The most fundamental belief in Christianity is the belief in one God. This is something we share with Judaism and Islam, although of course, Christianity believes that God is a Trinity, which Jews and Muslims do not.
This belief in one God is expressed in the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (Deut 6:4)
The first words “Hear, O Israel” are “Scema” in Hebrew and this verse is the most important prayer in Judaism. It is recited in morning and evening prayers and Jews try to repeat it just before they die. Jesus Christ repeats this prayer in Mark 12:29 “Jesus answered, “The first is, `Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one”, showing that He believes in this traditional confession of faith But who is this one, God? He partially reveals Himself in the incident of the burning bush in Exodus:
“Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, `The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, `What is his name?`; what shall I say to them?”; God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say his to the people of Israel, `I AM has sent me to you.'” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, `The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” (Ex 3:13-15)
The name Yahweh means something like “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be” or simply “I am”. The name Yahweh was considered so holy that Jews never said it.
When they read the Bible they say “Adonai” or Lord rather than say, Yahweh. The word Yahweh was spoken only once a year by the high priest in the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem.
Therefore God’s “name” is “I am” showing that God is the ultimate reality, the creator of all things that exist. It is interesting to notice that in St. John’s Gospel especially, Christ frequently makes “I am” statements. “I am the good shepherd”, “I am the light of the world” and so on. These “I am” statements are a subtle way of Jesus Christ saying that He is God. This is especially clear in the following incident in John 8:52-59.
“The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, as did the prophets; and you say, `If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you claim to be?” Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing; it is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say that he is your God. But you have not known him; I know him. If I said, I do not know him, I should be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad.”; The Jews then said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they took up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.”
When Jesus says “before Abraham was, I am” (in Greek ego eimi) He is making a clear statement of His divinity which the Jewish leaders saw as blasphemy, and for which they sought to kill Him.
St. John Chrysostom (ca. 349-407) commenting on this statement of Jesus Christ attaches more theological significates to “ego eimi”. In his 55th homily on John he says:
“But wherefore said He not, ‘Before Abraham was, I was’ instead of ‘I am’. As the Father uses this expression, I am, so also does Christ; for it signifies continuous Being, irrespective of all time. On which account the expression seems to them to be blasphemous.”
So God is the great “I am” and Jesus Christ shares this status. God is the absolute, ultimate reality. Because of this God is sometimes called the “Supreme Being”. The idea is that there is a great chain of being from atoms to rocks t plants to an animal to human being, with God being at the top of the chain. However, to say that God is the Supreme Being implies that the being of God is the same as the being of creatures, although more exalted. However, God’s ‘being” cannot be compared to the being of creatures. It is a unique kind of being, and so the Fathers of the Church say that God is beyond being or beyond existence to show that God exists in a radically different way than the way creatures exist.
All of the makes it seem that God is infinitely far from us. But Jesus Christ taught us that ‘Yahweh” is our loving Father and can be addressed as “Abba” or “dear Father”.
In this way, the infinite God is shown to be as close to us as our human fathers are or even closer.
All of the above is not simply a philosophical game. It is an attempt to express the paradox of God’s infinity brought close to humanity.
The Creed begins with “I believe”. What does it mean to have faith, to believe? Basically, there are two kinds of faith, “faith that” and “faith in”. “Faith that” means believing something intellectually, acknowledging that certain propositions or statements are true. So, for example, we believe that God exists, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. When we say that these statements are true, this is “faith that”. However, faith in the intellectual sense is not enough. For example, St. James writes in his epistle that “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder.” (James 2:19). The demons, as fallen angels, know that God exists and Jesus Christ is the Son of God. They are supernatural beings with certain knowledge of God, but they hate God the Father and Jesus Christ. Their knowledge does them no good.
“Faith in” means trusting God, knowing that God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit know us and care for us. We know through faith that even in the difficult times in our lives, we are in the hands of a loving God.
Normally we differentiate between faith and reason and saying that they are two separate things. However, they go together. We would not believe something to be true that is completely unreasonable. If someone tells us that a wooden statue is a god or that we should worship a sacred cow, we would not do so because these things are obviously unreasonable. However, our reason can give us some knowledge of God. For example, St. Paul writes that our knowledge of the beauty, harmony, and complexity of the world gives us reason to believe in God. “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. …” (Romans 1:19-20) In the same epistle St. Paul tells us that our conscience can lead us to God. In other words, every human being, regardless of religion, instinctively knows certain things are right and wrong. When people do something wrong their conscience bothers them. This voice of our conscience tells us that there is a divine law-diver. St. Paul writes “For God shows no partiality. All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them…” (Romans 2: 11-15)
However, reason can only take us so far. It tells us that God exists, but we would not know that god is our loving Father, caring for each of us personally, if it were not for the prophets of Israel and primarily for the teaching of Jesus Christ. Again, we would not know that God is the Holy Trinity without the revelation of Jesus Christ. These are just two of the things that revelation teaches us. In other words, we have to go beyond reason and accept what God has revealed to us through faith. Faith does not contradict reason, but it gives us a deeper understanding of God than reason alone can tell us.
Therefore, we should rejoice in the deeper knowledge which comes through the revelation contained in the Old Testament and more fully through Jesus Christ, believing in God and His Son, both in the sense of intellectual agreement and loving trust.
Having looked at the sources of doctrine, we now turn to the expression of these doctrines in the Creed. Our English word Creed comes from the Latin word “credo”, I believe. In Orthodoxy, the Creed is usually called the Symbol of faith. Symbol, in this case, means bringing together or uniting and it brings together the basic truth of Orthodoxy. The Creed is sometimes called the Nicene Creed because the first part was adopted at the first Council of Nicea which met in the year 325AD, that is from “I believe” to “..whose kingdom shall have no end.” However, it should more accurately be called the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed because of the second part, that is from “..I believe in the Holy Spirit” to the Amen, was adopted at the first Council of Constantinople which meat in 381 AD.
We recite this Creed at every Divine Liturgy, but its first use was at Baptisms and of course, it is still used at baptism. The earliest Creeds are found in the New Testament. The first Creeds were simple confessions that Jesus is the Son of God or Messiah or Lord. Remember that the first converts to Christianity were adults and they had to confess the faith before Baptism. We see such short Creeds in various place in the New Testament. For example, in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans “…… because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9) In the Book of Acts, we see St. Philip telling the Ethiopian Eunuch about Jesus Christ and the Eunuch decides to become Christian. “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture, he told him the good news of Jesus. And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptised?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptised him.” (Acts 8:35-38)
From these simple Creeds arose the more detailed Creed we are familiar with. These longer creeds were adopted to clearly express the church’s faith when it was under attack. For example, in the early years of the 4th century, a priest of Alexandria in Egypt was teaching that Jesus Christ was not God but a very holy man. The Church knew that if Jesus Christ were simply a human being he could not have saved us from sin and death. The teaching so shook the Church it was having a negative effect on Roman society, so the Emperor Constantine the Great called a meeting of bishops in the city of Nicea in Asia Minor. After much discussion, Arius and his viewpoint were condemned and the first part of the Creed, which clearly confesses the divinity of Christ was adopted as the most fundamental statement of Christian doctrine. Later in the 4th century, some people were teaching that the Holy Spirit was not God. The bishops then met in Constantinople and adopted the second part of the Creed which states the divinity of the Holy Spirit.
Both parts of the Creed were put together and since the 4th century the person being baptised or his/her sponsor, if the person is a baby has recited it. Later it began to be sung at the Divine Liturgy as it is today.
It is important to notice that the Creed adopted at the councils began “we believe” because the Creed is the faith of the whole Church. However, at the Divine Liturgy, it begins “I believe”. What is interesting is that all the other prayers at the Liturgy are said in the plural, that is we or our or us. This is because the church is not simply a collection of individuals but rather a corporate body. However, no one can believe for another person. We learn the faith from others but we have to express our personal faith in God. No one can do this in place of another (except, of course, in the case of babies being baptised).
The point is we are Orthodox not simply because of our nationality or language, but because we personally affirm the truth of Orthodoxy. We express this through our saying or singing of the Creed.
In our last article we saw that the Fathers (and Mothers) of the Church are important sources of Christian doctrine. There were Fathers who wrote on theological subjects and others who wrote about asceticism and the spiritual life.
However, not all saints are referred to as Holy Fathers. There are many other categories of saints. For example, the prophets of the Old Testaments are considered saints. The evangelists who wrote our four Gospels are saints. We know, of course, about the twelve apostles who are saints but there are also 70 (or 72) less well-known apostles who are also saints. Confessors are saints who suffer for the faith and martyrs are those who die for it. There are monastic saints and lay saints. Lay people who are saints are referred to as ‘righteous’. Of course, all these categories of saints are also known to Western Christians, although sometimes the names and categories are different. However, there is another category of saint that is more typically Eastern.
They are the “fools for Christ’s sake”. These are saints who live with a total indifference to what is considered normal. They may dress in bizarre or ragged clothing, they may be homeless, they have no concern for their reputation or security. But because of this indifference God sometimes grants such fools great insight into the Orthodox faith and the human heart. They are totally fearless and so can speak the truth.
To learn about saints we go to their ‘lives’. A ‘life’ in the technical sense is not a biography. It omits many things that a biographer would be interested in. They are written to bring out the spiritual significance of the saint’s work and deeds, as inspiration for us. The lives of many of the saints were written centuries ago so the style of writing may seem strange to us. But if we are patient and keep reading the lives of the saints we will see great spiritual benefit.
To round out our series of articles about the sources of Christian doctrine we consider two other sources. The first is canon law. Canon Law comes from the decisions of ecumenical councils, local councils and writing of the Fathers. The word Canon means norm or standard. There are canons that are considered unchangeable.
For example, they include canons about the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ and the Trinity. Canons about the moral law are unchangeable. But there are other canons that are changeable as need arises. For example, the canons say that a man cannot be ordained before he is thirty years of age. The idea here is that a clergyman should be a mature individual and is important, but in response to the need of the church men are sometimes ordained at an early age. The canons are not laws which are somehow above the life of the church, ruling it from above but rather they show us how life in the church is to be lived.
Finally, we have to consider icons as a source of Christian doctrine. We will consider icons in more detail later, but we should mention one point here which relates to what we said earlier about lives of the saints. Just as a saint’s life is not a modern biography concerned with all details of the saints life, but rather seeking to depict the spiritual significance of the life, icons are not realistic portraits of the saints (or Jesus Christ or His mother). Rather, through artistic technique and style the spiritual meaning of the person depicted is emphasized. When we read the lives of the saints we are not always familiar or comfortable with the genre of literature. Sometimes the convention of iconography may seem strange to us too, but if we can persevere in trying to understand icons and the lives of the saints we see why they are sources of Christian doctrine.
Finally, we should know that church music and architecture can be considered as sources of Christian doctrine, though these topics do not enter into our presentation at this point.