Living the Creed

“And doctrine, if it is to be prayed, must also be lived: theology without action, as St. Maximus puts it, is the theology of demons. The Creed belongs only to those who live it. Faith and love, theology and life, are inseparable. In the Byzantine Liturgy, the Creed is introduced with the words, ‘Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity one in essence and undivided.’

This exactly expresses the Orthodox attitude to Tradition. If we do not love one another, we cannot love God; and if we do not love God, we cannot make a true confession of faith and cannot enter into the inner spirit of Tradition, for there is no other way of knowing God than to love him.”

(Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 201)

The Truth About Dogma

“And the unalterable truths of experience can be expressed in different ways. Divine reality can be described in images and parables, in the language of devotional poetry and of religious art. Such was the language of the prophets in the Old Testament, in such a manner the Evangelists often speak, in such a way the Apostles preached, and in such a manner the church preaches even now in her liturgical hymns and in the symbolism of her sacramental acts. That is the language of proclamation and of good tidings, the language of prayer and of mystical experience, the language of ‘Kerygmatic’ theology. ‘

And there is another language, the language of comprehending thought, the language of dogma. Dogma is a witness of experience of experience. The entire pathos of dogma lies in the fact that it points to Divine reality; in this the witness of dogma is symbolic. Dogma is the testimony of thought about what has been seen and revealed, about what has been contemplated in the experience of faith – and this testimony is expressed in concepts and definitions.

Dogma is an ‘intellectual vision,’ a truth of perception. One can say: it is the logical image, a ‘logical icon’ of divine reality. And at the same time a dogma is a definition – that is why its logical form is so important for dogma, that ‘inner word’ which acquires force in its external expression. This is why the external aspect of dogma – its wording – is so essential. Dogma is by no means a new Revelation. Dogma is only a witness. The whole meaning of dogmatic definition consists of testifying to unchanging truth, truth which was revealed and has been preserved from the beginning. Thus it is a total misunderstanding to speak of ‘the development of dogma.’ Dogmas do not develop; they are unchanging and inviolable, even in their external aspect – their wording. Least of all is it possible to change dogmatic language or terminology. As strange as it may appear, one can indeed say: dogmas arise, dogmas are established, but they do not develop. And once established, a dogma is perennial and already an immutable ‘rule of faith’, Dogma is an intuitive truth, not a discursive axiom which is accessible to logical development. The whole meaning of dogma lies in the fact that it is expressed truth. Revelation discloses itself and is received in the silence of faith, in silent vision.”    (Georges Florovsky, Creation and Redemption, pp 29-30)

Reading the Scriptures in the Earliest Christian Communities

Many In Israel followed Christ: not all believed in Him.

This is the 2nd Blog in this series dealing with Reading Scripture: the Old Testament, the Torah and Prophecy.   Christianity saw itself as the continuation of the Israel of God; it saw itself as being the people who believed in God’s promises and prophesies and who saw their fulfillment in Jesus Christ.  Christianity thus from its beginnings had a Scripture: the Jewish Bible, the Old Testament.  It wasn’t the Scriptures which were new to the Christians, but the understanding of them which had been made clear in and through Christ.  Eventually the Christians add to their Scriptures the New Testament writings:  texts which the Christians believed contained the true and faithful interpretation and fulfillment of the Old Testament.  The Scriptures of the Jews pointed to Christ, to help everyone recognize Him and the revelation God made through Him.  Conversely it was Christ who made clear the witness and purpose of the Old Testament.

“… when the Hebrews were given the law, their approach to it wasn’t exactly personalized, but something of a personal relationship developed between them and the Torah.  They did not see the law as a code, much less an arbitrary set of rules to be followed.  They saw it as a help, a treasure, and a blessing.  They also saw it as an expression of reality—the way things are, the way they are ordered in relation to each other and to their Creator. … The law, for the Hebrews, was an object of love. … Early Christians approached Jesus Christ and the teaching about him (dogma) in the same way that Jews approached the law.  Even as St. Paul taught that the person of Christ, and life in Christ, supercedes the law, his Epistles began to define who Christ is, how he is both divine and human, and how God exists eternally with his divine Son and his most holy Spirit. … Christians sang about this dogma as the Jews sang about the law.  …  Dogma (general truth) or dogmas (which are expressions of that truth) do not describe a code, a set of fixed and sterile rules.  Rather, dogma describes and defines reality, what is.  Dogmas give a true understanding of God, creation, and human personhood.  They orient our lives.  From dogma, we derive an understanding of reality, an ethos of life, an understanding of how to live, how to stand in relationship with God, the cosmos, the other, and the self.  In other words, they tell us how to ‘do the truth.’”  (Peter Bouteneff, SWEETER THAN HONEY: ORTHODOX THINKING ON DOGMA AND TRUTH, pp 37-38)

New Testament scholar Michael Gorman writing about the Pauline Christian communities of the First Century described how they read the Scriptures of Israel (since the New Testament had yet to be formed – the earliest Christian communities often knew only one of the four versions of what would become the canonical Gospels, and knew only one or two of the New Testament Epistles) as the people of God:

 “First of all, the assembly meets to worship God.  In that context it both hears from God, through prophecy and teaching, and speaks to God in praise, prayer, and hymn-singing.  … Both in speech from and speech to God, and in speech to one another, the assembly especially recites its foundational stories and considers how they can best embody those stories in their life together in the world.  These foundational stories include the Scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament); the creed about the saving acts of God in Christ’s death and resurrection (1 Cor 15:1-8) or incarnation, death, and exaltation (Phil 2:6-11); brief narrative summaries focusing on the significance of Jesus’ death (Gal 1:4; Rom 3:21-26); and narratives of Jesus’ instituting the Lord’s supper (1 Cor 11:17-34).  The assembled believers hear the story and discern the mind of Christ.  Guided by the Spirit, plus the words of Scripture, tradition, and Paul, they look together for God’s specific call to them to be a countercultural community of people infused with the Spirit of Christ, a Christophany—a manifestation of Christ—in and for the world.”   (Michael Gorman, READING PAUL, pp 137-138)

Next: Reading the Scriptures with the Early Church: In Christ

Orthodoxy in the World: Teachings (D)

This is the 12th blog in this introductory series to the Orthodox Faith.  The First blog is Orthodoxy in the World & Light to the World.   This blog continues the section on basic teachings of Orthodoxy, the previous blog is Orthodoxy in the World:  Teachings (C).

Christ Enthroned

In Orthodoxy, Jesus Christ is not merely a model of or teacher of morality.  If the Torah had been enough to heal the separation of God and humanity which is so evident throughout the Old Testament, then there would have been no need of an incarnate messiah.   If repentance was all that was needed to reunite humans to God, then prophets and angels could have called humanity to that.   But Orthodoxy believes that what was ailing humanity – separation from God resulting from death – needed to be healed.   And it is in the God incarnate, in Jesus Christ, that divinity is reunited to humanity and is not separated from humankind even in death.    Because of Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection, no aspect of being human is now separated from God.     The Orthodox believe that only if and because Jesus is fully God incarnate and also fully human is there an end to the fracturing of the world caused by sin.  Only in Christ is the human will once again in union with God’s will, only in Christ is the soul and body permanently united despite death, only in Christ are humans reconciled to God, only in Christ are males and females reunited, only in Christ does humanity regain its proper role as microcosm and mediator, only in Christ is all of creation restored to God.  For all of these reasons we can understand why in the earlier centuries of the Christian movement they felt it so essential to have a correct understanding of who Jesus is.   All Christian understanding of the scriptures, of God, of humanity, of creation is founded in the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?”, at least according to Orthodoxy.

            For Eastern Orthodox Christians the Good News of the Gospel is that God so loves the world that He chooses to become flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.  God unites himself to all that is human, undergoing even death itself, in order to reunite all of humanity with divinity.     Despite the willful rebellion of humans who wanted to overthrow the lordship of God, God enters into the human condition and suffers death in order to save humanity from the consequences of their own sin.   Just as God saved the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, so now God has saved all of humanity from slavery to sin and death.  God has brought us not just from Egypt to the Promised Land, but from death to life and from earth to heaven.   Christ in Orthodoxy is the victor, not the victim.  Christ is the liberator who saves us from death, giving us eternal life through uniting us to divinity.   He has offered this salvation to every human who has or will exist.

            And Orthodoxy fully recognizes human free will and the necessity for humans to cooperate with God for their own salvation.   Humans must want this union with God.   Mary, the mother of Jesus is called the Theotokos, the one who bears God in her womb.   She is the ultimate sign of human cooperation with the will of God – a supreme act of love which results in human and divine union.

Next:  Orthodoxy in the World:  Key Practices (A)

Orthodoxy in the World: Teachings (C)

This is the 11th blog in this introductory series to the Orthodox Faith.  The First blog is  Orthodoxy in the World & Light to the World. This blog continues the section on basic teachings of Orthodoxy, the previous blog is Orthodoxy in the World:  Teachings (B).

 Humans are created in the image and likeness of God.   But what do we know about this God?    The Orthodox believe the basic revelation about God is a self revelation –  it is what God has chosen to reveal to us, and while what can be known about God is revealed in creation itself, it is made most clear through the scriptures, but specifically the scriptures as revealed in and through Jesus Christ.

            The most basic claim of the Orthodox is that God is love.   Since, in Orthodoxy love always is other oriented, it is natural that God should also be Creator.  God calls into existence others whom He can love.  But since God is love, the Orthodox believe this basically means God is not a monad.  God does not engage in self-love, but always is love.   How is it possible for God to be love if He existed before there was anything else to love?    The answer to this question is found, so the Orthodox believe, in what Jesus Christ revealed about God, namely, God is a Trinity of co-equal divine Persons (thus “God is love” means God is a relational being).   Orthodoxy believes the witness of Christ and the scriptures is that God (divinity) exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   Officially in theological terms there is one divine nature (monotheism) which exists in the three persons of the Trinity.     Each of the persons of the Trinity completely shares in the divine nature of love.  Whatever makes the Father God also makes the Son and Sprit to be God.   The three persons of the Trinity are true personal beings and relate to each other and to creation.  

            Each of the persons of the Trinity is unique and not confused with the others.   The Father is the source of all things including the divine nature.  The Son is begotten by the Father and the Spirit proceeds from the Father.   God the Son has the unique role of becoming incarnate.  He became flesh (not just indwelling in it, but actually becoming flesh).    This is the witness of the Gospel of John which says “the word became flesh.”    This is exactly what the Christians argued and debated in the first several hundred years of the Church’s existence:  Who is Christ?   What is the implication of the answer to this question for our understanding of God and humanity?

            Jesus Christ is understood in Orthodoxy as being the Word of God.  Thus in Him is found the true understanding of scriptures and God’s revelation.    And what God has revealed in Christ is that God is Trinity and God is love.  What has also been revealed is that humanity – creation itself – is fully capable of union with God.   Whatever role sin played in separating humans from God, that separation has been overcome in Jesus Christ.  Whatever role death has in separating humans from God or each other, this too has been overcome in Jesus Christ.   In whatever way God became unknowable to humans, Jesus Christ has overcome that division both revealing God to us and reuniting us to God.

Next:  Orthodoxy in the World:  Teachings (D)

Orthodoxy in the World: Teachings (A)

This is the 9th 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: 18th-20th Centuries.

The very heart of Orthodoxy centers on the answer to the question, “Who is Jesus of Nazareth?”   Answering that question was the main point of the debates that consumed the Church throughout the age of the Councils.  But before answering that question, we need to set the background for understanding the question’s import.   First, we will look at the question posed to God in the Psalms,  “What are humans that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Ps 8:5, NAB).   Then, we will look at the Orthodox understanding of God, before returning to the question about  Jesus Christ.

 The key to understanding humanity for Eastern Orthodox is found in Genesis 1-3.  In this scripture that we learn several key factors about humans:

1)   Humans are not God, but rather are created by God and were to serve as intermediaries between God and the rest of creation.   The Orthodox see a clear hierarchy in the Bible:   God, then humans, then the rest of creation.    Angels are seen as occupying a “place” closer to God and serve as God’s messengers to humanity.  However, humans still occupy a place of unique favor in God’s eyes and plan. 

2)   Humans, male and female, are created in the image and likeness of God.   While the Patristic writers of Christianity’s first 8 Centuries debated the exact implication of humans being in God’s image, they all accepted this as a key to understanding humanity.    Humans are given free will and creativity by God.    Humans are loved by God and are capable of loving others.    Humans can think, have a natural relationship to God, and are created as good and to be good.   Humans are tripartite beings (body, spirit and soul), not a duality.    Humans are not merely physical and spiritual.   Part of being human is a soul, the very place where the Spirit of God interfaces with the physical part of humanity.   Thus there is no absolute separation between the spiritual and physical or between humanity and divinity.  The natural condition for humans is to be in communion with God.   Humans are not created as individuals, but rather are relational beings – always in relationship to God, to each other, and to the rest of the created order.  The relationship to God is not limited by what humans believe, for God has placed His image in each person.

Next:  Orthodoxy in the World:  Teachings (B)