Eastern Orthodox Church

A federation of several self- governing or autocephalous churches. “Orthodox” comes from the Greek words meaning “right believing.” Included in the church are the four ancient patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Because of their historical significance they rank highest in honor. The heads of these churches are given the title “patriarch.” The other autocephalous churches are Russian, Romanian, Serbian, Greek, Bulgarian, Georgian, Cypriot, Czechoslovakian, Polish, Albanian, and Sinaian. The heads of the Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, and Romanian churches are called “patriarch.” The head of the Georgian Church is called “catholicos-patriarch,” and the heads of the other churches are referred to as either “archbishop” or “metropolitan.”

Besides the churches mentioned above, there are several other churches which are self-governing in many ways, but do not yet have full independence. They are called autonomous, but not autocephalous. These are the churches of Finland, China, Japan, and three administrations among Russians who live outside of Russia. Then there are ecclesiastical provinces which depend on one of the autocephalous churches or on one of the Russian jurisdictions in emigration. These provinces are located in W Europe, North and South America, and Australia.

The major area of distribution of Orthodox Christians is in E Europe, in Russia, and along the coasts of the E Mediterranean. Many of the autocephalous churches are located in countries where Orthodoxy is the predominant Christian faith. Most of the churches are in lands that are either Greek or Slavonic. It is estimated that about one-sixth of all Christians are of the Orthodox faith. Because so many live in Communist-dominated countries, exact statistics on membership are not available. It is usually estimated, however, that Orthodox Christians number about 150 million.

The Orthodox Church claims to be a family of self-governing churches held together, not by a centralized organization or a single prelate, but by a bond of unity in the faith and communion in the sacraments. The patriarch of Constantinople is known as the Ecumenical or Universal Patriarch. He has a position of special honor, but not the right to interfere in the internal affairs of other churches.

Orthodoxy claims to be the unbroken continuation of the Christian Church established by Christ and His apostles. Timothy Ware finds three main stages of fragmentation of Christendom. The first occurred in the fifth and sixth centuries when the Nestorian Church of Persia and the five Monophysite churches of Armenia, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia, and India divided from the main body of Christianity. The second stage happened in 1054 when the Great Schism* divided the Roman Catholic Church of the West from the Orthodox Church of the East. Thus between the Semitic Eastern churches and the Western Latin Church there was the Greek- speaking world with its Orthodox faith. The third stage in separation came with the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.

In 313 the persecuted Christian Church received its first toleration in Constantine's Edict of Milan. Constantine in 324 decided to move the capital of the Roman Empire to the site of the Greek city, Byzantium, which was now renamed Constantinople. Constantine also presided at the first general council of the Christian Church, held at Nicea in 325. Constantinople grew in wealth and power as Rome declined. It became the center of Greek culture and a center of the Christian Church.

The Orthodox Church often calls itself the Church of the Seven Councils. These councils, held between 325 and 787, clarified the organization and teachings of the Christian Church. They were Nicea* (325), Constantinople* (381), Ephesus* (431), Chalcedon* (451), Constantinople* (553), Constantinople* (680- 81), Nicea* (787). These councils condemned as heresy Arianism* and Monophysitism,* and clearly defined the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the person of Christ. The Nicene Creed* and the Chalcedonian Definition* carefully described Christian doctrine on these vital issues. The councils also decided on the order of priority among the five patriarchal sees. Rome was given the primacy of honor, Constantinople second, and Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem in that order.

In the eighth and ninth centuries the iconoclastic dispute occurred within the Byzantine Empire. Some of the emperors supported iconoclasm and saw the use of icons as a form of idolatry to be suppressed. A bitter struggle arose over this issue, but in the end the Iconodules (venerators of icons) successfully defended the place of icons in church life. The struggle lasted 120 years. The Orthodox consider this far more than a minor dispute over Christian art. They dismiss the charge of idolatry which the Iconoclasts brought against them by saying that the icon is not an idol but a symbol, and that the veneration is not directed toward the object itself but toward the person depicted. The Iconodules then argued the necessity of icons to safeguard the correct doctrine of the Incarnation. Material images can be made of the One who took a material body. With the ending of the Iconoclastic Controversy* and the meeting of the seventh council, the age of the ecumenical councils came to an end. This was the great age of theology and definition of the Christian faith.

Byzantium has often been called “the icon of the heavenly Jerusalem.” Religion permeated all aspects of life. Monasticism was a significant form of religious life in the East. Early monasticism took different forms, and we still find these in the Orthodox Church today. First of all, there are the hermits who lead a solitary life. Then there is community life where hermits live together in a monastery under a common rule. Finally there is the semi-eremitic life or middle way where a loosely knit group lives together in a settlement under the guidance of an elder. The elder or starets in Russia is characteristic of Orthodox monasticism. Antony was the most famous of the monastic startsi.

The Eastern Church followed a policy of converting Slavs to Christianity. In the ninth century the patriarch Photius* sent Cyril and Methodius* as missionaries to the Slavs. They not only gave the Slavs a system of Christian doctrine, but also created their written language. The Bulgarians and Serbs were converted to Christianity in the ninth century, and the Russians in the tenth. Greek civilization and culture followed the faith into Slavic lands.

In Byzantium there was no separation of church and state. Although the emperor participated widely in church affairs, Orthodox historians object to the term “Caesaropapism,” as they do not believe the church was subordinated to the state, but that they worked in harmony with neither having absolute control over the other.

In 1054 occurred the Great Schism which marked the separation of the Orthodox Church in the East from the Roman Church in the West. The East and West had been growing further apart economically, politically, and culturally, but at the end when the split came doctrinal issues were given as the cause. One of these was the matter of papal claims. The pope was claiming absolute power in the East as well as the West. Greeks were willing to accord honor to the pope, but not universal supremacy. They felt that matters of faith were finally decided by a council with all the bishops of the church, not by papal authority.

The other doctrinal issue was the Filioque. Originally the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed read: “I believe . . . in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and together glorified.” The West inserted a phrase, so that the creed now read “who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The Greeks objected to this change because they believed the ecumenical councils forbade any changes in the creed, and if a change was to be made, only another ecumenical council could make it. The Greeks also believed the change was doctrinally wrong because it destroyed the balance between the three persons of the Trinity and could lead to an incorrect doctrine of the Spirit and the Church. Besides these major differences between Greeks and Latins there were minor differences such as priestly celibacy in the West (the Greeks allowed married clergy), different rules of fasting, and the use by Greeks of leavened bread in the Eucharist (the Latins used unleavened).

Even after 1054 there were friendly relations between East and West. In 1204, however, Constantinople was captured during the Fourth Crusade. The destruction and sacrilege of the Crusaders shocked the Greeks, and the division between East and West was thereupon final.

In 1453 the Turks attacked Constantinople by land and sea. The Byzantines put up a brave defense, but were hopelessly outnumbered. After seven weeks the city fell and the Church of the Holy Wisdom became a mosque. The Byzantine Empire had come to an end, but not the Orthodox faith. Moscow was becoming increasingly strong in this period, and the claim of a Third Rome was asserted. The marriage of Ivan III and the niece of the last Byzantine emperor helped enhance this claim. The Turks did not treat the Byzantines with undue cruelty and were more tolerant than many Christian groups were toward each other during the Reformation and seventeenth century. Christians under Islam, however, had to pay heavy taxes, were not allowed to serve in the army, and were forbidden to undertake missionary work.

The Orthodox Church did not undergo either a Reformation or Counter-Reformation, but these movements did have some influence upon the East. Through the Poles there were contacts with Roman Catholicism. The Uniat Church* was formed in Poland, recognizing the supremacy of the pope, but keeping many of the traditions of the Orthodox Church, including married clergy. Cyril Lucar,* patriarch of Constantinople, combated Catholicism and turned to Protestant embassies at Constantinople for help. He fell under the influence of Calvinism in matters of theology.

The Orthodox Church of the twentieth century is divided by the Iron Curtain. The four ancient patriarchates and Greece are on the one side, the Slavonic Churches and Romania on the other. It is estimated that eighty-five per cent of Orthodox people live in Communist countries.

In the midst of the many changes that have occurred in the world, the Orthodox claim a living continuity with the church of the past and a strict adherence to its traditions. The three greatest sources of its traditions are the Bible, the ecumenical councils, and the creed. The statements of faith issued by the seven ecumenical councils, used along with the Bible, serve as the basis for the traditions. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is considered the most important of the ecumenical statements of faith. Other sources of tradition which are also accepted, but not with the same authority as the above, are the statements of later councils, the writings of the Church Fathers, the liturgy, canon law, and icons. The Orthodox believe the traditions of the church are expressed not only in words, but in actions, gestures, and art used in worship. An icon is considered one of the ways whereby God is revealed to man.

Central to the Orthodox faith is the belief in the Holy Trinity. This is best defined as “one essence in three persons.” God is described as transcendent, but not cut off from the world which He created. Man was created in the image and likeness of God which indicates rationality, freedom, and assimilation to God through virtue. Included in this is the belief in the free will of man. Although man fell through Adam's sin, the Orthodox do not believe that man is entirely deprived of God's grace, thus the picture of fallen man is not the total depravity of Augustine or Calvin. Jesus Christ is seen as true God and true man. An overwhelming sense of Christ's glory is seen especially in His transfiguration and resurrection. Christ's humanity is not overlooked, however, and is seen in the love for the Holy Land where the incarnate Christ lived and in the veneration of the cross on which he died. The Holy Spirit's work, of sanctification, is emphasized. The true aim of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. This involves the process of deification. The church sees this as something intended for all believers, and that which involves a social process and leads to practical results. Deification is achieved through the church and the sacraments.

Orthodoxy believes in the hierarchical structure of the church, apostolic succession, the episcopate, and the priesthood. It believes in prayers to the saints and prayers for the dead. In this it agrees with Roman Catholicism, but differs in that it rejects papal infallibility. The church is pictured as the image of the Holy Trinity, the body of Christ, and a continued Pentecost. “The Church is a single reality, earthly and heavenly, visible and invisible, human and divine.” The Orthodox view, according to Timothy Ware, is that there is unity in the church, and although there can be schisms from the church, there will be no schisms within the church. The church is held together by the act of communion in the sacraments. The church is infallible, and this is expressed through ecumenical councils.

Religion is approached by the Orthodox through liturgy. Because of this, even the smallest points of ritual are extremely important. The whole basic pattern of worship is the same as in the Roman Catholic Church-the Holy Liturgy, the Divine Office, and the Occasional Offices. Besides these the Orthodox Church has a number of lesser blessings. In the services of the church the language of the people is used. All services are sung or chanted. In most Orthodox churches singing is unaccompanied, and instrumental music is not used. Normally the worshiper stands during the church services, although there are occasions to kneel and sit. In the Orthodox Church the sanctuary is separated from the remainder of the interior by a solid screen known as the iconostasis. There are three doors in the iconostasis-the center one is the Holy Door which gives a view of the altar, the left door leads into the chapel of preparation, and the right door leads into the Diakonikon which is used as a vestry. Orthodox churches are filled with icons which are venerated by the worshipers.

The Orthodox Church accepts seven sacraments: baptism, chrismation (similar to confirmation in the West), the Eucharist, repentance or confession, holy orders, marriage, and anointing of the sick. Of the seven, the Eucharist and baptism have a special position. Baptism is accomplished by threefold immersion. Although both married and unmarried may receive holy orders, bishops are chosen from the unmarried clergy. The Christian year consists of Easter as the central event, twelve great feasts, and a number of other festivals and fasts. In relation to the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century, most Orthodox believe that there must be full agreement in the Faith before there can be reunion among Christians.

S.N. Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church (1935); R.M. French, The Eastern Orthodox Church (1951); N. Zernov, Eastern Christianity (1961); J. Meyendorf, The Orthodox Church: Its Past and Its Role in the World Today (1962); E. Benz, The Eastern Orthodox Church, Its Thought and Life (1963); A. Schmemann, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy (1963); T. Ware, The Orthodox Church (1963).