Sunday, March 8, 2009

An Introduction to the Eastern Orthodox Church

The Eastern Orthodox Church is rich and robust in its culture, arts, history, tradition, and theology. There is indeed much to say about the roots and foundation of the Orthodox faith, but for the sake of simplicity and the introductory nature of this paper, this essay will primarily address its historical background and theological infrastructure. The historical portion will include a synopsis of the early Byzantine era and conclude the twentieth Century Orthodoxy. As for the content, it is important to note that only significant events related to Orthodoxy will be examined as concise as possible. The latter half of this paper will conclude with a brief examination of the theological infrastructure of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

As we begin to flesh out the history of the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is important to highlight that the conception of the Christian Byzantine Empire occurred after the conversion of the Roman Emperor, Constantine. In the year 325 A.D., Constantine became the first to gather an ecumenical council that came to be known as the Council of Nicaea. The first Council of Nicaea became one of the seven councils held during 325 A.D. and 787 A.D., which are of supreme importance, not only to the Eastern Orthodox Church, but Christendom as a whole. The first six councils were essentially a clear and concise refutation of the Alexandrian priest, Arius, that later became known as Arianism. Arius desired to defend, as Ware notes, “the uniqueness and the transcendence of God,”1 but the result was the denial of the divinity of Jesus Christ. Here, the council decisively concluded that Christ was not merely an exalted creature, but Christ was “‘one in essence’ (homoousios) with the Father,”2 which resulted in the formulation of the Nicene Creed. In 381 A.D., Constantinople, the Nicene Creed was further developed in the Second Ecumenical Council, with the articulation of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The Nestorian heresy, which separated the unity of the Divine and humanity of Christ, arose in 431 A.D. that provoked yet another council that consequently defended the incarnation of Christ and Mary as the “‘Mother of God’ (Theotokos).”3 Shortly after, another heresy arose in Ephesus that came to be known as ‘Monophysite.’ The successor of Cyril in Alexandria, Dioscurus, in responding to Eutyches, proposed and insisted upon the “one Person” of Christ, but in doing so, he greatly erred by confusing the two natures of Christ – i.e., Christ’s divinity and humanity. Hence, the Chalcedon Council was forced to formulate a statement that defended the church from the Monophysite error. In which the council proclaimed in a sweeping summary, “…the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.”4 The fifth and sixth councils were essentially reiterations of the fourth council; the fifth council took place in 553 A.D. under Emperor Justinian and in 680-1 A.D., the sixth council was arranged by Emperor Constantine IV. The seventh and final council was held in 787 A.D. over the issue of icons in the church, upon which the Ecumenical Council concluded that “…are [icons] to be kept in churches and honoured with the same relative veneration as is shown to other material symbols such as the ‘precious and life-giving Cross’ and the Book of Gospels.”5

At this point many different factors have been prevalent between the Eastern Church and the Western Church. Key differences included: language barrier, ecclesiastical orientations, cultural characteristics, and political agendas. The Eastern Church primarily spoke Greek while the Western Church spoke Latin. With regards to their ecclesiastical orientations, the west insisted on a single ruling bishop, the bishop of Rome, who later became the Pope of Rome, and the east insisted on multiple bishops to administrate the church. Furthermore, there were theological disagreements between the two sides. The Eastern Church greatly opposed the Western Church’s insistent on the infallibility of the bishop of Rome (Pope) with regards to the doctrinal issues of the church. Several other theological issues were greatly debated amongst the two churches and eventually rejected by the Eastern Church: the Western Church doctrine of Purgatory, the unwarranted addition of the filioque6 in the Nicene Creed, and the Pope’s universal authority over the entire church. With such overwhelming disagreements between the two, in the year 1054 A.D., the unity of the One Holy Orthodox Catholic Church collapsed. The Eastern Church became the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western Church became the Roman Catholic Church. This historic separation became known as the Great Schism.

Before we move into the theological portion, let me first highlight other key components worth mentioning, without overly explaining them; particular Eastern Orthodox history that help usher us in the twentieth century. First, in 988 A.D., the conversion of the Russian Empire began. An event that helped established the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia, an effect that still resonates today. Secondly, after the Great Schism, the Roman Catholic Church initiated the Crusades, which further distances the already separated Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church. And lastly, it is important to note the end of the Byzantine Empire with the Turkish invasion of Constantinople.

Much of Eastern Orthodox Church theology is derived from the all-important doctrine of the Trinity. For Orthodoxy, the doctrine of the Trinity is not simply an abstract theological formulation but is also immanently practical for the lives of Christians. According to Ware, “The human person, so the Bible teaches, is made in the image of God, and to Christians God means the Trinity: thus it is only in the light of the dogma of the Trinity that we can understand who we are and what God intends us to be.”7 In other words, the way the church understands the Trinity has direct correlation to the way it sees itself.

Worship in the Eastern Orthodox Church centers in primarily in the sacraments because it is immanently liturgical. To understand the Orthodox view of worship, one must understand its sacramental theology. Very much like the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodoxy observes seven distinct sacraments: Baptism, Chrismation or Confirmation, the Eucharist, Holy Orders or Ordination, Repentance or Confession, Marriage or Holy Matrimony, and the Anointing to the Sick or Holy Unction. It is essential to understand that the majority of the sacraments are framed with the understanding that the physical, or material, is indeed a sufficient means to the spiritual. Consequently, the sacraments are visible manifestation of the remembrance of the Incarnation of Christ, who took on flesh (physical) and used it as a means to the spiritual. Although the seven sacraments, mentioned above, are all important in the sacramental theology of the church, here, we will examine two of the most significant sacraments, the Eucharist and Baptism.

The central sacrament of the Eastern Orthodox Church is the sacrament of the Eucharist, or the Divine Liturgy. It is the communal celebration of Lord Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection on the Sabbath and Holy day. Hence, it has been known as the “Sacrament of Sacrament.” In the tradition of the Patristic Father, Cyril, who, as Nassif notes, believed that “…the real communion with God was [is] possible through the Eucharist because of the mystery that God ontologically united himself to humanity through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.”8 Finding an inseparable correlation between the sacrament of the Eucharist and Christology, the church, therefore, teaches the real presence of Christ in the sacrament. Although it teaches the real presence of Christ body and blood in the Eucharist, it is important to note that the Orthodox Church is not teaching the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist – i.e., the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation. In contrast, the Eastern Church appeals to the mystery of the reality of the Eucharist. Moreover, it recognizes this sacrament as sacrifice.

Baptism is a sacramental initiation into the church, upon which one is made partaker of the Body of Christ and is introduced into the life of the Holy Trinity. The water is a physical representation of renewal of life and spiritual cleansing. As with the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the early Christian community, the Eastern Orthodox Church practices the baptism of infants. Two crucial acts are accorded with the sacrament of Baptism: first, the priest calls upon God’s presence by invoking the Name of the Holy Trinity, and second, the three-fold immersion into the water of Baptism. By partaking in the sacrament of Baptism, the individual publicly identifies with the atoning death and triumphant resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Along with the prescribed sacraments of the church, another important feature must be addressed to properly understand the Orthodox theology of worship, namely, the veneration of the Holy Icons. Through the medium of art, the Orthodox Christian is given a sight of the spiritual realm; not mere arousal of emotions from the beauty of the icons. The essence of the veneration of the Holy Icons may be described in this way: the substance of the Holy Icons is not to be venerated, but because they share likeness with person represented, the prototype is to be venerated through them. The veneration of the Holy Icons is within the context of Tradition and is thus confined by prescribed rules of the church. A Christian painter may not reproduce his own artistic interpretation, but he must reflect the mind of the church.

Given the above historical and theological background, it is easy to see the richness and stability of the Eastern Orthodox Church, especially in its theology and worship. From the conception of the Christian Church to the present, the Eastern Orthodox Church has remained essentially the same.


1. See Timothy (Kallistos) Ware, The Orthodox Church (London, England: The Penguin Group, 1997) p. 22.
2. Ibid., p. 22.
3. Ibid., p. 25.
4. Italics mine. A citation of the Chalcedonian Definition in Stephen W. Need, Truly Divine and Truly Human (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008) p. 100.
5. The Orthodox Church, p. 31.
6. For a definition of filioque, see the glossary in Truly Divine and Truly Human, p. 165.
7. The Orthodox Church, p. 208.
8. See Bradley Nassif, Three Views On Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, ed. Stanley N. Gundry and James Stamoolis (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2004) p. 50.

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