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.