The Orthodox Faith – Sources of Christian Doctrine (8)

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.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – Sources of Christian Doctrine (7)

In answering the question of how we know with certainty what the Orthodox doctrine is, or how do we find Orthodox doctrine, we began by looking at the Bible and the Liturgy of the church as sure sources of Christian truth. Later, we looked at the decisions of the councils. Now we turn to the writings of the church Fathers (note: there are also church Mothers). The study of the Fathers is called patristics, from the Greek word for father. The church Fathers have expressed and taught the Orthodox faith for 21 centuries. We should never think that the age of the Fathers is over. The church is and will always be patristic. The Fathers have authority for us because they led holy lives and used their brilliant minds to defend and teach Christian doctrine. This doesn’t mean that any given church Father is infallible. Indeed, one can find “mistakes” in certain Fathers. However, these mistakes are not considered heresy. From the
Church’s point of view, a heretic is someone who consciously, knowingly maintains a false teaching against the will of the Church. They always sought to think and with the mind of the Church.
There are many kinds of Holy Fathers belonging to various categories. Some Fathers taught the church faith with theological brilliance. Others taught the Christian life. These are often called ascetic fathers.
One kind of Holy Father is known as an apologist. In modern English, apology or to apologize means to say one is sorry for something. But the original Greek meaning of apology is a reasoned defense of someone or something. The apologist is one of the first kinds of Holy Fathers to appear, beginning their work in the late 1st and 2nd centuries.
What provoked the apologists to write? First, some apologists addressed themselves to the Jews. The Jews believed it was impossible for the Messiah to suffer on the cross and then die. They also did not believe that God had a son. What the apologist did was to carefully study the Old Testament and find that the Messiah was prophesied to be a suffering servant and the Son of God in a unique sense.
Other apologists defended the church’s teaching against the pagans. One kind of apology was directed to the Roman emperor. The Emperor thought that the Christians were bad citizens because they would not offer incense to a statue of the emperor as God. The apologists said that they were loyal subjects of the emperor, but they would not worship him as lord, for only God is Lord. Unfortunately, these apologies often didn’t work and thousands of Christians died for refusing to call the emperor lord.
Also, some pagans accused Christians of being atheists. In Greco-Roman religions, there were many, many gods, with their temples found everywhere. The worship of these gods was an important part of the town and cities. However, the Christians would not participate in any of the local social-religious activities relating to these gods. They said they worshiped the one true God who did not dwell in the pagan temples. For this reason Christians were often called atheists and the apologists had to defend the Christians against this charge.
In addition, highly spiritual pagans could not believe that the Son of God could take on a human body subject to pain, suffering and then death on the cross. For many of these pagans, the world and the human body was something which had to be escaped from. The apologists had to show them that the world and the human body were not evil, so the Son of God did become a genuine human being.
Finally, the apologists had to defend Christians from the charge of cannibalism. In the early days of the church the Liturgy was celebrated behind closed doors. Outsiders were not admitted. When the rumor got out that Christians ate the body and rank the blood of their Lord some pagans had to defend Christians.
It is hard to say how much their apologies helped the Christians, but they certainly laid the foundation for Christian theology and also showed how Christians could respond to attacks from outside the Church.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – Sources of Christian Doctrine (6)

The word Orthodox basically means “right belief”. In other words, what the church teaches is true. However, Roman Catholics and Protestants also claim to have right belief. So what is the ultimate criterion of truth? Who or what has the final authority for deciding what we should believe?
For many, if not most Protestants, the final authority is the Bible or the Bible alone (sola scriptura). At the Protestant Reformation, Protestant leaders rejected tradition and the authority of the church as necessary to understand the Bible. There are two basic Protestant approaches to the Bible. In the pietistic approach, individuals read the Bible, meditate upon it and pray to understand it. The other approach, the academic approach, uses all the tools of academic research to understand the Bible.
However, there is a problem with these two approaches. That is that there are so many Protestant understandings of the Bible, all differing from one another. It is clear from this that the Bible is not self-interpreting. It needs an authoritative interpretation.
For Roman Catholics the ultimate authority is the Pope. Generally the Pope teaches, together with the other bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. Sometimes the Pope gives his approval to the meeting of an ecumenical council and that becomes doctrine (this is very different from the Orthodox approach to councils). Finally, on rare occasions the Pope declares a doctrine on his own authority. The Roman Catholic approach has a clarity which others might envy, but this emphasis on papal authority actually breaks down in practice. First of all, Popes have taught error in the past, as even Roman Catholics admit. However, they say that their errors were taught by the Pope acting as private theologians and not as the supreme pontiff. Moreover, historically the church did not accept the decisions of an ecumenical council simply because the Pope had ratified them.
So what is the criterion of truth for Orthodox Christians? One is tempted to answer “the ecumenical councils” and generally speaking, this is true. However, there have been many councils convoked by the emperor, with many bishops attending but were ultimately rejected by the church. So how do we know that a council teaching is correct?
We see the first church council in the Book of Acts, called by the apostles to decide how non-Jews could enter the church. During the first centuries of the church, despite Roman persecution, bishops met with their clergy and people. Also, the bishops of the same region would meet each other. So we see that the church was conciliar from the very beginning. Therefore, in the early 4th century AD, when a priest named Arius was teaching that Jesus was not truly God, the emperor called a council of bishop in 325 AD to settle the issue which was not only tearing the church, but also the empire apart. This council condemned Arius and formulated the first part of the Creed which we recite at the Liturgy which states that Jesus Christ is “true God of true God”.
This council of Nicea is considered the first ecumenical council. Six more were to follow which were called to articulate the church’s understanding of how Jesus Christ as true God and also true man. The last council met again in Nicea in 787 AD, and so we say that all together there were seven ecumenical, or general, councils of the church. In addition to these seven, there are have also been several local councils, which have authority in the church.
But in addition to these ecumenical councils, there were many other councils which claimed to be ecumenical but were rejected by the church. So what is the criterion of the truth? We can say that it was the acceptance of a council by the whole church which makes it an ecumenical council. In other words, bishops would bring the decision of the council back to their dioceses which then had to receive them. This does not mean that the clergy and the laity of a diocese voted to determine what teaching of the church to accept or reject. The church does not function the way a modern democracy does. Rather the decision of the council would be discussed and debated and gradually work its way into the mind of the church. This was a process that went on throughout the whole Christian world. When the decisions of a council gradually became part of the church’s teaching and liturgy, it was understood that this council truly was ecumenical and authoritative.
The way of doing this may seem complicated and messy compared to the Roman Catholic papal system, but in fact, this was the way the church functioned in the era of the councils (352-787 AD).
The church continues to be conciliar today. Bishops meet with the clergy and laity in their diocese and bishops meet with other bishops. These meetings may be local or international in scope. There, just as we believe the Holy Spirit guides the church in the era of the seven ecumenical councils, He does so today, maintaining the church in truth.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – Sources of Christian Doctrine (5)

It is interesting that although the whole Bible is the centerpiece of tradition, the whole Bible is not kept on the altar. Only the Gospel book containing all four Gospels is kept on the altar. This is because the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which are described in the Gospels, are the fulfillment of the whole Bible. The Old Testament points forward to Jesus Christ and the rest of the New Testament (Acts, Epistles, Revelation) takes its start from Jesus Christ.
But in what sense does Jesus Christ fulfill the Old Testament? One way is to look at Old Testament prophecy. Although the prophets were not simply ‘fortune tellers’ so to speak, but rather people who revealed the will of God to the people of Israel, nevertheless some prophesies are surprisingly detailed. For example, the Book of Micah tells us that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. The book of Isaiah tells us that the Redeemer would be a descendant of King David. The prophet Hosea tells us that the Messiah would spend time in Egypt.
But in addition to these specific prophecies there are prophecies that were only completely understood after the coming of Jesus Christ. The Prophet Isaiah mentions the “suffering servant” in several chapters of his book (Isaiah 42, 49, 50, 52 and 53). For example, in Isaiah we read:
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5)
The Jews did not understand all these prophesies about the suffering servant because for them the Messiah was victorious, even conquering. It was only after the Christian church realized that the suffering of the Messiah was an essential part of His mission did the church understand these passages referring to Jesus Christ, the Messiah.
Also, in the Gospel of Matthew we read the following:
“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (which means, God with us).” (Matthew 1:22-23)
This refers to Isaiah 7:14:
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
You will notice that St. Matthew’s Gospel says that a virgin will conceive, Isaiah says simply that a young woman will conceive. The Hebrew Bible says “young woman” but the Greek Bible which the early Christians used had virgin. The meaning of this prophecy was not understood until Christ was actually born of a virgin.
But Jesus Christ does not simply fulfill verbal prophecy. Rather, there are people and events in the Old Testament that prefigures or foreshadows, Jesus Christ. For example, when the Jewish people were preparing to flee from Egypt, God told them to sacrifice a lamb and smear its blood on their doorposts. When the Angel of the Lord came to slay the firstborn of the Egyptians the angel knew to spare the Jewish children because he saw the blood on the doorposts.
For the Lord will pass through to slay the Egyptians; and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to slay you. (Exodus 12:23)
Just as the Hebrew children were saved by the blood of the lamb we are saved by the blood of the Lamb of God, in Jesus Christ. Also, when the people of Israel were fleeing from Egypt, they went down to the bottom of the sea. They were safe, but the Egyptians perished. So, just as the people of Israel were saved by going down to the water, Christians are saved by going down into the water of Baptism.
Another example, perhaps less well-known is the following: during the Exodus, when the Jews were journeying from Egypt to the promised land they came to a place where many poisonous serpents were biting them.
And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live. So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” (Numbers 21:8-9)
The deeper meaning here may not be fully obvious, but if one makes a bronze snake, laid out lengthwise and attached to a pole it forms a cross. So, just as the Jewish people were freed from poisonous snake bites by looking at this “cross”, we are saved from the sting of sin and death by the cross of Christ.
If one studies the Old Testament there are many prophecies and events which point forward to Jesus Christ.
In addition to this we can see that Jesus Christ and Christian liturgy fulfill the liturgy of the Jewish people. At the time of Christ, Jews worshiped in two places, the synagogue and the temple. There were many synagogues but only one temple. The service of the synagogue was a reading of the Old Testament and the singing of psalms. This corresponds to the first part of the Divine Liturgy from the beginning of the Liturgy to the Great Entrance. This part of the Liturgy is called the Liturgy of the Catechumens. Catechumens were people who were preparing to become Christian and they were permitted to be present at this part of the Liturgy, which contains scripture readings and the singing of psalms. However, in the early church a catechumen was not  allowed to be present for the Great Entrance, when the priest or deacon says “The doors, the doors, in wisdom let us attend”. In the early church the catechumens had to leave the church at this point and the doors of the church were shut. We no longer do this, of course.
The next part of the Liturgy is called the Liturgy of the Faithful, which centers on Holy Communion. In the early church only baptized Christians could be in church for this. The Liturgy of the Faithful commemorates and makes present the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and fulfills the worship in the Temple when animals were sacrificed every day. In other words, the sacrifice of animals in the temple were never enough to forgive human sin and to save humanity, but the one, perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ made present at the Divine Liturgy does what the daily sacrifice of the temple could never do. So in summary, the Liturgy of the Catechumens fulfills the synagogue worship and the Liturgy of the Faithful fulfills the temple worship.
In addition, we can say that Pascha (Easter) fulfills the Passover of the Jews. Just as the Jewish people were freed from slavery to the Egyptians through the Passover, Christians are freed from bondage to sin and death through Christ’s death and resurrection, the New Testament Passover. Also, the Jews kept the feast of Shavuot, fifth days after Passover. This commemorates the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. In Christianity, we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles on Pentecost when the preaching of the Christian law began.
So we can see that Jesus Christ fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament and the foreshadowing of the Old Testament Christian liturgy completes and fulfills the liturgy and worship of the Old Testament. What was hoped for and prayed for in the Old Testament finally becomes real for all humanity through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as made present in the Liturgy of the Church.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – Sources of Christian Doctrine (4)

As mentioned earlier, the Bible takes first place among the sources of tradition. The Bible is God’s message to human beings. It is inspired by God and written in the words of human beings. The Bible has two main parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The word testament is also translated as covenant and is an agreement or pact of God with humanity. Basically God promises to protect and guide first the Jewish people (in the Old Testament) and then the Christian church (in the New Testament).
The Jewish people and then the church agree to follow God’s teaching and live as God wants us to live.
The Old Testament contains four kinds of books. They are:
1. Books of the Law
2. Historical Books
3. Books of prophecies
4. Books of Wisdom
The book of the law, the first five books of the Old Testament, go from the creation of the world and human beings, Adam’s sin, the escape of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and their entrance to the Promised Land. For Christians, the Law given in these books is basically the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai. For Jews, this law consists of over 600 commandments. These laws no longer apply to Christians, so the church does not emphasize them.
The historical books tell of the entrance of the Jewish people into the Holy Land and the growth of the Jewish nation. The people of Israel are attacked and led into captivity several times. But God always remains faithful to them.
The books of wisdom are collections of wise saying and prayers. They give much insight into human life and how it should be lead.
The fourth kind of books are books of prophesy. On a popular level there is an often misunderstanding of the role of the prophets. On television programs for example, one often finds people trying to get a detailed vision of the future with precise names, dates and times of what the future holds. Of course, the books of prophesy contain many prophesies pointing to Jesus Christ. Some are quite detailed, some are more general.
The basic role of the prophets was to proclaim holy will to the Jewish people. Sometimes the prophets criticized the Jews. For example, sometimes the people of Israel were tempted to worship false gods. When they did, God sent prophets to condemn this. Sometimes the people of Israel let the poor be downtrodden and oppressed. When this happened God sent prophets to tell them to see that justice and compassion are shown to the poor.
The New Testament also contains four kinds of books. First there are the four Gospels by Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The word Gospel means “Good News” in English, which is translated from the Greek word “evangelium”. These books describe the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They do contain Jesus’ teaching, very often given in parables, which are short stories that make a point. In the Gospels we find many of our Lord’s miracles described.
The New Testament also contains one historical book. This is the Book of Acts, written by St. Luke, the author of the third Gospel. It begins with Christ’s Ascension into heaven forty days after the resurrection. It describes Pentecost, fifty days after Easter, when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples in Jerusalem, immediately followed by the preaching of the Gospel. At first the “Good News” of Christ was preached to the Jews and then to the non-Jews. In the earlier parts of the book St. Peter is given prominence and in the later parts St. Paul is given prominence. This book is the history of the early church. The Book of Acts is followed by the Epistles. Epistle simply means letter.
Several of the apostles wrote epistles and they are responses to questions or problems arising in the churches founded by the apostles. They were written to respond to the needs of a particular place and time. They are not theological treaties, but they do tell us what the apostles believed and taught.
Finally, the last book of the Bible is the Book of Revelation. Sometimes this book is taken as a detailed blueprint of the future. It does not talk about the future but much like the Old Testament prophets, the Book of Revelation is written to comfort Christians suffering persecution and their final salvation. It applied first to the early Christians persecuted by the Roman governors. It is a message of hope and comfort, telling us that God will never abandon His people and that no matter how bad things are God will rescue His people. In that sense, the book of Revelation has always been a book of comfort for Christians suffering persecution.
The Bible is the record of God’s relationship with His people first the Jews, then the Christians. It teaches us about God and how He wants us to live. The Bible is the source of the Church’s theology but also the foundation of the Liturgy and iconography of the church. The services of the church are filled with quotations and references to the Bible and in fact, we cannot really understand the Liturgy without knowledge of the Bible. Therefore, Orthodox Christians should be regular readers of the Bible, beginning with the Gospels, the other New Testament books and the Old Testament. No matter how many times we read the Bible, it always has a message for us.

Fr. John