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Introduction to the Orthodox Church

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Rev. Leonidas Contos, Ph.D.

The World of the Church.

If the historian's world is one of nouns and verbs - of people and places and happenings - the world of theology might be called a world of adjectives. Consider that the momentous agony of the Christian Church at the first of the Ecumenical Councils was, to oversimplify the case slightly, a question of a single adjective, homoousios, that defined the relationship of the Son to the Father. Whenever theology seeks to express the nature of Divinity, it deals mainly in words that describe and modify; whether affirmatively, stating what God is perceived to be, or negatively, by what the theologians call the apophatic method, which attempts to say what God is by affirming the things He is not.

The Main Terms.

So it is with the nature of the Church; the Councils expressed the essential "marks" of the Church, as the Body of Christ, in terms of its divine nature, hence by adjectives. It is One; it is Holy; it is Catholic, in the sense of Universal; it is Apostolic. But one of the things we have discovered in the modern ecumenical encounter is that not all groups share this understanding of the Church's nature. We hear much discussion about "unity" and "catholicity," in such a way that the marks of the Church are reduced to nouns, and thus to abstractions. The Creed, and the Fathers, speak only in adjectives; they proclaim our faith in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. And so do we.

The Confession of Faith.

We refer to it as a confession of faith - not a sterile creedal formula repeated mechanically outside the context of worship, not some sort of territorial claim in the spiritual realm made out of narrowness of heart and mind, but an affirmation of certain fundamental beliefs of which we are profoundly and unshakably convinced. Nor, in claiming these as the essential features of the Church, do we imply that the same marks may not be found outside the Church, since the Church is the presence of Christ in the world. In the face of the obvious and often scandalous divisions within Christendom, we can only repeat the words of Alexei Khomiakov, that the Church is one in ways we may not always fully apprehend, or which God has not yet willed to reveal to us.

The Concept of Unity of the Church.

Moreover, even in New Testament times the seeds of division were apparent, or at least the true nature of the Church as the Body of Christ imperfectly understood and lived. Thus St. Paul demands of the Corinthians, "Is Christ divided?" Over time, assailed by heresy and riven by schism, the Church found itself drawing new adjectives from its life and experience to define itself; not to gainsay the great cornerstone words of the Creed, to be sure, nor to buttress some special claim to uniqueness, but rather to heighten the features and sharpen the contours by which the Church in history may be recognized and understood.

The Term "Orthodox".

Essential to that understanding is the modifier Orthodox. Far from merely describing form, it goes to the very essence of Orthodoxy, namely that it adheres with absolute fidelity to the principles and piety, the beliefs and Tradition of the early, undivided Church Catholic. It is no accident the "Tradition" is singular with a capital "T", which is quite a different matter from the plural, with small "t", meaning customs, usages.

The Meaning of Orthodox.

The term Orthodox combines the adjective orthos, which means right, correct or true, and the noun doxa, which comes from the verb doxazo, "I hold an opinion," or "I believe." Hence "right belief," or "true doctrine." But in a deeper sense it also means "right worship," since doxazo can also mean "I glorify." It could be said that the term Orthodox was forged as a defense against heretical, or heterodox, teaching which persisted during the formative centuries. As then, so now, it signifies a framework of theological propositions worked into precise doctrinal formulations, a body of faith and a tradition, that has retained its absolute integrity in the face of the changes and innovations that have occurred within Christianity.

The Tradition of Orthodoxy.

In short, the Church's claim to Orthodoxy derives from the conviction that it has received the faith of the Apostles, as contained in both the written and the oral Tradition, as interpreted by the Fathers in council, that is, in consensus, and as lived by the whole Church throughout the ages, perhaps elaborated and enriched, yet fundamentally without change or interpolation.

This conviction is nowhere better expressed than on the first Sunday in Lent, which is known as the "Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy." The first occasion for this observance was the final restoration of the icons in 843; but it is much more than a triumphant celebration commemorating that or any other particular "victory." It is rather in the nature of what for a Protestant would be "Reformation Sunday" - except that it celebrates the exact opposite of reform, in that it reaffirms the whole ethos of the Church. Nor is it any longer, happily, merely an occasion when we repeat the ancient and terrible anathemas against the various heresiarchs of the past. Rather it is a reaffirmation of the faith, kept free of heresy and heterodox teachings throughout the great doctrinal controversies. Coming as it does at the start of Great Lent, we might well think of it as the observance of the Church's self-awareness.

Orthodox Worship.

But, as we have suggested, the adjective orthodox relates not alone to belief but to worship as well. Dogma does not occupy an isolated place in the Church's life as doctrine and creed tend to do the reformed traditions. It is part of the Church's liturgical life, its life of worship and praise which belongs to all the faithful. As Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow says, "The Creed does not belong to you unless you have lived it."

Nor is the Creed, as the sacred formulation of pure doctrine, simply inserted into the Liturgy and numerous other services. It is amplified and elaborated in a rich variety of ways in the hymnology of the Church. The whole doxological literature is doctrinal to its very core. Almost any hymn taken at random analyzes into a statement of faith, a lesson in theology. It is not by accident that the so-called doxastika, the "laudation hymns" of Vespers, are also called dogmatika, "dogmatic hymns," for they are exquisitely worked-out doctrinal treatises. It has been rightly said that those who would know about Orthodoxy should not so much read books as follow the example of Vladimir's envoys and attend the Liturgy.

The Concept "Greek Orthodox".

We would not have the fullest understanding of Orthodoxy if we did not consider the adjective, "Greek." Greek, not in the narrow ethnic, or geographical sense, but in the sense of the immense formative influence of Greek thought, and to some extent of the Greek language, which pervades the whole life and consciousness of the Church. It is precisely in this sense that the various Orthodox bodies - the Russian, the Romanian, the Syrian, the Serbian - may quite properly be referred to as Greek without gainsaying their obvious national character and traditions, or their geographical and cultural identities.

Father Georges Florovsky has written: "Hellenism has placed its eternal character upon the Church. It has become an inseparable part of her very being and as such every Christian is, to some extent, a Hellene. Hellenism is not simply a phrase in the history of Christianity but a cornerstone in its life . . . There is no Catholic Christian theology outside of Hellenism."

The Incorporation of Greek Thought.

There have been those who held that the original message of Jesus and the Apostles underwent a certain corruption, a loss of purity, in its reinterpretation through the structures of Greek thought. In this view of things, any translation of the Gospel into doctrine is a distortion because it introduces "unevangelical" elements into Christianity. Indeed, we need only look at the early baptismal creeds, or study the metaphysical arguments of the Fathers as they wrestled with Trinitarian and Christological issues of the fourth and fifth centuries to recognize that the Christian kerygma did indeed undergo a process of hellenization. But far from seeing this as a degeneration of "pure doctrine", the theological consensus considers it as an indispensable enrichment. Orthodox theology does not view the formation of dogma as a purely human process, but as the application of highly refined philosophical insights and modes of thought to divinely revealed truths.

The Greek Language and Culture.

As for the question of the influence of the Greek language, we can only point out that there is, after all, no way to make the abstract intelligible except through language. And since the dominant language, like the dominant mode of thought, during the formative centuries of Christianity was Greek, it was inevitable, not to say providential, that the Christian faith found its principal expression through that means. One cannot help but recall the words of the Lord when Philip and Andrew came to report that some Greeks wished to see Him: "The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified" (John 12:20).

Christianity moved rapidly out of Palestine into a highly universalist world. Rome provided the political setting through the Pax Romana, as well as the practical means of a vast communication system that made possible throughout the ecumene of that time a vigorous intercourse of commerce and ideas. The Greek contribution to this universalism was the medium of communication. The Greek koine, that is, the vernacular or common idiom, became an international language, the lingua franca, much in the way English is today. Hellenistic Alexandria gave the world the Hebrew Scriptures in this idiom; when the Christian missionary set out to carry the Good News to a now unified world, it was his Greek that made him understood. When Paul wrote to the young churches, including the one at Rome made up of Jewish and Gentile converts, he wrote in Greek. Until the third century, the language of the liturgy in the Church of Rome was Greek. All of this and more is implied, and must be understood, in the term Greek when it is employed in the broad sense to modify Orthodox.

The Concept "Eastern".

There is yet another qualifying adjective that extends beyond its obvious connotations, and that is the term "Eastern." It has little or nothing to do with any attempt to place the Orthodox Church geographically or culturally. Indeed, the spread of the Church in the West has tended to make its Easternness all the more evident. And while it is true that Orthodoxy bears an eastern stamp, in terms of the regions where it has had its principal early growth and development, it is no more oriental in this sense than the Roman Church is occidental. What is implied is its fidelity to the primitive faith and tradition, and thus to some extent its identification with the locales of the early Church: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and, later, Constantinople. More to the point, perhaps, it refers to the locales of the great Ecumenical Councils of the still undivided Church: Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon. Thus, just as the adjective Greek embraces all Orthodox Churches which are anything but Greek in their national character and their cultural ethos, so also the term Eastern applies to them in precisely the same way.

The Value of Orthodox Tradition.

But we Orthodox regard our Church as far more than just the sum of a group of local bodies, or national jurisdictions. We make what to many must seem a startling claim: that the Orthodox Church faithfully guards and consistently imparts the true faith and right belief, and glorifies God with the right worship; that it is, in other words, nothing less than the living embodiment, not of a particular tradition, as Father Florovsky says unequivocally, but of the one true "Tradition of the undivided Church."

There is always in such avowals the risk of a seemingly insufferable presumptuousness which would preclude fruitful dialogue. There is the equally serious risk of presenting Orthodoxy to the contemporary West as notable mainly for its aura of antiquity for antiquity's sake, of a conservatism that puts us out of touch with present-day realities and needs. It is not enough to say - or even imply - to our Western brothers, "We are your past." For the Traditions we revere and hold in sacred trust must after all be a living tradition, not frozen in time in some "golden" patristic age. Common enough has been the image projected by some early European scholars of Orthodoxy as a "petrified mummy." The Tradition is never static or sterile; it is as dynamic as the very Word of God.

What we Orthodox must always be ready to confess is that "we have this treasure in earthen vessels," (2 Corinthians 4:7), not always worthy of the trust, not always valuing it highly enough. Orthodoxy requires of us no defense, no apology. What it does demand is that we live it. And to live it, consciously and earnestly, we must first know and understand it. Fuller knowledge and a deeper and more perfect understanding of Orthodoxy is the object of this timely undertaking.

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