· 33 Pentecost (A.D. 29 is thought to be more accurate).
· 49 Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15) establishes precedent for addressing Church disputes in Council. James presides as bishop.
· 69 Bishop Ignatius consecrated in Antioch in heart of New Testament era-St. Peter had been the first bishop there. Other early bishops include James, Polycarp, and Clement.
· 95 Book of Revelation written, probably the last of the New Testament books.
· 150 St. Justin Martyr describes the liturgical worship of the Church, centered in the Eucharist. Liturgical worship is rooted in both the Old and New Testaments.
· 313 The Edict of Milan marks an end to the period of Roman persecution of Christianity.
· 325 The Council of Nicea settles the major heretical challenge to the Christian Faith posed when the heretic Arius asserts Christ was created by the Father. St. Athanasius defends the eternality of the Son of God. Nicea is the first of Seven Ecumenical (Church-wide) Councils.
· 451 Council of Chalcedon affirms apostolic doctrine of two natures in Christ.
· 589 A synod in Toledo, Spain, adds the filioque to the Nicene Creed (asserting that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son). This error is later adopted by Rome.
· 787 The era of Ecumenical Councils ends at Nicea; the Seventh Council restores the centuries-old use of icons to the Church.
· 988 Conversion of Rus’ (Russia) begins.
· 1054 The Great Schism occurs. Two major issues include Rome’s claim to a universal papal supremacy and her addition of the filioque clause to the Nicene Creed. The Photian Schism (880) further complicates the debate.
· 1066 Norman Conquest of Britain. Orthodox hierarchs are replaced with those loyal to Rome.
· 1095 The Crusades begun by the Roman Church. The Sack of Constantinople (1204) adds to the estrangement between East and West.
· 1333 St. Gregory Palamas defends the Orthodox practice of hesychast spirituality and the use of the Jesus prayer.
· 1453 Turks overrun Constantinople; Byzantine Empire ends.
· 1517 Martin Luther nails his 95 Theses to the door of the Roman Church in Wittenberg, starting the Protestant Reformation.
· 1529 Church of England begins pulling away from Rome.
· 1794 Missionaries arrive on Kodiak Island in Alaska; Orthodoxy introduced to North America.
· 1870 Papal Infallibility becomes Roman dogma.
· 1988 One thousand years of Orthodoxy in Russia, as Orthodox Church world-wide maintains fullness of the Apostolic Faith.
The Apostolic Church
The history of the (Orthodox) Christian Church begins, with the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles at Jerusalem during the feast of Pentecost, the first Whit Sunday. On that same day through the preaching of St Peter three thousand men and women were baptized, and the first Christian community at Jerusalem was formed.
Before long the members of the Jerusalem Church were scattered by the persecution which followed the stoning of St Stephen. ‘Go forth therefore,’ Christ had said, ‘and make all nations My disciples’ (Matthew xxviii, 19). Obedient to this command they preached wherever they went, at first to Jews, but before long to Gentiles also. Some stories of these Apostolic journeys are recorded by St Luke in the book of Acts; others are preserved in the tradition of the Church. Within an astonishingly short time small Christian communities had sprung up in all the main centres of the Roman Empire and even in places beyond the Roman frontiers.
The Church as a Eucharistic Community
The Empire through which these first Christian missionaries travelled was, particularly in its eastern part, an empire of cities. This determined the administrative structure of the primitive Church. The basic unit was the community in each city, governed by its own bishop; to assist the bishop there were presbyters or priests, and deacons. The surrounding countryside depended on the Church of the city. This pattern, with the threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons, was already established in some places by the end of the first century. We can see it in the seven short letters which St lgnatius, the Bishop of Antioch, wrote about the year 107 as he travelled to Rome to be martyred. Ignatius laid emphasis upon two things in particular, the bishop and the Eucharist; he saw the Church as both hierarchical and sacramental. ‘The bishop in each Church,’ he wrote, ‘presides in place of God.’ ‘Let no one do any of the things which concern the Church without the bishop … Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.’ And it is the bishop’s primary and distinctive task to celebrate the Eucharist, ‘the medicine of immortality’.
People today tend to think of the Church as a worldwide organization, in which each local body forms part of a larger and more inclusive whole. Ignatius did not look at the Church in this way. For him the local community is the Church. He thought of the Church as a Eucharistic society, which only realizes its true nature when it celebrates the Supper of the Lord, receiving His Body and Blood in the sacrament. But the Eucharist is something that can only happen locally -in each particular community gathered round its bishop; and at every local celebration of the Eucharist it is the whole Christ who is present, not just a part of Him. Therefore each local community, as it celebrates the Eucharist Sunday by Sunday, is the Church in its fullness.
The teaching of Ignatius has a permanent place in Orthodox tradition. Orthodoxy still thinks of the Church as a Eucharistic society, whose outward organization, however necessary, is secondary to its inner, sacramental life; and Orthodoxy still emphasizes the cardinal importance of the local community in the structure of the Church. To those who attend an Orthodox Pontifical Liturgy,’ when the bishop stands at the beginning of the service in the middle of the church, surrounded by his flock, Ignatius of Antioch’s idea of the bishop as the centre of unity in the local community will occur with particular vividness. But besides the local community there is also the wider unity of the Church. This second aspect is developed in the writings of another martyr bishop, St Cyprian of Carthage (died 258). Cyprian saw all bishops as sharing in the one episcopate, yet sharing it in such a way that each possesses not a part but the whole. ‘The episcopate,’ he wrote, ‘is a single whole, in which each bishop enjoys full possession. So is the Church a single whole, though it spreads far and wide into a multitude of churches as its fertility increases’. There are many churches but only one Church; many episcopi but only one episcopate.
The First Persecutions and Martyrs
There were many others in the first three centuries of the Church who like Cyprian and Ignatius ended their lives as martyrs. The persecutions, it is true, were often local in character and usually limited in duration. Yet although there were long periods when the Roman authorities extended to Christianity a large measure of toleration, the threat of persecution was always there, and Christians knew that at any time this threat could become a reality. The idea of martyrdom had a central place in the spiritual outlook of the early Christians. They saw their Church as founded upon blood – not only the blood of Christ but the blood of those ‘other Christs’, the martyrs. In later centuries when the Church became ‘established’ and no longer suffered persecution, the idea of martyrdom did not disappear, but it took other forms: the monastic life, for example, is often regarded by Greek writers as an equivalent to martyrdom. The same approach is found also in the west: take, for instance, a Celtic text – an Irish homily of the seventh century – which likens the ascetic life to the way of the martyr:
Now there are three kinds of martyrdom which are accounted as a Cross to a man, white martyrdom, green martyrdom, and red martyrdom. White martyrdom consists in a man’s abandoning everything he loves for God’s sake … Green martyrdom consists in this, that by means of fasting and labour he frees himself from his evil desires, or suffers toil in penance and repentance. Red martyrdom consists in the endurance of a Cross or death for Christ’s sake.’
At many periods in Orthodox history the prospect of red martyrdom has been fairly remote, and the green and white forms prevail. Yet there have also been times, above all in this present century, when Orthodox and other Christians have once again been called to undergo martyrdom of blood.
The Councils as the Manifestation of the Church Unity
It was only natural that the bishops, who, as Cyprian emphasized, share in the one episcopate, should meet together in a council to discuss their common problems. Orthodoxy has always attached great importance to the place of councils in the life of the Church. It believes that the council is the chief organ whereby God has chosen to guide His people, and it regards the Catholic Church as essentially a conciliar Church. (Indeed, in Russian the same adjective soborry has the double sense of ‘catholic’ and ‘conciliar’, while the corresponding noun, sobor, means both ‘church’ and ‘council’.) In the Church there is neither dictatorship nor individualism, but harmony and unanimity; its members remain free but not isolated, for they are united in love, in faith, and in sacramental communion. In a council, this idea of harmony and free unanimity can be seen worked out in practice. In a true council no single member arbitrarily imposes his wil1 upon the rest, but each consults with the others, and in this way they all freely achieve a ‘common mind’. A council is a living
embodiment of the essential nature of the Church.
The first council in the Church’s history is described in Acts xv. Attended by the Apostles, it met at Jerusalem to decide how far Gentile converts should be subject to the Law of Moses. The Apostles, when they finally reached their decision, spoke in terms which in other circumstances might appear presumptuous: ‘It seemed right to the Holy Spirit and to us …’ (Acts xv, 28 Later councils have ventured to speak with the same confidence An isolated individual may well hesitate to say, ‘It seemed right to the Holy Spirit and to me’; but when gathered in council, the members of the Church can together claim an authority which individually none of them possesses.
The Council of Jerusalem, assembling as it did the leaders of the entire Church, was an exceptional gathering, for which there is no parallel until the Council of Nicaea in 325. But by Cyprian’s time it had already become usual to hold local councils, attended by all the bishops in a particular civil province of the Roman Empire. A local council of this type normally met in the provincial capital, under the presidency of the bishop of the capital, who was given the title Metropolitan. As the third century proceeded, councils widened in scope and began to include bishops not from one but from several civil provinces. These larger gatherings tended to assemble in the chief cities of the Empire, such as Alexandria or Antioch; and so it came about that the bishops of certain great cities began to acquire an importance above the provincial Metropolitans. But for the time being nothing was decided about the precise status of these great sees. Nor during the third century itself did this continual expansion of councils reach its logical conclusion: as yet (apart from the Apostolic Council) there had only been local councils, of lesser or greater extent, but no ‘general’ council, formed of bishops from the whole Christian world, and claiming to speak in the name of the whole Church.
The Establishment of the Imperial Church
In 312 an event occurred which utterly transformed the outward situation of the Church. As he was riding through France with his army, the Emperor Constantine looked up into the sky and saw a cross of light in front of the sun. With the cross there was an inscription: In this sign conquer. As a result of this vision, Constantine became the first Roman Emperor to embrace the Christian faith. On that day in France a train of events was set in motion which brought the first main period of Church history to an end, and which led to the creation of the Christian Empire of Byzantium.
Constantine stands at a watershed in the history of the Church. With his conversion, the age of the martyrs and the persecutions drew to an end, and the Church of the Catacombs became the Church of the Empire. The first great effect of Constantine’s vision was the so-called ‘Edict’ of Milan, which he and his fellow Emperor Licinius issued in 313 proclaiming the official toleration of the Christian faith. And though at first Constantine granted no more than toleration, he soon made it clear that he intended to favour Christianity above all the other tolerated religions in the Roman Empire. Theodosius, within fifty years of Constantine’s death, had carried this policy through to its conclusion: by his legislation he made Christianity not merely the most highly favoured but the only recognized religion of the Empire. The Church was now established. ‘You are not allowed to exist,’ the Roman authorities had once said to the Christians. Now it was the turn of paganism to be suppressed.
Constantine’s vision of the Cross led also, in his lifetime, to two further consequences, equally momentous for the later development of Christendom. First, in 324 he decided to move the capital of the Roman Empire eastward from Italy to the shores of the Bosphorus. Here, on the site of the Greek city of Byzantium, he built a new capital, which he named after himself, ‘Constantinoupolis’. The motives for this move were in part economic and political, but they were also religious: the Old Rome was too deeply stained with pagan associations to form the centre of the Christian Empire which he had in mind. In the New Rome things were to be different: after the solemn inauguration of the city in 330, he laid down that at Constantinople no pagan rites should ever be performed. Constantine’s new capital has exercised a decisive influence upon the development of Orthodox history.
Secondly, Constantine summoned the first General or Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church at Nicaea in 325. If the Roman Empire was to be a Christian Empire, then Constantine wished to see it firmly based upon the one Orthodox faith. It was the duty of the Nicene Council to elaborate the content of that faith. Nothing could have symbolized more clearly the new relation between Church and State than the outward circumstances of the gathering at Nicaea. The Emperor himself presided, ‘like some heavenly messenger of God’, as one of those present, Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, expressed it. At the conclusion of the council the bishops dined with the Emperor. ‘The circumstances of the banquet,’ wrote Eusebius (who was inclined to be impressed by such things), ‘were splendid beyond description. Detachments of the bodyguard and other troops surrounded the entrance of the palace with drawn swords, and through the midst of these the men of God proceeded without fear into the innermost of the imperial apartments. Some were the Emperor’s own companions at table, others reclined on couches ranged on either side. One might have thought it was a picture of Christ’s kingdom, and a dream rather than reality.” Matters had certainly changed since the time when Nero employed Christians as living torches to illuminate his gardens at night. Nicaea was the first of seven general councils; and these, like the city of Constantine, occupy a central position in the history of Orthodoxy.
The three events – the Edict of Milan, the foundation of Constantinople and the Council of Nicaea – mark the Church’s coming of age.
THE FIRST SIX (ECUMENICAL) COUNCILS (325-681)
Fighting Against the Heresies
The life of the Church in the earlier Byzantine period is dominated by the seven general councils. These councils fulfilled a double task. First, they clarified and articulated the visible organization of the Church, crystallizing the position of the five great sees or Patriarchates, as they came to be known. Secondly, and more important, the councils defined once and for all the Church’s teaching upon the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith – the Trinity and the Incarnation. All Christians agree in regarding these things as ‘mysteries’ which lie beyond human understanding and language. The bishops, when they drew up definitions at the councils, did not imagine that they had explained the mystery; they merely sought to exclude certain false ways of speaking and thinking about it. To prevent people from deviating into error and heresy, they drew a fence around the mystery; that was all.
The discussions at the councils at times sound abstract and remote, yet they were inspired by a very practical purpose: human salvation. Humanity, so the New Testament teaches, is separated from God by sin, and cannot through its own efforts break down the wall of separation which its sinfulness has created. God has therefore taken the initiative: He has become man, has been crucified, and has risen again from the dead, thereby delivering humanity from the bondage of sin and death. This is the central message of the Christian faith, and it is this message of redemption that the councils were concerned to safeguard. Heresies were dangerous and required condemnation, because they impaired the teaching of the New Testament, setting up a barrier between humans and God, and so making it impossible for humans to attain full salvation.
Saint Paul expressed this message of redemption in terms of sharing. Christ shared our poverty that we might share the riches of His divinity: ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ, though He was rich, yet for your sake became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich’ (2 Corinthians viii, 9). In St John’s Gospel the same idea is found in a slightly different form. Christ states that He has given His disciples a share in the divine glory, and He prays that they may achieve union with God: ‘The glory which You, Father, gave Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them, and You in Me that they may be perfectly one’ (John xvii, 22-3 The Greek Fathers took these and similar texts in their literal sense, and dared to speak of humanity’s ‘deification’ (in Greek, theosis). If humans are to share in God’s glory, they argued, if they are to be ‘perfectly one’ with God, this means in effect that humans must be ‘deified’: they are called to become by grace what God is by nature. Accordingly St Athanasius summed up the purpose of the Incarnation by saying, ‘God became human that we might be made god.”
Now if this ‘being made god’, this theosis, is to be possible, Christ the Saviour must be both fully human and fully God. No one less than God can save humanity; therefore if Christ is to save, He must be God. But only if He is truly human, as we are, can we humans participate in what He has done for us. A bridge is formed between God and humanity by the Incarnate Christ who is divine and human at once. ‘Hereafter you shall see the heaven open,’ our Lord promised, ‘and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’ (John i, 51). Not only angels use that ladder, but the human race.
Christ must be fully God and fully human. Each heresy in turn undermined some part of this vital affirmation. Either Christ was made less than God (Arianism); or His humanity was so divided from His Godhead that He became two persons instead of one (Nestorianism); or He w as not presented as truly human (Monophysitism, Monothelitism). Each council defended this affirmation. The first two, held in the fourth century, concentrated upon the earlier part (that Christ must be fully God) and formulated the doctrine of the Trinity. The next four, during the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries, turned to the second part (the fullness of Christ’s humanity) and also sought to explain how humanity and Godhead could be united in a single person. The seventh council, in defence of the Holy Icons, seems at first to stand somewhat apart, but like the first six it was ultimately concerned with the Incarnation and with human salvation.
1st Ecumenical Council (Nicaea, 325 AD): The Defeat of Arianism
The main work of the Council of Nicaea in 325 was the condemnation of Arianism. Arius, a priest in Alexandria, maintained that the Son was inferior to the Father, and, in drawing a dividing line between God and creation, he placed the Son among created things: a superior creature, it is true, but a creature none the less. His motive, no doubt, was to protect the uniqueness and the transcendence of God, but the effect of his teaching, in making Christ less than God, was to render impossible our human deification. Only if Christ is truly God, the council answered, can He unite us to God, for none but God Himself can open to humans the way of union. Christ is ‘one in essence’ (homoousios) with the Father. He is no demigod or superior creature, but God in the same sense that the Father is God: ‘true God from true God,’ the council proclaimed in the Creed which it drew up, ‘begotten not made, one in essence with the Father’.
The Council of Nicaea dealt also with the visible organization of the Church. It singled out for mention three great centres: Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch (Canon VI) It also laid down that the see of Jerusalem while remaining subject to the Metropolitan of Caesarea, should be given the next place in honour after these three (Canon VII) Constantinople naturally was not mentioned, since it was not officially inaugurated as the new capital until five years later; it continued to be subject, as before, to the Metropolitan of Heraclea.
2nd Ecumenical Council (Constantinople, 381 AD): The Teaching Upon the Holy Spirit
The work of Nicaea was taken up by the second Ecumenical Council, held at Constantinople in 381. This council expanded and adapted the Nicene Creed, developing in particular the teaching upon the Holy Spirit, whom it affirmed to be God even as the Father and Son are God: ‘who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and together glorified’. The council also altered the provisions of the Sixth Canon of Nicaea. The position of Constantinople, now the capital of the Empire, could no longer be ignored, and it was assigned the second place, after Rome and above Alexandria. ‘The Bishop of Constantinople shall have the prerogatives of honour after the Bishop of Rome, because Constantinople is New Rome’ (Canon III).
Behind the definitions of the councils lay the work of theologians, who gave precision to the words which the councils employed. It was the supreme achievement of St Athanasius of Alexandria to draw out the full implications of the key word in the Nicene Creed: homoousios, one in essence or substance, consubstantial. Complementary to his work was that of the three Cappadocian Fathers, Saints Gregory of Nazianzus, known in the Orthodox Church as Gregory the Theologian (?329-?90 Basil the Great (?330-79), and his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa (died 394). While Athanasius emphasized the unity of God (Father and Son are one in essence (ousia)), the Cappadocians stressed God’s threeness: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons (hypostasis). Preserving a delicate balance between the threeness and the oneness in God, they gave full meaning to the classic summary of Trinitarian doctrine, three persons in one essence. Never before or since has the Church possessed four theologians of such stature within a single generation.
After 381 Arianism quickly ceased to be a living issue, except in certain parts of western Europe. The controversial aspect of the council’s work lay in its third Canon, which was resented alike by Rome and by Alexandria. Old Rome wondered where the claims of New Rome would end: might not Constantinople before long claim first place? Rome chose therefore to ignore the offending Canon, and not until the Lateran Council (1215) did the Pope formally recognize Constantinople’s claim to second place. (Constantinople was at that time in the hands of the Crusaders and under the rule of a Latin Patriarch.) But the Canon was equally a challenge to Alexandria, which hitherto had occupied the first place in the east. The next seventy years witnessed a sharp conflict between Constantinople and Alexandria, in which for a time the victory went to the latter. The first major Alexandrian success was at the Synod of the Oak, when Theophilus of Alexandria secured the deposition and exile of the Bishop of Constantinople, St John Chrysostom, ‘John of the Golden Mouth’ (?334-407). A fluent and eloquent preacher- his sermons must often have lasted for an hour or more – John expressed in popular form the theological ideas put forward by Athanasius and the Cappadocians. A man of strict and austere life, he was inspired by a deep compassion for the poor and by a burning zeal for social righteousness. Of all the Fathers he is perhaps the best loved in the Orthodox Church, and the one whose works are most widely read.
3rd Ecumenical Council (Ephesus, 431 AD): The Victory Over Nestorianism
Alexandria’s second major success was won by the nephew and successor of Theophilus, St Cyril of Alexandria (died 444), who brought about the fall of another Bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, at the third General Council, held in Ephesus (431). But at Ephesus there was more at stake than the rivalry of two great sees. Doctrinal issues, quiescent since 381, once more emerged, centring now not on the Trinity but on the Person of Christ. Cyril and Nestorius agreed that Christ was fully God, one of the Trinity, but they diverged in their descriptions of His humanity and in their method of explaining the union of the divine and the human in a single person. They represented different traditions or schools of theology. Nestorius, brought up in the school of Antioch, upheld the integrity of Christ’s humanity, but distinguished so emphatically between the humanity and the Godhead that he seemed in danger of ending, not with one person, but with two persons coexisting in the same body. Cyril, the protagonist of the opposite tradition of Alexandria, started from the unity of Christ’s person rather than the diversity of His humanity and Godhead, but spoke about Christ’s humanity less vividly than the Antiochenes. Either approach, if pressed too far, could lead to heresy, but the Church had need of both in order to form a balanced picture of the whole Christ. It was a tragedy for Christendom that the two schools, instead of balancing one another, entered into conflict.
Nestorius precipitated the controversy by declining to call the Virgin Mary ‘Mother of God’ (Theotokos). This title was already accepted in popular devotion, but it seemed to Nestorius to imply a confusion of Christ’s humanity and His Godhead. Mary, he argued – and here his Antiochene ‘separatism’ is evident – is only to be called ‘Mother of Man’ or at the most ‘Mother of Christ’, since she is mother only of Christ’s humanity, not of His divinity. Cyril, supported by the council, answered with the text ‘The Word was made flesh’ (John i, T4): Mary is God’s mother, for ‘she bore the Word of God made flesh’.’ What Mary bore was not a man loosely united to God, but a single and undivided person, who is God and man at once. The name Theotokos safeguards the unity of Christ’s person: to deny her this title is to separate the Incarnate Christ into two, breaking down the bridge between God and humanity and erecting within Christ’s person a middle wall of partition. Thus we can see that not only titles of devotion were involved at Ephesus, but the very message of salvation. The same primacy that the word homoousios occupies in the doctrine of the Trinity, the word Theotokos holds in the doctrine of the Incarnation.
Alexandria won another victory at a second council held in Ephesus in 449, but this gathering- so it was felt by a large part of the Christian world – pushed the Alexandrian position too far. Dioscorus of Alexandria, Cyril’s successor, insisted that there is in Christ only one nature (physis); the Saviour is from two natures, but after His Incarnation there is only ‘one incarnate nature of God the Word’. This is the position commonly termed ‘Monophysite’. It is true that Cyril himself had used such language, but Dioscorus omitted the balancing statements that Cyril had made in 433 as a concession to the Antiochenes. To many it seemed that Dioscorus was denying the integrity of Christ’s humanity, although this is almost certainly an unjust interpretation of his standpoint.
4th Ecumenical Council (Chalcedon, 451 AD): The Triumph of the Orthodox Christology
Only two years later, in 451, the Emperor Marcian summoned to Chalcedon a fresh gathering of bishops, which the Church of Byzantium and the west regarded as the fourth general council. The pendulum now swung back in an Antiochene direction. The council, rejecting the Monophysite position of Dioscorus, proclaimed that, while Christ is a single, undivided person, He is not only from two natures but in two natures. The bishops acclaimed the Tome of St Leo the Great, Pope of Rome (died 46i), in which the distinction between the two natures is clearly stated, although the unity of Christ’s person is also emphasized. In their proclamation of faith they stated their belief in ‘one and the same Son, perfect in Godhead and perfect in humanity, truly God and truly human … acknowledged in two natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference between the natures is in no way removed because of the union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature is preserved, and both combine in one person and in one hypostasis’. The Definition of Chalcedon, we may note, is aimed not only at the Monophysites (‘in two natures, unconfusedly, unchangeably’), but also at the followers of Nestorius (‘one and the same Son…indivisibly, inseparably’).
But Chalcedon was more than a defeat for Alexandrian theology: it was a defeat for Alexandrian claims to rule supreme in the east. Canon XXIII of Chalcedon confirmed Canon III of Constantinople, assigning to New Rome the place next in honour after Old Rome. Leo repudiated this Canon, but the east has ever since recognized its validity. The council also freed Jerusalem from the jurisdiction of Caesarea and gave it the fifth place among the great sees. The system later known among Orthodox as the Pentarchy was now complete, whereby five great sees in the Church were held in particular honour, and a settled order of precedence was established among them: in order of rank, Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem. A11 five claimed Apostolic foundation. The first four were the most important cities in the Roman Empire; the fifth was added because it was the place where Christ had suffered on the Cross and risen from the dead. The bishop in each of these cities received the title Patriarch. The five Patriarchates between them divided into spheres of jurisdiction the whole of the known world, apart from Cyprus, which was granted independence by the Council of Ephesus and has remained self-governing ever since.
When speaking of the Orthodox conception of the Pentarchy there are two possible misunderstandings which must be avoided. First, the system of Patriarchs and Metropolitans is a matter of ecclesiastical organization. But if we look at the Church from the viewpoint not of ecclesiastical order but of divine right, then we must say that all bishops are essentially equal, however humble or exalted the city over which each presides. All bishops share equally in the apostolic succession, all have the same sacramental powers, all are divinely appointed teachers of the faith. If a dispute about doctrine arises, it is not enough for the Patriarchs to express their opinion: every diocesan bishop has the right to attend a general council, to speak, and to cast his vote. The system of the Pentarchy does not impair the essential equality of all bishops, nor does it deprive each local community of the importance which Ignatius assigned to it.
In the second place, Orthodox believe that among the five Patriarchs a special place belongs to the Pope. The Orthodox Church does not accept the doctrine of Papal authority set forth in the decrees of the Vatican Council of 1870, and taught today in the Roman Catholic Church; but at the same time Orthodoxy does not deny to the Holy and Apostolic See of Rome a primacy of honour, together with the right (under certain conditions) to hear appeals from all parts of Christendom. Note that we have used the word ‘primacy’, not ‘supremacy’. Orthodox regard the Pope as the bishop ‘who presides in love’, to adapt a phrase of St Ignatius: Rome’s mistake – so Orthodox believe – has been to turn this primacy or ‘presidency of love’ into a supremacy of external power and jurisdiction.
This primacy which Rome enjoys takes its origin from three factors. First, Rome was the city where St Peter and St Paul were martyred, and where Peter was bishop. The Orthodox Church acknowledges Peter as the first among the Apostles: it does not forget the celebrated ‘Petrine texts’ in the Gospels (Matthew xvi 18,19; Luke xxii, 32; John xxi, 15-17) – although Orthodox theologians do not understand these texts in quite the same way as modern Roman Catholic commentators. And while many Orthodox theologians would say that not only the Bishop of Rome but all bishops are successors of Peter, yet most of them at the same time admit that the Bishop of Rome is Peter’s successor in a special sense. Secondly, the see of Rome also owed its primacy to the position occupied by the city of Rome in the Empire: she was the capital, the chief city of the ancient world, and such in some measure she continued to be even after the foundation of Constantinople. Thirdly, although there were occasions when Popes fell into heresy, on the whole during the first eight centuries of the Church’s history the Roman see was noted for the purity of its faith: other Patriarchates wavered during the great doctrinal disputes, but Rome for the most part stood firm. When hard pressed in the struggle against heretics, people felt that they could turn with confidence to the Pope. Not only the Bishop of Rome, but every bishop, is appointed by God to be a teacher of the faith; yet because the see of Rome had in practice taught the faith with an outstanding loyalty to the truth, it was above all to Rome that everyone appealed for guidance in the early centuries of the Church.
But as with Patriarchs, so with the Pope: the primacy assigned to Rome does not overthrow the essential equality of all bishops. The Pope is the first bishop in the Church – but he is the first among equals.
Ephesus and Chalcedon were a rock of Orthodoxy, but they were also a grave rock of offence. The Arians had been gradually reconciled and formed no lasting schism. But to this day there exist Christians belonging to the Church of the East (frequently, although misleadingly, called ‘Nestorians’) who cannot accept the decisions of Ephesus, and who consider it incorrect to call the Virgin Mary Theotokos; and to this day there also exist Non-Chalcedonians who follow the Monophysite teaching of Dioscorus, and who reject the Chalcedonian Definition and the Tome of Leo. The Church of the East lay almost entirely outside the Byzantine Empire, and little more is heard of it in Byzantine history. But large numbers of Non-Chalcedonians, particularly in Egypt and Syria, were subjects of the Emperor, and repeated though unsuccessful efforts were made to bring them back into communion with the Byzantine Church. As so often, theological differences were made more bitter by cultural and national tension. Egypt and Syria, both predominantly non-Greek in language and background, resented the power of Greek Constantinople, alike in religious and in political matters. Thus ecclesiastical schism was reinforced by political separatism. Had it not been for these nontheological factors, the two sides might perhaps have reached a theological understanding after Chalcedon. Many modern scholars are inclined to think that the difference between ‘Non-Chalcedonians’ and ‘Chalcedonians’ was basically one of terminology, not of theology. The two parties understood the word ‘nature’ (physis) in different ways, but both were concerned to affirm the same basic truth: that Christ the Saviour is fully divine and fully human, and yet He is one and not two.
5th & 6th Ecumenical Councils (Constantinople & Chalcedon, 553 & 680-681 AD): Confirmed the Victory over Monotheletism
The Definition of Chalcedon was supplemented by two later councils, both held at Constantinople. The fifth Ecumenical Council (553) reinterpreted the decrees of Chalcedon from an Alexandrian point of view, and-sought to explain, in more constructive terms than Chalcedon had used, how the two natures of Christ unite to form a single person. The sixth Ecumenical Council (680-81) condemned the heresy of the Monothelites, who argued that although Christ has two natures, yet since He is a single person, He has only one will. The Council replied that if He has two natures, then He must also have two wills. The Monothelites, it was felt, impaired the fullness of Christ’s humanity, since human nature without a human will would be incomplete, a mere abstraction. Since Christ is true man as well as true God, He must have a human as well as a divine will.
During the fifty years before the meeting of the sixth Council, Byzantium was faced with a sudden and alarming development: the rise of Islam. The most striking fact about Muslim expansion was its speed. When the Prophet died in 632 his authority scarcely extended beyond the Hejaz. But within fifteen years
his Arab followers had taken Syria, Palestine, and Egypt; within fifty they were at the walls of Constantinople and almost captured the city; within a hundred they had swept across North Africa, advanced through Spain, and forced western Europe to fight for its life at the Battle of Poitiers. The Arab inasions have been called ‘a centrifugal explosion, driving in every direction small bodies of mounted raiders in quest of food, plunder, and conquest. The old empires were in no state to resist them.” Christendom survived, but only with difficulty. The Byzantines lost their eastern possessions, and the three Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem passed under infidel control; within the Christian Empire of the East, the Patriarchate of Constantinople was now without rival. Henceforward Byzantium was never free for very long from Muslim attacks, and although it held out for eight centuries more, yet in the end it succumbed.
The Dispute over the Holy Icons
Disputes concerning the Person of Christ did not cease with the council of 681, but were extended in a different form into the eighth and ninth centuries. The struggle centred on the Holy Icons, the pictures of Christ, the Mother of God, and the saints, which were kept and venerated both in churches and in private homes. The Iconoclasts or icon-smashers, suspicious of any religious art which represented human beings or God, demanded the destruction of icons; the opposite party, the Iconodules or venerators of icons, vigorously defended the place of icons in the life of the Church. The struggle was not merely a confiict between two conceptions of Christian art. Deeper issues were involved: the character of Christ’s human nature, the Christian attitude towards matter, the true meaning of Christian redemption.
The Iconoclasts may have been influenced from the outside by Jewish and Muslim ideas, and it is significant that three years before the first outbreak of Iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire, the Muslim Caliph Yezid ordered the removal of all icons within his dominions. But Iconoclasm was not simply imported from outside; within Christianity itself there had always existed a ‘puritan’ outlook, which condemned icons because it saw in all images a latent idolatry. When the Isaurian Emperors attacked icons, they found plenty of support inside the Church.
The Iconoclast controversy, which lasted some Leo years, falls into two phases. The first period opened in 726 when Leo 111 began his attack on icons, and ended in 780 when the Empress Irene suspended the persecution. The Iconodule position was upheld by the seventh and last Ecumenical Council (787), which met, as the first had done, at Nicaea. Icons, the council proclaimed, are to be kept in churches and honoured with the same relative veneration as is shown to other material symbols, such as the ‘precious and life-giving Cross’ and the Book of Gospels. A new attack on icons, started by Leo V the Armenian in 815, continued until 843 when the icons were again reinstated, this time permanently, by another Empress, Theodora. The final victory of the Holy Images in 843 is known as ‘the Triumph of Orthodoxy’, and is commemorated in a special service celebrated on ‘Orthodoxy Sunday’, the first Sunday in Lent. The chief champion of the icons in the first period was St John of Damascus (?675-749), in the second St Theodore of Stoudios (759-826). John was able to work the more freely because he dwelt in Muslim territory, out of reach of the Byzantine government. It was not the last time that Islam acted unintentionally as the protector of Orthodoxy.
One of the distinctive features of Orthodoxy is the place which it assigns to icons. An Orthodox church today is filled with them: dividing the sanctuary from the body of the building there is a solid screen, the iconostasis, entirely covered with icons, while other icons are placed in special shrines around the church; and perhaps the walls are covered with icons in fresco or mosaic. An Orthodox prostrates himself before these icons, he kisses them and burns candles in front of them; they are censed by the priest and carried in procession. What do these gestures and actions mean? What do icons signify, and why did John of Damascus and others regard them as important?
We shall consider first the charge of idolatry, which the Iconoclasts brought against the Iconodules; then the positive value of icons as a means of instruction; and finally their doctrinal importance.
(A) The Question of Idolatry
When an Orthodox kisses an icon or prostrates himself before it, he is not guilty of idolatry. The icon is not an idol but a symbol; the veneration shown to images is directed, not towards stone, wood, and paint, but towards the person depicted. This had been pointed out some time before the Iconoclast controversy by Leontius of Neapolis (died about 650): We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross … When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them.’ Because icons are only symbols, Orthodox do not worship them, but reverence or venerate them. John of Damascus carefully distinguished between the relative honour of veneration shown to material symbols, and the worship due to God alone.
(B) Icons As Part of the Church’s Teaching
Icons, said Leontius, are ‘opened books to remind us of God’; they are one of the means which the Church employs in order to teach the faith. He who lacks learning or leisure to study works of theology has only to enter a church to see unfolded before him on the walls all the mysteries of the Christian religion. If a pagan asks you to show him your faith, said the Iconodules, take him into church and place him before the icons. In this way icons form a part of Holy Tradition.
(C) The Doctrinal Significance of Icons
Here we come to the real heart of the Iconoclast dispute. Granted that icons are not idols; granted that they are useful for instruction; but are they not only permissible but necessary? Is it essential to have icons? The Iconodules held that it is, because icons safeguard a full and proper doctrine of the Incarnation. Iconoclasts and Iconodules agreed that God cannot be represented in His eternal nature: ‘no one has seen God at any time’ (John i, 18). But, the Iconodules continued, the Incarnation has made a representational religious art possible: God can be depicted because He became human and took flesh. Material images, argued John of Damascus, can be made of Him who took a material body:
Of old God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was not depicted at all. But now that God has appeared in the flesh and lived among humans, I make an image of the God who can be seen. I do not worship matter but I worship the’ Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation. I will not cease from worshipping the matter through which my salvation has been effected.’
The Iconoclasts, by repudiating all representations of God, failed to take full account of the Incarnation. They fell, as so many puritans have done, into a kind of dualism. Regarding matter as a defilement, they wanted a religion freed from all contact with what is material; for they thought that what is spiritual must be non-material. But this is to betray the Incarnation, by allowing no place to Christ’s humanity, to His body; it is to forget that our body as well as our soul must be saved and transfigured. The Iconoclast controversy is thus closely linked to the earlier disputes about Christ’s person. It was not merely a controversy about religious art, but about the Incarnation, about human salvation, about the salvation of the entire material cosmos.
God took a material body, thereby proving that matter can be redeemed: ‘The Word made flesh has deified the flesh,’ said John of Damascus. God has ‘deified’ matter, making it ‘spirit-bearing’; and if flesh has become a vehicle of the Spirit, then so – though in a different way – can wood and paint. The Orthodox doctrine of icons is bound up with the Orthodox belief that the whole of God’s creation, material as well as spiritual, is to be redeemed and glorified. In the words of Nicolas Zernov (1898-I980) – what he says of Russians is true of all Orthodox:
[Icons] were for the Russians not merely paintings. They were dynamic manifestations of man’s spiritual power to redeem creation through beauty and art. The colours and lines of the [icons] were not meant to imitate nature; the artists aimed at demonstrating that men, animals, and plants, and the whole cosmos, could be rescued from their present state of degradation and restored to their proper ‘Image’. The [icons] were pledges of the coming victory of a redeemed creation over the fallen one … The artistic perfection of an icon was not only a reflection of the celestial glory – it was a concrete example of matter restored to its original harmony and beauty, and serving as a vehicle of the Spirit. The icons were part of the transfigured cosmos.’
7th Ecumenical Council (Nicaea, 787 AD): The Victory of the Iconophiles and the Final Triumph of Orthodoxy
The conclusion of the Iconoclast dispute, the meeting of the seventh Ecumenical Council, the Triumph of Orthodoxy in 843 – these mark the end of the second period in Orthodox history, the period of the seven councils. These seven councils are of immense importance to Orthodoxy. For members of the Orthodox Church, their interest is not merely historical but contemporary; they are the concern not only of scholars and clergy, but of all the faithful. ‘Even illiterate peasants,’ said Dean Stanley, ‘to whom, in the corresponding class of life in Spain and Italy, the names of Constance and Trent would probably be quite unknown, are well aware that their Church reposes on the basis of the seven councils, and retain a hope that they may yet live to see an eighth general council, in which the evils of the time will be set straight.’ Orthodox often call themselves ‘the Church of the Seven Councils’. By this they do not mean that the Orthodox Church has ceased to think creatively since 787. But they see in the period of the councils the great age of theology; and, next to the Bible, it is the seven councils which the Orthodox Church takes as its standard and guide in seeking solutions to new problems which arise in every generation.
History of the Orthodox Church
The true orthodox way of thought has always been historical, has always included the past, but has never been enslaved by it. . . [for] the strength of the Church is not in the past, present, or future, but in Christ.
-Fr. Alexander Schmemann
Christianity has always been unusually sensitive to the past; its enduring relevance has, in fact, never been in doubt. The basic reason for this sensibility is that Christian biblical revelation takes place in a historical context and is, quite simply, a revelation of historical data, of God’s activity in history. It is in time and human space that man’s salvation unfolds-God’s chosen way to redeem us. That Christian Scripture takes the form, more often than not, of a richly detailed historical narrative should come as no surprise.
These considerations, taken together, explain the powerful appeal history has always had for Orthodox Christianity. Orthodox worship, for example, is invariably also a witness to history; it recalls, in its rich diversity, particular historical events not only from the earthly life of the Lord, but from the life of the Church, its saints, ascetics, martyrs, and theologians. Every liturgy, every feast, is at once a celebration of time and of the eschatological reality; an anticipation of the “world to come” – of what is beyond history – as well as a remembrance of a concrete historical past. But history likewise lies at the root of Orthodoxy’s conviction that it is the true Church of Christ on earth. It is actually because of its possession of an uninterrupted historical and theological continuity that it is able to make this claim at all. The Church, as we should expect of any historical phenomenon, has changed and developed through the centuries. True enough. Still, the Church in its essential identity – in its organic and spiritual continuity – remains substantially coextensive with the Church of the Apostles. It is, in effect, the living continuation in time and space of the primitive Church in Jerusalem. In a full theological sense it is the one Orthodox Catholic Church in all its fullness and plenitude.
A. THE INFANT CHURCH
The Apostolic Era
This said, our brief survey of the long evolution of Orthodox Christianity begins with the first Pentecost in Jerusalem and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Christ’s small circle of disciples. It is then that the Orthodox Church was born – today the second largest organized body of Christians in the world. The Apostles, it is true, had been historic witnesses to Christ’s messianic ministry and resurrection before the Spirit of God descended on them. Still, it was with this event that they felt authorized to preach the Gospel to the world. Only then were they able to fully understand the mystery of Easter, that God had raised Jesus from the dead, and begin their mission. The expansion of the early Christian movement, however, was not without problems, nor was it spontaneous. Persecution and martyrdom awaited most of its initial members. The aggressive new missionary community, nevertheless, was destined to survive and grow in numbers. By the third century it had become a “mass phenomenon.” Though unevenly scattered, it constituted possibly as much as ten percent of the total population of the Roman Empire. As such, it was sufficiently strong to compel the Roman emperors to end the persecutions. The Church, arguably, could no longer be ignored – numerically or ideologically; hence the legal recognition of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century (312), and its subsequent recognition as the official religion of the empire by the end, under Theodosius (392).
Persecution and Success
The causes of this success are understandably complex. The disciplined close-knit structure of the Church, its social solidarity and internal cohesion, its care for the poor and the deprived did not go unnoticed. Both the hostile critic and the ordinary pagan observer were aware of these advantages. Furthermore, the persecution and martyrdom of Christians – despite the streak of cruelty in some who observed these punishments – could not but raise doubts and questions for many individuals. Nor did Christianity’s message of equality before God fail to make its impression on the stratified urban population of the ancient world. Finally, Christianity’s exclusiveness, the intimate sense of belonging, as well as its universality attracted new adherents. Ultimately and at a deeper level, however, it was the saving message of the Gospel that was the principal cause of Christian expansion. This message promised not only reconciliation and forgiveness of sin, but liberation from the bondage of death and corruption. “Christians were Christians,” as one scholar has put it, “only because Christianity brought to them liberation from death.” Above all, through Christ’s own resurrection, man’s own incorruptibility, his own future physical resurrection and deification was assured. To be in Christ, as St. Paul says, is to be a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is to the simple appeal of the primitive proclamation of the Gospel, in sum, that we must turn for the more probable cause of Christian expansion.
The Impact of Christian Victory
In a very real sense, the first four centuries of the Christian era were among the most creative. The Christian victory was undeniably revolutionary both for the Roman Empire and the European civilization that followed. From the perspective of the Church itself the period was even more significant. It is then that the Church achieved a certain self-identity, even self-awareness, which has since remained normative for Orthodoxy. Two developments which affected its self-understanding — one institutional and the other doctrinal — will suffice to illustrate this truism. The Church was initially without a New Testament. “Scripture” invariably simply meant the Old Testament. Increasingly, however, the Church saw the need to bring together all the writings of apostolic origin or inspiration into a single canon. This collection of twenty-seven books still constitutes the total apostolic witness for the Church and is identical with our present New Testament. In sum, one of the most significant events in the history of Christianity during this period was its transformation, to borrow Harnack’s phrase, into a religion of two Testaments. These writings, it is worth pointing out, were received and acknowledged by the community of the Church because they coincided with its own Tradition and the witness of the Holy Spirit indwelling in its midst since Pentecost. Strictly speaking, Christians lived solely by this Tradition decades before the content of the New Testament was determined. In the circumstances, Scripture in the Orthodox Church is routinely interpreted within the context of Tradition. As Father Georges Florovsky famously argued, it is within this larger setting of the Church’s living memory (Tradition) that Scripture discloses its authentic message.
Early Administrative Structure
Equally crucial for the life of the Church was the formation of its administrative structure. As a rule, the ministry of the Apostles was itinerant, not stationary. After founding a community the Apostles would depart for another mission, leaving behind others to administer the new congregation and preside over the Eucharist and Baptism. In effect, a local hierarchy developed whose functions were stationary, administrative, and sacramental in contrast with the mobile authority of the Apostles. The presiding officer of each community, especially at each Sunday eucharistic meal, was the episcopos, or bishop, who was assisted by priests and deacons. By the early second century, this settled system with its threefold pattern of bishop, priest, deacon was already in place in many areas. There was nothing unusual in this development. After all, the Last Supper — the first liturgy — could not have taken place without the Lord’s presiding presence. Indeed, from the beginning, the existence of a presiding head was taken for granted by the Church. This establishment of a local “monarchical” episcopate is still at the very center of Orthodox ecclesiology.
B. THE BYZANTINE CHURCH
The Medieval Period
If the early fourth century marks the end of the period of persecutions and the Church’s formative age, it also marks the dawn of the medieval period. With the fourth century we are standing on the threshold of a new civilization — the Christian empire of medieval Byzantium. Clearly, Constantine’s recognition of Christianity was decisive. Equally momentous doubtless was his decision to transfer the imperial residence — the center of Roman government — to Constantinople in 330. The importance of this event in the history of Eastern Christianity can hardly be exaggerated. This capital situated in the old Greek city of Byzantium, soon became the focus of the new emerging Orthodox civilization. Historical opinion remains divided on the question of Byzantium’s contribution to civilization. Still, its lasting legacy lies arguably in the area of religion and art; it is these which give Byzantine culture much of its unity and cohesion. The new cultural synthesis that developed was at any rate clearly Christian, dominated by the Christian vision of life, rather than the pagan. We need only turn to Justinian’s (532) “Great Church” of the Holy Wisdom — the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople — to understand this. But if Constantinople, the “New Rome” became the setting for this new civilization, it also became the unrivaled center of Orthodox Christianity. It is during this pivotal period in the history of the Church that the city’s bishop assumed the title of “ecumenical patriarch.”
Heresies and Ecumenical Councils
Space does not permit us to elaborate on this period in detail. It is, as it turns out, the single longest chapter in the history of the Church. The Byzantine Empire was characterized by a remarkable endurance: it survived for over a millennium until its fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. We will therefore limit ourselves to an outline of this age, to the events and developments which exercised the greatest influence on the life of the Church. The seven ecumenical councils with their doctrinal formulations are of particular importance. Specifically, these assemblies were responsible for the formulation of Christian doctrine. As such, they constitute a permanent standard for an Orthodox understanding of the Trinity, the persons of Christ, the incarnation. The mystery of the divine reality was evidently not exhausted by these verbal definitions. All the same, they constitute an authoritative norm against which all subsequent speculative theology is measured. Their decisions remain binding for the whole Church; non-acceptance constitutes exclusion from the communion of the Church. This explains the separation from the body of the Church of such groups as the Jacobites, Armenians, Copts, and Nestorians. Ultimately, acceptance of these councils by the entire community of the Church is what gave them validity and authority. By and large, however, their reception was also due to the great theologians of the age; their literary defense of the theology of these councils was decisive. As we should expect, the writings of such Fathers and saints as Basil, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus, Cyril, and Gregory of Nyssa, still constitute an inexhaustible theological source for the contemporary Orthodox Christian.
But the seven ecumenical councils are significant for another reason. The visible threefold ministerial structure of the Church was already a reality in many communities by the post-apostolic period, as we have had occasion to observe. Each of these self-contained local churches, with its own independent hierarchical structure, was a self-governing unit. However, precise standards governing the relations of these churches with each other had not been defined. Still, a certain “power structure” modeled in the main upon the organization of the Roman Empire eventually emerged; even before the fourth century a provincial system had developed in which churches were grouped in provinces. In such cases it was customary to give greater honor to the “metropolitan” or bishop of the capital city (metropolis) of each province. Similarly, given the importance of certain cities in the Roman administration, special precedence was accorded the presiding bishop of the three largest cities in the empire: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch. All the same, such developments in which a church was ranked according to its civil importance in the administrative divisions of the Roman state, had evolved by common consensus without any ecclesiastical legislation to support it. This problem was eventually addressed by the ecumenical councils. For example, the Fathers of the first council (325) formally recognized the status of the three dioceses of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. With the emergence of Constantinople as the new capital of the empire, this patriarchal system was further modified. After all, the change wrought in the civil administration by Constantinople’s new status could not but affect ecclesiastical structure. A rearrangement of the existing pattern was obviously necessary. At the council of 381, Constantinople, as the “New Rome,” was accordingly given second place after the old Rome, while Alexandria was assigned third place. This legislation received further confirmation at the fourth council of Chalcedon (451), when Constantinople, along with Jerusalem, was granted patriarchal status.
To sum up, by the fifth century, a “pentarchy” or system of five sees (patriarchates), with a settled order of precedence, had been established. Rome, as the ancient center and largest city of the empire, was understandably given the presidency or primacy of honor within the pentarchy into which Christendom was now divided. Plainly, this system of patriarchs and metropolitans was exclusively the result of ecclesiastical legislation; there was nothing inherently divine in its origin. None of the five sees, in short, possessed its authority by divine right. Had this been so, Alexandria could not have been demoted to third rank in order to have Constantinople exalted to second place. The determining factor was simply their secular status as the most important cities in the empire. Typically, each of the five patriarchs was totally sovereign within his sphere of jurisdiction. The primacy of Rome, as such, did not entail universal jurisdictional power over the others. On the contrary, all bishops, whether patriarchs or not, were equal. No one bishop, however exalted his see or diocese, could claim supremacy over the others. The bishop of Rome was simply vested with the presidency, as the senior bishop – the first among equals.
The Iconclastic Crisis
In view of the prominent part played by the visual arts in Orthodox piety and liturgical life, a brief explanation is necessary of Byzantine iconoclasm and the seventh ecumenical council (787) which condemned it. It is a commonplace, but one worth repeating, that Byzantine religious art is among the empire’s most enduring legacies. An iconoclast victory arguably decisively would have altered the course of Byzantine painting. Overall, iconoclasm is often viewed apart from the christological debates with which the earlier ecumenical councils were concerned. Be that as it may; the issue, to an unusual degree, was christological in nature. To illustrate this point we need to begin with the fundamental iconoclast objection to images. How could the divinity of Christ — suggested the iconoclasts — be depicted or represented without lapsing into idolatry? Plainly, the veneration of the Lord’s icon was nothing less than idolatrous worship of inanimate wood and paint; and that expressly was forbidden by Scripture to the Christian. This seemingly cogent argument, however, did not convince the Fathers of the Seventh Council.
A material image, it is true, is made of wood and paint, but it is only a symbol. More to the point, it is not an object of absolute veneration or worship. On the contrary, icons are only relatively venerated since the true object of veneration is ultimately the person imaged or depicted in the icon, not the image itself. A clear distinction must indeed be drawn between veneration (proskynesis timetike) by which an icon should be honored, and worship (latreia) which belongs alone to God. In sum, it is altogether unlawful to worship icons, for God alone is worshipped and adored; they could and should be venerated, however. This insistence that icons should be honored brings us to the Church’s second crucial argument — the christological. This argument maintains that a representation of the Lord or of the saints is entirely permissible and in fact necessary because of the incarnation. That is to say, in other words, the Son of God, the image of the Father, can be depicted pictorially precisely because he became visible and describable by assuming human nature and by becoming man. Any repudiation of the Lord’s image is tantamount to a denial of the mystery of the incarnation. Fittingly enough, the defeat of iconoclasm is celebrated annually by the Orthodox Church on the first Sunday of Lent. This “Feast of Orthodoxy” commemorates the final restoration of images (11 March 843).
But if Orthodox devotional art received its definitive form during the Byzantine period, so did the liturgical life of the Church. That the see of Constantinople should have played the crucial and determining role in this “process of Byzantinization” is not surprising. Historically, before its rise to political prominence in the fourth century, Constantinople was only a minor bishopric without any liturgical tradition of its own. Its liturgical life was gradually formed from other local liturgical elements and traditions. Older centers such as Antioch and Jerusalem made major contributions to this process. Also involved in the building up of this “Byzantine rite” was the city’s resident imperial court with its own elaborate ceremonial. By the ninth century, given Constantinople’s growing importance in the Church, this new liturgical synthesis became the standard and eventually replaced all other local rites within the Church. The liturgy and the whole cycle of services, such as compline, vespers, etc., used today in the Orthodox world, is substantially identical with the original Byzantine rite of Constantinople.
The Influence of Monasticism
The two areas just described – liturgy and iconography – would be inconceivable without the contribution of Byzantine monasticism. The victory of the Church against iconoclasm was by and large the work of Byzantine monks, as are liturgical regulations governing the cycle of Orthodox services today. Indeed, the impact of monasticism on Orthodox Christianity was all encompassing and far-reaching. Monasticism as a permanent institution did not exist before the fourth century. Its institutional origins will not be found in any single specific directive of the Lord or in any particular passage of the New Testament. Its foundations, all the same, are rooted in the totality of the Gospel message – the source of both its creativity and strength. Behind the physical withdrawal into the desert or a monastery lies the renunciation of the world and of Satan to which every Christian commits himself at baptism. This renunciation is a basic condition to being a Christian. The monastic vocation, in sum, is intimately bound to the baptismal vow. Entering a monastery is simply another means by which some have chosen to live the absolute ideal of the Gospel. This may seem an extreme way to follow Christ, and yet all Christians, whether in or outside the monastery, are ultimately called to the same renunciation, the same perfection, the same fulfillment of the Gospel. The personal search for holiness is not the monk’s special preserve.
It is because of its essentially Christian goals that asceticism spread and influenced Orthodox spirituality, prayer, piety, and general Church life. Besides, the Church itself sponsored and promoted it, having intuitively recognized its unique charismatic ministry, usefulness, and potential for holiness. We have already noted its contributions to the Church in two areas. Less well known, perhaps, is the fact that the Church often recruited its episcopate from the countless monastic communities dotting the Byzantine countryside. One monastery on Mt. Athos, in addition to producing 144 bishops, provided the Church with 26 patriarchs. Indeed, virtually two thirds of the patriarchs of Constantinople between the ninth and the thirteenth centuries were monastics. But the charismatic and eschatological witness of monasticism was crucial. As the established faith of the Byzantine Empire, the Church was often in danger of identifying itself with the state, of becoming worldly and thus losing its eschatological dimension. The monastic presence was always there to remind the Church of its true nature and identity with another Kingdom. Its fierce opposition to any compromise of the Christian vision was crucial in the Church’s survival and independence.
Church and State
The Byzantine Church has often been described as a “state” or “national” Church. This observation, however, is misleading, not to say offensive. True, the Byzantine world became more Greek linguistically and geographically as a result of the defection of the non-Greek speaking areas of Syria and Egypt during the period of the ecumenical councils. Additionally, the schism between Eastern and Western Christendom further isolated and confined Christian Byzantium. These losses were considerable and tragic, both for the Church and the empire. As a matter of fact, however, although the Church is “eastern” by virtue of its geography, in its theology and tradition it is Catholic and Orthodox. Historically, the Byzantine Church itself was never so confined or isolated as the Byzantine Empire. The vigor of its missionary drive in Eastern Europe and the Slavic world, shortly after the iconoclastic controversy, is eloquent evidence to the contrary.
The Conversion of the Slavs
This evangelization, or christianization, of the Slavs was initiated by one of Byzantium’s most learned churchmen – the Patriarch Photius. His choice of the brothers Cyril and Methodius for the mission was a stroke of genius and missionary insight, for both spoke the Slavic dialect then in use among the Slavic settlers near their native city of Thessalonica. Having received their commission, they immediately set about creating an alphabet, the so-called Cyrillic; they then translated the Scripture and the liturgy. Hence, the origins of Church Slavonic, the common liturgical language still used by the Russian Orthodox Church and other Slavic Orthodox Christians. Although their first mission to Moravia was unsuccessful (they were forced to flee by German missionaries and the changing political situation), their work was not in vain. Before long Byzantine missionaries, including the exiled disciples of the two brothers, turned to other areas. Bythe beginning of the eleventh century most of the pagan Slavic world, including Russia, Bulgaria and Serbia, had been won for Byzantine Christianity. Bulgaria was officially recognized as a patriarchate by Constantinople in 945, Serbia in 1346, and Russia in 1589. All these nations, however, had been converted long before these dates. The conversion of Russia actually began with the baptism of Vladimir of Kiev in 989, on which occasion he was also married to the Byzantine princess Anna, the sister of the Byzantine Emperor Basil II.
The Orthodox Commonwealth
But this expansion into the Slavic world also created an Orthodox “Commonwealth.” Byzantine art, literature, and culture were no longer confined within Byzantium’s own political frontiers, but extended far beyond into the Balkans and the north of Russia to create a single Byzantine Orthodox commonwealth. The Slavic nations, in sum, were not only christianized, but civilized by the Byzantines.The saving message of the New Testament was also accompanied by the gift of civilization. This was a major factor in the formation and future development of Slavic culture. But if the conversion of the Slavs was pivotal in the destiny of the young Slavic nations it was equally decisive for the future of the Church. It was in the main this missionary vigor which preserved Byzantine Christianity’s universality. The inclusion of Slavic Orthodoxy into the Orthodox fold permanently enlarged the Church’s area of geographic distribution. Equally, the Slavic element brought immense riches into the Church’s midst. Few people, perhaps, have embraced the Orthodox faith with such ardor and devotion as the Slavs.
East and West
Finally, this chapter of Church history also serves to demonstrate another major point. Whereas Western Christianity at this time was zealously imposing a uniform Latin liturgical language on converts, Byzantine Christianity refused to do so. Generally, Greek was seldom used as a missionary language among the Slavs. The principle of a single liturgical language was avoided. Hence, the Cyrillic alphabet and liturgy, which employed the vernacular language of the peoples, created native-speaking Churches in the Balkans and elsewhere. Orthodox Christianity, in brief, insisted on preaching the Gospel in the ordinary language of the people so as to be directly and immediately understood by the new converts. And that, after all, is the goal of Christian mission. In the history of Orthodoxy, this legacy of the “Apostles to the Slavs,” Saints Cyril and Methodius, is among the most precious.
The preceding section has provided a survey, not exhaustive but sufficient for our purposes, of the Church’s Byzantine period. Before examining the long Turkish domination that followed the fall of Constantinople, we need to explore one final event in the life of the medieval Church – the schism between Eastern and Western Christianity. To begin with, this tragic division was not an event, but a prolonged process stretching over centuries. The cracks and fissures in Christian unity are arguably visible as early as the fourth century. As such, 1054, the traditional date marking the beginning of the schism and the excommunication of patriarch Michael Cerularius by papal legates, is inaccurate.
There is, in fact, no precise date. What really happened was a complex chain of events whose climax was only reached in the thirteenth century with the sack of Constantinople by western Crusaders (1204). Equally, we need to remember that the events leading to schism were not always exclusively theological in nature. Cultural, political, and linguistic differences were often mixed with the theological. Any narrative of the schism which emphasizes one at the expense of the other will be fragmentary. Unlike the Copts or Armenians who broke from the Church in the fifth century and established ethnic churches at the cost of their universality and catholicity, the eastern and western parts of the Church remained loyal to the faith and authority of the seven ecumenical councils. They were united, by virtue of their common faith and tradition, in one Church. Still, the transfer of the Roman capital to the Bosporus inevitably brought mistrust, rivalry, and even jealousy to the relations of the two great sees, Rome and Constantipole. It was easy for Rome to be jealous of Constantinople at a time when it was rapidly losing its political prominence. In fact, Rome refused to recognize the conciliar legislation which promoted Constantinople to second rank. But the estrangement was also helped along by the German invasions in the West, which effectively weakened contacts. The rise of Islam with its conquest of most of the Mediterranean coastline (not to mention the arrival of the pagan Slavs in the Balkans at the same time) further intensified this separation by driving a physical wedge between the two worlds. The once homogenous unified world of the Mediterranean was fast vanishing. Communication between the Greek East and the Latin West by the 600s had become dangerous and practically ceased.
The Photian Schism
The gap widened further in the ninth century when the missionary ambitions of the two communions clashed over the Christianization of Bulgaria and Moravia. The election of Patriarch Photius even caused a temporary division, known as the “Photian Schism.” But it is the coronation of Charlemagne as emperor by the pope and the revival in 800 of a western “Roman” Empire which best illustrate how far the gulf had widened. For the East, the West was acting as if the Roman Empire, with its legitimate emperor in Constantinople, had ceased to exist. The Byzantine Empire’s claims to world sovereignty were being ignored. Charlemagne’s new “empire” was usurping the legitimate role of the Roman Empire in Constantinople. Such a declaration of independence and emancipation from Byzantium was a threat to the unity of Christendom and, indirectly, the shared faith of the one Church. Subsequent developments, such as the Norman conquest of southern Italy, the Crusades, the commercial penetration of the Bosphorus and the Black Sea by Italian merchants, were to add to the already lengthy list of disagreements. They suffice to demonstrate how deep the alienation had become. In fact, they have been judged time and again as the cause of the schism.
And yet, popular as these causes are in conventional historical analysis, they do not alone explain the breach. Today these historical factors no longer exist, yet the schism continues. We must, in the event, search for the ultimate root cause of schism in the intellectual and theological differences rather than in the political, geographical or historical factors. Two basic problems — the primacy of the bishop of Rome and the procession of the Holy Spirit — were involved. These doctrinal novelties were first openly discussed in Photius’s patriarchate. By the fifth century, to repeat, Christendom was divided into five sees with Rome holding the primacy. This was determined by canonical decision and did not entail hegemony of any one local church or patriarchate over the others. For all that, during the progressive alienation noted above, Rome began to interpret her primacy in terms of sovereignty, as a God-given right involving universal jurisdiction in the Church. The collegial and conciliar nature of the Church, in effect, was gradually abandoned in favor of a supremacy of unlimited papal power over the entire Church. These ideas were finally given systematic expression in the West during the Gregorian Reform movement of the eleventh century. Enough has been said about early ecclesiology to realize how much Rome’s understanding of the nature of episcopal power was in direct violation of the Church’s essentially conciliar structure. The two ecclesiologies were mutually antithetical. No wonder subsequent attempts to heal the schism and bridge the divisions would fail. Characteristically, Rome insisted on basing her monarchical claims to “true and proper jurisdiction” (as the Vatican Council of 1870 put it) on St. Peter. This “Roman” exegesis of Mathew 16:18, however, was unknown to the Fathers who had ruled on the Church’s organization. For them, specifically, St. Peter’s primacy could never be the exclusive prerogative of any one bishop. All bishops must, like St. Peter, confess Jesus as the Christ and, as such, all are St. Peter’s successors. In short, to believe otherwise would be to violate the bishops’ charismatic equality; no one can hold a position superior to that of the others.
Equally disturbing to the Christian East was the western interpretation of the procession of the Holy Spirit. Like the primacy, this too developed gradually and entered the Creed in the West almost unnoticed. This theologically complex issue involved the addition by the West of the Latin phrase filioque (“and from the Son”) to the Creed. The original Creed sanctioned by the councils and still used by the Orthodox Church did not contain this phrase; the text simply states “the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, proceeds from the Father.” Theologically, the Latin interpolation was unacceptable to the Byzantines since it implied that the Spirit now had two sources of procession, the Father and the Son, rather than the Father alone. In short, the balance between the three persons of the Trinity was altered. The result, the Orthodox Church believed, then and now, was theologically indefensible. But in addition to the dogmatic issue raised by the filioque, the Byzantines argued that the phrase had been added unilaterally and, therefore, illegitimately, since the East had never been consulted. In the final analysis, only another ecumenical council could introduce such an alteration. Indeed the councils, which drew up the original Creed, had expressly forbidden any subtraction or addition to the text. The West’s tampering with the major creedal formula of the Church was, all in all, inadmissible.
C. THE CAPTIVE CHURCH
The Ottoman Conquest
In general, the fall of Constantinople in 1453 was a great misfortune for Christianity. For Eastern Christendom it was nothing less than an unqualified disaster. As a result of the Ottoman conquest, the entire Orthodox communion of the Balkans and the Near East was suddenly isolated from the West. For the next four hundred years it would instead be confined within a hostile Islamic world, with which it had little in common religiously or culturally. Orthodox Russia alone escaped this fate. It is this geographical and intellectual confinement which, in part, explains Orthodoxy’s silence during the Reformation in sixteenth century Europe. That this important theological debate should often seem distorted to the Orthodox is not surprising: they never took part in it. And yet, it is not the isolation alone, but the consequences of Ottoman rule that make these pages of Church history so bleak from virtually every point of view.
Religious Rights Under Islam
The new Ottoman government that arose from the ashes of Byzantine civilization was neither primitive nor barbaric. Islam not only recognized Jesus as a great prophet, but tolerated Christians as another People of the Book. As such, the Church was not extinguished nor was its canonical and hierarchical organization significantly disrupted. Its administration continued to function. One of the first things that Mehmet the Conqueror did was to allow the Church to elect a new patriarch, Gennadius Scholarius. The Hagia Sophia and the Parthenon, which had been Christian churches for nearly a millennium were, admittedly, converted into mosques, yet countless other churches, both in Constantinople and elsewhere, remained in Christian hands. Moreover, it is striking that the patriarch’s and the hierarchy’s position was considerably strengthened and their power increased. They were endowed with civil as well as ecclesiastical power over all Christians in Ottoman territories. Because Islamic law makes no distinction between nationality and religion, all Christians, regardless of their language or nationality, were viewed as a single millet, or nation. The patriarch, as the highest ranking hierarch, was thus invested with civil and religious authority and made ethnarch, head of the entire Christian Orthodox population. Practically, this meant that all Orthodox Churches within Ottoman territory were under Constantinople. The authority and jurisdictional frontiers of the patriarch, in short, were enormously enlarged.
Still, on balance, all these rights and privileges, including freedom of worship and religious organization, seldom corresponded to reality. The legal privileges of the patriarch and the Church depended, in fact, on the whim and mercy of the Sultan and the Sublime Porte, while all Christians were viewed as little more than second-class citizens. Moreover, Turkish corruption and brutality were not a myth. That it was the “infidel” Christian who experienced this more than anyone else is not in doubt. Nor were pogroms of Christians in these centuries unknown. Devastating, too, for the Church was the fact that it could not bear witness to Christ. Missionary work among Moslems was dangerous and indeed impossible, whereas conversion to Islam was entirely legal and permissible. On the other hand, converts to Islam who returned to Orthodoxy were put to death. Of a piece with this grim situation was the fact that new churches could not be built and even the ringing of church bells was not allowed. Finally, the education of the clergy and the Christian population fared no better – it either ceased or was of a rudimentary kind.
The Results of Corruption
It was likewise the Church’s fate to be affected by the Turkish system of corruption. The patriarchal throne was frequently sold to the highest bidder, while new patriarchal investiture was accompanied by heavy payment to the government. In order to recoup their losses, patriarchs and bishops taxed the local parishes and their clergy. Nor was the patriarchal throne ever secure. Few patriarchs between the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries died a natural death while in office. The forced abdications, exiles, hangings, drownings, and poisonings of patriarchs are well documented. But if the patriarch’s position was precarious so was the hierarchy’s. The hanging of patriarch Gregory V from the gate of the patriarchate on Easter Sunday 1821 was accompanied by the execution of two metropolitans and twelve bishops. (The gate still remains closed in St. Gregory’s memory.) The above summary – stark and short as it is – is sufficient to convey the persecution, decay, and humiliation that Eastern Christendom suffered under Ottoman rule. If we add to this tragic fate the militant communist atheism under which most Orthodox lived after 1917, we get some sense of the dislocation and suffering of Eastern Christianity in the last five hundred years. The grave problems that western Christians had to face as a result of the French Revolution and the secularization of western society in general might be said to pale against these facts.
Papacy and Orthodoxy
Along with these conditions, mention should finally be made of Rome’s proselytizing pressure. Evidence for this phenomenon is appallingly plentiful. Missionaries were prepared in special schools such as the College of St. Athanasius in Rome (opened in 1577) and then sent to the East in order to engage in direct proselytizing of the Orthodox. This network of Roman propaganda also embraced the Orthodox Slavic world. The pressure of the Catholic Polish monarchy and Jesuits in Poland and Lithuania on Orthodox dioceses canonically dependent on Constantinople is well enough known. The Uniat Ukrainian Church was, in part, the result of such pressure through the Union of Brest-Litovsk in 1596. There was, of course, little that the Orthodox Church could do to counter this aggressive Romanization, given the historical situation.
Such, then, were the humiliating restrictions under which the Church was forced to live until the early nineteenth century. The part played by the ecumenical patriarchate in this and the preceding chapter of its history was decisive. This was due, as we have seen, to the preeminent position of the city of Constantinople in the Byzantine period, when its bishop acquired a rank second only to Rome. But it was also a result of the schism with Rome. Rome’s defection left Constantinople with undisputed primacy among the other eastern patriarchates. This is how Constantinople became the primary see of Orthodoxy. Finally, under the Ottoman ethnarchic system its geographic frontiers were enlarged, with the result that most of the Orthodox community came under its jurisdiction. How the patriarch of Constantinople became the senior bishop in Orthodoxy is understandably a major theme of Orthodox church history. Nineteenth century militant nationalism, however, was to introduce vast changes. Although the patriarchate’s primatial status has never been in question – it is, and remains, the first see of Orthodoxy – its geographical frontiers were considerably reduced as a result of the struggle for freedom undertaken by the various Orthodox nationalities under Ottoman rule. The new independent nation states could not remain ecclesiastically under the jurisdiction of a patriarch who was still within the orbit of the foreign and hostile Ottoman state.
Constantinople and Modern National Churches
One of the earliest nations to be influenced by the French Revolution’s explosive ideas was Greece; it was the first to break the Turkish yoke, winning its independence early in the century. Before long, a synod of bishops declared the Church of the new Kingdom of Greece autocephalous. The new Greek nation, in short, could not be headed by the patriarch. Indeed, Greece’s autocephalous status, recognized by Constantinople in 1850, meant that it could elect its own head or kephale. The Church of Greece is today governed by a Holy Synod presided over by the Archbishop of Athens. Mt. Athos and the semiautonomous Church of Crete alone remain under the patriarch’s jurisdiction. The island of Cyprus, however, is independent of both Constantinople and the Church of Greece. Its autonomous status dates from the third ecumenical council (431) which accorded it this unique position. Up to that time, it had been subject to the patriarchate of Antioch. Like Greece, this ancient Church is governed by a synod of bishops and a presiding archbishop.
As we have seen, the ethnarchic system introduced by the Ottomans brought most of the autocephalous and patriarchal Slavic Churches under the jurisdiction of Constantinople. This subjection, with its loss of patriarchal status, was never popular. As a result, several independent national Churches came into being once political freedom was achieved. The Church of Serbia, which had lost its patriarchate in the Turkish period, became autocephalous in 1879, and its primate was recognized as patriarch by Constantinople in 1922. Romania, today the largest self-governing Church after Russia, was declared autocephalous in 1885 and became a patriarchate in 1925. Finally, the Church of Bulgaria declared itself autocephalous in 1860, but it was not until 1945 that Constantinople recognized it; its metropolitan in Sofia assumed the title of patriarch in 1953. Russia, which was outside the Turkish fold, was recognized a patriarchate by Constantinople in 1589. Nevertheless, this too, was eventually abolished, but not by Constantinople. Peter the Great replaced it by a governing Synod in 1721. The Synodal Period that followed lasted until the Bolshevik Revolution, when the patriarchate was once again restored (1917). Today, Russia ranks fifth after the four ancient patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.
The Ancient Patriarchates
But the ancient sees of the Near East also achieved greater freedom as a result of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. For these, too, were often under the influence of Constantinople during the period of Turkish captivity. Despite the defection of Egypt in the fifth century (it refused to accept the fourth ecumenical council and created a national Coptic Church) the patriarchate of Alexandria continued to survive. The ancient title of the patriarch is still “pope and patriarch” an eloquent illustration that the designation of “pope” was never the exclusive privilege of the bishop of Rome in the Church. Today, the patriarch and the clergy of this see are Greek. Significantly, its jurisdiction extends over all Orthodox on the African continent. A flourishing Orthodox Church now exists in Uganda. Antioch, which was one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire, now ranks third after Constantinople. It consists of Arabic-speaking Orthodox Christians living in Syria and Lebanon. Until the late nineteenth century its patriarch and bishops were Greek, but since 1899 they have been Arabs. Jerusalem has been an independent patriarchate since the fifth century. Unlike Antioch, its patriarch is Greek although its faithful are for the most part Arabs. This venerable see is the guardian and protector of the Holy Places. On the whole, the strength of these ancient sees has been sapped under Islam.
The New Structure
It is plain from what has been said about nineteenth century developments that the authority enjoyed by Constantinople today is no longer based on any vast ecclesiastical jurisdiction. In the last century and a half it has been stripped both of its former territories and most of its flock. Greece and the Balkans are no longer under its jurisdiction. Inside Turkey itself, moreover, the Orthodox Christian communities of Asia Minor have disappeared. The patriarch’s immediate flock today is, in the main, composed of those Orthodox still living in Constantinople. The patriarchate’s position, therefore, rests on its primatial status, rather than on any wide territorial jurisdiction. No less striking is the fact that world Orthodoxy, like the ancient Church, is essentially a decentralized body consisting of four ancient patriarchates and numerous local or national Churches, most of which enjoy full self-governing status. The Orthodox community of Churches is decidedly not a monolithic structure. Despite the lack of a centralized authority, however, all members of this living body are bound together by a common canonical and liturgical tradition, by a single doctrinal and sacramental unity, and by a common faith stretching back to the original Christian nucleus of Apostolic times. Behind historical reality lies the true Catholic and universal Church. In Christian history, catholicity has never been coextensive with organizational or institutional uniformity.
D. THE MODERN CHURCH
Orthodoxy and Modern Ideology
The tragedy of the Orthodox Church for much of the twentieth century has been to live for a good portion of its flock, at least – under the new political framework of atheistic totalitarianism. The dislocation of communism is the latest in a long series of misfortunes – Arabic, Seljuk, Crusader, Mongol, Ottoman – with which it has had to cope in the last millennium and a half. As St. Paul observes, “it was given to us not only to believe in Christ but also to suffer for him” (Phil. 1:29). There is, however, one significant difference between this latest crisis and those of the past: the previous non-Christian political regimes under which the Church had to live were rarely deliberately anti-Christian. In plain English, there has never been an exact precedent for the communist catastrophe. None of the past regimes were ever as insistent as communism in its belief that religion must not be tolerated. According to Lenin, a communist regime cannot remain neutral on the question of religion but must show itself to be merciless towards it. There was no place for the church in Lenin’s classless society.
Confrontation with Atheistic Regimes
The result of this militant atheism has been to transform the Church into a persecuted and martyred Church. Thousands of bishops, monks, clergy, and faithful died as martyrs for Christ, both in Russia and in the other communist nations. Their numbers may well exceed the Christians who perished under the Roman Empire. Equally frightening for the Church was communism’s indirect, but systematic, strangulation policy. In the Soviet Union, in addition to the methodical closing, desecration and destruction of churches, ecclesiastical authorities were not allowed to carry on any charitable or social work. Nor for that matter, could the Church own property. The few places of worship left to the Church were legally viewed as state property which the government permitted the church to use. More devastating still was the fact that the Church was not permitted to carry on educational or instructional activity of any kind. Outside of sermons during the celebration of the divine liturgy it could not instruct the faithful or its youth. Catechism classes, religious schools, study groups, Sunday schools and religious publications were all illegal.
Orthodoxy and Immigration
One of the most striking developments in modern historical Orthodoxy is the dispersion of Orthodox Christians to the West. Emigration from Greece and the Near East in the last hundred years has, in fact, created a sizable Orthodox diaspora in Western Europe, North and South America, and Australia. In addition, the Bolshevik Revolution forced thousands of Russian exiles westward. As a result, Orthodoxy’s traditional frontiers have been profoundly modified. Millions of Orthodox are no longer “eastern” since they live permanently in their newly adopted countries in the West. Virtually all the Orthodox nationalities – Greek, Arab, Russian, Serbian, Albanian, Ukrainian, Romanian, Bulgarian – are represented in the United States. To describe them all is beyond the scope of this short survey. Rather, only the largest of these diaspora groups will be mentioned, namely, the Greek Archdiocese of America, with two million faithful. Under the guidance of several dedicated archbishops, this diaspora has matured into a vital and active Church and plays a dominant role in the lives of millions of Greek Orthodox Christians. The Archdiocese is under the ecclesiastical and spiritual jurisdiction of the ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Indeed, the senior see in Orthodoxy possesses jurisdiction over a large portion of the Orthodox diaspora. Besides the Archdiocese, there is also the Exarchate of Western Europe, centered in London (with numerous parishes and bishops on the continent), and Australia. Smaller groups in the United States, such as the Carpatho-Russian and Ukrainian dioceses, are likewise under the ecumenical patriarchate.
The Orthodox Church in the West.
Historically, 1768 marks the arrival of the first Greek Orthodox to the New World. These pioneers founded the colony of New Smyrna some forty miles south of St. Augustine, Florida. A small group of New Orleans Greek merchants built the first church in 1864. The Greek Archdiocese of North and South America itself was officially incorporated by the State of New York in 1921. The complicated and difficult task of organizing and consolidating the Greek communities into a centralized Archdiocese was the work of three far-sighted leaders: Archbishop Athenagoras, who was elected to the ecumenical throne of Constantinople in 1948; Archbishop Michael, the former bishop of Corinth; and his successor, Archbishop Iakovos. In addition to its diverse philanthropic work, the Archdiocese maintains numerous day-schools, a home for the aged, and an academy for deprived and orphaned children. Candidates for the priesthood are trained at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Boston. Mention should also be made of the second largest group, the Russian. It, too, trains its own clergy at its St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, which also receives candidates from all the Orthodox jurisdictions. Both of these institutions maintain their own press and publish their own theological quarterly; they issue a large number of useful and important books in English on various aspects of Orthodox theology, history and spirituality. Both seminaries possess a distinguished faculty with an international reputation.
Historical circumstances, then, have provided Orthodoxy in the West with the unique opportunity to bear witness to its universality. To repeat, despite its historical eastern homeland, the Orthodox church has never claimed to be anything less than the universal Orthodox Catholic Church of Christ. True, the segregation and self-sufficiency of some Orthodox frequently give the opposite impression. All the same, the Orthodox are becoming increasingly aware that they must overcome both their isolation and segregation. The subordination of national ambitions and local loyalties is desirable and necessary. Archbishop Iakovos’ observations on this point are on target:
“We rarely give the impression of united orthodoxy as we should, and as others expect of us. They think (and not wrongly) that we are first Greeks, Russians, Serbs, Romanians, Bulgarians, Arabs or Ukrainians and then Orthodox. We often deny ourselves the honor to speak as Orthodox and to demonstrate our theological and ecclesiastical unity and identity.” (Orthodox Observer, 21 Sept. 1983, p. 3)
These remarks were in reference to Orthodoxy’s relationship and participation in the ecumenical movement and the World Council of Churches. It is a timely subject with which to draw the threads of this summary survey together.
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING
The first three works (all currently available as inexpensive paperbacks) contain readable, scholarly introductions to Eastern Orthodox history and theology. The last four titles contain more detailed analyses of Orthodox doctrine.
J. Meyendorff, The Orthodox Church: Its Past and Role in the World Today (London, 1962).
A. Schmemann, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy (Chicago, 1966).
T. Ware, The Orthodox Church (Penguin Books, 1963).
V. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (James Clark; London, 1957).
J. Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes (Fordham University Press; New York, 1974).
A. Papadakis and J. Meyendorff, The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy 1071-1453 (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press; Crestwood, N.Y., 1994)
J. Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700) (The University of Chicago Press; Chicago and London, 1977).
(Source: Dr. Aristeides Papadakis; http://goarch.org/ourfaith/ourfaith7053)