GodApr 19, 2017 by Sam Storms
News broke this past week that Hank Hannegraaf, of the Bible Answer Man radio program, was
There are @ 6 million people in the U.S. who identify with the Orthodox faith, and @ 200-215 million worldwide (70 million of whom are in Russia alone), all of whom are gathered into one of the 13 autocephalous or “self-governing” Orthodox churches throughout the world. The head of each autocephalous church is called a Patriarch. The Patriarch of Constantinople is given greater
Although these many autocephalous churches are independent, they maintain (so they assert) complete agreement on matters of doctrine and are in sacramental communion with each other.
Before I describe ten of the more important beliefs of Eastern Orthodoxy, a brief history of the Church should be noted.
The east also allowed some of its clergy to marry while the west required celibacy. In the
“At the risk of oversimplification, it can be said that the Latin approach was more practical, the Greek more speculative; Latin thought was influenced by juridical ideas, by the concepts of Roman law, while the Greeks understood theology in the context of worship and in the light of the Holy Liturgy. When thinking about the Trinity, Latins started with the unity of the Godhead, Greeks with the threeness of the persons; when reflecting on the Crucifixion, Latins thought primarily of Christ the Victim, Greeks of Christ the Victor; Latins talked more of redemption, Greeks of deification; and so on” (TOC, 48).
Among the many causes for the split between Rome and Constantinople, I only mention the following.
The east accused the western church of heresy when they, following the theology of Augustine, inserted the term filioque (“and the Son”) into the Nicene Creed. In its original form, the creed affirmed that the Holy Spirit proceeded “from the Father.” At some later time (no one knows for sure when or how or by whom, but most likely it originated in Spain) the word filioque was added to affirm that the Spirit also proceeded “from the Son.” They believed this reinforced the Deity of the Son against Arian threats. It was ratified at the Council of Toledo in 589 and spread rapidly into France, Germany, and was eventually endorsed by Charlemagne. Orthodox believers regarded this as a violation of the finality and authority of the early ecumenical councils and the wisdom of the Fathers. They also regarded it as theologically untrue and a threat to the doctrine of the Trinity.
After centuries of squabbling and mutual recriminations, Pope Leo IX sent his legate, Cardinal Humbert, to the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. On June 16, 1054, Humbert (not a particularly compassionate or cordial man!) delivered the papal bull of excommunication that anathematized the Orthodox Patriarch Michael Cerularius. As he departed, he shook the dust from his feet and declared: “Let God look and judge.” Michael, as one might expect, reciprocated. According to Bell, “Humbert had excommunicated the eastern patriarch, not the eastern church; Michael had excommunicated Humbert, not the papacy. In other words, the mutual excommunications were personal rather than institutional, and over the next few
The final blow came in 1204 when western troops on their way to Egypt in the Fourth Crusade took a detour through Constantinople. They had been invited to Constantinople by Alexius, son of the emperor, ostensibly to restore the latter to the power from which he had been deposed. Alexius failed to live up to his end of the bargain, principally his promise to reward them financially. They stormed the city and ransacked the Church of the Holy Wisdom, regarded as an act of inexcusable desecration by eastern Christians (French prostitutes who had accompanied the soldiers caroused in the church, one of whom sat defiantly on the throne of the patriarch). For three days they burned libraries, ransacked, pillaged, desecrated and destroyed every
We are now ready to look at 10 important things that are believed by the Eastern Orthodox.
(1) The Eastern Church acknowledges that the pope deserves primacy of
(2) The east’s approach to theological reflection is known by the name Apophaticism. This doctrine is derived from the word apophasis which means “beyond/above words or ideas”. It stands opposed to the Cataphatic (“according to words or ideas”) theology of affirmation in the west. Apophatic theology begins with the conscious awareness that because God is so radically transcendent no human language or concepts can adequately grasp or articulate his essential nature. God is so utterly incomprehensible that the only thing comprehensible about him is his incomprehensibility! Apophatic theology tries to describe what God is not. Therefore, all our conceptions
Thus the emphasis in Orthodoxy is
(3) The Eastern Church also
The icons in an Orthodox church are not hung on walls haphazardly, “but according to a definite theological scheme, so that the whole edifice forms one great icon or image of the Kingdom of God” (TOC, 271). One may rightly “venerate” or “
Thus, as one author has said, “sights and sounds point the way to God, not philosophic speculation or literary subtlety” (Billington, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture [New York: Random House, 1966], 38). A common sight in Orthodox services is
The Orthodox emphasis on icons and images was attacked by an appeal to the prohibition in Exodus 20:4 and the statement in John 1:18 (“no one has seen God at any time”). Their response: (1) Exodus 20:4 is a prohibition of pagan images created to replace the worship of the one true God. (2) The OT prohibition of images was itself relative, not absolute, for God commanded a whole array of material
(4) Eastern Orthodoxy does not
The Orthodox make a distinction between what they call the essence of God and the energies of God. Union with God that comes via theosis is union with the energies of God but not his essence. God and man are not to be thought of as fused or joined into one being. The Creator-creature distinction always remains. God retains his personal identity and we retain ours.
The body, no less than the soul, experiences theosis, although not fully so until the day of resurrection. However, the Orthodox believe that certain saints have experienced the first-fruits of bodily theosis in this life. It is this latter reality that accounts for the Orthodox attitude toward relics. Says Ware,
“Like Roman Catholics, they [the Orthodox] believe that the grace of God present in the saints’ bodies during life remains active in their relics when they have
(5) While the Orthodox do embrace Scripture as a religious authority, it is not the sole or final authority. The Holy Spirit speaks to his people through apostolic tradition, through the seven ecumenical councils, through the church fathers, through canon law, even through icons. Thus, “to an extent matched by no other Christian communion, Orthodoxy claims that it alone has maintained an unbroken continuity with the apostolic faith of the New Testament, that it alone is the true visible church, and that salvation outside of the Orthodox church is a questionable assumption” (Clendenin, 30). Clearly, Orthodoxy places great weight on what they believe is the unbroken inward continuity with the church of ancient times. Tradition, says Ware,
“means the books of the Bible; it means the Creed; it means the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Fathers; it means the Canons, the Service Books, the Holy Icons – in fact, the whole system of doctrine, Church government, worship, spirituality and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages” (TOC, 196).
Thus, whereas Scripture actually exists within or is a part of the Tradition, it is given a pre-eminence above the other elements. The Orthodox emphasis on tradition can be seen in the statement by Jaroslav Pelikan who noted that “the greatest insult one could pay to any [Orthodox] theologian . . . would be to call him a 'creative mind’” (The Spirit of Eastern Christendom, vii).
The Orthodox do affirm the sufficiency of Scripture (ad
(6) The Orthodox believe that the voice of God can be heard in the seven ecumenical councils no less than in Scripture. These councils “possess, along with the Bible, an abiding and irrevocable authority” (Ware, TOC, 202): Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680), the
(7) As for the sacraments, like the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodoxy
“That justifying and sanctifying divine grace which abides in the church is administered by the church to the people by means of the holy mysteries, which are divinely instituted ceremonies that deliver, by visible means, mysteriously transmitted invisible grace. Thus it is that the sacraments, when they are worthily received, become instruments, means of transmission, of divine grace” (John Karmiris, “Concerning the Sacraments,” in A Synopsis of the Dogmatic Theology of the Orthodox Catholic Church, trans. George Dimopoulos [Scranton: Christian Orthodox Edition, 1973], p. 21 in Clendenin.)
“Each sacrament transmits its own particular grace. Baptism and chrismation transmit justifying and regenerating grace; repentance and
“In no way is the efficacy of the sacrament contingent upon the faith or moral qualifications of either celebrant or recipient, yet every magical and mechanical action is excluded in the performance of the sacrament. We see then, first of all, that the priest, as
He writes: “the sacraments are effectively accomplished independently of the faith of those accepting them” (23). I’ll only comment on a few of the seven sacraments.
As for the Holy Eucharist, “The Orthodox Catholic Church,” says Karmiris, “accepts the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist: the elements of bread and wine are changed into Christ’s very body and blood in such a way that he is hypostatically and essentially present in the sacrament” (27). The Orthodox are careful, however, to avoid
“The Eucharist is not a bare commemoration nor an imaginary representation of Christ’s sacrifice, but the true sacrifice itself;
Penance is “
As for ordination, the hierarchy of the Orthodox church “traces its beginnings back through an unbroken succession to the apostles themselves” (30). Thus “no one who is not in possession of the apostolic succession has any right to perform any sort of priestly or pastoral function” (30).
(8) Orthodoxy venerates Mary as “more
The Orthodox Church rejects the Roman Catholic dogma (1854) of the immaculate conception of Mary but at the same time affirms her sinless life.
As for the bodily assumption of Mary “The church believes
“Like the rest of humankind, Our Lady underwent physical death, but in her
“She covers the world with her veil, praying, weeping for the sins of the world; at the last judgment she will intercede before her Son and ask pardon from him. She sanctifies the whole natural world; in her and by her the world attains transfiguration. In a word, the veneration of the Virgin marks with its imprint all Christian anthropology and cosmology and all the life of prayer and piety” (67).
Thus, whereas the Orthodox “venerate” (
(9) The Orthodox view of the saints does not differ significantly from that of Rome. “The saints are our intercessors and our protectors in the heavens” (Bulgakov, 68). Again, “God accords to the saints, as to the angels, the power to accomplish his will by active though invisible aid accorded to humans” (70). Veneration of the relics of the saints “is founded on faith in a special connection between the spirit of the saint and his human remains, a connection which death does not destroy. In the case of the
(10) The Orthodox believe that the living should pray for the dead even as the dead intercede for the living. One prayer for the dead is: “Pardon every transgression which they have committed, whether by word or deed or thought.” Most Orthodox theologians today reject Purgatory as taught by the RCC and insist that the departed dead do not suffer.
This article was written by Sam Storms and originally appeared at his blog. Find it here.
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