6 Mar
Know your Faith
Essays On Syriac Theology & Spirituality No. 1
Written by His Holiness Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas


Tradition is, basically, the spiritual teaching we have inherited from the holy apostles and church fathers. Tradition is divine, apostolic or patriarchal.

Divine tradition is that teaching given over by Jesus Christ directly and by word of mouth to the Holy apostles. It was not recorded in a book until later through the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit1. It includes the New Testament and the truths of faith.

Apostolic tradition, on the other hand, includes the teachings of the apostles, their laws and the messages they handed down to their disciples and their immediate successors orally. What has been handed down is based on the divine tradition from which apostolic tradition derives its power. These teachings and this legacy, although not written in the Holy Scripture, yet they conform to its teachings. They never contradict with them and are considered to be the faithful testimony to the authenticity and true interpretation of the Divine proclamation, better yet, an aid to its understanding.

Apostolic tradition includes constitutions of faith which are derived from God and established by the apostles; it also includes the seven church Sacraments, enacted laws and liturgies they set up for the church such as the Holy Mass.

Patriarchal tradition, however, is what the Holy church has received ever since the dawn of its history from its holy Fathers. It includes noble teachings based on the teachings of the holy apostles with respect to the interpretation of doctrines; exegesis of the Holy Scripture, organization of religious rites and enactment of laws especially decisions taken by the holy synods and works of some church fathers, such as patriarch Kiryakos (+817) and laws enacted by them….

How Ancient Tradition Is

Tradition is more ancient than the recording of the Holy Scriptures. Several generations prior to the recording of the Holy Scriptures and according to the rules of the Old Testament, successors used to receive from their predecessors the belief in one God and they used to abide by what was known as the law of the conscience. Moreover, worship of God and offering animal sacrifices were handed down from one person to another and the eldest son in the family was considered as its religious leader and the chief who is in charge of its civil affairs at the same time. The believers used to pass on stories of antiquity and historical events verbally, such as the story of creation, the creation of man, man’s fall, the chronicle of redemption, which included the history of early fathers; the call of Abraham and his temptation and the Covenant promises of God to Abraham and His offspring by passing the law of circumcision as a mark of this Covenant; as well as other events that took place through the ages and were handed down generation after generation, until the coming of prophet Moses who was divinely inspired to record these events. Moses was also given over the Ten Commandments as written laws. He recorded also all necessary laws, which he received from God.

Tradition kept being observed among people of the Old Testament, in spite of having the laws recorded. This is clear as the Holy Scripture instructs people thus, “And thou shalt show thy son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the Lord did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt (EX 13:8). And “Ask thy father and he will show thee; the elders, and they will tell thee.” (Deut 32:7). Undoubtedly verbal teaching was extremely necessary, because the majority of people were illiterate.

In Christianity as well, tradition preceded the recording of the New Testament as Lord Jesus never recorded his Gospel and did not hand it over in a written form. He preached the Gospel of Salvation calling people to repentance. It was by word of mouth that Jesus gave the Holy Gospel over to his holy apostles and they, in their turn, kept it by heart and such was what most of his disciples did.

When Lord Jesus sent his disciples away to the world to preach the Gospel saying, ” Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature. “(Mark 16: 15). He did not command them to write this Good News, neither did he demand that it be kept unwritten. It was when some of the apostles were asked to record what they had preached that the Holy Gospel was written down through the guidance of the Holy Spirit who kept them free from fault or blemish according to the Lord’s promise to them. ” But the comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you,” (John 14: 26). The explanation of this truth could be found in what had been penned by Luke the Evangelist in the Introduction to his Gospel saying, ” For as much as many have taken in hand to them unto us, which from the beginning were eye- witnesses, and ministers of the word. It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, Even as they delivered of all things from the very first to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed”. (Luke 1: 1-4).

Gospel and Tradition

The Holy Gospel which is the Gospel of Salvation is a testimony to what the disciples of Lord Jesus have seen and heard from Him. What was therefore, written down in the Gospel was exactly what had been first preached verbally by the disciples. Having had the Holy Gospel recorded, the Holy church attested its authenticity through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and rejected apocryphal Gospels depending on the testimonies of the holy apostles, the righteous disciples and their venerable successors.

It goes without saying that the Christian church is far more ancient than the recording of the New Testament and that it had been established for a period of time during which only the Old Testament was recorded. And the believers then used to have the Holy Gospel circulated among them by the word of mouth and used to memorize it and have it spread afterwards worldwide. The first to pen the Holy gospel was the apostle Mathew in Aramaic in the year A.D.39 and the last book of the New Testament is the book Of Revelation which was written by John in Greek between A.D.90-100.

It is true that tradition preceded the recorded Holy Scripture, and that the Holy Church attested the authenticity and validity of these books, yet these books have derived their authority directly from the Holy Ghost; this spirit who was articulated through the prophets and apostles, preserving thus the teachings and doctrines of the church, inspiring church fathers, reminding them of all that had been said by Jesus Christ to his disciples, guiding them to the truth because he is the spirit of Truth emanating from the Father .

Scholar Origen (185-253) stated,
” I have come to know the four Gospels through tradition and I believe that they are unique”. And Augustus (354-430) stated, ” I wouldn’t have had belief in the Gospel had I not been convinced by the voice of the Universal Church.”2.

Whereas tradition is more ancient than the written Gospel, therefore whoever receives the teachings of the Holy Gospel shall no doubt, receive the divine and apostolic traditions spontaneously and can never receive the Gospel yet, reject tradition so long as the Gospel is considered as part of tradition and both the Gospel and tradition form one entity and neither one can be dispensed with because each one completes the other.

There are many texts in the Holy Gospel indicating that the holy apostles did not record in the Gospel every saying of Lord Jesus and every deed done by Him. A conspicuous evidence of authenticity of this is what the apostle John said at the conclusion of his Gospel. “This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true.”(John 20:30). He also said: “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book, But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name”. (John 20: 30).

Many other verses uttered by Jesus and many other deeds done by Him but never mentioned in the recorded Gospel have become part of the divine tradition, such as what the Lord had taught his disciples through His Revelations for forty days after His Resurrection and until His ascension to Heaven as demonstrated by the Book Of Acts, “To whom also he showed Himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the Kingdom of God”( Acts 1:31). But the Book of Acts had no mention of anything about these matters, and had none of these teachings recorded in it. We are quite certain, however, that these teachings were orally conveyed to the believers who memorized, circulated and passed them on generation after generation.

Apostolic Tradition

Some apostles and disciples penned the Holy Gospel and some others wrote epistles which were joined to the New Testament. Those books, however, did not include all what they had preached to the world and all that had been said or done by Lord Jesus throughout his divine economy in the flesh. Some other apostles and disciples never recorded anything but they only preached verbally. Some of them wrote books but we never had these books included in the New Testament, Yet, we did have some of their teachings conveyed to us through tradition. We have received from early church fathers the laws attributed to the apostles and the rules they established for the structure of the church. We did also receive the valuable doctrines they had verbally handed over to the church but never had them recorded in the New Testament. Nevertheless, these teachings have been practiced by the church ever since the dawn of its existence, such as the observance of Sunday instead of the Hebrew Sabbath, the baptism of children and other verbal teachings. The apostle John said in one of his epistles, “Having many things to write unto you, I would not write with paper and ink: but I trust to come unto you and speak face to face, that our joy may be full” (John 2:12 &John 3 :13, 14).

This teaching which has been handed down by word of mouth by the apostle to the church, is the verbal apostolic tradition which could be an explanation of truths of Faith, an elucidation of the good doctrines, an interpretation of the teachings of the Lord or could be an arrangement of one of the worship rituals and the like.

Having been inspired by the Holy Spirit to complete whatever might be needed for the organization of the Holy Church in accordance with the requirements of time, such as the establishment of the office of deacons in the church, the election and appointment of the seven deacons to care for the church. (Acts 6: 1 –8), and the convocation of Synods, such as the Synod of Jerusalem A.D.51, and taking decisions they considered to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, apostles and disciples wrote, “For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us” (Acts15: 28). Moreover, the working of the Holy Spirit is apparent, especially at the election of bishops and sending them away to minister, as quoted in the Acts of the Apostle, “As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, ” Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away”. (Acts 13: 2).

The Holy Spirit’s role in the organization of the church was not surprising to the apostles for the Lord had formerly told them about it saying, ” I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth is come He will guide you into all truth”. (John 16-12). So this guidance to all truth encompassed not solely what had been written down in the Holy Scripture but the teaching and arrangement as well, which the disciples had become capable of understanding and bearing after the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them. All this conforms with the teaching of the scripture yet has never been recorded in it. It was passed on verbally by the fathers; and apostle Paul commands his disciple Timothy in this regard saying, ” And the things that you hath heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou the faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also”(Tit 2:2). And he says to the Thessalonians : “Therefore, brethren stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.”(2 Thes2: 15). And in relation to apostle Paul’s explanation of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist to the Corinthians, he elucidates the fact that the apostolic tradition is based on the divine tradition by saying, “For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you;” (1Cor.: 23-30). And the apostle Paul concludes by saying: ” And the rest well I set in order when I came.”1 Corn (11: 34).

Patriarchal Tradition

With such words the apostle Paul defers explanation of some organizational or liturgical matters until going to meet them. These matters which he conveyed face to face, and which the church circulated and passed through tradition generation after generation, have been kept intact by the Holy Spirit up to the present date and have been practiced by the Universal church in different languages and in the contexts of different local civilizations.

Patriarchal tradition is also based on apostolic tradition in relation to liturgical regulations and canon laws. And both traditions are based on Divine tradition in terms of admitting authenticity of the Holy Scripture and Truths of faith.

Ever since the dawn of Christianity tradition has always occupied a sublime position in Christian apostolic Churches. In the chronicle of Eusebius of Caesarea3, the following was written about the Martyr Saint Ignatius the Illuminator (+ 107): disciple of the apostle John, bishop of Antioch: ” History reports that he was sent from Syria to Rome, and became a prey to the beasts because of his testimony to Christ. And throughout his trip in the middle of Asia, he was kept under strict military guard. He used to empower churches in different cities wherever he stayed through homilies and advice encouraging believers to stick to the traditions of the apostles. Moreover he found it necessary that these traditions be supported by writing proofs and by giving these traditions a fixed form for guaranteeing their intactness.”

*Patriarchal Magazine (Jan. Feb. Mar. 1990) 91-93

1 Patriarch Ephrem Barsom1, Alhak Alkanoni, chps.22, 23.Art.112-120.

2 Habeeb Jerjis, The Orthodox Rock,Egypt, (1961),p.125

3 Eusebius of Caesarea, History of the church, trans. By priest Mark David, Cairo ed. 3vol., ch. 26, p.151,(1960)