Monthly Archives: February 2017

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