We often tell our Protestant friends that one of the differences in the Orthodox faith is that we rely on Holy Tradition and not solely on Scripture. But what do we mean by this? Is Scripture the foundation of Holy Tradition or is Holy Tradition the foundation for Holy Scripture?
Elder Cleopa says.
"Holy Tradition is the teaching of the Church with a living voice, from which a portion was written down later."Holy Tradition contains Holy Revelation and is essential for our salvation. It is the work of the Holy Spirit and has the same authority as Holy Scripture.
Moses was the first to recorded Holy Tradition, including the Creation story. This recording began 1400 years before Christ. Prior to this there was no Scripture. Just like the time before the Old Testament was written there was also a period of time for Christians before anything was written that they considered Holy Scripture. Jesus taught for over three years without writing anything down. He sent His Apostles out to teach, not write documents. It wasn't until some 30+ years later that we have the first writings of the New Testament. Common sense tells us that what was written then could not have possibly included all that had taken place. The reality is that Scripture, both New and Old, are born out of Holy Tradition.
Evangelist John tells us there is much more than what is written.
There are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. ( Jn 21:25)We can see from this that the Apostles taught their followers much more from the knowledge of Tradition. Not everything was written that was passed on through their instruction.
Having many things to write to you, I did not wish to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, that our joy may be full. (2Jn 1:12)
Elder Cleopa explains how the Church has maintained the truth of the faith. He says,
"The Church of Christ determined the truths of the faith, according to the long course of Tradition, through the teachings and canons of the holy Ecumenical Councils, decrees and the Symbol of Faith [The Creed], and with confessions [of Faith] by holy and wonderworking hierarchs such as were made at the many local synods which have been held continuously since the days of old.He outlines the following conditions to safeguard Holy Tradition:
Do not sanction conceptions that contain inconsistencies among themselves or contradictions with the Apostolic Tradition and Holy Scripture.Paul in Corinth commends the Christians there because they obeyed his oral teachings and not simply written teachings. Paul writes "I Praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and even as I delivered to You, ye are holding fast the traditions." (1 Cor 11:2) Clearly, much of what the apostles taught is not recorded in Holy Scripture.
Honor the Tradition is that which has been safeguarded from the Apostolic Church and has an uninterrupted continuity until today.
Protect Tradition that is confessed and practiced by the entire Orthodox Church.
Carry forward Tradition that is harmony with the greatest portion of the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers.
Teachings that were errant to those of the Apostles were always hotly defended by early Church Fathers such as Saint Ignatius and Saint Polycarp.
Saint Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria say: "Those who explain Scripture without the help of the church's Tradition cut asunder the significant of the truth."
Saint John Chrysostom says, "Hence it is clear that the Holy Apostles did not deliver everything by epistle; rather many things they handed down via the spoken word which is also trustworthy."
Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes: "We have the Tradition set out for us from the Fathers like an inheritance by apostolic succession and transmitted through the saints."
Saint Basil the Great says: "Among the dogmas and kerygma (evangelical truths) that are safeguarded in the Church, some we have from written teachings while others we've received orally from the Tradition of the Apostles by a concealed succession. The latter hold the same legitimacy and force as the written texts."
Elder Cleopa writes:
"Holy Scripture instructs us to do many things; however it does not make manifest to us the light. For example, it instructs us to be baptized, but it does not explain to us the method. Likewise, it guides us to confess our sins, receive communion, be crowned (married) - but nowhere does it specify the rite of carrying-out these mysteries (sacraments). Furthermore it tells us to pray, but doesn't tell us how and where and when. It tells us to make the sign of the Cross in front of our chest... but doesn't show us how." He continues with many other examples.Finally he says:
"Whatever is of Apostolic descent and is practiced by the Fathers receives the validity of Tradition and has the power of law in the Church of Christ. Accordingly therefore, it must be safeguarded since its importance and benefit spring from the relationship that exists between it and Holy Scripture.... Holy Scripture possess its unique witness of the scriptural canon and its dogmatic character (its divine inspiration) only in and with Holy Tradition, while Holy Tradition is able to prove the authenticity of its truth only together with Holy Scripture.
Reference: The Truth of Our Faith, pp 53-65