Primer 1 - A

A Basic Primer of Orthodox Catholicism and its difference with the Roman Jurisdiction of the Catholic Church




The Western Orthodox Theological Institute (WOTI) is the inheritor of the now closed St. John Chrysostom University.  When St. John Chrysostom University was first opened as an on-campus site out of Missouri, it was headed by Archbishop David Luther and Archbishop Jerome Joachim, both of reposed memory.  But during the time it was a thriving center of academia and patristic knowledge for those seeking proper training and understanding while some were engaged in other spiritual pursuits to the Glory of God.  Then, as a result of dwindling seminarians, the University finally closed it's doors in lieu of an alternate method of training which began with Archbishop Luther's Servants of the Good Shepherd out of Pennsylvania followed by the Western Orthodox Theological Institute which initiated the program by educating students through the mailing of courses across the U.S. and to students in other countries.  It worked so very well that when it was realized that a busy schedule and health issues were interfering in their collective activities, WOTI was reassigned to the then, Rev. Father Alan Stanford (now +Joseph Thaddeus, OSB, SSJt., Ph.D.) of the American Orthodox Church / North American Orthodox Church who has since been its President.


Hardly does a day go by but what our Corbishop has taken on tasks for this jurisdiction that goes beyond his calling.  He is motivated, a stickler for truth, Orthodox Truth, and for establishing an understanding that the "ethnic" Orthodox approach is not always a viable American approach.  He is proving that North America, with all its Protestant controlling heresies, has to be met with a more direct answer than with that which has been used in other countries. 


We find that with Abbot Gregori's help; the American Orthodox Church / North American Orthodox Church is, once again, spear heading the 'iron curtain' of Protestant heresies!


His love of God's creation as seen in the photo image, is but one example of his love for all mankind.  Abbot Gregori is an example of our approach to the fact that we are not against people of other religions as we are against the heresies other religions bring.  American Orthodox Catholic Christianity is not a "Religion" but a Jurisdiction of the One, Holy, Orthodox, Catholic and Apostolic Church, neither being a denomination nor a part of the Independent Movement, but a part of the only one and true religion of Jesus Christ! ]


Orthodoxy and God:

Man receives his knowledge of God from His divine Revelation in the universe and especially in Jesus Christ. Even so, man realizes that this knowledge is far from complete in his mind. We (mankind) know God indirectly, “For our knowledge is imperfect”, (1 Cor. 13:9), “in a mirror dimly”, (1 Cor. 13:12), this is because our knowledge is taken indirectly from God’s revelation in the universe and in Christ. The essence of God is unknown to man and untaught by man. We can only know that which is about God, but cannot understand God Himself.


So what do we know? We know that God is a spiritual Being without matter, and He cannot be contained in space or time. There is no place in the universe where God is not present; is energy is witnessed in every part of the universe. This is the ‘Ever-Presence of God’.


The Eternity of God means that God is above time, thus Ever-Present, without end. Time is humanly understood as the moving of things which have a beginning and an end and are changeable. But God is above and beyond time. There is no duration of time as far as God is concerned, for “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day”, 2 Peter 3:8. This is the ‘Eternity of God’.


The divine power can do “all things”, and God can do whatever he wills; not what He can do, but rather what He WILLS to do. God’s WILL is God’s power, and God wills whatever He wants to do. “God can do whatever He wills, but He does NOT do whatever He can do; for He can destroy the universe but He does not will to do so” (Damascene Orthodox Faith, Vol. 1, 13). In God’s Person, His power and will are indispensable to one another. As such, God’s attribute as absolute prevails. This is the ‘Almightiness of God’.


These are the natural attributes of god – His Ever-presence, Eternity and Almightiness – they derive from the central characteristic of God’s ABSOLUTENESS.


Through the fall (the sin) of Adam and Eve, mankind and all of creation have become corrupt and separated from God. No longer could we walk with God in the cool of the evening as did Adam in the Garden of Eden. But God so loved the world that He sent His only Begotten Son that we may have eternal life. In other words, God became a man that man may become as God.


It is through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the only Begotten Son of God, the LOGOS (Word of God) that brought the Church into being. The source of our Salvation is through Jesus Christ and His Church.


The primitive Church:

Christian Biblical revelation takes place in a historical context which means that it is a revelation of historical fact and data, illuminating God’s actions in history. It is in the realm of time and space that mankind’s salvation is revealed as God’s chosen way to redeem us.


The worship of Orthodox Christianity is a witness to history, as it recalls, in its rich diversity, particular historical events that involve not only the earthly life of Jesus Christ our Lord, but also the life of the Church, its saints, ascetics, martyrs, and theologians. Each celebration of the liturgy, each celebration of a feast, is a celebration of time and of the eschatological reality, and at the same time it is anticipation of the “world to come” – of what lies beyond the realm of history – as well as remembrance of a concrete historical past. Also, history lies at the very heart of Orthodoxy’s conviction that it is the true Church of Christ on earth. What forms the basis of this claim? It is actually due to its possession of an uninterrupted historical and theological continuity that Orthodoxy is able to rightfully make this claim. The Orthodox Church, even though it has undergone changes and developed through the centuries, has remained in its essential identity – its organic and spiritual continuity – substantially coextensive with the Church of the Apostles. Thus it is, in effect, the living continuation in time and space of the primitive Church in Jerusalem.


The Impact of Christianity on History:

The first four centuries of the Christian era were among the most creative. The victory of Christianity over the persecutions was revolutionary for both the Roman Empire and the European civilization that was to follow. It was during this period that the Church achieved a certain self-identity and self-awareness, which has since become the norm for Orthodoxy. In the beginning, the Church was without a New Testament. Scripture simply meant the Old Testament. Increasingly, the Church recognized the need to bring together all of the writings of apostolic origin or inspiration into a single canon. To this day, this collection of twenty-seven books still constitutes the total apostolic witness for the Church and is identical with our present day New Testament. Thus we can say that the most significant events in the history of Christianity during this period was its transformation into a religion of two Testaments. These writings were acknowledged and received by the community of the Church because they coincided with its own Tradition and the witness of the Holy Spirit indwelling in its midst since Pentecost. Christians, strictly speaking, lived solely by these Tradition decades before the content of the New Testament was determined. Scripture in the Orthodox Church is routinely interpreted within the context of Tradition. Father Georges Florovsky famously argued, “it is within this larger setting of the Church’s living memory (Tradition) that Scripture discloses its authentic message.


The Early Administrative Structure of the Church:

Equally critical to the life of the Church was the formation of its administrative structure. The ministry of the Apostles was itinerate rather than stationary. After founding a church community, the Apostles would depart for another mission, leaving behind others to administer the new congregation and preside over the Eucharist and Baptism. This resulted in a local hierarchy developing whose functions were stationary, administrative, and sacramental in contrast with the mobile authority of the Apostles. The presiding official of each community, especially at each of the Sunday Eucharistic meal, was the episcopos, or bishop, who was assisted by priests and deacons. This system with its three-fold pattern of bishop, priest, and deacon was already in place in many areas by the early second century. There was nothing unusual in this development. After all, the Last Supper – the first Liturgy – could not have taken place without the Lord’s presiding presence. From the beginning, the existence of a presiding head was taken for granted by the Church. This establishment of a local “monarchial” episcopate is still at the very center of Orthodox ecclesiology.


The Medieval Period:

If the early fourth century marked the end of the persecutions and the Church’s formative age, it also marked the dawn of the medieval period. With the fourth century the Church was standing on the threshold of a new civilization. Constantine’s recognition of Christianity was decisive, but equally important was his decision to move the imperial residence – the center of Roman government – to Constantinople in the year 330. The importance of this event in the history of the Eastern Church can hardly be exaggerated. This capital situated in the old Greek city of Byzantium, soon became the center of the new emerging Orthodox civilization. There is a division in the opinion of the historical question of Byzantium’s contribution to civilization. But its lasting legacy lies in the area of religion and art. It is these two areas which gave Byzantine culture much of its unity. The new culture that developed was clearly dominated by the Christian vision of life, rather than the pagan. One need only turn to Justinian’s (532) “Great Church” of the Holy Wisdom – the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople – to understand this. Not only did Constantinople, the “New Rome” become the setting for this new civilization, but it also became the unrivaled center of Orthodox Christianity. It is during this important period that the city’s bishop assumed the title of “ecumenical patriarch.”


Ecumenical Synods and Heresies:

The Byzantine Empire had remarkable endurance, surviving for over a millennium until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The seven ecumenical synods (councils) with their doctrinal formulations are of particular importance to the Byzantine period, as these synods were responsible for the formulation of Christian doctrine. They constitute a permanent standard for an Orthodox understanding of the Trinity, the persons of Christ, and the incarnation. The decisions of these synods constitute an authoritive norm against which all subsequent theology is measured, and they remain binding for the whole Church; non-acceptance constitutes exclusion from the communion of the Church. This explains the separation from the Church of such groups as the Jacobites, Armenians, Copts, and Nestorians. The ultimate acceptance of these synods by the Church as a whole is what gave the Church its validity and authority. Their acceptance was due, to a large part, to the great theologians of the age; their literary defense of these synods was decisive. These fathers of the Church were such men as saints Basil, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus, Cyril, and Gregory of Nyssa. Their writings still constitute and inexhaustible theological source for contemporary Orthodox Christians.


The seven ecumenical councils are important for another reason. The threefold ministerial structure of the Church was already a reality in many communities by the post-apostolic period. Each of these self-contained local churches, with its own independent hierarchal structure, was a self-governing unit. However, exact standards governing the relations of these churches with each other had not yet been defined. Still, a certain “power structure” modeled upon the organization of the Roman Empire eventually emerged; a provincial system in which churches were grouped in provinces had developed even before the beginning of the fourth century. In such cases it was the norm to give greater honor to the “metropolitan” or bishop of the capital city (metropolis) of each province. Likewise, given the importance of certain cities in the Roman administration, special precedence was given the presiding bishop of the three largest cities in the empire: Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch. These developments, in which a church was ranked according to its civil importance in the administrative divisions of the Roman state, had evolved by common consensus without ecclesiastical legislation to support it. This problem was addressed by the ecumenical synods. The fathers of the first synod (325) formerly recognized the status of the three dioceses of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch, and with the emergence of Constantinople as the new capital of the empire, this patriarchal system was further modified, since the change brought about in the civil administration by Constantinople’s new status could not help but to affect the ecclesiastical structure. At the synod of 381, Constantinople, as the “New Rome,” was given second place after the old Rome, while Alexandria was assigned third place. This legislation received further confirmation at the fourth synod of Chalcedon (451), when Constantinople, along with Jerusalem, was granted patriarchal status.


So, by the fifth century, a “pentarchy” or system of five sees (patriarchates) had been established, with a settled order of precedence. As the ancient center and the largest city of the empire, Rome, understandably, was given the primacy of honor within the pentarchy into which Christendom was now divided. This system of patriarchs and metropolitans was exclusively the result of ecclesiastical legislation; there was nothing inherently divine in its origin. None of the five sees possessed its authority by divine right. Had this been so, Alexandria could not have been demoted to third rank in order to have Constantinople exalted to second place. The determining factor was nothing more than their secular status as the most important cities in the empire. Another thing to note is that each of the five patriarchs was totally sovereign within their sphere of jurisdiction. The primacy of Rome, as such, did not entail universal jurisdictional power over the others. On the contrary, all bishops, whether patriarchs, metropolitans, or just bishops of a small local diocese, were equal. No one bishop, however exalted his see or diocese, could claim supremacy over the others. The bishop of Rome was simply honored as the “first among equals”.


Crisis over Icons:

 Since the visual arts played a prominent role in the personal lives of the Orthodox faithful, as well as in the liturgical life of the Church, it is only right and proper to give a mention, even if only brief, of Byzantine iconoclasm and the seventh ecumenical synod (787) which condemned it. Byzantine religious art is among the empire’s lasting legacies, even to this day. Had the iconoclasts won, their victory would have had a decisive impact and would have altered the course of Byzantine painting. Iconoclasm is often thought of as apart from the christological debates which the earlier ecumenical synods were concerned. But, the issue, to a great degree, most certainly was christological in nature. To understand this, we need to start with the basic iconoclast objection to images. The iconoclasts argued how could the divinity of Christ be depicted or represented without falling into idolatry? To the iconoclasts, the veneration of the Lord’s icon was nothing less than idolatrous worship of inanimate wood and paint, which was very plainly forbidden by Holy Scripture to Christians. However, as cogent an argument it was, it did not convince the Fathers of the seventh ecumenical synod.


The fathers argued that a material image, it is true, is made of wood and paint, but it is only a symbol. It is not an object of absolute veneration or worship. On the contrary, icons are only relatively venerated since the true object of veneration is ultimately the person imaged or depicted in the icon, not the icon itself. A clear distinction must be made between veneration (proskynesis timetike) by which an icon should be honored, and worship (latreia) which belongs to God alone. In other words, it is altogether unlawful to worship icons, for God alone is worshipped and adored; however, icons should and could be venerated. This insistence that icons should be honored brings us to the second important argument of the Church – the christological argument. This argument holds that a representation of the Lord or of the saints is entirely permissible and necessary because of the incarnation. In other words, the Son of God, the image of the Father, can be shown pictorially precisely because through the incarnation, he became visible and discernable by assuming a human nature and by becoming man. Any repudiation of the Lord’s image is tantamount to a denial of the mystery of the incarnation. The defeat of iconoclasm is celebrated annually by the Orthodox Church on the first Sunday of Lent. The “Feast of Orthodoxy” commemorates the final restoration of images (11 March 843).


Affect of the Byzantine Period on the Church:

Not only did devotional art receive its definitive form during the Byzantine period, but the liturgical life of the Church did also. The see of Constantinople played crucial and determining role in the process of “Byzantinization” of the Church. Before its rise to political importance in the fourth century, Constantinople was merely a minor bishopric having no liturgical tradition of its own. Its liturgical life was gradually formed from other local liturgical elements and traditions. Older sees such as Antioch and Jerusalem were major contributors to this process. Also involved in the formation of the “Byzantine rite” was Constantinople’s resident imperial court with its own elaborate ceremonial. Given Constantinople’s growing importance in the Church, this new liturgical synthesis became the standard and eventually replaced all other local rites within the Church by the ninth century. Not only the liturgy, but the whole cycle of services, such as compline, vespers, etc., used today in the Orthodox Church is substantially identical with the original Byzantine rite of Constantinople.


The Influence of Monasticism on the Church:

The two areas of influence, liturgy and iconography, would not have been possible without the contributions made by Byzantine monasticism. The victory of the Church over iconoclasm was by and large due to the work of Byzantine monks, as are liturgical regulations governing the cycle of Orthodox services today. Monasticism as a permanent institution did not exist prior to the fourth century. Its institutional origins will not be found in any single specific directive of the Lord or in any particular passage of the New Testament. Yet, its foundations are rooted in the totality of the Gospel message – which is the source of both its creativity and strength. Behind the physical withdrawal into the desert or monastery lies the renunciation of the world and of Satan to which every Christian commits themselves at baptism. The monastic vocation is intimately bound to the baptismal vow. Entering a monastery is simply another means by which some have chosen to live the absolute ideal of the Gospel. This may appear to be an extreme way to follow Jesus Christ, but all Christians, whether inside or outside a monastery, are ultimately called to the same renunciation, the same perfection, and the same fulfillment of the Gospel. A personal search for holiness is not the special preserve of monks.


Asceticism grew and influenced Orthodox spirituality, prayer, piety, and general Church life because of its essentially Christian goals. Another area that is perhaps less well known, in which monasticism contributed to the Church, is the fact that the Church often recruited its episcopate from the countless monastic communities in the Byzantine countryside. One monastery, in particular, on Mt. Athos, besides producing 144 bishops, provided the Church with 26 patriarchs. Two thirds of the patriarchs of Constantinople between the ninth and thirteenth centuries were monastics. As the established faith of the Byzantine Empire, the Church was often in danger of identifying itself with the state, of becoming worldly and in the process, losing its eschatological dimension. The monastic presence was always there to remind the Church of its true nature and identity with another Kingdom. Its fierce opposition to any compromise of the Christian vision was crucial in the Church’s survival and independence.


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