Orthodox Church Doctrine

Doctrine of the Orthodox Church

The word Doctrine is from Latin, meaning teaching or convincing. For Orthodox Christians, the Doctrine of their faith is a Divine Teaching. What do Orthodox Christians believe? Click on the articles below for insight on the fundamental beliefs of Orthodox Christianity.

BYZANTINE CHRISTOLOGY has always been dominated by the categories of thought and the terminology of the great controversies of the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries about the person and identity of Jesus Christ. These controversies involved conceptual problems, as well as the theological basis of life. In the mind of Eastern Christians, the entire content of the Christian faith depends upon the way in which the question “Who is Jesus Christ?” is answered.

The five ecumenical councils which issued specific definitions on the relationship between the divine and the human natures in Christ have at times been viewed as a pendulant development: from the emphasis on the divinity of Christ, at Ephesus (431); to the reaffirmation of His full humanity, at Chalcedon (451); then back to His divinity, with the acceptance of Cyril’s idea of Theopaschism, at Constantinople (553); followed by a new awareness of His human “energy” or “will,” again at Constantinople (680), and of His human quality of describability in the anti-iconoclastic definition of Nicaea n (787). Still, the opinion is often expressed in Western theological literature that Byzantine Christology is crypto-Monophysite, and offered as an explanation for the lack of concern among Eastern Christians for man in his secular or social creativity.


To affirm that God became man, and that His humanity possesses all the characteristics proper to human nature, implies that the Incarnation is a cosmic event. Man was created as the master of the cosmos and called by the creator to draw all creation to God. His failure to do so was a cosmic catastrophe, which could be repaired only by the creator Himself. Moreover, the fact of the Incarnation implies that the bond between God and man, which has been expressed in the Biblical concept of “image and likeness,” is unbreakable. The restoration of creation is a “new creation,” but it does not establish a new pattern, so far as man is concerned; it reinstates man in his original divine glory among creatures and in his original responsibility for the world. It reaffirms that man is truly man when he participates in the life of God; that he is not autonomous, either in relation to God, or in relation to the world; that true human life can never be “secular.” In Jesus Christ, God and man are one; in Him, therefore, God becomes accessible not by superseding or eliminating the hu-manity, but by realizing and manifesting humanity in its purest and most authentic form.


The Chalcedonian definition proclaimed that Christ is consubstantial, not only with His Father, but also “with us.” Though fully man, Christ does not possess a human hypostasis, for the hypostasis of His two natures is the divine hypostasis of the Logos. Each human individual, fully “consubstantial” with his fellow men, is, nonetheless, radically distinct from them in his unique, unrepeatable, and unassimilable personality or hypostasis: no man can fully be in another man. But Jesus’ hypostasis has a fundamental affinity with all human personalities: that of being their model. For indeed all men are created according to the image of God, i.e., according to the image of the Logos. When the Logos became incarnate, the divine stamp matched all its imprints: God assumed humanity in a way which did not exclude any human hypostasis, but which opened to all of them the possibility of restoring their unity in Himself. He became, indeed, the “new Adam,” in whom every man finds his own nature realized perfectly and fully, without the limitations which would have been inevitable if Jesus were only a human personality.


The only doctrinal definition on Mary to which the Byzantine Church was formally committed is the decree of the Council of Ephesus which called her the Theotokos, or “Mother of God.” Obviously Christological, and not Mariological, the decree nevertheless corresponds to the Mariological theme of the “New Eve,” which has appeared in Christian theological literature since the second century and which testifies, in the light of the Eastern view on the Adamic inheritance, to a concept of human freedom more optimistic than that which prevailed in the West.

But it is the theology of Cyril of Alexandria, affirming the personal, hypostatic identity of Jesus with the pre-existent Logos, as it was endorsed in Ephesus, which served as the Christological basis for the tremendous development of piety centered on the person of Mary after the fifth century. God became our Savior by becoming man; but this “humanization” of God came about through Mary, who is thus inseparable from the person and work of her Son. Since in Jesus there is no human hypostasis, and since a mother can be mother only of “someone,” not of something, Mary is indeed the mother of the incarnate Logos, the “Mother of God.” And since the deification of man takes place “in Christ,” she is also – in a sense just as real as man’s participation “in Christ” – the mother of the whole body of the Church.

From: Byzantine Theology by John Meyendorff, Fordham University Press, New York, NY, 1979

The question of whether or not Jesus existed has often been raised throughout European history. On British television in 1984, for example, G. A. Wells, a professor of German at Birbeck College, London, expressed doubts about Jesus’ existence. In a series of three programs entitled Jesus: The Evidence, he argued on the basis of the writings of Paul that the Jesus of the gospels is a fiction. While Wells admitted Paul’s existence and the authenticity of several of his letters, he claimed that Paul revealed no details of Jesus’ earthly life. Paul appears to be ignorant of the place where Jesus was born and lived, as well as of his movements and his public ministry. Nor did he record any of Jesus’ parables or miracles. Wells pointed out Paul’s own admission that he never knew the human Jesus. He was silent regarding the historical Jesus, for the Jesus of the gospels never existed.1


To judge the validity of these charges, which is based on the so-called “silence of Paul,” described above, we too must turn to the sources on which the charge is based. Paul’s letters belong to the earliest writings in the New Testament. Did Paul imagine Jesus? Let us see what Paul himself reveals to us about his knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth.

Paul, or Saul, was born in Tarsus, Cilicia, but was “brought up in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel” to be trained as a Pharisee (Acts 22:3). It is usually assumed that his father or grandfather was from Judea. As one who lived and studied in Jerusalem, Paul was well acquainted with the religious and political life of Judaism in his time and surely must have heard about Jesus. The Pharisees were critical of Jesus for associating with “sinners” and for holding a “relaxed” attitude toward the law and the rules of purity. When the Christian Church came into existence, im­mediately after the death and resurrection of Christ, Paul persecuted this Jewish-Christian group. He knew some of its leaders, with whom he entered into many heated disputes regarding the role and the claims of the “prophet” from Nazareth. Thus in the period before his conversion, Paul knew Christ “in a fleshly way.” It was during this period that he understood Jesus “from a human point of view,” as a false Messiah who undermined traditional beliefs which Paul regarded as approved by God (2 Cor 5:16).

Paul was called and converted to Christianity about three years after the death of Jesus. After he had met the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul joined the Christian community there and learned more about Jesus. He spent fifteen days with Peter (Cephas in Aramaic) and the other apostles in Jerusalem. These men must have told Paul even more about what they had seen and heard while they accompanied Jesus during his ministry in Galilee and Judea. Undoubtedly they told him all they knew about Jesus: how he had lived, taught, died and was raised up. This was the historical record of the early Church, a memory based on vivid accounts of eyewitnesses. This exposure to the living oral tradition must have confirmed in Paul the conviction he acquired on the road to Damascus: namely, that his previous understanding of Jesus of Nazareth was utterly incorrect. Jesus was not one among many false pretenders to the tide of messiah, but the true Messiah of God. Far from denying the human existence of Jesus, Paul now affirmed it.2

When we ask why Paul did not speak more fully about the concrete details of Jesus’ life, we confront first of all the question of his purpose. His epistles were written primarily for pastoral reasons. In them, he never had to recount the facts that he had learned about the Jesus of history. 3ut we learn a great deal about Jesus from these occasional letters, written to answer the questions raised by the Christian communities of the Hellenistic world. We learn about the Jewish origins of Jesus (Rom 9:4-5), that he came from the line of David (Rom 1:3), and that he was “born of woman, born under the law” (Gal 4:4). We learn of the Last Supper which Christ celebrated with the Twelve on the eve of his death and his betrayal (1 Cor ll:23ff)- His death, burial, resurrection and post-resurrection appearances are presented as well attested facts (1 Cor 15). Paul calls the Christian message the “word of the cross”, and the core of his preaching was “Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:18, 23). This shows that Paul preached the historical Jesus, not only the resurrected Lord (2 Cor 11:4). He was familiar with the teachings and instructions of Jesus (1 Cor 7:10), and, when the issue at hand demanded it, he readily referred to them (1 Cor 10:27; see Lk 10:8). There are echoes of the Sermon on the Mount in Rom 2:14 (Mt 5:44); 12:17 (Mt 5:390; and 14:10 (Mt 7:1). The apostle to the Gen­tiles was acquainted with Jesus’ life of humiliation and perfect obedience (Phil 2:7-8). Some suggest on the basis of 2 Cor 8:9 (“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich”) that the story of the life of Jesus was given, “at least its general outline,” in the Church’s instruction to new members.3

Paul was acquainted with and used images from Jesus’ parables as well. Although the apostle could have known the metaphors of sowing and harvesting from the Hebrew Scripture or from rabbinic literature, he still depended upon Jesus’ use of these metaphors. Harold Reisenfeld argues that there is a strong link between Jn 12:24 (“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”) and 1 Cor 15:36 (“What you sow does not come to life unless it dies”). The expression “unless it dies” is essential to both texts, since both bind death and the new life inextricably together. In John the phrase points to Christ, whereas in Paul it refers to the destiny of Christians. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile” (1 Cor 15:17). Christ’s resurrection was of primary importance for Paul. To establish this in the minds of his audience, he adapted the saying of Jesus and applied it to the death and resurrection of Christians. Riesenfeld, who offers a detailed analy­sis of Paul’s “grain of wheat” imagery in the context of his interpretation of 1 Cor 15, concludes that Jesus’ saying in Jn 12:24f was faithfully transmitted and was already known to Paul “in basically the same form” which was later recorded in John.4

Paul would never have been able to write some of the most inspiring passages in his letters “unless the historical portrait of Jesus, as it appears in his words, his deeds, and his suffering were the living background and primary foundation” of his theological insights.5 The historical image of Christ, as well as his glory revealed on the road to Damascus, were constantly present to Paul. He knew no division between the historical Jesus and the glorified Lord. From the eyewitnesses of the life and suffering of Jesus, and from the witnesses of his resurrection, Paul received knowledge about the historical Jesus. Only through them and from them could Paul know Jesus. The testimony they rendered to Christ is incorporated in the gospels, which are the only source for our knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth. There is no other way to communicate historical facts except by bearing witness to them. Out of this witness the gospels emerged.

Efforts to separate Paul from the “historical” Jesus and from the authors of the gospels contradict the record as it has been transmitted to us. We know from Acts and from his own writings that he was constantly in touch with the disciples and with those to whom the gospels are attributed. Mark and Luke were in his company (Acts 13, 15-16; Col 4:10ff). Mark knew Peter and Paul (Acts 12, 1 Pet 5:13), and Luke was with Paul and James in Jerusalem (Acts I6:10ff, 20:5-21:17). The so-called “we” sections in Acts, where the narrative is written in the first person plural instead of the third person, indicate that Luke was with Paul at the rime of his last visit to Jerusalem, where Paul again met James. The earliest Christian documents confirm that the apostles, including Paul and the future evangelists, shared the knowledge of common traditions relating to Jesus. All these contacts and personal relationships are mentioned “in a matter-of-fact and incidental fashion without apologetic purpose and have a high degree of historical probability,” observes E. Earle Ellis.6


Non-Christian sources, both Jewish and Roman, attest as well to the reality of the historical Jesus. The Jewish historian Josephus (37-ca. 100), who was born in Jerusalem, refers to Jesus, Pilate, John the Baptist, James, “the Lord’s Brother,” (Gal 1:19) and other disciples. It is true that The Jewish War, the history of the bloody conflicts between Judea and Rome from 66 to 73, mentions Pilate but not Jesus. We may surmise that this omission reflects Josephus’ caution. Taken prisoner in 67, Josephus was given his freedom when Vespasian became emperor in 69. He knew the Roman sensitivity to messianic stirrings in Palestine, and most probably for this reason he kept silence about events which would antagonize the Romans. But the earliest Jewish testimony to Jesus appears in another work of Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, written about twenty years later. Here Jose­phus mentions Christ. Most scholars agree that statements in the passage that have reached us have been supplemented by later Christian interpo­lations, such as that the man Jesus appeared, “if indeed one ought to call him a man.” Other additions include: “He was the Messiah…he ap­peared alive again on the third day.” In 1972, however, Schlomo Pines of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem announced the discovery of perhaps the earliest version of Antiquities 18:63f, in an early Christian Arabic manuscript, where the text runs as follows: “His disciples reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly he was, perhaps, the Messiah.”7 Josephus apparently revealed some of his knowledge of Christian origins at the end of his life. Another passage, also in chapter 18, describes Jesus as a “wise man” and as “a doer of wonderful deeds,” whom Pilate condemned to the cross “on the indictment of the leading men among us.” Josephus also reveals intimate knowledge of political intrigues in first-century Palestine.8 He reports that after the death of the Roman procurator Festus in 62, who was mentioned in the Book of Acts (25-26), and before the arrival of his successor Albinus, “Ananias called the Sanhedrin together, brought before it James, the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, and certain oth­ers…and he caused them to be stoned.” However fragmentary the evi­dence, there is no doubt that Josephus knew of Jesus’ existence.

The Talmud, a collection (c 200 A.D.) of various rabbinical traditions, also attests to Jesus’ historical life, although in a polemical manner intended to contradict the claims of the first-century written Christian tradition. According to this body of writings, Jesus of Nazareth used magic to perform his miracles. He beguiled the people of Israel and led them astray. He was tried as a deceiver and was crucified on the evening of Pesah (Passover), which happened to fall on the Sabbath. At the time of his death he was thirty-three years old. He had a group of disciples, five of whom are mentioned.

The most important text comes from the Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin (43):

On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu [of Nazareth] and the herald went before him for forty days, saying, “[Yeshu of Nazareth] is going forth to be stoned in that he hath practiced sorcery and beguiled and led astray Israel. Let everyone knowing aught in his defense come and plead for him.” But they found naught in his defence and hanged him on the eve of Passover.

In the opinion of J. Klausner, the statement about the herald “has an obvious ‘tendency,’ and it is difficult to think it is historical.”10

The importance of these rabbinic references is threefold. First, they attest to the existence of Jesus, even while casting doubt on his message. Their arguments against the miracles of Jesus are essentially the same as those used by the scribes in the gospels: “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebub, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons’” (Mk 3:22 and parallel passages). Second, they attest that the Temple authorities tried him before Pilate, who condemned him to death. Third, the rabbinical account supports the chronology of the Gospel of John, which assumes that in the year of Jesus’ crucifixion the Passover fell on the Sabbath (Jn 19:31). Thus, among earliest accounts, both the Jewish historian Josephus and the Talmud confirm Jesus’ historical existence.11


The earliest extant Roman reference to Jesus’ existence comes from Pliny the Younger, who was governor of the province of Pontus and Bithynia. He wrote the emperor Trajan in 112 to report that on certain days the Christians came together and “sang hymns to Christ as to a god.” The Roman historian Suetonius, who composed The Lives of the Twelve Caesars around 120, when discussing the reign of Claudius (41-54) reported that “the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus,” and for this reason the emperor “expelled them from Rome” (Claudius 25.4). Suetonius used the Latinized form “Chrestus” instead of the Greek “Christos.” Tertullian (160-220) wrote that the Roman rulers pronounced Christian us as Chrestianus (Apologeticus 3). Suetonius implies that the controversies between Jews and Christians had caused turmoil in Rome, and that a certain “Chrestus” was responsible. He also confirms what Luke wrote about Claudius’ order that all Jews leave Rome (Acts 18:1-2).

Our third Roman source is the historian Tacitus (c. 55-117), who wrote in the Annals (c. 116) that the Emperor Nero accused Christians of setting Rome on fire in the year 66. Tacitus explained that the name Christiani came from Christ, who “was executed during the reign of Tiberius on the orders of the procurator Pontius Pilate” (Annals XV, 44). Of the Roman sources, this is the most precise and direct. Some scholars have suggested that Tacitus drew not only on hearsay but also on official Roman archives dealing with the trial and death of Jesus. The rulers of the provinces kept careful records of what was happening in their domin­ions and regularly informed the emperor of their activities. Pilate, who tried and condemned Jesus as a dangerous rebel, presumably sent Tibe­rius records mentioning the case of Jesus. Justin Martyr claimed that this occurred. These records have not come down to us, and we can only guess at what sources Tacitus used.

Thus, in discussing a modern challenge to the existence of Jesus, we must conclude that the historical sources and the evidence of Paul’s epistles confirm the historical presence of Jesus. In the words of Peter on the day of Pentecost, Jesus was “attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourself know” (Acts 2:22). Since the gospels are the principal sources for the life and teaching of Jesus, we now turn to the evidence that they supply.


From the gospels we learn that Jesus “was born at Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King” (Mt 2:1), during the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 B.C. We learn as well that he was “the son of Mary” (Mk 6:3), that he was a Jew from Galilee, that he was baptized by John in the Jordan around 27 A.D., and that after his baptism he experienced trials or temptations in the wilderness. Capernaum was the center of his missionary activity in Galilee, and according to the Gospel of John, Jesus was active both in Galilee and in Jerusalem. At the beginning of his ministry he proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God and gathered a group of twelve disciples, the nucleus of the new Israel. During his public ministry, which lasted about three years, Jesus associated with sinners and outcasts. He was seen in the company of the despised, the poor, and women.

The gospels tell us that Jesus performed many “mighty works,” or miracles, and that he taught in parables. He came into conflict with the Pharisees and the religious authorities in Jerusalem, for he challenged the oral traditions and on some occasions even the law of Moses. Above all, his “cleansing” of the Temple led directly to his arrest and his trials before the Jewish and Gentile authorities. The Jewish leaders accused him of the blasphemy of attributing divine authority to himself and of profaning the Holy Temple, both crimes punishable with death by stoning. Having lost the right to inflict capital punishment, the Temple authorities handed Jesus over to the Romans, and around 30 Pilate delivered him as “King of the Jews” to be crucified. The gospel narrative ends with an account of his resurrection following his death on the cross. His tomb was found empty and he appeared to his disciples.

As the gospels show, Jesus lived a human life and shared human experiences. Yet his demands upon those who would follow him far exceeded any that had been made by any other leader or prophet in the history of salvation as it is recorded in the Bible. He realized in his short historical existence the highest possible perfection of human life, and claimed unity with the Father. The intimate word Abba (Father), which he used as a form of address to God, expressed the heart of their relationship. It demonstrated that Jesus is God’s son, who made God known and present. He practiced unlimited, non-judgmental love and goodness of God in his own life and ministry. He overcame evil by doing good. Jesus called concrete human beings to the new life which he so visibly exemplified and lived, not to a theory or an ideology.

The gospels give us a portrait of Jesus in which his history is reflected and interpreted. Each of our four canonical gospels has distinct characteristics. There are differences among them in reporting about what Jesus said and did and on what occasion. Yet the basic external data of his life and the most outstanding characteristics of his person are present in all of them.

From: The Gospel Image of Christ by Veselin Kesich, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY 1992

1 lan Wilson, Jesus; The Evidence, (London: Pan Books, 1984), p. 46ff., and James D. G. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985), p. 29.

2 This is the meaning of 2 Cor 5:16: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer.”

The biblical scholar marshals a number of facts and techniques when he considers this verse. First, he turns to the Greek text from which all modern translations have come, to see what was originally said. Then, he uses grammatical knowledge to clarify precisely the meanings of difficult expressions. In the passage we have just quoted, for example, we must understand the grammatical form of the expression “from a human point of view,” as well as its literal meaning. Is Paul saying that we no longer regard Christ as “human,” “in the flesh,” or “humanly,” “from the human point of view”? Grammatical analysis reveals that the expression in our text is adverbial, modifying the verb “to regard,” and not an adjective referring to the noun, Christ. Therefore, it is the way we look at Christ, not his existence in the flesh, which is described here. If this is taken as an adjective, then the first part of the verse, “we regard or know no one according to flesh” or “in the flesh” would make no sense (see Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Becoming Human Together, (The Pastoral Anthropology of St. Paul), Wilmington, DE, Michael Glazier, 1982, p.34). Even the preced­ing short passage, which directly concerns those who question Paul’s knowledge of the historical Jesus, is an example of the approach that the reader of the Bible must use in order to understand the meaning of the text. He must search for what was actually said, the original context, and the relationship between the passage and the author’s experience and his writing as a whole.

3 See for example John J. O’Rourke, “The Second Letter to the Corinthians,” Jerome Biblical Commentary, 52:28.

4 See his Gospel Tradition, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), pp. 171-186.

5 See the essay “Jesus, St John, and St Paul,” in Anton Fridrichsen and others, The Root of the Vine: Essays in Biblical Theology, (New York: Philosophical Library, 1953), pp. 50-52.

6 E. Earle Ellis, “Gospel Criticism—A Perspective on the State of the Art,” Das Evangelium und die Evangelien. VortrUge vom Tubingen Symposium 1982, Peter Stuhlmacher, ed. (WUNT 28, Tubingen, 1983), p. 46.

7 Gaalyah Cornfield, The Historical Jesus, (New York: Macmillan, 1982), p. 184.

8 See C. K. Barren, The New Testament Background: Selected Documents, revised edition (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), pp. 162ff.

9 Translated by Joseph Klausner in his Jesus of Nazareth, His Life and Teaching, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1925), (PB, 1964), p. 27. This book was composed in Hebrew, and the translator informs us that this is probably the first time that a modern Hebrew book of any considerable size was translated into English. Klausner was born in Russia, studied in Germany, and came to Palestine in 1920. His book contains the most complete account of Jesus in the Rabbinic tradition.

10 Ibid., p. 28. He also adds that the Talmud speaks of hanging in place of crucifixion, “since this horrible Roman form of death was only known to Jewish scholars from Roman trials, and not from the Jewish legal system.”

11 The evidence from Jewish sources is well arranged and discussed in R. T. Herford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (Clifton, NJ: Reference Book Publishers, 1966. Reprinted from the London edition of 1903). A convenient summary and evaluation of the references to Jesus in Rabbinic literature is given in Howard Clark Kee, Jesus in History: An Approach to the Study of the Gospels (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970), pp. 37-43.

There are several other references in the Talmud to Jesus, but they are of no value as testimony to his historicity. They are polemical in spirit and are the product of the bitter struggle between Judaism and Christianity in the early centuries.


The Bible is called the written Word of God. This does not mean that the Bible fell from heaven ready made. Neither does this mean that God dictated the Bible word for word to men who were merely His passive instruments. It means that God has revealed Himself as the true and living God to His People, and that as one aspect of His divine self-revelation God inspired His People to produce scriptures, i.e. writings which constitute the true and genuine expressions of His Truth and His Will for His People and for the whole world.

The words of the Bible are human words, for indeed, all words are human. They are human words, however, which God Himself inspired to be written in order to remain as the scriptural witness to Himself. As human words, the words of the Bible contain all of the marks of the men who wrote them, and of the time and the culture in which they were written. Nevertheless, in the full integrity of their human condition and form, the words of the Bible are truly the Very Word of God.

The Bible is truly the Word of God in human form because its origin is not in man but in God, Who willed and inspired its creation. In this sense, the Bible is not like any other book. In the Bible, in and through the words of men, one finds the self-revelation of God and can come to a true and genuine knowledge of Him and His will and purpose for man and the world. In and through the Bible, human persons can enter into communion with God:

“All scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

It is the faith of the Orthodox Church that the Bible, as the divinely-inspired Word of God in the words of men, contains no formal errors or inner contradictions concerning the relationship between God and the world. There may be incidental inaccuracies of a non-essential character in the Bible. But the eternal spiritual and doctrinal message of God, presented in the Bible in many different ways, remains perfectly consistent, authentic and true.


The Bible has many different human authors. Some books of the Bible do not indicate in any way who wrote them. Other books bear the names of persons to whom authorship is ascribed. In some cases it is perfectly clear that the indicated author is in fact the person who actually wrote the book with his own hands. In other cases it is as clear that the author of the book had another person do the actual writing of his work in the manner of a secretary. In still other cases it is the Tradition of the Church, and not seldom the opinion of biblical scholars, that the indicated author of a given book of the Bible is not the person (or persons) who wrote it, but the person who originally inspired its writing, whose name is then attached to it as its author.

In a number of instances the Tradition of the Church is not clear about the authorship of certain books of the Bible, and in many cases biblical scholars present innumerable theories about authorship which they then debate among themselves. It is impossible to establish the authorship of any book of the Bible by scholarship, however, since historical and literary studies are relative by nature.

Because the Orthodox Church teaches that the entire Bible is inspired by God Who in this sense is its one original author, the Church Tradition considers the identity of the human authors as incidental to the correct interpretation and proper significance of the books of the Bible for the believing community. In no case would the Church admit that the identity of the author determines the authenticity or validity of a book which is viewed as part of the Bible, and under no circumstances would it be admitted that the value or the proper understanding and use of any book of the Bible in the Church depends on the human writer alone.


The Bible is the book of sacred writings for God’s People, the Church. It was produced in the Church, by and for the Church, under divine inspiration as an essential part of the total reality of God’s covenant relationship with His People. It is the authentic Word of God for those who belong to God’s chosen assembly of believers, to the Israel of old and to the Church of Christ today and forever.

The Bible lives in the Church. It comes alive in the Church and has the most profound divine meaning for those who are members of the community which God has established, in which He dwells, and to which, through His Word and His Spirit, He has given Himself for participation, communion and life everlasting. Outside of the total life and experience of the community of faith, which is the Church of Christ, “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) no one can truly understand and correctly interpret the Bible:

“First of all you must understand that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (2 Peter 1:20)

Scholars of the Bible can help men to understand its divine contents and meaning. Through their archeolog-ical, historical and literary studies they can offer much light to the words of the scriptures. But by themselves and by their academic work alone, no men can produce the proper interpretation of the Bible. Only Christ, the living and personal Word of God, Who comes from the Father and lives in His Church through the Holy Spirit, can make God known and can give the right understanding of the scriptural Word of God:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God …. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth …. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.” (John 1:1-18)

Jesus Christ, the Word of God in human flesh, alone makes God known. And Jesus, besides being Himself the living incarnation of God, the living fulfillment of the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17), is also the One by whom the Bible is rightly interpreted:

“And (being risen from the dead) he said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken. Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”

And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:25-27)

“And he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures….” (Luke 24:44-45; also John 5:45-47)

Jesus Christ remains forever in His Church by the Holy Spirit to open men’s minds to understand the Bible. (John 14:26, 16:13) Only within Christ’s Church, in the community of faith, of grace, and of truth, can men filled with the Holy Spirit understand the meaning and purpose of the Bible’s holy words. Thus, speaking about those who do not believe in Jesus as the Messiah, the apostle Paul contends that when they read the Bible a “veil” hides its true meaning from them “because only through Christ is it taken away.” (2 Corinthians 3:14)

“Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all (i.e. believers in Christ) with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. Therefore, …. we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God.” (2 Corinthians 3:15 – 4:4)

In the New Testament, Christ not only provides the correct interpretation of the Bible, He also allows the believers themselves to be directly enlightened by the Holy Spirit and to be themselves “the letter from Christ…. written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3) Thus is fulfilled the prediction of the old covenant that in the time of the Messiah “they all shall be taught of God” by direct divine inspiration and instruction. (John 6:45, Isaiah 54:13, Ezekiel 36:26, Jeremiah 31:31, Joel 2:28, Micah 4:2, et. al.) It is only within the living Tradition of the Church under the direct inspiration of Christ’s Spirit that the proper interpretation of the Bible can be made.

From: Bible and Church History by Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dept. of Religous Education – Orthodox Church in America, New York, 1998

It is the traditional teaching of the Orthodox Church that the Bible is the scripture of the Church, that it has its proper meaning only within the life and experience of the people of God, that it is not a thing-in-itself which can be isolated from its organic context within the church community, in which and for which and from which it exists. The Bible is the book of the Church. It has no proper standing in itself apart from those who have written it and interpreted it, the people whose vision and action it is meant to inspire and instruct.

Once the Bible has been constituted as the scripture of the Church, it becomes its main written authority, within the Church and not over or apart from it. Everything in the Church is judged by the Bible. Nothing in the Church may contradict it. Everything in the Church must be biblical; for the Church, in order to be the Church, must be wholly expressive of the Bible; or more accurately, it must be wholly faithful to and expressive of that reality to which the Bible is itself the scriptural witness.

The Bible lives in the Church. It is an essential element of the organic wholeness of the Church. Without the Church there would be no Bible. The Church has selected and canonized some writings—some and not others—as the true expression of divine revelation, the authentic witness to its divine experience and doctrine. The Church evaluates and interprets those writings which it has chosen, both in a conscious way in expressions of varying degrees of formality and authority and in a more “lived” and unreflecting way in its on-going teaching, worship and life. The Church gives the Bible its life as a book. It provides its existential context, purpose and significance. It makes the book come alive. To isolate the Bible from its vital churchly setting, and to analyse it purely as a thing-in-itself as if its meaning were contained sealed within its covers as a self-enclosed and self-exhaustive phenomenon capable of being fully understood and appreciated directly by anyone in a strictly “worldly” context, would be to violate the book and to make its full significance incapable of being properly and correctly discovered. This is not to say that the Bible is completely and totally useless if read, for example, as “living literature” or even as a “sacred book,” and that it cannot speak directly to men who are outside the life of the covenanted people of God. Certainly the Bible can be read outside the life of the Church, and certainly it can and it does enlighten and inspire men who are not members of the church family. But even though this happily is the case, it cannot be concluded from this that this is the way the Bible is meant to function in accomplishing that for which it was written. The Bible was compiled by the Church and for the Church. And the Church itself is not understandable without it, both the Church of the Old Testament, with the scriptures of the law and the prophets, and the Church of the New Testament, which fulfills the old and still lives on toward the Kingdom with its own sacred writings at the very center of its doctrine, worship and life.

Revelation and Inspiration

The Orthodox Church has always claimed that the Bible is the Word of God, that it is not merely the product of men or of the Church understood as an exclusively human institution. The Church obviously has realized that although God is the author of the Bible, the book is equally the work of men, of many different men in different times and places. Until now, however, there has been no clearly formulated doctrine of how the Bible is to be understood as being at the same time the Word of God and the word or words of men. The classical formulation of this question in terms of revelation and inspiration arose outside the Orthodox tradition and was imported into Orthodoxy through the westernized schools of recent centuries.5 One might rightly ask whether these categories have aided or hindered an Orthodox clarification of the problem. It might be more fortunate and fruitful to treat this question from the viewpoint of what the Church has already clearly confessed about the relation of the divine and the human, particularly in reference to creation and salvation, both in terms of christology, from which insights and formulations have also overflowed into the area of ecclesiology, and in terms of the doctrine of man’s eternal deification towards God through Christ in the Holy Spirit.

The Bible and Knowledge

As a manifestation of God, the deepest meaning of the Bible lies not merely in what it tells about God, but in how it yields true knowledge of God by bringing man into living communion with Him. In the Church the Bible exists as a vehicle of man’s union and knowledge of divine reality and of all reality in God. The Bible can be called a symbolic book in the literal sense that it brings together into union the divine and the human. It can be called a mystical book in the sense that it participates in the mystery of Christ, the mystery which is Christ and the Church, indeed the mystery of all that exists. Within this mystery, the Bible is the logical instrument which unites God and man on the level of word, which in the tradition of both the Bible and the Church of old and new covenants does not imply mere information or communication of data, but revelation and presence of the subject himself. In the biblical tradition God is present in and through His Word; He is identified with it. One who is in contact with His Word is in contact with Him. It is the same with man. The word is a self-manifestation, a revelation, a presence, a power, a mode of communion and union between hearer and speaker. And yet it has in itself also a certain subsistence of its own, a sort of self-independence once pronounced which allows it all the more to be that which it is and to perform its function.

The word makes possible a living relationship with its subject and so makes possible what the churchly, biblical tradition has always understood by knowledge, namely the conscious awareness of being in a living relationship and existen-tially concrete communion with the object known; a state or action which requires for its integrity spiritual qualities in the knower other than those of a purely mental character, and also an ontological correlation between the knower and the object known. In relation to God, man can truly know God because he is created in His image and likeness to hear His Word and to live and to know by His Spirit. Thus there is an essential “built-in” condition in man, built in by God Himself, which allows man truly to know God and to fulfill his existence through this very knowledge.

The Bible in the Church

The Church is not to be understood here as a human institution, an organization among many human organizations. It is to be understood as the theandric life of progressive union with God through Christ, the incarnate divine Logos, in the Holy Spirit. In its sacramental-spiritual life, the Church is exactly this. It is for this reason only that everything in the Church exists—including the Bible. In this sense the Church is not opposed to the world of God’s creation. It is opposed to the world of sinful passions and death, however, which is not the natural world of God’s creation. The Church is the world—the world as God created it to be and the world as God has saved it to be. In the Church the possibility is given to see and to know and to live as man must naturally live: in communion with God, all men and the entire cosmos, through Christ in the Holy Spirit.

From: All The Fulness of God by Fr. Thomas Hopko, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1982

The first books of the New Testament scriptures are the four gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The word gospel literally means good news or glad tidings. The gospels tell of the life and teaching of Jesus, but none of them is a biography in the classical sense of the word. The gospels were not written merely to tell the story of Jesus. They were written by the disciples of Christ, who were filled with the Holy Spirit after the Lord’s resurrection, to bear witness to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the promised Messiah-Christ of Israel and the Savior of the world.

In the Orthodox Church, it is not the entire Bible, but only the book of the four gospels which is perpetually enthroned upon the altar table in the church building. This is a testimony to the fact that the life of the Church is centered in Christ, the living fulfillment of the law and the prophets, who abides perpetually in the midst of His People, the Church, through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

The gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the synoptic gospels, which means that they “look the same”. These three gospels are very similar in content and form and are most probably interrelated textually in some way, exactly how being an ongoing debate among scriptural scholars. They each were written sometime in the beginning of the second half of the first century, and the texts of each of them, as that of St. John, have come down to us in Greek, the language in which they were written, with the possible exception of Matthew which may have been written originally in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

Each of the synoptic gospels follows basically the same narrative. Each begins with Jesus’ baptism by John and His preaching in Galilee. Each centers on the apostles’ confession of Jesus as the promised Messiah of God, with the corresponding event of the transfiguration, and the announcement by Christ of His need to suffer and die and be raised again on the third day. And each concludes with the account of the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord.

St. Mark

The gospel of St. Mark is the shortest, and perhaps the first written, of the gospels, although this is a matter of debate. Its author was not one of the twelve apostles and it is the common view that this gospel presents the “tradition” of St. Peter. The gospel begins immediately with Jesus’ baptism, the call of the apostles, and the preaching of Jesus accompanied by His works of forgiveness and healing. In this gospel, as in all of them, Jesus is revealed from the very beginning by His authoritative words and His miraculous works as the Holy One of God, the divine Son of Man, Who was crucified and is risen from the dead, thus bringing to the world the Kingdom of God.

St. Matthew

The gospel of St. Matthew, who was one of the twelve apostles, is considered by some to be the earliest written gospel. There is also the opinion that it was originally written in Aramaic and not in the Greek text which has remained in the Church. It is a commonly-held view that the gospel of St. Matthew was written for the Jewish Christians to show from the scriptures of the Old Testament, that Jesus, the son of David, the son of Abraham, is truly the Christ, the bearer of God’s Kingdom to men. The gospel of St. Matthew abounds with references to the Old Testament. It begins with the genealogy of Jesus from Abraham and the story of Christ’s birth from the Virgin in Bethlehem. Then recounting the baptism of Jesus and the temptations in the wilderness, it proceeds to the call of the disciples and the preaching and works of Christ.

The gospel of St. Matthew contains the longest and most detailed record of Christ’s teachings in the so-called Sermon on the Mount. (5-7) Generally, in the Orthodox Church, it is the text of the gospel of St. Matthew which is used most consistently in liturgical worship, e.g., the version of the beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. Only this gospel contains the commission of the Lord to His apostles after the resurrection, “to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (28:19)

St. Luke

The gospel of St. Luke, who was not one of the twelve apostles but one of the original disciples, a physician known for his association with the apostle Paul, claims to be an “orderly account. . . delivered by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word.” (1:1-4) Together with the book of Acts, also written by St. Luke for a certain Theophilus, this gospel forms the most complete “history” of Christ and the early Christian Church that we have. The gospel ofSt. Luke, alone among the four canonical gospels, has a complete account of the birth of both Jesus and John the Baptist. Traditionally, the source for these events recorded by St. Luke is considered to be Mary, the mother of Christ. We must mention at this point that in addition to the four gospels called “canonical” in that they alone have been accepted by the Church as genuine witnesses to the true life and teachings of Christ, there exist many other writings from the early Christian era which tell about Jesus, and especially His childhood, which have not been accepted by the Church as authentic and true. These writings are often called apocryphal (not to be confused with the so-called apocrypha of the Old Testament), or the pseudoepigrapha which literally means “false writings.”

St. Luke’s gospel is noted for the detail of its narrative, and especially for its record of Christ’s great concern for the poor and for the sinful. Certain parables warning against the dangers of riches and self-righteousness, and revealing the great mercy of God to sinners, are found only in the gospel of St. Luke, for example, those of the publican and the Pharisee, the prodigal son, and Lazarus and the rich man. There is also a very great emphasis in this gospel on the Kingdom of God which Christ has brought to the world and which He gives to those who continue with Him in His sufferings. The post-resurrection account of the Lord’s presence to the two disciples on the road to Emmaeus in which only one of the disciples is named, an account found only in St. Luke’s gospel, gives rise to the tradition that the unnamed disciple was Luke himself.

St. John

The gospel of St. John is very different from the synoptic gospels. It is undoubtedly the latest written, being the work of the beloved disciple and apostle of the Lord at the end of his life near the close of the first century. In most Orthodox versions of the Bible, this gospel is printed before the others as it is the one which is first read in the Church’s lectionary beginning at the divine liturgy on Easter night. The gospel of St. John begins with its famous prologue which identifies Jesus of Nazareth with the divine Word of God of the Old Testament, the Word of God Who was “in the beginning with God,” Who “is God,” the One through Whom “all things were made.” (1:1-3) This Word of God “became flesh,” and as Jesus, the Son of God, He makes God known to men and grants to all who believe in Him the power of partaking of His own fulness of grace and truth and of becoming themselves “children of God.” (1:14)

From the first pages of this gospel, following the prologue, in the account of Jesus’ baptism and His calling of the apostles, Jesus is presented as God’s only begotten Son, the Messiah and the Lord. Throughout the gospel, He is identified as well, in various ways, with the God of the Old Testament, receiving the divine name of I AM together with the Yahweh of Moses and the prophets and psalms. (See Book I, Doctrine) The gospel of St. John, following the prologue, may be divided into two main parts. The first part is the so-called book of “signs,” the record of a number of Jesus’ miracles with detailed “commentary” about their significance in signifying Him as Messiah and Lord. (2-11) Because the “signs” all have a deeply spiritual and sacramental significance for believers in Christ, with almost all of them dealing with water, wine, bread, light, the salvation of the nations, the separation from the synagogue, the forgiveness of sins, the healing of infirmities and the resurrection of the dead, it is sometimes thought that the gospel of St. John was expressly written as a “theological gospel” for those who were newly initiated into the life of the Church through the sacramental mysteries of baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the eucharist. In any case, because of the contents of the book of “signs,” as well as the long discourses of Christ about His relationship to God the Father, the Holy Spirit and the members of His faithful flock, in the latter part of the gospel, the apostle and evangelist John has traditionally been honored in the Church with the title of The Theologian.

The latter half of St. John’s gospel concerns the passion of Christ and its meaning for the world. (11-21) Here most explicitly, in long discourses coming from the mouth of the Lord Himself, the doctrines of Christ’s person and work are most deeply explained. As we have just mentioned, here Christ relates Himself to God the Father, to the Holy Spirit and to His community of believers in clear and certain terms. He is one with God, Who as Father is greater than He, Whose words He speaks, Whose works He accomplishes and Whose will He performs. And through the Holy Spirit, Who proceeds from the Father to bear witness to Him in the world, He remains abiding forever in those who are His through their faith and co-service of God.

The account of the passion in St. John’s gospel differs slightly from that of the synoptic gospels and is considered by many, in this instance, to be a certain clarification or correction. There are also accounts of the resurrection given which are recorded only in this gospel. The final chapter of the book is traditionally considered to be an addition following the first ending of the gospel, to affirm the reinstatement of the apostle Peter to the leadership of the apostolic community after his three denials of the Lord at the time of His passion. It may have been a necessary inclusion to offset a certain lack of confidence in St. Peter by some members of the Church.

In the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, a tradition often expressed in the Church’s iconography, the four gospels are considered to be symbolized in the images of the “four living creatures” of the biblical apocalypse, the lion, the ox, the man and the eagle, with the most classical interpretation connecting Matthew with the man, Luke with the ox, Mark with the lion and John with the eagle. (Ezekiel 1:10, Revelation 4:7) The four gospels, taken together, but each with its own unique style and form, remain forever as the scriptural center of the Orthodox Church.

From: Bible and Church History by Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dept. of Religous Education – Orthodox Church in America, New York, 1998

There are at least five reasons why Orthodox Christians should read and study the Holy Bible. First, according to Christian tradition, the Bible is the divinely inspired and thus authentic record of God’s revelation of himself and of his will to mankind. Correctly understood, it is a primary source of truth concerning the nature of God, the condition of man and the overall purpose of the universe. Those who seek such truth must therefore have recourse to the witness of Holy Scripture.

Second, as an inspired record of divine revelation, the Bible is God’s Word to mankind concerning himself and his kingdom. And that Word is addressed especially to those who are members of the Church, who are called to listen to it, heed it, take it to heart and respond to it in faith and obedience.

Third, the Orthodox Church teaches that the Bible is a verbal icon of God himself. Just as the persons and events depicted in painted icons are “really present” in and through their physical representations, so God is “really present” in and through the physical representation of his written Word. Through reading and studying Holy Scripture, through praying over it and meditating upon it, it is possible to make contact with, and commune with, God himself. Through the diligent and prayerful study of and meditation upon the Bible one can both “touch” and “be touched by” the eternal, undivided and life-creating Trinity.

Fourth, the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church is grounded in and expressive of Holy Scripture. It has been estimated that in the Divine Liturgy alone, and without counting readings from the epistles and gospels or the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, there are “98 quotations from the Old Testament and 114 from the New.” And in all Orthodox services throughout the year, the Bible is read almost constantly. It follows that one’s understanding of and participation in the liturgies and services of the Church will be both deepened and intensified to the extent that one makes himself familiar with the contents of God’s written Word.

Fifth, and finally, the Bible is a major expression of the holy tradition of the Orthodox Church. According to Fr. Kallistos Ware, “the Orthodox Christian of today sees himself as heir and guardian to a great inheritance received from the past, and he believes that it is his duty to transmit that inheritance unimpaired to the future.”

But in order to perform this duty, Orthodox Christians will have to overcome a number of rather formidable obstacles. Faced with the secularized culture of the contemporary world, Orthodox Christianity must learn to dwell in the presence of, and frequently in competition with, a multitude of non-Orthodox philosophical and religious movements and organizations. Many Orthodox Christians are, in fact, tempted to depart from the Orthodox Church in response to the often quite attractive and effective enticements of these philosophies and religions.

For far too many of today’s Orthodox Christians, holy tradition has ceased to be a living and life-sustaining tradition. Cut off from his theological roots by political forces, by radical cultural change and by his own failure to live in the light and truth of God, the modern Orthodox Christian must make every effort to comprehend the doctrinal and liturgical foundations of his tradition and to express that comprehension in a living faith. Only then will he be able to perform his duty of preserving and passing on “the whole system of doctrine, Church government, worship, and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages.” In seeking to carry out this task, it will be necessary to construct a specifically Orthodox critique of the predominantly secular, non-Orthodox and even anti-Christian beliefs and values of the present age. And an important part of this overall project will be the serious study of the content and meaning of Holy Scripture and the development of a world perspective that is grounded in and expressive of what Fr. Georges Florovsky has called “the scriptural mind.”

For these (and other) reasons, then, Orthodox Christians should make the reading and study of Holy Scripture a central concern of their lives. The Bible is, of course, a very large and complex collection of documents; and it is possible for the beginning Bible reader to get lost in the details of the sacred texts. What is important, as one seeks to develop a “scriptural mind,” is to strive for a sense of the overall message of God’s written Word, “a grasp of the Scriptures in their totality.” It is, in fact, die major purpose of this book to present a coherent survey of the central themes of the Holy Bible, and to outline, from the standpoint of Orthodox biblical theology, the general message of God’s scriptural revelation.

The Books of the Holy Bible

The Bible contains two major parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. From the standpoint of historic Christianity, the Bible is the book of salvation, a primary revelation of the manner in which God has acted and is acting to deliver humankind from the forces of evil. Man was intended to live in eternal fellowship with God, but has instead rebelled against his Creator. Having alienated himself from God, man has cut himself off from that spiritual wisdom, that moral and spiritual perfection and that eternal life which God originally intended him to enjoy. As a result of this self-induced alienation from God, man is lost and in bondage to the world, the flesh and the devil. But God has acted, in and through the person and work of Jesus Christ, to save man from his alienated condition. And God has revealed himself, his will and his plan for the salvation of the human race to the patriarchs and prophets of ancient Israel and to the apostles of Jesus—not in writing, but by way of direct revelation. The Bible is the written record of that original and unwritten revelation. The Old Testament tells the story of God’s dealings with ancient Israel from approximately 2000 B.C. until the time of Jesus; and it contains, as its central message, God’s promise to save mankind and the world through the “anointed one” (Messiah, Christ) of Israel. And the New Testament proclaims Jesus of Nazareth to be the promised Christ, who has, through his life and deeds, fulfilled the divine plan of salvation and made it possible for man to be reconciled to God.

The text of the Old Testament, which was originally composed in Hebrew (and partly in Aramaic), has been historically transmitted in both a Hebrew and a Greek version. (Ancient Latin versions have also survived, but these are translations from either the Greek or the Hebrew texts.) These two versions (the Hebrew and the Greek) reflect a dispute among the Jews of the late pre-Christian and early Christian periods concerning the precise content and meaning of their Sacred Scriptures. One major element in that dispute had to do with the total number of books that should be regarded as divinely inspired and thus authoritative. Some Jews held to a “longer” canon of forty-nine books (the Greek word canon means “standard” and has come to be used in the sense of “authoritative text”), while others adhered to a “shorter” canon containing thirty-nine books. Those who favored the shorter canon also thought that some portions of a few of the thirty-nine books should be deleted from Sacred Scripture (for example, certain parts of the books of Esther and Daniel). By the end of the first century A.D., the advocates of the shorter canon had won out, and the Hebrew version of the Old Testament, which has been passed down to the present day, thus contains only thirty-nine books. Among the Jews, this version is known as the Hebrew Bible.

While differing on the exact content of the Old Testament, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians are agreed on the number and sequence of the twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament. All of the books in the New Testament were written in Greek between 50 and 100 A.D., either by apostles of Christ (Matthew, John, Peter and Paul), or by close and faithful associates of the apostles (Mark, Luke, James and Jude), and they contain eyewitness testimonies and theological interpretations concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ. As indicated earlier, the overall message of the New Testament is that through faith in Christ man can be reconciled to God and thus saved from the powers of ignorance, sin and death.

By the middle of the second century A.D., a great deal of writing about Jesus had been done. Since some of this literature was fanciful and unreliable, the Church, seeking to preserve the apostolic message of salvation through Christ, found it necessary to distinguish clearly between those writings which did and those writings which did not possess apostolic authority. And, on this basis, the New Testament canon as it is known today came into being. There were debates in the early Church concerning the canonicity of the book of Revelation, the letter to the Hebrews and the epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude. But by the fifth century, all of these books—along with the four gospels, the book of Acts and the letters of St. Paul—had been accepted by the Church as apostolic in origin, divinely inspired and thus canonical.

The New Testament canon of twenty-seven books contains four types of documents. The New Testament begins with the four gospels of St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke and St. John. The gospels recount the major events in the life of Christ and proclaim the “good news” of salvation through Christ. Scholars have dated the writing of the gospels as follows: St. Mark, c. 65 A.D.; St. Matthew and St. Luke, c. 70 A.D.; and St. John, c. 85-90 A.D. Secondly, the Acts of the Apostles (or the book of Acts), written c. 70 A.D. by St. Luke, is a history of the foundation and growth of the first-century Church. It surveys the development of the Church from the ascension of Christ (c. 30 A.D.), through the missionary travels of St. Paul (c. 47-56 A.D.), to the first imprisonment of St. Paul in Rome (c. 59-61 A.D.). The third group is the letters (or epistles). There are twenty-one letters contained in the New Testament. Fourteen of these have been traditionally attributed to St. Paul: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon and Hebrews. The remaining seven letters—James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2 and 3 John and Jude—are known as the “catholic epistles” because they are addressed not to local churches (for example, the Roman or the Galatian) or to individuals (such as Timothy or Titus) but to the whole (that is, universal or “catholic”) Christian community.

The letters of St. Paul were written between 50 and 67 A.D., and the Catholic Epistles were composed between 60 and 100 A.D. The New Testament letters contain expositions of the moral and doctrinal implications of the Christian faith. The authors of these letters (Paul, James, Peter, John and Jude) were seeking to maintain good order and orthodoxy of belief in the many Christian communities which had sprung up in the Mediterranean world by the middle of the first century A.D. Finally, we have the book of Revelation (or the Apocalypse). The term “apocalyptic” is used to characterize prophecies which point toward the end of time; and the New Testament apocalypse is such an “end-time” prophecy. Written in highly symbolic language, the book describes a vision of the second coming of Christ, the last judgment and the final establishment of the kingdom of God. This visionary book was written during the last decade of the first century A.D., and has been traditionally viewed as the work of St. John the Apostle.

Although the Bible, as we have seen, contains two “testaments,” the historic Christian Church has always stressed the unity of the biblical revelation. The Old and New Testaments are unified in that they were both written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they both contain the same central theme concerning God’s plan for the salvation of the human rice and they both point in the same direction—the coming of the kingdom of God. The Bible, then, contains one revelation in two dispensations. And the key to the unity of Holy Scripture: Jesus Christ. He is the central figure in the divine plan of salvation revealed in God’s written Word. From the Christian point of view, the Old Testament is a promise of, and a preparation for the coming of the Messiah, of the Christ through whom the salvation of mankind will be effected; and in its proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, the New Testament affirms the fulfillment of the Old Testament message of salvation: in and through Jesus Christ, God has saved mankind and the world.

From: The Message of the Bible by George Cronk, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY 1990

In defending sola Scriptura, Protestant apologists invariably use Roman Catholic theology as a foil. It is asserted that Roman Catholics accept two sources of authority – Scripture and tradition – and that tradition is given equal weight with Scripture. Second, it is asserted that Roman Catholic reliance on tradition has resulted in the modern doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and papal infallibility. From these premises, Protestants conclude that sola Scriptura is the only safeguard against aberrant doctrinal developments.

First of all, the doctrinal aberrations of the Roman Catholic Church are manifestly not part of the universal tradition of the Church. The Orthodox Church opposes the Roman doctrines of universal papal jurisdiction, papal infallibility, purgatory, and the Immaculate Conception precisely because they are untraditional.

Furthermore, the Orthodox Church has never accepted the Roman Catholic assertion that there are two sources of authority. The Church recognizes one and only one source of authority for Her faith and practice: the apostolic tradition. The Divine Scriptures are part – albeit the most important part – of that tradition. To set Scriptures up as something over and apart from tradition is to have the tail wagging the dog.

A Rose by Any Other Name

If you were to look up tradition or traditions in a concordance based on the NIV translation of the New Testament, you would find ten references: Mat. 15:2,3,6; Mk. 7:3,5,8,9,13; Gal. 1:14; and Col. 2:8. In each case, tradition is presented in a negative light, as something opposed to the truth of God: For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men (Mk. 7:8).

In light of this, it is certainly not surprising that Evangelicals have a hard time finding anything positive to say about tradition. Most are completely unaware of the fact that in addition to the passages cited above, there are other passages in the New Testament in which tradition is mentioned in a positive light, where we are actually commanded to keep the oral traditions that have been handed over by the Apostles. Evangelicals are ignorant of these verses in part because of the overwhelming emphasis given to the verses cited above and in part because one of the most popular translations, the NIV, mistranslates three verses so that tradition never appears in a positive light in its pages.

The Greek word for tradition, paradosis, occurs thirteen times in the New Testament. Significantly, the NIV translates paradosis as tradition in every case except the three verses where St. Paul commands his readers to adhere to tradition. Is this an accident? An examination of 2 Th. 2:15 will demonstrate beyond any doubt that the translators of the NIV deliberately avoided translating these verses literally.

Compare the KJV translation with the NIV:

Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle (KJV).

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter (NIV).

Admittedly there are some passages in the New Testament that are very difficult to translate. This, however, is not one of them. The syntax is straight forward and the vocabulary simple. Furthermore, there are no significant textual variants for this verse that might support the NIV translation. Any second year Greek student could translate this verse correctly. The NIV translators, however, have effected what amounts to literary sleight of hand. One would be tempted to call it a rather nifty move were it not for the fact that they have tampered with the written Word of God. Hold the traditions which ye have been taught. Traditions {paradoseis) is a noun in the objective case. It is derived from the verb to hand over (paradidomi). The phrase, which ye have been taught (edidachthate), is a form of to teach (didasko). The NIV turns the verb into the noun – hold to the teachings – and turns the noun into the verb – we passed on to you. If we were to translate the NIV translation back into Greek, instead of paradoseis, we would have didaskalias, and instead of edidachthate we would have paredothate.

It is true that the NIV renders paradosis as teaching again in verse 6 of chapter 3 and also in 1 Cor. 11:2 without all of these grammatical gymnastics. However, the fact that the grammatical structure of this verse was manipulated – the translators obviously wanted to avoid the redundancy of saying hold the teachings that we taught to you – is proof that they put a lot of thought into this. Translating paradosis as teaching rather than tradition is the result of a deliberate choice.

Although the KJV translates paradoseis as ordinances in 1 Cor. 11:2, it certainly does not appear that it is part of any program or theological bias. With the NIV, however, when paradosis is used in a negative sense, it is translated as tradition. When it is used in a positive sense, it is translated as teaching. This is not an accident. It can only be the result of a conscious decision to translate the text in accordance with a preconceived theological program.

There is a great irony in all of this. The Preface to the NIV states: . . . the translators were united in their commitment to the authority and infallibility of the Bible as God’s Word in written form. . . . The first concern of the translators has been the accuracy of the translation and its fidelity to the thought of the biblical writers.

Here, however, the translators deliberately manipulated the text in order to make it conform to the Protestant tradition. If the Scriptures really are self-interpreting and self-sufficient, why do Evangelicals feel the need to monkey with the text when they run across a verse that does not fit in with their theology? Or, do the translators of the NIV understand St. Paul’s doctrine of authority better than he did?

The NIV translation of paradosis only serves to underscore a very important point: Everyone approaches the Scriptures from within some tradition. Every translation is made within a certain tradition and reflects the concerns of that tradition. The problem with the NIV is that the Evangelical tradition that produced it has been severed from the tradition that produced the Scriptures in the first place  –  the apostolic tradition.

Hold the Traditions

In 2 Th. 2:15 St. Paul commands the Thessalonians to keep the traditions that they have received. In 3:6 he issues a stern warning: Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. Similarly, St. Paul praises the Corinthians for their obedience to tradition: Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances [lit. traditions], as I delivered them to you (1 Cor. 11:2).

These verses are easily contrasted with what St. Paul says in Colossians 2:8: Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. Clearly, St. Paul envisions two different types of tradition: traditions of men and traditions that come from the Apostles themselves. Christians are specifically commanded to keep the latter, whether they are written down or not.

St. Basil the Great (4th c), in his treatise, On the Holy Spirit, clearly illustrates the fact that holy tradition is more than a set of ideas. The writing of this treatise was occasioned by the Eunomian controversy. The Eunomians took Arianism to its logical conclusion, insisting not only that the Son is a creature dissimilar to God, but that the Holy Spirit is even more dissimilar than the Son.7 In other words, the Spirit is not to be numbered with the Father and the Son, and certainly not to be worshipped. They argue that the doxology “Glory to the Father and to the Son with the Holy Spirit” is not scriptural. St. Basil replies that simply because something has not been written down, that does not mean that it is not an authentic element of the apostolic tradition:

“Concerning the teachings of the Church, whether publicly proclaimed (kerygma) or reserved to members of the household of faith (dogmata), we have received some from written sources, while others have been given to us secretly, through apostolic tradition. Both sources have equal force in true religion. No one would deny either source – no one, at any rate, who is even slightly familiar with the ordinances of the Church. If we attacked unwritten customs, claiming them to be of little importance, we would fatally mutilate the Gospel, no matter what our intentions  – or rather, we would reduce the Gospel teachings to bare words” (Paragraph 66) .8

St. Basil goes on to describe some of the customs that the Church had received through tradition, including the signing of candidates for Baptism with the sign of the Cross, the Eucharistic prayers, and Baptism by triple immersion. Although these practices are unknown to modern Protestants, they were staples of Church life in the early centuries, and they remain staples of Church life today in the Orthodox Church.

Notice, in particular, what St. Basil says happens if we despise unwritten traditions: “we would reduce the Gospel teachings to bare words.” Christianity is life in Christ. It involves not merely assent to a set of doctrines, but moral conduct and – just as important – participation in the worshipping community, which is nothing less than the Body of Christ. Therefore, to reduce Christianity to a set of ideas that can be contained in a book is to “fatally mutilate the Gospel” – that is, to deprive it of its very life: for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life (2 Cor. 3:6).

No clear notion of the true meaning of Tradition can be reached without constantly keeping in mind the well-known condemnation of “human traditions” by the Lord Himself. The one Holy Tradition, which constitutes the self-identity of the Church through the ages and is the organic and visible expression of the life of the Spirit in the Church, is not to be confused with the inevitable, often creative and positive, sometimes sinful, and always relative accumulation of human traditions in the historical Church.

The distinction between “Tradition” and “traditions” is certainly one of the major tasks of the contemporary ecumenical dialogue, and it constitutes one of the most urgent responsibilities of Orthodox theologians. For even outside of its ecumenical involvement, the Orthodox Church faces this problem with a particular acuity.

An Orthodox generally conceives his Christianity as an integral whole which finds its expression in doctrinal convictions as well as in liturgical worship and in whatever attitude he takes as a Christian. This attitude is quite different from that of the average Roman Catholic, who is much more ready to accept change when it comes from the proper authority. Its psychological root is in the absence of an absolute, permanent doctrinal power and in the positive sense of responsibility that an Orthodox usually has for the integrity of his faith. He is, consciously or unconsciously, but rightly, aware of the fact that all acts of worship have some doctrinal implications and that true Christianity is to be taken as a whole set of beliefs and attitudes. At an elementary level, when he is not able to make the necessary distinctions between the essential and the secondary, he prefers to preserve everything. The formal and ritualistic conservatism of Eastern Christians undoubtedly played a positive role in history. It helped them to preserve their faith during the dark ages of the Mongolian and Turkish occupations. However, it does not reflect as such the catholicity of the Church. Today, it represents a problem which Orthodox theologians have to handle if they want to face seriously not only the modern world and the ecumenical movement, but also a number of reformist movements inside the Orthodox world itself. The first task of Orthodox theology today must be to rediscover, through a true sense of catholicity, the role of the one, holy Tradition of the Church, as distinct from the pseudo-absolute and human traditions. If one turns to the past of the Church, it is surprising how many traditional authorities one can find to support this rediscovery, especially in documents related to the schism between East and West.

Since apostolic times Christians have always conceived their unity as unity in faith, although it was obvious that every local church could express this faith in its own language, liturgical rite, and, originally, even in its own baptismal creed. This linguistic and liturgical variety did not at all prevent church unity from remaining a very practical reality. In the second century Irenaeus could speak of a unique apostolic Tradition equally well preserved in Rome, Smyrna, and Ephesus. When Christological controversies broke the unity of the Eastern Church, the situation began to change. The schism roughly followed existing cultural and linguistic boundaries, and a majority of non-Greek Eastern Christians (Copts, Syrians, Armenians, Ethiopians) adopted mono-physitic confessions of faith. The Orthodox Chalcedonian churches followed Rome and Constantinople, and their influence was practically restricted to the Graeco-Latin world of the Roman Empire. Finally, this unity was itself broken with the great schism between the Ancient and the New Rome, again following racial and linguistic lines.

In the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries all contacts between Greeks and Latins implicitly presupposed, at least in Byzantine minds, that reunified Christendom would preserve a variety of local traditions. Nicholas Cabasilas, in speaking of the epiclesis of the Spirit at the Eucharist, recalls the Latin rite itself as an argument in favor of the Byzantine position; there is no doubt that for him the Latin liturgical tradition possesses a catholic authenticity.

In modern times this attitude has become practically universal. In 1895, for instance, the Ecumenical Patriarch Anthimos and his synod expressed it in their reply to the encyclical Praeclara gratulationis of Pope Leo XIII; the union of the churches can be realized through unity of faith, but this unity does not imply a unification of “the order of the holy services, hymns, liturgical vestments and other similar things which, even when they preserve their former variety, do not endanger the essence and unity of the faith.”

The establishment of a clear distinction between the holy “Tradition” as such, and the human traditions created by history, is probably the most essential aspect of contemporary theology, especially when and if it wants to be ecumenical. The very reality of Tradition, a living and organic reality manifesting the presence of the Spirit in the Church and therefore also its unity, cannot be fully understood unless it is clearly distinguished from everything which creates a normal diversity inside the one Church. To disengage Holy Tradition from the human traditions which tend to monopolize it is in fact a necessary condition of its preservation, for once it becomes petrified into the forms of a particular culture, it not only excludes the others and betrays the catholicity of the Church, but it also identifies itself with a passing and relative reality and is in danger of disappearing with it.

Therein lies a very urgent problem for contemporary Orthodoxy, especially in connection with its ecumenical responsibility and involvement. There was a time when the “Christian East” as such stirred enthusiasm in ecumenical circles as a beautiful, exotic, and mysterious tradition, attractive because it was “different.” With the growth of mutual knowledge and information this phase now belongs to the past, simply because the ecumenical movement has been taken seriously by its participants. While still appreciative of the possible contributions which could be made by local traditions to the catholic reality of the Una Sancta, they look forward to the One Church itself. The union of all is the fundamental aim of ecumenical activity and thought. The obvious Orthodox responsibility is to show where this union can become a reality and how it can be realized. The claim of the Orthodox Church to be already the Una Sancta must be substantiated in the empirical reality of its life, so that it may really appear also as the Catholica. This is precisely the goal of the internal reformation which the Roman Church is seeking presently in order to substantiate her own similar claim.

But all these efforts will bring forth fruit only if they end upon an encounter, not only with each other, but also with the Lord in the Spirit of Truth. To be truly “ecumenical” is to be ready at every moment for this encounter, which will come on a day and at an hour when we least expect it.

From: Living Tradition by Fr. John Meyendorff, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1978

Few words occur more frequently in inter-Orthodox debate on ecclesiology than “canonical” – except perhaps “un canonical.” All parties constantly refer to “canons” and to “canon law,” though seldom with any sensitivity to or awareness of the nature and history of the Orthodox canonical tradition itself. As a result, misconceptions abound. On the one hand, many people profess a great veneration for the sacred Christian canons, as though the Pedalion fell from heaven on Pentecost, along with the Typikon and other such vital compendia of rules and regulations; and they look to the canons for guidance in every detail of church life. On the other hand, there are some who have an absolute aversion to canon law. For them, canon law is something to be gotten around, an arbitrary system of rules and regulations at best irrelevant to the pastoral task and even to Christianity itself, but more often positively detrimental.

The approaches of the legalist and the anarchist – if they may be so labeled – at first glance appear to be mutually exclusive. But in fact they share certain features. They have the same understanding, or rather misunderstanding, of what the canons of the Church are, and this misunderstanding in turn is based upon a misunderstanding of the nature and task of the Church itself.

Certainly the legalist is subtly but surely reducing the Church to a mere institution. He sees it as a kind of club – like the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks – or as the spiritual equivalent of a political unit – like the United States of America. He sees the canons in turn as the constitution, by-laws and other regulations proper to this institution. They define the power structure and the competence of the various offices; they indicate the rights and duties of members. Thus, a person is seen as acquiring “membership” in the Church through the sacraments of baptism and chrismation, provided these are validly administered; and as long as he remains “in good standing” he is entitled to certain benefits: he may be married in the Church; he may have his home blessed with holy water at Epiphany and his basket of sausages and fancy breads blessed at Easter; he may receive a Christian burial and prayers for the repose of his soul upon departing this life. All this and more: he becomes eligible, as it were, for membership in the kingdom of heaven. But there are certain requirements that must be met. Not too many years ago, the faithful would typically be reminded each Lent of the importance of fulfilling their “annual obligation” of confession and communion. And there are certain rather arbitrary rules governing behavior and procedures that must be followed. Thus, a member of the Orthodox Church may marry once, twice and, in certain circumstances, thrice; but never four times.

This sketch of the legalist’s understanding of the Church is, to be sure, exaggerated. Virtually everyone would admit in principle that the Church is not just another club or political entity. It is, after all, distinguished by its exalted Founder. Few know or care who founded this or that fraternal organization. While we do speak of the “founding fathers” of our country, we do not accord them the honors due the Founder of the Church, Jesus Christ. Further, the Church is distinguished by its exalted purpose. It offers man forgiveness of sins, salvation, eternal life – not just good fellowship or the chance to promote a worthy cause or the myriad benefits of the welfare state. Yet even if the Church’s exalted Founder and purpose are duly acknowledged, there is still something lacking in this approach. The Church is still seen above all as an institution, as a society that operates in much the same way as other societies, even though it may be incomparably superior to them. It is seen in terms of its organization, its structure, while its purpose is ignored or misconstrued. After all, man is called to communion with God, not just to have a valid baptism, a nice church wedding and finally memorial services on the ninth day, the fortieth day and the anniversaries of his death. Man is called to participation in God, to be by participation what God is by nature, so that even the salvation offered by the Church is not just so many doses of this grace or that, duly administered through proper channels. It is not some external benefit, whether for this life or the next; much less is it a reward for following all the rules and regulations. It is above all a living personal relationship with God; it is life that is truly life because it is participation in the divine life itself, because it is a life of communion.

We must beware, therefore, of the misconceptions of legalism. But what of that other position, which for the sake of convenience we labeled anarchism? As suggested earlier, many regard canon law as utterly alien to the spirit of the New Testament and to that freedom in Christ of which St Paul often speaks. We live under the gospel, they proclaim, not under the law; under the new dispensation, not the old. This attitude, so widely encountered, does not require elaboration. And that it does not accurately reflect the thought of St Paul and of the other writers of the New Testament is, I believe, obvious. When Paul speaks of freedom, he means above all freedom from slavery to sin, death and the devil. While he does reject any reliance on the Mosaic law, particularly in its ritual elements, in almost the same breath he can tell die Galatians to “fulfill the law of Christ” (6:2).

We Orthodox Christians today desperately need to rediscover the implications of communion for community, lest our much-vaunted “spirituality” and “mystical theology” degenerate into dilettantish escapism, and our church community into that caricature idolized by the legalist and scorned by the anarchist. In this task of rediscovery, the canonist can play an important role, but only if he learns how to “read” the canons correctly. He cannot imitate the legalism of the classic Byzantine canonists, for whom it was enough to cite the text, chapter and verse, and then resolve any apparent contradictions by wooden application of certain arbitrary hermeneutical rules – the canon of an ecumenical council takes precedence over one of a local council, a later canon takes precedence over an earlier one, etc Nor can he simply ignore the canons when it seems expedient, justifying his actions by appeals to pastoral discretion or “economy.” He must read the canons in the light of history, but at the same time he must avoid the occupational hazards of the historian: relativism and cynicism. Above all, he must go beyond “canons” and “canon law” to the “canon” as that word was understood in the early Church. He must search out those norms for structure and conduct that necessarily arise from and conform to the very nature of the Church as the Spirit-filled body of Christ. Only by applying this hermeneutical principle will he be able to go beyond the misconceptions of legalist and anarchist and discover the hidden riches of the Orthodox canonical tradition.

From: The Challenge of our Past by John Erickson, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1991

Orthodox polemics against the primacy of Rome depend, broadly speaking, on Roman Catholic theology. This is not surprising, since the actual aim of Orthodox theology is to refute arguments put forth in favor of Roman primacy. Now the Catholic doctrine of Papal primacy is founded on their doctrine of the primacy of the Apostle Peter: and therefore Orthodox theologians concentrate their attention on this subject. Exegesis of New Testament texts on the position of Peter results in a discussion between Orthodox and Catholic theologians. Meanwhile, a similar discussion has arisen concerning the oldest Patristic evidence about the Church of Rome. Rome’s role in history is also under dispute, and so far no agreement has been reached on the matter. No one denies, today, that she has held a leading position, but we have still to ask what position it was and what was its nature. In other words, we started discussing the Papal primacy of Rome before we raised the question: what is primacy itself? Can Papal primacy – whether of Rome or of any other church – really exist in the Church?

This is the really important question, and the answer, whether positive or negative, will help us to work out our own views of the Church of Rome. If we are to solve the problem of primacy within the Church, our starting point must be ecclesiology; i.e., we must ask, does the doctrine of the Church contain the idea of primacy (in its present or any other form), or exclude it altogether? This method can be used to solve problems of exegesis and of history too; it is really the most natural approach, for the problem of primacy is inherent in the doctrine of the Church. We can thus pose the problem of primacy in general, for Orthodox and Catholics alike. But we must not think of such a method as involving any renunciation (even provisional) of our confessional allegiances. That sort of thing would only be possible for a bad Orthodox or a bad Catholic. As we study the problem of primacy in general, and especially the primacy of Rome, we must not be ruled by polemical motives: the problem is to be solved to satisfy ourselves and Orthodox theology. The solution of the problem is urgent, since Orthodox theology has not yet built up any systematic doctrine on Church government.

The Orthodox Church is absolutely right in refusing to recognize the contemporary doctrine that primacy belongs to the Bishop of Rome; however, this Tightness does not lie in the numerous arguments that have been brought against primacy, but in the very fact of non-recognition. The arguments against primacy offered by Orthodox school-theology seem to suffer from some lack of clarity and finish. This can be explained by the fact that eucharistic ecclesiology is still alive, deep down, in the Orthodox soul; but Orthodoxy on the surface is under the shadow of universal ecclesiology, and also of contemporary ecclesiastical organization. The attribute of “catholicity,” which (in eucharistic ecclesiology) belongs to the episcopal church, has now been transferred to the auto-cephalous church – a unit, in fact, half political and half ecclesiastical. Naturally, the episcopal church loses its catholicity and becomes a part of the autocephalous church. To this latter, alone, modern Orthodox theology ascribes the ability to be free and autonomous. Orthodox theology indeed rejects the idea of primacy on the universal scale, but it recognizes a partial primacy at the center of every autocephalous church, a primacy belonging to the head of that church. We are concerned here with primacy, not priority, for priority implies that every local church has fullness of ecclesiastical esse.

The autocephalous churches, meanwhile, have become divided and separated, for the idea of a single directive has faded since the fall of Byzantium. Ever since the second Ecumenical Council, Constantinople has been trying to bring off a pan-Orthodox primacy, but all her attempts have failed. It would be most unwise to talk of an “Eastern Pope,” as though the Patriarch of Constantinople set himself to copy the Bishop of Rome, and wrong whether we take an ideological or a historical view. But no doubt various inner motives did impel the Patriarch of Constantinople to follow along the road to primacy, within the pattern of a universal ecclesiology. In modern times, the unity of the Orthodox Church is becoming a sort of abstract ideal, with no means of manifesting itself in the real life of the Church. Anyone who regards the pan-Orthodox or Ecumenical Council as an organ manifesting the Church’s unity is just putting things in the wrong order, consequences before foundation. In fact, the pan-Orthodox Council should be the consequence of Orthodox Church unity; it should be guided by a church or a bishop; and it cannot be a foundation for this unity.

In the long course of the struggle against the Roman Catholic position about the primacy of Rome, Orthodox doctrine has lost the very notion of priority. And the Catholic Church lost sight of the idea even earlier, during its struggle for a single directive in the Church, which it has now transformed into Papal primacy. If we take the respective positions ol the two churches as they stand, there is no hope of resolving the question of primacy. We can only accept the tragedy, but with our eyes open, and without that romantic sentimentality which only adds bitterness to the everlasting discussion about primacy. “The unity of the faith in the bond of peace.” Unity of faith still reigns within the Orthodox Church, but without union in love; and neither exists between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches. Why is this? Surely because the mind of the Church has become unaware that the Church of God should be directed by a local church, one church among all the others. They all possess catholicity; but priority of authority, by giving witness about events in the Church’s life, is something that belongs only to the church “which presides in love.”

Written By Nicholas Afanassieff, From: The Primacy of Peter, John Meyendorff – Editor, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1992

Ye are the light of the world.. . . Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven (Mat. 5:14,16).

There is no denying the fact that we moderns do not like being told that one Church is the true Church. It offends our democratic sensibilities. Nevertheless, one cannot understand Orthodoxy without understanding this claim. It is on this basis that the Orthodox Church has participated in the Ecumenical Movement. The raison d’etre of the Orthodox Church’s membership in the World Council of Churches (WCC) is of being involved with Ecumenism is that She might bear witness to the light of Christ- to the undefiled doctrine of the Apostles.

For many people, however, Orthodox participation in the WCC creates more confusion than illumination. Many Evangelicals assume that the Orthodox Church shares the liberal theology that is held by the most vocal members of the Ecumenical Movement. Hopefully this book will help to dispel that misconception. More important for us, however, is the confusion that arises over the nature of the relationship between Orthodoxy and other Christian communions. Orthodox participation in ecumenical dialogue seems to imply that the Orthodox somehow “recognize” other churches as equals and that a of “union of churches” is possible.

This confusion arises from the fact that the Orthodox and Protestant members of the WCC participate in the Ecumenical Movement for very different reasons, with very different goals in mind. The late Fr. John Meyendorff was a veteran of ecumenical dialogue. Although he remained dedicated to Orthodox participation in the Ecumenism of the WCC, he was nevertheless keenly aware of the delicate nature of that participation. He wrote:

“It is undeniable that Orthodox ecclesiology or its attitude toward the Church means that it cannot participate in the work of the Council on the same basis as the other communions that have emerged from the Reformation. Orthodox and Protestants simply do not see the same thing in the World Council of Churches.”

Protestants, for the most part, see the Church as some invisible entity, or perhaps as an entity that is yet to be fully realized. Many are content to engage in ministerial cooperation and common worship, while leaving long-standing doctrinal disputes unresolved. The “unity of the Church” is something to be achieved through dialogue of Ecumenism.

For the Orthodox, this approach is not merely mistaken, it is decidedly heretical. The Church is not a human institution, She is the Body of Christ. Her unity is the unity of Christ. She can be no more divided than Christ can be divided. The purpose of the Orthodox participation in ecumenical dialogue is to call all men to union with Christ in the one, true Church of Christ.

Given the fact that Orthodox and Protestants have such different understandings of the purpose of ecumenical dialogue, it is not surprising that these dialogues have yielded very little real fruit. Since the formation of the WCC, the mainline Protestant denominations that make up the majority of the Ecumenical Movement have moved steadily away from Orthodox theology rather than toward it. Furthermore, I know of no Protestant churches that have converted and been received into the Orthodox Church as a result of ecumenical dialogue.

Because of this, there are many in the Orthodox Church, myself included, who believe that the Church should cease Her participation in the Ecumenical Movement. At the time of this writing, the Churches of Jerusalem and Georgia have withdrawn from the WCC, and the Church of Serbia is seriously considering doing likewise. Furthermore, there are strong movements in this direction in Russia, Greece, and the United States. Based on a simple cost/benefit analysis, it is evident that Orthodox participation in the WCC has produced very little fruit and a considerable amount of confusion – even among Orthodox.

Although he remained committed to the Ecumenical Movement, Fr. John Meyendorff saw dark clouds on the horizon long ago:

“To be more fruitful and to be able to exercise some influence on the course of the discussions, they [the Orthodox] ought to participate more effectively and be present in greater numbers. If this is not done in the near future, it is certain that the Protestant majority in the Council, by a process if internal logic, will lead the organization more and more in a direction incompatible with Orthodox principles and make their presence impossible.”

In spite of increased Orthodox participation since the time Fr. John wrote these words, the “process of internal logic” has continued unabated. For many Orthodox today, Fr. John’s prediction has finally come true. On the whole, conservative Evangelicals have either stayed on the periphery or avoided the Ecumenical Movement altogether. I cannot say that I blame them. It is imperative for Evangelicals to understand, however, that the call of the Orthodox Church is not to dialogue or discussion, but to conversion.

The Church does not presume to judge the eternal destiny of those outside Her bosom; judgment belongs to God alone. Yet, in Her love for mankind, She summons all to enter Her loving embrace. The Church alone is the Body of Christ, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all (Eph. 1:23). To this fulness She summons the world. To this fulness, She summons you: The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come” (Rev. 22:17).

From: The Way – What Every Protestant Should Know About the Orthodox Church by Clark Carlton, Regina Orthodox Press, Salisbury, MA, 1997

Let me insist, first of all, upon the tentative nature of this essay. Our subject here is one that is only now beginning to be studied, and I am in no position to offer any kind of final thesis; rather, I see myself as taking part in our common search for the light — a search that will one day, perhaps, lead us to concrete and consistent conclusions, but not yet. I am weary of those speeches and articles that propose to solve all problems once and for all with neat ready-made answers: we find them even in connection with the liturgical movement, even when a subject like this comes up for discussion — “The World as Sacrament” — a subject that surely ought to make us move very cautiously and tentatively indeed. My own thoughts have achieved neither certainty nor finality. I only feel sure that this kind of subject has enormous importance for Christian theology. Although I use the word “theology,” this is not going to be a theological essay — at least not if by theology we imply “definitions.” It seems to me a great tragedy that in the past, sacramental reality should so often have been made the object of clear definitions after the juridical model — definitions so lucid and thin that they tended to obscure and even to diminish the things defined. We are concerned with that reality itself, newly rediscovered. My own approach to it is by way of my own tradition — the liturgical experience, the living tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church — and only in a secondary way through the formal theology derived from that tradition. And I am raising questions, not proclaiming answers. Let me begin with my title: a rich phrase, drawing together the two great preoccupations of Christian thought and activity today. “World” and “sacrament”: here we have two great concerns, the two objects that outstandingly engage our thinking and acting as Christians in the world of today. It hardly needs to be stressed that our time is marked by a new degree of concern for the world; this is at the forefront of our modern consciousness. I find it, for example, explicit in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, and in the very idea of “dialogue” as well. This point of view has been gaining ground for decades: the idea that the Church exists to save the whole world, not merely to satisfy the religious needs of the individual, narrowly conceived. This hardly needs saying today. On the other hand, and of equal importance, we are experiencing something in the nature of a complete rediscovery of the sacramental nature of Christian life. This is not merely a renewed insistence upon the importance of particular sacramental acts in the life of the individual. That is most necessary, but we are going further, to reassert a sacramental character in the whole of life.

Thus when we bring together the two words “world” and “sacrament,” we can see in sharp focus two basic tendencies of our time — two aspects, perhaps, of a single tendency; and this is an exercise not wholly original, perhaps, but still worth attempting. A perspective is needed, a frame of vision to help the thought and work of the future. What is the relationship between these two concepts, these two realities, world and sacrament? If we gain some new insight into the sacramental nature of Christian life, will that help us to understand the world? If we develop a greater degree of concern for the world, will that deepen our experience and understanding of the sacraments?

But before attempting a synthesis along these lines, we should perhaps focus our attention on each of the terms separately. In the long history of Christian theology and spirituality, people have spoken of “the world” in two ways, both of them well rooted in the Gospel. On the one hand, we say that “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son”; that the Eucharistic sacrifice is an act of giving for the sake of the world; that the world is an object of divine love, divine creation, divine care; that it is to be saved, transfigured, transformed. But in another sense, and with equal authority in Scriptures and church Tradition, we speak of the world negatively: it is the thing we must leave, a prison from which we must be free, God’s rival, deceptively claiming our love with its pride and its lust.

No doubt I am oversimplifying here, but it seems to me that the true Christian experience involves some kind of synthesis between these two visions of “the world.” The negative vision is very positive in a spiritual sense; that is to say, it is genuinely necessary to leave the world, to cultivate detachment and freedom from it. But this detachment develops too easily into a kind of indifference, a lack of regard for God’s creation; gradually the Church becomes aware of this tendency and corrects it by a renewed emphasis upon concern for the world and its goodness.

Today, we are very plainly at the second stage of this cycle, increasingly involved in the world and its affairs. Perhaps we go too far; there is certainly this danger. We find it suggested in certain quarters that we should drop the ideas of God and religion completely, so as to devote ourselves more wholly to the world and to others, living as men in the world of men. In “honesty to God,” we are asked to dismiss Him: so far has the pendulum swung from self-centered pietism.

That is where we find ourselves today — and we must insist again that both views of the matter are rooted in revelation and the experience of the Church. If we chose one of them and pushed it to its logical extreme, ignoring the other, we would end up in heresy: the original Greek sense of that word refers to error based on false choice, to mistaken selectivity. If we insist upon choosing where we ought to effect a synthesis or reconciliation, we shall tend toward heresy.

If our attention is to be given more seriously — and even, in a carefully denned sense, wholly — to this world, that does not mean that we are committed to “worldliness” in the other sense of that twofold idea. We are not to suppose that when jets can fly faster, when doctors can save more lives, Congress will be able to certify that the Kingdom of God has begun. Rather the reverse. The more deeply we think in Eucharistic and therefore in eschatological terms, the more acutely we shall be aware that the fashion of this world passeth away, that things only acquire point and meaning and reality in their relationship to Christ’s coming in glory. In this context, the unworldliness and detachment preached by so many moralists return to their full importance.

Our lives are congested and noisy. It is easy to think of the Church and the sacraments as competing for our attention with the other world of daily life, leading us off into some other life — secret, rarefied and remote. We might do better to think of that practical daily world as something incomprehensible and unmanageable unless and until we can approach it sacramentally through Christ. Nature and the world are otherwise beyond our grasp; time also, time that carries all things away in a meaningless flux, causing men to despair unless they see in it the pattern of God’s action, reflected in the liturgical year, the necessary road to the New Jerusalem.

We have a simple task, and a happy one. Some say that we should concentrate upon this world as though God did not exist. We say rather that we should concentrate upon this world lovingly because it is full of God, because by way of the Eucharist we find Him everywhere — in hideous disasters as well as in little flowers. In a way, it is not supernatural at all; we return to our original nature, to the garden where Adam met God in the cool of the evening. No, we do not meet Him wholly and consciously: we are still fallen, still estranged, and our fallen nature could not at present survive that.

A sacramental correspondence is not an identification. It always points beyond. But it creates also a present unity, making us contemporary witnesses not only of Christ’s death but also of His coming again, and of the fulfillment of all things in Him. Thankfully we accept from God’s hands His lovely garden, the world. We eat its fruits, transform its substance into life, offer that life to God on Christ’s cross and our daily altars, and look forward to the possession of it, as a risen body, in the Kingdom.

But it will be the same world, the same life. “Behold, I make all things new.” These were God’s last words to us, and they only say at the end, and eternally, what was in His mind at the very beginning, when He looked on the sacramental world of His creation and saw that it was good.

From: Church World Mission by Alexander Schemann, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY 1979