Category Archives: Church Services

The Orthodox Faith – The Bible (1)

In English, when we say the word Bible we think of it as a book, a book singular. However, in Greek it is “Ta Biblia”, the Books (plural). Indeed the Bible is a small library of books written by many different people and in many different times and places. The Bible contains books of history, law, poetry, Gospels, letters and so on.

The Bible is divided into two main parts. The Old Testament tells of the creation of the world and the sin of Adam. It tells the story of the Patriarchs and the Exodus. It continues with the history of the Jewish kingdom, of King David and King Solomon. It contains books of prophesy, foretelling the coming of the Messiah. The Book of Psalms forms the basis of the services of the Christian Church. We should remember that the Jews do not call this the Old Testament because they don’t accept the New Testament. For them it is simply The Bible.

The New Testament begins with the four Gospels which tell of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Book of Acts is the history of the early church. It is followed by epistles, or letters, written by St. Paul and others. Finally the New Testament ends with the Book of Revelation which tells us that the Church and individual Christians will suffer greatly in the time of tribulation, but will be saved by the victory of Christ.

We call the Bible “The Word of God” and such it is. However, this does not mean that the Bible fell from heaven. Rather it is the Word of God in human words. God did not dictate the Bible word by word. The Biblical authors were not merely passive instruments that God used. Rather God respected their freedom so the Bible was written by concrete individuals in concrete places and times. This means that the words of the Bible reflect the conditions in which they wrote, as well as their different personalities. Nevertheless, the Bible is truly the Word of God for humanity. That does not mean every particular historical detail in the Bible will correspond to modern ideas about history (or science, for that matter). We believe that the Bible is inspired by God and convey what God wants us to know about Him and what He wants from us.

When we read or hear the bible read we find books attributed to Moses, Isaiah, Matthew, John and many other authors. Critics of Christianity will tell us that modern historical research calls into question the traditional author of any given book. This leads critics to say that this proves the Gospels are wrong, hence Christianity is not true. However, important modern critical research into the Bible is (and the modern, critical approach is, in fact, taught in Orthodox seminaries) it is not the only way to understand the Bible. But instead of worrying about such details, the Church recognizes the books of the Bible as books written for and by the church. Our faith tells us that the Bible is the church’s book, which is inspired. The Bible interpreted and lived by the Church is God’s word for us.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Holy Trinity (4)

The book of Ecclesiastes says: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecc 1:9)

This saying can have a positive meaning. After all, the teachings of the Orthodox Church originated centuries ago but they are still a living aspect of the Church. But it can also have a negative meaning. We remember the false teaching of the priest Arius from Alexandria in Egypt who, in the beginning of the 4th century, said that Jesus Christ was not truly God, but a created being. Many modern people would agree with this. They say that Jesus was a prophet, a mystic, a religious teacher but not God. Actually, these modern people have an even lower idea of God than Arius had. Arius said that Jesus Christ was a creature but He was the first to be created, created before the angels, the cosmos and human beings: and even that Jesus helped God to create these things. Few moderns would go this far. But the church does not accept either ancient Arianism or the modern belief. This faith of the Church is that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are not creatures but are uncreated and fully divine as God the Father.

Another false teaching, ancient and modern, is that the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit are simply roles that the one God acts out. For example, in the Old Testament God appears as God the Father, in the New Testament as God the Son and in the ongoing life of the Church as the Holy Spirit. In this teaching the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit are simply names for God’s activities.

A modern variation of this is to say that Christians may call God Father, Hindus might call Him Vishnu and Buddhists might call Him the cosmic Buddha. The idea here is that these names of God are interchangeably human concepts. Christians would say that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three distinctly real persons with whom we can have a personal relationship. They are not simply interchangeable names.

With God we distinguish nature and person. God’s nature answers the question “what God is”. In other words, human beings have a common human nature. Of course, there is great variety in humanity, but there is a common human nature. Nature corresponds to the ‘what’ of humanity. Persons on the other hand answer the question “who”. If we ask “what” John Smith and Mary Jones are we would answer and say they are human beings. If we ask who they are, the answer is Mary and John.

This distinction exists with God. We ask what God, we answer He is divine, uncreated, omniscient, omnipresent and so forth. If we ask the question who is God, we answer Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They all share in the common divine nature but in three personal ways.

But our human nature and person correspond to the divine nature and person. For example, Jesus Christ is called the Logos or Word of God. Logos means more than simply Word in our modern sense, but also includes the meaning of reason, logic, knowledge. Because we are created in the image of Jesus Christ we participate in the Logos of God. Of course, this does not mean simply logic in a mathematical or philosophical sense. It goes beyond that. This Logos give us the ability to know God and have a spiritual relationship in a way that goes beyond logic in the narrow sense.

Human beings are also spiritual. This word should not be taken in some vague general sense. Rather, God the Holy Spirit dwells within us. In other words, human beings are called to imitate and participate in God because we are made in the image and likeness of God, and because God the Word and God the Spirit dwell within us and lead us to union with God.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Holy Trinity (3)

Although God revealed Himself as Trinity more clearly in the New Testament, He pointed forward to this dogma even in the Old Testament. For example, we see this in the mysterious meeting of Abraham and the three strangers. We will quote here from an older translation of the Bible to show a distinction which is lost in more modern translations. As we read these few lines, let us look for the oddity

And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, And said, My Lord, if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree… (Genesis 18:1-4)

Here is the oddity. There are three men, but Abraham addresses them with a singular pronoun, i.e., Thou. In modern English the distinction between the informal Thou and the formal You is lost. Now-a-days we use you for all people. English formerly made this distinction which is preserved in other languages as we see in the German “du-sie” or the French “tu-vous” When the Fathers commented on the passage they see the use of the singular Thou to address three people as a hint of the Tripersonal unity of the Trinity. Taken by itself this interpretation may seem somewhat obscure but in context of the whole Old Testament it makes an important point.

It is interesting that this Old Testament Trinity is the basis of many icons. Sometimes when people talk of the Old Testament Trinity icon they think of one that shows God the Father as an old man, Jesus Christ as a young man and the Holy Spirit as a dove. This icon is very popular in Western Christian churches and is also found in many Orthodox Churches. As an object of piety and devotion, it should be respected. However, many scholars will state that a better icon of this scene is seen in the icon by St. Andre Rublev, commonly called the Hospitality of Abraham. An important council of the Russian Church held in 1551 said that only icons of the Rublev type should be used. The idea then is that God the Father never became a human being so trying to paint Him, one is bound to be subjective. By depicting the three strangers as angels the Rublev Trinity leads us to a more profound understanding of this passage.

Incidentally, there is some controversy about who is who in the icon. Some say that the center figure is the Father and the figure on the left represents the Son. Other interpretations hold that the center image is that of Christ with the Father on the left and the Holy Spirit on the right. But this is taking the icon in too literal a sense. An artist ultimately cannot paint a literal icon of the Trinity, so we have to respect the mystery.

However, if we want to know the Holy Trinity, we do so not by manipulating words or concepts, but by the experience of the Trinity through prayer, liturgy, and meditation or by reading the Bible. In the end, God is beyond all words and images but the works are concepts given to us by the church as stepping stones to know the one, true God.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Holy Trinity (2)

As we have seen, the two fundamental dogmas of the Orthodox Church are the Trinity and the Incarnation. The dogma of the Trinity is that God is one in essence or substance and He is three in persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Incarnation is that Jesus Christ is true God and true man. We will look at the Incarnation later and continue our discussion of the Trinity now.

Christianity is a monotheistic religion; we believe in one God. This is a belief that we share with Judaism and Islam. However, there is a major difference between Christianity and the other two, which is the belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that God is a Trinity of persons. For Jews and Moslems this belief in the Trinity is at best a grave error and at worst a blasphemy against God. However, let us remember that the dogma is not based on any kind of speculation, but rather is based on the experience of the Apostles that Jesus was the Son of God. Despite this, the Church asserts her believe in the One God.

When we look at the doctrine of the Holy Trinity we see it primarily in the New Testament. The Old Testament Jews were not in a position to see that God had a son. In the Old Testament we see the Jewish people worshipping false gods, any gods. Over the centuries God sent prophets to strengthen their faith in the one God. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity would simply have misled them.

Nevertheless, there are hints which point to the Trinity.   For example, one of the most common names for God in the Old Testament is Elohim one of its variants. We see this right at the beginning of the Bible in Genesis (Gen 1:1)

In the beginning God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth.

The word Elohim, with its variant is found even in the pagan religions in the Middle Ages. However, this word originally had a plural meaning, gods. In the Old Testament the word is used with a singular meaning. Knowing that the Hebrews were tempted by false gods why should this plural word be used to apply to the one God? First, it can be a plural of majesty. For example, in the Roman Papacy and the English monarchy, popes and monarchs often used the word “we” to refer to themselves. In other words, the King or Pope man say “It is our command…” This is old fashioned but this is one explanation of Elohim in the Bible. For Christians, the use of a plural noun for a singular subject is a hint of the Trinity. In other words, it points forward to the Triune God revealed in the New Testament. The word Elohim is used throughout the Old Testament to refer to the one God.

An important example of this is in Genesis 1:26:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness….

The Father teaches us that the plural Elohim used here in the creation of man shows that human beings are made in the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity, which is indeed one and three.

Another such example of the Trinity of God is in Psalm 33:6

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.

In other words, God the Father is creating the world together with His Word (Jesus Christ) and His breath (the Holy Spirit). When Christians read this passage we see it pointing to the Holy Trinity.

For Christians, the Old Testament is a collection of books which have the purpose of pointing to Jesus Christ, whom we see as the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. Jews did not see it that way and have other explanations of the above-mentioned words and passages. But for us, they point to Jesus who fulfilled all the hope of the Old Testament.

In the next article we will continue looking at the Trinity in the Old Testament.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Holy Trinity (1)

After looking at the Symbol of Faith (the Creed), we now begin to look at one of the most important dogmas of the faith, the Holy Trinity (the other fundamental doctrine, the Incarnation, will be covered at a later date).  In modern society, dogma is considered a negative thing. It is said that a dogma is something which restricts freedom of thought, that an authority imposes on people to bind them. However, this is not the case. A dogma is a teaching which originates in the life experience of the Church. This is not the experience of church leaders who impose this teaching on everyone else. No, the Holy Spirit leads the entire people of God to express in words this fundamental experience.

The doctrine of the Trinity proclaims that God is one in substance or essence and three in persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that there are three gods or that the divine essence is divided into three parts, or that sometimes God wears the mask of Father or Son or the Holy Spirit. Each person of the Trinity is completely and always God.

We might ask ourselves how this teaching arose. In the Old Testament, the first part of the Bible, we see God sending prophets to the Jewish people to teach them that there is only one, true God and one should worship only Him. As we see in the Old Testament, the Jewish people were tempted to fall into polytheism, the worship of many (false) gods. This is what the pagans who surrounded the Israelites did and the Jews frequently fell into this error. It took centuries for the prophets sent by God to teach the Jewish people that there ws only one God.

By the time Jesus Christ appeared, the Jews were finally set on a belief in the one, true God. The Jews maintained this teaching even in the face of persecution and martyrdom. Jesus, of course, believed in the one God whom he called Abba, or dear father and the apostles did also.

So how did this idea that God was one and also three arise? It is from the experience of the Apostles. For example, we see that Jesus Christ said he had the authority to forgive sins, a divine authority. Jesus demonstrated His possession of this right though his miracles and healings. We see that Jesus calmed storms at sea, worked many healings and even raised people from the dead. Jesus regularly addressed God as Abba. Abba is an Aramaic word meaning something like dear father. It was a term that Aramaic speakers used to express their love and closeness to their own fathers. The Jews never used this world to address God because they felt it wasn’t respectful enough. This is the word that Jesus used to pray to the Father, showing that He was claiming a sonship unique to Himself. And of course, Christ rose form the dead.

All of the above-mentioned things shows that Jesus Christ had a unique relationship to God.

Of course, the Apostles were devout Jews, ready to die for their belief in the one God so it took a while for them to truly recognize who Christ really was.

At first they called Jesus teacher or rabbi or prophet. They began to realize that these title were not adequate to express their experience of Jesus Christ. They began to call him Son of God. But even then they didn’t fully realize what this meant. The Apostles finally recognized who Jesus was after the Resurrection when we see St. Thomas address Jesus as “my Lord and my God”. Even at that, it took the Church centuries to learn how to express the belief that God is one, but also three. But this dogma is rooted in the Church’s experience of God.

Fr. John