Christian Orthodoxy Research Paper

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Although it has no central authority, the doctrine of Orthodox Christianity is based on holy tradition, especially the tradition established by the seven ecumenical councils that were held during the fourth through eighth centuries CE. The Eastern Orthodox Church initiated its separation from the Roman Catholic Church of the West in the ninth century, and its theology differs from that of the Western denominations.

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The Orthodox Church is a communion of independent Eastern churches organized geographically, usually by country. Together they constitute the second-largest Christian denomination after the Roman Catholic Church. Orthodoxy sees itself as the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ.

Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches

Most Orthodox churches belong to the Eastern Orthodox family of churches, with a smaller number belonging to the Oriental Orthodox family. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the churches are classified as either autocephalous (completely self-governing) or autonomous (mostly self-governing, but dependent upon a mother church). First among the autocephalous churches are the four ancient patriarchates that remain Orthodox; they are, in order of seniority, the churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. These are joined by the eleven autocephalous churches of Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, and the Orthodox Church in America. The autonomous churches are those of the Sinai, Finland, Japan, China, and Ukraine.

The Oriental Orthodox churches are those that may be traced to disputes over the Third and Fourth Ecumenical Councils. The Assyrian Church of the East, sometimes erroneously referred to as “Nestorian,” is generally regarded as having not recognized the Third Council. Those churches generally regarded as having rejected the Fourth Council are the Armenian, Coptic (Egyptian), and Ethiopian churches, and the Syrian churches of Antioch and India.

Theological Authority

While Western Christians dispute whether the proper sources of theological authority are the Bible alone or the Bible together with the tradition of the church, Orthodox Christianity understands there to be one source, holy tradition. This tradition is rooted first of all in the Bible, and then in the seven ecumenical councils (including what is commonly called the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, or Symbol of Faith, completed in 381 CE), and in later councils, the writings of the church fathers, the liturgy, the canons of ecumenical and local councils, and the holy icons.

When it comes to the formulation of church dogma, however, the Eastern Orthodox churches accept the validity of the first seven ecumenical councils. These meetings of bishops in the first eight centuries of the church’s history, all convened to settle theological disputes within the Church, are considered the most authoritative expressions of Christian doctrine. The First Council of Nicaea (325 CE) affirmed the humanity and divinity of Christ and composed the first two-thirds of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The First Council of Constantinople (381 CE) affirmed the divinity of the Holy Spirit and added the final third of the Creed. The Council of Ephesus (431 CE) affirmed the unity of Christ and declared his mother, the Virgin Mary, to be Theotokos (“birthgiver of God”). The Council of Chalcedon (451 CE) defined the human and divine natures of Christ, as opposed to the “one nature” doctrine of the Monophysites. The Second Council of Constantinople (553 CE) continued the work of Chalcedon. The Third Council of Constantinople (680–681 CE) condemned the Monothelite (“one-will”) heresy, affirming that Christ has two wills (divine and human). The Second Council of Nicaea (787 CE) condemned the iconoclasts (“icon breakers”) and upheld the proper veneration of icons.

The Great Schism

The break between East and West, between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, is often dated to 1054 CE, but the history is more complex. The Great Schism was the result of an estrangement between the East and the West that developed over several centuries due to differences in culture, politics, and language, as well as theology. The chief theological controversies that exacerbated the estrangement and led ultimately to a break in communion had to do with the authority of the Roman pope and a change in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Both issues led to the so-called Photian Schism of the ninth century and to the mutual excommunications that occurred in 1054.

The five centers of the church in the first millennium CE, the so-called Pentarchy, were Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Rome, as the first capital of the empire and as the traditional location of the death of two Apostles, Peter and Paul, was honored by being accorded primacy. In the East, the proximity of the patriarchal sees to one another functioned like a system of checks and balances, allowing the East to maintain the polity of autocephalous churches in communion with one another. But Rome was alone in the West, and over time the office of the pope began asserting more and more authority, even to the point of claiming jurisdiction over the Eastern churches. The proclamation of papal infallibility in the nineteenth century added a further obstacle to reunification.

The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed declares that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” Beginning in Spain in the sixth century, however, some Western Christians began adding a word (Filioque) to the Latin translation of the Creed that results in the declaration that the Spirit proceeds “from the Father and the Son.” Despite efforts to add this word to the creed at Rome, it was not officially added to the text until 1054 CE. The Filioque issue is really twofold. On the one hand, there is a possible dogmatic dispute. If by Filioque the West means that the existence of the Holy Spirit has two sources (the Father and the Son), then the East sees the resulting subordination of the Spirit to the Son as heresy. If the West means something else, however, such as the position of St. Maximos the Confessor (580–662 ce) that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and through (dia) the Son, then a resolution of the theological difference is possible. On the other hand, the East clearly believes that no one autocephalous church has the authority to change the Creed, which was the product of two ecumenical councils. So even if there is a dogmatic resolution, the Orthodox position would still require the elimination of Filioque from the Creed.

A Liturgical Theology

The etymology of the term Orthodox is twofold, having the meaning of either “right belief,” “right glory,” or both. This is suggestive of Orthodoxy’s fundamental assumption that worship is the primary theological transaction. Thus it is the Church’s worship, especially its eucharistic liturgy, that is the locus of theology, and not the classroom or the library. The theologian is not the academic but the one “who prays truly,” in the words of Evagrios of Pontus (c. 346–399 ce). Orthodox theology is therefore best understood as doxological in character.

The Orthodox Church celebrates at least seven mysteries or sacraments: baptism, chrismation (confirmation), Eucharist, repentance (confession), marriage, anointing of the sick (unction), and ordination. The principal forms for celebrating the Eucharist are the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (used most of the year), the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil (used ten times annually), the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts (used on weekdays during Lent and the first part of Holy Week), and the Divine Liturgy of St. James (traditionally used on the feast of St. James of Jerusalem, but there is a growing use of this liturgy on other days during the year). While refraining from speculation as to the metaphysics of eucharistic presence, Orthodoxy believes strongly in the real presence of Christ’s body and blood.

The Church year begins 1 September and includes the pre-Nativity fast (Advent); Nativity (Christmas); Theophany (Epiphany); Great Lent; Pascha (Easter); Pentecost; and the additional fasts preceding the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul (29 June) and the Dormition (Assumption) of the Theotokos (15 August). The Twelve Great Feasts of the Church are the Nativity of the Theotokos (8 September); the Exaltation of the Cross (14 September); the Nativity of Christ (25 December); Theophany (6 January); the Meeting of Our Lord (2 February); the Annunciation (25 March); the Entry of Our Lord into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday); the Ascension; the Day of Pentecost; the Transfiguration (6 August); and the Dormition (Assumption) of the Theotokos (15 August). Most Orthodox churches reckon these dates according to the Julian calendar, although since the beginning of the early twentieth century, a number have adopted the secular Gregorian calendar for fixed dates. The Paschal cycle of movable feasts is still reckoned according to the Julian calendar.

In addition to the mysteries, the Church observes the canonical hours of prayer: vespers, compline, the midnight office, matins, the third hour, the sixth hour, and the ninth hour. As in the West, these are rarely celebrated fully outside of monasteries. However, most parishes celebrate Saturday night vespers and/or Sunday morning matins.

Theological Positions

In addition to differences from Western Christianity as to the sources of theological authority, the theology of the Orthodox East is characterized by numerous theological positions, also known as theological distinctives, that greatly affect its understanding of God, humankind, and the economy of salvation. Because Orthodoxy did not undergo Roman Catholic scholasticism or the Protestant Reformation that resulted, the East has avoided many of the theological polarities associated with the internecine struggles of the West.

Mystical Theology

For the Christian East, theology—dogmatic, moral, or otherwise—must be lived. “Mystical theology” is the term that identifies the inextricable relationship between dogma and life, between the teaching of the Church and one’s personal experience. In the Orthodox view, theology that is not experienced is useless, and mysticism without theology is mere subjectivity. It is noteworthy that the East has given only three of its saints the title of “theologian”—St. John the Evangelist in the first century, St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329–389 CE), and St. Symeon the New Theologian (c. 949–1022 CE).

Apophatic Theology

The Orthodox tradition distinguishes between apophatic (negative) theology, and kataphatic (positive) theology. While each has a role within the Orthodox theological tradition, the apophatic is clearly preeminent. Following the lead of (Pseudo) Denys the Areopagite (fifth or sixth century CE), the East emphasizes the radical inability of human thought and language to describe God and “utterly excludes all abstract and purely intellectual theology which would adapt the mysteries of the wisdom of God to human ways of thought” (Lossky 2002). The theological ascent to God must be apophatic. Kataphatic theology, on the other hand, is a kind of descent in which God manifests himself within the created order.

The Trinity

At the heart of all Orthodox worship, theology, spirituality, and life is the Holy Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is commonplace tosay that Eastern theology begins with the three Persons and goes on to affirm the one Being, while Western theology generally begins with the one Being and then proceeds to a consideration of the three Persons. The value of this generalization is limited, but it is accurate to say that the East has emphasized the three Persons of the Trinity more radically than the West. Perhaps the most famous Orthodox icon of all is the Old Testament Trinity painted by the Russian iconographer St. Andrei Rublev, c. 1410. It is a depiction of the three angels who appeared to Abraham in Genesis 18, an appearance understood by the East to be a Theophany (“manifestation”) of the Trinity.

Original Sin

Western Christianity’s understanding of many subjects, not least of them the question of Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden, has been greatly shaped by the thinking of St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE). Unfortunately, Augustine’s view of original sin was predicated on St. Jerome’s Latin (mis-) translation of Romans 5:12, which Jerome misunderstood to say that all humans bear the guilt of Adam’s sin, and not merely the consequence of that sin, which is death. To avoid association with Augustine’s view, Orthodox Christians generally prefer to refer to Adam’s sin as “ancestral sin.” Christian Orthodoxy also rejects the Calvinist notion that humankind is utterly depraved as a result of the Fall and the resulting denial of human freedom.

The Atonement

Western Christians since the eleventh century have largely understood the reconciliation between God and humankind in terms associated with St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109). His “satisfaction theory” of the Atonement seems to portray God as requiring satisfaction for the sins of humankind, with Christ undergoing the required vengeance. In contrast, the Orthodox or “classical” theory sees the Cross as the victory of Christ over the forces of evil. More than that, however, the Christian East understands the salvific work of Christ as considerably wider and more far ranging than the Crucifixion alone. Humankind was separated from God by our nature, by sin, and by death; Christ overcame these obstacles through his Incarnation (by which he assumed and therefore healed human nature), his Crucifixion (by which he overcame sin), and his Resurrection (by which he destroyed death and made all of humankind immortal).


Orthodoxy has been largely untouched by the Western disputes concerning justification and sanctification, instead understanding salvation as a mater of theosis, or deification. Tracing the idea from biblical texts such as 2 Peter 1.4, the Gospel of John, and the epistles of St. Paul, through the texts of patristic witnesses such as St. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 120–203 CE), St. Athanasius of Alexandria (298–373), and St. Gregory Palamas (1296–1359), the Orthodox understand salvation as our becoming by grace what God is by nature.

Grace versus Free Will

A great part of the Reformation debate with Roman Catholicism centered on the relative roles of grace and free will in human salvation. Some Protestants, concerned to safeguard the efficacy of God’s grace, went too far and denied human freedom. Orthodoxy overcomes this opposition with its understanding of synergy, the biblical idea (as in 1 Corinthians 3:9) that we are cooperators with God.

Moral Theology

Western moral theology, utilizing the insights of philosophical ethics, usually portrays the nature of morality as a function of nature (natural law), utility (various consequentialist theories), the character of the moral agent (virtue ethics), or simply as a matter of God’s command or prohibition (voluntarism). While these elements play a role in the work of some Orthodox moral theologians, the patristic understanding characteristic of the tradition as a whole sees the moral life as a function of theosis.

Spiritual Theology

The classic text of Orthodox spirituality is The Philokalia of the Neptic Fathers, a five-volume Greek work edited by St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (1748–1809) and St. Makarios of Corinth (1731– 1805), published in 1782. The Philokalia (“love of the beautiful”) is a collection of writings on the life of prayer ranging from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries. It is associated with hesychastic (from the Greek hesychia, meaning “stillness”) spirituality and gives special attention to the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”).

Science and Religion

Because Orthodoxy has emphasized a spiritual epistemology, or gnosiology, aimed at the deification of the creature rather than a totalizing narrative subjugated to biblical accounts, it has not been concerned with either the astronomical debates sparked by Galileo in the seventeenth century or the creation–evolution debate that began with the work of Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century but which was more characteristic of the twentieth century.


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