The Basic Sources of the Teachings of the Eastern Orthodox Church
Rev. George Mastrantonis
Importance of Knowledge of Sources
The Orthodox Christian should know the content of his religion as taught by the Church. He should be guided in studying what the Church has in its written (Bible) and unwritten (Sacred Tradition) teaching. The Orthodox Church is the only Church which has maintained from the beginning a coherent interpretation of its teaching. The Church approves of each member reading alone and in general talking about his religion. But it discourages conclusions based on the individual's personal interpretation.
"So Philip ran to him (the Ethiopian), and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, 'Do you understand what you are reading?' And he said, 'How can I unless some one guides me?'", Acts 8:28f.
This "guide" is the Church itself, and not the individual on his own, with limited ability and lack of the full knowledge of the sources of the teachings of the Church.
There are and have been many personalities in the Church who have devoted their lives to studying the Bible and keeping and preserving Sacred Tradition. But none became a leader of a new church outside of the One Undivided Church. Therefore, the Orthodox Church is the only one which preserves intact the "Paradosis", the written and unwritten Tradition. The Church, does not prevent the individual from exploring the deep meaning of the Bible to find new expressions. But this always must be authorized by the Church as a whole, where infallibility lies. It is important to know how freedom and authority work hand in hand in the teaching and governing of the Church. To achieve this understanding, the Orthodox Christian should know the basic sources of information.
Each member of the Church, clergyman and layman, has the right and duty to protect the Orthodox faith from misinterpretation and false statements. But this cannot be done without knowing what is the correct teaching of the Church. The Bible is the unmovable cornerstone which through the centuries has guided the Christian in learning the Will of God. The Fathers of the Church, teachers and prophets, are the instruments by which the Will of God is transmitted to the members of the Church so that they might follow the steps Which Jesus Christ revealed. How important is the influence of the Church in guiding its people? The answer is in the more than 200 Christian denominations possessing the same Bible, yet who insist that their particular interpretation alone teaches the truth of the Bible. Thus they are divided. Most of them assert that the Bible can be self-taught and requires no outside interpretation while they all claim the same thing, they still are divided.
The Church - from catacombs to cathedrals, from plain teaching to dogma and doctrine, from simple directions to formal administration-follows the steps which have been revealed to it by Almighty God in a coherent continuation of its external and internal teaching of the faith. There are two specific distinctions within the Orthodox Church. One is the relationship between freedom and authority, in the, government of the Church. The other is the system of self-governing churches. These distinctions are not very well known among the other Christian churches. The highest authority in the Orthodox Church is the "Conscience of the Church", which is the consent of the people of the Orthodox Church on the explanation of the faith given at times of its disputes. The general assemblies (synods) of the self-governing national Orthodox churches, made up of clergy, especially bishops, meet to decide, by unanimous opinion, matters of faith in dispute. The self-governing national churches have the same teachings, canons and liturgical worship, and, in fact, constitute One Church.
The Orthodox Christian should know and understand these facts in order to participate fully in the activities of the Church and to defend his position with authoritative explanations in times of discussion among friends of other churches. It is imperative for the Orthodox Christian to know the sources of the teachings especially when he must counteract the propaganda of those who would proselytize members of the Orthodox Church. This happened in the early Church and in the 17th century, and happens today. In the early Church, when the dogmas and teachings of the Church were not formally developed, there were many members of the church who turned to heretics, gnostics and other groups. Also, from the fourth century on, there appeared laymen, clergymen, even bishops and patriarchs who taught falsely the Christian faith. In the ninth century when the Great Schism began to develop between the Eastern and Western parts of the Church, and especially from the 16th century on, with the rise of Protestantism, these mistaken interpretations became more explicit. Against all these factors, the Orthodox Church has fought to keep itself intact to defend the truths which had been taught it by its Founder, Jesus Christ and His Apostles, in whom the roots of the Church are to be found.
These circumstances demanded that the Church defend its teachings and set forth the sources with accurate interpretations over the centuries. It is worth stressing that the development of these sources was to counteract the false opinions of Christians themselves; opinions not based on the correct interpretation of the Church itself. These sources of the accurate teachings of the Church are herein enumerated in order to counteract false opinions based on individual misinterpretations.
Accurate Sources of the Orthodox Church
What are the sources of the One Undivided Church, the Orthodox Church, from which emerge its teachings? Why is it imperative for the members of the Church to know these sources? The main sources of Orthodox teaching are the Bible and Sacred Tradition. The third source is the writings of the so called Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists. The fourth source is decisions of the canonical synods, local and ecumenical, and their utterances of faith, especially the Symbol of Faith (Nicene Creed) and some of their canons pertaining to faith. The fifth source is the discourses written at the time of disputes and schisms, especially the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western parts of the Undivided Church (1054). The sixth source is a variety of discourses written after the Protestant Reformation; these documents critique the various errors of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.
The Holy Bible was not written as a systematic book containing the expressions of faith in symbols or confessions. There are many passages which convey the beliefs in Christ, or in Christ and the Holy Spirit, and or in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These verses, which were used as confessions and symbols of belief, are expressed in few words. Such passages are to be found in the New Testament, as in Matthew, where the Risen Christ commissioned the Apostles:
"Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (28: 19-20).
The Apostles admonished the people to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior. It was necessary for the early Church to preserve these phrases mainly for use as a symbol and confession of faith in the pronouncement of candidates for baptism. Such confessions are found in Romans 1:3-4, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Philippians 2:5-11 and 1 Timothy 3:16:
"Great indeed we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He (Christ) was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory".
Later, when Christianity started to grow and become more organized, the bishops wrote confessions and symbols of faith based on the teachings of the Apostles, becoming sources in themselves. Such confessions are found in the writings of Bishop Ignatius (c.35-c.107), Justin the Martyr (c.100-c.165) in his Apology, Bishop Irenaeus (c.130-c.200) and Origen (c.185-c.254) and especially in the Apostolic Symbol. The Apostolic Symbol used in baptism was once considered to have been written by the 12 Apostles, with each Apostle having written one article. This Symbol was falsely attributed to them. They did not write it. This Symbol, however, was used by the entire Church, for it was acknowledged as one of the three ecumenical symbols of faith, having more use in the Western part of the Church.
SYMBOL OF NICAEA-CONSTANTINOPLE
The next source, which came into being out of necessity over disputes in the fourth century, was the confession of faith, still known as the fundamental source and highest pronouncement of the faith of Church. It was formulated by the First Ecumenical Synod in Nicaea in 325 (articles 1-7) and by the Second Ecumenical Synod in Constantinople in 381 (articles 8-12). This Symbol not only is named after the city in which it was written, but also is known by the number of bishops present at the synod in Nicaea, being referred to as the "Symbol of Faith of the 318 Fathers". The synod in Nicaea convened in 325, to resolve the dispute caused by Arius, a presbyter, who denied the divinity of Christ as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity and that there was a time when He did not exist. The 318 Fathers formulated the correct teaching in the first seven articles of the Nicene Creed. Despite the correct pronouncement of this synod, Arianism continued and became a splintered Christian sect, with the bishops who failed to accept the correct teaching of Christ's nature being excommunicated. In 381, another synod had to be convened to stop the incorrect teaching of Macedonius, who used Arian reasoning to question the divinity of the Holy Spirit, claiming He was created by the Son. The bishops at the Synod in Constantinople formulated the correct teaching concerning the Holy Spirit, that He was not created, but proceeds from the Father and is sent by the Son. This formulated truth became the last part of the Nicene Creed (last five articles). Hence the phrase, "One God in three Hypostases (persons)", prevails. This Confession, the Nicene Creed, has become the main source of the teachings of the Christian Church since the First and Second Synods.
THE ATHANASIAN CREED
The next source of the teachings of the Orthodox Church is the Athanasian Creed, which was written and used by the Western part of the Church and later accepted by the Eastern part, though not used in its liturgical life. This Creed is a source because it states the Orthodox teaching of the faith of the Church. This Creed was not written by Athanasius, but attributed to him, and is believed by some to have been written by St. Ambrose in Latin. It is believed to have been written in either the fourth or fifth century.
THE ECUMENICAL SYNODS
The doctrinal teaching of the Bible and the Ecumenical Synods constitutes the content of the Faith and the unmovable basis of Orthodox dogmatics. The body of the Church, which consists of clergy and laymen, is the carrier of the infallibility of the Church, where the Holy Spirit protects it from making error. But the voice of the Church for expressing its infallibility is its highest authority - the Ecumenical Synod in which the whole pleroma (people of the Church) is represented by its bishops. The decisions of these Synods are sources of the teaching of the Church. There are utterances of the synods (oroi) which directly express the dogmatical teaching of the Church, and some canons which hold dogmatical teachings, although they mainly deal with discipline and administration in the Church. The Ecumenical Synods are the main sources of the truths of the Church. The Symbol of Nicaea established by the First and Second Synods is repeatedly restated in the five Ecumenical Synods that followed through the eighth century.
THE FATHERS OF THE CHURCH
Another contributing source to the knowledge of the Orthodox Faith are some outstanding Fathers of the Church who wrote discourses and homilies on subjects of faith, which the Ecumenical Synods accepted as canonical teachings. These prominent Fathers are: Athanasius the Great (c.295) for his letter enumerating the canonical books of the Bible; Basil the Great (330-379) for his discourse sent to Amphilochion, in which he enumerates the heresies (parts of this epistle were divided into 92 canons, with canons 1, 5, 47, 91 and 92 containing material of symbolic expression of faith); Gregory of Naziatizus (c.329-390) for writings concerning the Canonical Books of the Bible, and Bishop Amphilochios of Ikonion (340-395) for his listing of the Canonical Books of the Bible. Writings of these Fathers bear the seal of canonical ratification. Not included here are writings of other Fathers which became canons concerning order and discipline, for described here are only those sources dealing with the faith. These then are the prominent Fathers of the Post-Nicene period (through the fourth century) whose writings became canonical sources of the teachings of the Church, having been adopted by the Ecumenical Synods.
PHOTIUS' ENCYCLICAL TO FIVE PATRIARCHS OF THE EAST (866)
Patriarch Photius of Constantinople was an outstanding hierarch and leader who as a layman was elected patriarch by vote of the people and ecclesiastical authorities. He brought order to the Church and increased its missionary work, especially in Bulgaria. What became another major source of the teachings of the Church is the encyclical epistle of Photius sent to the Patriarchs of the East, with the consent of the Synod of Constantinople, protesting against the innovations of Pope Nicholas I of Rome: his interference in the affairs of the newly-converted nation of Bulgaria, the addition of the filioque phrase in the Nicene Creed, the issuing of the Pseudo-Isidorian Decrees and the Pseudo-Constantian Gift. This encyclical of Photius restated the correct teaching of the Nicene Creed, opposing the filioque phrase; correctly asserted the canonical jurisdictional order of administration of the Church; reaffirmed the correct teaching against the primacy of the pope, his infallibility, the riches of Christ and the saints, indulgences, purgatory, the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary and her bodily assumption. All of these innovations of the West were among the factors which ultimately led to the Great Schism in 1054, setting the stage for the Protestant movement in 1517 as well. Photius' great encyclical restated and reaffirmed the orthodox teaching of the Undivided Church, and stands as a major source of Orthodox teaching.
KEROULARIOS (1054): TWO EPISTLES TO PATRIARCH PETER
An important source of the teachings of the Orthodox Church are the two epistles sent by Patriarch Michael Keroularios of Constantinople to Patriarch Peter of Antioch, which constituted a closing act to the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western parts of the One Church (1054). At that time, Pope Leo IX interfered in the jurisdiction of Constantinople in South Italy, where the Pope had introduced innovations, as had his predecessor in Bulgaria. The Pope sent to Patriarch Michael and to Bishop John of Tranis of Apoulia insulting letters in which he claimed his primacy over the entire Church, East and West, and that the Pope was infallible and had authority over both political and ecclesiastical jurisdictions. The Pseudo-Constantine Gift was used as a basis for the Pope's claim.
In addition, Pope Leo sent an emissary, Cardinal Humbert, a bad-mannered, arrogant man, to Constantinople. He insulted the Patriarch on July 16, 1054, by entering St. Sophia Cathedral during the Divine Liturgy, halting the services, and reading aloud and then placing on the altar a libel, a Bull of Excommunication of the Patriarch and his followers. This act of Pope Leo IX finalized the schism between West and East which had begun in 866. The Patriarch summoned a synod of many bishops on July 20, 1054. They, in turn, excommunicated the libel, the Bull, and all who supported it but purposely did not mention the name of Pope Leo in order to leave open the opportunity of reconciliation. Ironically, Pope Leo IX had died on April 13, 1054, three months before Cardinal Humbert reached Constantinople.
Before Cardinal Humbert came to Constantinople, Patriarch Michael had already sent to Patriarch Peter of Antioch the two epistles in which he enumerates in detail all the innovations of the Pope, consulting the encyclical of Patriarch Photius (866) for reference. Three of the 12 innovations listed are: the use of unleavened bread by the Western Church for the Liturgy, baptism by only one emersion (instead of three) and the filioque phrase in the Creed. The two epistles are considered sources of the teachings of the Orthodox Church because they point out the innovations of the Western part of the Church made outside the ecumenical synod, thus without ratification by the entire Church body. These epistles took on special prominence because they were written just shortly before the Schism.
TOMES OF SYNODS OF 1341, 1347, 1351 CONCERNING HESYCHASM
The Tomes (discourses) were written to clarify the Orthodox teaching of Hesychasm (Greek word meaning quiet), a system of mysticism propagated on Mt. Athos by 14th century monks. The controversy arose over the issue of the substance of God and the energy of God. Hesychasm means the spiritual tendency of the Orthodox monks toward a clear theory of quietness leading to mystic union with God in prayer through Divine Grace. St. Gregory of Palamas taught the difference between the correct teaching of Hesychasm and the Latin theory. This dispute caused the summoning of three synods (1341, 1347, 1351), which issued three Tomes stating the correct meaning and interpretation of Hesychasm in a dogma, thereby becoming a source on this orthodox teaching.
ENCYCLICAL OF MARK OF EPHESUS (1440)
The cyclical of Bishop Mark of Ephesus is a most important source of the Orthodox teaching in that it was written at the time when the Western Church sent organized groups to convert the Orthodox to the Uniates - those who followed the rites of the Orthodox Church, but were under the authority of the Pope. This encyclical focused attention on this movement, stirring strong opposition to it.
THE CONFESSION OF GENNADIOS SCHOLARIOS (1455)
After the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the conqueror, Mohammed II, requested that Patriarch Gennadios of Constantinople give him a summary of the Christian faith. Gennadios wrote and submitted a Confession that is a concise, accurate statement of the Orthodox Faith and an important source of the Church teaching.
THE CORRESPONDENCE OF PATRIARCH JEREMIAH II (1573-1582)
The first correspondence related to attempts at unity between the Orthodox Church and the new Lutheran Church took place in the sixteenth century. A group of German theologians at the University of Tubingen, under the leadership of Jacob Andreae and Martin Crusius, sent Stephen Gerlack to Constantinople to present to Patriarch Jeremiah II on May 24, 1575, three letters and the Augsburg Confession translated in Greek. Their goal was to explore possible unity of the new movement with the Ancient Orthodox Church. The Patriarch sent the first of three lengthy answers to the theologians on May 15, 1576, through the German embassy. The theologians then sent a detailed reply to the Patriarch. In all, the correspondence on the Augsburg Confession resulted in three answers and three replies. The death of the principles on both sides ended this effort. The three Answers of Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople are important sources that restate the accurate teachings of the Orthodox Church. Jeremiah's correspondence was the first contact of the Orthodox Church with the new Protestant movement.
CONFESSION OF KRITOPOULOS, PATRIARCH OF ALEXANDRIA (1625)
The next Confession to serve as a source of the teachings of the Church was written by Patriarch Metrophanis Kritopoulos - a chancellor at the time - while he was studying in England and Germany. It was in response to the request of the people in these countries for an explanation of the Orthodox Faith. This Confession gives an authoritative, informative and unoffensive account of the confession of the Faith and is written with scientific method. It was presented to the students and scholars of the Christian Faith in England in 1626 and was well-received.
REMAINING SOURCES OF ORTHODOX TEACHING
Additional sources of decisions and answers of various synods of the Orthodox Church pertaining to the faith are listed below:
- Minutes of the Synod in Constantinople of 1691.
- Answers of the Orthodox Patriarch of the East to the Anglican Anomots, 1716-1725
- Encyclical of the Synod in Constantinople in 1722 to the Orthodox Antiochians.
- Confessions of Faith of the Synod in Constantinople in 1727.
- Encyclical of the Synod in Constantinople in 1836; Against the Protestant Misvionaries.
- Encyclical of the Synod in Constantinople in 1838: Against the Latin Innovations.
- Reply of the Orthodox Patriarchs of the East to Pope Pius IX in 1848.
- Gregory VI, Patriarch of Constantinople: Rejection of the Pope's Invitation to the Latin Synod in Vatican, 1868.
- Answer of Synod of Constantinople in 1895 to Pope Leo XIII.
- Decree of the Orthodox Conference in Moscow in 1948 against Papism.
- Encyclicals of the Patriarchate of Constantinople referring to the Ecumenical Movement of the Churches in 1920 and 1952.
Contemporary Importance of Primary & Secondary Sources
The Symbol of Nicaea-Constantinopolitan (Nicene Creed) and the dogmatical utterances of the Ecumenical Synods are the primary and distinctive sources of the faith of the Orthodox Church. They have been ratified by the Synods and are unchangeable in form and substance. The other sources, which are the decisions of synods which took place after the eighth century, are of secondary significance, but very important for the historical evolution of the teaching of the Orthodox Church, especially the teaching against the innovations of the Catholic Church, which was separated in 1054 from the Orthodox Church, and with reference to Protestant Churches dating from the 16th century. These are secondary sources, pending ratification by an Ecumenical Synod, and may be accepted, corrected or not accepted. The utterances (primary sources) of the Orthodox Church are mainly part of the Sacred Tradition of the Church, which is of the same validity as Scripture.
The decisions of the Seven Ecumenical Synods include the Regional Synods, Saint-Apostles and some Fathers which have been ratified by the Ecumenical Synods, especially the Sixth in its Canon 102. So the faithful member of the Orthodox Church should thoroughly study the primary sources, then read the secondary sources herein listed. The distinction between the primary and secondary sources is important, because the primary 'sources were found in the life and teachings of the One Undivided Church of the first thousand-years of Christianity and were adopted and kept as such through the centuries, excepting innovations such as the filioque phrase in the Nicene Creed.
Because Sacred Tradition is of equal validity as the Bible, the identification of sources is essential since Tradition is rooted in these sources, written and preserved by the Church itself. This is important, because the Church makes the decisions and interprets the Bible, eliminating possible individual misinterpretations.
"First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." (2 Peter 1:20-21)
Because the Church has not written and officially adopted a catechism in which the infallible teaching of the Church is definitely expressed, the theologian has the "freedom with authority", to express anew the same unchangeable Truths of Christ. Christianity (or Christendom) has been separated into many parts because individuals through the centuries have taken it upon themselves to interpret the Bible personally. They have used limited knowledge and were unaware of the basic sources, and have consequently arrived at false interpretations, each claiming to be led by the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Holy Spirit is made to seem a dividing force for each, rather than leading and being the guardian of the One Undivided Church of Christ as revealed in Scripture. Apostle Peter warns against personal interpretation of Scripture by saying that:
"Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the unlearned and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures ... knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with the error of man and lose your own stability." (2 Peter 3:15-17)
The Orthodox Christian is blessed to be part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church which has been preserved intact, by mercy, the fullness of the Christian Faith. In Holy Orthodoxy, the interpretation of Scripture and the teachings of the Church have the unanimous ratification of the Church, with its infallible authority. It is this interpretation of the teachings of Christ by the infallible Church that must be first known and understood by the Orthodox Christian who is admonished by Apostle Peter:
"Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence." (1 Peter 3:15)
Copyright: © 2004 Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
Editor: Fr. George C. Papademetriou and Dr. David C. Ford