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

Blessed Crown Prince Demetrius of Uglich and Moscow

Blessed Crown Prince Demetrius of Uglich and Moscow

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.

Some great saints of the past, such as St. Thekla the Megalomartyr, St. Nina of Georgia, or St. Vladimir of Kiev, are called apostles figuratively in the Orthodox liturgical tradition, because of the great effect they have had in evangelizing nations and regions. Even on a lesser scale, parents and grandparents who transmit the faith with loving care to their children serve in the apostolic role as propagators of the faith, under God. This 'lesser' role is the standard way whole generations of believers are born, passing from their natural birth to a new spiritual consecration as disciples in a baptismal experience mediated to them by their parents, who have treasured the faith and wish to hand it down to their family. Of course, because it’s a charism (gift), passing on the faith cannot be guaranteed, or mechanically presumed, even across a family that has been steeped in the life of the Church for centuries past. All men and women must make their choice freely, and personally, each in their own lifetime. The gift cannot be presumed (though it will always be offered), and faith only shine in true brightness when it is freely affirmed and voluntarily embraced. It is the basic task of the Church to ensure that in each generation the call of the Gospel can be heard clearly, and purely, and that the church communion itself is an accurate, living, and gracious icon of Christ, acting to attract men and women to the Lord of Love (Agape).

The Apostles served the Lord while He lived, and after His Resurrection, so Church Traditions recount, travelled far and wide preaching the Good News (Evanggelion) that He had entrusted to them. The form of the Apostolic kergyma is impressed at several instances on the Scriptural record. Acts 2:14-40 gives a stylized example of the shape of one of the earliest Apostolic kergymata, and it was with sermons and appeals such as this that the first missionaries of the Church made their way through the ancient agoras (market places), synagogues (synagoges), and odea of the Greco-Roman world in late antiquity. In the generation after them the Apostolic preachers, and the itinerant prophets we hear about in ancient texts such as the Didache, left behind churches, that is, communities of committed believers, which they had established by their kerygmatic proclamation, and already before the end of the second century we have records of how those earliest communities began to organize themselves for the times ahead, when they would be without the authorities of the great leaders of the first generation. The pastoral epistles of the New Testament give an account of how the communities were settling down, and learning to regulate themselves and organize their patterns of worship.

"...The acknowledgment of a universally recognized canon of Holy Scripture was a decisive reaction to close out books that did not fit into the 'diverse harmony' that is represented by the Church's present canon of New Testament writings. All of the canonical Holy Scriptures represent different perspectives, but together they make a many-veined harmony of voice that fills out and rounds office the earliest picture of the experience of Jesus in the Church. Certain doctrines and claims about Jesus, however, clash with this harmony, and many (in the past, just as today) are incompatible with it. It is obvious that the canon is not a 'representative cross-section' of all the voices that could be heard in the ancient communities. It is the pure distillation of what was offered by the Spirit-led, as the essence of the Apostolic Tradition. The tradition, and the sum total of voices, are not the same at all. Orthodoxy is interested in the former, not in being an archival record of things antiquarian.

It was the early generation of bishops in the larger churches--generally men who were educated in the wider perspective of how other Mediterranean churches were conducting themselves--that first began to call out extreme heterodox movements. The bishops of Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome featured prominently in this part of the story. Important bishops, such as Saint Ignatius, Dionysios, or Pope Clement, have left behind them a body of literature that is afforded great respect in the Orthodox Tradition, as giving evidence of some of the earliest post-apostolic models of governance. The writings of St. Ignatius the God-Bearer (of Antioch), dating to approximately AD 107, show that already the principle of the single presiding episcopate is spreading through the churches as the preferred model for good order. St. Ignatius speaks of the bishop as the icon of Christ governing the Church. 'No one is permitted', St. Ignatius writes, 'to do anything that concerns the Church, with the bishop.' Saint Ignatius describes the bishop as the focal point of unity, because around him the Church is enabled to gather eucharistically: and Christ Himself is the unity of the communion. Good practice was always a dominating factor in how the wider community of churches in the ancient world emulated, and learned from, one another. Eventually this system of common awareness and respect became enshrined in the important principle of mutual episcopal recognition. Bishops who were ordained were acknowledged by 'letters of peace' as they introduced themselves to neighboring bishops and gave an account of their standard of Christian teaching. By the late second century it is clear that the bishops had also begun to organize the churches by reliance on province-wide meetings of bishops. These meetings, known as synods (a Greek word meaning 'coming together'), were arranged to discuss common affairs and decide on common policy in the face of perceived threats to Christian coherence...

"...Saint Irenaeus, and other theologians of this early period, articulated more details as time went on about how to recognize and protect the system of Orthodoxy and avoid heterodox opinions that falsified the authentic Gospel. In addition to the canon of the Holy Scripture, the concept of Apostolic succession of the bishops, and the concept of synodical harmony, St. Irenaeus also pointed to the manner in which practices of worship enshrined the true belief of the people. This process was described in the Latin text of St. Irenaeus as the principle of the Regula Fidei (Rule of Faith). What it soon came to be summed up by was the manner in which candidates for baptism presented their 'confession of faith' before the sacrament. The confession was generally taught to them by the local bishop, and so this 'Creed' was an active summation of the whole belief of that Church. Creeds, and the theological attitudes manifested by the practice of the rituals of prayer and worship (the hymns, the liturgical prayers, and details of the sacramental rites) all accumulated, in St. Irenaeus' view, to presenting a veritable dossier of authentic Christianity that was not dependent on the intelligentsia to articulate it. It was a living theology of the whole Church, not a theoretical religion for the highly educated. From ancient times to the present day, therefore, Orthodoxy has held to that principle, and it is the people as a whole in the Orthodox Church who hold to the tradition of belief they have received from earlier times. Orthodoxy is much less susceptible than are many Western churches to the theological writings of contemporary theologians among it. The wider Church, the ordinary faithful as well as monks and bishops, expect modern theologians to conform their doctrine to the writings of the Apostles and Fathers, and to the Liturgical Tradition they themselves received at baptism. An Orthodox theologian who departs from the fundamentals of the rule of faith is, de facto, no longer an Orthodox theologian at all. (Source: The Orthodox Church: 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