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Christianity's Family Tree
What Other Christians Believe and Why
By Adam Hamilton
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2007 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Orthodoxy: Mystery, Liturgy, and Tradition
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible....
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God....
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
(Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-10, 13-16; 12:1-2)
In the Beginning: From Jesus to Christianity to Orthodoxy
We will begin the study of our Christian family by looking at the church that claims to be the oldest child: the Orthodox church. But first we will want to gain a little perspective by tracing some of our ancient family tree.
Christianity, of course, began within Judaism, making the Jews an important part of our family. Our Scriptures, worship patterns, and organizational structure were in large part shaped by Judaism. Then, as Christianity began to develop and incorporate more and more non-Jews, it became increasingly distinct from Judaism. At this stage, in the first centuries of the Christian faith, Jesus' followers were not Orthodox or Roman Catholic. They were known as Nazarenes, or followers of Jesus of Nazareth; as followers of "the Way"; or simply as "Christians," followers of Jesus Christ.
In the ensuing centuries, arguments over theology and practice led to great conflict within the church, whose leaders called together bishops from throughout the world to hash out the essentials of the faith we share. That meeting took place in AD 325 in the city of Nicaea, and the resulting statement of faith is called the Nicene Creed. (The creed as we know it today includes significant additions made at a subsequent council in 381 at Constantinople, and for this reason it is occasionally called the Nicene-Constant in opolitan Creed.) Despite this unity of belief, there were great differences between Christians in the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire. These differences, more cultural, philosophical, and political than theological, were in fact tearing the empire apart.
Emperor Constantine, who had reunited the empire, appointed his sons to rule after his death. One, ruling from the traditional capital of Rome, was trying to ward off the continuing invasions of barbarians; the other ruled in the Greek speaking East from the capital city of Constantinople, considered the new Rome.
Christians in the Latin-speaking West tended to see the gospel in concrete terms, with the juridical models of sin and justice as keys to its understanding. Those in the East made greater allowance for mystery, for experiencing God, and for an understanding of salvation rooted in our experience of death and resurrection.
Through the centuries, as contact between the halves of the old empire lessened, the gulf between East and West widened. Questions about the relationship of the four major leaders of the Christian churches in the East (known as patriarchs) with the prince among leaders in the Western church (the pope) were particularly thorny. While the patriarchs recognized the pope's status as first among equals, they did not believe he had authority over their churches.
Then, in the seventh century, at a regional council in Toledo, Spain, Western Christians added three little words to the Nicene Creed without consulting Eastern Christians. These three little words, called the "filioque" (Latin for "from the Son"), stated that the Holy Spirit proceeded not only from the Father, which everyone agreed upon, but also from the Son. The Eastern Christians expressed their dismay with the Western Christians. Conflicts over papal authority, liturgy, and the ever present filioque continued for centuries; and then in 1054, Pope Leo X (actually his legate) and Patriarch Michael I excommunicated each other and all the other's followers from the church, creating a breach that has lasted until the present.
Each church we will study sees church history in a slightly different way. Orthodox Christians believe they are the direct and continuous successors of the apostles and that the Roman Catholic Church, by adding to the creed, giving too much authority to the pope, and changing liturgy, departed from the right path. The following illustration depicts how Orthodoxy views itself as well as Roman Catholicism and Protestantism:
The Eastern Christians claimed the title "Orthodox," a word that means "right worship" and "right doctrine." The name makes a strong statement. Eastern Christians, by virtue of this name, claim to have the right forms of worship and doctrine while, by implication, Western Christians do not. If Eastern Christians are the Orthodox church, then all other Christians are not Orthodox. In other words, one might say that we, the 2.1 billion other Christians in the world, are heretics. It is important to know that this is the official stance of the Orthodox church, that they are the one true church. When it comes to the possibility of salvation for the rest of us, the Orthodox clergy I have read and spoken to are a bit agnostic—What God chooses to do with non-Orthodox followers of Jesus at Judgment Day is up to God—but they are unapologetic when it comes to the assertion that they are the true church.
Today, Eastern Orthodox Christianity makes up the second-largest body of Christians after Roman Catholics. Its members continue to be located largely in the East, with the single largest number of Orthodox Christians being found in Russia. Within Eastern Orthodoxy the divisions are largely ethnic. There are Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and a host of others; but they all are part of the one Orthodox church. It is difficult to ascertain the total number of practicing Orthodox "adherents," and estimates range from 95 million to as many as 300 million.
We begin with this particular church in part because it claims to preserve the earliest traditions of the Christian faith and in part because it is associated with the earliest centers of Christianity, namely, Jerusalem and Antioch.
Orthodox Beliefs and Practices
The Nicene Creed
"We are the church of the apostles," says Orthodox priest Father Timothy Sawchak of the Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Overland Park, Kansas. He cites Pentecost as "the beginning of our church" and says, "We base our doctrine initially on Christ and Scriptures—the Old and New Testaments—and also on the ecumenical councils that were able to put down in words what we believe." Those beliefs are summarized in the Nicene Creed, which is recited at each celebration of the liturgy:
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father, through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and became truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father. Who with the Father is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
What I want you to notice is that this is the prince of creeds in the Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant church as well, with the exception of the statement on the Holy Spirit, where Roman Catholics and Protestants follow the Western addition of the three words indicating that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Otherwise, in these essentials of the faith, the majority of Christians are in agreement.
The Human Condition, Salvation, and Sanctification
In addition to the controversy over the filioque, there are other differences that developed between Eastern and Western Christianity. Orthodox teaching regarding the human condition is not tied to the doctrine of original sin, that Adam and Eve's sin is now passed on to all humankind. What is passed on from Adam and Eve is death and all that death brings: anger, lust, hate, greed, fear, sickness. As a result of Adam and Eve's sin, humanity was placed in the grip of death and the devil. We are slaves to death. Jesus came to give his life as a ransom for all humanity, to redeem humankind from death and the devil by giving his own life. He set us free. Human beings, once this gift is accepted, begin a lifelong journey toward becoming like God.
The aim of the Christian life is this goal of becoming like God, of being transformed and made holy, of becoming a new creation. In some traditions this is referred to as sanctification. Among the means of accomplishing this transformation are participation in worship—the Divine Liturgy—as well as prayer and pursuit of the seven mysteries or sacraments. Like Roman Catholics, the Orthodox recognize seven official sacraments, while maintaining that a host of things may function as sacraments (means of God's grace coming into our lives). The Orthodox believe that each of the sacraments is used by the Holy Spirit to impart grace and make us holy. The Christian life begins at baptism; and until one is baptized, one is outside the church. Baptism in Orthodox churches is by immersion, and even infants are immersed completely under the water. Anointing with oil (chrismation) follows immediately after baptism. This takes the place of confirmation, so that one is fully a member of the church at baptism. Among the first acts after baptism is the reception of the Eucharist; a drop of wine is placed on the tongue of the infant.
The priest who baptizes and offers the Eucharist will be a man; women are not ordained in the Orthodox church. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, priests may marry, provided they have married before ordination.
Scripture and Tradition
An important part of understanding Orthodoxy is understanding the role of the Fathers of the church in shaping Christian doctrine and practice.
"The fundamental witness to the Christian tradition," says Father Michael Azkoul of the Orthodox church, "is Holy Scripture; and the supreme expositors of the Scriptures are the divinely inspired Fathers of the church, whether the Greek Fathers or Latin Fathers, Syriac Fathers or Slavic Fathers. Their place in the Orthodox religion cannot be challenged. Their authority cannot be superseded, altered, or ignored."
This is important. Sometimes Protestant Christians look at the Bible and believe that not much happened between the time of the apostles and the time of the Protestant Reformation. But the Orthodox believe that the Holy Spirit was guiding the early church and that, therefore, the Christians of the first five centuries were important interpreters of the Scriptures. The writings of these Christians function for the Orthodox in some ways like the Mishnah and the Talmud (scriptural interpretations and commentaries) function in Judaism. The Protestant idea of "sola scriptura" (Scripture alone) is unheard of in the Orthodox tradition. Scripture is the primary basis of authority in the faith, but it must be interpreted with the help of the Holy Spirit and the wisdom of the church through the ages as collected in many of its writings. This material includes stories of martyrs, letters, sermons, and other writings from the early church, things with which most Protestant Christians are not even familiar. These writings begin in AD 96 with the First Letter of Clement and stretch for hundreds of years. This material contains the thoughts of Christians as they reflected on the faith, trying to understand what it means and how one lives it.
One story in these writings is about an early Christian named Polycarp, who is represented with icons in many Orthodox churches. He was bishop of the city of Smyrna and a leading spokesman for Christianity, and he became one of the great saints of the church. Polycarp was eighty-six years old when the persecutions by the Romans began. Christians, accused of being atheists for their refusal to worship the Roman gods, were rounded up and put to death as many of the townsfolk cheered. Polycarp was among those arrested, but no one wanted to kill him. He and the others were given the opportunity to repent of their Christianity; a simple vow to the emperor would spare them. Polycarp refused, ending a bold exchange with a proconsul by defiantly declaring, "Bring forth the fire."
The authorities lit the fire, which did not consume Polycarp at first. When it finally did, onlookers smelled the sweet scent of a sacrificial offering to God rather than the acrid stench of burning flesh. Finally, because Polycarp refused to die in those flames and was still alive and praying, the authorities drove a dagger into his heart, then burned his body.
Now, when Orthodox Christians read such stories, which are unfamiliar to us as Protestant Christians, they say, "How could you ignore these? These are stories of the witness of the saints who have gone before us!" Orthodox Christians do not literally worship icons of such saints, but they do venerate them and look to them for inspiration in standing firm as they meet their own challenges. They say, "When I am tempted to fall away from the faith, I might pray to the saint, 'Help me to have your resoluteness in claiming Christ as my Savior. Let me be a bold witness for the faith.'" You can imagine how inspirational such figures and writings could be for our Orthodox friends.
Seeing the "Real World": Liturgy, Sacred Architecture, Icons, and Prayer
There are many areas in which we would agree with the Orthodox, and a few areas where we might place a different emphasis or even disagree. For me, the most-compelling dimension of Orthodox faith and practice is the emphasis on what is ultimately real. I have had people say to me at times, "Well, this is the church; but in the real world...." The Orthodox remind us that our daily lives (our jobs, our schooling, our relationships) are not the real world. The real world is heaven, God's eternal kingdom; and real life is found in participating in that divine kingdom now, here on earth. We will spend only a small amount of time here on this earth; we are, in the words of Scripture, just pilgrims and aliens here. There is a heavenly realm that we cannot generally see. It is invisible, but it is all around us; and if we really knew and understood this, if we participated in this realm, our lives would be radically different.
How would you live differently if you knew absolutely that God was constantly by your side? How would you look at retirement, illness, pain, sorrow, and tragedy if you had actually seen heaven and knew it was more real than anything you see on this earth? How would you react to temptation if you knew that Jesus watched over you; that this life was only temporary; that the saints stood around you, cheering you on? When you are sick, or discouraged, or feeling alone, how should your faith sustain you?
Excerpted from Christianity's Family Tree by Adam Hamilton. Copyright © 2007 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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