Four Major Aspects of the Church's Faith and Experience
From: Understanding the Greek Orthodox Church, Hellenic College Press, Brookline, Massachusetts 1998.
The Evangelical Character of the Church
Many factors have influenced the formation of dogma and the evolution of Orthodox theology. The evangelion, or gospel, has contributed the most. Holy Scripture is the fountain and essence of Greek Orthodox theology; all other elements are auxiliary. The very substance of the creed, ethos, and worship of Orthodoxy derives from the evangelion. But some writers, either of the Orthodox Church or of other persuasions, have overlooked the evangelical, or biblical, character of Orthodoxy. Even in serious manuals this facet of the Orthodox Church goes almost unheeded.
Some theologians have stressed that the Orthodox Church is the guardian of the most genuine apostolic tradition and that she is the Church of the early ecumenical decrees. Others have emphasized that she is a patristic Church, or that the Church is freedom fused with authority and the weight of the past. These and other characteristics-apostolicity, catholicity, traditionalism, moderation, unbroken continuity-have been described in several manuals, but rarely the evangelical.
Because of this lacuna in Orthodox textbooks from the early nineteenth century to the present, many Western theologians and ordinary faithful have seen the Orthodox as biblically illiterate, if not superstitious and paganistic. Because the outward appearance of Orthodoxy is liturgical and sacramental, many Western Christians have regarded Orthodox liturgy and sacramental life as antagonistic to Holy Scripture. Even now, Orthodoxy is considered extensively involved in symbolism and ritual.
What follows is a brief attempt to turn the multi-faceted prism of Orthodoxy to another of its several facets, one which has ecumenical dimensions, since the biblical nature of the Orthodox Church furnishes a common ground in the Dialogues that take place between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic as well as Protestant churches. Ιn fact, Orthodox theology in nearly every one of its ramifications is evangelical rather than patristic, philosophical, or liturgical.
What has been characterized as sacramental, liturgical, patristic, or intellectual has biblical roots. Of course, biblical theology is sufficiently broad to be at the same time, liturgical and sacramental. The words and symbols of the liturgy, the mysteries (or sacraments), and other rites are derived from the Bible. Bible and dogma, Bible and ethical precepts, Bible and liturgical services and prayers -all are fused in Orthodox theology.
The biblical character of the Greek Orthodox Church is not difficult to discover. Ecclesiastical writers throughout the history of the Church have never ceased to recommend the reading of the Scriptures. The Bible has never been the exclusive book of the clergy or the monks. Saint John Chrysostom prepared the way.
Ιn an appeal to the laity for Bible study Chrysostom writes: "Your mistake is in believing that the reading of the Scriptures concerns only monks...for you it is still more necessary since you are in the midst of the world. There is something worse than not reading the Scriptures, and that is to believe that this reading is useless...a satanic practice."
The Divine Liturgy itself is not only mystery or Eucharistic doxology. It is also a liturgy of the Word of God, since the first part of the service includes two readings from the New Testament and a homily, which is usually an exegesis of one of the two readings. When one reads or listens to the Word of God one becomes a theodidaktos, or one taught by God, as Clement of Alexandria writes.
Because of the central position accorded to the Gospel, the evangelion, the Orthodox Church is an evangelical church par excellence. Orthodox piety and spirituality, sacramental mysticism, and patristic theology are based on the belief of the living presence of Christ not only in the Eucharist but also in the gospels, which constitute the record of Christ's teaching. God's manifestation in history, God's revelation in the earthly life of Christ, His work through the Apostles, His presence in the history of the Church -all constitute a living reality unfolded in the prayer life of the Church and involving each of the faithful. The Bible is viewed not simply an antiquarian "history" but as "holy history," which manifests the acts of God in the past, lives on into the present, and forms a guidepost for the future.
While the Greek cultural and intellectual tradition played a paramount role in the life of the Church, the inner strength and real source of Orthodox theology must be sought in the Bible. During the Medieval Greek era, the Church felt a special pride in being the custodian and teacher of the Scriptures while at the same time taking great care to preserve the Greek literary and cultural heritage. Despite the Platonic idealism and the substratum of Aristotelian philosophical tradition and scholastic categories in patristic categories in patristic thought, love for the simple teachings of Christ dominates the writings of many Fathers and theologians. Orthodoxy in general was illuminated and modified by the light of Biblical revelation. As Lev Gillet has put it: "Orthodoxy presents a [Greek] classical landscape bathed in the light of the Logos."
The Bible is both a divine and a human record -it is a theanthropic document, infallible and fallible, an eternal and temporal record. In the Bible God reveals Himself either through prophets, kings, and shepherds or through His own Son. Ιn the Bible man seeks to "discover and touch» God (Acts 17.27). This encounter, however, between the heavenly Father and earthly son or daughter is primarily a revelation and self-disclosure of God because man is still an infant or even still unborn spiritually. What the community of believers needed to record about the life of Christ, as well as its own life and practical needs, was designated Holy Scripture. This recorded revelation stands or falls by the testimony and the authority of the Church. The testimony, or martyria, of the Church to the authority of the written revelation is an absolute necessity.
The recorded revelation was the work of people living within the community of believers and speaking primarily to other believers for their edification. The Ekklesia is the guardian (the thematophylax) of all God's manifestations to human beings, including, of course, the recorded activity of God's self-disclosure. Church and Bible are inseparably united in a harmonious and mutually supportive entity. As the repository of revelation, as the recorder of God's manifestation (phanerosis and God's involvement in history, the Church is by nature Biblical, for she has the Bible in her bosom and is the official interpreter of the Bible. It follows that the theology, the teaching, the commandments, and the ethos of the Church are biblical.
As the Church is biblical in her essence, likewise the central theme of the Bible is the Church, the Church as a holy organism born before all ages, reconstituted or revitalized in time and in space by God's Logos. That is, the Bible speaks of the Church as the living body of Christ and as the Christ perpetuated throughout the ages.
The reading of the Bible is a living tradition. It is a constant part of all major services: vespers and matins, liturgies and sacraments, sacramental services -such as the blessing of the waters- and all other brief services. Almost the whole New Testament and much of the Old Testament is read throughout the Church year in Church worship. The Bible occupies a central place of honour in every Orthodox home.
But in addition to the specific pericopes from the Old or the New Testament read in each service, each service is imbued with spiritual verses and elements. Each prayer and hymn of every liturgy, sacrament, or service refers to some Biblical event; the number and extent of the scriptural elements varies from service to service.
The Psalms, Genesis, and the book of Isaiah enjoy more popularity than the other Old Testament books. Exodus and the Wisdom of Solomon follow.
From the New Testament, Matthew, Luke, 1 Corinthians, Romans, the Gospel of John, and Hebrews are the most popular.
Α study of the Liturgies of the Presanctified Gifts, Saint Basil's, and Saint John of Chrysostom's, as well as of the sacraments of baptism, chrism, holy unction, and matrimony, compiled by this writer, reveals a very clear dependence by these services upon the Bible. Approximately 25 percent of these services consist of direct Biblical borrowings. The material in the services that alludes to or is inspired by Scripture is even greater.
The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts includes sixty-one verses and elements from both the Old and the New Testament. The extensive use of Psalms bears witness to the antiquity of the liturgy and its soteriological message. The Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom has absorbed 237 verses, of which 124 are from the Old Testament and 113 from the New Testament. The prayers of Saint Basil's Liturgy, which are not found in that of Chrysostom, include 205 Scriptural verses and elements, 68 of which are from the Old Testament and 137 from the New Testament.
Here are three prayers illustrative of the biblical character or Orthodox liturgical prayer:
1) The First prayer of the Faithful (Liturgy of St. Basil). It is you, Ο Lord, who have shown us this great mystery (1 Τim. 3.16) of salvation; it is you who have deemed us, your humble and unworthy servants, worthy of the service of your holy Altar. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, make us then able to fulfil this holy office (Rom.15.13; 2 Cor. 3.6; 2 Cor. 4.l), so that, standing without condemnation before your holy glory (Jude 24; Song of the Three Young Men 31), we may offer you a sacrifice of praise (Heb. 13.15), for it is you who work all things in all (1 Cor. 12.6). Grant us, Ο Lord, that our offering for our sins and for the unawareness of the people (Heb. 9.7) may be acceptable and pleasing to you (Phil. 4.18).
Among the sacraments, baptism's scriptural nature reveals how the early Church understood the soteriological problem, the nature of man, and the meaning of his redemption. The service includes 186 biblical verses. The Old Testament is represented by 94 verses, the New Testament by 92.
2) Prayer of the Anaphora (Liturgy of St. Basil). Ο You who are Being, Master and Lord (Jer. 1.6), God almighty and adorable Father: it is truly fitting (2 Thess. 1.3) and right and worthy of the immensity of your holiness (Ps. 145.5) that we praise you (Ps. 65.1), sing to you, bless you, adore you, give thanks to you, glorify you who alone are truly God (Jn. 5.44); that we offer you a spiritual worship with a repentant heart and a humble spirit (Rom. 12.l; Song of the Three Young Men 16; Ps. 51.17), for it is you who granted us the favour of knowing your truth (Heb. 10.26). How could anyone tell your might and sing the praises you deserve, or describe all your marvels in all places and times? (Ps. 106.2; Ps. 26.7; Job 5.9). Ο Master of All, Lord of heaven and earth and of all creatures visible and invisible, who are enthroned upon a seat of glory, who plumb the depths (Μt. 11.25; 3 Mac. 2.2; Wis. 9.10; Song of the Three Young Men 32), who are eternal, invisible, beyond comprehension and description and change, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ the great God and Saviour, the object of our hope (2 Cor. 1.3; Tit. 2.13; Tim. 1.l). For He is the image of your goodness, the seal bearing your perfect likeness, revealing Υou his Father through Himself, He is the living word, the true God the Wisdom from before all ages, the Life, the sanctification, the Power, the true light (7.26; Heb. 1.3; Jn. 14.9; 1 Jn. 5.20; 1 Cor. 1.30; Ps. 54. 19 LXX; Jn. 14.6; 1 Cor. 1.24). By Him the Holy Spirit was made manifest, the Spirit of Truth, the Gift of adoption, the foretaste of the future inheritance, the first fruits of eternal good (Jn. 14.17; Rom. 8.15; Eph. 1.14; Rom. 8.23), the life-giving power, the fountain of sanctification. Empowered by Him, every rational and intelligent creature sings eternally to your glory, for all are your servants (Ps. 119.91). It is you the angels, archangels, thrones and dominions, the principalities and the virtues the powers and the Cherubim of many eyes adore; it is you the seraphim surround, one with six wings and the other with six wings and the other with six wings; and with two wings they cover their faces, and with two their feet, and with two they fly, and they cry one to the other (1 Pet. 3.22; Col. 1.16; Is. 6.23) with tireless voice and perpetual praise.
3) First Prayer of the Faithful (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.) We thank you, Lord God of Hosts (Rev. 11.17; Ps. 84.8), for having made us worthy to stand at this moment before your holy altar, and throw ourselves on your mercies for our sins and the faults of the people (Heb. 9.7). Accept, Ο God, our entreaty, make us worthy to offer you prayers and supplications (Heb. 5.7) and unbloody sacrifices for all your people; and by the power of your Holy Spirit (Lk. 4.14, 2 Cor. 3.6) strengthen us whom you have appointed to this your ministry (1 Tim 1.12) so that at all times and places (Wis. 19.22), without blame or offence, with the testimony of a dear conscience, we may call upon you (2 Cor. 1.12; 1 Cor. 1.2); and that hearing us you may have mercy on us in the plenitude of your goodness (1 Kings 8.34; Ps. 69.13).
Despite the brevity of the sacrament of chrism, it too is saturated with biblical material. It includes 30 verses, 17 of which are from the New Testament and the other 13 from the Old Testament.
An examination of the Scriptural structure of holy unction, apart from its seven Gospel and Epistle readings, reveals the healing attributes bestowed upon the Church and the therapeutic mission that is expected of her. In the sacrament of holy unction Christ works as physician to the human soul and body. The texts of the sacrament deal primarily with human suffering or spiritual affliction and reveal God's merry, love, and intervention on mankind behalf. Like Christ, the Church must be concerned with human suffering. There are 196 scriptural verses from both Testaments in this rite. The Old Testament leads with 109, against 87 from the New Testament.
The biblical material in the sacrament of matrimony, apart from the two standard pericopes, consists of 130 verses. The use of the Old Testament prevails, with 90 verses against 40 for the New Testament. Ιn addition there is numerous allusions and references to biblical personalities such as Isaac, Sarah, and Joseph. In the biblical material of this sacrament the emphasis of the Church is on the sanctity of the conjugal relationship, with special reference to the couple's procreative task and the call to spiritual perfection. It also manifests the Church's strong opposition to separation and divorce. The unity of husband and wife is like the union between Christ and His Church.
The hymns of the Church are full of direct or indirect Scriptural references, synonyms, and concepts, to a greater degree than are the Church services and prose prayers. This is confirmed by a study of the Easter Canon hymn of Saint John of Damascus, the Christmas Canon of Kosmas of Maiuma, and the Akathistos Hymn of Romanos the Melodist. Of 807 lines of hymns, 369 lines include concepts and ideas taken directly from the New Testament. In other words, about 45 percent of the hymns consist of biblical material. Breaking down the lines into words and terms, excluding articles and conjunctions, we discover 2,219 words from the hymns mentioned above, 783 are taken from the New Testament, some 35 percent. And a recent study of the great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete, which includes 250 hymns (troparia), revealed that Saint Andrew's masterpiece is filled with biblical passages and allusions. One hundred ninety-three troparia include Scriptural material. The author of this third study concludes that 77 percent of the Canon's material is biblical.
In addition to the liturgical use of the Bible in Church liturgy and hymnology, the study of the Scriptures has always been encouraged in the Orthodox Church. In countries where Orthodoxy predominates, even the illiterate have learned by heart whole psalms and other portions of the Scriptures. In the early and medieval Church there were persons who knew many parts of the Bible by heart, and candidates for the priesthood were required before ordination to learn a certain number of psalms, plus a gospel and several epistles. Given the wide availability of Scriptural text, today this is not a practical requirement for service in the Church, though Scriptural sayings and phrases, like, proverbs and mottos, come readily in the speech of both clergymen and laity.
The Scriptures were diligently studied by monastic communities, whether they were composed of intellectuals or simple monks. In practically every monastic ordinance, or typikon, there are strong recommendations for the study of the Bible, not as a literary document but as a guide for everyday living. "Study of the holy scriptures, spiritual exercise, prudence, and obedience" were virtues to be pursued by all monks, as monastic rules and the biographies of great saints proclaim. Such canons are even inscribed on the icons of various saints, such as Euthymios and Symeon.
The Church Fathers and theologians have always encouraged Bible study. It has been estimated that if all the Scriptural quotations in John Chrysostom's works were put together, the whole Bible could be constructed. Chrysostom advocated the study of the Scriptures by clergymen and all believers alike. He advised: "Let us give diligent heed to the study of the Scriptures; the study of the Bible expels despondency, engenders pleasure, extirpates vice, makes virtue take root. In the tumult of life Bible study will save you from suffering like those who are tossed by troubled waves. While the sea of life rages, you sail on with calm weather because the study of the Scriptures serves you as a pilot.»
Many Church Fathers accorded absolute authority to the Scriptures. For them the revelation of God in its dual form, oral and written, was deposited in the Church. On the one hand was the continuous tradition of the Church and on the other the Holy Scriptures. Holy Tradition and Holy Scriptures were viewed as two sides of the same coin. The apostolic tradition stood at the root of both.
From as early as the second century, ecclesiastical writers viewed the Bible as the source of Christian doctrine. Origen was a pronounced Biblicist. His writings abound in Scriptural elements and appeal over and over again to Holy Scripture as the ultimate criterion of faith. Saint Athanasios proclaimed, "The holy and inspired Scriptures are fully sufficient for proclamation of the truth." Cyril of Jerusalem was even more emphatic. He wrote: "With regard to the divine and saving mysteries of faith no doctrine, however trivial, may be taught without the backing of the divine Scriptures.... For our saving faith derives its force, not from capricious reasoning, but from what may be proved out of the Bible." John Chrysostom and many other Fathers dwell at length on the absolute authority of the Bible regarding doctrinal norms. For them, of course, the Bible was simply written tradition. Cyril of Jerusalem emphasized the apostolicity of abiding by the unwritten as well as the written tradition. In the Christological controversies, the ultimate appeal of Theodoretos of Kyros was to the teaching of the Fathers, who derived their wisdom and inspiration from the "Divine Fountain," from the divinely inspired Scripture as a whole.
Because much of the theological effort of the Fathers was spent on the exposition of the Bible, and because their writings as a whole are impregnated with biblical material, it may be inferred that patristic theology is actually biblical theology. Many doctrines that they supported had first to be established on a biblical basis. It is not irrelevant to observe here that even the Orthodox sermon as a whole is biblically oriented. To be sure, Orthodox priests and lay preachers are free to select their subject matter from various sources, such as liturgical writings; patristic texts, lives of the saints, or current national and social issues. Nevertheless, the average Orthodox preacher turns to his Bible for inspiration and for his theme. Both in theory and in practice the Holy Scriptures constitute the most important source for a homily, or kerygma.
Thus dogmatic and ethical, patristic and liturgical theology in the Orthodox Church has biblical foundations and Scriptural content. Holy Scripture, which has saturated the liturgical and prayer life of the Church, her hymnology and hagiography, and all the other aspects of her intellectual and moral life, occupies a central place in Orthodox theology today. Modern Orthodox theologians see the Bible as the ultimate criterion of theological truth, whose authority has been and remains "unlimited" and "self-sufficient." Neither doctrine nor liturgy can serve as substitute for the word of God.