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

The Doctrine of God

While there is overwhelming similarity between Trinitarian theology among Orthodox, Catholics, and most Protestants, Orthodoxy has some unique perspectives on the doctrine of God that are worth noting.

Apophatic and Cataphatic Theology

Orthodoxy safeguards the absolute transcendence of God by use of the “apophatic” theology, or the “way of negation.”  Positive or “cataphatic” theology must be balanced and corrected by the use of “apophatic” theology. The cataphatic way proceeds with the positive affirmations regarding God. While it leads to some knowledge of God, it is incomplete in light of the transcendence of God. The theologian becomes aware of the utter futility of categorizing God in the limited concepts of the created order.

The Paradox of Christian Revelation

God is above and outside his creation, yet, in the Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, He also exists within it.

Orthodoxy distinguishes between God’s “essence” and His “energies,”  safeguarding divine transcendence and immanence. God’s essence his unapproachable, but His energies come down to us. God’s energies, which are God himself, permeate all of his creation. God’s people experience them in deifying grace and divine light. His light is revealed to those who seek communion with God through the apophatic way. The path ofapophasis leads to silence, darkness, emptiness–nothing but mystical union with Him “who filleth all in all.”[i]

God is Personal

God is not only a God who acts in energies, but is a personal God. God is not a single person confined within his own being, but a Trinity of three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of whom dwells in the other two.

The Importance of the Filioque Issue

The issue of the filioque separates Orthodoxy from Protestants and Roman Catholics. Protestants, working with the structure of the Roman Catholic Church in their “reformational surgery,” retained the Roman inclusion of the filioque. Why is this issue taken so seriously by the Orthodox? First, the doctrine of the Trinity, for Orthodox, lies at the heart of Christian theology. Second, following the guidance of the Cappadocian Fathers, the Orthodox affirm the Father as the source of the Trinity. He is the principle of unity among the threePersons. He is the source of the Son and the source of the Holy Spirit.

The Orthodox contend that, with the filioque,  the Father ceases to be the unique source of the Godhead in eternity. Rome finds its principle of unity in the essence which all three Persons share. In Orthodoxy, the principle of God’s unity is personal. Put another way, the Roman Catholic theology of the Trinity begins with the essence and leads to the three Persons; the Orthodox position begins with the three Persons and leads to the unity in essence.

This issue also hinges on the meaning of the word “proceed.” This word refers to the eternal

generation of the Spirit from the Father. The Orthodox distinguish between the eternal procession and the temporal “sending of the Spirit” by the Son. The Orthodox position on the procession is based on John 15:26: “When the Comforter has come, whom I will send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father [emphasis mine], he shall testify of me.” Christ sends the Spirit in the course of time, but the Spirit proceeds from the Father from all eternity.

For the Orthodox, the filioque leads to a confusion of Father and Son since there can be only one source of the Trinity. Latin theology, in order to compensate for the Orthodox charges, tended to emphasize the essence of God at the expense of the persons. For Orthodox theologians, this seems to turn God into an abstract and impersonal being, whose existence must be proved by metaphysical arguments.

The Sacraments of the Church

The Orthodox Church is a sacramental church. The sacraments, or mysteries, as they are

called in Greek, are central to the worship of the Orthodox churches and to the life of deification. A sacrament is a divine rite instituted by Christ and/or the Apostles which through visible signs conveys the hidden grace of God. In most of the sacraments the Church takes material things and makes them vehicles of the Holy Spirit. In this way the sacraments look back to the Incarnation when Christ assumed human flesh and made it a vehicle of the Holy Spirit; they also look forward to the redemption of matter on the Last Day.

The Orthodox Church normally speaks of seven sacraments. However, the Orthodox never limited the Sacraments to seven. The number seven is symbolic and is used to indicate the perfection of God’s grace.

And among the sacraments, there is a hierarchy of importance, with the Eucharist occupying

the position of greatest importance.

The Orthodox Church numbers among the Sacraments the following:

1) Baptism

2) Chrismation

3) The Eucharist

4) Repentance

5) Holy Orders

6) Holy Matrimony

7) Anointing of the Sick

The Orthodox also consider other actions of the Church as possessing a sacramental character. These sacramentals include the blessing of the waters at Epiphany, monastic profession, preaching, the icon, the relics of saints, and so forth. In the words of Bishop Kallistos Ware:

The whole Christian life must be seen as a unity, as a single unity, as a single mystery or one great sacrament, whose different aspects are expressed in a great variety of acts, some performed but once in a man’s life, others perhaps daily.[ii]

The sacraments are personal and are imparted to individuals, usually by name.

The Sacraments of Initiation

The Orthodox Church continues to follow the early church practice of linking Baptism, Chrismation, and First Communion. Orthodox children are not only baptized as infants, but also confirmed and given Communion in infancy.


The two essential elements of Baptism are the invocation of the Triune God and the three-fole immersion in water. If the person to be baptized is too ill to be immersed, pouring over the head is permitted.

Normally, immersion must not be omitted. The Orthodox do not understand the practice of western Christendom in pouring a little water over the candidates forehead. Since baptism signifies a mystical burial and resurrection with Christ, sacramental symbolism requires that the candidate be immersed or “buried” and then “rise.”[iii]

The Orthodox regard the benefits of baptism as the forgiveness of all sins, whether actual or original and union with Christ by becoming members of His Body, the Church.

Baptism must normally be performed by a bishop or priest. In cases of emergency a deacon or any Christian man or woman may baptize. The Orthodox Church does not recognize a baptism administered by a non-Christian.


Immediately after baptism, the candidate is “chrismated” or “confirmed.” The priest takes a special oil, the Chrism, and anoints various parts of the person’s body with the sign of the cross: the forehead, the eyes, nostrils, mouth, and ears, the breast, the hands, and the feet. As he marks each, he says: “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.”[iv]Chrismation imparts the Holy Spirit, making the person a full member of the Church.

Chrismation is the continuation of the apostolic “laying on of hands,” so prominent in the

New Testament.  According to I John 2:20: ” You have an anointing (chrisma) from the Holy One, and know all things.”

In the Orthodox Church a priest administers Chrismation. The Chrism must be blessed by his

bishop. In the West, however,  the bishop normally administers Chrismation.

Converts to Orthodoxy who were previously baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity are received into the Church through Chrismation.

The Eucharist

The Orthodox Church believes that the bread and wine become the body and  blood of Jesus

in Holy Communion. The Orthodox reject a symbolic interpretation of the Eucharist, holding firmly to the Real Presence of Christ. While it insists on the reality of the change of the elements into the body and blood of Christ, the Orthodox have never tried to explain the manner of the change.

The consecration of the gifts is understood differently in the Orthodox Church than in western Christendom. For western Christendom, the consecration is effected by the Words of Institution: “This is my body…This is my blood.” The Orthodox  assert that the consecration is not complete until the end of the Epiclesis (the invocation of the Holy Spirit). In fact, the entire Eucharistic prayer, including Words of Institution, is essential as the singular act of consecration. The Orthodox would never single out a “moment of consecration.”

In every Orthodox Church the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in a tabernacle on the altar.

Also, the Orthodox do not have any services of devotion before the reserved sacrament.

The Orthodox Church believes the Eucharist to be a sacrifice. This is indicated in the words of the  Divine Liturgy itself: “Thine of thine own do we offer Thee, in all and for all.” Christ is the sacrifice: he is both victim and priest. The Eucharist is neither a new sacrifice nor a repetition of the sacrifice on Calvary. Rather, the events of Christ’s sacrifice –the Incarnation, Last Supper, Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and Ascension–are made present for the people.

The Orthodox receive Communion “under both kinds.” The laity receive the Eucharist in a spoon, containing the consecrated bread and wine. They receive the Eucharist standing. Orthodoxy requires communicants to observe a strict fast prior to receiving the Eucharist. Also, preparation through Confession is normally required of all communicants.

The Sacraments of Continuation


Through this sacrament, sins committed after baptism are forgiven. Repentance is thus often called a “Second Baptism.”

In Orthodoxy confessions are heard, not in a confessional booth, but normally before the icon of Christ on the iconostasis (the icon screen). This arrangement underscores the Orthodox understanding of questions the penitent concerning his sins and gives him advice, the priest lays his stole on the penitent’s head, placing his hand on the stole, and speaks the Prayer of Absolution.

In Orthodoxy there is no strict rule as to how frequently Confession must be made. In some parishes, Confession is required before each reception of the Eucharist. In other parishes, the priest may not require Confession before each Communion.

Holy Orders

There are three “Major Orders” in the Orthodox Church: Bishop, Priest, and Deacon. There are also two “Minor orders”: Subdeacon and Reader. Only a bishop has the power to ordain. The consecration of a new bishop requires a minimum of two bishops. An ordination also requires the consent of the people; during a part of the service the people acclaim the ordination with the Greek word “axios!” (“He is worthy!”).

Orthodox priests are divided into two groups: the “white” (married clergy) or the “black” (monastic). Men seeking ordination must make their minds up to which order they wish to belong. After ordination to a Major order, a monastic cannot marry. If a monastic decides to marry, he must leave the ranks of the clergy. If a priest’s wife dies, he must remain unmarried if he wishes to continue serving as a priest.

Only monks may become bishops, if so chosen by the Church. If a priest’s wife dies, and he takes monastic vows, he would be eligible to serve as a bishop, if so chosen.

The service of deacons is quite prominent in the Orthodox Church. The diaconate is the lowest order of ordained ministry in the Church. The Orthodox Church does not ordain women.


The Orthodox regard marriage as not only a state of nature but a state of grace. Marriage is a special vocation, requiring a gift of the Holy Spirit. This gift is imparted in Holy Matrimony.

The Marriage Service is divided into two parts: the Office of Betrothal and the Office of Crowning.

The Betrothal involves the blessing and exchange of rings. The second part of the service

culminates in the crowning. The crowns, placed on the heads of the couple, are the outward sign of the Sacrament, signifying the grace of the Holy Spirit that they are about to receive. Their crowns are crowns of joy as well as martyrdom, since marriage entails self-sacrifice.  At the end of the service, the couple share a cup of wine, recalling the feast of Cana in John 2.

The Orthodox Church permits divorce and remarriage. Since Christ made an exception, so also his Church. The Orthodox regard marriage as life-long and indissoluble. Divorce is regarded as a concession to human sin; it is an act of “economy.” The principle of “economy” is employed in the Orthodox Church for the sake of love and compassion.

The Orthodox Canons permit divorce only in the cases of adultery. In practice divorce is granted for other reasons as well. Remarriage in the Church is possible only when Church officials have granted the divorce.

The Orthodox Church strongly discourages the use of birth control devices. While some bishops condemn their use altogether, most leave it to the discretion of the couple, in consultation with their spiritual father.

The Anointing of the Sick

The Sacrament of Anointing, applied to the sick,  is based on the words of St. James (5:15-16): “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. . . “  This sacrament has a two-fold purpose: the healing of the body and the forgiveness of sins. The comparable sacrament in the Catholic Church is that of Extreme Unction; however, that  sacrament is for the dying only.

The Sacrament of Anointing is not a guarantee of recovery. Sometimes it serves as an instrument of healing. Other times it simply helps the sick person prepare for death.

[i]Ephesians 1:23

[ii]Ware, 283

[iii]See Romans 6:4,5

[iv]Ware, 285