church history, Orthodoxy, Theology

Frank Answers About Truth and Reform in Orthodoxy

Note: I wrote and posted this “Answer” several years ago and took it down because it wasn’t getting many views. It turned out I was too hasty. Some acquaintances have developed an interest in Orthodoxy and several former Protestant friends have been chrismated (received baptismal anointing as way of becoming Orthodox) in Orthodox churches. So I am re-posting it with a few revisions. I can’t claim any deep expertise in the history of Orthodox Churches, but I know some essential things that may be helpful to the general reader.

The above image is of Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in Chicago, built in 1906 by famous Chicago architect Louis Sullivan combining the Russian village and American prairie style architecture. There’s a lesson in the architecture. Orthodoxy’s traditions can be fitted into American—or any other—culture.

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 and Protestantism?

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. In fact, without development there is no history. And Orthodoxy has a history!  The development of “orthodoxy” as a concept of “right teaching” occurred as the church responded to teachings that would call essential truths about God, Christ, Holy Spirit, creation, salvation, sanctification, sacraments, etc. into question and required definition. That means “orthodoxy” itself is a developed response to views and values that would then be defined as heresies (“partial truths”). (A definition of “heresy” I learned many years ago is that it picks up one truth and runs roughshod with it.)

One couldn’t believe the doctrine of the Holy Trinity until there was such a doctrine. That doesn’t mean that the elements of the doctrine weren’t already embedded in the prayer of the Church and in the New Testament from early times. But not until the Council of Nicea in 325 was a doctrine of the Trinity clarified and confessed. 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 that Christ was true God and true man, but the doctrine was defined and affirmed at the Council of Chalcedon in 450, with the help of a Tome prepared by Pope Leo the Great.

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 Nicea, in 787 (which affirmed Christ as true man); the Orthodox idea of salvation as deification (theosis) was defined by St. Maximus the Confessor (ca. 675/76–749) in the seventh century. The foregoing indicates how important the seven defined “Ecumenical Councils” are to Orthodoxy.

The Iconoclasm Controversy tore apart the Byzantine Empire and the Orthodox Church during the 8th century. Emperor Leo III took a stand against the veneration of icons in 726. It seems that the emperor held the monophysite view that Christ is divine and divinity cannot be represented by images. St. Maximus the Confessor played a role in this controversy as a champion of the iconodules (lovers of icons) by reasserting the two natures of Christ as both divine and human. The human historical Jesus can be represented in the image of a human body. The formula by which the Seventh Ecumenical Council settled this controversy is as follows:

As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments, etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them. For the more they are contemplated, the more they move to fervent memory of their prototypes. Therefore, it is proper to accord to them a fervent and reverent veneration, not, however, the veritable adoration which, according to our faith, belongs to the Divine Being alone – for the honor accorded to the image passes over to its prototype, and whoever venerate the image venerate in it the reality of what is there represented.

This decision, regarded as “The Triumph of Orthodoxy,” is celebrated every year on the First Sunday of Lent. It contributed to the display of icons that can be seen in every Orthodox Church in paintings and mosaics on the walls and ceilings as well as on the screen that separates the sanctuary and the nave, called the Iconostasis.

The history of Orthodoxy in the early centuries was a struggle to define of the truth

h of the gospel message over against heresies that would undermine it, including Arianism – the Son subordinate to the Father, Nestorianism – emphasizes the disunion between the human and divine natures of Jesus, Monothelotism – two natures by one will, Monophysitism – one nature after the union of the divine and the human in the historical Incarnation of the eternal Word (Logos) in Jesus).

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 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 (1923-2006), Sterling Professor of History, Yale University; lifelong Lutheran of Slavic ancestry who became Orthodox in his later years. Dr. Pelikan’s writings on Luther’s Reformation were influential on my development as an evangelical catholic.

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 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).

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 tend to elude non-Orthodox. The fact that the liturgy evolved over the centuries tends to elude Orthodox worshipers. All worshipers have experienced it as “heaven on earth.” But the late Father Alexander Schmemann demonstrated the layers of tradition that produced the Byzantine Divine Liturgy as we know it today, primarily the blending of the cathedral and monastic traditions– the Typicon or Use of the Great Church of Hagia Sophia in Cionstantinople and the Typicon of the St. Sabas Monastery in the Judean desert — that produced “the Byzantine synthesis.” [See Alewxander Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology (London: The Faith Press and Portland, ME: The American Orthodox Press, 1966; reprinted by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press).]

Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983), b. Tallinn, Estonia, Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, NY, leading Orthodox theologian and liturgist.   I had the honor of participating in a seminary course in 1969 on Christian Ecumenism East and West in which Fr. Schmemann was a co-teacher.
Hagia Sophia, Church of the Holy Wisdom in Istanbul. Built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the sixth century as the greatest church building in the Christian world, it became the model of countless Byzantine church buildings. The four external pillars were erected when the church was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. The modern Turkish state turned it into a museum and today the glittering mosaics of the interior are being uncovered. The present Turkish government has restored its function as a mosque, although it is still open for tourism.
St. Sabas Monastery in the Judean desert, whose typicon contributed to the synthesis of the Byzantine Liturgy. The monastery was the home of the great theologian St. John of Damascus.

It was in the Russian Orthodox Church that a real reform movement emerged in the 17th and 18th 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 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 driven into exile.

Orthodox Christians in Eastern Europe lived under atheistic Communism for many 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. 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. In North America the Divine Liturgy is increasingly celebrated in English, especially in the Orthodox Church in America and the Antiochian Syrian Orthodox Church. Orthodox liturgy has always been in the vernacular liturgy of the people who celebrate it, whether Greek or Syriac or Slavonic or Arabic or Coptic or Ethiopian or Armenian or Georgian, etc.

Some theologians have urged their fellow believers to accept that they are appointed to live in this time of 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.

Georges Florovsky (1893-1979), b. Odessa, Ukraine, eminent Orthodox Christian priest, theologian, historian and ecumenist; Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary and professor at Harvard Divinity School and Princeton University. His Ways of Russian Theology (1937) opened up to the West the riches of Russian theology.

Father 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

A reform movement in Orthodoxy should serve to equip Orthodoxy to address the world. It will do this not least through the Divine Liturgy, which projects a way of doing the world aright. There’s no doubt that Orthodoxy’s liturgical tradition has been appealing to many Westerners, including converts from evangelical Protestantism. To paraphrase Alexander Schmemann, the Byzantine Liturgy, which begins with the blessing of the kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, is “a journey into the dimension of the kingdom…for the life of the world.” I strongly recommend Schmemann’s For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973). It was originally written in 1963 as a study book for the National Student Christian Federation. I read it as a college student and have returned to it again and again.

Pastor Frank Senn

Greek Orthodox baptism in Guatemala. The Orthodox Church is an evangelizing church.

Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I leads a Christmas mass at the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. George in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday, Dec. 25, 2008. Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, led hundreds of worshipers at a crowded Christmas service to celebrate the feast of Nativity. Many were pilgrims from neighboring Greece. (AP Photo/Murad Sezer) The ecumenical patriarch is not like the pope of Rome, exercising jurisdiction over all bishops under him, but is regarded as “first among equals” in the Orthodox hierarchy.

1 Comment

  1. A familiarity with and reverence for Orthodox theology and worship as well as participating in Greek Catholic Slavonic Liturgy has been an enriching and broadening experience. This experience helped me immensely even before I began my preparation and studies almost seventy years ago for profession as a Catholic monk and ordination as a priest. My deep interest in Orthodoxy continues to deepen my understanding of our Christian faith, worship, and life. Thank you, Pastor Senn, for publishing the article on Orthodoxy.

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