Between Rigorism and Relativism: The Givenness of Tradition

by Marcus Plested


Tradition is the central problematic of modern Orthodox theology. We are a Church that takes tradition seriously. Where disagreements arise these tend to revolve around questions of fidelity to tradition. What does it mean to be faithful to the tradition of the Church? Just how free may we be with relation to the tradition of the Church?  I suggest that there are two main errors to avoid when tackling this controverted question – rigorism and relativism. Tradition, I argue, should be embraced in its totality and not selectively discarded or selectively defended.

Tradition is as much a verb as a noun, denoting the process of transmission (or handing over) as much as that which is handed over. Tradition is the mode in which the whole experience of the Church is handed over in lived history. It is the living continuum of faith comprising scripture, the achievements of the Fathers and the councils, sacraments and liturgy, iconography and canons, feasts and fasts, theology and prayer, and much more. Ultimately, it is a way of life – the life in Christ. But how do we discern what constitutes properly traditional theology? The road to such discernment, I suggest, lies between rigorism and relativism.

Let me begin with rigorism. We have in our Church today many self-appointed guardians of tradition. Many who are only too willing to denounce and decry those they judge to waver from the royal road of strict fidelity to tradition. This may include whole periods or modes of Orthodox theology, individual theologians, or indeed the work of the bishops recently assembled on Crete.

The other error is that of relativism, treating the tradition of the church as little more than a source of inspiration or a dialogue partner from which we may depart at will. While rarely disowning the tradition outright, this approach risks cutting Orthodox theology off from its life-giving roots. It can end up as little more than capitulation to the pressures of the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. The relativizing error regards tradition as non-determinative and truth as malleable to the demands of the age.

In distinguishing tendencies towards error on either extreme, as it were, of our theological spectrum I do not wish to encourage any sort of polarization. If we get caught in battles of right versus left or liberal versus conservative we will gravely weaken Orthodox witness in the modern world. In the interests of avoiding such polarization let me now turn to something more constructive.

Relativism and rigorism are united by one thing. Both treat tradition as an object, as a possession. Relativism treats it as an object or possession to be discarded or at any rate side-lined. Relativism thinks itself free to depart from established Church teaching where it sees fit. Rigorism declares itself the owner, the possessor, of tradition. Rigorism declares itself capable of determining what sort of theologians or bishops or councils are to be deemed strictly faithful to tradition and which are to be deemed corrupted by alien influence – whether of modernity, or Catholicism, or Protestantism, or it whatever it might be.

But tradition is not a possession. We should think of tradition less as an object and more as active subject. We should not think of tradition simply as something we hand over or receive but also as something that receives us. Tradition, as the totality of Church’s lived experience over time, should never be something we objectify. What we need to grasp, in all humility, is the sheer givenness of tradition.

Let me illustrate this with reference to a theme that has loomed large in my recent work: scholasticism. Scholasticism is routinely presented as foreign to the Orthodox tradition in modern Orthodox theology. It is depicted as representing the West with its rationalism, legalism, and incipient secularism. But scholasticism has its roots in the Christian East. The Christological controversies gave rise to a concern for theological and philosophical precision, the disciplined use of reason, and recourse to authoritative texts that can hardly be denied the label ‘scholastic’. Whether we look at St Maximus the Confessor on the gnomic will of Christ, St John of Damascus’ great summa the Fount of Knowledge, St Gregory Palamas’ defense of apodictic argumentation and the Latin syllogism, or indeed the anti-Latin syllogisms of St Mark of Ephesus, we see that scholasticism is scarcely foreign to Orthodoxy. We should also note the remarkably positive (if suitably critical) welcome that Thomas Aquinas received in Byzantium after he was translated in 1354 – not least in Palamite and anti-unionist circles.

Much of the period after 1453 has, moreover, been characterized as one in which Orthodox theology did little more than ape Western scholasticism. Such a dismissal fails to recognize the genuine theological creativity and constructive dialogue with the West that marks much of the theology of this period. Similar strictures are also applied to the manuals of Orthodox dogmatic theology produced by Androutsos, Trembelas, and others. These may not be especially scintillating, and certainly not flawless, but should not be airily dismissed as products of Westernizing scholasticism. Let us not forget that the dogmatic manual tradition has also been embraced and enriched by figures such as St Justin Popović and Dumutru Stăniloae.

I make this point about the Orthodox scholastic tradition not because I regard it as of supreme importance but rather to illustrate my point about the sheer givenness of tradition. When it comes to theological tradition, we should not dismiss whole periods or modes of Orthodox theology. It is a great temptation for modern Orthodox theology to focus in on one particular period or theme to the exclusion of others that it finds less congenial. Whether this is the fourth century or the fourteenth, scripture separated from tradition, Orthodoxy construed in opposition to the West, or the demands of modernity, it all amounts to the same thing – an ahistoricism that supposes that we can ignore anything, anyone, or any period that doesn’t conform to our notion of authentic Orthodoxy. While we must certainly be discerning we should not be eclectic in our response to tradition. Our theological tradition may indeed be ascetical, mystical, and liturgical but it is also rational, philosophical, and scholastic. It may be ancient but it is also utterly contemporary. It may be strict and uncompromising but it is also open and generous. It is also capable of finding support and inspiration in Western theological sources – ancient, medieval, and modern. We do well to be generous in our receptivity to ‘whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious’ (Phil. 4:8) – even if that means the West or aspects of Orthodox tradition we would rather forget or dismiss. Such generosity of vision is no way incompatible with an uncompromising adherence to the faith which we have received and which, more importantly, has received us.

Marcus Plested is Associate Professor of Theology at Marquette University.