Category Archives: Sermons

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

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (15)

What happens when we die? For the atheist the answer is simple; consciousness disappears and the body disintegrates. Of course, many people believe in reincarnation. This belief was always marginal in the West but Hindus and Buddhists believe in reincarnation. In recent years more and more Westerners have adopted this belief. However, Westerners who believe in reincarnation often have a rather “romantic” view of it. One somehow learns that in a previous life one was Cleopatra or Napoleon and somehow learns that in a future life one will be a king or queen and so one goes on through eternity, experiencing many different lives. However, many Hindus and Buddhists believe that this cycle of birth, death and rebirth is a kind of prison and the goal of religion is to free one’s self from this wheel of reincarnation. Through religious practice one is freed from this when they achieve liberation or enlightenment. To repeat, the idea of reincarnation has always been a marginal one in Christianity. The Christian view is expressed in the letter to the Hebrews 9:27.

“….. it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment…”

We die and then experience the particular judgement and we learn how we will exist until the final judgement when Christ will come with his angels to judge the living and the dead. At this time, the dead will arise.

The Last Judgement is described in Matthew 25: 31-46. Jesus Christ makes it clear that we will be judged on the basis of the love and practical charity we have practiced during our lives. If we have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked and visited those who are sick or in prison, we have done these things to Jesus Christ and will be sheep who will enter heaven. If we have not done these things we will be among the goats who do not enter the Kingdom. This is a severe judgement and we must prepare for it.

However, we should ask who the judge will be. We will not be judged by God the Father in Heaven. Rather we will be judged by Jesus Christ, as we see in John 5:26-27.

“For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself, and has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of man.”

In other words we will be judged by the Son of God who became the Son of Man. Jesus took on the fullness of our humanity. Jesus Christ knows what it is to be human. As the letter to the Hebrews says in 4:14-16.

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

We all will face a judge who shares and knows our humanity. Therefore let us lead lives of forgiveness and be prepared to be judged by the one who is love incarnate.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (14B)

As stated in the previous article, God never ceases to love anyone. God loves those who turn away from Him and hate him. However, this love can seem painful to those who hate God. After all, if one hates God’s presence then His presence will make such a person uncomfortable, to say the least.

But how can this be? Why would God’s presence make someone uncomfortable? Let us consider an analogy (not original with this author).  Let’s imagine we love some kind of classical music, say Bach’s piano concerti. We listen to them at home and in the car. We go to concerts as often as we can. We may even read books about them. At some point we get tickets to a live performance by a world famous pianist. We are overjoyed and we sit there enraptured listening to the performance. This is somewhat similar to the way those who love God feel in His presence.

But imagine we hate classical music, maybe we have no interest in music at all. We like to be outdoors, to play sports, etc. In that case, two hours at a Bach concert would seem like a punishment. It would be painful for us. This is the way sinners feel in the presence of God. The music is the same – it acts on people in different ways. God’s love is always present but it acts on people in different ways. As Fr. Thomas Hopko writes,

“The doctrine of eternal hell, therefore, does not mean that God actively tortures people by some unloving and perverse means. It does not mean that god takes delight in the punishing and pain of His people whom He loves. Neither does it mean that God separates Himself from His people, thus causing them anguish in this separation. It means, rather, that God continues to allow all people, saints and sinners alike, to exist forever. For those who loved God, resurrection from the dead and the presence of God will be paradise. For those who hate God, resurrection from the dead and the presence of God will be hell.”

When we think of the punishment of sinners, we sometimes wonder whether hell is eternal. Does it come to an end? There are some passages in the Bible that seem to imply that it does. For example, St. Peter’s speech in Acts 3:21:

“ ….. whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began.

Or St. Paul’s letter to Timothy which states the following:

“… desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

There was an early Christian theologian, Origen (184-259AD) who taught that everyone would be saved, including the devil. However, the teaching was condemned at a local synod in Constantinople in 543 AD. The condemnation was repeated at the 5th Ecumenical Council in 553 AD. So Origen was condemned as a heretic for holding this idea of universal salvation (among other things). However, another early Christian writer also taught this. St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-395 AD). St. Gregory is one of the greatest theologians in Church history and he was never condemned as a heretic, although later Fathers of the church did not accept his position on the restoration of all things. So scripture teaches that hell will be eternal and there will be no universal salvation. However, in the 20th century several important theologians taught that punishment would eventually cease and all will be saved. They include Paul Evdokimus, Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, among others. So there have been modern theologians who expressed the hope that punishment will not be eternal and all would be saved. These theologians have not been condemned for holding these views, so we can certainly hope and pray that all, in accordance with God’s will, be saved.

Fr. John