Author Archives: gldstrm

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (2)

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.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (1)

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.

Fr. John

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