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The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (17B)

In the church, Pentecost is a beginning and end. It is an end in the sense that it is the fulfillment of Christ’s mission on earth. In fact, it is the fulfillment of all the prophesies and predictions about the coming of the Messiah which run through the whole Old Testament. But Pentecost is also the beginning of the Church. In fact, Pentecost is often called the “birthday of the Church” because the Church could not begin without the Holy Spirit.

Christianity is a historical religion and is not based simply on philosophy or ideas. Rather it is based on God’s actions in history. To give some examples, God called Abraham to leave his homeland so he could become the father of many nations; Moses led the Jewish people out of captivity in Egypt; Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, died and rose from the dead in Jerusalem.

However, our faith is not based simply on historical events. One has to see the meaning in historical events. For example, many historians would admit that the Jewish people escaped from Egypt but would say the parting of the sea was a natural phenomenon of winds and tides, not believing that God had worked a miracle. Many critics would accept that the Myrrh-bearing women and the Apostles could not find Christ’s body in the tomb on Easter morning. However, they do not accept that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. They offer alternative interpretations.  They will say that the Apostles stole the body of Christ so that they could start the Church. Others have said that the women and the Apostles went to the wrong tomb. Still, others would say that the Apostles were hallucinating. It is only we who accept that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God will understand that Jesus came into the world to die and rise again to destroy the power of death. This is the Christian confession of faith and without this faith, the story of the empty tomb is just a story.

For these reasons, icons are not simply naturalistic portraits about events in history. Rather, they explain the meaning of what happened through the language of symbols. This is true in the case of the Pentecost icon. In this icon we see the Apostles gathered on Mount Zion and the Apostles sitting in a semi-circle. At the top of the icon, there is a semi-circle with rays coming from it. The semi-circle symbolizes the Holy Spirit sending the rays as tongues of fire signifying the descent of the Holy Spirit. In the center of the semi-circle of the Apostles, there is an empty place. This is the place of Jesus Christ, the head of the Church. It is unoccupied of course because Christ had ascended into heaven and is no longer visible in this world. St. Paul is also found in the icon. St. Paul was not present on the day of Pentecost and was not even a Christian at the time. However, though is preaching and writings he is an important part of the foundation of the Church. The four Gospels writers – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are present holding their Gospels, although they had not yet been written at the time.

In another semi-circle at the bottom, we see a figure of a king in a dark place. He is cosmos, representing the whole world as it was bound by sin. His presence reminds us that Christ came to save the whole universe in addition to saving humanity. In some icons, he is shown coming out of the darkness into the light, showing Christ’s victory over the darkness of sin.

So we can see the icon of Pentecost give us the Christian meaning of what happened on the day of Pentecost.

To summarize, our faith is based on God’s actions in history, but we wouldn’t understand this without our faith. In this way, icons such as the Pentecost icon, show us the true meaning of the events.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (17A)

One of the most frequently used prayers of the Orthodox Church is:

O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere and fillest all things. Treasury of blessings and Giver of Life, come and abide in us and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.

Most Orthodox services begin with this prayer. But interestingly enough, it is not  prayed from Pascha (Easter) to Pentecost. Easter, of course, is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Forty days later the feast of Ascension, which commemorates Christ’s Ascension into heaven. Fifty days after Easter is Pentecost (Pentecost means fifty in Greek). As during His earthly ministry Jesus Christ prophesied the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (John 7: 37-19):

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, `Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

In other words, the Holy Spirit would not be given until after Christ had been glorified, i.e., until Christ had risen from the dead. Christ is predicting the coming of the Holy Spirit fifty days after His resurrection. As mentioned above, Pentecost is the Greek word for fifty. Originally it was a Jewish feast day. It was the fiftieth day after Passover. In the Greek Old Testament it is called the “Feast of Weeks”. In Judaism Pentecost was a harvest festival. It was celebrated seven weeks after the beginning of the wheat harvest. On Pentecost, the first fruits of the harvest were offered in the temple of Jerusalem as a thanksgiving to God for a successful harvest. After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple the first fruits could no longer be offered in the Temple, so that Pentecost was celebrated as the giving of the new law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

In the New Testament in the book of Acts we see Pentecost described. Present were the twelve Apostles (after Judas had betrayed Christ Matthias was elected to take his place). Also present were the 120disciples and Mary, the Mother of God. It is described in Acts 2:1-5:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven.

Tradition tells us that this took place in the Upper Room on Mount Sinai where Jesus had celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples. Further on we see that St. Peter and the other Apostles began to preach in various languages they had never spoken before so that people from any different places heard the Apostles preaching in their own language. This is the true “speaking in tongues”. In modern Christianity there are some Christians who speak in tongues. However, they are saying meaningless syllables. This is different from the true speaking in tongues at Pentecost. Some people thought the Apostles were drunk but St. Peter told the crowd that they were not drunk but filled with the Holy Spirit. He tells the people that the words of the prophet Joel were being fulfilled:

“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” (Joel 2:28)

St. Peter preached that Jesus Christ was the Messiah promised in the Old Testament.

The crowd was so impressed with the preaching of St. Peter that about 3000 people accepted faith in Jesus and were baptized. Pentecost is the birthday of the Church.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (16c)

As we have seen, we now have the Creed that we sing at every Liturgy and Baptism. It was composed at the 1st and 2nd Ecumenical Councils in 325 and 381 AD. Furthermore, the 3rd Ecumenical council (431 AD) forbade any changes to the Creed.

We seem to be set. The Creed was believed by the vast majority of the Christian Church from East to West, from Rome to Constantinople and beyond. However, in the 6th century in Spain the Creed was changed by a decision of a local Spanish church council. The change is as follows: the original Creed says that we believe in the “Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified…”  This is based on Christ’s statement that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (John 15:26). However, the change is that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the “Father and the Son” and this is known as the filioque. This whole issue is referred to as the “Filioque Controversy”.

Why did the Spanish church decide to change this? Evidentally in Spain at that time Arianism was still prevalent. We remember that Arius’ teaching is that Jesus Christ is not God, but rather the greatest creation of God. The first part of the Creed was adopted to show that Arianism was wrong. However, due to the still strong Arianism in Spain the church there decided to add the new words to emphasize that Christ was truly God.

At first the Filioque was a local matter. However, its usage became widespread in the Emperor Charlemagne’s time (743-814 AD). Emperor Charlemagne even tried to force the Pope to authorize this addition to the Creed. At first the Pope refused and even ordered that the Creed without the filioque be engraved on large silver tablets to be displayed in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. However, the Roman church needed the support of Charlemagne and his successor, so the Pope finally accepted the addition to the Creed and it has remained part of the Creed used by most Catholics and Protestants.

The idea that the Pope could authorize a change to the Creed on his own authority without consulting the other Patriarchs or Councils was a sign of the growing tendency of the Roman Pope to believe that they are the supreme authority in the Church. This authority is not accepted by the Orthodox (and Protestants) and this is one of the factors that keep the Catholic West and the Orthodox East separate to this day.

There were attempts to heal this schism between Catholic and Orthodox. Reunion councils were held in 1274 and 1439. However, no lasting union was reached.

In the Orthodox Church there is at least two ways of looking at the filioque. Although all Orthodox agree that the Pope did not have the authority to change the Creed there are some theologians (most well-known is St. Maximus the Confessor) that think that the filioque can be interpreted in an Orthodox manner, whereas many important church fathers and theologians regard the filioque as a heresy which cannot be understood in an Orthodox manner.

In the middle of the 20th century there have been official discussions about overcoming the barrier to trunnion. Much has been achieved but the Orthodox Church will never accept Papal authority over all other Christians, as is evident in this controversy.

Ultimately, we can hope and pray that the differences can be reconciled, and schism will be healed, but with all human goodwill, they still remain in the hand of God.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (16b)

After this long-winded discussion of the infallibility of the Pope versus the infallibility of the whole church we now come to the famous “filioque” disagreement between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church and how it reflects a differing understanding of authority in the Church.

At every Divine Liturgy and Baptism we say or sing the Creed, commonly called the Nicene Creed, although this is not completely accurate, as we will see.

In the early 4th century AD in the city of Alexandria in Egypt, a priest names Arius was teaching that Jesus was not truly God. Arius was willing to say that Christ was the first-made creature, the greatest being ever created. He was willing to say that Jesus was the Word of God, the Son of God, but not truly God.

Strangely, many Christians agreed, including high-ranking priests and bishops, because they thought if there is only one God anyone else, including Jesus Christ, could not be God, but must be a creature. This is a development of pagan ideas of the oneness of God. Although we Christians believe in one God through our faith we know that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are truly God. This challenges human reasoning, but this is the faith of the Church.  This denial of the divinity of Christ created a storm of controversy within the church, but also within Roman society, so much so that the Emperor Constantine called a council of bishops in 325 AD to settle the matter. After intense debate the bishops compiled the Creed which we recite at every Liturgy. The bishops were meeting in the city of Nicea so this Creed is called the Nicene Creed.

This is the text of that Creed:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, being of one essence with the Father; By whom all things were made; Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Spirit.

This Creed clearly states the divinity of Christ. Jesus Christ is called “true God of true God, begotten, not made, light of light, of one essence with the Father…” The bishops debated whether the term “essence” should be used because it is not in the Bible, but the council fathers decided that the word expresses the church’s belief in the divinity of Christ. If someone denies this teaching that person is not an Orthodox Christian.

Looking at the Creed we see that it ends with the words “And the Holy Spirit.” The reason the Creed ends so abruptly with these words is because the subject of the council’s work was to affirm the divinity of Christ. The Holy Spirit was not the primary subject of discussion.

However, after the adoption of the Nicene Creed late in the 4th century AD some people began to question the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Some were say the Spirit is a lesser divinity. Therefore, a council was called in Constantinople in 381 AD to discuss and settle this issue. An addition was made to the Nicene Creed:

…. And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. In one holy catholic and apostolic Church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

As we can clearly see, the divinity of the Holy Spirit is expressed. Therefore, these two parts of the Creed are called the Nicene Creed, although more properly it should be the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The Creed is often called the Symbol of Faith. It is the fundamental expression of the Orthodox faith, held by Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and many Protestants. Again, if one does not accept the Creed one is simply not a traditional Christian.

One would have thought that this common confession of faith would have settled all dogmatic questions, but unfortunately it has led to more controversy among Christians, leading to schism, which still exists at the present time as we shall see in the next article.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (16)

In this article we will look at some ideas we have already looked at, then go on to a new topic. If we ask ourselves what the ultimate source of authorities in a church, or if we ask what the ultimate criterion of truth is, we will get different answers. For example, many Protestants would say that the ultimate source and criterion of truth is the Bible. An English protestant once wrote that “The Bible and the Bible alone is the religion of the Protestants.” In other words, many Protestants would say that they don’t need tradition or church councils or bishops and priests to interpret the Bible. Individuals can read the Bible and understand it. Not all Protestants would put things this way, but many do.

For Roman Catholics the ultimate authority and criterion of truth is the Pope. That means that when the Pope teaches with his full authority on a matter of faith and words, he is protected by God from teaching error. This does not mean that everything a Pope says or writes is infallible. Actually the Catholic Church is very careful to make clear those occasions when he is teaching infallibly, so as not to make the Pope a kind of magical oracle.

When we, as Orthodox, look at Catholicism and Protestantism we may ask what the ultimate authority and criterion of truth in our church. It is the bishops and the ecumenical councils. In other words, the Catholics have the Pope, Protestants have the Bible and we have the Councils. However, there have been many times a council of bishops was called by the emperor, declared something to be an ecumenical council and yet the church has not accepted these councils as legitimate councils. Indeed when councils have met and issued some decree, the people of the church, that is the clergy, the monastics and the laity, did not passively accept what the council taught. When a bishop brought the teaching of a council back to his diocese there were periods, even decades, of fierce debate, polemics and arguments before the council’s ruling was accepted.

Therefore, as Orthodox we would not say that the Bible or the Pope or the councils are automatically infallible. If we want to use the word infallible we would have to say that the whole church, clergy, monastics and lay people, is infallible. This does not seem a simple and clear way of making decisions as the Catholic and Protestant approaches, but actually this is how the church has worked throughout history. We believe there is no authority above or beyond the church itself, led by the Holy Spirit from within, that is the ultimate authority and criterion.

The reader may now ask why all this material has been reviewed again in this series of articles, but this exposition was necessary before moving to the new topic, the filioque (we will explain this later) in which we will discuss how the above-mentioned criteria of truth functions in this specific case. We will see how these criteria operated differently in the Orthodox and Catholic Church in defining something. By the way, the word “filioque” means “from the son” and this refers to how the words of what we sing at the Divine Liturgy in the Creed got to be part of the Creed.

Fr. John