The Doctrine of the Orthodox Church: Orthodoxy in the World
ARCHITECTURE AND ICONOGRAPHY
Since the time of Constantine I, Eastern Christianity has developed a
variety of patterns in church architecture. The chief model was created
when Emperor Justinian I completed the "great church" of Hagia Sophia in
Constantinople in the 6th century. The architectural conception of that
church consisted of erecting a huge round dome on top of the classical
early Christian basilica. The dome was meant to symbolize the descent of
heaven upon earthi.e., the ultimate meaning of the eucharistic
The screen, or iconostasis, which separates the sanctuary from the nave
in contemporary Orthodox Churches, is a rather late development. After the
triumph of orthodoxy over iconoclasm (destruction of images) in 843, a new
emphasis was placed upon the permanent revelatory role of images. The
incarnation implied that God had become mani.e., fully visible and thus
describable in his human nature. The images of Christ and the saints, who
had manifested in their lives the new humanity transfigured by the grace
of God, were placed everywhere in full evidence before the congregation. A
contrast was thus suggested between the visible manifestation of God
through the pictural representation of Christ as man and his more perfect
but mysterious and invisible presence in the Eucharist. The iconostasis,
together with those parts of the liturgy that involve the closing and
opening of the curtain before the altar, emphasizes the mysterious and
"eschatological" (consummation of history) character of the eucharistic
service. They suggest, however, that this mystery is not a "secret" and
that the Christian is being introduced through the eucharistic liturgy
into the very reality of divine life and of the kingdom to come, which was
revealed when God became man.
The long Iconoclastic Controversy (725-843), during which the Orthodox
theology of icons was fully developed, concerned itself primarily with the
problem of the incarnation; it was the direct continuation of the
Christological debates of the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries. The image of
Christ, the incarnated God, became, for the Eastern Christian, a pictorial
confession of faith: God was truly visible in the humanity of Jesus of
Nazareth, and the saintswhose images surround that of Christare
witnesses of the fact that the transfigured, "deified" humanity is
accessible to those who believe in Christ.
Departing from tridimensional images or statues, which were reminiscent
of pagan idolatry, the Christian East developed a rich tradition of
iconography. Portable iconsoften painted on wood but also using mosaics
with enamel techniquesare always kept in houses or public places. Among
the icon painters, who never signed their work, there appeared several
artists of genius. Most of them are unknown, but tradition and written
documents have revealed the names of some, such as the famous
14th-15th-century Russian painter Andrey Rublyov.
THE CHURCH AND THE WORLD
The schism between the Greek and the Latin churches coincided
chronologically with a surge of Christian missionary activity in northern
and eastern Europe. Both sides contributed to the resultant expansion of
Christianity but used different methods. The West imposed a Latin liturgy
on the new converts and thus made Latin the only vehicle of Christian
civilization and a major instrument of ecclesiastical unity. The East,
meanwhile, as noted above, accepted from the start the principle of
translating both the Scriptures and the liturgy into the spoken tongues of
the converted nations. Christianity thus became integrated into the
indigenous cultures of the Slavic nations, and the universal Orthodox
Church evolved as a fellowship of national churches rather than as a
MISSIONS: ANCIENT AND MODERN
The Christian East, in spite of the integrating forces of Christian
Hellenism, was always culturally pluralistic: since the first centuries of
Christianity, Syrians, Armenians, Georgians, Copts, Ethiopians, and other
ethnic groups used their own languages in worship and developed their own
liturgical traditions. Even though by the time of the Greek missions to
the Slavs the Byzantine Church was almost monolithically Greek, the idea
of a liturgy in the vernacular was still quite alive, as is demonstrated
by the use of the Slavic language by the missionaries of SS. Cyril and
Methodius in the 9th century.
The Turkish conquest of the Middle East and of the Balkans (15th
century) interrupted the missionary expansion of the Orthodox Church.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Islam and Christianity had usually confronted
each other only militarily, and the victory of Islam meant that the
Christians could survive only in enclaves and were legally excluded from
proselytizing among Muslims.
The Russian Church alone was able to continue the tradition of SS.
Cyril and Methodius, and it did so almost without interruption until the
modern period. In the 14th century St. Stephen of Perm translated the
Scriptures and the liturgy into the language of a Finnish tribe of the
Russian north and became the first bishop of the Zyrians. The expansion of
the Russian Empire in Asia was accompanied by efforts of evangelization
thatsometimes in opposition to the avowed policy of Russianization
practiced by the government of St. Petersburgfollowed the Cyrillo-Methodian pattern of translation. This method was utilized among
the Tatars of the Volga in the 16th century and among the various peoples
of Siberia throughout the 18th and the 19th centuries. In 1714 a mission
was established in China. In 1794 monks of the Valamo Abbey reached
Alaska; their spiritual leader, the monk Herman, was canonized by the
Orthodox Church in 1970. Missions in the Islamic sphere resumed to the
extent that by the year 1903 the liturgy was celebrated in more than 20
languages in the region of Kazan.
The Alaskan mission was under the direction of a modest priest sent to
America from eastern Siberia, Ivan Veniaminov. During his long stay in
America, first as a priest, then as a bishop (1824-68), he engaged in the
work of translating the Gospels and the liturgy into the languages of the
Aleuts, the Tlingit Indians, and the Eskimos of Alaska.
In Japan an Orthodox Church was established by the recently canonized
St. Nikolay Kasatkin (died 1913). The distinctively Japanese character of
this church enabled it to survive the political trials of the
Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), of the Russian Revolution, and of World War
II. The new Church of Japan received its full autonomy from the Russian
Church in 1970.
The missionary tradition is also being revived in Greece. Various Greek
associations are dedicated to the pursuit of missionary work in East
Africa, where sizable indigenous groups have recently joined the Orthodox
ORTHODOXY AND OTHER CHRISTIANS
Since the failure of the unionist Council of Florence (1439) there have
been no official attempts to restore unity between the Orthodox Church and
Roman Catholicism. In 1484 an Orthodox council defined that Roman
Catholics desiring to join the Orthodox Church were to be received through
chrismation (or confirmation). In the 17th century, however, the relations
deteriorated to the point that the ecumenical patriarchate of
Constantinople decreed that all Roman Catholic and Protestant sacraments,
including Baptism, were totally unauthentic. A parallel attitude prevailed
in Russia until the 18th century, when large numbers of Eastern Rite Roman
Catholics ("Uniates") were received back into Orthodoxy by a simple
confession of faith, and this practice was adopted in the acceptance of
individual Roman Catholics as well. However the practice of receiving
heterodox to Orthodox Church varies today from the traditionalist attitude
which requires baptism to more liberal receiving through chrismation.
After the 16th-century Reformation, a lengthy correspondence took place
between the Tbingen group of Reformers (German Lutheran) headed by P.
Melanchthon and ecumenical Patriarch Jeremias II. It led to no concrete
results, for the East generally considered the Protestants as only a
branch of deviation of the altogether erroneous Roman Church.
Various attempts at rapprochement with the Anglican Communion,
especially since the 19th century, were generally more fruitful. Several
private associations of churchmen and theologians promoted understanding
between Eastern Orthodoxy and the "Anglo-Catholic" branch of Anglicanism.
The Orthodox, however, were reticent in taking any formal step toward
reunion before a satisfactory statement on the content of Anglican faith,
taken as a whole, could be obtained.
The contemporary ecumenical movement involved the Orthodox Church from
the very beginning. Eastern Orthodox representatives took part in the
various Life and Work (practical) and Faith and Order (theological)
Conferences from the very beginning of this century. One by one the
various independent Orthodox Churches joined the World Council of
Churches, created in 1948. Often, and especially at the beginning of their
participation, Orthodox delegates had recourse to separate statements,
which made clear to the Protestant majorities that, in the Orthodox view,
Christian unity was attainable only in the full unity of the primitive
apostolic faith from which the Orthodox Church had never departed. This
attitude of the Orthodox could be understood only if it made sufficiently
clear that the truthwhich historic Eastern Orthodoxy claims to
preserveis maintained by the Holy Spirit in the church as a whole and
not by any individual or any group of individuals on their own right and
also that the unity of Christianswhich is the goal of the ecumenical
movementdoes not imply cultural, intellectual, or ritual uniformity but
rather a mystical fellowship in the fullness of truth as expressed in
The ecumenical movement, especially since the second Vatican Council,
is today much wider than the formal membership of the World Council of
Churches. Since then there have been numerous contacts between Orthodox
and Roman Catholic theologians. In the recent years the relations between
Orthodoxy and Rome have become much colder because of the Uniate problem
in the Eastern Europe.
The tendency, however, represented by those Western Christians who
apparently identify Christianity with various political or social causes
has the effect of again widening the traditional gap that has been, in the
past, one of the major causes of the break between East and West.
Despite the offical involvement of Orthodox Church in the ecumenical
movement there is rising tendency among more traditionalist thinking
clergy and monastics that such engagement is very harmful for Orthodoxy.
According to such opinions Orthodox representatives in the ecumenical
movement are seriously influenced by certain protestant theories and are
not so ready to confess the the attitude that the Orthodox Church is the
only true Church of Christ but tend to accept relativist ideas according
to which all Christian denominations are branches of the same ecclesiastic
tree (Branch Theory). The recent activities of the World Council of
Churches have shown a serious tendencies of accepting religious syncretism
and rather liberal attitude towards the questions of traditional Christan
moral (same sex marriages, women priesthood etc).
CHURCH, STATE, AND SOCIETY
In the West, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the church assumed the
unifying social function that no other individual or institution was able
to fulfill. Eventually, the popes were formally invested with civil
authority in Christendom. In the East the empire persisted until 1453 and
in Russia until 1917; thus the church had to fulfill its social functions
in the political framework of the Christian empire.
This historical contrast coincides with a theological polarization: the
Eastern Fathers conceived the God-man relationship in terms of personal
experience and Communion culminating in deification; Western theology,
meanwhile, understood man as autonomous in the secular sphere, although
controlled by the authority of the church, which was conceived as
vicariously representing God.
The Byzantine and Eastern form of church-state relations has often been
labelled as caesaropapism, because the hierarchy of the church was, most
of the time, deprived of the legal possibility of opposing imperial power.
But this label is inaccurate in two aspects: first, it presupposes that
the emperor possessed a recognizable power to define the content of the
faith, comparable to that of the papacy; and, second, it underestimates
the power of the church (as a corporate, transfiguring, and deifying
power) that is effective without legal guarantees or statutes. The
Byzantine ideal of church-state relations was a "symphony" between the
civil and the ecclesiastical functions of Christian society. The abuses of
imperial power were frequent, but innumerable examples of popular
resistance to those imperial decrees that were considered as detrimental
to the faith can be cited. Neither the strong emperors of the 7th century,
trying to impose Monophysitism, nor the weakened Palaeologans (13th to
15th century), attempting reunion with Rome, were able to overcome the
corporate opposition of Orthodox clergy and laity.
The Byzantine conception of church-state relations was not, however,
without major weaknesses. It often led to a de facto identification of the
interests of the church with those of the empire. Conceived when both the
church and the empire were supranational and, in principle, universal, it
gradually evolved into a system that gave a sacred sanction to national
states. Modern ecclesiastical nationalism, which inhibits relations
between Orthodox Churches today, is the outcome of the medieval alliance
between the empire and the church.
Only after the Turkish occupation of the Balkans was civil authority
directly assumed by the Orthodox Church hierarchy in the Middle East. It
was granted to it by the new Muslim overlords, who chose to administer
their Christian subjects as a separate community, or millet, ruled by its
own religious leaders. The patriarch of Constantinople was thus appointed
by the sultan as head (millet-bachi) of the entire Christian population of
the Ottoman Empire. Understood by some, especially the Greeks, as the heir
of Byzantine emperors and by others, especially the Balkan Slavs and
Romanians, as an agent of the hated Turks, the patriarch exercised these
powers until the secularization of the Turkish republic by Kemal Atatrk
in 1921. By that time, however, he had lost most of his jurisdictional
powers because of the establishment of autocephalous churches in Greece,
Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania.
The millet system, however, survived in other areas of the Middle East.
In Cyprus, for example, the church assumed a leading role in national
liberation, and its prestige made Archbishop Makarios the natural leader
of the young republic.
The millet system and the active political responsibilities that it
implied for the church, it should be noted, originated in the Ottoman
period only and is not in the spiritual tradition of the Christian East as
such. The Russian Church is the most recent example of religious survival
without practical social or political involvement.
The Orthodox attitude toward social responsibility in the world
constitutes a distinct contribution to the contemporary ecumenical
movement. But it will be meaningful only if it is understood in its proper
frameworki.e., as an understanding of the Christian faith as a personal
spiritual experience of God, which is self-sufficient knowledge of God and
which, as such, can lead to an authentically Christian witness in the
The practical forms of that witness have varied greatly in history, and
Orthodox tradition has placed among the church's saints both hermits and
politicians, hesychast monks as well as emperors. According to Serge
Bulgakov, a modern Orthodox theologian, the Orthodox Church accepts "a
relativism of means and methods," provided there remains "an absolute and
unique goal," which is the Kingdom of God still to come but also already
present in the mystery of the church.
Codification and systematization of practical devices in the fields of
personal or social ethics is foreign to Orthodoxy, which rather relies on
free human conscience; each Christian, in his behaviour, stands before the
judgment of the New Testament and of the great examples of the
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