The True Significance of Sacred Tradition and Its Great Worth by St. Raphael M. Hawaweeny

A Nineteenth-Century Orthodox Response to Roman Catholic and Protestant Missionaries in the East

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Patrick Demetrios Viscuso
  • DeKalb, IL: 
    Northern Illinois University Press
    , January
     190 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In a time of prolific innovation in diverse areas of life, returning to a by-gone era to revisit contemplations, customs, or conflicts experienced by those living in those times seems an inefficient use of one’s energy. However, in so many areas of contemporary life, the present generation is building upon an edifice whose substrata consists of layers woven together by those who have come before us. Current developments—be they technological, theological, or philosophical—emerge from a history in each discipline whose prior construction undergirds its present-day advancements. The subject of this concise and sharply focused work, The True Significance of Sacred Tradition and Its Great Worth, illustrates so well the benefit of looking back while moving forward in the area of theological dialogue.

This book is comprised of two major parts with a useful set of appendixes. The substance of this book is the thesis submitted by heirodeacon (deacon-monk) Raphael M. Hawaweeny to the Theological School at Halki, a Greek isle not far off the coast of Turkey, in May, 1886. The thesis, consisting of thirty-nine handwritten pages, was written in refined Greek, and was recently edited and translated by Patrick Demetrios Viscuso. Hawaweeny’s thesis is a polemic against those from either Protestant or Catholic faiths who sought to proselytize adherents of the Greek Orthodox tradition during that time. In part 1, Viscuso provides an overview of the historic context and reviews the content of the thesis. I found this to be very useful in understanding the purpose of the thesis and the arguments presented in it.

It should come as no surprise to a surveyor of Western civilization to discover that the emphasis on reason, the dissemination of ideas in print, and other broadly accessible forms of media—and the priority given to the individual—facilitated a departure from sacred Tradition within Christendom. The emergence of Protestantism is a very clear example of this. The strength of Hawaweeny’s thesis rests upon granting a mutual necessity to both the means of transmitting divine truths, namely the written word—Scripture—and spoken voice—Tradition.

Hawaweeny concisely summarizes and critiques the Protestant and Roman Catholic weaknesses of his time with respect to this twofold dependence by asserting that the former base their understanding of Scripture in the conscience of the individual, whereas the latter base theirs in one individual, the Pope. He affirms that the holy Orthodox Church of Christ is the “faithful guardian and infallible interpreter” (49). Hawaweeny supports this claim by examining how in true content, true sources, true characteristic marks, and true treasury, the Orthodox Church of Christ has provided certain protection to both sacred Tradition and Scripture.

Hawaweeny says the connection to Christ, the Apostles, and the church fathers is pivotal and argues that it has been established in the Orthodox Church of Christ. He claims the Western Church departed from a mutual position held in common with the Eastern Church around the ninth century. The first point of departure is listed as the exclusive supremacy granted to the hierarch of Rome as opposed to the primacy among equals in the ancient Roman [Orthodox] Church. He goes on to list several other doctrinal and practical deviations—or as he calls them, innovations. He later describes how Protestantism arose as a protest again the papist tyranny, but rather than returning to the “royal road” (63), Protestantism discarded all tradition and turned instead only to Scripture, arbitrarily interpreting it by the individual conscience. Hawaweeny claims this error is even more spiritually destructive than the error of the papists. He proceeds by affirming the importance of sacred Tradition in providing correct discernment of content and true comprehension of Scripture, and in offering the true knowledge not contained in Scripture.

What are some present-day benefits to revisiting a contentious polemic from such a bygone era? Viscuso points out one of them in his introduction, namely an informed awareness of the sensitivities still held among the Orthodox toward ecumenical efforts that could be construed as proselytization. As one who has been a Protestant for close to fifty years, I can attest to a need for each of us to be good listeners in our dialogues with those outside of our tradition if we are to truly understand and respect the other, and not appear to place primacy on conversion to our tradition.

Hawaweeny’s thesis also reminds us of the importance of our faith’s foundations. My tradition often appears to leap from the New Testament into contemporary theological dialogue as if there is an invisible chasm between the two, and a void before the former. We can learn much from the dialogues of the early church fathers and those who came after them. Similarly, we can learn a lot by carefully considering other traditions, and how they differ from our own. This thesis is a prime example. I found the concise comparison of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and the Orthodox Church distinctives to be very insightful as well as challenging to my own beliefs. I trust you will afford this work the opportunity to do so for you as well.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin Staley is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
June 29, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Patrick Viscuso is a professor of canon law, an Orthodox canonist, a priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, and an Orthodox member of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation.


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