What is Orthodox Christianity?
To understand Orthodox Christianity it is important to understand that it does not attribute its “birthday” to 33 A.D. as other churches may. The Pentecost is a pivotal time in the history and truth of the church. However, Orthodox Christianity believes that when God created the world and Adam and Eve in Paradise, His Holy Church and reign existed in human terms and in human time – then.
But Orthodox Christians believe the church existed before creation, given we believe in a God Who is unbounded, an eternal God. This is why the priest, during the Divine Liturgy, prays the following words:
It is proper and just to sing to You, to bless You, to praise You, to thank You, to worship You in every place of Your kingdom, for You are God, ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever existing yet ever the same, You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit. (Emphasis added.)
Orthodox Christians believe in an unknowable God, an eternal God – without beginning and without end – a merciful God, a loving, kind, and gentle God. Because of this we address the fall of man in Paradise with the following liturgical prayer:
You brought us out of non-existence into being and, when we had fallen, You raised us up again, and left nothing undone to lead us to heaven and to bestow upon us your future kingdom. (Emphasis added.)
That God “left nothing undone to lead us to heaven and to bestow upon us Your future kingdom” is an acclamation of the fullness and completeness of God’s second gift to mankind, after the Creation. And because God is by definition infallible, nothing more, no one else, is required for man’s salvation.
An affirmation of the above is given during the Divine Liturgy when the priest states:
You loved Your world so much that You gave Your only-begotten Son, that everyone who believes in Him should not perish, but should have everlasting life.
All of the above quotes are from the Divine Liturgy of the Holy Orthodox Church – a liturgy that glorifies and gives thanks to God; moreover they are quotes that have their roots in the Liturgy of St. James, the oldest Eucharistic service in continuous use. It is the ancient liturgy of the Church of Jerusalem and is attributed to the Apostle James the Just, the Brother of the Lord.
The general scholarly consensus is that this liturgy originated in Jerusalem, and was written during the late fourth or early fifth century. But that which was written was preceded by an oral tradition. And this oral tradition could have easily existed a century or more before it was written, at least the written fragments that have come to us to this date.
The Liturgy of St. James quickly became the primary liturgy in Jerusalem and Antioch. Although it was later superseded in Jerusalem and Antioch by the Liturgy of St. Basil and the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, it had already spread to other areas of the Church. The oldest manuscript traditions are in Greek and Syriac, and there are also extant manuscripts in Armenian, Ethiopic, Georgian, and Old Slavonic. We have further evidence in the catechetical discourses of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. The discourses were held about the year 347 or 348 in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; it is obvious that they describe the liturgy known to his hearers there.
Indeed, the fragmented manuscripts that have been found are but reflections of a profoundly abundant oral tradition that existed in the milieu of the time.
The continuance of this milieu exists to this date. Acknowledging this the priest prays early in the Divine Liturgy:
O Lord our God, Whose might is beyond description, Whose glory surpasses all understanding, Whose mercy is without limit, Whose love for mankind is beyond expression; O Master, in Your kindness look down upon us and this Holy Church and bestow upon us and those praying with us your abundant mercies and compassion.
O Lord our God, save your people and bless your inheritance. Preserve the fullness of your Church, sanctify those who love the beauty of Your House, glorify them by your divine might and forsake us not who put our hope in You. (Emphasis added.)
The church of the pre-eternal God exists today, in Orthodox Christianity, because God does not fail and He “left nothing undone to lead us to heaven and to bestow upon us [His] future kingdom.”
With respect to the foregoing, the Holy Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church share a common belief. The difference between the two churches is that the evolution of the two are vastly different, albeit with many commonalities, that will with time and prudence, we pray, be overcome if that be God’s will.
“The greatest misfortune that befell mankind was, without doubt, the schism between Rome and the Ecumenical Church. The greatest blessing for which mankind can hope would be the reunion of east and west, the reconstitution of the great Christian unity” (General Alexander Kireev. 1832-1910).
I draw the above contrast for the sake of definition. The forces of history drove the West into a more juridical stance when it came to theological evolution. In the East, the forces of history often drove Orthodox Christianity underground, into a survival mode, one leading to a more mystical encounter with God. This does not mean that the West does not have mysticism, quite the contrary, mystics abound. Similarly, this does not mean the East not have a juridical nature, it does. But the overarching outlook of West and East, while different, is based in the love of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ.
As a result of the historical differences the theological language of West and East is different. Learning the East often times requires new terminology; the West has a mass, the East has a liturgy; the West may have sermons, the East has homilies; the West refers to sacraments, the East has holy mysteries.
The Holy Mysteries in the Orthodox Church are vessels of the mystical participation in divine grace of mankind. Saint John Chrysostom wrote that they are called mysteries because what we believe is not the same as what we see; instead, we see one thing and believe another.
Generally, the Church recognizes and counts seven (though not only seven) mysteries:
There has never been a universal declaration within the Orthodox Church that there are only seven mysteries. Early Orthodox writers varied as to the number of mysteries: John of Damascus lists only two; Dionysius the Areopagite lists six; Joasaph, Metropolitan of Ephesus (fifteenth century), ten; and some Byzantine theologians who list seven sacraments differ on the items in their list. The exact number of Holy Mysteries is known only to God. More importantly, the Holy Mysteries are God’s work in “[leaving] nothing undone to lead us to heaven and to bestow upon us [His] future kingdom.”
Up to this point, we have discussed a bit of history, briefly mentioned the liturgy – its origins, theology, and history, and the Holy Mysteries. There is more, so much more.
“Guard the deposit” (1 Tim. 6:20).
What is the deposit? The deposit is all of the above, plus other things that will be mentioned in the following paragraphs, known as Holy Tradition.
Orthodox Christianity is a way of life; a life based on Holy Tradition. ‘We do not change the everlasting boundaries which our fathers have set,’ wrote John of Damascus, ‘but we keep the Tradition, just as we received it’ (On Icons, II, 12 (P. G. XCIV, 1297B).
Tradition is the living milieu of our Fathers of the Church. Tradition is what sustains the Holy Orthodox Church and Orthodox Christianity.
Tradition is the embodiment of our faith and love of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ. What worked for the Apostles and the early church still works today – for each one of us.
Tradition gave us the Divine Liturgy [link], only partially cited above, which is the visible and invisible (mystical) encounter with the immortal Son of God. The Divine Liturgy preceded the Bible [link], which its very existence pre-supposes faith based on oral and written tradition. Too many have dismissed the foregoing.
The 27 books that are in use today were not enunciated as comprising the New Testament until the 367 A.D. by St. Athanasius of Alexandria; up until his Easter letter (of 367), various similar lists were in use. However, his list was the one that was eventually ratified by a series of synods and came to be universally recognized as the New Testament canon. It is important to note that the 27 books of the New Testament reflected the “mind of the church” – they were born of the Church and its traditions (not vice versa as some would today proclaim).
There are no original manuscripts of the New Testament in existence today. The earliest partial manuscripts date from the 2nd to the 4th Century A.D.
The Ecumenical Councils and synods, some of which were instrumental in codifying the New Testament canon, are the infallible forums of church history. The most important of all the Ecumenical statements of faith is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed [link], which is read or sung at every celebration of the Eucharist, and also daily at Nocturns and at Compline. The other two Creeds used by the West, the Apostles’ Creed and the ‘Athanasian Creed,’ do not possess the same authority as the Nicene, because they have not been proclaimed by an Ecumenical Council. Orthodox honor the Apostles’ Creed as an ancient statement of faith, and accept its teaching; but it is simply a local western Baptismal Creed, never used in the services of the Eastern Patriarchates. The ‘Athanasian Creed’ likewise is not used in Orthodox worship, but it is sometimes printed (without the filioque) in the Horologion (Book of Hours).
It is merits stating that the seven infallible Ecumenical Councils were all held in the East – principally because the seat of the Roman Empire had by that time been moved to Constantinople and four of the five historical Sees were located in proximity to it.
The Fathers of the Church is a term of particular reverence for principal church leaders and writers. The writers of the fourth century, and especially for those whom it terms ‘the Three Great Hierarchs,’ Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, and John Chrysostom are dear to our tradition. In the eyes of Orthodoxy the ‘Age of the Fathers’ did not come to an end in the fifth century, for many later writers are also ‘Fathers’ — Maximus, John of Damascus, Theodore of Studium, Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory Palamas, Mark of Ephesus. It would be an error to state that the age of the Fathers is past us; this distinction is in the hands of God inasmuch as the Spirit is still with us.
Canon law is a continuing perpetuation of Holy Tradition. Canon law, much of which is associated with the Church’s councils and synods, exists to strengthen the body of the church, it organization, and existence. While the western churches existed in an era of kings and queens and associated legal venues, the eastern churches, as was previously stated, had to survive in an era of subjugation and domination wherein laws were often imposed on the eastern churches vice having the ability to police itself. Therefore the East’s canon laws are thin in comparison to the West and more often than not have to rely on historical precedence and pastoral prudence – tradition.
Another element of Holy Tradition that vital is iconography. Where written words may have been lost or not written, iconography captured the history – visible and invisible (mystical) – of the faith. Iconography is venerated as a window to the mystical. Iconography assists the mind and soul in creating a relationship with the invisible – focusing the senses in prayer on the Ineffable.
Finally, to this writer, the most vibrant element of Holy Tradition is hymnology – the hymns that are sung daily, often for particular saints or feast days, at Divine Liturgy, and the Hours, and at all liturgical services, particularly funerals. The hymns of the church are prayers. The hymns give meaning to the Latin phrase lex orandi, lex credendi – that which we pray is what we believe. Certainly the Latin phrase applies to the whole of what we might pray whether it is a hymn or not, but hymns fill the senses with the history of the faith that is not captured elsewhere.
Holy Tradition may perhaps be best described as the layers of the visible and invisible Church, each complementing the other, none conflicting with the other. Together we attain the fullness of the Church, the fullness of the reality of the saving actions of our good and merciful God within an eternal realm unbounded by time, but including time.
It is unfortunate that man has managed over the centuries to fragment and breakdown and deconstruct knowledge of God in an attempt to understand God, or to deny the existence of God. It is not enough that man looks at the bible and the bible-only; indeed man has gone further to break down the bible into various criticisms – textual, source, canonical, rhetorical, psychological, and even feminism – not because they have merit, but because they fulfill man’s believed intellectual needs. Based on the foregoing man has built his own churches and faiths to fulfill his needs, ignoring the reality of Truth, ignoring the wealth of God’s providence and gifts to mankind.
If the foregoing is the norm in today’s culture, Orthodox Christianity is counter-cultural. It is the opposite of what most believe constitutes religion. Orthodox Christianity is not a religion; it is the way of life of God’s church, God’s intent for mankind as existed before creation, as was fulfilled at creation, and as was evident when the resurrected Christ left nothing undone to lead us to heaven and to bestow upon us [His] future kingdom.