The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture (Part I)

First opening of the relics of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk

First opening of the relics of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk

My beloved spiritual children in Our Risen Lord Jesus Christ,

by Fr. John Anthony McGuckin (The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture)

A Brief History of the Orthodox from the Apostolic Era to the Middle Ages.

Perspective of History

It is a basic premise of Orthodox theology that the history of Orthodoxy is synonymous with the history of the Church. Historians may puzzle over that, thinking of all the concerns, developments, and controversies that constitute Church History that seem to have no bearing on the history of the Orthodox (the Avignon Papacy, the Inquisition, the Reformation, the Oxford Movement, the ordination of women, to name only a few), but Orthodox generally regard the Church world-wide up to the Middle Ages as 'their Church,' with divisions and separations only becoming a chronic and permanent state of affairs as the high medieval West introduced more and more patterns of behavior that were in conflict with the ancient procedures, and doctrines, established in patristic times. The Orthodox, at large, see the Latin (Roman) church of the first millennium to be substantially in harmony with the Orthodox Tradition, so that there was one Church only in its validity distinct Eastern and Western forms. Accordingly, the Orthodox to this day in countries such as England, Italy, or France honor the ancient saints of the local churches there as entirely Orthodox. The Orthodox, when they find Anglican or Catholic churches in Europe that contain the relics of the ancient saints, will usually make a point of going to venerate them (sometimes having some confusion when they find the holy reliquaries of fathers and martyrs set up in glass museum-cases in sacristies rather than upon the altars).

Ordinary readers may also find this understanding of the Church's history a strange perspective because in so many of the commonly available church histories that one reads, the Orthodox Church hardly features. If it does make an appearance, for the period of the first 500 years, it mysteriously tails off into invisibility as the story of the rise of the medieval West is undertaken, something that tends to push away all else to the side. Most English-language church histories, if they were properly labeled, should admit that they are largely the history of the Western church as it developed after the great shock wave of the Reformation. Because of this, Reformation apologetics still heavily condition the way the story of the Church is told. Until the latter part of the twentieth century the same attitude of neglect (and often scorn) attached itself to secular history of the eastern Roman empire. Byzantine studies, though now enjoying a revival, were traditionally looked down upon. Historians such as Gibbon and others following him had caricatured the history of the Greek Christian East as a long and dismal chronicle of barbarism and autocracy.

Both from the Roman Catholic viewpoint and from Protestant perspectives, Eastern Orthodox history was not something to linger over. For Roman Catholicism the Greek Orthodox (and all other Orthodox Churches in communion with them) were stubborn schismatics who had always resisted the eirenic (peaceful) advances of Rome, and had thrown off Roman order and clarity. To Protestant critics the Orthodox were often seen as stranger versions of all that they hated in medieval Catholicism: relic veneration, icons, devotion to the saints and the Virgin Mary, sacraments, and priesthood. Each side of the Western Reformation divide saw the Orthodox through a distorting lens of its own concerns. From the viewpoint of the Orthodox, both forms of Western Christianity, Catholic and Reformed, seemed very much alike: two similar but variant forms of development of the same premises with the same styles of theologizing and closely related patterns of worship. Studies of the Orthodox Church by external commentators tended to resonate with those aspects of Orthodoxy that 'conformed' to their Western Catholic, or Protestant, expectations, depending on the ecclesial starting point, and allegiance, of the various authors.

This relative neglect, however, was not simply due to the vagaries of the European press. History had something to do with it too. As the story of the Western church grew to the 'interesting point' of its early medieval ascendancy (the time princes of the church started to become real power-brokers in Western politics), so the history of the Christian East started a long twilight time, pressed and harried by the relentless westward advance of Islam. The Byzantine and Slavic Christian worlds, along with their own histories and perspectives on the Christian Church, simply didn't fit the common picture, and so were easily ignored or fitted into the more dominant Western archetypes of historiography. Nevertheless, it is still something of a shock for Orthodox readers to find, in many religious education books in western Europe schools, phrases describing the Orthodox Church as a schismatic branch of Christendom that broke off union with the pope in the medieval period. Such a view may be part and parcel of a particular Roman ideology of Church history, but it is, obviously, not a perspective that is acceptable to the Orthodox, either in terms of theology of the Church, or in terms of simple accuracy in the historical record.

Orthodoxy does not give up the title 'catholic.' It regards itself as the catholic Church (the marks of the Church are to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic) and catholicity in this sense demands that any Orthodox Church cannot be Greek, Russian, Romanian, American, or English in its fundamental 'character', but on the contrary is fundamentally catholic and universal in its being and its spiritual ethos. Its national characteristics are legitimate variations of its catholicity, but must not obscure it. Orthodoxy in some parts began to call itself 'Greek Catholic' in reaction to the way in which 'Roman Catholic' started to appear as a designation of the larger part of the Western church; but these terms are not ancient, and not part of the original deposit of Christianity. Instead they show signs of the 'denominational' mentality that had grown up as part of post-Reformation apologetics in western Europe. When they speak of themselves the Orthodox never evoke denominationalism as a legitimate mark of Church identity. For the Orthodox 'denominationalism' is the heart of ecclesiological heresy, and rise only out of the ruin of ecclesial order...

Earliest Christian Foundations

When the Orthodox think about the Church, they instinctively understand that it is the living communion which contains the angelic orders, as well as the prophets and saints before the historical ascent of the Lord who were liberated to become the heavenly Church as a grace of the Resurrection, and also the countless generations who have gone before us, and those which may possibly come after us. Thus, when we speak of the 'beginning' of the Church in this chapter, it is taken to mean the earthly Church after the Incarnation. Orthodox Christianity begins at several sacred 'moments' within history, that have been prepared by the great pre-history of the scriptural revelation, and are rooted in the great plan of God's creation ordinance. Within that nexus of moments, however, there are certain key events that constitute the beginning of the Church historically speaking. Orthodoxy would place the first great epiphany in the Incarnation of the Holy Word/Logos. The icon of the Nativity of the Savior features, prominently, the arrival of the Magi as symbols of the enlightened nations. More narrowly, the earthly Church is said to have been brought together with Jesus' commissioning of His Apostles and, ultimately, with their consecration as His witnesses to the world at the great experience of Pentecost. It is the Pentecostal descent of the Holy Spirit that leads the Apostles into the fullness of the Truth of Jesus, and energizes their mission to evangelize others and draw them consciously into a life-giving relation with God, through His Christ. The Pentecostal Spirit energizes the 'Great Commission' to evangelize the world, a grace that itself is part of the Resurrection life poured out over history, to sanctify it. The Church, from that time onward, has had the duty of preserving fidelity to the Lord's Gospel commission, and it has always been propagated in the same 'pneumatic' way: namely, by the charismatic grace of the Lord passing through generations, embodied in the pentecostal proclamation of the Gospels and the celebration of the Sacramental Mysteries, under the care of the Apostles and their successors.

Orthodoxy regards the episcopal ranks, the senior order of priesthood in the Church, as the chief example of the successors to the original Apostolic order. All those, however, who share the vitality of the faith with others, especially those who lead others deeper into the experience of Jesus, are seen to be endowed with an Apostolic charism in a missionary sense. (Source: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture by Fr. John Anthony McGuckin)

(To be continued)




With sincere agape in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George