Things You Can’t Invent

Most of the things in our lives are not of our own making – they were given to us. Our language, our culture, the whole of our biology and the very gift of life itself is something that has been “handed down” to us. In that sense, we are all creatures of “tradition” (traditio=“to hand down”). Of course, these things that are not of our own making and are the least controllable are also those things that we take most for granted. We may hate our culture and our biology, but will still have to use our traditioned language (or someone’s traditioned language) to say so. Tradition is simply the most foundational, inescapable aspect of human existence.

A common fallacy in the contemporary world is to treat tradition as an option, the sort of thing you can value or dismiss at will. A number of contemporary Christian groups dismiss tradition as a stumbling block and hindrance to the spiritual life. But such an attitude creates a false spirituality, one that assumes that we can live without the necessity of tradition.

The Christian faith is a Tradition. This is inescapable. Everyone who names Jesus as “Lord,” does so because the story of Jesus, and even the reality of His Person have been handed down to them from someone else. The concepts with which they practice their discipleship will not be new – they will have been handed down as well. Christianity is a traditioned faith.

There is a proper spirituality that accompanies tradition.

First, tradition alone makes possible a life of grateful thanksgiving. Those who reject tradition fail to give thanks for what they have been given in that they refuse to acknowledge that all that they have is a gift. That gift is the very content of tradition.

Second, the rejection of tradition creates a false sense of competency. One of the great errors of our contemporary society is its assumption that the present exists in order to correct the past. There are inherent utopian assumptions about our ability to create a better world. The arrogance of those assumptions consistently produces a world of unforeseen consequences.

A spiritual life that rightly regards tradition is governed by the giving of thanks: it is eucharistic. All that we have, all that we are, all that we ourselves have fashioned is treated as gift. The gift is offered back to the Giver who continues to give.

It is equally marked by a spirit of humility and stewardship. Through no particular competence other than being born at this time, we have been given stewardship for everything that has gone before. It is the treasure of countless lives. Even the resources of the planet are a treasure, the energy of eons of time stored within the world we inhabit.

The character of every sacrament is gift. In every case the grace that we receive is the gift of God – it is rightly described as being “traditioned.” The character of the sacraments should also inform the character of our lives. We are not “movers and shapers,” the masters of the world, and the great makers of decisions. The imagery that marks much of contemporary spirituality is simply foreign to what we have received.

The path of salvation must be marked by humility and thanksgiving. Christ Himself confessed, “I can of Myself do nothing.”  (Joh 5:30) And St. John the Baptist said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.” (Joh 3:27) The way of salvation is the path of self-emptying thanksgiving in which we recognize that we contribute only our emptiness, while God gives the fullness.

St. Basil the Great in his treatise on the Holy Spirit, famously defends the sign of the Cross saying:

For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance that they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel at its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is there who has taught us in writing to sign with the cross those who have trusted in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ?

This is only the “first and most general example” of the things that have been handed down in the life of the Church. Not only have the Scriptures been handed down (yes, the Scriptures are a part of the Tradition), but the manner of reading them as well.

There is no “non-traditional” Christianity (for Christ Himself and all knowledge of Him comes from someone other than ourselves). I easily understand that many Christians fear that “the traditions of men” will somehow distort the purity of the gospel. But we cannot have a Christianity that is not a tradition. But we can have grateful hearts and learn to be good stewards of the mystery of God.

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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40 responses to “Things You Can’t Invent”

  1. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    This is a good lesson. At an early age I remember rejecting the notion of ‘church’ because it seemed to be harmful for my mother. Later in teenage years I had associated such with all of the Christian Churches. And the tradition they had seemed to me very unbiblical. I judged them also as they judged me, as heretical and blasphemous.

    Here I am now an Orthodox Christian. I adhere to the Tradition and traditions as I can not always well— lots of failures. Nevertheless I stay the course, God willing.

    Even now I do not see or understand that the traditions of Protestants to be the same nor that of the Catholic Church to be one of many Christian Traditions the same as and with the Orthodox Church as one Christian Tradition.

    However they all have what they have received. But claims to be the “one” Church of Christ. And of the last decade or so the Catholic Church has positioned that the Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church to be “two lungs” of the same Church.

    How are we to understand these perceptions in the light of this article?

  2. Laurie Marvin Avatar
    Laurie Marvin

    Hi, wondering how you distinguish right tradition from the dead traditions of men? It seems that churches could have both, thanks, Laurie

  3. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    As we wait for Father’s response, it is indeed the case that there was iconoclastic tradition in the Orthodox Church that was overturned. There was a process of discernment and discourse on it in the second council of Nicea, if my source is correct.

  4. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    First, I’ll say that I’m sceptical of our present culture’s ability to judge such a thing. It has shown itself to be something of a social disaster. There are obvious mechanisms in the Church, on various levels. The various decision-making groups (synods, councils, dioceses, parish, etc.) have a way of weeking “dead” things out. The thing about “dead” traditions is that they are not enlivened by the Holy Spirit and they have a way of withering. There are Christian denominations, for example, who, having abandoned any concern for tradition (doctrine and practice) are slowly dying. There is no divine life sustaining them.

    To live a gifted existence is a patient thing that also requires a certain amount of humility – both of which are unpopular virtues in the modern world where we are certain of ourselves and our ability to “make things better.”

    There is, in Orthodox life, a distinction between Tradtion and tradition – between things that are of importance (up to the level of necessity) and things that are merely convenient and useful.

  5. Jack Ellott Avatar
    Jack Ellott

    What is referred as “Tradition” isn’t merely a “religious concept” for “religious matters” but is applicable to everyday experience. It appears to be hard-wired into human existence where it is often referred to in legal matters as “precedence,” “adverse possession,” and “possession is 9 tenths of the law.” Or delving further back in time: “Remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set” (Proverbs 22:28). In other words, don’t be rearranging matters as you find them without careful consideration.

  6. Kenneth Avatar

    “The rejection of tradition creates a false sense of competency.” Yes! Thank you for these helpful insights on tradition, which are wonderfully clarifying and worth reading and re-reading.

    Regarding Lauri’s question, the “tradition of men” is also a phrase used by Jesus: “For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.” (Mark 7:8)
    And also by St Paul:
    “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” (Col. 2:8)

    I think this might specifically refer to Jewish legal tradition that distinguished Jews from Gentiles, etc(?), as opposed to tradition that is transformed by Christ. However, Protestants have sometimes confusingly conflated “tradition of men” with classical Christian tradition, as if it were possible to follow “the Bible” instead of tradition, without realizing that the Bible and its interpretation are part of tradition.

  7. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Indeed, the “traditions of men” does refer to various bits of Jewish teaching that did not and should not have had the force of the Torah – they sometimes perverted the intention of the Law itself. St. Paul also wrote: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold to the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word or our epistle.” (2Thess. 2:15). It is interesting that he includes his own epistles as part of the “traditions which you have been taught.”

  8. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Orthodoxy has a number of things that we hold in common with other Christian groups: the divinity of Christ, doctrine of the Trinity, etc. with some differences, of course. What we share in common with them, I have no problem describing as our “common tradition.” Nonetheless, where they have deviated or jettisoned the Tradition has given to us – we have problems. The fullness of Tradition, if you will, is found in the Cup of Communion – it is our shared life in Christ. In Orthodoxy, maintaining unity within the Cup is the only mechanism we have for the unity of the Church. It is endangered from time-to-time (for example, when one patriarchate breaks communion with another patriarchate over some matter that needs resolution). It’s an extremely difficult and dangerous moment – requiring action lest some part of the Church fall into schism.

    Those Christians who are in schism (and have been for long times) have often forgotten the unity of the One Cup. Those are schisms that would be hard to heal, indeed. I hold out hope in many places that even some long-standing schisms can and will be healed. But it is a serious matter that, as far as I can see, is taken quite seriously by Orthodox Synods, etc.

    But the Creed is clear: there is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. It doesn’t have lungs or branches, etc. It has the pain of history.

  9. Stephen Reynolds Avatar
    Stephen Reynolds

    It was recognizing the extent to which even the most traditional Protestant denominations had become enthralled to modern culture that convinced me that Orthodoxy was where I belonged. Any religious community, any serious school of philosophy, must now undertake a critique of modernity, although many of them evade the task. By critique I mean not just piling up negative observations and condemning modernity, but seriously evaluating its good and bad effects on all of us. Fr Stephen has addressed the task with courage and intelligence. I read his writings on modernity (and an article about tradition is already part of a critique of modernity, as Fr Stephen is well aware) with joy. In my early life, the standard Protestant Bible was the Authorized Version, the King James Bible (which, as Fr Ephrem Lasch used to remind us, is not an Orthodox translation); it has now been supplanted by the New International Version, which is explictly anti-Orthodox. Why do I say so? Because every time the word “paradosis” occurs in the New Testament in a negative sense, NIV translates it as “tradition”, and every time it occurs in a positive sense, it translates it as “teaching”. So readers get the impression that tradition is a Bad Thing. This fortifies the Protestant illusion that you can have all Bible and no tradition, when of course the only way we know what books belong in the Bible is by tradition.

  10. Kenneth Avatar

    Stephen, I was not aware of that NIV translation of paradosis, which is quite interesting and revealing. The NIV also eliminated the word “saint” from the entire Bible.

  11. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Father, thank you for your helpful response.

  12. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I gave up on translations long ago (having majored in Greek in college). But Protestant translations have a long history of being used as a trojan horse for the sake of doctrinal argument. The most famous early one was the Geneva Bible (translated for the purposes of Calvinism). Etc.

  13. Matthew Avatar

    One of the problems is that many Protestants do not see themselves as being part of an historical (or “traditioned”) story. They simply say “We read the Bible alone and do what the Bible alone says”. No tradition. It is as though they have jettisoned themselves straight out of church history and the life of the Church since the beginning (which is impossible to do), It took me a very long time to understand the nature of tradition and its importance in the life of the Church.

  14. Matthew Avatar

    Hello Dee. I believe Fr. Stephen once said he doesn´t talk about the differences between and the problems with the Orthodox/Catholic relationship here in the comment section. So I won´t go there. That said:

    It seems that since both claim “oneness”, and since both recognize each other´s succession and sacraments, there is probably more in common between them than what you typically allude to in your comments about their relationship. I really don´t mean to be critical Dee, I just want to offer up what I am feeling. I hope you understand.

  15. Matthew Avatar

    That said Dee, I do recognize the sincere theological differences. That much is clear.

  16. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Just for clarity’s sake – the Orthodox do not “recognize” the succession and sacraments of Rome – in an absolute manner. We practice a particularly generous economia towards them for reasons that are not easily described. It’s an important distinction (for theological purposes) that easily gets lost. It’s possible to say too much or to say too little. That “generosity” is quite important, though, and does signify something significant.

  17. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks for being so generous! 🙂

  18. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I hear the irony there. 🙂

  19. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Perhaps another quick explanation would be helpful. The present practice of almost all Orthodox jurisdictions is based on the Canons of St. Basil where he provides various ways of receiving differing groups/individuals into the Orthodox Church. This includes whether clergy from a differing group is received as clergy and not requiring ordination, etc. There is no concept of “valid/invalid” in those canons – that’s a later, Western concept. Instead, there’s just different ways of handling situations by “economy” (a “dispensation”) for practical/pastoral reasoning.

    St. Basil clearly did not want the unity of the Church to be bogged down in cumbersome requirements. In his own lifetime, there had been great divisions between the Church and the Arians, and the Semi-Arians, etc. There were other groups, as well. He doesn’t seem to have a particular set of reasons – as in – “this one is valid, that one not, etc.” or even a well-developed sense of some ontological account of the sacraments. There’s just guidelines for how to receive different groups – and we’re left to infer whatever we might.

    In my years as an Orthodox Christian, I’ve seen Catholic priests received by confession (possibly chrismation, but I don’t know), and then “re-vested” as an Orthodox priest – no re-ordination. As an Anglican, I was received by confession and chrismation and was re-ordained (after a training period and testing/interviews). I’ve never seen an Oriental Orthodox priest received into the Orthodox Church, so I don’t know what that looks like, though very little would be required, I would think. Their laity are generally received by confession only.

    It’s that the concept of valid/invalid isn’t used in the East that causes some misunderstanding. In a sense, we simply remain agnostic about such questions. There are those, of course, who hold to a very Cyprianic view (St. Cyprian of Carthage) which is extremely strict and declares that there is only grace within the boundaries of the Orthodox Church. But, even in antiquity, his standards did not gain favor or become the norm. Those who advocate their usage today are a small minority within Orthodoxy.

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I learned very early that how my late wife, our infant son and I were received was of no concern and I had no choice. What mattered was I WAS received by the Grace and Mercy of God. The rest is Sacramental. That was 37 years ago.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    BTW, the Bishops who decided how to receive us have both reposed long ago. I assume the priest who performed the Sacraments, I assume is dead because a few years after laying hands on us–he abandoned his wife and infant son and ran off to San Francisco to be “gay”. AIDS was still untreatable at the time.

    Being received, being as faithful as on can while repenting even of emotional troubles, etc. is important. Not the how or even why one is received.

    Matthew 4:17.

    The Kingdom of God is available IF I repent!

  22. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    For what it’s worth as a practical matter when I was a catechumen being taught by an Orthodox priest, he was unequivocal that if I should visit my Roman Catholic family members and should I be invited to attend their service, I must not receive communion. If I should do this , I would be excommunicated from the Orthodox Church.

    And I also know that in my neck of the woods, the RC wish to obfuscate the different historical relationships with the Alaska Native peoples. That has led to confusion such that some Alaska Naive students and faculty quote untrue history about the Orthodox Church and the Alaska Native Peoples. Last, but not least RC priests say to their parishioners that it is ok to take communion at an Orthodox Church. The result is that the Orthodox priest has to continue to reaffirm before each Eucharist service that receiving the cup is for Orthodox Christians only in good standing with recent confessions.

    Once when I lay in really bad shape in an emergency room after a car accident that killed both parents. A RC priest stood by my bed and asked if I wanted his prayers. I was a young teen that was very anti Christian at the time. But I said yes to him. He laid his rosary on my left chest which was crushed with a deflated lung. I believe his prayers were heard . My lung healed and I have not and will not ever forget him. At that time of my life he was the only Christian I met that seemed authentic and real.

  23. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I understand your feelings. I also have feelings of closeness to the Roman Catholic Church, for whatever it’s worth mentioning here. However, it seems to be important not to pretend that a division, or more perhaps appropriately stated, a schism, exists. Nor to dismiss it as some trivial distinction. It is serious as Fatehr Stephen mentions.

    That schism has had social, political and theological ramifications that through the centuries have caused a lot of pain as Father Stephen alludes to. Indeed they (the Orthodox and Roman Catholic) both say there is one Church, and there can only be one Church and here in the US there are many more than two Churches who make the claim. I have heard an Orthodox priest say there is a general perception among the Orthodox, that there is more in common between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism than there is between Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church.

    My family in the Roman Catholic Church were incensed that they could not receive communion in my Orthodox parish. The misunderstanding they had was incurred because of what their Roman Catholic priest told them.

    I have said such things as I have here to be open about these distinctions because there is a tendency among the Roman Catholics to dismiss or diminish these important distinctions. They are not two lungs of one body and they are not in communion.

    Please forgive my insistence. Nevertheless, for whatever it’s worth, I have joy for you that you are receiving the sacraments within the Roman Catholic Church. I sincerely have prayed that your and your wife’s life in Christ in the Roman Catholic Church receive His many blessings and growth in Him.

  24. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much for the respone and especially for the prayers Dee. I wish you all the very best and many blessings from our shared Lord.

  25. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Thank you Matthew for your kindness. My brother whom I dearly love was married within the Roman Catholic Church because he wanted to marry a Roman Catholic. I encouraged him to do this. I still encourage him to go to the local RC Chuch. Of course I would love for them both to convert to Orthodoxy! : ) But I have never attempted to convert them. They will follow Christ wherever He leads.

    Also, I just realized I should correct my writing. I meant to say that we should not pretend that a schism does not exist.

  26. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    or pretend a schism does not exist? Gee wiz.

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, eloquent. Thank you.

  28. Matthew Avatar

    I’m so sorry for your losses Dee. Sincerely sorry. I am so glad to have connected with you in this lovely space.

  29. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Michael and Matthew,
    Thank you both for your kind words.

  30. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I have received many kindnesses from Roman Catholics (clergy, laity, etc.). I hold all of them very close in my heart and will treasure you among them.

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Somehow what is coming to my heart is to rejoice in prayers of thanksgiving and wonder.

    His mercy endures forever despite the hardness of mine.

  32. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Yes Michael and Father Stephen!! I too am so thankful for our commentators! I’m also grateful for my connecting with Matthew! Thank you Matthew! It is with such joy and edification that I participate here!

  33. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much Dee and Michael and Fr. Stephen!

    Fr. Stephen, thanks especially. Who knows what God has in store for me as I embark on this next step in my spiritual journey. Maybe my role might be to help Catholics better understand Eastern theology and spirituality? Probably above my pay grade at this point though. I am just pleased to be able to regularly partake of the sacraments (like confession and of course the Eucharist) again. I see a difference in my life already. May my union with God become stronger and more beautiful as I proceed! It is the love of beauty and a thankful heart which transforms the soul … at least in my opinion.

  34. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    This October here at St. George, Wichita, we will have our 89th Lebanese Dinner and food sale. I am blessed to give tours of our Sanctuary. If any of you can drop by, please do….

    It is a fun couple of days. God is with us…

  35. Matthew Avatar

    Sounds wonderful Michael!

    Matthew said:

    “It is the love of beauty and a thankful heart which transforms the soul … at least in my opinion.”

    Repentance as well Michael … repentance as well! 🙂 🙂

  36. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, since the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand when one repents; beauty and thankfulness are too.

    I think some saints have gone so deeply, by Grace, into their hearts that they became thankful for their sin too as it brought them closer to God.

    Being ejected from The Garden creates a situation in our hearts that we desire reunion—if we listen.

    A mystery that is only penetrated by Grace and the Love of God.

    It is a bit like working through a tough forest to get a treasure while needing the trees and sins to show us the way.

    Could be wrong and easy to overdo, but…..

  37. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks Michael.

  38. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I love your analogy, Michael.

  39. Nikolaos Avatar


    I am sure the prayer of the RC priest was heard and enabled your recovery.

    The Lord’s love is boundless and He accepts prayers of Christians and non-Christians alike. In Prince’s island near Konstantinople, there is the monastery of St George Koudounas, where thousands of Turks visit annually and experience miracles with the intercession of St George ( Their prayers are heard.

    I sometimes ask non-Christian friends to pray for me to Christ or the Mother of God, as a favour, because I see them as purer than me and with a greater chance they will be heard. However, I always remember the words of the Lord, “He that believeth AND is baptized shall be saved” Mark 16:16. Hopefully anyone who has experienced the grace of God in their life, will find their way to the Eastern Orthodox Church and be baptised and participate in the sacraments.

  40. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Nikolaos,
    Thank you so much for your beautiful comment. I learn so much from you!

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