A good question was posed to us by one of the readers of our blog recently: “Why are visions of some saints sufficient to justify the practice of praying for the dead if it is not mentioned in Scripture and is not commended by any of the apostles as a desirable and godly practice?” This question seems to stem from the more general problem of the relationship between the authority of the Scripture and the sacred Tradition of the Church. Let us try to figure it out.
The Authority of Scripture. It should be noted from the outset that the balance between the Scripture and the Tradition is not straightforward and cannot be addressed unequivocally. On the one hand, we know that the Bible has always been the highest authority for Christian faith. The Bible alone is called God’s Word, and only the books of the Old and New Testament are considered to be divinely inspired, which the holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost (2 Peter 1: 21). Only the Holy Gospel can sit on the Holy Table in the Orthodox tradition, rather than any other book. According to St. Gregory the Theologian, “We apply the Scripture as the criterion and standard of every position. We only approve of those positions and ideas that can be aligned with its meaning.” Another important question is how to interpret Scripture correctly because while some people think the Bible prohibits something and provide quotations in support of it, other people cite equally legitimate quotations in support of the opposite opinion.
The Authority of the Tradition. Neither should we forget the fact that Scripture itself did not fall from heaven; it was written by a living community of people who believed in God. Moreover, it was the Church of Christ which, guided by the Holy Spirit promised to it by Christ Himself, decided which books were inspired by God and which were not, and which ones to include in the canon. Thus, the Tradition (Greek παραδοσις) of the Church is the key to the Bible. It opens the correct way to its interpretation and proper understanding. The Tradition predates Scripture, for there was a time when the Church lived only in accordance with the Good News, transmitted by word of mouth, and the Eucharist. When Jesus was ascending to His Father, it was not the Bible that He promised His disciples to leave as the final authority, but the Holy Spirit, who “shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” (John 14:26). The Apostolic Tradition is the sacred treasury of the Holy Spirit, kept by the Church and guarding the proper understanding and transmission (lat. traditio) of the Divine Revelation to new members of the Church. St. Basil the Great affirms that without fully embracing the Apostolic Tradition, one risks damaging the essence of the Gospel itself, ” Who had put the words of the invocation at the offering of the Bread of the Eucharist and the Chalice of Blessing in writing? For we do not settle for the words mentioned by the Apostle or the Gospel; rather, we say other words before and after them as if they were of great power in the Sacrament, having them passed on from the unwritten tradition.” Therefore, both Scripture as the most authoritative part of Christ’s Revelation, and the Tradition as the source of the biblical texts and the experience of the Holy Spirit are two facets of the life that Christ has given us.
Conclusion. In response to the reader’s question, it is worth pointing out that, first of all, none of the “visions” of any of the fathers are on par with the authority of Holy Scripture. The Holy Fathers were breathing Scripture, reading it all the time, and pondering on it prayerfully. That is why they could not justify any practice that contradicted the spirit of the Bible as they saw it, and neither could Christian congregations. If a saint had any mystical experience, he tested it to find out if it was consistent with the Gospel of Christ, as the Apostle puts it, “believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1). The holy men and women, who had the mind of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:16), were competent enough to discern spirits. Yes, there are many things that the Bible does not say or command explicitly; but the Scripture, together with the oral Apostolic Tradition, may contain many revealed truths that the universal mind of the Church brings to light when necessary and as it delves deeper into the Teaching of Christ. Indeed, where does the Bible say that Christ is one with the Father? The words of Christ, “I and my Father are one.” (John 10:30) can be understood in various ways, especially considering the words, “[M]y Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). Where exactly does the Scripture say that in Christ there are two natures and two wills in one hypostasis? And yet, we believe and confess that this is precisely the case, for otherwise the Gospel will be corrupted in its very essence. Summing up our answer, we can say that the Christian teaching is not based on the visions of individual saints or new revelations, which are impossible at all, because the fullness of the divine revelation is already given to us in Christ. The apostles, like the prophets of old, had their own experiences and visions (e. g., the vision of Archdeacon Stephen before his stoning), but their experiences flowed directly from the revelation of the living God. Spiritual experiences of the saints, on the other hand, confirm the experience of the Church, this pillar and ground of the truth (cf. 1 Timothy 3:15), which is the unblemished and faithful keeper of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The vision of toll houses by Saint Theodora allegorically confirms the teaching of Christ about the judgment that every person is supposed to go through, “Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:13-15).