Scholars define the Great Tradition as the theological consensus of the majority of believers during the first five hundred or thousand years of Christian history (the dates vary among theologians). It encompasses the Church’s universally agreed upon creeds, councils, fathers, worship and spirituality. Some of the key characteristics include the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Definition,the works of St. Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa), the spiritual writings by monks such as St. Anthony of Egypt, and biblical commentaries and pastoral works. Over the past two decades, mainline and evangelical scholars have been rediscovering the creative relevance of the Christian East, with their insistence on the authority of the first 500 years of Christian teaching and practice.
The problem with the usual Protestant approach to the Great Tradition, however, is the gaps and inconsistencies in the retrieval efforts. To many, the Great Tradition is a library, a place you go to pick out the books you find most helpful. You can discard the ones that no longer seem relevant, while choosing the ones that have proven to be of lasting value. So what makes me think that this interest in the Great Tradition may lead to more Christians joining Eastern Orthodoxy or at least embracing more of its theological vision? Simply put, I think more and more people will recognize the vital relationship between the major movements and themes of Christian antiquity and their link to the organic life of the Eastern Orthodox Church from whence these themes came.
I imagine that the deeper evangelicals delve into history the more they will delimit the meaning of orthodoxy to the first five hundred or thousand years. They will come to embrace the whole story of the faithful, not just the parts they personally like. They will discover that the fullness of Christian orthodoxy does not end with a date in the history books, but lives on in what George Florovsky once called "the mind of the Church" or what John Meyendorff described as "the Church’s living tradition." Evangelicals will see that the theological and institutional history of the Great Tradition is directly tied to the Great Church—namely, the contemporary Orthodox Churches of the Middle East, Greece, Russia, Eastern Europe and their children in the West. They will recognize that today’s "rebirth of orthodoxy" can not do justice to classical Christian faith without keeping it connected to the Church that has most fully produced and inherited its achievements. Few will dispute the historical continuity between the modern Patriarchate of Antioch, for example, and its beginnings in the book of Acts. Of course, faithfulness to the truth of the Great Tradition, not organizational continuity, is what counts most – more on that in a bit.
My point is simply that I believe that those who value the classical faith will increasingly engage more deeply with the Orthodox Churches, which incarnate the Great Tradition day by day as a living tradition. I’m not advocating that the Great Tradition is the exclusive property of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is not. The early Church fathers, mothers, ascetics, councils, creeds, art, music and spirituality are the rightful heritage of all orthodox Christians = Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox alike. There is no room here for Orthodox triumphalism or romanticism. All orthodox Christians share a common ecumenical heritage to some extent. But few historians would dispute the conclusion that in comparison to the 20,000 Protestant denominations in existence today, the Orthodox community can claim most justifiably to be theÂ fullest heir apparent of the Great Tradition, even if they disagree with it.