Throughout history, the Orthodox Church has preserved the community founded by Christ in the New Testament. She has taught the historic Christian Faith, without adding, subtracting, or distorting its doctrine. Many who experience Orthodoxy for the first time say it has an air of “antiquity” and “timelessness” about it. They feel this because nothing in the teachings of the Orthodox Church contradicts the Truth or inhibits real union with God. She continues to remain loyal to the authentic Christian Faith.
- What do the Orthodox believe?
- The Nature of God
- The Incarnation of Jesus Christ
- The Virgin Mary
- Sin and Hell
- Holy Scripture
- Formulation of the Creed
- The Nicene Creed
What do the Orthodox believe?
The Orthodox believe the Christian Faith and the Church are inseparable. One cannot know Christ, share in the life of the Holy Trinity, or consider oneself a Christian apart from the Church. The Orthodox Church shares many beliefs with other Christian churches, such as the Roman Catholics and a number of Protestant denominations. However, Orthodox doctrine differs on several occasions, preserving the doctrines of the Church Fathers despite the rise of political correctness and the fluctuations of societal norms. Here we will briefly describe some of those differences.
The Nature of God
The Orthodox Faith does not concern itself with religious speculations or with proof of the existence of God. It instead concerns itself with the Self-disclosure of God. While the inner Being of God always remains unknown and unapproachable, God has manifested Himself to us; and the Church has experienced Him as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (more on that in a bit).
God in Trinity
Like other Christian churches, the Orthodox believe in a single God who is at once one and three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Holy Trinity is three distinct divine persons (hypostases), who share one divine essence. The persons of the Trinity are uncreated, immaterial and eternal.
The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity, which is central to the Orthodox Faith, is not a result of pious speculation. Instead it is the manifestation of the overwhelming experience of God. The doctrine affirms there is only One God, in whom there are three distinct Persons. In other words, when we encounter the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit, we truly experience contact with God. While the Holy Trinity is a mystery we will never fully comprehend, Orthodoxy believes we can participate in the Trinity through the life of the Church, especially through our celebration of the Eucharist and other Sacraments, as well as the non-sacramental services.
Clarification about the nature of the Trinity
The Orthodox take on the Trinity differs in one key respect from that of the Roman Catholic Church: the procession of the Holy Spirit. To the Orthodox, the Father is the eternal source of the Godhead, from whom the Son is begotten eternally and from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally. In contrast, the Catholic Church believes the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (filioque). This, along with other key doctrinal disagreements, contributed to the schism between the Eastern and Western Church in 1054.
The Incarnation of Jesus Christ
Together with the belief in the Holy Trinity, the doctrine of the Incarnation occupies a central position in the teachings of the Orthodox Church. To the Orthodox, Jesus is much more than a pious man or a profound teacher of morality. He is the “Son of God who became the Son of Man.”
The doctrine of the Incarnation is an expression of the Church’s experience of Christ. In Christ, divinity and humanity unite, without the destruction of either reality. The Church believes that, as the unique God-man, Jesus Christ has restored humanity to fellowship with God.
Perfect God and Perfect Man
Eastern Orthodox Christians believe the incarnate Word of God is one person in two natures, fully divine and fully human. This has been a point of contention between schismatics (heterodox) and the mainstream body of Christian believers (orthodox) throughout history. The Orthodox Church teaches that Christ had a divine will, or set of desires and spiritual incentives, and a human will with fleshly desires. He had a human body, mind, and spirit capable of succumbing to temptation and suffering, just like us.
Christ embodies the supreme expression of love of God the Father, present in every age. By manifesting the Holy Trinity, by teaching the meaning of authentic human life, and by conquering the powers of sin and death through His Resurrection, He redeems us. The great Fathers of the Church summarize the ministry of Christ perfectly: “God became what we are so that we may become what He is.”
The Virgin Mary
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, we refer to the Virgin Mary as Theotokos. Translated from Greek, this word means “Mother of God,” and “God-bearer.” By bearing Jesus Christ, Mary also bore the Son of God, who is God Himself, as we discussed above. Thus, the title, Theotokos.
The Orthodox treat Mary as a role model to both men and women seeking to live godly lives. She holds an incredibly high position of importance in the Church. To illustrate how special she is, we sing to her and ask for her intercessions during almost every church service. To be clear: we do not worship Mary, but instead venerate her and seek her intercessions before God. Just as we might ask a friend to pray on our behalf, we do the same with the Theotokos.
Sin and Hell
Orthodox theology views sin as any behavior that “misses the mark,” or fails to live up to the higher goal of living as an icon of Christ. The Orthodox do not view sin as a guilty stain on the soul in desperate need of cleansing. Instead, the Orthodox Church teaches that sin is a sickness one must constantly struggle to overcome.
The Orthodox employ the sacrament of penance (confession), during which a spiritual mentor aids one in reflecting upon one’s sins and reaching true repentance. Because each person’s experience is unique, conquering one’s sinful habits requires individual attention, correction, and perseverance.
The Orthodox Church, as well as the Non-Chalcedonian Churches (i.e. Oriental Orthodoxy), teaches that all mankind enters into the presence of God after death. The “elect” experience this presence as light and rest, while the “lost” experience it as darkness and torment. The Orthodox see this doctrine as supported by Scripture and by the patristic tradition.
In short, Hell is neither the absence of God, nor the separation of the soul from the presence of God. Rather, Heaven and Hell are the fully manifest divine presence, experienced either as peace and joy or as shame and anguish, depending on one’s spiritual state and preparedness.
God originally created mankind to be in eternal communion with Him. When mankind acted contrary to his nature (disobeying God), sin entered into the world, and by sin, death. But the Incarnation of Christ, His assumption of our nature, and His death and resurrection provided mankind with a path back to God. Salvation, therefore, refers to the process of deliverance from death and corruption.
The Orthodox Church’s teachings and practices re: salvation represent the true path to participation in the gifts of God. Note that the Orthodox do not believe one must be Orthodox to participate in salvation. God’s will is unknown to us, and His mercy is boundless. We can do nothing to earn salvation, whether we are Orthodox or not. Salvation is a gift from God that must be accepted by the believer.
The teachings of the Orthodox Church place incredible importance on the Bible, but not in the way most Protestants would probably expect. During every service celebrated in the Church, the priest, deacon, chanter, and choir read aloud portions of the Bible. The Bible is an integral part of Orthodox spiritual life; however, it is not the only part, nor is it arguably the “most important.”
Both the Old and New Testaments have a place in the Orthodox Faith. The forty-nine books of the Old Testament (OT) express God’s revelation to the ancient Israelites. Orthodoxy regards the OT as a preparation for the coming of Christ; it should be read in light of His revelation.
The bulk of Orthodoxy’s teachings stem from the New Testament (NT), which focuses on the work of Jesus Christ and the early Church. All four Gospels are an account of Christ’s life and teachings. Accompanying these are the Book of Acts and the twenty-one epistles, devoted to the Christian life and the development of the early Church, and Saint John’s Book of Revelation, which symbolically looks to the return of Christ. The New Testament, especially the Gospels, is very important to Orthodoxy because here is found a written witness to the perfect revelation of God in the Incarnation of the Son of God, in the person of Jesus Christ.
Does the Orthodox Church follow the Bible or “Tradition”?
This question implies a polarity (“Bible versus Tradition”) that is not part of the Orthodox Christian worldview. We do, however, distinguish between Holy Tradition (with a capital “T”) and traditions of men (with a little “t”). The former refers to the Faith/Practice of the Undivided Church, while the latter refers to local or national customs.
“Holy Tradition” has been defined as “the life of the Church in the Holy Spirit.” As such it is dynamic and adapting, while at the same time always remaining the same Divine life. The life of the Church does not change to satisfy our personal preferences. It is there to change us, and to bring healing to our tarnished soul. Due to changing circumstances, sometimes we must alter cherished customs or respectfully lay them aside for the sake of Holy Tradition.
The NT Scriptures serve as the primary written witness to Holy Tradition. Orthodox Christians therefore believe the Bible, as the inspired Holy Scriptures, is the heart of Tradition. The New Testament specifically sets forth (and at times alludes to) all basic Orthodox doctrine and sacramental practices. Holy Tradition is also witnessed to by the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, the Nicene Creed, the writings of the Fathers of the Church, by the liturgical worship and iconography of the Church, and in the lives of the Saints.
Is Orthodox worship based on the Bible?
The Christian Church learned to worship in the Jewish Temple and in the Synagogues. Again and again the NT tells us that Jesus, Paul and the others worshiped regularly in Jewish houses of worship. Archaeology and modern Jewish practice portray Synagogue worship as highly liturgical (communal, organized, ceremonial, and done decently and in order). When John describes heavenly worship in the book of Revelation, he portrays it in terms of earthly liturgy. The writers of the Bible thought of earthly worship as a “shadow” or “type” of Heaven’s liturgy. In other words, passages from the Book of Revelation give us an accurate picture of an early Christian liturgy. That service very much resembles traditional Orthodox worship.
Orthodox worship is also very Scriptural; it is a mosaic of quotations, paraphrases, references, and allusions. It is, quite literally, “to pray the Bible!”
Apart from the fact that we worship in English, and sometimes use modern harmonies with our ancient melodies, our services are identical to those of the early Christian Church. For that reason our worship sometimes seems a bit “strange” to Protestant and Roman Catholic visitors.
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Formulation of the Creed
Orthodoxy tries to avoid restricting the vision of God’s revelation to only one avenue of its life. The Church also avoids the systematic or extensive definition of its Faith. The content of the Faith is not opposed to reason, but is often beyond the bounds of reason, as are many of the important realities of life. Orthodoxy recognizes the supreme majesty of God, as well as the limitations of the human mind. The Church is content to accept the element of mystery in its approach to God.
Only when the fundamental truths of the Faith are seriously threatened by false teachings does the Church act to define dogmatically an article of faith. For this reason, the decisions of the seven Ecumenical Councils of the ancient undivided Church are highly respected. The Councils were synods to which bishops from throughout the Christian world gathered to determine the true faith. The Ecumenical Councils did not create new doctrines but proclaimed, in a particular place and a particular time, what the Church has always believed and taught.
The Nicene Creed
The Nicene Creed, formulated at the Councils of Nicaea in 325 and of Constantinople in 381, has been recognized as the authoritative expression of the beliefs of the Orthodox Church. The Creed is often referred to as the “Symbol of Faith” because it is not an analytical statement. Instead it points to a reality greater than itself, to which it bears witness. For generations, the Creed has been the criterion of authentic Faith and the basis of Christian education. It illustrates perfectly the beliefs of the Orthodox Christian.
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of Light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man. And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried. And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father, and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; whose Kingdom shall have no end.
And [we 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 worshiped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets. In one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
In conclusion, the Orthodox Church teaches what Jesus Himself taught. The nature of His Father and His relationship with us; the Incarnation of His Only-Begotten Son Jesus Christ and His plan for our salvation. The Nicene Creed sets forth these beliefs for the Orthodox, and for any who want to know, “What is it you believe?”
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