Diocesan Metropolitan of Cochin Diocese, Malankara Orthodox Church


For me it is a great honour to have been invited to present a paper in this consultation on “Tradition and Modernity” and their essential meaning translated in to the living practical fields of Christian mission and Witness. I thank the organizers for this opportunity given to an Orthodox hierarch from India especially because the Orthodox are thought to be the jealous guardians of what they call as the “Holy Tradition” I deem it a privilege and challenge to move between Tradition and Modernity, as this oscillation has been going on for several centuries through the highways of time. I very well know that I will learn from you more than perhaps I might offer you.

Given the challenges and constrains of time, I propose to give a brief description of “Tradition and ‘Modernity”, followed by a humble presentation of the reverberations emanating from this seemingly tensional relationship in areas of mission and witness.


The early church was confronted with a major challenge from a movement known as Gnosticism, which appeared very similar to Christianity in many respects. In such a context, an appeal to Christian tradition became of major importance. A significant parallel would be the occasion when Jesus drawing the attention of his hearers to the “beginnings”, on a question of divorce: “From the beginning it was not so” (Matt.19:8)

The term “Tradition” comes from “Paradosis” (Gk.), which would mean “to hand something over”. So it could mean “that which has been handed down or over”. It may also refer to the act of handing down or over. The New Testament uses the verb in a variety of ways. The noun is used for teaching which has been handed down; i.e. Apostolic teaching which included facts about Christ, their theological significance and the implications for Christian living. Cf. 1 Cor. 11:2, “I commend you because you remembered me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed down them to you”; and 2 Tess. 2:15 “So then brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us either by word of mouth or by our letter” It had divine sanction, and once committed to writing was to be preserved by the church. It is seen that Jesus rejected tradition, but only in the sense of human accretion lacking divine sanction. (Mark 7:3-9)

St. Irenaeus insisted that “the rule of faith” was faithfully preserved by the Apostolic church, found its expression in the canonical books of Scripture. The church faithfully proclaimed the Gospel from the time of the Apostles to the present day. The Gnostics, said Irenaeus, had no such “continuity” with the early church. Tradition thus came to mean a traditional presentation and interpretation as reflected in the creeds of the church and its doctrinal pronouncements. The right interpretation of the scripture was to be found where the true Christian faith and discipline has been maintained. Tradition was not seen as a secret source, but a legacy from the Apostles by which the church was guided toward a correct interpretation of the scriptures. The emphasis is on the role of the church as a living organism, which passes down the content of faith based on the Scripture to each generation. Rather than being a source of revelation, Tradition is here understood as a living and active process of passing on the faith [1]

In the Patristic period, the Apostolic teaching was distinguished from the church’s ‘Didacalia” or teaching. The Council of Trent (1545) extended the meaning of Paradosis, saying that the revelational Truth is to be found in the written books and in the unwritten Traditions. Vatican II also spoke of revelation being contained in the written books and ‘universal Traditions”, and attempted to overcome traditional polarization by positing that there is only one source of revelation; Scripture and Traditions being its derivatives. The Reformers distinguished between Apostolic and Post- Apostolic Traditions; the former they identified with divine revelation, and the latter with human teaching, which was to be received only when it violate the former. [2]

Three broad approaches to Tradition

  1. A single source theory: This is interpreting the Scripture within the community of faith. The main stream Reformation adopted this approach, insisting that traditional interpretation of Scripture could be retained if they could be shown to be consistent with the Scripture.

  2. Dual source theory: Here, Tradition was accepted as a distant source of revelation, as an addition to scripture. It was argued, the scripture was silent on many points, but God had providentially arranged for a second source of revelation to supplement this deficiency – a stream of unwritten Traditions, going back to the apostles themselves. Thus a belief not found in the scripture may be justified by the unwritten Tradition.

  3. Total rejection of Tradition: In the radical wing of Reformation (Anabaptism), a third approach became influential – a total rejection of Tradition. It was argued that every individual has the right to interpret the Scripture as he/she pleased, subject to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. To them the Bible was “a book sealed.” The way was thus open to individualism, where, individual judgment is received above corporate judgment Of the church, cf. Infant baptism, Doctrine of Trinity and the Divinity of Christ. This approach was further developed during the Enlightenment, which was anxious to liberate itself from all kinds of Traditions. Political emancipation from the oppression of the past meant a total rejection of the political, social and religious ideas of the past, and human reason was held supreme. Tradition for them represented the authority of the past.

"Tradition" in the Orthodox Tradition

In the Orthodox Church, Paradosis is the very life of the Holy Trinity, has been revealed by Christ himself and testified by the Holy Spirit. St Paul is said to refer to the essence of Christian Tradition: the Trinitarian Doctrine (Eph.2:13-14), which must be accepted by all Christians (Gal. 1:8-9). He speaks about the handing down of the Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist, and, the Death, Burial and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Cor.11:23); and he admonishes to stand firm in traditions taught by word or by epistle. (2 Tess.2:15)

Apostolic Tradition: It encompasses what the apostles saw, witnessed, and later recorded in the books of the New Testament. Those who deviated from the apostolic teaching were cut off from the church. Thus the church is the centre of unity of all Christians. The church is the image and reflection of the Holy Trinity, since the three persons live indwells and acts in the church. The unity of the Holy Trinity also requires a real unity among all its members. Only in the Church the revelation of Truth as revealed and transmitted by the Apostles abide and is sustained. Thus Truth in its fullness does not abide outside the Church. St. Paul admonishes that even if an angel came and preached another gospel, he must be condemned. (Gal.1:8-9). Paul writes to Timothy to follow the precepts of faith, and the “sound instruction” he received from him. (1 Tim.4:4-7)

The Patristic Tradition: Tradition as a historical event, begins with apostolic preaching, and is found in the scriptures, but it is kept, treasured, interpreted and explained by the Holy Fathers of the Church. The interpretative part of the apostolic teaching is called the Patristic Tradition. Thus apostolic teaching or Tradition is organically associated with Patristic Tradition and vice versa. Many western theologians either distinguish between the two or totally reject Patristic Tradition.

For the Orthodox, there is one Tradition, the Tradition of the Church, incorporating the Scriptures and the teaching of the Fathers. St Athanasius of Alexandria (4th C) offers a definition of Church Tradition:

"Let us look at the very tradition, teaching and faith of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, which the Logos gave, the apostles preached, and Fathers preserved. Upon this, the Church is founded"” [3]

Thus, Tradition is founded upon the Holy Trinity, it constantly proclaims the Gospel of Christ, and it is found within the boundaries of the Church and is expounded by the Fathers.

These holy traditions are universal and timeless. The Church and her Traditions, although they live in history, are beyond history. They have eternal value, because, Christ the founder of the Church has no beginning, no end. The universality of Tradition refers to the gift of the Spirit, which enables the Church to preserve till the end of time the Apostolic Truth. George Florowsky points to the temporality and timelessness of tradition:

"Tradition is not a principle striving to restore the past using the past as a criterion for the present. Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit and not only the memory of words…is charismatic, not a historical event" [4]

Tradition is thus a living experience, which is re-lived and renewed through time, is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the extension of the life of Christ in the life of the church.

It is emphasized that for the Orthodox, Tradition is not a set of dogmatic precepts, or uniform practices or liturgical recital of the Church. Although Church Tradition includes both doctrinal and liturgical formulas and practices, it is the continuing transfiguration of the people of God that is emphasized. It is not something abstract and theoretical, not does it ignore the daily needs of human nature. “The rule of faith” becomes the daily act of worship. Doctrine, prayer, moral guidance, fasting, liturgical practices, spiritual exercises etc. are indispensable parts of holy tradition. They express the totality of the Christian way which leads to salvation.

Tradition and Ecumenical Councils

"There is no private teaching save the common teaching of the Catholic Church” wrote Maximus the Confessor. George S Bebis reports that in the reply to Pope Pius IX in 1948, the Eastern Patriarchs wrote that “the defender of the faith is the very body of Christ, i.e. The people who want their faith kept constantly in agreement with the Fathers" [5]) Thus the clergy and the laity are both responsible for the preservation of the genuine holy Tradition in and through the life of the Church. Hence the importance of Ecumenical and local Councils of the Church.

In the Holy Liturgy, the Church needs to proclaim and live the oneness and unity of faith in Jesus Christ. Gregory Palamas writes the following in connection with the Holy Eucharist:

"WE hold fast to all the Traditions of the Church, written and unwritten, above all, to the most mystical and sacred celebration and communion Assembly, whereby all other rites are made perfect”

Gregory Palamas wrote in the context of the holy Eucharist:

"We hold fast to all the Traditions of the Church, written and unwritten, above all to the most mystical and sacred celebration and communion Assembly, where by all other rites are made perfect”

However, to live according to the Tradition is not an easy task. It requires imparting of the Holy Spirit in order to live in the mystical life of Christ. Life is a strenuous and endless journey towards God, i.e. Deification (Theosis). [6]

Tradition Is not a dead letter, but the history of salvation – witnessing and mission are indispensable parts of it. In its true teaching, Church is a mission. In the life and mission of the church, the past, present and future are present in a harmonious way; neither time nor historical circumstances or geographical distance can cause disruption in the Church’s continuity.


Modernity is a term that refers to the modern era. It is distinct from modernism, which may refer to cultural and intellectual movements of the period roughly from 1630 -1940. “Modern” can refer in a general manner to the 20th Century. Some scholars think that Modernity came into being with the Renaissance. “Modernity’ implies “the progressive economic and administrative rationalization and differentiation of the social world’ [7]. In essence, the term emerged in the context of the development of the capitalistic state. Anthropologists have been working towards modern times, but now have gone past that. Mary Klages says that the first definition of modernism comes from the aesthetic movement broadly labeled “modernism”. “Modernity refers to a set of philosophical, political and ethical ideas which provide the basis for the aesthetic aspect of modernism. Modernity I solder than Modernism’ [8]. The label ‘modern” first articulated in the 19th C Sociology, was meant to distinguish the present era from the previous one, which was labeled, “antiquity”

The fundamental act of modernity is to question the foundations of the past knowledge. Modernism is an experiment in finding the inner truths of a situation. It can be characterized by self – consciousness and reflexiveness. This is very closely related to Post – modernism. Post modernity concentrates on the tensions of difference and similarity erupting from processes of globalization – the circulation of people, crosses cultural interaction and intersections of local and global knowledge.

Modernity is fundamentally about order, about rationality creating order out of chaos; the assumption being that the more ordered the society is, the better it will function. To establish ‘order’, they have to ‘construct’ or identify ‘disorder’ – ‘the other’ cf. non – white, non – male, non – heterosexual, non – hygienic, non – rational etc., and they have to be eliminated. [9] Sarup [10] equates ‘stability’ with idea of ‘totality’. Stability and order are maintained through “grand narratives”, which are stories a culture tells itself about its practices and beliefs. Such a narrative of American culture might be the story that democracy is the most rational form of government, and that it will lead to universal happiness. Marxism gives the idea that capitalism will collapse and a socialist world would evolve. Lyotard [11] argues that all aspects of modern societies including science depend on these grand narratives.

Looking ahead of modernism, it can be said that Post - modernism is the critique of such grand narratives. It says that they mask the contradictions inherent in any social organization or practice. Any attempt to create order demands the creation of an equal amount of disorder. Post modernism favours “mini – narratives”, stories that explain local events. They are situational, provisional and contingent, making no claims of reason or truth. In the Post modern society, there are only a few originals. Instead there are copies, cf. Painting, sculpture, music recordings and the like.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, has something very interesting to report on “modernity’ which could be summarized as follows:

At its simplest, modernity is a shorthand term for modern society or industrial civilization. It is associated with,

- the idea that the world could be transformed by human intervention
- industrial production and market economy
- political institutions like nation-state and mass democracy

Modernity, thus, is more dynamic than any previous type of social order. It is a society – more technically a complex of institutions, which unlike any preceding culture lives in the future than in the past.

Niccolo Machiavelli is said to be the first modern political thinker. His Discourses on the governance of republics, easily refers to the discernable characteristics of Modernism:

  1. A positive attitude towards change

  2. A positive attitude towards experimentation

  3. A positive attitude towards larger states

  4. A realistic attitude towards the problems of the day.

However, far from creating peace, transition to modern institutions was marked by a series of revolutions and military conflicts. Among the notable instances are The English Revolution (1688) and The French Revolution (1789). With the arrival of the elected bodies and leaders, a growing attachment to one’s nation, culture and language is discernable, and this has produced strong naturalistic movements. This was smartly used by emerging bourgeois to establish stable conditions of market economics and political power. The desire of equal rights, benefits for common workers led to new ideologies such as communism, socialism or anarchism. Extreme nationalism sometimes gave birth to totalitarianism, ethnic superiority and racial superiority.

Revolution in science and technology and political revolutions changed the shape of the modern world – changed religion and education in society.

New attitudes towards religion, with the church diminished, and a desire for personal freedom, induced desire for sexual freedoms, which were accepted by a large section of the western world. Theories of free love, equality of sexes, women’s liberation movement, gay rights and freedom afforded by contraception allowed for greater personal choices in intimate areas of personal life.

Defining characteristics of Modernity

A wide variety of terms are used to describe the society, social life, the driving force or other defining aspects of Modernity. They include: bureaucracy, disenchantment with the world, rationalization, secularization, alienation, commoditization, decontextualization, individualism, subjectivism, linear progression, objectivism, universalism, mass society, mechanization, totalitarianism and so on.

“Modernity is marked and defined by an obsession with ‘evidence’, visuality and visibility”, says Leppert (12). Modernity is often characterized by comparing modern societies to pre modern or postmodern ones. Many of the defining events listed above stem from a transition from relatively isolated local communities to a more integrated large scale society. Understood this way, modernization might be a general process which can be found in many different parts of histories. Modernity has brought increased movement of goods, capital, people and information among formerly separate areas, increased specialization of different segments of society, such as division of labour and interdependency among areas.

Further, local culture is influenced by the increased mobility of cultural elements, resulting in a cultural homogenization across localities. Along with this, centralized bureaucracy and hierarchical organization of governments grows in scale and power. This contrasts with premodern societies in which the family and social class into which one is born, shapes one’s life course to a greater extent.

Another example is the ongoing globalization – the increased international flows changing the landscape of many. While modernity has been characterized in many seemingly contradictory ways, many of those aspects can be reduced to relatively simple set of concepts of social change.

Modernity certainly brought a series of benefits to people: lower infant mortality rate, decreased death from starvation, eradication of some of the fatal diseases, more equal treatment of people and so on. In general, rational, scientific approach to problems and the pursuit of economic wealth seems still to many a reasonable way of understanding good social development.

Of course some sociologists point to some negative aspects as well; technological development occurred not only in the medical and agricultural fields, but also in the military. Enormous destruction through modern wars is certainly a negative development of modernity. Arms race, pollution, climate change, certain aspects of genetic engineering also add to the list.

Postmodern is concerned with the organization of knowledge. Knowledge was good for its own sake. In Postmodern society knowledge becomes functional, with emphasis on skills and training. (What will you do with your degree?). Knowledge is characterized by utility. It is stored, arranged and distributed differently. Computer technologies have revolutionized the modes of knowledge- production, distribution and consumption. Anything which is not digitizable will cease to be knowledge. The question is raised, i.e. weather Postmodern is a movement towards fragmentation and instability. In our society, the desire to return to Premodern era (modern, humanist, enlightenment thinking) tends to get associated with conservative political, religious and philosophical groups. Mary Klages opines that one of the consequences of Postmodern seems to be the rise of religious fundamentalism, as a form of resistance to the questioning of the “grant narratives” of religious truths. A case in point is the Muslim fundamentalism in the Middle East banning Salmon Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”. The association between the rejection of Postmodern and fundamentalism explains why the Postmodern fragmentation attracts liberals and radicals. cf. Feminist attraction for Postmodern. Postmodern offers some alternatives to globalism, where commodities are beyond individual’s control. The alternatives focus o thinking and action as local and limited. (Day care centers for working mothers)

The motto of Postmodern politics seems to be: “think globally, act locally”, don’t worry about grand schemes!

Mission and Witness

Christian Mission and witness can never be divorced from either Tradition& Modernity or their influence in the society of the times. There may be diverse points of view regarding Tradition, and what it might stand for. Modernity is something so dynamic and forward looking, that today there is talk about “Transmodernity” [13]. The argument is that Postmodern is a way of recognizing that the world is in a period of transition. Transmodern implies that the best of modernity should be kept, “but there is a need to go beyond it” [14]. Tradition possibly guides us to understand what the Church, Christian life and mission are, while Modernity brings to light the social and personal inevitables, resulting from scientific and technological advances, which are the result of an ongoing process.

The title of this paper seems to suggest a possible continuing movement between Tradition and modernity. If we are patient enough to look at Tradition in a larger sense, the emerging picture is seen to span the entire Christian life and experience. Tradition as a challenge to Christian mission and witness has a very “traditional” paradigm in the history of Christianity in India. The early St Thomas Christians were so indigenised that their cultural identification with the local population was almost complete!

It is interesting to recall that in the early church, those who had seen and heard Jesus and had partaken in his ministry were called “witnesses”. Later on, martyrs were addressed as those who “witnessed” with their blood. Thus, originally, witnesses were those who moved closely with Jesus, thought and acted like him! Such an image of “witness” can only be dispensed with on our peril.

Lausanne Congress of 1974 defined Christian Mission as that which is deigned “to form a viable indigenous church- planting movement” [15]. It means to make God known as outlined in the Great Commission. Jesus’ ministry is taken as the model motivation for all ministries. The Missionary movement seeks to implement churches after the pattern of the first century Apostles. The process of forming disciples is necessarily social. In addition to theological doctrines, many missionaries promote economic development, literacy, education, healthcare and orphanages, believing that these cause advance the glory of God. Is is worthwhile to remember that Christian doctrines may permit the provision of aid without requiring religious conversion.

Most modern missions have repudiated cultural imperialism, and focus on spreading the Gospel, especially by translating the Bible into indigenous languages. Some times they help to preserve and document the culture of the people.

The usually thought of objective of mission is to give an understandable presentation of Christian beliefs with the hope that people will choose to convert from other faiths to Christianity. Preaching, distribution of the Bible and tracts, provision of welfare and health services are used to aid in the actual “mission”. In modern times there is less emphasis on mission stations, for they create disaffected converts, who are often seen as outcastes by their family and culture. In more recent times, missions focus on inserting a culturally adapted seed of Christian doctrines into a self-selected, self motivated group of native believers, without removing them from their culture in any way.

Objection by governments, anthropologists, spiritual leaders have been common to mission endeavors, missionaries have been criticized for lack of respect for native cultures, and for undermining religious customs and beliefs of non -Christian countries. Mahatma Gandhi said:

“This proselytization will mean no peace in the world. Conversions are harmful to India. If I had power and could legislate I should certainly stop all proselytizing…It pains me to have to say that Christian missionaries as a body, with honorable exceptions, have actively supported a system which has impoverished, enervated and demoralized a people considered to be among the gentlest and most civilized on earth” [16]

The RSS in India assert that most conversions occur due to compulsions, inducement or fraud. In the Indian state of Tripura, the government has alleged financial and weapon smuggling connections between (Baptist) missionaries and rebel groups. There is widespread opinion that aid work must not hide any ulterior motives and avoid exploiting vulnerable people like children and disabled.

There is a charge that aid that comes in response to various world disasters comes with a condition; that assistance requires conversion. Disasters are sometimes seen as useful opportunities to spread the Word. “Innovative minds”, a Muslim software company has written a report, “Missionaries preying on Tsunami survivors”, which reads:

“This (disaster) is one of the greatest opportunities God has given us to share his love with people”, said K P. Yohannan, president of the Texas- based Gospel for Asia. In an interview, Yohannan said his 14,500 ‘native missionaries’ In India, Sri Lanka and the Andaman islands are giving survivors Bibles and Booklets about ‘how to find hope in this time through the word of God”. [17]

However, official church leadership states that claims of false conversions are false. It is also reported that the Hindu political party, where it is ruling, has created an atmosphere where minorities feel insecure.

It merits our attention to note that the resurgence of non Christian religions, the emergence of independent nations, with manifestations of nationalism and corresponding religious associations have challenged the motive of Christian missions, especially when the “message” is associated with an alien culture.

An effective witness of the Gospel

Quality is one of the principal problems in Christian Mission and Witness. For the Gospel to be shown to the world, Jesus Christ much preach it, he must be visible in the evangelist not only to the believers but to those that are indifferent or even hostile to the Gospel. Let us see what is meant by “witnessing” Witnesses are called to testify as to events, facts, or to weigh in on the side of truth in some dispute. If witnesses are disreputable, their testimony may be ignored. The Gospel is the Good News of Jesus; acceptance of the Gospel means the acceptance of a relationship with God that already exists. By “living” the Gospel, by “being it”, we testify to the truth of the Jesus, the jury is the world. We are challenged to sway this worldly jury, by our testimony. What St Francis of Assisi said, applies to both mission and witness: “Preach the Gospel always, when necessary, use words”. We are not called to be walking tracts but living words of God!

Challenges of Mission in a Pluralistic world

A turning pointing the history of Mission was marked in 1963 by the Mission Conference of Mexico when the value of the “secular world” was acknowledged. Following this development, the modern understanding of mission is most represented by the phrases of “Humanization”, Presence”, Dialogue”, etc. All churches are coping in one way or the other with the questions of many contexts, many religions, many cultures and systems of values. Along with evangelization, churches are exploring a different understanding of Christian Witness. Human sin is also addressed in the structural complexities of the world by ministering unto the poor. Besides, more integrative approaches of churches to mission are being explored in addressing social issues together – mission as being “Church together”. This is despite the “divisions” of the Church. One of the modern challenges before the Churches is to think about “an ecumenical mission and witness”, especially in addressing social and humanitarian issues. This calls for altogether new attitudes, a radical openness and acceptance of people about whom we know very little. This is supposed to teach us that the mission of God lies in human unity.

Identifying today’s challenges

The challenges of mission and witness point to the need for “continuity and change” The two are not mutually exclusive. Without change continuity becomes dry; and there is no scope for change unless there is the strong foothold of continuity.


It is in fulfillment of our Lord’s mandate to “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:16-20) that we find an authentic understanding of the church. The church is committed to communicating the Good News and to striving towards the growth, sanctification and well being of this one body – the church. The church has to be continually in mission, proclaiming the good news to the whole inhabited earth. All the people of God bear the responsibility for witnessing to the good news. It really is the heart of the church’s vocation.

Mission suffers whenever it is not possible to point to a community in history that reflects the Trinitarian existence of communion. Ecclesiological heresy renders mission impossible or distorted. The church in our time should resist the temptation to insure itself by partnership with the powers and authorities of this world. It is the privilege us all to participate in the ongoing mission of God All have the apostolic calling to witness through the quality of their lives to the experience of the risen Christ.

[Courtesy to St. Gregorios Church, Pennsylvania, USA]

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