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

Apostle Andronicus of the Seventy

Apostle Andronicus of the Seventy

My beloved spiritual children in Our Risen Jesus Christ,

By Father John Anthony McGuckin

The Age of the Fathers

The final victory of the Emperor Constantine, and his assumption of sole monarchical control over the Roman empire in 323, coincided with his decision to bring healing and order back into the affairs of a Christian East that had been so disrupted by the brunt of the 4th century persecutions. He paid the Church compensation for much of the property it had lost, gave several buildings for its use (the Lateran basilica in Rome for example), and commanded several new churches to be built (such as Bethlehem, the old St. Peter's basilica, and the church of the Anastasis (Resurrection), or Holy Sepulchre). He also commanded the bishops of the Eastern Church to come together and end the dissension that had compromised their unity. This they did, at his own palace at Nicaea in Asia Minor in the year 325 A.D. This large synod (council) of bishops was to become a great moment in Church History, featuring as the first of the ecumenical (world-side) synods that the Church has looked back on as being of monumental importance in settling universal matters of the Orthodox faith. There are now seven Ecumenical Councils which the Orthodox regard as the supreme legislative assembly of the Church on earth. Roman Catholicism continued the process of holding universal councils (the last being Vatican II in the 1960's) but the Orthodox have only regarded the first seven as authentically ecumenical, when all the ancient 'popes' were represented. The decisions of an ecumenical council are seen by the Orthodox as having the authoritative blessing of the Holy Spirit, affirming the judgment of all the assembled bishops as to substantial matter of faith and discipline. This is why the vote of the bishops at ecumenical councils was not taken as a 'majority' prospectus. If a matter of faith was at stake, it was presumed that all the assembled bishops, as vessels of the Holy Spirit who had been formed in the Orthodox faith, would be able to 'recognize' it without difficulty, not search for it laboriously among a welter of possibilities. The Apostolic teaching was (and is) taken with the utmost seriousness: "We have the mind of Christ." If a bishop dissented from the unanimous vote of an ecumenical council, therefore, or resisted it once it had been proclaimed, he was inevitably regarded as resisting the Spirit, and was always deposed from his office as bishop by the vote of the assembly.

The decrees of the Council of Nicaea strongly proclaimed the divinity of the Logos/Word of God, and laid the foundation of the Holy Trinity. Nicaea, and the Creed of faith it issued, has always regarded by the Orthodox as the foundation stone of the theological truth after the Holy Scripture, and an example of how the Orthodox Tradition (almost in every generation) has to recognize the challenges that present themselves (Arianism in the time of Nicaea) and defend the truth in harmony with the received tradition of the past. The ministry of harmonious consensus in faith, and vigorous defense of the truth, still remains the quintessential role of the Orthodox bishop.

The pastoral works of such theologians as Saint Basil the Great of Caesarea, or the historical of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, all accumulated to form a very rich and extensive body of literature on exegesis, doctrine, liturgy, and spirituality, which is still read to this day in the Orthodox communion. These writers, especially those of unquestioned authority and ancient status, are given the title of the "Fathers of the Church". The phrase primarily signified the ancient office of bishop-theologian. There were "Mothers of the Church" too (Ammas): such great saints and teachers as Saint Macrina of Cappadocia, Saint Olympias of Constantinople, Saint Melania of Rome, Saint Syncletiki the Ascetic, and many others. They did not have an ordained role in as teacher, as the Fathers who were bishops did, (though some of them were deaconesses) but the stature of their lives and the quality of their ascetic witness has given them a pre-eminent status as early Christian women theologians. Orthodoxy affords deep respect to the writings of the Fathers and Mothers, as an example of the Spirit-filled (pneumatophoroi) who can teach the Church the authentic message of the Spirit of God in any given age or era. For this reason Orthodoxy does not restrict the age of the Fathers and Mothers to a dead past. Those who are Spirit-bearers in the present age are also the authentic theologians of God, even though not all of them may have the duty of public teaching in the Church, and many of them may not have academic qualifications. The writings of each Father individually considered, however, are not afforded any level of infallibility. It is how the patristic writings merge with the harmony of the great tradition that affords them their apostolic quality of truth. Some of the individual Fathers were great men of faith, but raised theories and ideas that the Church, in relation to its wider tradition, rejected and discountenanced. Orthodoxy venerates Saint Augustine, for example, but regards much of his work as seriously flawed, and as a source of much disunity that would follow after him, between the respective Latin and Orthodox readings of the Church's Tradition on important issues. Origen of Alexandria is a writer whose biblical exegesis, and much of his thought, has inspired generations of saints, but whose 'overall system' was severely censured by the Orthodox ecumenical tradition, and he has been denied patristic status accordingly.

In the fourth and fifth centuries there were many great writers, defending the tradition and establishing the tenor of the conciliar teachings, that it has ever afterwards been regarded as 'the Golden Age of the Fathers'. For the fourth century, Saints Athanasios, Gregory the Theologian, Basil the Great of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom, and Ephraim the Syrian stand out as the great defenders of the Nicene faith. For the fifth century there were such giants as Saints Cyril of Alexandria, Pope Leo I, and Saint Augustine. There has hardly been a century since, in all the long annals of Orthodoxy, where great spiritual teachers and theologians have not appeared. The whole Orthodox tradition is marked by these luminaries: writers of patristic status reaching out of the classical ages of the Church and into the medieval period and beyond. Notable among them are Saint Maximos the Confessor, Saint John of Damascus, Saint Symeon the New Theologian, Saint Gregory Palamas, and Saint Gregory of Sinai. In every instance their teaching has formed a seamless union with the quality of their lives. In doctrine the Saint Theologians of Orthodoxy are faithful to the Apostolic Tradition, and in their life they represent the charism of the Spirit-filled. Without both characteristics visibly present, Orthodoxy does not afford such high recognition to any teacher; when both are present it recognizes them as manifesting the 'mind of Christ.' It is an enduring ecumenical sadness that their lives and works are so little known in Western Christianity (Roman Catholicism and Protestantism).

(To be continued)



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

+Father George