What Is Orthodoxy?
This question can be rather difficult to answer, not because Orthodoxy, in itself, is difficult, but rather because the difficulty lies in the western mind set. To understand this difficulty it is necessary to remember that Christianity was born in the East. Jesus himself, as a man, was of the east (Aramacized Jew), as were his apostles and followers. Bear in mind, also, that democracy also had its origins in the east, which helps to explain the way in which the Orthodox Church is governed.
The thing that makes Orthodoxy difficult for those of the west to comprehend is due to the fact that western Christians, be they Roman Catholic, Anglican, or members of the Protestant sects, have been tainted by common events of the past. The western mindset toward Christianity in particular and religion in general has been deeply influenced by Papal centralization of power, the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The members of the Orthodox east, Greeks, Russians, Antiochians, Syriacs, etc., have had a very different history. They never had a Middle Ages in the western sense, nor have they experienced a Reformation or Counter-Reformation. Because the Orthodox have a much different historical background from the west, they have the ability to open up fresh modes of thinking and to suggest long-forgotten solutions to old problems.
Let us examine the question of: “What is meant by the Orthodox Church?” we must remember that the divisions which brought about the present separation of Christendom did not happen all at once, but rather occurred in three main stages, each separated by approximately five hundred years. The first stage came about in the fifth and sixth centuries, when the ‘Lesser’ or ‘Separated” eastern Churches became divided from the main body of Christians. These ‘Lesser’ Churches are divided into two groups, the Nestorian Church of Persia, and the five Monophysite Churches of Armenia, Syria (also called the “Jacobite” Church), Egypt (the Coptic Church), Ethiopia, and India. The Nestorians and the Monophysites have long since passed from the western consciousness much more completely than have the Orthodox. The result of this first separation, Orthodoxy became restricted on the east mainly to the Greek-speaking world. The second separation, which is dated to the year 1054, when the main body of Christians became divided into two communions being: in western Europe, the Roman Catholic Church under the Pope (the Bishop of Rome); and in the Byzantine Empire, the Orthodox Church of the East. Thus Orthodoxy became limited on its western side as well. The third separation between Rome and the Reformers during the sixteenth century is of little importance at this time.
We should note that cultural and ecclesiastical divisions coincided. While being universal in its mission, in practice, Christianity tended to be associated with three cultures, which were the Semitic, the Greek, and the Latin. A result of the first separation was that the Semitic Christians of Syria, along with their well established theological schools and writers, were cut off from the rest of Christendom. The second separation resulted in a wedge being driven between the Greek and Latin traditions in Christianity. Thus it has developed that the primary cultural influence in Orthodoxy has been that of Greece. But, don’t ever think that the Orthodox Church is exclusively a Greek Church and nothing more, since Syriac and Latin Fathers have their place in the fullness of Orthodoxy.
Since the Orthodox Church was limited first on the eastern and then on the western side, it was not only able, but also willing to expand to the north, when in 863 Saints Cyril and Methodius (known as the Apostles to the Slavs) traveled to the north undertaking missionary work well beyond the frontiers of the Byzantine Empire. Their hard work and efforts led to the conversion of Bulgaria, Serbia, and Russia. As the power of the Byzantine Empire waned, these newer Churches in the north began to grow in importance, and with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, the Principality of Moscow was ready to step into Byzantium’s place as the protector of Orthodoxy. Although Constantinople remains in Turkish hands, the Church in Greece is free once more; and the Russian and other Slavic peoples had fallen under the rule of a non-Christian government, which is now being once again reversed.
We, who proclaim Orthodoxy, are proud of the fact that we belong to a Church that has guarded the deposit of Holy Tradition, the source of the Orthodox faith:
“Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.”
The history of Orthodoxy is marked by a series of sudden breaks, which were: the capture of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem by Arab Mohammedans; the burning of Kiev by the Mongols; and the two sackings of Constantinople; and the October 1917 Communist Revolution in Russia. Each of these events have transformed the external appearance of the Orthodox world, but they have been unable to break the inward continuity of the Orthodox Church. When a non-Orthodox first encounters Orthodoxy, the first thing that strikes them is the aura of antiquity and its changelessness. The stranger will find that the Orthodox still baptize by threefold immersion, as did the primitive Church; Orthodox parents still bring babies and small children to receive the Holy Eucharist; during the Divine Liturgy, the deacon still cries out: ‘The doors! The doors’ – which recalls the early days when the entrance of the churches were jealously guarded, and none but members of the Christian family could attend the family worship; and the stranger will hear that the Creed is still recited without any additions. These, along with personal prayer and a private prayer corner in their homes, are some of the things which pervade every aspect of Orthodox life. Therefore, it is it’s changelessness, its determination to remain loyal to the past, and its sense of living continuity with the Church of ancient times. Two and a half centuries ago, the Eastern Patriarchs made the following statement to the Non-Jurors:
“We preserve the Doctrine of the Lord uncorrupted, and firmly
adhere to the Faith he delivered to us, and keep it free from
blemish and diminution, as a Royal Treasure, and a monument
of great price, neither adding any thing, nor taking any thing from it.”
The Orthodox are always talking about Tradition, and rightly so. What is meant by this word? According to the Oxford Dictionary, tradition is an opinion, belief, or custom handed down from ancestors to posterity. Therefore, Christian Tradition is the faith which Jesus Christ imparted to the Apostles, and which since the Apostles’ time has been handed down from generation to generation in the Church. However, to an Orthodox Christian, Tradition means much more than this. It means the books of the Bible (both the Old and New Testaments); it means the Creed; it means the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Church Fathers; it means the Canons (collected in the book called the RUDDER), the Service Books, the Holy Icons – along with the whole system of doctrine, Church government, worship, and art which the Orthodox Church has articulated over the ages. The Orthodox Christian of today sees him/her self as the heir and guardians to a great inheritance received from the past and we believe that it is our God- given duty to transmit this great inheritance, unimpaired and unchanged to future generations.
We Orthodox, while reverencing this inheritance from the past, are very well aware of the fact that not everything received from the past is of equal value. Among the various elements of Tradition, a unique pre-eminence belongs to the Bible, to the Creed, to the doctrinal definitions of the Ecumenical Councils: these things we Orthodox accept as something absolute and unchanging, something which cannot be cancelled or revised. The other parts of Tradition do not have the same authority. The decrees of Jassy or Jerusalem do not stand on the same level as the Nicene Creed, nor do the writings of Athanasius, or Symeon the New Theologian, occupy the same position as the Gospel of Saint John.
Not everything received from the past is of equal value, nor is everything received from the past necessarily true. As one of the bishops stated at the Council of Carthage in 257: “The Lord said, I am the truth. He did not say, I am the custom.” There is a difference between ‘Tradition’ and ‘traditions’: many traditions which the past has handed down are human and accidental. Tradition is the outward expression of True Orthodoxy.
The inward expression of Orthodoxy of the individual is one’s personal relationship to Jesus Christ. This is manifested in ones prayer life and our personal devotions, such as the recitation of the Jesus Prayer:
Lord and Savior Jesus Christ;
Only-begotten Son of the Living
God: have mercy on me the sinner.
And ones recitation of the Daily Offices of Vespers, the Order of Compline, the Office of Great Compline, the Order of Matins, and the Office of Lauds. Personal prayer becomes an integral part of every true Orthodox Christian’s life, and in each true Orthodox Christian family, the husband is not only husband and father, but he is also a priest (not to be confused with an ordained priest) who imparts teachings, loving discipline and blessings to the members of his family in the image of the Holy Family, and in turn we attend community worship, each family becoming one and communing with the greater family of the Orthodox Church adding our worship through prayer and song to those of the Heavenly Saints and Angels, honoring and praising God our Heavenly Father, His Son Jesus Christ and His Holy Spirit. Every aspect of the Divine Liturgy has its special meaning, from the prayers, hymns, incense and the iconostasis with its Holy Doors and Deacon’s Doors. Entering an Orthodox Church gives one the feeling that they are entering into Heaven itself. Toward the end of the Divine Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and Saint Basil, part of the prayer, which the priest recites before the icon of Jesus Christ, the priest says:
O LORD WHO BLESS THOSE WHO BLESS YOU, and sanctify those who trust in You, save your people and bless your inheritance; safeguard the fullness of your Church; sanctify those who love the beauty of your house;…….. .
Take away anyone of the Traditions or any part of personal prayer life, and you have lost True Orthodoxy. Likewise, if you remove any aspect of a traditional Orthodox Church, then you have diminished the beauty of God’s House.
So, What is Orthodoxy? The best one can say, is: Orthodoxy is a way of life in which Jesus Christ is first and foremost in our personal lives, it is the holding on to defending the Traditions and the Faith which was handed down to us by Jesus Christ through his Apostles, and it is a daily struggle to live our lives in the manner of Jesus and his Apostles and disciples.
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