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For many, the “Great Tradition” is simply shorthand for “we recite creeds and we wear robes.” But more is meant by those who use the term to express certain historical, philosophical, and theological convictions.
A decade ago I read a book by Ola Tjørhom, written almost a decade earlier, which expounded the phrase with an eye toward ecumenism. Though I disagree with many of his proposed paths to unity, he enabled me to articulate what we mean when we speak of the “Great Tradition.”
The Great Tradition is rooted in the apostolic testimony to Christ as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and living on in the Church’s anamnesis as expressed in her liturgy, doctrine, and mission.
The Great Tradition is defined and shaped by “one canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that period…” as Bishop Andrewes has taught us.
The Great Tradition is fundamentally ‘Catholick’ in the truest sense in that it aims to incorporate the faith of the Church in all its richness across time as well as space. This means that the Church is as culturally catholic as it is temporally catholic.
The Great Tradition is sacramentally, ecclesiastically and liturgically situated, meaning it insists that through there is an actual participation in the fruit of Christ’s sacrifice which takes place through the Word and Sacraments of the Church.
The Great Tradition realizes that the people of God are an ordered people. Ecclesial anarchy is not an option. While a particular polity does not obtain to the esse of the Church, order does. This requires a polity that recognizes distinctive roles and diverse gifts.
The Great Tradition is based on the firm conviction that the Church, in accordance with its nature—and the nature of her God— is one; a unity in diversity.
The Great Tradition holds God’s will to be binding and obligatory for human life. This entails an ethic consistent with the laws of nature, the general equity of the Law as revealed to Moses, and the telos of the Law as revealed in Christ.
The Great Tradition regards the role of the Church in the world as evangelistic, philanthropic, and prophetic. She serves Christ in the world by making disciples, promoting the common good, and bearing witness to the Lordship of Christ in every realm of life.
The Great Tradition realizes that the dialectic between creation and redemption provides the framework for the Church’s mission. Such a mission aims at the restoration of all things in Christ: the earth which is the Lord’s, the world, and those who dwell therein.
The Great Tradition is at once retrospective, introspective, and prospective. It is a living faith inaugurated by the Word, animated by the Spirit, substantiated by the Scriptures, perpetuated by Providence, vindicated by the Church, and motivated by its hope.
*This was originally a Twitter thread. These theses could and should be developed further, but space was limited. It is also worth noting that I said nothing of the philosophical commitments of the Great Tradition. This is not for a lack of warrant, but for the sheer abundance of evidence. The general disposition towards forms of Christian Platonism throughout the history of the Church is not hotly contested.