Category Archives: Church Services

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

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (19)

At long last we are coming to the end of our reflection on the Symbol of Faith, i.e., the Creed sung at every Divine Liturgy. We remember that this symbol of Faith was adopted at two ecumenical (general) councils in the years 325 and 381 AD. This Creed was adopted to avoid error concerning Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity and to proclaim the Orthodox faith.

The Creed begins with the words “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” In other words the Creed begins with the creation of the world by God. The Creed ends with the end of the world: “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

What does all this mean? Sometimes people think that Christianity despises the material world allegedly thinking only of heaven. This is not true. In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, after the creation of the world it says: “And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.” (Gen 1:3) In other words, the world as created by God is good. However, the world as we experience it now is not totally good.  In addition to the horrible things which human beings do, there are natural disasters, disease, famine and so forth. Somehow the world is not as God had created. The Church tells us that the world is fallen just as humanity is fallen. In other words, the world was wounded by the sin of Adam and Eve. We do not know clearly how this has happened and this is not provable by science but the Church has the firm conviction that the human race and the world are fallen together. As Saint Paul puts it in his Epistle to the Romans:

“…. for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now…” (Rom 8:20-22)

People sometimes think that Christians are concerned only with the soul and heaven, but this is not the case. Just as we believe that the dead will rise at the end of time so we believe that the material world will be restored at the end of time. As the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, tells us:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  (Rev 21:1-5)

In other words, the whole created cosmos will be renewed and returned to the state in which God created it.

Although we do not know when all this will take place, we participate in this renewal of the world in the church. In the Church we are reborn through the water of baptism, we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine. We see and venerate icons and we smell the fragrance of incense.  In other words, the material world is participating in the process of salvation giving us a foretaste of the transformed world to come. Finally, on theophany when we go to the harbor to bless the waters, we ask the Holy Spirit to sanctify (make holy) this water and all water and finally all of the creation. We are participating in the coming renewal of creation.

However, in the Bible we sometimes encounter verses that seem to say that the end of the world will be a total destruction of it. For example:

“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.” (2 Peter 3:10)

But this passage does not predict the total annihilation of the world, but rather the world and all of humanity must go through a change which will be painful. Or to put it another way, we go through the horror of death to attain the joy of resurrection. This is true of humanity and of the material world.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (18)

In the Creed we say we “… believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” Those four words are called the four marks or notes of the church. Many volumes have been written about each of these marks or notes, but here we will look at these most easily understood of these words, that is the word catholic.

When most people hear the word catholic they assume it refers to the Roman Catholic church, the church headed by the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. (It should be noted, although this church is called Roman it includes many Eastern Catholic churches, churches that use the same Liturgy as the Orthodox Church but who are under the jurisdiction of the Pope.)

Because so many people understand catholic to mean Roman, some Orthodox who are used to the Creed in Slavonic are surprised or even scandalized to hear the word catholic in the English translation of the Creed. This is because the Creed in Slavonic does not have a word which is exactly the equivalent of catholic. So we can see that the word catholic can be misunderstood.

The word catholic is often understood to mean universal. In other words, the fact that the Church is spread all over the world, and of course has a message for every time, place and people, which is why the church is always a missionary church. Although of course, it is universal in the sense that it is spread all over the world, the word catholic has a deeper meaning than this. The word catholic also means full, complete, lacking nothing. This means that even the smallest isolated church is catholic in the sense that it has all the things necessary for salvation. In New Testament times, the church of Jerusalem, or even Antioch or Rome, were rather small in terms of membership and size, but each was fully catholic. It lacked nothing. So for example, there is a small Orthodox Church at the Russian base in Antarctica. When the Liturgy is being celebrated when a bishop or priest gathers together with the laity, the church is fully catholic. The whole of Orthodox doctrine, ministry and sacrament are present in that small, isolated church.

According to the late Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko, dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, catholic refers to quality rather than quantity.

This is why when Roman Catholics, even Roman Catholics friendly to the Orthodox Church, say that the Orthodox Church is not “fully catholic”, to be truly catholic in the sense they mean the Orthodox Church needs to be under the Pope. The Orthodox reply is that each and every Orthodox Church, no matter how small or isolated is fully catholic and lacks nothing.

This means that to leave the church for some reason is to leave the catholic church. The church may suffer many things from human sins on the part of those inside and outside the church, no matter how many seemingly negative things appear in the church, the church is always the “pillar and bulwark of the truth,” as Saint Paul wrote in Timothy (I Tim 3:15).

In conclusion, we can say that human beings may sin and do terrible things, the church will always remain catholic. Give us all we need for salvation.

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