our church or our religion outside the church, we couch it in anonymous terms, or non-denominational terms so as not to alienate people. That is all. People are much more receptive to talk about God, the church and religion when we speak about it without mentioning specifics, at least in my experience.

  18. […] rooted in a body hating dualism. And Father Stephen of Glory to God for All Things had a post on The Lost Tradition in which he bemoaned the loss of consciousness of the need to struggle against the passions on the […]

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