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Chapter IV – The Orthodox Church and Her Theology – Part A

The Name of the Church

The churches that comprise the Orthodox communion have a variety of titles. More often than not, churches are listed according to their nationality, such as the Greek Orthodox Church. Some people assume that the Greek Orthodox Church is entirely different from the Russian Orthodox Church. Others assume that the Orthodox Church must necessarily be Greek. The Orthodox insist that theirs is one, united Church. This Church is sometimes called the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Catholic Church, or the Orthodox Catholic Church of the East. These titles aside, the Orthodox Church considers herself to be the true Catholic Church. It is not part of the Roman Catholic Church, as some might think.  And while the Church calls itself “eastern,” in contrast to the Roman Catholic Church and its offspring as “western,” it is not limited to eastern people. The Holy Orthodox Church, or simply, the Orthodox Church, may be the most convenient and least misleading title.

And what is the significance of the word “Orthodox”? The word has a double meaning–”right belief” and “right worship.” Orthodox consider their Church the universal Church that has taught and guarded the teaching of God and has glorified him with true worship.  For this reason, the Orthodox Church considers herself the true Catholic Church on earth.

Perspectives on the Church

“All Protestants are Crypto Papists.”[i] So wrote the Russian theologian Alexis Khomiakov to an English friend in 1846. Orthodoxy regards Protestants and Roman Catholics as two sides of the same coin. This is because western Christians share a common background. They have been influenced by the same events: by papal centralization, the scholasticism of the Middle Ages, by the Renaissance, by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. On the other hand, the Orthodox Church has had no such common background. It has experienced no Middle Ages; it has not experienced a Reformation or a Counter-Reformation.  Orthodoxy also views disputes in western Christendom differently. Khomiakov calls the pope “the first Protestant.” According to Khomiakov, Protestantism and Catholicism share the same assumptions, since Protestantism was hatched from the egg which Rome laid. And from the Orthodox perspective, Catholicism has added to the faith of the Church while Protestantism has subtracted from it.

And, yet, there is much that is familiar to Protestant and Catholic. This would include the Bible, the Creed, and  the doctrines of the Trinity and Jesus Christ.

The Doctrine of the Church

In contrast to Protestants who normally begin their doctrinal formulations with a statement of

scriptural authority, the Orthodox Church begins with a statement of the Church and its authority. For the Orthodox, the Bible and its authority must be apprehended in light of the Church and its authority; for them, the Bible was written and received by the Church.

Also, Orthodoxy does not outline its teaching in a neat, orderly way, replete with “proof-texts” and other references. It does not normally resort to polemical presentations of the faith or extensive apologetics.

The Orthodox believe that the Church is the Body of Christ through which Jesus is present in the world today. It was founded by Christ through the Apostles and has maintained a living connection with the Apostles through the ordination of its clergy. This connection is assured through “Apostolic Succession.” “Apostolic Succession” means that each Bishop who ordains an Orthodox priest today can trace his ordination historically all the way back to the Apostles and through them to Christ.  This Church as a whole–not one man’s interpretation– guards and teaches the apostolic faith.

Many entering the Orthodox Church from other denominations affirm the centrality of the

doctrine of the Church in their decision to convert. They are weary of being “a people without roots.” They are weary of personality clashes and doctrinal splits. They seek the goal of Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer” in John 17 that  His followers be “one” as He is “one with the Father.” For them,  Orthodoxy maintains that oneness in historical connection with the early apostolic Church. “A church is the true Church of Christ if it can show historically that it was founded by Christ and has maintained a living connection over the centuries with the early Church. We need this historical connection in order to be assured that the deposit of faith has not been tampered with but has been handed down to us in its entirety.”[ii] Father Theodore Stylianopoulos, Professor of New Testament at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological Seminary, provides an interesting perspective on Orthodoxy’s ecclesiastical continuity:

. . . the Orthodox Church is the true Church of God on earth and maintains the fullness of Christ’s truth in                continuity with the Church of the apostles. This awesome claim does not necessarily mean that Orthodox Christians have achieved perfection: for we have many personal shortcomings. Nor does it necessarily mean that other Christian churches do not serve God’s purposes positively: for it is not up to us to judge others but to live and proclaim the fullness of the truth. But it does mean that if a person carefully examines the history of Christianity he or she will soon discover that the Orthodox Church alone is in complete sacramental, doctrinal and canonical continuity with the ancient undivided Church as it authoritatively expressed itself through the great Ecumenical Councils.[iii]

The other feature that appeals to recent converts to Orthodoxy is its changelessness. It still baptizes by three-fold immersion. It confirms infants at baptism through the “laying on of hands” (the anointing which the Orthodox call “Chrismation”). It still brings babies and young children to receive Holy Communion. It still uses the liturgies of St. James, St. Basil, and St. John Chrysostom in its worship. The Nicene Creed is still recited without the later additions.

The Orthodox use the terms “visible” and “invisible” with respect to the Church. However, their understanding of these terms differs from most Protestants. The Orthodox regard the “visible Church” as the Church militant on earth. The “invisible Church” is the Church Triumphant in heaven.

The Formal Principle of Orthodoxy: Its Source of Doctrine

The Protestant principle of “sola scriptura” (the view that the Bible is the only source of doctrine) has no place in the Orthodox Church. This is not to say that the Orthodox do not  have the highest regard for the Scriptures. Protestants, in their polemics against Roman Catholics, make a strong distinction between

Scripture and tradition. For many Protestants, tradition carries with it the notion of man-made inventions that have no biblical foundation.

While the New Testament warns of the “traditions of men” (Colossians 2:8), it also affirms traditions:

Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word or our epistle.[iv]

The Orthodox make a distinction between the traditions made by men and the tradition of God. They affirm that St. Paul, in the previous quotation,  is speaking “of the traditions–the things passed on–which the Church received from himself and the other Apostles.”[v] Orthodoxy believes that the apostolic tradition is the “apostles’  doctrine” referred to in Acts 2:42. This doctrine was imparted to the churches they visited in two ways: “by word” and “by epistle.” The Orthodox accept the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. The Orthodox also affirm the inspiration of the Apostles’ verbal teaching: “Holy men of God spake [emphasis mine] as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”[vi]This body of teaching is what the Orthodox believe the Apostles and their successors planted in the churches and what has been passed on to this day. The Orthodox call this body of truth “Holy Tradition.”

Holy Tradition also gives perspective to the settlement of the New Testament canon. Though a visible consensus on the New Testament books existed for years beforehand, it was the Synod of Carthage in 397 that settled the issue of which books were to be included in the New Testament. And how did the Church know which books were apostolic and to be included in the canon? The Orthodox would assert that it was through the Holy Tradition that such a decision was made. The Church could make such a decision because it was empowered by the Holy Spirit and described by the Apostle Paul as the “pillar and ground of the truth” in I Timothy 3:15. Thus, Tradition also became the means for interpreting the contents of the Scriptures. The Orthodox ask: who is  better equipped to interpret the Apostles than those who were instructed by them and their successors?!

On the other hand, the Orthodox reject “late traditions.” Papal Infallibility, the addition of the filioque to the Nicean Creed, Purgatory, Indulgences, the Immaculate Conception of Mary (the view that Mary conceived without original sin), are some of the “late traditions” held by Roman Catholicism that they reject.

Orthodox also feel that Protestantism, in its attempt to free itself from Roman excesses, has sorely over-corrected its course.

The Composition of Holy Tradition

And of what does the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church consist?

The Bible

For Orthodox, the Bible is the extreme expression of God’s revelation to man; it is therefore the preeminent source of Holy Tradition. For Orthodox, the Bible is not something regarded as set up over the Church, but as something that lives and is understood within the Church. The Church which decided the canon of Holy Scripture is the Church alone which can interpret its contents.

The Orthodox have the same New Testament as do other Christians.  However, the Old Testament differs from the “Protestant Bible” because it includes ten books known as the “Deutero-Canonical Books.”

The Orthodox use the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. When a difference arises between the original Hebrew and the Septuagint, the Orthodox believe that the changes were made under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The “Deutero-Canonical Books” were declared to be “genuine parts of Scripture” by the Councils of Jassy (1642) and Jerusalem (1672). However, most Orthodox scholars follow the view of Athanasius and Jerome that those books, “although part of the Bible, stand on a lower footing than the rest of the Old Testament.”[vii]

In worship the Orthodox regard the Bible as a verbal icon of Christ. The Seventh Ecumenical Council established the veneration of icons and the Book of Gospels. The Gospel Book has a place of honor on every Orthodox altar; it is carried in procession and honored by the faithful through outward acts of kissing the Book and prostrations before it.

The Seven Ecumenical Councils

For Orthodox, the doctrinal definitions of an Ecumenical Council are infallible. These definitions are true expressions in harmony with the content of Holy Scripture. The Orthodox recite the Nicene Creed in its original form at every celebration of the Eucharist. The Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creed (without filioque) do not possess the same authority as the Nicene Creed because they were not the product of an Ecumenical Council.

Later Councils

Orthodox doctrine continued to be formulated after the Seventh Ecumenical Council. While the doctrinal definitions of Ecumenical Councils are infallible, those of local councils or individual bishops are liable to error. However, if the decisions of local councils or bishops become accepted by the whole Church, they then achieve universal authority. The Church is selective in its acceptance of local councils, sometimes receiving portions and setting aside or correcting other portions. Some of the received doctrinal formulations since 787 include the following: The Decisions of the Councils of Constantinople in 1341 and 1351 on the Hesychast Controversy, The Confession of Faith by Gennadius, Patriarch of Constantinople (1455-6), The Replies of Jeremias II to the Lutherans (1573-81); The Orthodox Confession of Peter of Moghila, in its revised form (ratified by the Council of Jassy in 1642); The Confession of Dositheus (ratified by the Council of Jerusalem in 1672); The Answers of the Orthodox Patriarchs to the Non-Jurors (1718, 1723); The Reply of the Orthodox Patriarchs to Pope Pius IX (1848).

The Fathers

As with local councils, the Church is selective in its acceptance of patristic writings. The Orthodox Church has never defined who the fathers are, still less to clasify them in order of importance. Yet, special honor is given to the Three Great Hierarchs who lived in the fourth century: Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, and John Chrysostom. The Orthodox Church recognizes other later fathers, such as John of Damascus, Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory Palamas, and Mark of Ephesus. Since the Holy Spirit is active in the Church, it is possible for new fathers of our present day to be recognized by the Church in the future.

The Liturgy

The Orthodox Church is not given to writing formal dogmatic definnitions as are found in the churches of the West. Basil the Great, in his famous work, On the Holy Spirit, states:

Concerning the teachings of the Church, whether publically proclaimed or reserved to members of the             household of faith, we have received some from written sources, while others have been given to us secretly, through apostolic tradition.[viii]

This Holy Tradition is above all preserved in the Church’s worship. The faith of the Church is expressed in her prayer. The words, gesture, actions in the Orthodox liturgical services all have special meaning and express in dramatic or symbolical form the content of the faith.

Canon Law

Besides doctrinal definitions, the Ecumenical Councils also drafted rules of Church organization and discipline. There are numerous canons to which the Church is subject. Often, these rules are very strict.

While the doctrinal definitions of an Ecumenical Council deal with unalterable truths, the canons deal with the earthly life of the Church, where conditions often change. Canon Law is simply the Church’s application of theology to practical situations.


As the Church expresses her faith in words, in actions and gesture in worship, so also does she express truth in line and color of icons. Iconography is a religious practice with established rules that reveals in its lines and colors eternal truths. Icons are not religious pictures, but a revelation of the spiritual world. The iconographer is not free to be innovative; rather, his or her work must reflect the mind of the Church. Icons of Christ and the saints are “written” to portray the event or person in the glorified, heavenly state.

The Material Principle of Orthodoxy: Deification

The fundamental doctrine of the Orthodox church is theosis, or deification. Theosis is the goal and aim of the Christian life. Mankind, made in the image of the Trinity, is called to dwell in the Trinity.  St. Peter describes deification as being “partakers of the divine nature.”[ix]

In order to clarify that this doctrine does not involve any form of pantheism, the Orthodox Church makes a distinction tetween God’s essence and His energies. Union with Christ involves God’s energies–his grace that is extended to mankind, not hisessence, his essential Being. Man becomes “god” by grace, not by nature. Man does not cease to be human any more than Christ ceased to be fully God when he became man.

Deification is the union of God and man, where man surrenders his will to the will of God.

Deification involves the whole person–body and soul. The goal of deification is the resurrection of the body in the glorified state. Deification lies at the heart of the Orthodox doctrine of salvation (soteriology).

This perspective is quite different from the Protestant and Roman Catholic understanding of salvation in legal or forensic categories.

The doctrine of deification rests on three vital points:

The Creation of Man in the Image and Likeness of God

The Orthodox make a distinction between “image” and “likeness.” The image includes man’s free will, reason–everything that differentiates him from the animal creation and makes him a person. The likeness is not something man possesses from the beginning, but is something that he must acquire by degrees. To acquire the likeness is to be deified. Adam’s fall resulted in the clouding of man’s mind and the debilitation of his will-power, so that attainment of the likeness of God was no longer possible. At the same time, the fall did not destroy the image of God in man, as is held in some Protestant circles. Because man retains the divine image, he can exercise free will, though in an extremely limited sense. Orthodoxy stands in disagreement with the Augustinian/Calvinistic view of man as totally depraved and lacking freedom. Orthodoxy affirms the freedom of the will, despite the restrictions on it as a result of the fall. Because of this freedom, man is able to cooperate with God’s grace in a life of deification. This cooperation is known by the Orthodox as “synergy,” an essential term in their understanding of salvation. St. Paul expresses the relationship of God and man in deification: “We are laborers together (synergoi) with God.”[x] This union of God and man “requires the cooperation of two unequal, but equally necessary forces: divine grace and human will.”[xi]

The Orthodox Church regards the Virgin Mary as the greatest example of synergy. For the Incarnation, says Nicholas Cabasilas, “was not only the work of the Father, of His power and His Spirit . . . but it was of the will and the faith of the Virgin.”[xii]

Also, the Orthodox assert that all people inherit Adam’s mortality, but not his guilt. This lies in contrast to the western understanding of original sin as the transmission of Adam’s guilt to all people. Orthodoxy teaches that men are guilty insofar as they themselves choose to imitate Adam and disobey God. The Orthodox view the fall in terms of a barrier of sin that blocked the path of union with God. Through Christ and his work in overcoming sin, death, and the devil, the obstacles that denied humanity union with God were destroyed, and the path of union to the Triune God was made clear.

The Incarnation of the Word, Jesus Christ

The incarnation of Christ is foundational in the Orthodox theology of deification. At the conception of Jesus, the assumed human nature was united to his divine nature in the personal or “hypostatic” union. From that point, through all eternity, the two natures are united. In his person Christ (1) opened the eway of union with God; (2) manifested the “likeness of God”; (3) made the “likeness of God” attainable through his redemption; and,  (4) as the Second Adam, perfectly obedient to the Father’s will, he undid the effects of Adam’s disobedience.

Man’s Communion with God in the Holy Spirit

Deification begins in Holy Baptism. According to Orthodox, in Baptism, people are justified

(forgiven) and through the reception of the Holy Spirit in Chrismation, are sanctified (made holy). Orthodox do not make a radical distinction between justification and sanctification as do many Protestants. For Orthodox, the life of deification is a continual activity, involving justification in Baptism, Confession and Absolution, and the Eucharist. Sanctification is also part of the life of salvation, in which the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is manifested in the spiritual transformation of the believer. Deification will be complete on the day of resurrection, when the bodies of the saints will be transfigured by divine light as “spiritual bodies.”

[i]Ibid., 9 from a letter printed in W. J. Birkbeck, Russia and the English Church

[ii]Ibid., 2

[iii]Ibid., 2, citing Theodore Stylianopoulos, “Christ in Our Midst,”  Department of Religious Education, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, Brookline, MA (no date or page provided)

[iv]2 Thessalonians 2:15

[v]Peter E. Gillquist, Becoming Orthodox (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth and Hyatt, 1989), 68

[vi]2 Peter 1:21

[vii]Ware, 209

[viii]Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980), 98

[ix]2 Peter 1:4

[x]I Corinthians 3:9

[xi]Ware, 226-7

[xii]Ware, 263, citing Nicholas Cabasilas, “On the Annunciation”