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The Doctrine of the Orthodox Church: The Basic Doctrines

Introduction | History | Doctrine

Councils and Confessions | God and Man | Christ
The Holy Spirit | The Holy Trinity | The transcendence of God
Modern theological developments

COUNCILS AND CONFESSIONS

All Orthodox credal formulas, liturgical texts, and doctrinal statements affirm the claim that the Orthodox Church has preserved the original apostolic faith, which was also expressed in the common Christian tradition of the first centuries. The Orthodox Church recognizes as ecumenical the seven councils of Nicaea I (325), Constantinople I (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (681), and Nicaea II (787) but considers that the decrees of several other later councils also reflect the same original faith (e.g., the councils of Constantinople that endorsed the theology of St. Gregory Palamas in the 14th century). Finally, it recognizes itself as the bearer of an uninterrupted living tradition of true Christianity that is expressed in its worship, in the lives of the saints, and in the faith of the whole people of God.

In the 17th century, as a counterpart to the various "confessions" of the Reformation, there appeared several "Orthodox confessions," endorsed by local councils but, in fact, associated with individual authors (e.g., Metrophanes Critopoulos, 1625; Peter Mogila, 1638; Dostheos of Jerusalem, 1672). None of these confessions would be recognized today as having anything but historical importance. When expressing the beliefs of his church, the Orthodox theologian, rather than seeking literal conformity with any of these particular confessions, will rather look for consistency with Scripture and tradition, as it has been expressed in the ancient councils, the early Fathers, and the uninterrupted life of the liturgy. He will not shy away from new formulations if consistency and continuity of tradition are preserved.

What is particularly characteristic of this attitude toward the faith is the absence of any great concern for establishing external criteria of truth—a concern that has dominated Western Christian thought since the Middle Ages. Truth appears as a living experience accessible in the communion of the church and of which the Scriptures, the councils, and theology are the normal expressions. Even ecumenical councils, in the Orthodox perspective, need subsequent "reception" by the body of the church in order to be recognized as truly ecumenical. Ultimately, therefore, truth is viewed as its own criterion: there are signs that point to it, but none of these signs is a substitute for a free and personal experience of truth, which is made accessible in the sacramental fellowship of the church.

Because of this view of truth, the Orthodox have traditionally been reluctant to involve church authority in defining matters of faith with too much precision and detail. This reluctance is not due to relativism or indifference but rather to the belief that truth needs no definition to be the object of experience and that legitimate definition, when it occurs, should aim mainly at excluding error and not at pretending to reveal the truth itself that is believed to be ever present in the church.

GOD AND MAN

The development of the doctrines concerning the Trinity and the incarnation, as it took place during the first eight centuries of Christian history, was related to the concept of man's participation in divine life.

The Greek Fathers of the church always implied that the phrase found in the biblical story of the creation of man (Gen. 1:26), according to "the image and likeness of God," meant that man is not an autonomous being and that his ultimate nature is defined by his relation to God, his "prototype." In paradise Adam and Eve were called to participate in God's life and to find in him the natural growth of their humanity "from glory to glory." To be "in God" is, therefore, the natural state of man. This doctrine is particularly important in connection with the Fathers' view of human freedom. For theologians such as Gregory of Nyssa (4th century) and Maximus the Confessor (7th century) man is truly free only when he is in communion with God; otherwise he is only a slave to his body or to "the world," over which, originally and by God's command, he was destined to rule.

Thus, the concept of sin implies separation from God and the reduction of man to a separate and autonomous existence, in which he is deprived of both his natural glory and his freedom. He becomes an element subject to cosmic determinism, and the image of God is thus blurred within him.

Freedom in God, as enjoyed by Adam, implied the possibility of falling away from God. This is the unfortunate choice made by man, which led Adam to a subhuman and unnatural existence. The most unnatural aspect of his new state was death. In this perspective, "original sin" is understood not so much as a state of guilt inherited from Adam but as an unnatural condition of human life that ends in death. Mortality is what each man now inherits at his birth and this is what leads him to struggle for existence, to self-affirmation at the expense of others, and ultimately to subjection to the laws of animal life. The "prince of this world" (i.e., Satan), who is also the "murderer from the beginning," has dominion over man. From this vicious circle of death and sin, man is understood to be liberated by the death and Resurrection of Christ, which is actualized in Baptism and the sacramental life in the church.

The general framework of this understanding of the God-man relationship is clearly different from the view that became dominant in the Christian West—i.e., the view that conceived of "nature" as distinct from "grace" and that understood original sin as an inherited guilt rather than as a deprivation of freedom. In the East, man is regarded as fully man when he participates in God; in the West, man's nature is believed to be autonomous, sin is viewed as a punishable crime, and grace is understood to grant forgiveness. Hence, in the West, the aim of the Christian is justification, but in the East, it is rather communion with God and deification. In the West, the church is viewed in terms of mediation (for the bestowing of grace) and authority (for guaranteeing security in doctrine); in the East, the church is regarded as a communion in which God and man meet once again and a personal experience of divine life becomes possible.

CHRIST

The Orthodox Church is formally committed to the Christology (doctrine of Christ) that was defined by the councils of the first eight centuries. Together with the Latin Church of the West, it has rejected Arianism (a belief in the subordination of the Son to the Father) at Nicaea (325), Nestorianism (a belief that stresses the independence of the divine and human natures of Christ) at Ephesus (431), and Monophysitism (a belief that Christ had only one divine nature) at Chalcedon (451). The Eastern and Western churches still formally share the tradition of subsequent Christological developments, even though the famous formula of Chalcedon, "one person in two natures," is given different emphases in the East and West. The stress on Christ's identity with the preexistent Son of God, the Logos (Word) of the Gospel According to John, characterizes Orthodox Christology. On Byzantine icons, around the face of Jesus, the Greek letters '' —the equivalent of the Jewish Tetragrammaton YHWH, the name of God in the Old Testament—are often depicted. Jesus is thus always seen in his divine identity. Similarly, the liturgy consistently addresses the Virgin Mary as Theotokos (the "one who gave birth to God"), and this term, formally admitted as a criterion of orthodoxy at Ephesus, is actually the only "Mariological" (doctrine of Mary) dogma accepted in the Orthodox Church. It reflects the doctrine of Christ's unique divine Person, and Mary is thus venerated only because she is his mother "according to the flesh."

This emphasis on the personal divine identity of Christ, based on the doctrine of St. Cyril of Alexandria (5th century), does not imply the denial of his humanity. The anthropology (doctrine of man) of the Eastern Fathers does not view man as an autonomous being but rather implies that communion with God makes man fully human. Thus the human nature of Jesus Christ, fully assumed by the divine Word, is indeed the "new Adam" in whom the whole of humanity receives again its original glory. Christ's humanity is fully "ours"; it possessed all the characteristics of the human being—"each nature (of Christ) acts according to its properties," Chalcedon proclaimed, following Pope Leo—without separating itself from the divine Word. Thus, in death itself—for Jesus' death was indeed a fully human death—the Son of God was the "subject" of the Passion. The theopaschite formula ("God suffered in the flesh") became, together with the Theotokos formula, a standard of orthodoxy in the Eastern Church, especially after the second Council of Constantinople (553). It implied that Christ's humanity was indeed real not only in itself but also for God, since it brought him to death on the cross, and that the salvation and redemption of humanity can be accomplished by God alone—hence the necessity for him to condescend to death, which held humanity captive.

This theology of redemption and salvation is best expressed in the Byzantine liturgical hymns of Holy Week and Easter: Christ is the one who "tramples down death by death," and, on the evening of Good Friday, the hymns already exalt his victory. Salvation is conceived not in terms of satisfaction of divine justice, through paying the debt for the sin of Adam—as the medieval West understood it—but in terms of uniting the human and the divine with the divine overcoming human mortality and weakness and, finally, exalting man to divine life.

What Christ accomplished once and for all must be appropriated freely by those who are "in Christ"; their goal is "deification," which does not mean dehumanization but the exaltation of man to the dignity prepared for him at creation. Such feasts as the Transfiguration or the Ascension are extremely popular in the East precisely because they celebrate humanity glorified in Christ—a glorification that anticipates the coming of the Kingdom of God, when God will be "all in all."

Participation in the already deified humanity of Christ is the true goal of Christian life, and it is accomplished through the Holy Spirit.

THE HOLY SPIRIT

The gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost "called all men into unity," according to the Byzantine liturgical hymn of the day; into this new unity, which St. Paul called the "body of Christ," each individual Christian enters through Baptism and "chrismation" (the Eastern form of the Western "confirmation") when the priest anoints him saying "the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit."

This gift, however, requires man's free response. Orthodox saints such as Seraphim of Sarov (died 1833) described the entire content of Christian life as a "collection of the Holy Spirit." The Holy Spirit is thus conceived as the main agent of man's restoration to his original natural state through Communion in Christ's body. This role of the Spirit is reflected, very richly, in a variety of liturgical and sacramental acts. Every act of worship usually starts with a prayer addressed to the Spirit, and all major sacraments begin with an invocation to the Spirit. The eucharistic liturgies of the East attribute the ultimate mystery of Christ's Presence to a descent of the Spirit upon the worshipping congregation and upon the eucharistic bread and wine. The significance of this invocation (in Greek epiklesis) was violently debated between Greek and Latin Christians in the Middle Ages because the Roman canon of the mass lacked any reference to the Spirit and was thus considered as deficient by the Orthodox Greeks.

Since the Council of Constantinople (381), which condemned the Pneumatomachians ("fighters against the Spirit"), no one in the Orthodox East has ever denied that the Spirit is not only a "gift" but also the giver—i.e., that he is the third Person of the holy Trinity. The Greek Fathers saw in Gen. 1:2 a reference to the Spirit's cooperation in the divine act of creation; the Spirit was also viewed as active in the "new creation" that occurred in the womb of the Virgin Mary when she became the mother of Christ (Luke 1:35); and finally, Pentecost was understood to be an anticipation of the "last days" (Acts 2:17) when, at the end of history, a universal communion with God will be achieved. Thus, all the decisive acts of God are accomplished "by the Father in the Son, through the Holy Spirit."

THE HOLY TRINITY

By the 4th century a polarity developed between the Eastern and Western Christians in their respective understandings of the Trinity. In the West God was understood primarily in terms of one essence (the Trinity of Persons being conceived as an irrational truth found in revelation); in the East the tri-personality of God was understood as the primary fact of Christian experience. For most of the Greek Fathers, it was not the Trinity that needed theological proof but rather God's essential unity. The Cappadocian Fathers (Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Basil of Caesarea) were even accused of being tri-theists because of the personalistic emphasis of their conception of God as one essence in three hypostases (the Greek term hypostasis was the equivalent of the Latin substantia and designated a concrete reality). For Greek theologians, this terminology was intended to designate the concrete New Testamental revelation of the Son and the Spirit, as distinct from the Father.

Modern Orthodox theologians tend to emphasize this personalistic approach to God; they claim that they discover in it the original biblical personalism, unadulterated in its content by later philosophical speculation.

Polarization of the Eastern and the Western concepts of the Trinity is at the root of the Filioque dispute. The Latin word Filioque ("and from the Son") was added to the Nicene Creed in Spain in the 6th century. By affirming that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only "from the Father" (as the original creed proclaimed) but also "from the Son," the Spanish councils intended to condemn Arianism by reaffirming the Son's divinity. Later, however, the addition became an anti-Greek battle cry, especially after Charlemagne (9th century) made his claim to rule the revived Roman Empire. The addition was finally accepted in Rome under German pressure. It found justification in the framework of Western conceptions of the Trinity; the Father and the Son were viewed as one God in the act of "spiration" of the Spirit.

The Byzantine theologians opposed the addition, first on the ground that the Western Church had no right to change the text of an ecumenical creed unilaterally and, second, because the Filioque clause implied the reduction of the divine persons to mere relations ("the Father and the Son are two in relation to each other, but one in relation to the Spirit"). For the Greeks the Father alone is the origin of both the Son and the Spirit. Patriarch Photius (9th century) was the first Orthodox theologian to explicitly spell out the Greek opposition to the Filioque concept, but the debate continued throughout the Middle Ages.

THE TRANSCENDENCE OF GOD

An important element in the Eastern Christian understanding of God is the notion that God, in his essence, is totally transcendent and unknowable and that, strictly speaking, God can only be designated by negative attributes: it is possible to say what God is not, but it is impossible to say what he is.

A purely negative, or "apophatic" theology—the only one applicable to the essence of God in the Orthodox view—does not lead to agnosticism, however, because God reveals himself personally—as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and also in his acts, or "energies." Thus, true knowledge of God always includes three elements: religious awe; personal encounter; and participation in the acts, or energies, which God freely bestows on creation.

This conception of God is connected with the personalistic understanding of the Trinity. It also led to the official confirmation by the Orthodox Church of the theology of St. Gregory Palamas, the leader of Byzantine hesychasts (monks devoted to divine quietness through prayer), at the councils of 1341 and 1351 in Constantinople. The councils confirmed a real distinction in God, between the unknowable essence and the acts, or "energies," which make possible a real communion with God. The deification of man, realized in Christ once and for all, is thus accomplished by a communion of divine energy with humanity in Christ's glorified manhood.

MODERN THEOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENTS

Until the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks (1453), Byzantium was the unquestioned intellectual centre of the Orthodox Church. Far from being monolithic, Byzantine theological thought was often polarized by a Humanistic trend, favouring the use of Greek philosophy in theological thinking, and the more austere and mystical theology of the monastic circles. The concern for preservation of Greek culture and for the the political salvation of the empire led several prominent Humanists to adopt a position favourable to union with the West. The most creative theologians (e.g., Symeon the New Theologian, died 1033; Gregory Palamas, died 1359; Nicholas Cabasilas, died c. 1390), however, were found rather in the monastic party that continued the tradition of patristic spirituality based upon the theology of deification.

The 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries were the dark age of Orthodox theology. Neither in the Middle East nor in the Balkans nor in Russia was there any opportunity for independent theological creativity. Since no formal theological education was accessible, except in Western Roman Catholic or Protestant schools, the Orthodox tradition was preserved primarily through the liturgy, which retained all its richness and often served as a valid substitute for formal schooling. Most doctrinal statements of this period, issued by councils or by individual theologians, were polemical documents directed against Western missionaries.

After the reforms of Peter the Great (died 1725), a theological school system was organized in Russia. Shaped originally in accordance with Western Latin models and staffed with Jesuit-trained Ukrainian personnel, this system developed, in the 19th century, into a fully independent and powerful tool of theological education. The Russian theological efflorescence of the 19th and 20th centuries produced many scholars, especially in the historical field (e.g., Philaret Drozdov, died 1867; V.O. Klyuchevsky, died 1913; V.V. Bolotov, died 1900; E.E. Golubinsky, died 1912; N.N. Glubokovsky, died 1937). Independently of the official theological schools, a number of laymen with secular training developed theological and philosophical traditions of their own and exercised a great influence on modern Orthodox theology (e.g., A.S. Khomyakov, died 1860; V.S. Solovyev, died 1900; N. Berdyayev, died 1948), and some became priests (P. Florensky, died 1943; S. Bulgakov, died 1944). A large number of the Russian theological intelligentsia (e.g., S. Bulgakov, G. Florovsky) emigrated to western Europe after the Russian Revolution (1917) and played a leading role in the ecumenical movement.

With the independence of the Balkans, theological schools were also created in Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. Modern Greek scholars contributed to the publication of important Byzantine ecclesiastical texts and produced standard theological textbooks.

The Orthodox diaspora—the emigration from eastern Europe and the Middle East—in the 20th century has contributed to modern theological development through their establishment of theological centres in western Europe and America.

Orthodox theologians reacted negatively to the new dogmas proclaimed by Pope Pius IX: the Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854) and papal infallibility (1870). In connection with the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, proclaimed by Pope Pius XII (1950), the objections mainly concerned the presentation of such a tradition in the form of a dogma.

In contrast to the recent general trend of Western Christian thought toward social concerns, Orthodox theologians generally emphasize that the Christian faith is primarily a direct experience of the Kingdom of God, sacramentally present in the church. Without denying that Christians have a social responsibility to the world, they consider this responsibility as an outcome of the life in Christ. This traditional position accounts for the remarkable survival of the Orthodox Churches under the most contradictory and unfavourable of social conditions, but, to Western eyes, it often appears as a form of passive fatalism.

Webmaster Note: This page was retrieved from www.archive.org after decani.yunet.com went defunct following the Kosovo conflict. This page was originally created by monks at Decani Monastery in Kosovo. It has been slightly edited for inclusion on this site. Abridged, from Callistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 12-16.