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Eastern Orthodox Christian theology is the theology particular to the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is characterized by monotheistic Trinitarianism, belief in the Incarnation of the Logos (Son of God), a balancing of cataphatic theology with apophatic theology, a hermeneutic defined by Sacred Tradition, a concrete ecclesiology, a robust theology of the person, and a therapeutic soteriology.

The TrinityEdit

Andrej Rublëv 001

Icon of the Holy Trinity.

Orthodox Christians believe in a single God who is both three and one (triune): Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, "one in essence and undivided". The Holy Trinity is three "unconfused" and distinct divine persons (hypostases), who share one divine essence (ousia)—uncreated, immaterial and eternal. The Father is the eternal source of the Godhead, from Whom the Son is begotten eternally and also from Whom the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally. The essence of God being that which is beyond human comprehesion and can not be defined and or approached by human understanding.[1]

Essence and EnergiesEdit

In discussing God's relationship to his creation a distinction is made within Orthodox theology between God's eternal essence and uncreated energies, though it is understood that this does not compromise the divine simplicity. Energies and essence are both inseparably God. The divine energies are the expressions of divine being in act. According to Orthodox doctrine, whereas the Persons of the Holy Trinity are divine by nature, created beings are united to God through participation in the divine energies.

SalvationEdit

Chora Anastasis1

Orthodox icon of the Resurrection (14th cent. fresco, Chora Church, Istanbul).

Orthodox Christians hold that man was originally created in communion with God, but through acting in a manner contrary to his own nature (which is intrinsically ordered to communion with God), he disrupted that communion. Because of man's refusal to fulfill the "image and likeness of God" within him, corruption and the sickness of sin whose consequence is death entered man's mode of existence. But when Jesus came into the world He Himself was Perfect Man and Perfect God united in the divine Hypostasis of the Logos, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Through his assumption of human nature, human existence was restored, enabling human beings, and the fulfilment of creation, through participation in divinity by incorporation into Jesus Christ.

"The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, Who could recreate man made after the Image. In order to effect this re-creation, however, He had first to do away with death and corruption. Therefore He assumed a human body, in order that in it death might once and for all be destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image [of God]." St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation

Salvation, or "being saved," therefore, refers to this process of being saved from death and corruption and the fate of hell. The Orthodox Church believes that its teachings and practices represent the true path to participation in the gifts of God. Yet, it should be understood that the Orthodox do not believe that you must be Orthodox to participate in salvation. God is merciful to all. The Orthodox believe that there is nothing that a person (Orthodox or non-Orthodox) can do to earn salvation. It is rather a gift from God. However, this gift of relationship has to be accepted by the believer, since God will not force salvation on humanity. Man is free to reject the gift of salvation continually offered by God. To be saved, man must work together with God in a synergeia whereby his entire being, including his will, effort and actions, are perfectly conformed with, and united to, the divine.

"God becomes powerless before human freedom; He cannot violate it since it flows from His own omnipotence. Certainly man was created by the will of God alone; but he cannot be deified [made Holy] by it alone. A single will for creation, but two for deification. A single will to raise up the image, but two to make the image into a likeness. The love of God for man is so great that it cannot constrain; for there is no love without respect. Divine will always will submit itself to gropings, to detours, even to revolts of human will to bring it to a free consent." Vladimir Lossky, Orthodox Theology: An Introduction

The ultimate goal of the Orthodox Christian is to achieve theosis, or Union with God. This is sometimes expressed thus: "God became Man so that Man might become God." Some of the greatest saints have achieved, in this life, a measure of this process. The individual who achieves theosis never realizes his accomplishment, as his perfect humility keeps him blind to pride. Salvation therefore is not merely an escape from the eternal bondage of death, but an entrance to life in Christ here and now.

TraditionEdit

Nicaea icon

Icon depicting the Holy Fathers of the First Council of Nicaea holding the Nicene Creed.

The Orthodox Church considers itself to be the original church started by Christ and his apostles. For the early years of the church, much of what was conveyed to its members was in the form of oral teachings. Within a very short period of time traditions were established to reinforce these teachings. The Orthodox Church asserts to have been very careful in preserving these traditions. When questions of belief or new concepts arise, the Church always refers back to the primitive faith. They see the Bible as a collection of inspired texts that sprang out of this tradition, not the other way around; and the choices made in forming the New Testament as having come from comparison with already firmly established faith. The Bible has come to be a very important part of "Tradition", but not the only part.

Likewise, the Orthodox Church has always recognized the gradual development in the complexity of the articulation of the Church's teachings. It does not, however, believe that truth changes and therefore always supports its previous beliefs all the way back to the direct teachings from the Apostles. The Church also understands that not everything is perfectly clear; therefore, it has always accepted a fair amount of contention about certain issues, arguments about certain points, as something that will always be present within the Church. It is this contention which, through time, clarifies the truth. The Church sees this as the action of the Holy Spirit on history to manifest truth to man.

The Church is unwavering in upholding its dogmatic teachings, but does not insist upon those matters of faith which have not been specifically defined. The Orthodox believe that there must always be room for mystery when speaking of God. Individuals are permitted to hold theologoumena (private theological opinions) so long as they do not contradict traditional Orthodox teaching. Sometimes, various Holy Fathers may have contradictory opinions about a certain question, and where no consensus exists, the individual is free to follow his conscience.

Tradition also includes the Nicene Creed, the decrees of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the writings the Church Fathers, as well as Orthodox laws (canons), liturgical books and icons, etc. In defense of extrabiblical tradition, the Orthodox Church quotes Paul: "Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by our spoken word, or by our epistle." (2 Thessalonians 2:15). The Orthodox Church also believes that the Holy Spirit works through history to manifest truth to the Church, and that He weeds out falsehood in order that the Truth may be recognised more fully.

The BibleEdit

16C page from Shota Rustaveli's epic poem, The Knight in the Panther's Skin

A page from a rare Georgian Bible, 1030 A.D, depicting the Raising of Lazarus.

Many modern Christians approach the Bible and its interpretation as the sole authority to the establishment of their beliefs concerning the world and their salvation. From the Orthodox point of view, the Bible represents those texts approved by the church for the purpose of conveying the most important parts of what it already believes. The Church more or less accepted the preexisting Greek Septuagint version of Hebrew Scriptures as handed down to them from the Jews; but the New Testament texts were written to members or congregations of the Church which already existed. These texts were not universally considered canonical until the church reviewed, edited, accepted and ratified them in 368 AD.

The Greeks, having a highly sophisticated and philosophical language, have always understood that certain sections of Scripture, while containing moral lessons and complex truth, do not necessarily have to be interpreted literally. The Orthodox also understand that a particular passage may be interpreted on many different levels simultaneously. However, interpretation is not a matter of personal opinion (2 Peter 1:20). For this reason, Orthodox depend upon the consensus of the Holy Fathers to provide a trustworthy guide to the accurate interpretation of Scripture.[2] [3]

Orthodox Christianity is a strongly biblical church. A large portion of the Daily Office is made up of either direct portions of scripture (Psalms, lections) or allusions to scriptural passages or themes (hymnography such as that contained in the Octoechos, Triodion, Pentecostarion, etc.) The entire Psalter is read in the course of a week (twice during Great Lent). The entire New Testament (with the exception of the Book of Revelation) is read during the course of the year, and numerous passages are read from the Old Testament at Vespers and other services.

The Gospel Book is considered to be an icon of Christ, and is placed in a position of honour on the Holy Table (altar). The Gospel Book is traditionally not covered in leather (the skin of a dead animal) because the Word of God is considered to be life-giving. Traditionally, the Gospel is covered in gold or cloth.

Orthodox Christians are encouraged to read and study the Bible daily, especially making use of the writings of the Holy Fathers for guidance.

The Consensus of the FathersEdit

Orthodoxy interprets truth based on three witnesses: the consensus of the Holy Fathers of the Church; the ongoing teaching of the Holy Spirit guiding the life of the Church through the nous, or mind of the Church (also called the "Catholic Consciousness of the Church"[4]), which is believed to be the Mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16); and the praxis of the church (including among other things asceticism, liturgy, hymnography and iconography).

The consensus of the Church over time defines its catholicity—that which is believed at all times by the entire Church.[5] Those who disagree with that consensus are not accepted as authentic "Fathers." All theological concepts must be in agreement with that consensus. Even those considered to be authentic "Fathers" may have some theological opinions that are not universally shared, but are not thereby considered heretical. Some Holy Fathers have even made statements that were later defined as heretical, but their mistakes do not exclude them from position of authority (heresy is a sin of pride; unintended error does not make one a heretic, only the refusal to accept a dogma which has been defined by the church). Thus an Orthodox Christian is not bound to agree with every opinion of every Father, but rather with the overall consensus of the Fathers, and then only on those matters about which the church is dogmatic.

Some of the greatest theologians in the history of the church come from the fourth century, including the Cappadocian Fathers and the Three Hierarchs. However, the Orthodox do not consider the "Patristic era" to be a thing of the past, but that it continues in an unbroken succession of enlightened teachers (i.e., the saints, especially those who have left us theological writings) from the Apostles to the present day.

Sin and redemptionEdit

The Orthodox approach to sin and how to deal with it is never "legalistic". Following rules strictly without the heart "being in it" does not help a believer with his salvation. Sin is not about breaking some set of rules; rather, it is the name for any behavior which "misses the mark," that is, fails to live up to the higher goal of being like God.

Thus, in the Orthodox tradition sin is not viewed as a stain on the soul that needs to be wiped out, but rather as a pervading sickness or a failure to achieve a goal. Sin, therefore, does not carry with it the guilt for breaking a rule, but rather the impetus to become something more than what we are. Because each person's experience is unique, dealing with one's sinful habits needs individual attention and correction. The ultimate goal for this process is to become more Christ-like in one's actions.

A traditional practice of Orthodoxy is to have a spiritual guide to whom one confesses and who treats the sin on an individual basis. An experienced spiritual guide will know how and when to apply strictness in dealing with sin and when to administer mercy.

Original sinEdit

In Eastern Orthodoxy, God created man perfect with free will and gave man a direction to follow. Man (Adam) and Woman (Eve) chose rather to disobey God by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, thus changing the "perfect" mode of existence of man to the "flawed" mode of existence of man. This flawed nature and all that has come from it is a result of that "original sin". All humanity shares in the sin of Adam because like him, they are human. The union of humanity with divinity in Jesus Christ restored, in the Person of Christ, the mode of existence of humanity, so that those who are incorporated in him may participate in this mode of existence, be saved from sin and death, and be united to God in deification. Original sin is cleansed in humans through baptism or, in the case of the Theotokos, the moment Christ took form within her.

This view differs from the Roman Catholic (Augustinian) doctrine of Original Sin in that man is not seen as inherently guilty of the sin of Adam.[6] According to the Orthodox, humanity inherited the consequences of that sin, not the guilt. The difference stems from Augustine's interpretation of a Latin translation of Romans 5:12 to mean that through Adam all men sinned, whereas the Orthodox reading in Greek interpret it as meaning that all of humanity sins as part of the inheritance of flawed nature from Adam. The Orthodox Church does not teach that all are born deserving to go to hell, and Protestant doctrines such as Predeterminism that derive from the Augustinian understanding of original sin are not a part of Orthodox belief.

In the book Ancestral Sin, John S. Romanides addresses the concept of original sin, which he understands as an inheritance of ancestral sin from previous generations. Romanides asserts that original sin (as inherited sin) is not a doctrine of the church nor cohesive with the Eastern Orthodox faith, but an invention of later church fathers such as Augustine. In the realm of ascetics it is by choice, not birth, that one takes on the sins of the world.[7] Recent essays have emerged by various contemporary Orthodox scholars which attempt to reconcile and react to both the Creationist interpretation of Genesis 1-2 and the strict Darwinist theory of human evolution.[8]

IncarnationEdit

Prior to Christ's incarnation on Earth it was man's "fate", when he died, because of the fall of Adam, to be separated from God. Because man distorted his mode of existence through acting against what was natural to him - thus disobeying God - mankind placed itself in a terrible and inescapable position. God, however, raised man's fallen nature, to unite his divine nature with our human nature. This he accomplished through the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who assumed human nature, thus becoming man, whilst retaining the divine nature proper to divinity. It is fundamental for Orthodox Christians that they accept Christ as both God and Man, both natures complete. This is viewed as the only way of escaping the hell of separation from God. The incarnation unites mankind to divinity. Orthodox Christians believe that because of that Incarnation, everything is different. It is said that St Basil stated: "We are to strive to become little gods, within God, little jesus christs within Jesus Christ". In other words, Orthodox Christians must seek perfection in all things in their lives; and strive to acquire Godly virtue. It is believed that God, through assuming humanity, makes it possible for man to participate in divinity. Orthodox Christians do not believe in becoming "separate" gods in the pagan sense; rather, they believe that humans may participate in the divine energies of God without loss of their personal particularity. Humans, therefore, become by grace what God is by nature.

TheotokosEdit

Vladimirskaya

The Theotokos of Vladimir, one of the most venerated of Orthodox Christian icons of the Virgin Mary.

A great many traditions revolve around the Ever-Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, the Birth-giver of God, which are theologically paramount. It is believed by Orthodox Christians that she was and remained a Virgin before and after Christ's birth. Many of the Church's beliefs concerning the Virgin Mary are reflected in the apocryphal text "The Nativity of Mary", which was not included in scripture, but is considered to be accurate in its description of events. The child Mary was consecrated at the age of three to serve in the temple as a temple virgin. Zachariah, at that time High Priest of the Temple, did the unthinkable and carried Mary into the Holy of Holies as a sign of her importance – that she herself would become the ark in which God would take form. At the age of twelve she was required to give up her position and marry, but she desired to remain forever a virgin in dedication to God. And so it was decided to marry her to a close relative, Joseph, an uncle or cousin, an older man, a widower, who would take care of her and allow her to retain her virginity. And so it was that when the time came she submitted to God’s will and allowed the Christ to take form within her. It is believed by many Orthodox that she, in her life, committed no sin; however, the Orthodox do not accept the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate conception. The Theotokos was subject to original sin as the Orthodox understand it, yet she lived her life stainless and pure. In the theology of the Orthodox Church, it is most important to understand that Christ, from the very moment of conception, was fully God and fully man. Therefore Orthodox Christians believe that it is correct to say that Mary is indeed the Theotokos, the Birth-giver of God, and that she is the greatest of all humans ever to have lived (except, of course, for Christ her Son). The term 'Theotokos' has tremendous theological significance to Orthodox Christians, as it was at the center of the Christological debates of the 4th and 5th centuries AD.

After her great role was accomplished, the Church believes she remained a virgin, continuing to serve God in all ways. She traveled much with her son, and was present both at his Passion on the Cross and at his ascension into heaven. It is also believed that she was the first to know of her son's resurrection – the Archangel Gabriel appearing to her once more and revealing it to her. It is believed she lived to the age of seventy and called all the apostles to her before she died. According to tradition Saint Thomas arrived late and was not present at her death. Desiring to kiss her hand one last time he opened her tomb but her body was gone. The Orthodox believe she was assumed into heaven bodily; however, unlike in the Roman Catholic Church, it is not a dogmatic prescription and the holy day is usually referred to as the Feast of the Dormition, not that of the Assumption.

ResurrectionEdit

The Resurrection of Christ is the central event in the liturgical year of the Orthodox Church and is understood in literal terms as a real historical event. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was crucified and died, descended into Hades, rescued all the souls held there through man's original sin; and then, because Hades could not restrain the infinite God, rose from the dead, thus saving all mankind. Through these events, he released mankind from the bonds of Hades and then came back to the living as man and God. That each individual human may partake of this immortality, which would have been impossible without the Resurrection, is the main promise held out by God in his New Covenant with mankind, according to Orthodox Christian tradition.

Every holy day of the Orthodox liturgical year relates to the Resurrection directly or indirectly. Every Sunday of the year is dedicated to celebrating the Resurrection; many Orthodox believers will refrain from kneeling or prostrating on Sundays in observance thereof. Even in the liturgical commemorations of the Passion of Christ during Holy Week, there are frequent allusions to the ultimate victory at its completion.

Saints, relics, and the deceasedEdit

Relics of Saint Demetrius

Relics of Saint Demetrius in Thessalonika, Greece.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church a saint is defined as anyone who is currently in Heaven, whether recognized here on earth or not. By this definition, Adam and Eve, Moses, the various prophets, martyrs for the faith, the angels and archangels are all given the title of Saint. There is a service in the Orthodox Church in which a saint is formally recognized by the entire Church, called glorification. This does not, however, "make" a saint but simply accords him or her a place on the calendar with regular services in his honor. Recently, in order to avoid abuses, the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople has begun to follow the longstanding practice of other local Orthodox churches by issuing special encyclical letters (tomoi) in which the Church acknowledges the popular veneration of a saint. Glorification usually happens after believers have already begun venerating a saint. There are numerous small local followings of countless saints that have not yet been recognized by the entire Orthodox Church.

A strong element in favor of glorification can be the perceived "miraculous" condition of physical remains (relics), although that alone is not considered sufficient. In some Orthodox countries it is the custom to re-use graves after three to five years due to limited space. Bones are respectfully washed and placed in an ossuary, often with the person's name written on the skull. Occasionally when a body is exhumed something believed to be miraculous occurs to reveal the person's sainthood. There have been numerous occurrences where the exhumed bones are said to suddenly give off a wonderful fragrance, like flowers; or sometimes the body is said to be found incorrupt despite having not been embalmed (traditionally the Orthodox do not embalm the dead) and having been buried for three years.

For the Orthodox, body and soul both comprise the person, and in the end, body and soul will be reunited; therefore, the body of a saint shares in the holiness of the soul of the saint.

Orthodox venerate saints and ask for their prayers, and consider them brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. Saints are venerated and loved and asked to intercede for salvation, but they are not given the worship accorded to God, because their holiness is believed to come from God. In fact, anyone who worships a saint, relics, or icons is to be excommunicated. As a general rule only clergy will touch relics in order to move them or carry them in procession; however, in veneration the faithful will kiss the relic to show love and respect toward the saint. Every altar in every Orthodox church contains relics, usually of a martyr. The Church building interiors are covered with the icons of saints.

The Orthodox Church sees baptism, both for infants and adults, as the moment one is incorporated into Christ. The person baptised is given a new name, always the name of a saint. As well as birthdays, Orthodox celebrate the day of the saint for whom the person is named (the person's name day).

BibliographyEdit

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

ReferencesEdit

  1. Lossky, V.. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church. 
  2. Kallistos (Ware), Bishop (1963), The Orthodox Church, London: Penguin Books (published 1964), pp. 204, ff., ISBN 0-14-020592-6 
  3. Pomazansky, Protopresbyter Michael (1963 (in Russian)), Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (Rev. by author, 1973 ed.), Platina, California: Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood (published 1984 [English trans.]), p. 61, LOC # 84-051294 
  4. Pomazansky, op. cit., p. 35
  5. St. Vincent of Lerins, wrote in his Commonitoria (434 AD), that Church doctrine, like the human body, develops over time while still keeping its original identity: "[I]n the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all" (Chap. XXIII, §§ 54–59)
  6. Orthodox Theology Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky Part II God Manifest in the World 5. Concerning Evil and Sin Footnote on Augustine and Original Sin. Man's fall into sin Perhaps no doctrine of the Orthodox Church has caused such heated discussions and misunderstandings in our day as has this doctrine of original or ancestral sin. The misunderstandings usually occur either from the desire to define the doctrine too precisely, or from overreactions to this over-definition. The expressions of the early Fathers in general (apart from Blessed Augustine in the West) do not go into the “how” of this matter, but simply state:“When Adam had transgressed, his sin reached unto all men” (St. Athanasius the Great, Four Discourses Against the Arians, 1, 51, Eerdmans English tr., p. 336). Some Orthodox Christians have mistakenly defended the Augustinian notion of “original guilt" — that is, that all men have inherited the guilt of Adam's sin — and others, going to the opposite extreme,have denied altogether the inheritance of sinfulness from Adam. Fr. Michael rightly points out, in his balanced presentation, that from Adam we have indeed inherited our tendency towards sin, together with the death and corruption that are now part of our sinful nature, but we have not inherited the guilt of Adam's personal sin. The term “original sin” itself comes from Blessed Augustine's treatise De Peccato Originale, and a few people imagine that merely to use this term implies acceptance of Augustine's exaggerations of this doctrine. This, of course, need not be the case. In Greek (and Russian) there are two terms used to express this concept, usually translated “original sin” and “ancestral sin.” One Orthodox scholar in the Greek (Old Calendar) Church describes them as follows: “There are two terms used in Greek for 'original sin.' The first, progoniki amartia is used frequently in the Fathers (St. Symeon the New Theologian, St. Maximus the Confessor). I have always seen it translated 'original sin,' though Greek theologians are careful when they use the term to distinguish it from the term as it is applied in translating St. Augustine. The second expression one sees is to propatorikon amartima, which is literally 'ancestral sin.' John Karmiria, the Greek theologian, suggests in his dogmatic volumes that the latter term, used in later confessions, does not suggest anything as strong as Augustinian 'original sin,' but certainly suggests that 'everyone is conceived in sin.' “There are sometimes extreme reactions against and for original sin. As recent Greek theologians have pointed out, original sin in Orthodoxy is so tied to the notion of divinization (theosis) and the unspotted part of man (and thus to Christology) that the Augustinian overstatement (of man's fallen nature) causes some discomfort. In the expression 'original sin' the West often includes original guilt, which so clouds the divine potential in man that the term becomes burdensome. There is, of course, no notion of original guilt in Orthodoxy. The Western notion compromises the spiritual goal of man, his theosis and speaks all too lowly of him. Yet rejecting the concept because of this misunderstanding tends to lift man too high — dangerous in so arrogant a timeas ours. The balanced Orthodox view is that man has received death and corruption through Adam (original sin), though he does not share Adam's guilt. Many Orthodox, however, have accepted an impossible translation of Romans 5:12, which does not say that we have all sinned in Adam, but that, like Adam, we have all sinned and have found death” (Archimandrite Chrysostomos, St. Gregory Palamas Monastery, Hayesville, Ohio). The King James Version rightly translates Romans 5:12 as: “And so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” The Latin translation of the latter clause, “in whom all have sinned,” overstates the doctrine and might be interpreted to imply that all men are guilty of Adam's sin. [1]
  7. Romanides, John S. (2002). Ancestral Sin. Ridgewood, NJ: Zephyr Pub.. ISBN 0970730314. 
  8. Maletis, John P. (2008). "Let There Be Light: An Orthodox Christian Theory of Human Evolution For The 21st Century". Theandros 5 (3). ISSN 1555-936X. 


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