Monthly Archives: January 2017

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

The Orthodox Faith – Sources of Christian Doctrine (3)

There are some Protestant Christians who think that all Christian doctrine and practices have to be based on the Bible alone. If something is not explicitly found in scripture it should not be taught or practiced. For example, in the Orthodox Church we have several feasts based on the birth, life and death of the Mother of God. Much of the material for these feasts are not found in scriptures so Protestants do not celebrate these feasts. There are differences in practice, too.
For example, we do not find the veneration of icons in the New Testament, so many Protestants reject them. As Orthodox we accept these things because they are part of Holy Tradition.
It is true that in the Bible Jesus sometimes criticizes tradition, but this is not Holy Tradition.
You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:8)
What is tradition? Our English word tradition comes from the Latin word “tradere”, meaning to hand something over. For example
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (I Cor 11:23-26)
When St. Paul writes “received” or “delivered” he is describing the very practice of tradition. In this passage we see how St. Paul received the tradition about Holy Communion from the apostles and how he is handing it over to his followers. In the Jewish tradition, it was very important to hand over exactly what one had received, without adding to or diminishing it. This is the origin of Holy
Tradition. St. Paul tells his followers how important it is to follow tradition. He writes
“So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thes 2:15).
But it is important not to think of Scripture and tradition as two separate sources of believe and practice. Rather the Bible is the heart of tradition, although tradition includes the writings of the church Fathers, the decisions of the ecumenical councils, liturgical texts, icons, etc. All of these things form Holy Tradition and one cannot isolate any one of them. So when we read the Bible we interpret it through the writings of the Fathers, the decisions of the councils, the liturgical texts and so on.
The Bible does not exist by itself. Even Protestants who deny Holy Tradition read the Bible through ‘tradition’. There are distinctly Lutheran and Calvinist ways of reading the Bible. This is sneaking the tradition in by the back door, so to speak. However here we truly have the tradition of men as opposed to Holy Tradition. Or to put it another way, the Bible is the most important part of Holy Tradition, but the Bible never remains alone,
it is always read through the lens of Tradition. So Holy Tradition is the sum total of Christian belief and practice handed over from one generation of Christians to another.
However, it must be said that no every practice in the church forms part of Holy Tradition in the strict sense. Sometimes theologians distinguish between Tradition with a capital “T” and tradition with a lower case “t”.
For example, the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation, the very heart of Tradition. On the other hand, we have smaller traditions. For example, in the marriage ceremony the Russian Orthodox tradition is to use actual metal crowns held over the heads of the bride and groom. However, in the Greek tradition the bride and groom have crowns of flowers place on their heads. This is an example of a small “t” tradition.
There is nothing wrong with the lesser traditions of the church but we should see things for what they are.
In addition to traditions with a big “T” and a small “t” there are false traditions which sometimes exist in the church. For example, many people believe they should receive Holy Communion, perhaps only once or twice a year. This is a pseudo-tradition, which contradicts the nature of Holy Communion.
Finally, Holy Tradition is not some static body of faith and practice handed over by rote. Tradition has to be received by every generation of Christian. Tradition can develop and grow without forgetting what is gone before. Tradition will continue to grow. For example, the Fathers of the Church are not exclusively men of the past. In the 20th century we had St. Siloam the Athonite and his disciples, Archimandrite Sophrony, who transmitted what they had received while at the same time adding their own insights. The age of the Fathers is never over, not is tradition merely a relic of the past.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – Sources of Christian Doctrine (2)

As we know, God has revealed Himself to humanity most fully through the Jewish people and then through the Christian church. Nevertheless, God has left “seeds of the Word” (as St. Justin the Philosopher puts it) in pagan religions and philosophies.
In this way, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of all human striving for truth, beauty and goodness.
It is easy to see how Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Judaism. From the time of Adam and Eve God had promised that He would send a redeemer, a messiah to the Jewish people (although it must be added, God also promised that this messiah, though Jewish, would be a redeemer for all people). Through the centuries God defended the Jewish people and sent them many prophets who predicted the coming of the Messiah.
The record of this is the Old Testament. When we compare the Old Testament prophecies with the New Testament, we see that the promises made by God in the Old Testament are fulfilled by Jesus Christ.
It is easy to see how Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy because the prophets and Jesus have the same religious, cultural and linguistic background. It may be more difficult to see how Jesus fulfills pagan religions. But in fact this can be shown. Pagan religions were often polytheistic (believing in many gods). But among the pagans there were also people who instinctively knew there ultimately must be one true God who stands above and beyond the many other gods. We can see that the God of Israel, the God revealed by Jesus Christ to be the dear father of all people is the fulfillment of this human yearning for the one true God. St. Paul shows us this approach in the Acts of the Apostles, which is the history of the early days of the church, when he preaches to the pagans in Athens. In Athens he had seen an altar dedicated “to the unknown God”. This altar expressed the longing of the pagans for the one true God. St. Paul tells them that the God they sought was the God that he preached, the God of Israel who revealed Himself to the world in the person of Jesus Christ. This story can be found in Acts, Chapter 17:16-34. St. Paul says “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:23)
In addition to the search for the one true God, there are other aspects of pagan religions which Jesus Christ fulfills. For example, in the Hindu religion the concept of the avatar. An avatar is God taking on the human form to save human beings. The most popular avatar is Krishna. Love for Krishna has produced wonderful religious hymns and other devotional literature. This seems similar to Jesus Christ who also descended from heaven to save humanity. But there are differences. Krishna only appears human; his humanity is like a mask or costume. But Jesus Christ became a genuine human being, capable of thirst, hunger, tiredness and so on. Jesus Christ never loses his humanity, even after he ascends to heaven.
Beyond this, Christ is historical in a sense that Krishna is not. Jesus Christ came into the world in a particular historical setting and even non-Christians scholars recognize that Jesus is a historical figure, although of course only Christians see this historical figure as God incarnate.
The study of how Jesus Christ fulfills all genuine human religious striving is incredibly rich. We can see how Jesus Christ fulfills many aspects of many different religions.
Of course, this is a Christian point of view. Jews do not think that Jesus is the fulfillment of Judaism and pagan believers also do not believe that Jesus fulfills their religion and will be offended if we tell them this. However, by seeing Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of all that is good and true in humanity, we can open to truth wherever we fine it and see Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of this truth.

Fr. John