Orthodoxy in the World: The Imperial Church

This is the 6th blog in this introductory series to the Orthodox Faith.  The First blog is The First blog is Orthodoxy in the World & Light to the World.  The previous blog is Orthodoxy in the World: The Age of the Ecumenical Councils.      

The Church in the empire organized itself along secular governing lines.  Bishops who originally were in every Christian town eventually took over larger territories, and instead of being the head of one church community came to be the head of several churches within their territory.   The bishops themselves in a larger territory met together under the presidency of a Metropolitan (the bishop of the largest territorial city).   In turn the Metropolitans came under one of the five patriarchates (Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem).  This system fit nicely into the conciliar thinking that had become accepted by the Christians.

St. Anthony the Great

            Not all Christians however were comfortable in the imperial Church.   Evan as Christianity grew accustomed to being the official state religion of the empire,  numerous Christians rebelled against what they saw as a compromised Christianity.   These Christians felt that the days of persecution were really the normative period for Christianity, and they tended to see the wealthier and cultural Christianity of the empire as in fact a betrayal of true Christian evangelical living.  Many of these Christians fled the cities of the empire to form small Christian communities in the deserts and wastelands, where they could live the Gospel life in simplicity and without imperial domination.   These Christians were the monks and nuns of the Church.   And their call to a life of self denial, self sacrifice, asceticism, simplicity and prayer became in its own way another form of “normative” Christianity for later generations of Eastern Christians.

Next:  The Spread of Orthodoxy in the World

St. John the Forerunner: Suffering for Truth Joyously

Orthodoxy proclaims that St. John the Forerunner suffered for the Truth joyously. So, what is this truth for which he suffered?

“If man in his religious life adopts the course of rational research, his approach to the world will inevitably be pantheistic. Every time the theologizing mind essays of its own strength to know the truth about God, whether or not it understands, fatally it falls into the same error in which science and philosophy and pantheism are sunk—intuiting truth as ‘WHAT’. Truth as ‘WHO’ is never arrived at through reason. God as ‘WHO’ can be known only through communion in being—that is, only by the Holy Spirit Staretz Silouan constantly emphasized this. The Lord spoke Himself of it thus:  ‘If a man love me, he will keep my words:  and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him … The Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things.’” (Archimandrite Sophrony, St. Silouan the Athonite, pg. 112)

St. John the Forerunner: Friend of the Bridegroom

 In John 3:29, ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST  calls himself “the friend of the Bridegroom.” Jesus said no man was greater than John the Baptist (Luke 7:28).

“For there is no higher calling and no higher dignity for a man than to be the friend of the Bridegroom.  The Lord wishes to find in man a friend who would be a god according to grace, a creaturely image and likeness of God. But since the fall, when man stopped being God’s friend and became a child of wrath (see Eph. 2:3), his return to God’s friendship, his reconciliation with God, has become the express task of the divine economy of our salvation.”  (Sergius Bulgakov, The Friend of the Bridegroom, pg. 9) 

Jesus, the Son of God, came into the world seeking friendship with all who would align themselves with Him.   John the Baptist was able to consider himself a best friend to the son of God.

St. John the Forerunner

“John preached that God’s promises to the descendants of Abraham were in danger if they did not immediately commit themselves to a whole-hearted return to observance of the Covenant; and it did not matter if they were priestly aristocrats with long, distinguished genealogies preserved in the archives of the Temple or simple peasant farmers who traced their birth-rights all the way back through their families, clans, and tribal ancestors to the Patriarch Abraham … John saw his mission to call the people out into the wilderness of purification and renewal, out to the Jordan across which they had entered the land that God had promised them in the first place, to renew their Covenant with Him. In the course of their daily lives, in an era of increasing economic tensions and apprehensions about the future, they had lost sight of the only way they could survive:  a return to the observance of the Covenant that God had made with their forefathers at Sinai … John the Baptist was offering crowds of people who lived under the shadow of Rome and under the burden of Herodian control and taxation a new way to end the pain and uncertainty that plagues their daily lives. John’s baptism was not a panacea but a symbol of something much more important:  a personal pledge to return to the way of life that God had decreed for the People of Israel.”   (Richard A. Horsley and Neil Asher Silberman, The    Message and the Kingdom. pgs. 33-34)

Orthodoxy in the World: The Age of the Ecumenical Councils

This blog continues this introductory series to the Orthodox Faith.  The First blog is The First blog is Orthodoxy in the World & Light to the World.  The previous blog is Orthodoxy in the World:  The Byzantine Period.           

1st Ecumenical Council

The age of the Ecumenical Councils is a very distinctive time period in Orthodox Christian history.   In this time period church governance, liturgy, doctrine were all standardized.   The thinking of this time period has often been treated by later generations  of Orthodox as normative – the means by which Orthodoxy is to be measured.   The Councils adopted not only the official Creed of the Christians, they also adopted a wide variety of canon law which oversaw how the Church came to be structured,  rules for dealing with church disciplinary problems, and theology itself.    The age of the Councils was a very theologically active period in the history of the Church.   There were numerous serious debates and divisions within Christianity centered on the questions of:  Who is Jesus?   How did he save us?   How can the witness of scripture support both a notion of monotheism and God having a son?  

These issues were central and crucial to the Christian self understanding.  The debates raged for almost 600 years, but the Eastern Christians believed that with each debate and decision they were coming ever closer to possessing the mind of Christ.    It was their conviction that right belief led to a right way of living and behaving.   Thus being Orthodox (Ortho is Greek for right or correct, and dox originally came from dokein, thinking; later dox also meant glory or worship)  meant to think or worship in the correct manner or to hold the right opinion on issues of theology.  

St. John Chrysostom

The age of the Council produced many of Orthodoxy’s most famous theologians, among them:   Athanasius, Basil the Great, John ChrysostomJohn of Damascus, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory NazianzusMaximus the Confessor.   It also was an age of famous heretics and heresies.   The Christians believed that the right understanding of Jesus was essential for them to know how to live their lives.  They saw theology as essential to Christianity and hammered out decisions after years of debate.

            In this same time period, Christianity underwent other changes as well.  The Church became the dominant religion of the Empire.  The Byzantine’s self understanding and mythology caused them to accept as unquestionable that their beliefs and practices were normative for all Christians.    Eventually they came to see their empire as in some way the kingdom of God on earth.   They attempted to Christianize the symbols and rituals of the empire.  They saw no separation between church and state:   the laws of the empire were blessed by the church, the decisions of the church were enforced by the empire.    Officially they termed the relationship between church and state as “symphony” –  a symphonic cooperation between the two gifts of godly authority.   The two headed eagle was symbolic of this cooperative relationship between church and state.   Despite this symphonic vision, the church leaders and emperors were often at odds, and Byzantine history is strewn with the wrecks of bishops and emperors who lost the battle to keep the balance between church and state.

Next:   Orthodoxy in the World:  The Imperial Church

Reading about Reading Scriptures

“St. Hilary (of Poitiers) put it emphatically….

Scripture is not in the reading but in the understanding.” 

(Georges Florovsky)

I want to recommend a book for those interested in gaining a better understanding of St. Paul the Apostle to the Nations.  The book is written by Morna Hooker of Cambridge University.  I very much like Dr. Hooker’s work, even though she is not always an easy read.   However, I think this book will be a bit more accessible to many readers who already have an interest in St. Paul or who have read some books on Paul’s Epistles. The book is titled PAUL: A BEGINNER’S GUIDE and is in the Oneworld Beginners Guides Series.   While I don’t think the book will be best appreciated by a true beginner to reading Paul, it is an excellent overview to his writings and thought.  What I appreciated so much in the book was that Hooker takes on what are some commonly held views of what people (and some denominations) claim Paul says, and forces us to read Paul not through the eyes of denominational disputes, but by adhering to the text itself.  For myself, and though I am no biblical scholar, I have read a fair amount of biblical studies, and I found her getting back to the text, not through the eyes of various Protestant scholars, to bring her much closer to an Orthodox reading of St. Paul.  For example, she rejects reading Paul’s idea of salvation through a substitutionary notion of Christ’s death – Christ did not die in our place, but rather as a representative of us.

“’Christ died for us’.  What does Paul mean by this? Some commentators assume that Paul is thinking of Christ’s death as substitutionary:  they assume, that is, that Christ dies in our place.  This does not seem to be an appropriate description of his teaching, however, for Christ’s death does not mean that Christians do not face physical death.  … ‘Christ died’, he wrote, ‘in order that we might live with him.’   He sees Christians as sharing the life in Christ.  This is the idea that we find him spelling out in Romans 6: ‘Christ died for us’ does not mean that we escape death, but that he dies as our representative —  the representative of humanity – and those who in turn share his death (to sin) will also share his resurrection.  Living with Christ, therefore, implies also dying with him.”  (pp 106-107)

We begin to see in this our theology of baptism – dying with Christ, and rising with Him: putting on Christ.   Hooker’s work is very theological.

“Paul’s use of the term ‘Son of God’ for Jesus reminds us of something very important about Paul’s theology, which is that even though his letters are of necessity ‘Christocentric’ – since the new element in Paul’s understanding of God had come through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – his theology remains theocentric, since it is about what God has done ‘through Christ’ (2 Cor. 5:19; cf. Rom. 8:3).”  (p 64)

I am hoping to be able to use this book sometime with our parish’s adult bible study group.

I will also do the dangerous thing of mentioning another book that I just started reading because of a recommendation from Dr. Bunta who teaches Old Testament at the University of Dayton.  The recommendation is “dangerous” because I’ve only read the first chapter, but was deeply impressed by the book’s opening chapter.  I have always felt that my seminary Old Testament course left a lot to be desired, and just about everything I learned about the Old Testament came from outside that seminary class, and much of my Old Testament learning came after graduating from seminary.   The book is HOW TO READ THE BIBLE: A GUIDE TO SCRIPTURE, THEN AND NOW by James Kugel.   I will soon also begin reading Kugel’s THE BIBLE AS IT WAS.   Kugel takes the unusual course of giving deep consideration to ancient Jewish and Christian commentaries on the Scriptures and bringing that ancient wisdom alongside modern historical-critical methods of interpreting the Scriptures.  This certainly would bring us closer to gaining insights into how the Patristic thinkers read the Scriptures and into how we can read the Scriptures more like they did.  I plan even to take the book on vacation with me next week.

Orthodoxy in the World: The Byzantine Period

This blog continues this introductory series to the Orthodox Faith.  The First blog in the series is The First blog is Orthodoxy in the World & Light to the World.  The previous blog is Orthodoxy in the World: The Roman Empire.

 The Greek Roman Empire with its capital in Constantinople is the natural inheritor of  and successor to early Christian history and tradition with its use of Greek language and its being the area in which most Christians in the early centuries of Christianity lived.   Modern Western Christians have tended to view this Eastern Christianity as somewhat peripheral to Christian history.   Western Christians tend only to know the history of Christianity in its Western forms:  Latin Catholicism and the Protestant Reformers.   This is especially true in America which itself was Europeanized by Protestants and Catholics who had little knowledge of Eastern Christians.  It is Western Christianity which has coined the phrase “The Byzantine Empire” to describe the development of Christianity within the Roman Empire with its capital in Constantinople.   Usually in Western Christian history books the Holy Roman Empire refers to those kingdoms which formed in Western Europe after the time of Charlemagne (800AD).   The Byzantine Empire, Byzantium,  was recognized both in Eastern Christianity and in Islam as the real Roman Empire.

            There are many features which characterize Byzantine Christianity.  The Christians of the Empire did see themselves as receiving the Faith of the apostles and being responsible for passing it on to future generations.   They saw themselves as the natural inheritors of the faith of the martyrs – those many faithful who had been executed by the Roman state.   They believed themselves to be the people of God, the true Israel, those who had believed God’s promises and saw those promises fulfilled in the Messiah Jesus.

            One of the first things that happened to Christianity in the Constantinian world is that Constantine demanded from the Christians unity in faith.   He had after all envisioned Christianity as being able to unite his empire in one religion.  But the Christians were a diverse group and had numerous divisions in terms of beliefs.  Constantine wanted them to have at least some basic agreement in the tenets of faith.  And so Constantine summoned what became known as the First Ecumenical Council (325 CE) in the city of Nicea to get the Christians to adopt a creedal statement that would enumerate the basic required beliefs of the Church which all Christians could accept.   The summoning of a council of bishops (and the first council was dominated by bishops who spoke Greek) was to set a pattern for how the imperial Church would deal with problematic issues.   Greek bishops tended to believe in the equality of all bishops and they accepted notions of hierarchy which saw the bishops as the authentic  spiritual leaders of Christianity.   The Councils (ultimately Orthodoxy came to recognize Seven Ecumenical Councils as being authoritative over the entire Church, the First held in 325 CE, the last in 787 CE, all of them dominated by Greek speaking bishops) formed in the Greek Christian consciousness a sense of conciliarity within the leadership of the Church.   Councils also came to be viewed as the highest authority within the Church, ruling over the bishops themselves, at least once the bishops accepted the Council’s decisions.

Next:   The Age of the Ecumenical Councils

Diocesan Clergy Convocation and The Election of a Bishop

The OCA’s Diocese of the Midwest is in a year long process of nominating a man to become bishop of the Diocese to replace Archbishop Job of blessed memory who passed away in December of 2009.

This week, August 23-25, was the annual Clergy Convocation in Chicago.  This year the convocation focused on introducing to the clergy of the Diocese the three men who are being considered for the episcopal office:  Frs. Paul Gassios, David Mahaffey and Matthais Moriak.    These three men are the final candidates from a list of names submitted to a Search Committee, which then following its own process and procedures worked together with the Diocesan Council and Bishop’s Council to submit the names to the OCA’s Synod of Bishops.  The three priests are thus considered vetted and approved by the Synod of Bishops. 

Currently, the process of electing a bishop is in the stage where the members of the Diocese are getting to know the three nominees.  This is a long process both for the diocese and for the three men who in accepting nomination have agreed to put themselves through a long vetting process.  Orthodoxy is a hierarchical church, and so men are needed who are willing to put themselves through this process to become the diocesan bishop.   It is a very particular calling by the church.

At the convocation each of the priests made a presentation to the gathered diocesan clergy and then answered questions in what was a two hour session.  Additionally, each of the three priests was  interviewed in a tape recorded session which will be made available to the parishes of the diocese, thus giving a chance for all diocesan members to become at least a little familiar with the nominees.   All of this is being done to help the parish clergy and lay delegates to the Diocesan Assembly in Minneapolis, October 4-6, decide for whom they want to vote in the special episcopal election.  Whichever candidate receives the most votes in the election will be considered the nominee from the diocese for the office of bishop; his name will then be submitted to the Synod of Bishops for formal election as bishop of the diocese.  The actual consecration of the nominee as bishop will occur sometime later.

In general in the Orthodox tradition, there is no campaigning for a candidate, and the process is not simply a democratic vote with majority rule.  It is a consensus building process, with the Synod of Bishops having the final say in confirming the Diocesan Assembly’s nominee.

In our parish, we hope to be able to view the recorded interview of the three nominees, and have a parish community discussion on the role of the bishop and on how each of the three nominees might fulfill that role for the good of the diocese and the parish.   The parish delegate to the Diocesan Assembly will certainly consider the comments of the parishioners in our decision of how we vote at the Diocesan Assembly.

I have not yet seen the written answers which the three nominees submitted in response to written questions given them, nor have I seen the taped interviews of the three priests.  Based solely on the live presentations at the Clergy Convocation, I will tell my parishioners that Fr. Paul Gassios impressed me the most.  I am deeply appreciative of the willingness of all three of these men to serve the Church, our diocese and my parish.  May God bless all of them, and guide each of us in this nominating process.

For my parishioners, we will take time to discuss the candidates, and view the recorded interviews when they become available.

Orthodoxy in the World: The Roman Empire

This is the 2nd blog in this introductory series to the Orthodox Faith.  The First blog is Orthodoxy in the World & Light to the World.  The previous blog is Orthodoxy in the World:  Beginnings.


            The Christians were also much more active proselytizers than most other Jews who often saw their inclusion in the people of God as a birthright.  But the Christian penchant for converting others to the faith soon brought them into conflict with the religious mores of the polytheistic and pagan Roman Empire.  The Empire with its diverse religions and philosophies needed tolerance among religions for there to be peace within the Empire.  But the Christians were fiercely  monotheistic as the Jews had been, but unlike the Jews were also aggressive proselytizers.   As Christian populations grew they began to draw the attention of others because they had an economic impact on localities, refusing to participate in local religious festivals.  The Roman government attempted to  force the Christians to be more like all of the other religions of the Empire, and tried both persuasion and persecution to stop the growing movement or to get it to recognize the equality of all gods and religions. But the Christians proved to be recalcitrant and steadfastly held to their beliefs.   Despite official imperial persecution of the religion, Christianity continued to grow and spread.

            It was at this time that another historical development would take place which would change Christianity for ever.   The Roman Empire at the beginning of the 4th Century BCE was governed by four co-reigning emperors.   One of those Emperors, Constantine, who came from the far Western regions of the Empire, had a vision of an Empire united under one Emperor.   And he began through force to impose his will on the Empire and he proved himself to be a successful politician and general.  He also knew he needed something more than military force to unite the Empire.    He saw in Christianity such a force – a religious force to help him bring unity to the Roman world.   Christianity offered one God for all people, and was accepting of all people of any race or nationality or language.   Constantine brought an end to the persecution of Christianity and in the 4th Century helped turn Christianity from a persecuted religion of a sizeable minority into the official religion of the Roman Empire.

            He also did one other thing to shape the world and Christianity.  He moved the capital city of the Empire from Rome to a location which was much more central to the heart of Christianity.   He founded the imperial capital in what eventually would be known as Constantinople.   He picked a location that put him at the heart of the Greek speaking world.   And from that time on, officially the Roman Empire, the Empire of the Caesars, would be Greek in language and in culture.   Not until Charlemagne around 800 attempted to found a Roman Empire of the West would Christianity as a Greek religion be challenged by another Christian Empire.   The Greek Roman world centered in Constantinople was homeland to that form of Christianity known as Eastern Orthodoxy.   It is a world outside of the developments that occurred in Rome where the Papacy grew in power in the absence of imperial influence.  It is a Christianity that remained outside of the major split which would occur in Western Christendom – the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation of the Latin Church.

Next:  History – The Byzantine Period

Orthodoxy in the World: Beginnings

This is the 2nd blog in this introductory series to the Orthodox Faith.  The First blog is Orthodoxy in the World and Light to the World

1st Century Christian Congregations

           It was in this time period of pressure to change in 1st Century Palestine that Jesus himself was born, grew up and gathered a group of followers, his disciples, who believed him to be the promised messiah of Israel.   They  began spreading their message to the world.   And they  naturally used the means already existing in Judaism for spreading the faith – the synagogue system which focused on a study of the written word of God and the revelation of God they believed it contained, and the Septuagint, using the Greek language to make the new Christian teachings accessible to the entire culture surrounding Judaism.  

            And Christianity did rapidly spread among Greek speaking people throughout the Roman Empire.   The Christians composed some of their own writings as well, letters of the new movements leaders and also a new genre of literature known as the Gospel, all written in Greek, the unofficial language of the nascent Christian movement.   In fact that part of the Christian scriptures which is unique to Christianity was all originally written in Greek, and only later translated into Latin.   Historical and archeological findings and documents show that from the beginning of Christianity well into the 5th Century, the vast majority of Christians were Greek speaking, even as the faith spread throughout the Roman Empire and into territories beyond the Empire. 

3rd Century Distribution of Christianity

 And as the Christian movement became more established it became increasingly comfortable with the Greek language and also with Greek religious and philosophical concepts and perspectives.  It was in this world that many of the early Christian theological concepts were conceived and accepted as true expressions of the faith.   Of course these concepts were debated and in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire they were given further cross pollination as a mixture of Greek, Syriac and Coptic forms of Christianity wrestled with terminology that might best express the faith.

            The rapidly growing Christian movement also found itself in a hostile world.  It’s claims and teachings pitted it against some forms of traditional Judaism.  Christianity was definitely a messianic sect, whereas some forms of Judaism were not messianic.  Christianity was not based in or dependent on the temple in Jerusalem – a temple which King Herod had built just prior to Jesus’s own birth and this temple had given rise to a new Jewish nationalism and pride which then fed messianism.   Christianity also came to believe that not only was Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah the correct understanding of God’s Teachings, but that Jesus himself was more important than the Torah, an idea that was repugnant to many Jews for whom the Torah was more important than the Temple.    The Christians found themselves unwanted in Jerusalem and often expelled from the Jewish synagogues which were spread throughout the Mediterranean region. 

Next:  Orthodoxy in the World: The Roman Empire