Orthodox Church BeliefsGeneral Information
The Basic Doctrines
Councils and Confessions
All Orthodox credal formulas, liturgical texts, and doctrinal statements affirm the claim that the Orthodox Church has preserved the original apostolic faith, which was also expressed in the common Christian tradition of the first centuries. The Orthodox Church recognizes as ecumenical the seven councils of Nicaea I (325), Constantinople I (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (681), and Nicaea II (787) but considers that the decrees of several other later councils also reflect the same original faith (e.g., the councils of Constantinople that endorsed the theology of St. Gregory Palamas in the 14th century). Finally, it recognizes itself as the bearer of an uninterrupted living tradition of true Christianity that is expressed in its worship, in the lives of the saints, and in the faith of the whole people of God.
In the 17th century, as a counterpart to the various "confessions" of the Reformation, there appeared several "Orthodox confessions," endorsed by local councils but, in fact, associated with individual authors (e.g., Metrophanes Critopoulos, 1625; Peter Mogila, 1638; Dosítheos of Jerusalem, 1672). None of these confessions would be recognized today as having anything but historical importance. When expressing the beliefs of his church, the Orthodox theologian, rather than seeking literal conformity with any of these particular confessions, will rather look for consistency with Scripture and tradition, as it has been expressed in the ancient councils, the early Fathers, and the uninterrupted life of the liturgy. He will not shy away from new formulations if consistency and continuity of tradition are preserved.
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What is particularly characteristic of this attitude toward the faith is the absence of any great concern for establishing external criteria of truth - a concern that has dominated Western Christian thought since the Middle Ages. Truth appears as a living experience accessible in the communion of the church and of which the Scriptures, the councils, and theology are the normal expressions. Even ecumenical councils, in the Orthodox perspective, need subsequent "reception" by the body of the church in order to be recognized as truly ecumenical. Ultimately, therefore, truth is viewed as its own criterion: there are signs that point to it, but none of these signs is a substitute for a free and personal experience of truth, which is made accessible in the sacramental fellowship of the church.
Because of this view of truth, the Orthodox have traditionally been reluctant to involve church authority in defining matters of faith with too much precision and detail. This reluctance is not due to relativism or indifference but rather to the belief that truth needs no definition to be the object of experience and that legitimate definition, when it occurs, should aim mainly at excluding error and not at pretending to reveal the truth itself that is believed to be ever present in the church.
The development of the doctrines concerning the Trinity and the incarnation, as it took place during the first eight centuries of Christian history, was related to the concept of man's participation in divine life.
The Greek Fathers of the church always implied that the phrase found in the biblical story of the creation of man (Gen. 1:26), according to "the image and likeness of God," meant that man is not an autonomous being and that his ultimate nature is defined by his relation to God, his "prototype." In paradise Adam and Eve were called to participate in God's life and to find in him the natural growth of their humanity "from glory to glory." To be "in God" is, therefore, the natural state of man. This doctrine is particularly important in connection with the Fathers' view of human freedom. For theologians such as Gregory of Nyssa (4th century) and Maximus the Confessor (7th century) man is truly free only when he is in communion with God; otherwise he is only a slave to his body or to "the world," over which, originally and by God's command, he was destined to rule.
Thus, the concept of sin implies separation from God and the reduction of man to a separate and autonomous existence, in which he is deprived of both his natural glory and his freedom. He becomes an element subject to cosmic determinism, and the image of God is thus blurred within him.
Freedom in God, as enjoyed by Adam, implied the possibility of falling away from God. This is the unfortunate choice made by man, which led Adam to a subhuman and unnatural existence. The most unnatural aspect of his new state was death. In this perspective, "original sin" is understood not so much as a state of guilt inherited from Adam but as an unnatural condition of human life that ends in death. Mortality is what each man now inherits at his birth and this is what leads him to struggle for existence, to self-affirmation at the expense of others, and ultimately to subjection to the laws of animal life. The "prince of this world" (i.e., Satan), who is also the "murderer from the beginning," has dominion over man. From this vicious circle of death and sin, man is understood to be liberated by the death and Resurrection of Christ, which is actualized in Baptism and the sacramental life in the church.
The general framework of this understanding of the God-man relationship is clearly different from the view that became dominant in the Christian West--i.e., the view that conceived of "nature" as distinct from "grace" and that understood original sin as an inherited guilt rather than as a deprivation of freedom. In the East, man is regarded as fully man when he participates in God; in the West, man's nature is believed to be autonomous, sin is viewed as a punishable crime, and grace is understood to grant forgiveness. Hence, in the West, the aim of the Christian is justification, but in the East, it is rather communion with God and deification. In the West, the church is viewed in terms of mediation (for the bestowing of grace) and authority (for guaranteeing security in doctrine); in the East, the church is regarded as a communion in which God and man meet once again and a personal experience of divine life becomes possible.
The Orthodox Church is formally committed to the Christology (doctrine of Christ) that was defined by the councils of the first eight centuries. Together with the Latin Church of the West, it has rejected Arianism (a belief in the subordination of the Son to the Father) at Nicaea (325), Nestorianism (a belief that stresses the independence of the divine and human natures of Christ) at Ephesus (431), and Monophysitism (a belief that Christ had only one divine nature) at Chalcedon (451). The Eastern and Western churches still formally share the tradition of subsequent Christological developments, even though the famous formula of Chalcedon, "one person in two natures," is given different emphases in the East and West. The stress on Christ's identity with the preexistent Son of God, the Logos (Word) of the Gospel According to John, characterizes Orthodox Christology. On Byzantine icons, around the face of Jesus, the Greek letters '' --the equivalent of the Jewish Tetragrammaton YHWH, the name of God in the Old Testament--are often depicted. Jesus is thus always seen in his divine identity. Similarly, the liturgy consistently addresses the Virgin Mary as Theotokos (the "one who gave birth to God"), and this term, formally admitted as a criterion of orthodoxy at Ephesus, is actually the only "Mariological" (doctrine of Mary) dogma accepted in the Orthodox Church. It reflects the doctrine of Christ's unique divine Person, and Mary is thus venerated only because she is his mother "according to the flesh."
This emphasis on the personal divine identity of Christ, based on the doctrine of St. Cyril of Alexandria (5th century), does not imply the denial of his humanity. The anthropology (doctrine of man) of the Eastern Fathers does not view man as an autonomous being but rather implies that communion with God makes man fully human. Thus the human nature of Jesus Christ, fully assumed by the divine Word, is indeed the "new Adam" in whom the whole of humanity receives again its original glory. Christ's humanity is fully "ours"; it possessed all the characteristics of the human being--"each nature (of Christ) acts according to its properties," Chalcedon proclaimed, following Pope Leo--without separating itself from the divine Word. Thus, in death itself--for Jesus' death was indeed a fully human death--the Son of God was the "subject" of the Passion. The theopaschite formula ("God suffered in the flesh") became, together with the Theotokos formula, a standard of orthodoxy in the Eastern Church, especially after the second Council of Constantinople (553). It implied that Christ's humanity was indeed real not only in itself but also for God, since it brought him to death on the cross, and that the salvation and redemption of humanity can be accomplished by God alone--hence the necessity for him to condescend to death, which held humanity captive.
This theology of redemption and salvation is best expressed in the Byzantine liturgical hymns of Holy Week and Easter: Christ is the one who "tramples down death by death," and, on the evening of Good Friday, the hymns already exalt his victory. Salvation is conceived not in terms of satisfaction of divine justice, through paying the debt for the sin of Adam--as the medieval West understood it--but in terms of uniting the human and the divine with the divine overcoming human mortality and weakness and, finally, exalting man to divine life.
What Christ accomplished once and for all must be appropriated freely by those who are "in Christ"; their goal is "deification," which does not mean dehumanization but the exaltation of man to the dignity prepared for him at creation. Such feasts as the Transfiguration or the Ascension are extremely popular in the East precisely because they celebrate humanity glorified in Christ--a glorification that anticipates the coming of the Kingdom of God, when God will be "all in all."
Participation in the already deified humanity of Christ is the true goal of Christian life, and it is accomplished through the Holy Spirit.
The gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost "called all men into unity," according to the Byzantine liturgical hymn of the day; into this new unity, which St. Paul called the "body of Christ," each individual Christian enters through Baptism and "chrismation" (the Eastern form of the Western "confirmation") when the priest anoints him saying "the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit."
This gift, however, requires man's free response. Orthodox saints such as Seraphim of Sarov (died 1833) described the entire content of Christian life as a "collection of the Holy Spirit." The Holy Spirit is thus conceived as the main agent of man's restoration to his original natural state through Communion in Christ's body. This role of the Spirit is reflected, very richly, in a variety of liturgical and sacramental acts. Every act of worship usually starts with a prayer addressed to the Spirit, and all major sacraments begin with an invocation to the Spirit. The eucharistic liturgies of the East attribute the ultimate mystery of Christ's Presence to a descent of the Spirit upon the worshipping congregation and upon the eucharistic bread and wine. The significance of this invocation (in Greek epiklesis) was violently debated between Greek and Latin Christians in the Middle Ages because the Roman canon of the mass lacked any reference to the Spirit and was thus considered as deficient by the Orthodox Greeks.
Since the Council of Constantinople (381), which condemned the Pneumatomachians ("fighters against the Spirit"), no one in the Orthodox East has ever denied that the Spirit is not only a "gift" but also the giver--i.e., that he is the third Person of the holy Trinity. The Greek Fathers saw in Gen. 1:2 a reference to the Spirit's cooperation in the divine act of creation; the Spirit was also viewed as active in the "new creation" that occurred in the womb of the Virgin Mary when she became the mother of Christ (Luke 1:35); and finally, Pentecost was understood to be an anticipation of the "last days" (Acts 2:17) when, at the end of history, a universal communion with God will be achieved. Thus, all the decisive acts of God are accomplished "by the Father in the Son, through the Holy Spirit."
By the 4th century a polarity developed between the Eastern and Western Christians in their respective understandings of the Trinity. In the West God was understood primarily in terms of one essence (the Trinity of Persons being conceived as an irrational truth found in revelation); in the East the tri-personality of God was understood as the primary fact of Christian experience. For most of the Greek Fathers, it was not the Trinity that needed theological proof but rather God's essential unity. The Cappadocian Fathers (Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Basil of Caesarea) were even accused of being tri-theists because of the personalistic emphasis of their conception of God as one essence in three hypostases (the Greek term hypostasis was the equivalent of the Latin substantia and designated a concrete reality). For Greek theologians, this terminology was intended to designate the concrete New Testamental revelation of the Son and the Spirit, as distinct from the Father.
Modern Orthodox theologians tend to emphasize this personalistic approach to God; they claim that they discover in it the original biblical personalism, unadulterated in its content by later philosophical speculation.
Polarization of the Eastern and the Western concepts of the Trinity is at the root of the Filioque dispute. The Latin word Filioque ("and from the Son") was added to the Nicene Creed in Spain in the 6th century. By affirming that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only "from the Father" (as the original creed proclaimed) but also "from the Son," the Spanish councils intended to condemn Arianism by reaffirming the Son's divinity. Later, however, the addition became an anti-Greek battle cry, especially after Charlemagne (9th century) made his claim to rule the revived Roman Empire. The addition was finally accepted in Rome under German pressure. It found justification in the framework of Western conceptions of the Trinity; the Father and the Son were viewed as one God in the act of "spiration" of the Spirit.
The Byzantine theologians opposed the addition, first on the ground that the Western Church had no right to change the text of an ecumenical creed unilaterally and, second, because the Filioque clause implied the reduction of the divine persons to mere relations ("the Father and the Son are two in relation to each other, but one in relation to the Spirit"). For the Greeks the Father alone is the origin of both the Son and the Spirit. Patriarch Photius (9th century) was the first Orthodox theologian to explicitly spell out the Greek opposition to the Filioque concept, but the debate continued throughout the Middle Ages.
An important element in the Eastern Christian understanding of God is the notion that God, in his essence, is totally transcendent and unknowable and that, strictly speaking, God can only be designated by negative attributes: it is possible to say what God is not, but it is impossible to say what he is.
A purely negative, or "apophatic" theology--the only one applicable to the essence of God in the Orthodox view - does not lead to agnosticism, however, because God reveals himself personally - as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - and also in his acts, or "energies." Thus, true knowledge of God always includes three elements: religious awe; personal encounter; and participation in the acts, or energies, which God freely bestows on creation.
This conception of God is connected with the personalistic understanding of the Trinity. It also led to the official confirmation by the Orthodox Church of the theology of St. Gregory Palamas, the leader of Byzantine hesychasts (monks devoted to divine quietness through prayer), at the councils of 1341 and 1351 in Constantinople. The councils confirmed a real distinction in God, between the unknowable essence and the acts, or "energies," which make possible a real communion with God. The deification of man, realized in Christ once and for all, is thus accomplished by a communion of divine energy with humanity in Christ's glorified manhood.
Until the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks (1453), Byzantium was the unquestioned intellectual centre of the Orthodox Church. Far from being monolithic, Byzantine theological thought was often polarized by a Humanistic trend, favouring the use of Greek philosophy in theological thinking, and the more austere and mystical theology of the monastic circles. The concern for preservation of Greek culture and for the the political salvation of the empire led several prominent Humanists to adopt a position favourable to union with the West. The most creative theologians (e.g., Symeon the New Theologian, died 1033; Gregory Palamas, died 1359; Nicholas Cabasilas, died c. 1390), however, were found rather in the monastic party that continued the tradition of patristic spirituality based upon the theology of deification.
The 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries were the dark age of Orthodox theology. Neither in the Middle East nor in the Balkans nor in Russia was there any opportunity for independent theological creativity. Since no formal theological education was accessible, except in Western Roman Catholic or Protestant schools, the Orthodox tradition was preserved primarily through the liturgy, which retained all its richness and often served as a valid substitute for formal schooling. Most doctrinal statements of this period, issued by councils or by individual theologians, were polemical documents directed against Western missionaries.
After the reforms of Peter the Great (died 1725), a theological school system was organized in Russia. Shaped originally in accordance with Western Latin models and staffed with Jesuit-trained Ukrainian personnel, this system developed, in the 19th century, into a fully independent and powerful tool of theological education. The Russian theological efflorescence of the 19th and 20th centuries produced many scholars, especially in the historical field (e.g., Philaret Drozdov, died 1867; V.O. Klyuchevsky, died 1913; V.V. Bolotov, died 1900; E.E. Golubinsky, died 1912; N.N. Glubokovsky, died 1937). Independently of the official theological schools, a number of laymen with secular training developed theological and philosophical traditions of their own and exercised a great influence on modern Orthodox theology (e.g., A.S. Khomyakov, died 1860; V.S. Solovyev, died 1900; N. Berdyayev, died 1948), and some became priests (P. Florensky, died 1943; S. Bulgakov, died 1944). A large number of the Russian theological intelligentsia (e.g., S. Bulgakov, G. Florovsky) emigrated to western Europe after the Russian Revolution (1917) and played a leading role in the ecumenical movement.
With the independence of the Balkans, theological schools were also created in Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. Modern Greek scholars contributed to the publication of important Byzantine ecclesiastical texts and produced standard theological textbooks.
The Orthodox diaspora - the emigration from eastern Europe and the Middle East - in the 20th century has contributed to modern theological development through their establishment of theological centres in western Europe and America.
Orthodox theologians reacted negatively to the new dogmas proclaimed by Pope Pius IX: the Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854) and papal infallibility (1870). In connection with the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, proclaimed by Pope Pius XII (1950), the objections mainly concerned the presentation of such a tradition in the form of a dogma.
In contrast to the recent general trend of Western Christian thought toward social concerns, Orthodox theologians generally emphasize that the Christian faith is primarily a direct experience of the Kingdom of God, sacramentally present in the church. Without denying that Christians have a social responsibility to the world, they consider this responsibility as an outcome of the life in Christ. This traditional position accounts for the remarkable survival of the Orthodox Churches under the most contradictory and unfavourable of social conditions, but, to Western eyes, it often appears as a form of passive fatalism.
The term "tradition" comes from the Latin traditio, but the Greek term is paradosis and the verb is paradido. It means giving, offering, delivering, performing charity. In theological terms it means any teaching or practice which has been transmitted from generation to generation throughout the life of the Church. More exactly, paradosis is the very life of the Holy Trinity as it has been revealed by Christ Himself and testified by the Holy Spirit.
The roots and the foundations of this sacred tradition can be found in the Scriptures. For it is only in the Scriptures that we can see and live the presence of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. St. John the Evangelist speaks about the manifestation of the Holy Trinity: "For the Life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us" (1 John 1:2).
The essence of Christian tradition is described by St. Paul, who writes: "But now in Christ Jesus, you that used to be so far apart from us have been brought very close, by the blood of Christ. For He is peace between us, and has made the two into one and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart, actually destroying in His own person the hostility caused by the rules and decrees of the Law. This was to create one single man in Himself out of the two of them and by restoring peace through the Cross, to unite them both in a single body and reconcile them with God. In His own person He killed the hostility. . . Through Him, both of us have in one Spirit our way to come to the Father" (Ephes. 2:13-14). He also makes clear that this Trinitarian doctrine must be accepted by all Christians: "If any man preach any other gospel to you than you have received (parelavete) let him be condemned" (Gal. 1:8-9). Speaking about the Holy Eucharist, which is a manifestation of the Holy Trinity, he writes: "For I have received (parelavon) of the Lord that which I also delivered to you" (paredoka) (1 Cor. 11:23). Again speaking about the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, St. Paul writes: "For I delivered to you (paredoka) first of all that which I also received" (parelavon). Finally he admonishes: "Brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions (tas paradoseis) which you have been taught, whether by word or our epistle" (1 Thessal. 2:15). The sole source and cause and principle of the Trinitarian unity is the Father Himself (Ephes. 4:4-6).
The unity of the Holy Trinity, being the fundamental reality in the Church and of the Church, also requires a real unity among all its members. All the members of the Church live in the bond of love and unity through the Holy Trinity. This truth is described by St. Peter: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called you out of the darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were no people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy." (1 Peter 2: 9-10). This Church was established as a historical reality on the day of Pentecost, with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles: "While the day of Pentecost was running its course they were all together in one place, when suddenly there came from the sky a noise like that of a strong driving wind, which filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues like flames of fire, dispersed among them and resting on each one. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them power of utterance" (Acts 2: 1-4).
Only in this Church, where the Holy Trinity lives and acts constantly could the teaching of Christ, the very revelation of truth, as received and transmitted by the Apostles, abide and be sustained. Thus truth in its fullness does not exist outside the Church, for there is neither Scripture, nor Tradition. This is why St. Paul admonishes the Galatians that even if an angel from heaven preaches another gospel to them, he must be condemned: "If any man preach any other gospel to you than that you have received (parelavete) let him be condemned" (1:8-9). And he writes to his disciple Timothy to follow strictly the "precepts of our faith" and the "sound instructions" he received from him and avoid "godless myths" (1 Tim. 4: 4-7). He also admonishes the Colossians to avoid "merely human injunctions and teachings" (2: 22), and to follow Christ: "Therefore, since Jesus was delivered to you as Christ and Lord, live your lives in union with Him. Be rooted in Him; be built in Him; be consolidated in the faith you were taught; let your hearts overflow with thankfulness. Be on your guard; do not let your minds be captured by hollow and delusive speculations, based on traditions of man-made teaching and centered on the elemental spirits of the universe and not on Christ. For it is in Christ that the complete being of the Godhead dwells embodied, and in Him you have been brought to completion" (Col. 2: 6-8).
This teaching or Apostolic Tradition was transmitted from the Apostles themselves to their successors, the bishops and the presbyters. St. Clement, Bishop of Rome (second century A.D.), and probably a disciple of the Apostles himself, described this historical truth: "The Apostles preached to us the Gospel received from Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ was God's Ambassador. Christ, in other words, comes with a message from God, and the Apostles with a message from Christ. Both these orderly arrangements, therefore, originate from the will of God. And so, after receiving their instructions and being fully assured through the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, as well as confirmed in faith by the word of God, they went forth, equipped with the fullness of the Holy Spirit, to preach the good news that the Kingdom of God was close at hand. From land to land, accordingly, and from city to city they preached; and from among their earliest converts appointed men whom they had tested by theSpirit to act as bishops and deacons for the future believers" (Letter to the Corinthians, ch. 42). One can clearly see how the message of salvation originating from God the Father was taught by Jesus Christ, witnessed to by the Holy Spirit, preached by the Apostles and was transmitted by them to the Church through the clergy they themselves appointed. This became the "unerring tradition of the Apostolic preaching" as it was expressed by Eusebius of Caesarea, bishop of the fourth century, who is considered the "father" of Church History (Church History, IV, 8).
The Fathers, men of extraordinary holiness and trusted orthodoxy in doctrine, enjoyed the acceptance and respect of the universal Church by witnessing the message of the Gospel, living and explaining it to posterity. Thus, Apostolic Preaching or Tradition is organically associated with the Patristic Tradition and vice versa. This point must be stressed since many theologians in the Western churches either distinguish between Apostolic Tradition and Patristic Tradition, or completely reject Patristic Tradition.
For the Orthodox Christian, there is one Tradition, the Tradition of the Church, incorporating the Scriptures and the teaching of the Fathers. This is "the preaching of the truth handed down by the Church in the whole world to Her children" (St. Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, 98). St. Athanasius, the Great "Pillar of Orthodoxy," who was bishop of Alexandria during the fourth century, gives the most appropriate definition of the Church's Tradition: "Let us look at the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the catholic Church from the very beginning, which the Logos gave (edoken), the Apostles preached (ekeryxan), and the Fathers preserved (ephylaxan). Upon this the Church is founded" (tethemeliotai). (St. Athanasius, First Letter to Serapion, 28). In retrospect, Tradition is founded upon the Holy Trinity, it constantly proclaims the Gospel of Christ, it is found within the boundaries of the Christian Church, and it is expounded by the Fathers.
It is important to emphasize both the temporality as well as the timelessness, two fundamental aspects of Holy Tradition. The late Fr. Georges Florovsky wrote that "Tradition is not a principle striving to restore the past, using the past as a criterion for the present. Such a conception of tradition is rejected by history itself and by the consciousness of the Orthodox Church. . . Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit and not only the memory of words. Tradition is a charismatic, not a historical event" ("The Catholicity of the Church" in Bible, Church, Tradition, p. 47). In other words, Tradition is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a living experience, which is relived and renewed through time. It is the true faith, which is revealed by the Holy Spirit to the true people of God.
Tradition, therefore, cannot be reduced to a mere enumeration of quotations from the Scriptures or from the Fathers. It is the fruit of the incarnation of the Word of God, His crucifixion and resurrection as well as His ascension, all of which took place in space and time. Tradition is an extension of the life of Christ into the life of the Church. According to St. Basil, it is the continuous presence of the Holy Spirit: "Through the Holy Spirit comes our restoration to paradise, our ascension into the kingdom of heaven, our return as adopted sons, our liberty to call God our Father, our being made partakers of the grace of Christ, our being called children of light, our sharing in eternal glory, and, in a word, our being brought into a state of a "fullness of blessing" (Rom. 15: 29), both in this world and in the world to come. . ." (St. Basil of Caesaria, On the Holy Spirit, XV.).
This type of distinction is rather misleading. Tradition and traditions are the integral parts of the life of the Church and they express the totality of the Christian way of life which leads to salvation. The doctrine of incarnation, the historical truth of the crucifixion and resurrection, the Eucharist, the sign of the cross, the threefold immersion in the baptismal font, the honor and respect due to the Virgin Mary and to the saints of the Church, are all important for the Christian, who wants to find himself in the "perimeter" of salvation in Christ. This is what the Church has taught through the centuries. "Therefore we must consider the Tradition of the Church trustworthy," St. John Chrysostom writes, "it is Tradition, seek no more" (Second Letter to Thessal.: Homily).
The Orthodox Church accepts the following seven Ecumenical Councils:
The Orthodox Church also assigns ecumenical status to The Council in Trullo in 692, which took place in Constantinople. Eastern bishops took part in it, and they passed disciplinary canons to complete the work of the Fifth and the Sixth Ecumenical Councils and, thus, it is known as the Fifth-Sixth (Quinisext or Penthekti).
These Ecumenical Councils became instruments for formulating the dogmatic teachings of the Church, for fighting against heresies and schisms and promoting the common and unifying Tradition of the Church which secures her unity in the bond of love and faith. Although convened by the emperors, the Church Fathers who participated came from almost all the local dioceses of the Roman Empire, thus expressing the faith and practice of the Universal Church. Their decisions have been accepted by the clergy and the laity of all times, making their validity indisputable. The Fathers followed the Scriptures as well as the Apostolic and Patristic Tradition in general, meeting under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. St. Constantine the Great, who convened the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea, wrote that "the resolution of the three hundred holy bishops is nothing else than that the determination of the Son of God, especially of the Holy Spirit, pressing upon the minds of such great men brought to light the divine purpose." (Socrates, Church History, 1:9). In the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, it was stated that "The Fathers defined everything perfectly; he who goes against this is anathema; no one adds, no one takes away" (Acta Concil. II, 1). Sabas, the bishop of Paltus in Syria in the fifth century, speaking about the Council of Nicea said: "Our Fathers who met at Nicea did not make their declarations of themselves but spoke as the Holy Spirit dictated." "Following the Fathers . . " becomes a fixed expression in the minutes and the declarations of the Ecumenical Councils as well as of the local ones. Thus, the Ecumenical Councils and also some local councils, which later received universal acceptance, express the infallible teaching of the Church, a teaching which is irrevocable.
Are the Ecumenical Councils of the Church the only infallible and correct instruments in proclaiming and implementing the faith of the Church? Certainly, no bishops by themselves, no local churches, no theologians can teach the faith by themselves alone. The Ecumenical Councils are among the most important means which inscribe, proclaim, and implement the faith of the Church, but only in conjunction with Scripture, and the Tradition. The Ecumenical Councils are an integral part of the ongoing Tradition of the Church. Thus, the Orthodox Church claims that she has kept intact the faith of the first seven Ecumenical Councils.
In sum, the Ecumenical Councils, together with the Scriptures and the Patristic writings, are the universal voice of the Church. The position of the Ecumenical Councils in the Church and their universal authority is enhanced by the fact that they issued not only dogmatic definitions of faith, but also formulated important canons of the Church which concern Orthodox spiritual life and help the individual in the growth of his life in Christ. Not all these canons have the same value today as they had when first written; still, they are like compasses which direct our lives toward a Christian lifestyle and orient us towards a high spiritual level. Canons which concern our moral life, fasting, and Holy Communion are indeed important for our daily life as good Orthodox Christians.
Of course, to live according to the Traditions of the Orthodox Church, to participate, fully, in the life of Tradition is not an easy task. We need the imparting of the Holy Spirit, in order to live in a mystical and mysterious way the life of Christ. As St. Gregory Palamas wrote: "All those dogmas which are now openly proclaimed in the Church and made known to all alike, were previously mysteries foreseen only by the prophets through the Spirit. In the same way the blessings promised to the saints in the age to come are at the present stage of the Gospel dispensation still mysteries, imparted to and foreseen by those whom the Spirit counts worthy, yet only in a partial way and in the form of a pledge" (Tomos of the Holy Mountain, Preface).
Thus, the Tradition of the Church is a living reality, which the Orthodox Christian must live daily in a mystical way. By adhering to the teaching of the Scriptures, the Ecumenical Councils, and the Patristic writings, by observing the canons of the Church, by frequently participating in the Eucharist, where Tradition becomes an empirical reality, we are members of the Body of Christ and are led to the "contemplation of God" to repeat a beautiful expression of St. Neilos (fifth century). St. Gregory Palamas, in summing up the Patristic doctrine of Christian life, suggests that the ultimate purpose of man's life is theoptia, that is, seeing God. (In Defense of the Hesychasts, 1, 3, 42) or to use St. Gregory of Nyssa's words, man's life is a strenuous and endless ascent towards God, that is, deification (theosis). (On the Life of Moses, ed. by W. Jaeger, 112ff.).
Orthodox Tradition, therefore, is not a dead letter, a collection of dogmas and practices of the past. It is the history of salvation. It is the life of the Holy Spirit, who constantly illuminates us in order for all Orthodox Christians to become sons and daughters of God, living in the Divine light of the All-blessed Trinity.
George S. Bebis Ph.D.
Holy Cross School of Theology
G. Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View,Belmont, Mass., 1972.; V. Lossky, "Tradition and Traditions", in In The Image and Likeness of God, ed. J.H. Erickson and T.E. Bird, Crestwood, N.Y., 1974, pp. 141-168.; J. Meyendorff, "The Meaning of Tradition," in Living Tradition, pp. 13-26.; G.S. Bebis, "The Concept of Tradition in the Fathers of the Church," Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Spring 1970, Vol. XV, No. 1, pp. 22-55.; C. Scouteris, "Paradosis: The Orthodox Understanding of Tradition," Sobornost-Eastern Churches Review, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 30-37.
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