Four Major Aspects of the Church's Faith and Experience
From: Understanding the Greek Orthodox Church, Hellenic College Press, Brookline, Massachusetts 1998.
Sacred Tradition in the Church
But the biblical character of the Church should not be viewed separately from its traditional side. The latter is a strong characteristic and of equal importance. Sacred Tradition is not an accumulation of human sayings that have been transmitted to us. It is rather the life of the Church under the constant guidance of the Holy Spirit; it is the handiwork of the Holy Spirit in the life and the thought of the Church; it is the revelation of the Holy Spirit incorporated in the doctrinal life of the Church; it is the faith to which the Church synods and Fathers bear witness and of which the Orthodox Church is the vigilant and abiding custodian. This is in perfect agreement with the promise of Christ. He said to His disciples: "When the Spirit of the truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come." (Jn. 16.13). Because of her confidence in and attachment to the person of the Holy Spirit, the Orthodox Church has remained pneumatological.
Sacred icons, the cross, candles, and the like in an Orthodox house of worship are not elements of Sacred Tradition, which deals with doctrine and faith; rather they constitute a heritage of pious tradition. They are only symbols intended to help in the religious instruction of the faithful. They correspond to the needs of the human senses and are in no way idolatrous. Icons remind the faithful of the reality of the divine. Α distinction should be made between tradition and Sacred Tradition.
The former is human and the latter is divine. There is much ritualism and symbolism in the worship of the Orthodox Church, perhaps too much in the eyes of many Orthodox Christians. Of course a great deal of it can be traced back to Old Testament times, while a portion derives from the religious tradition of antiquity. For example, incense is used in the Church because the believers ask God to accept their prayers "as incense before" him (Ps. 141.2). The faithful make the sign of the cross to remind themselves that the Son of God was crucified for their salvation. The outward symbol of the cross is the expression of an inner conversation with God. These elements constitute an educational religious tradition.
Icons of Jesus Christ, His Mother, the patriarchs of the Old Testament, the Apostles, the saints, and the martyrs are found in Orthodox houses of worship and most Orthodox homes. They are used to emphasize the living reality of the sacred persons depicted on them. There is in the Orthodox Church a strong feeling of the reality of the supernatural. There is no death, only life, whether upon the earth or beyond it. Thus the celestial beings are united with humanity in the bosom of the Ekklesia, which transcends both time and space. "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein" (Ps. 24.l). All things were made for the service and instruction of man. There is nothing pagan in symbolism as long as it remains a means and not an end in itself.
Abuses can and do happen in every sphere of life. It is possible for a Christian to make an icon the object of worship. It is equally possible for someone to abuse the meaning and the significance of the Holy Scriptures and become a bibliolater. Man lives by symbols and ritual whether he realizes it or not. As long as these remain means to virtue and piety there is nothing alarming about them. Icons and symbols express much that words cannot, and their use in a limited measure is not only permissible but also desirable for the human heart and mind. They evoke feeling rather than cold logic, a natural part of life rather than an academic or formal aspect, a source of inspiration and instruction.
It is important to note here that though the Church allows the depiction of Christ in His human form, she never permits the separation of the divine from the human element. Thus an icon of Christ the God-man. Likewise the icons of the Theotokos, the saints, the angels, and other figures of the invisible Church are not realistic representations but depictions and projections of the virtues and saintliness of the personalities involved, presented to mortals for emulation.
In brief, the Orthodox Church appeals to divine revelation as incorporated in the Holy Scriptures and Sacred Tradition and realizes an unbroken continuity with the original Church, not only in her faith and sacramental and prayer life, but also in her culture and administration.
Although the Orthodox Church believes and claims that she is the true Church, she is neither intolerant nor isolated. Ιn fact, she willingly listens to the views of others. Despite her adamant position in matters of faith, she participates in such organizations as the National Council of Churches in the United States and the World Council of Churches. While very few, if any, Protestant or Roman Catholic clergymen or theologians study in Greek Orthodox theological schools, many Orthodox clergy and theologians study in Protestant or Roman Catholic theological institutions with the approval of their superiors. The Orthodox Church works and prays for the integration of all Christians in faith, in love, and in hope within the true Church, which is Christ on earth perpetuated until His second coming and the last judgment. She prays constantly "for the peace of the whole world, for the stability of the Holy Churches of God, and for the union of all." Indeed as Dr. James Κ. McCord, the late President of Princeton Theological Seminary, writes: "The Greek Orthodox Church is one of the pioneering bodies and the call to unity of the Ecumenical Patriarch is one of the milestones in ecumenical history."
She has entered into the ecumenical movement and participates in dialogues in order to bear witness to the ancient unadulterated faith in a confident, fraternal matter. She is confident because she has remained faithful to the historical, theological, ethical, and cultural ideas of early Christianity.
The Orthodox Church is one of the most democratic of Christian churches. With very rare exceptions her clergy are ordained with the approval of the laity. Laymen play an important role in the administration of the Church. They are elected to the executive council of the Church, and they have great administrative responsibilities in the local parish. All may occupy a significant position and work for the well being of the body of the Church.
The Greek Orthodox Church preserves the ancient system of administration known as synodic; it is not an absolutist one, but neither is it loose enough to produce anarchy and extreme individualism. An examination of her administration will illustrate her system of freedom and discipline. Α deacon serves a presbyter in a parish or a bishop in his diocese. Α presbyter, or priest, is the centre of spiritual authority over his parish, receiving his authority from the bishop. And the bishop is the head of the Church in a given district or diocese. But over the local bishop stands the synod, or the totality of bishops. Jesus Christ is the head of the synod and the Church as a whole.