church, Orthodoxy, Theology

Frank Answers About Truth and Reform in Orthodoxy

Question: Hi Pastor. I saw a bumper sticker today that made me think of you and a potential question for your blog: “Orthodoxy – Believing the truth since AD 33”. This made me wonder – have there been reform movements for the Orthodox Church as there has been for the Roman Church?

Frank answers:  Bumper stickers are slogans that exaggerate in order to convey a particular message. The message here is that the Orthodox Church goes back to the beginnings of Christianity, received the truth, and has not deviated from it in 2,000 years. History, of course, is a lot more complicated than that. Orthodoxy has a history! And Orthodox people know it.

I’m no authority on the history of the Orthodox Churches. But I know some things through personal contact as well as reading. In my senior year in seminary (Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago) I took a course on Ecumenical Dialogue East and West, in which a co-teacher of the course was Fr. Alexander Schmemann from St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, NY. Some pious lay people and uneducated priests might believe that Jesus and the apostles established everything they believe and practice. But the Orthodox Churches are known also  for capable theologians both clergy and lay.

They would know, for example, that one couldn’t believe the doctrine of the Holy Trinity until there was such a doctrine. But that doesn’t mean that the elements of the doctrine weren’t already embedded in the prayer of the Church from New Testament times. Yet not until the Council of Nicea in 325 was the doctrine of the Trinity clarified and confessed—with the help of Greek metaphysics (homoousios = the Son consubstantial [sharing the same being] with the Father). The text of the Nicene Creed was further amplified at the Council of Constantinople in 381 to nail down the role of the Holy Spirit. The same thing applies to the doctrine of the Two Natures of Christ. Christians undoubtedly believed from the beginning that Christ was true God and true man. But the doctrine of the two natures of Christ was affirmed definitively at the Council of Chalcedon in 450, with the help of a Tome prepared by Pope Leo the Great, after a century of christological controversy, particularly in the East. Orthodoxy is committed to the dogmas and decrees of the seven ecumenical councils of Christian antiquity.

Dogma is developed in response to controversy, but draws on beliefs long held by the faithful. In terms of other doctrines essential to Orthodoxy: the doctrine of Mary as God-bearer (Theotokos) was defined as such by the Council of Ephesus in 431 (which affirmed Christ as true God); the defense of icons of Christ in the Church was settled by the seventh ecumenical council, the Second Council of Constantinople in 787 (which affirmed Christ as true man)

In addition, the Orthodox idea of salvation as deification (theosis) was defined by St. Maximus the Confessor in the seventh century.

The ancient history of Orthodoxy, and of Christianity in general in the early centuries, was a struggle to define of the truth of the gospel message over against heresies that would undermine it. The great heresies included: Arianism – that the Son is subordinate to and lesser than the Father; Nestorianism – which emphasizes the disunion between the human and divine natures of Jesus; Monothelitism – two natures in Christ but one will; Monophysitism – which holds to one nature after the union of the divine and the human in the historical Incarnation of the eternal Word (Logos) in Jesus. Nestorianism was pushed East of the Roman-Byzantine Empire to become embedded in the Syriac-speaking Assyrian Church. Monophysitism was embraced by the indigenous Coptic Church in Egypt. Today there is recognition that adoption of both of these heresies by Syrian and Egyptian Churches was also a reaction to Greek Byzantine cultural imperialism.

The very idea of divine truth as changeless, because God transcends change (God is impassible), was also fought over at the time of St. Maximus. Maximus argued that “every formula and term that is not found in the fathers is shown to be obviously an innovation.” Increasingly, the Eastern Churches that identified themselves as Orthodox clung to the idea of unchangeable truth as articulated in the Scriptures, the ecumenical councils, and the writings of the fathers. All of this was comprehended under the category of Holy Tradition. The Church itself is “pure and undefiled, immaculate and unadulterated,” and in its message there is nothing alien to the truth of the gospel. While Orthodoxy produced great theologians after the age of the fathers, their reliability as theologians depended on working within the Great Tradition, not deviating from it. The best survey of this history of doctrine is by Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition:A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christianity (600-1700) (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1974).

Jaroslav Pelikan

Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006), Sterling Professor of History, Yale University, was a lifelong Lutheran of Slavic ancestry who became Orthodox in his later years.

A church body that takes changeless truth as part of its self-definition (Orthodoxy means “right teaching”) is going to be slow to recognize or accept reform. Moreover, the Eastern Church has been, from time to time, under Muslim rule and experienced suppression unlike that experienced in the Western Church. Each of the historic Eastern patriarchates—Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and finally Constantinople itself—fell to Muslim conquest. Only the Church in the northern Slavic lands (Kiev, Moscow) retained their independence. In 1589 an autonomous Patriarchate of Moscow was recognized by the other four Eastern patriarchates. It proclaimed itself as the “third Rome” (after the first Rome, and Constantinople, the second Rome).

A Church that cannot openly evangelize turns within and the celebration of the Divine Liturgy became the most defining feature of Orthodoxy. The subtle differences between the various ethnic and linguistic versions of the Divine Liturgy and the monastic influences on the ordo  (i.e. Studite, Sabaitic) tend to elude the non-Orthodox. The fact that the Divine Liturgy actually evolved over the centuries sometimes also tends to elude Orthodox worshipers. But all worshipers have experienced it as “heaven on earth.”


Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983), b. Tallinn, Estonia, former Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, NY. A leading Orthodox theologian and liturgist, Schmemann’s Introduction to Liturgical Theology (Portland, ME: The American Orthodox Press, 1966) explored the development of the Byzantine liturgical synthesis and taught us to see the theology inherent in the liturgy itself (lex orandi, lex credendi  = the rule of prayer is the rule of belief).

It was in the Russian Orthodox Church that a real reform movement emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This was due not just to the Westward cultural orientation of Czar Peter the Great (cutting beards was regarded as an apocalyptic portent), but also in the genuine concern to reform the liturgical books. The result of this reform movement was the schism of the Old Believers under Raskol who professed complete “orthodoxy” in their loyalty to “everything in the church, handed down to us by traditions from the holy fathers, as holy and incorrupt.” Yet they were charged with “schism, sedition, and false doctrine” over such issues as their resistance to correcting the translation of the Creed, joining the first three fingers for making the sign of the cross instead of the first two, and coordinating the chanting of the liturgy between the priest and the choir and were driven into exile.

Orthodox Christians in Eastern Europe lived under atheistic Communism for seven decades. As emigrés to the West they live in countries that historically have no (or very little) connection to Orthodox cultural history and that were saturated with secularism. Secularism means ordering human life in this world without reference to God. Leading Orthodox theologians in the West have pointed out that living as a minority in an alien culture is nothing new for Christians, especially for Orthodox Christians. Orthodoxy has much to offer modern and especially postmodern people. Indeed, many young adults in the West, looking for authenticity in religion, are discovering the appeal of Orthodoxy. A new missionary zeal will itself renew the Orthodox Churches, if such a fire can be lighted. In North America the Divine Liturgy is increasingly celebrated in English, especially in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), which was granted autocephaly (self-rule) by the Patriarch of Moscow. Moscow claimed the authority to do this since it laid claim to having first evangelized in North America (Alaska was Russian territory before it was purchased by the U.S.).

Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral interior

This is the interior of Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in Chicago (OCA). The image above this article is the exterior of this architectural gem built by the famous Chicago architect Louis Sullivan 1898-1903. The iconostasis in an Orthodox church building marks the division between Earth (nave) and Heaven (sanctuary). The clergy pass between these two spaces, sometimes standing around the altar but at other times standing in the midst of the people. The platform in the foreground of the photo marks the spot where the deacon presbyter, and bishop may stand to lead prayers surrounded by the faithful.

Some theologians have urged their fellow believers to accept that they are appointed to live in this time in an alien and pluralistic culture that spans a wide range of religious and secular thought. One of those voices was one of the most preeminent Orthodox theologians in America in the mid-20th century, Fr. Georges Florovsky. He wrote that Orthodox scholars must leave behind their old antagonist attitude toward the West and enter into dialogue, confident that they have something to offer.  His Ways of Russian Theology (1937) not only opened up to the West the riches of Russian theology but also gave Orthodox theologians in the West a positive mission.

georges florovsky

Georges Florovsky (1893-1979), b. Odessa, Ukraine, Russian Empire was an eminent Russian Orthodox priest, theologian, historian and ecumenist. He was the former Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary and a professor at Harvard Divinity School and Princeton University.

Florovsky wrote:

Orthodoxy is summoned to witness. Now more than ever the Christian West stands before divergent prospects, a living question addressed also to the Orthodox world… The ‘old polemical theology’ has long ago lost its inner connection with any reality. Such theology was an academic discipline, and was always elaborated according to the same western ‘textbooks.’ A historiosophical exegesis of the western religious tragedy must become the new ‘polemical theology.’ But this tragedy must be reendured and relived, precisely as one’s own, and its potential catharsis must be demonstrated in the fullness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition. In this newly sought Orthodox synthesis, the centuries-old experience of the Catholic West must be studied and diagnosed by Orthodox theology with greater care and sympathy than has been the case up to now… The Orthodox theologian must also offer his own testimony to this world — a testimony arising from the inner memory of the Church — and resolve the question with his historical findings.” – Ways of Russian Theology II, pp. 302-304

Orthodoxy does not see its mission as adapting to the secular world, as Western Churches have done, but witnessing to the true life of the world revealed in the kingdom of God inaugurated in the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.  The Divine Liturgy begins: “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and always and unto the ages of ages.” From there the liturgy is, in the words of Fr. Schmemann, “a journey into the dimension of the Kingdom.”

Pastor Frank Senn

Worshippers light candles from the candles of Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I during an Orthodox Easter service in Aya Yorgi (St George) church at the Fener Greek Orthodox patriarchate in Istanbul.



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    Bob Rainis

    I’m missing what you were getting at Frank Senn, when it appears you were dismissive of the 33 AD start date of the Orthodox Church…for certainly it was…as we understand Pentecost. Then you move quickly to the Creeds. Yes, the Creeds were essential to and remain so to the Church, but the Church doesn’t begin with the Apostle’s Creed….as for the Teachings of the Church fathers, I’m not sure if you support the Orthodox understanding that these are foundational to The Church….Holy Tradition, certainly Scriptural… “what was first handed down to us….”

    • Frank Senn

      Yes, the Church goes back to the Day of Pentecost after the resurrection of Jesus, in whatever year in our reckoning of time that occurred. But I am dismissive of any suggestion that the Orthodox Church, or any Church, emerged at that time with all doctrines and practices intact as if there hasn’t been a development of doctrine and practice as a result of historical circumstances, which the bumper sticker slogan suggests. Of course I affirm the decisions of the ecumenical councils as foundational for Orthodoxy and orthodoxy. But I have heard of people attracted to Orthodoxy (especially Evangelicals) who think that Orthodox practice as they experience it today is what the early church did. This is historically naive. I take the creeds and the ecumenical councils as critical to the emergence of Orthodoxy as we know it. I appreciate the Orthodox understanding of Holy Tradition as embracing Canon (Scripture), Creed, Councils, and Fathers. As a confessional Lutheran I ascribe a normative authority to the Great Tradition. But I reserve the role of Scripture as “norming norm” (norma normata). The relation between Scripture and Tradition would be an area for dialogue between Lutheranism and Orthodoxy.

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        Ashley Nevins

        So, Orthodox believe Orthodoxy has not changed for 2000 years and it is same today as when Christianity came into being?

        Hummm, I find that interesting. Did Jesus come to us as a merger of the Roman state and Christianity as one? Where did the Apostles advocate such? Did Jesus dress in gold robes and carry a gold and jeweled staff? Oh, so all the Orthodox traditions were believed in and present when Jesus walked among us?

        I liked your article. My son was involved with a GOA monastery in Arizona for 6 years and after he woke up and left it the damage done to him was so severe 18 months later he drove down to the monastery and committed suicide there. He was 27 in 2012 when he died. I have much experience with Gods only true church and all of it is bad.

        • Frank Senn

          Dear Ashley,

          I’m sorry to learn about the circumstances of the suicide of your son. I know that was a deeply painful experience for you and I understand that it soured you on Orthodoxy. Orthodox people and institutions, like all people and institutions, are not immune from sin.

          But in the interest of accuracy, which I try to maintain on my blog, I must point out that what the Orthodox believe is unchanging is truth. “Right doctrine” is the very definition of “Orthodoxy”. But they realize that doctrines expressing the truth about God and Christ were formulated by the ecumenical councils. They do not think that all their traditions go back to the time of Jesus and his apostles. They know about Byzantine history and its church-state relations. They know the authors of many of their hymns and prayers, or at least ascribe human authorship to certain texts. For example, they ascribe the Divine Liturgy to St. John Chrysostom or, in its fuller version, to St. Basil. Whether those designations are historically accurate, they are aware that their liturgy emerged in the fourth century and does not go back to the Upper Room where Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. But in its truth they would see continuity between the Upper Room and the Divine Liturgy.

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