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Chapter III – A Brief History of the Orthodox Church

A proper understanding of the Orthodox Church is impossible apart from a study of church history. While this paper is not intended to be an historical study of the Orthodox Church, it will show where the Orthodox Church fits into the historical scheme of Christianity.

The First Eight Centuries

The Orthodox Church asserts its inception on the day of Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the believers, as described in the New Testament book of Acts. The Apostles thereafter took the Gospel to other lands. As they did this, Christianity faced severe opposition. For the first three centuries Christianity faced martyrdom.

In 312, however, a momentous event occurred. The Emperor Constantine beheld a vision of a cross

in the sky, with the inscription “in this sign conquer.” Placing this sign on his soldier’s armaments, he defeated a rival army. As a result of this, he became the first emperor to embrace Christianity. In 313 he and his fellow emperor Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, granting toleration of the Christian faith.

In 324 Constantine moved his imperial capital from Rome to Constantinople (Byzantium). From there he called the first of the Seven Ecumenical Councils at Nicea in 325.

The Seven Ecumenical Councils are regarded by the Orthodox Church as one of the vital pillars of its faith and life. These Councils, patterned after the Council of Jerusalem, described in Acts 15, met to decide matters of doctrinal and disciplinary matters in the Church (for the first ten centuries, the Church was united in the faith).The principle of conciliarity asserted that each bishop, considered a successor to the Apostles, had an equal voice with other bishops; but no one bishop could establish a doctrine. Rather, in council, the members of the Church, represented by their bishops, claim an authority as Church which none of them individually possess.

The Seven Ecumenical (so called because the entire Church was summoned) Councils, which met during the period from 325 to 787, performed two basic tasks: (1) They formulated the visible organization of the Church, establishing the ranking of the five major Patriarchates; and (2) they defined the teachings of the Church, especially with respect to the Trinity and the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Nicea (325)

This Council condemned Arianism, which contended that the Son was inferior to the Father and should be regarded as a created being. The Council declared that the Son was one in essence(homoousios is the technical term) with the Father. It also formulated the first part of what would become the Nicene Creed.

It also ranked the Patriarchates in order of prominence–RomeAlexandriaAntioch, and Jerusalem.

Constantinople I (381)

This Council expanded the Nicene Creed, expanding the teaching of the Holy Spirit, against the heresy of the Pneumatomachi (literally, “spirit smashers”) and the Macedonians (followers of Macedonius), who could not accept the Third Person of the Trinity as equal to the other Two Persons.

This Council revised the patriarchal rankings as follows: RomeConstantinopleAlexandria,Antioch, and Jerusalem.

Ephesus (431)

This Council dealt with the heresy of the Nestorians, who could not accept that God and man had been united in one Person, Christ. The Nestorians also refused to call the Virgin Mary Theotokos(Birthgiver of God). Through the leadership of St. Cyril of Alexandria, this Council affirmed that Mary was indeed Theotokos, since she bore a single and undivided Person who is, at the same time, God and man.

Chalcedon (451)

This Council discussed the heresy of the Monophysites, who asserted that in Christ the human nature had been merged into the divine; after this union, Christ had only one nature. This Council affirmed that Jesus Christ had two natures–human and divine–which should not be confused, changed, divided, or separated. This Council also confirmed the ranking of the five Patriarchates by the previous Council.

The tragic result of this and the prior Council was the sundering of the Nestorians and the Monophysites from the Orthodox Church. The Nestorians were found primarily in Persia andMesopotamia. The Monophysites were strong in Africa (Egypt and Ethiopia), as well as Armeniaand India.

Constantinople (553)

This Council further interpreted the decrees of the previous Council. It affirmed that Jesus is “one of the Holy Trinity,” one and the same divine Person (hypostasis), Who has united in himself the natures of God and man, without confusion and separation. Certain teachings of Origen, such as the pre-existence of the soul, were expressly condemned.

Constantinople (681)

This Council condemned the Monothelite heresy, which held that, in the union of the two natures in Christ, the human will was merged into the divine will. The Council affirmed the two natures of Christ, as well as his two wills.

Nicea (787)

This Council affirmed the veneration of Holy Icons as a proper and necessary corollary of the Incarnation of Christ. It rejected the Iconoclasts (the image smashers), who claimed that veneration of icons amounted to idolatry. The iconoclast controversy did not immediately cease.

In 843 the icons were returned to the churches. This event is commemorated by the Orthodox as the Triumph of Orthodoxy, celebrated on the First Sunday of Great Lent.

Other Developments during the First Eight Centuries

Two major currents were to have a major impact on the Orthodox Church during this period of history. The first of these was monasticism, which began as a definite institution in Egypt in the fourth century. Monasticism in a sense became a form of martyrdom when the martyrdom of blood had ceased.

Monasticism, highly valued in the Orthodox Church, was a continual reminder that God’s Kingdom is not of this world.

The second major current was the rise of Islam and the speed of its expansion. Within fifteen years after the death of Mohammed in 632, his followers had captured SyriaPalestine, and Egypt, and in fifty years were already at the gates of Constantinople. Within 100 years, they had swept acrossNorth Africa and through Spain. Until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Empire was never free from attack.

The Great Schism

In 1054 one of the greatest tragedies of the Christian world occurred–the Great Schism between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches. Prior to that time, the Church considered herself united as “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” In all reality, however, this schism had been in the making during the prior several centuries. Ultimately, the controversy centered about two major issues: papal authority and the filioque (the addition to the Nicene Creed of the phrase “and the Son” to the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father).

Originally the two branches of Christendom had begun to drift apart because of cultural and language differences (the Greek East and the Latin West). In 800 Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by the Pope. This act split the Empire in two and underscored increasing papal claims of authority. The hegemony of the Moslems over the Mediterranean, and their expansion into the Balkans made direct contact between East and West virtually impossible.

The West and East even differed in their approaches to theology. The Latins were more practical, the Greeks more speculative; the Latins were more influenced by legal concepts nurtured by Roman law, the Greeks were influenced by worship and spirituality; the Latins were concerned with redemption, the Greeks with deification (the process of sanctification that leads to the “likeness of God”). These differences culminated in the two overarching issues that led to the schism: papal authority and thefilioque.

Papal Authority

The first problem was that of papal authority. The Orthodox regarded the pope of Rome as the bishop of Rome; they ascribed to him a primacy of honor, considering him the “first among equals.” This conciliar view of the Church was increasingly challenged by the papacy which regarded its jurisdiction to extend to the East as well as to the West. The Orthodox insisted that in matters of faith, the ultimate decisions belonged to an ecumenical council, consisting of all the bishops of theUniversal Church.

The Filioque

The second problem was the addition of the filioque to the Nicene Creed. This addition, first inserted into the Creed at the Synod of Toledo, Spain, in 589, was later adopted by the whole western Church. The original wording of the Creed was as follows: “and in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father.” With the addition by the West, it became “and in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”

The Orthodox objected to the insertion on two grounds: (1) the Ecumenical Councils had expressly

forbidden that any changes be introduced into the Creed, and (2) this insertion disturbed the balance between the three Persons of the Trinity, undermining the work of the Holy Spirit and undermining the view that the Father is the eternal source of the other two Persons of the Trinity.

The Schism of 1054, in effect, created two churches out of one. There were attempts to heal the breach, but none were successful. The Council of Lyons in 1274 and the Council of Florence in 1438-9, when the Turks were already threatening Constantinople, failed to bring about union. In their quest for help against the Turks, some Orthodox leaders sought compromise with Rome. However, many Orthodox could not accept theological compromise, no matter how dire their external conditions.

In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Turks. The Greek-speaking churches fell under the domination of Islam, emerging again 500 years later with the Balkan revolutions of the 19th century and World War I.

With the fall of Constantinople, the focus of Orthodoxy shifted to the North, especially to Russia.

The Conversion of the Slavs

The shift of focus to the North can be traced to the missionary work of two brothers–Cyril and Methodius. Sent by Patriarch Photius in the middle of the 9th Century, these two brothers brought the Gospel to the Khazar State north of the Caucasus (an unsuccessful campaign) and then to Moravia (Czechoslovakia) in 863. The Prince of Moravia, Rotislav, desired that his people hear the Word of God in their own language. These brothers developed an alphabet, adapted from the Greek, which was later called Cyrillic (after St. Cyril). Using a dialect which they had heard near their birthplace of Thessalonica, the brothers began translating the liturgical books, Holy Scriptures, etc., into this dialect, using the alphabet they had just developed. This liturgical language, called Church Slavonic, was utilized in the extension of Orthodoxy into the Balkans and Russia. While the Roman Catholic Church continued to use Latin, Church Slavonic allowed the new converts to hear the Gospel and services in a language they could understand.

The mission to Moravia was ultimately unsuccessful due to antagonism by German missionaries working in the same area. Cyril and Methodius went to Rome and placed themselves under the protection of the Pope. After their death their followers were expelled from Moravia. However, the missionary work of Cyril and Methodius was not in vain. Their disciples were successful in Serbia,Romania, and Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian Church grew rapidly and in 926 an independent Patriarchate was established there.

Bulgaria thus became the first national Slavic church.

With the baptism of Prince Multimir, Serbia became officially Christian. After vacillating between East and West, Serbia came under the control of Constantinople. When St. Sava was consecrated Archbishop of Serbia, Serbia began to achieve independent status. In 1375 Constantinople gave recognition to the Serbian Patriarchate.

Missionaries from Bulgaria took the Orthodox faith to Romania. By the end of the 9th Century portions of Romania had been Christianized. The Church began to thrive under the rise of the Wallachian-Moldavian principalities. In 1401 the Romanian Metropolitan of Suceava in Moldaviawas recognized by Constantinople. The missionaries also entered CroatiaDalmatiaIllyriaBosnia, and Montenegro, but these areas were, for the most part, under the control of the Latin West during this period.

The Conversion of Russia

The christianization of Russia is attributed to the conversion of Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, in 988.

According to Russian tradition, Vladimir decided that it was necessary for his country to have an official religion. Among his choices were Islam of the Volga Bulgars, the Judaism of the Khazars on the lower Volga, the Latin Christianity of the Germans, or the Orthodox faith of the Greeks. Accordingly, he sent envoys to the various regions to investigate and report their findings. They reported that the Moslems experienced no happiness, only sorrow and a great stench; and “there is nothing good about their system.”

Traveling to Germany and Rome, they found the Latin faith to be more satisfactory, but lacking in beauty. Then they traveled to the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. ” We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you; only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their worship surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.”[10]

After waging war on the Byzantine EmpireVladimir finally embraced Orthodoxy. He was given in

marriage to Anna, the sister of the Byzantine Emperors Basil and Constantine. He was baptized in 988. From this day Russia became officially Christian. The Orthodox faith spread rapidly in Russia.

In 1237 the Mongols overran the Kievan State and maintained control until 1480. During this time the Church kept alive national consciousness. Also, the primary See of the Russian Church was moved from Kiev to Moscow, where it remained until this day.

After the Council of Florence in 1440, Constantinople had accepted a form of union with the Roman Catholic Church. The Russian Church, oppsed to such a union, could no longer accept a Metropolitan from Constantinople. Finally, in 1448, a council of Russian Bishops elected their own Metropolitan. From this date, the Russian Church has recognized her independence. WhenConstantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, the Russian Church remained the sole free branch of Orthodoxy. Moscow began to be regarded as the Third Rome, and the Grand Duke of Moscow assumed titles of the Byzantine Emperors­­–Autocrat and Tsar. In 1589 the head of the RussianChurch was elevated to patriarch, ranked fifth after ConstantinopleAlexandriaAntioch, andJerusalem. Since then, Russia has been the leading force of Orthodoxy in the world. This occurred in spite of Mongol invasions, attempts by tsars to control the Church (for example, Peter the Great in his elimination of the Patriarchate and establishment of a synodal system to

rule the Church), and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Despite the intense sufferings faced by the

Russian Orthodox Church, she still remains a powerful spiritual and moral force in world Orthodoxy. For from her ranks has come many riches of Orthodox iconography, music, theology, spirituality. And through the suffering of her people, she has shown herself to follow in the Church’s extensive tradition of martyrdom.

Orthodoxy in America

The first formal Orthodox mission to America arrived in 1794 in Kodiak. The mission was very successful. In 1798 Archimandrite Joasaph, leader of the Kodiak mission returned to Siberia where he was consecrated Bishop of Kodiak. However, he and his entourage drowned during the return trip to Kodiak.

The bulk of the work was assumed by Father Herman of Alaska. His love of the natives, along with his pastoral care and the miracles which accompanied his ministry, caused the Orthodox Church inAmerica to elevate him to the rank of Saint who intercedes on behalf of American Orthodoxy.

Another well-known name in bringing Orthodoxy to America is St. Innocent. In 1823 Innocent, originally known as Father John Veniaminov took his family to Alaska. He showed the natives how to build houses and furniture. Above all, he taught them the Orthodox faith. He learned the Aleut language, for which he devised an alphabet based on the Cyrillic. He was transferred to Sitka, where he gradually won the people over to Orthodoxy. While he was in Russia, his wife died, and he became a monk. He was tonsured with the name Innocent. In 1840 he became Bishop of Kamchatka and Alaska. He and his priests learned the languages of the people to whom they brought the faith. He built a seminary and a cathedral. The Orthodox Church glorified him in 1977 as a saint. He is given the appellation St. Innocent, Metropolitan of Moscow, Enlightener of the Aleuts and Apostle to the Americas.

World Orthodoxy Today

The Composition of the Orthodox Church

Today there are an estimated 200 – 250 million Orthodox Christians in the world, comprised of the following self-governing or “autocephalous” Churches:

The Four Ancient Patriarchates

Constantinople–includes TurkeyCrete, the Dodecanes Islands, and the Diaspora

Alexandria–includes Egypt and the rest of Africa

Antioch–includes SyriaLebanonIran, and Iraq

Jerusalem–includes Israel and Jordan

These Churches hold a special position of honor for historical reasons. The heads of these churches hold the title “Patriarch.”

Eleven Other Autocephalous Churches

Russia–includes all of the former Soviet Union excluding Georgia










The heads of the Russian, Romanian, Serbian, and Bulgarian Churches are known as Patriarchs; the head of the Georgian Church is called Catholicos-Patriarch; the heads of the other churches are called Archbishop or Metropolitan.

Churches in the Diaspora





The Greek Archdiocese of North and South America

The Orthodox Church in America

Missionary Churches


Uganda and Kenya



South America

Western Europe

North America

The Form of Government of the Orthodox Church

The Orthodox Church is a family of self-governing churches. It is not governed by a central organization or a single prelate; rather, it is governed by the “bond of unity in the faith and communion in the sacraments.”[11] Each church, while independent, is in full agreement in doctrine and, thus, in full eucharistic fellowship. There is no equivalence with the papacy of Rome. The Patriarch of Constantinople, especially since the Schism of 1054, has enjoyed a particular position of honor among all Orthodox Christians. However, he does not have the right to interfere in the internal affairs of other churches. This system of independent local churches “has the advantage of being highly flexible, and is easily adapted to changing conditions.”[12] Also, during the past, Orthodox Churches have often been national churches due to the close link between State and Church in certain countries. The Orthodox Church is a federation of local, but not in every case national, churches. The political principle of the State Church is not found in Orthodox theology.