Monday, October 16, 2017

Modern Forms of Christianity - Orthodoxy

Orthodox Christianity, whether in its Greek or Russian forms, began as the eastern half of Christendom way back when there was still one church – the Catholic Church. At the time, there were two “halves” of the Roman empire. The western half had its capital in Rome. The eastern capital was Byzantium, modern-day Istanbul. Orthodoxy is numerically strongest in Eastern Europe, particularly Russia and Greece where it has had a major influence in shaping a sense of national identity. However, Orthodoxy is found throughout the world, and approximately 225 million people are Orthodox Christians.

The five largest Orthodox churches in the world are:
•Russian (70 to 100 million)
•Romanian (15 million)
•Greek (13 million)
•Serbian (8 million)
•Bulgarian (8 million)

The word 'Orthodox' takes its meaning from the Greek words orthos ('right') and doxa ('belief'). Hence the word Orthodox means correct belief or right thinking and that highlights what is perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Orthodoxy, which is the movement’s strong sense of historical continuity with the early church. This, almost obsession, with tradition (paradosis) is highlighted by the movement’s reliance on the writings of the Greek fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa and others. Tradition is seen as a living entity which remains essentially unchanged while being capable of meeting the new challenges of each age. Restated, Orthodox Christianity claims to have fully preserved the traditions and doctrines of the original Christian church established by the apostles. The Orthodox Church claims to be the one true church of Christ, and seeks to trace its origin back to the original apostles through an unbroken chain of apostolic succession. Orthodox thinkers debate the spiritual status of Roman Catholics and Protestants, and a few still consider them heretics. Like Catholics and Protestants, however, Orthodox believers affirm the Trinity, the Bible as the Word of God, Jesus as God the Son, and many other biblical doctrines. However, in doctrine, they have much more in common with Roman Catholics than they do with Protestant Christians.

Eastern Orthodox Cross
History of Orthodox Christianity
Eastern Orthodoxy arose as a distinct branch of Christianity after the 11th-century "Great Schism" between Eastern and Western Christendom. The separation was not sudden. For centuries there had been significant religious, cultural, and political differences between the Eastern and Western churches. Religiously, they had different views on topics such as the use of images (icons), the nature of the Holy Spirit, and the date on which Easter should be celebrated. Culturally, the Greek East has always tended to be more philosophical, abstract and mystical in its thinking, whereas the Latin West tends toward a more pragmatic and legal-minded approach. (According to an old saying, "the Greeks built metaphysical systems; the Romans built roads.")

The political aspects of the split date back to the Emperor Constantine, who moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople. Upon his death, the empire was divided between his two sons, one of whom ruled the western half of the empire from Rome while the other ruled the eastern region from Constantinople.

These various factors finally came to a head in 1054 AD, when Pope Leo IX excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople (the leader of the Eastern church). In response, the patriarch anathematized (condemned) the Pope, and the Christian church has been divided into West ("Roman Catholic") and East ("Greek Orthodox") ever since. Ever since Orthodoxy has been very resistant to the ideas of authority which emerged within western Catholicism.

A glimmer of hope for reconciliation came at the onset of the Crusades later that century, when the West came to the aid of the East against the Turks. But especially after the Fourth Crusade (1200-1204), in which crusaders sacked and occupied Constantinople, the only result was an increase in hostility between the two churches. However, attempts at reconciliation have been renewed in recent years. In 1964, the Second Vatican Council issued this statement praising its Eastern counterparts:

The Catholic Church values highly the institutions of the Eastern Churches, their liturgical rites, ecclesiastical traditions, and their ordering of Christian life. For in those churches, which are distinguished by their venerable antiquity, there is clearly evident the tradition which has come from the Apostles through the Fathers and which is part of the divinely revealed, undivided heritage of the Universal Church. {2} On December 7, 1965, the mutual excommunication of 1054 was officially removed by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras.

Organization and Religious Authority

The Orthodox Church is not a single church but rather a family of 13 self-governing bodies, denominated by the nation in which they are located (e.g., the Greek Orthodox Church, Russian Orthodox Church). They are united in their understanding of the sacraments, doctrine, liturgy, and church government, but each administers its own affairs.  The Patriarch of Constantinople has the honor of primacy, but does not carry the same authority as the Pope does in Catholicism. Major Orthodox churches include the Greek Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the Church of Alexandria, the Church of Jerusalem, and the Orthodox Church in America

The head of each Orthodox church is called a “patriarch” or “metropolitan.” The patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey) is considered the ecumenical—or universal—patriarch. He is the closest thing to a counterpart to the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church. Unlike the Pope, who is known as VICARIUS FILIUS DEI (the vicar of the Son of God), the bishop of Constantinople is known as PRIMUS INTER PARES (the first amongst equals). He enjoys special honor, but he has no power to interfere with the 12 other Orthodox communions.

The religious authority for Orthodox Christianity is not the Pope as in Catholicism, nor the individual Christian with his Bible as in Protestantism, but the scriptures as interpreted by the seven ecumenical councils of the church.
However, they are each governed by a committee of Bishops, called the Holy Synod, with one central Bishop holding the honorary title of "first among equals."

Orthodox Worship and Religious Practices
Orthodox worship is highly liturgical and is central to the history and life of the church. By its theological richness, spiritual significance, and variety, the worship of the Orthodox Church represents one of the most significant factors in this church's continuity and identity. It helps to account for the survival of Christianity during the many centuries of Muslim rule in the Middle East and the Balkans when the liturgy was the only source of religious knowledge or experience.

The elaborate ornate interior of an Orthodox Cathedral

Distinctive Orthodox Beliefs
Orthodox faith is expressed most succinctly by the Nicene Creed, composed by theologians who met at the first two (of seven) great Ecumenical Councils held in 325 and 381. Slightly different from the later Apostle's Creed, the Nicene confession is essentially "Trinitarian." It declares God to be the Father and Creator of all things. It stresses the true "incarnation" of the eternal Son of God, who was "incarnate of the Holy Spirit AND the Virgin Mary, and became man; Who died and rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, and will come again to judge both the living and the dead". It confesses the Holy Spirit to be equal in nature and honor with the Father and the Son, to "proceed" eternally from the Father (not the Father and the Son), and to be the inspirational power behind God's self-revelation. The Creed concludes with affirmations of faith in the One, Holy, Catholic (universal), and Apostolic Church, in a single baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and in the resurrection of believers to eternal life.

Orthodox believers adhere to the doctrines of the Trinity, the Bible as the Word of God, Jesus as the Son of God and God the Son, and many other core doctrines of Christianity. They depart from Protestant doctrine in the areas of justification by faith alone, the Bible as the sole authority, the perpetual virginity of Mary, and few other doctrines.

It is in the view of the Holy Spirit that Orthodox theology differs from Western theology, and although the difference might now seem rather technical and abstract, it was a major contributor to the parting of East from West in the 11th century. This dispute is known as the Filioque Controversy, as it centers on the Latin word filioque ("and from the Son"), which was added to the Nicene Creed in Spain in the 6th century. The original creed proclaimed only that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father."  The purpose of the addition was to reaffirm the divinity of the Son, but Eastern theologians objected both to the unilateral editing of a creed produced by an ecumenical council and to the edit itself. For Eastern Christians, both the Spirit and the Son have their origin in the Father.
A few other main beliefs:
Baptism - Orthodox Christians believe baptism is the initiator of the salvation experience. The Orthodox Church practices baptism by full immersion.

Eucharist - The Eucharist is the center of worship in the Orthodox Church. Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that during the Eucharist believers partake mystically of Christ's body and blood and through it receive his life and strength.

Holy Spirit - It is in the view of the Holy Spirit that Orthodox theology differs from Western theology, and although the difference might now seem rather technical and abstract, it was a major contributor to the parting of East from West in the 11th century. This dispute is known as the Filioque Controversy, as it centers on the Latin word filioque ("and from the Son"), which was added to the Nicene Creed in Spain in the 6th century. The original creed proclaimed only that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father." The purpose of the addition was to reaffirm the divinity of the Son, but Eastern theologians objected both to the unilateral editing of a creed produced by an ecumenical council and to the edit itself. For Eastern Christians, both the Spirit and the Son have their origin in the Father.

Jesus Christ - Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity, God's Son, fully divine and fully human. He became flesh through Mary but was without sin. He died on the cross as man's Savior. He resurrected and ascended to heaven. He will return to judge all men.

Mary - Orthodox Christians believe Mary has supreme grace and is to be highly honored, but they reject the doctrine of Immaculate Conception.

Predestination - God has foreknowledge of man's destiny, but he does not predestine him.

Saints and Icons - Orthodox Christians practice veneration of icons; reverence is directed toward the person they represent and not the relics themselves.

Salvation – Orthodoxy understands salvation as “deification.” The doctrine of justification by faith is virtually absent from the history and theology of Orthodoxy. Rather, Orthodoxy emphasizes theosis (literally, "divinization"), the gradual process by which Christians become more and more like Christ. God became human in order that humans might become God. For this reason, there is an especially strong link between the doctrine of the incarnation and this understanding of salvation. For Athanasius, salvation consists in the human participation in the being of God. Salvation is a gradual, life-long process by which Christians become more and more like Christ. This requires faith in Jesus Christ, working through love. The process of being reunited to God, made possible by Christ, is accomplished by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit plays a central role in Orthodox worship: the liturgy usually begins with a prayer to the Spirit and invocations made prior to sacraments are addressed to the Spirit.

The Trinity - Orthodox Christians believe there are three persons in the Godhead, each divine, distinct and equal. The Father God is the eternal head; the Son is begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. The Eastern Orthodox view of the Trinity also differs somewhat from that of the Christian West. In its Christology, Orthodoxy tends to emphasize the divine, preexistent nature of Christ, whereas the West focuses more on his human nature. However, both East and West affirm Christ's full humanity and full divinity as defined by the ecumenical councils. In fact, Christ's humanity is also central to the Orthodox faith, in the doctrine that the divine became human so that humanity might be raised up to the divine life.

The Bible - Eastern Orthodoxy uses The Holy Scriptures (including the Apocrypha) as interpreted by the first seven ecumenical councils of the church are the primary sacred texts. Eastern Orthodoxy also places special importance on the works of early Greek fathers such as Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom, who were all canonized as saints of the church. Orthodox Christians believe the Holy Scriptures (as interpreted and defined by church teaching in the first seven ecumenical councils) along with Holy Tradition are of equal value and importance. The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures used by the early Christians, and Eastern Orthodox consider it the only authoritative text of those Scriptures.

The Sacraments – Orthodox Christians recognize seven sacraments (like Roman Catholics). They are the visible means by which the invisible Grace of the Holy Spirit is imparted to us.
Four Sacraments are obligatory:
1. Baptism,
2. Chrismation (anointment with holy oil),
3. Confession, and
4. Holy Communion.

Three are optional:
1. Matrimony
2. Holy Orders (Ordination)
3. Unction (anointing the sick)

Other Distinctly Orthodox Practices

An icon is a picture or drawing or wooden panel depicting Jesus, Mary, or some other religious figure. Icons are considered “windows of perceptions” through which the believer may catch a glimpse of the divine reality. The Orthodox Church is inconceivable without icons. As a church of tradition, the presence and use of icons in the Orthodox Church is a reflection of this tradition. The word ICON comes from the Greek word EIKONA, meaning image. In its broadest sense an icon is any representation of a sacred personage, produced in many media and sizes. In the narrower sense it refers to a devotional painted wooden panel.

A Greek Icon

An icon is not nearly a piece of art, but an aid to worship, and an instrument for the transmission of Christian tradition and faith. The Holy Spirit speaks to men through icons. Anywhere an icon is placed (except maybe in a museum) a place of worship and prayer is set, because the icon is not an end in itself, but a window through which we look with our physical eyes at the Kingdom of Heaven and the realm of spiritual experience.  The Orthodox hold that icons teach Christian history and theology. They also draw the Orthodox near to the saints and are an aid to worship.

Monasteries continue to play a critically important role in the Orthodox ethos. Perhaps the most important monastic center remains Mount Athos, a peninsula stretching into the Aegean Sea. Most bishops are drawn from monasteries.

Orthodox clergy are permitted to be married, as long as they do so before ordination (unlike their Catholic counterparts). Bishops, however, are generally unmarried on account of their predominantly monastic backgrounds. Like Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy insists that only males can be ordained, and rejects the possibility of female priests, largely on the basis of continuity with tradition on this matter.

Onion Domed Cathedrals
Found mainly on Russian Orthodox churches (for instance St. Basil’s Cathedral at Red Square in Moscow), onion domed cathedrals are also found elsewhere, like in Bavaria, and don’t necessarily mean the church is Orthodox, but most often it does – just as the Cathedral spire is usually found on Catholic and some protestant churches.

I will close with something I found on an Eastern Orthodox blog that I believe was particularly interesting for us “outsiders” to Orthodox Christianity.   It is titled, “10 Things Orthodox Christians Would Like You to Know”

1) We don’t worship Mary.  We hold her in a place of esteem because of her singularly unique role as the birth giver of Jesus Christ.  Orthodox Christians state and affirm over and over again throughout the worship services that God alone is the only One to Whom worship is due.

2) We don’t worship icons.  Icons are like a family photo album.  Just as in our own families, where we keep the pictures of our loved ones who have departed this life on shelves and hanging on walls, we also keep the pictures of the members of our larger Christian family around, particularly those members of our Christian family who have led exemplary lives.  The word icon only means “image” or “picture”.

3) When we talk about tradition, we don’t mean the traditions of men, we mean Holy Tradition.  The traditions that the Church has taught have always been those that have been led by the Spirit.  It was the tradition of the Church that gave us the New Testament and, the New Testament also continues to inform that tradition.  It is cyclical and not mutually exclusive.

4) Orthodox Christianity is not “works” based.  It always takes the grace and will of God to bring about our salvation.  We do good works because it is the outpouring of the joy that we experience through living Christ-centered lives and because it is an expression of righteous living and of love for God and neighbor.  There are no “points” earned by doing good works.

5) There’s no such thing as the Byzantine Empire.  This was a term invented by French scholars retroactively during the renaissance.  Constantine moved the capital of the empire to the east and Constantinople became known as New Rome.  Though portions of the Western half of the Roman Empire fell, the Eastern half continued for over a thousand years after the Goths sacked Rome.  Those living in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire did not think of themselves as “Byzantines” or even Greeks.  They were Romans.  Even today, the Turks still refer to Orthodox Christians living in Turkey as “Roman”.

6) “True” Christianity did not disappear when the Church received legal recognition from the Roman Government.  Faithful, pious and righteous Christians continued to live in faith and suffer martyrdom and persecution.  The Church that was founded by Jesus Christ, and its theology, remained intact.  Those who became frustrated with government intervention in Church life struggled to maintain the purity of the church’s’ doctrine and life.  However, since the Church continued to adhere to its basic teachings without dilution, it was necessary for pious believers to continue their struggle within the church.  It was believed that no person had the right to create or invent his or her own church.  It is also significant to mention that the Orthodox Church continues to bear much fruit.  If losing one’s life, or martyrdom, is the ultimate expression of one’s devotion to Christ, there has never been a more fruitful time within the Church.  There were more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than all previous centuries of Christian history combined.  Most of these martyrs were Orthodox Christians who refused to renounce their faith.

7) The Orthodox Church is not a denomination nor is it “non-denominational”.  It is pre-denominational.  The Church was without break or separation for more than 1,000 years.  The Orthodox Church did not break away from any other group.  The Orthodox Church continued right along up to this day.  In fact, groups that refer to themselves as “non-denominational” because they are free standing churches, not connected with any larger mainline protestant confessions, are, in fact, denominations.  Since a denomination means a breaking down of the whole or a separation, they are simply denominations consisting of one parish.

8) Yes, the Orthodox are “Bible believing” Christians.  Almost everything within Orthodox worship comes directly from the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.  There is probably more Bible read on a single Sunday Morning in Orthodox Worship than in an entire year in most other churches.

9) Orthodox Christianity is not an exotic form of Roman Catholicism.  While both Churches have organized worship, the life, practice and doctrine of the Roman Catholics and The Orthodox are quite different.  The Orthodox view the Pope as the bishop of Rome, not a supreme leader of the entire Church.  And, because, in the eyes of the Orthodox, the Pope has stated that his authority is over the entire Church, the Orthodox are not currently in communion with Rome.  Roman Catholic doctrinal principles such as the Immaculate Conception of Mary, Papal Infallibility, Transubstantiation of Holy Communion, and Original Sin are absent from the Orthodox Church.  These perspectives took root in the Roman Catholic Church after East and West went their separate ways.

10) Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, is the head of the Orthodox Church: not Luther, not Calvin, not Wesley.  The Orthodox Church can trace the lineage of the ordinations of its clergy all the way back to Christ Himself with unbroken continuity.  Orthodox Christianity has remained faithful to Christ not only doctrinally but also historically.

With these things said, The Orthodox are not trying to convert you.  We believe in tolerance of other faiths, and this has been written so that those of you who may come from other backgrounds might be more tolerant of us.  Please don’t write us off.  Learn what we really think, do and believe before deciding without sufficient knowledge.  We’re believers.  We don’t preach false doctrine.  We accept the Bible as the Word of God.  Simply put, we struggle within the boundaries of the church to always be as good of an expression of the Kingdom of God on earth as possible.  This is because Christ created one Church and prayed that It would remain one.  We believe it is our sacred duty to preserve this oneness.  We are not allowed to whimsically create a new church whenever we are upset.  If we don’t like what’s happening in our Church, we don’t leave.  We risk persecution, even to death, to protect the faith because that’s what Christ did when He created The Church.

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