Do not Add to His Words: The Orthodox Option

29 April 2015

Joel Kalvesmaki authJoel Kalvesmaki is Editor in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, overseeing the production of Dumbarton Oaks’ flagship Byzantine publications, print and digital. He is active in the digital humanities and his research covers intellectual history in Late Antiquity, with a focus on ancient number symbolism and the writings of Evagrius Ponticus.


Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you.
(Gospel of Thomas 5)

Again, it is the Eastern Orthodox Church that best reconciles the authority of the Scriptures, the Church, and the Tradition. Because they have never pretended to justify their canon on the basis of self-evident facts or an empirical archaeology of ancient Christian history, the Orthodox have generally not felt threatened by the intellectual jihad of liberalism. The Orthodox are the Church the Apostles built, and they have held fast to their teaching for the last 2000 years. They believe the Holy Spirit has led the Church into all truth, the canon being a part of this truth. To challenge and reopen the canon at this late date is to tell God and nineteen centuries of Christians that they got it all wrong.

We should be grateful to the Orthodox for their faithfulness! Without realizing it, we already depend upon the Orthodox for much of our own tradition. Consider:

  • By naming the first four gospels after Ss. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John we show that we trust a late second century tradition. St. Irenaeus is the earliest writer to identify the authors of the four Gospels.
  • By accepting the canon and the dogma of the Trinity, we show that we trust the thoughtful judgment of the Ecumenical Councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381).
  • By meeting on Sunday we affirm that Saturday, the Sabbath, is not binding on Christians, even though this interpretation of the Law is not explicitly written in the Bible. Sunday is the Lord’s day, the celebration of the new creation.
  • By annually celebrating Christmas and Easter at a time set by Tradition we acknowledge that it is a good thing to commemorate specific events in the life of Christ.
  • By holding fast to the text of the New Testament, we implicitly trust in the faithfulness not only of our translators, but of the transmission of the Orthodox Christians of the early Church, who spent countless hours and untold expense copying the Scriptures over, and over again.

These aspects of our faith, borrowed from the Orthodox, only make sense within the context of the Tradition. This Tradition has given us the Scriptures. But unless we ourselves are within the Church that has both retained that ancient Tradition and given us the canon we shall be at odds to understand what the Scripture teaches.