Orthodox dogmatic theology

Introduction


A.  The sources of Christian doctrine

The concern of the Church for the purity of Christian teaching.

From the first days of her existence , the Holy Church of Christ has ceaselessly been concerned that her children , her members , should stand firm in the pure truth . “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth ,” writes the holy Apostle , John the Theologian ( 3 John 4 ). “I have written briefly , exhorting and testifying that this is the true grace of God wherein ye stand ,” says the holy Apostle Peter in concluding his catholic epistle ( 1 Peter 5 : 12 ). (“ Catholic ,” meaning “ universal ,” is the name applied to the New Testament Epistles (those of James , Peter , Jude , and John ) which were addressed , not to individuals or local churches (as are all the Epistles of St . Paul ), but to the whole Church or to believers in general .) The holy Apostle Paul relates concerning himself that, having preached for fourteen years , he went to Jerusalem by revelation with Barnabas and Titus , and there he offered — especially to the most renowned citizens — the gospel which he preached , “ lest by any means I should run , or had run , in vain ” ( Gal . 2 : 2 ). “ Instruct us in Thy path , that we may walk in Thy Truth ” — is the first petition in the priestly prayers (the Prayers at Lamplighting . The “ Prayers at Lamplighting ” are the silent prayers read by the priest before the Royal Doors while Psalm 103 is being read aloud by the Reader .) in the first Divine Service of the daily cycle , Vespers . The true path of faith which has always been carefully preserved in the history of the Church , from of old was called straight , right , in Greek , orthos — that is, “ orthodoxy .” In the Psalter — from which, as we know from the history of the Christian Divine services , the Church has been inseparable from the first moment of her existence — we find such phrases as the following — “my foot hath stood in uprightness ” ( Ps . 25 : 10 ); “from before Thy face let my judgment come forth ” ( Ps . 16 : 2 ); “ praise is meet for the upright ” ( Ps . 32 : 1 ); and there are others. The Apostle Paul instructs Timothy to present himself before God “a workman that needeth not to be ashamed , rightly dividing (that is, rightly cutting with a chisel , from the Greek orthotomounta ) the word of truth ” ( 2 Tim . 2 : 15 ). In early Christian literature there is constant mention of the keeping of “the rule of faith ,” the “ rule of truth ” The very term “ orthodoxy ” was widely used even in the epoch before the Ecumenical Councils , then in the terminology of the Ecumenical Councils themselves, and in the Fathers of the Church both of the East and of the West . Side by side with the straight , or right , path of faith there have always been those who thought differently ( heterodoxountes , or “ heterodox ,” in the expression of St . Ignatius the Godbearer ), a world of greater or lesser errors among Christians , and sometimes even whole incorrect systems which attempted to burst into the midst of Orthodox Christians . As a result of the quest for truth there occurred divisions among Christians . Becoming acquainted with the history of the Church , and likewise observing the contemporary world , we see that the errors which war against Orthodox Truth have appeared and do appear a) under the influence of other religions , b ) under the influence of philosophy , and c ) through the weakness and inclinations of fallen human nature , which seeks the rights and justifications of these weaknesses and inclinations .   Errors take root and become obstinate most frequently because of the pride of those who defend them, because of intellectual pride .

Dogmas

So as to guard the right path of faith , the Church has had to forge strict forms for the expression of the truths of faith : it has had to build up the fortresses of truth for the repulsion of influences foreign to the Church . The definitions of truth declared by the Church have been called , since the days of the Apostles , dogmas . In the Acts of the Apostles we read of the Apostles Paul and Timothy that “as they went through the cities , they delivered them the decrees ( dogmata ) for to keep , that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem ” ( Acts 16 : 4 ; here the reference is to the decrees of the Apostolic Council which is described in the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Acts ). Among the ancient Greeks and Romans the Greek word dogmat was used to refer a) to philosophical conceptions , and b ) to directives which were to be precisely fulfilled . In the Christian understanding , “ dogmas ” are the opposite of “ opinions ,” that is, inconstant personal conceptions.

The sources of dogmas

On what are dogmas founded? It is clear that dogmas are not founded on the rational conceptions of separate individuals , even though these might be Fathers and Teachers of the Church , but, rather, on the teaching of Sacred Scripture and on the Apostolic Sacred Tradition . The truths of faith which are contained in the Sacred Scripture and the Apostolic Sacred Tradition give the fullness of the teaching of faith which was called by the ancient Fathers of the Church the “ catholic faith ,” the “ catholic teaching ” of the Church . (In such phrases the word “ catholic ” means “ universal ” as referring to the Church of all times , peoples , and places “where there is neither Greek nor Jew , circumcision nor uncircumcision , Barbarian , Scythian , bond nor free , but Christ is all and in all” ( Col . 3 : 11 ). A celebrated definition of “ catholic ” in the early Church was given by St . Vincent of Lerins , the 5th century monastic Father of Gaul , who in his Communitorium says , “Every care should be taken to hold fast to what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. That is truly and properly ‘ catholic ‘ as indicated by the force and etymology of the name itself, which comprises everything truly universal ” ( ch . 2 , Fathers of the Church edition , p . 270 ). The name of “ catholic ” has been kept from early times in the “ Roman Catholic ” church , but the teaching of the early Church has been preserved in the Orthodox Church , which even to this day can be and still is called “ catholic .” In many places in this book , Father Michael will be contrasting the teaching of Roman Catholicism and the true catholic or Orthodox teaching .) The truths of Scripture and Tradition , harmoniously fused together into a single whole, define the “ catholic consciousness ” of the Church , a consciousness that is guided by the Holy Spirit .

Sacred Scripture

By “ sacred scripture ” are to be understood those books written by the holy Prophets and Apostles under the action of the Holy Spirit ; therefore they are called “ divinely inspired ” They are divided into books of the Old Testament and the books of the New Testament . The Church recognizes 38 books of the Old Testament . After the example of the Old Testament Church (Although the Church in the strict sense was established only at the coming of Christ ( see Matt . 16 : 18 ), there was in a certain sense a “ Church ” in the Old Testament also, composed of all those who looked with hope to the coming of the Messiah . After the death of Christ on the Cross , when He descended into hell and “ preached unto the spirits in prison ” ( 1 Peter 3 : 19 ), He brought up the righteous ones of the Old Testament with Him into Paradise , and to this day the Orthodox Church celebrates the feast days of the Old Testament Forefathers , Patriarchs , and prophets as equal to the saints of New Testament .), several of these books are joined to form a single book , bringing the number to twenty-two books , according to the number of letters in the   Hebrew alphabet . (The 22 “ canonical ” books of the Old Testament are: 1 . Genesis , 2 . Exodus , 3 . Leviticus , 4 . Numbers , 5 . Deuteronomy , 6 . Joshua , 7 . Judges and Ruth considered as one, 8 . First and Second Kings ( called First and Second Samuel in the King James Version ), 9 . Third and Fourth Kings (First and Second Kings in the KJV ), 10 . First and Second Paralipomena (First and Second Chronicles in the KJV ), 11 . First Esdras ( Ezra ) and Nehemiah , 12 . Esther , 13 . Job , 14 . Psalms , 15 . Proverbs , 16 . Ecclesiastes , 17 . The Song of Songs , 18 . Isaiah , 19 . Jeremiah , 20 . Ezekiel , 21 . Daniel , 22 . The Twelve Prophets ( Hosea , Joel , Amos , Obadiah , Jonah , Micah , Nahum , Habakkuk , Zephaniah , Haggai , Zechariah , Malachi ). This is the list given by St . John Damascene in the Exact Exposition of the Christian Faith , p . 375 ) These books , which were entered at some time into the Hebrew canon , are called “ canonical .” (The word “ canonical ” here has a specialized meaning with reference to the books of Scripture , and thus must be distinguished from the more usual use of the word in the Orthodox Church , where it refers not to the “ canon ” of Scripture , but to “ canons ” or laws proclaimed at church councils . In the latter sense , “ canonical ” means “in accordance with the Church ‘s canons .” But in the former, restricted sense , “ canonical ” means only “ included in the Hebrew canon ,” and “ non-canonical ” means only “not included in the Hebrew canon ” (but still accepted by the Church as Scripture ). In the Protestant world the “ non-canonical ” books of the Old Testament are commonly called the “ Apocrypha ,” often with a pejorative connotation , even though they were included in the earliest printings of the King James Version , and a law of 1615 in England even forbade the Bible to be printed without these books . In the Roman Catholic Church since the 16th century the “ non-canonical ” books have been called “ Deuterocanonical ” — i.e. belonging to a “ second ” or later canon of Scripture . In most translations of the Bible which include the “ non-canonical ” books , they are placed together at the end of the canonical books ; but in older printings in Orthodox countries there is no distinction made between the canonical and non-canonical books , see for example the Slavonic Bible printed in St . Petersburg , 1904 , and approved by the Holy Synod ) To them are joined a group of “ non-canonical ” books — that is, those which were not included in the Hebrew canon because they were written after the closing of the canon of the sacred Old Testament books . (The “ non-canonical ” books of the Old Testament accepted by the Orthodox Church are those of the “ Septuagint ” — the Greek translation of the Old Testament made by the “ Seventy ” scholars who, according to tradition , were sent from Jerusalem to Egypt at the request of the Egyptian King Ptolemy II in the 3rd century B.C. to translate the Old Testament into Greek . The Hebrew originals of most of the books , and most of the books and most of the books were composed only in the last few centuries before Christ . The “ non-canonical ” books of the Old Testament are: Tobit , Judith , The Wisdom of Solomon , Ecclesiasticus or the Wisdom of Joshua the Son of Sirach , Baruch , Three Books of Maccabees , the Epistle of Jeremiah , Psalm 151 , and the additions to the book of Esther , of 2 Chronicles (The Prayer of Manassah ), and Daniel (The Song of the Three Youths , Susanna , and Bel and the Dragon ).) The Church accepts these latter books also as useful and instructive and in antiquity assigned them for instructive reading not only in homes but also in churches , which is why they have been called “ ecclesiastical .” The Church includes these books in a single volume of the Bible together with the canonical books . As a source of the teaching of the faith , the Church puts them in a secondary place and looks on them as an appendix to the canonical books . Certain of them are so close in merit to the Divinely-inspired books that, for example , in the 85th Apostolic Canon (The “ Apostolic Canons ” or the “ Canons of the Holy Apostles ” are a collection of 85 ecclesiastical canons or laws handed down from the Apostles and their successors and given official Church approval at the Quinsext church Council (in Trullo ) in 692 and in the First Canon of the Seventh Ecumenical ( 787 ). Some of these canons were cited and approved at the Ecumenical Councils , beginning with the First Council in 325 , but the whole collection of them together was made probably not before the 4th century . The name “ apostolic ” does not necessarily mean that all the canons or the collection of them were made by the Apostles themselves, but only that they are in the tradition handed down from the Apostles ( just as not all the “ Psalms of David ” were actually written by the Prophet David ). For their text , see the Eerdmans Seven Ecumenical Councils , pp . 594 – 600 . The 85th Apostolic Canon lists the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments .) the three books of Maccabees and the book of Joshua the son of Sirach are numbered together with the canonical books , and, concerning all of them together it is said that they are “ venerable and holy .” However, this means only that they were respected in the ancient Church ; but a distinction between the canonical and non-canonical books of the Old Testament has always been maintained in the Church .   The Church recognizes twenty-seven canonical books of the New Testament . (These books are: the Four Gospels of Matthew , Mark , Luke , and John ; the Acts of the Apostles ; the Seven Catholic Epistles (one of James , two of Peter , three of John , one of Jude ); fourteen epistles of the Apostle Paul ( Romans , First and Second Corinthians , Galatians , Ephesians , Philippians , Colossians , First and Second Thessalonians , First and Second Timothy , Titus , Philemon , Hebrews ); and the Apocalypse ( Revelations ) of St . John the Theologian and Evangelist .) Since the sacred books of the New Testament were written in various years of the apostolic era and were sent by the Apostles to various points of Europe and Asia , and certain of them did not have a definite designation to any specific place , the gathering of them into a single collection or codex could not be an easy matter ; it was necessary to keep strict watch lest among the books of apostolic origin there might be found any of the so-called “ apocrypha ” books , which for the most part were composed in heretical circles . Therefore, the Fathers and teachers of the Church during the first centuries of Christianity preserved a special caution in distinguishing these books , even though they might bear the name of Apostles . The Fathers of the Church frequently entered certain books into their lists with reservations , with uncertainty or doubt , or else gave for this reason an incomplete list of the Sacred Books . This was unavoidable and serves as a memorial to their exceptional caution in this holy matter . They did not trust themselves, but waited for the universal voice of the Church . The local Council of Carthage in 318 , in its 33rd Canon , enumerated all of the books of the New Testament without exception . St . Athanasius the Great names all of the books of the New Testament without the least doubt or distinction , and in one of his works he concludes his list with the following words : “ Behold the number and names of the canonical books of the New Testament . These are, as it were, the beginnings , the anchors and pillars of our faith , because they were written and transmitted by the very Apostles of Christ the Savior , who were with Him and were instructed by Him” (from the Synopsis of St . Athanasius ). Likewise , St . Cyril of Jerusalem also enumerates the books of the New Testament without the slightest remark as to any kind of distinction between them in the Church . The same complete listing is to be found among the Western ecclesiastical writers , for example in Augustine . Thus, the complete canon of the New Testament books of Sacred Scripture was confirmed by the catholic voice of the whole Church . This Sacred Scripture , in the expression of St . John Damascene , is the “ Divine Paradise ” ( Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith , Book 4 , Ch . 17 ; Eng . tr . p . 374 ).

Sacred tradition

In the original precise meaning of the word , Sacred Tradition is the tradition which comes from the ancient Church of Apostolic times . In the second to the fourth centuries this was called “the Apostolic Tradition .” One must keep in mind that the ancient Church carefully guarded the inward life of the Church from those outside of her; her Holy Mysteries were secret , being kept from non-Christians . When these Mysteries were performed — Baptism or the Eucharist — those outside the Church were not present ; the order of the services was not written down, but was only transmitted orally ; and in what was preserved in secret was contained the essential side of the faith . St . Cyril of Jerusalem ( 4th century ) presents this to us especially clearly . In undertaking Christian instruction for those who had not yet expressed a final decision to become Christians , the hierarch precedes his teachings with the following words : “When the catechetical teaching is pronounced , if a catechumen should ask you, ‘What did the instructors say ?’ you are to repeat nothing to those who are without (the church ). For we are giving to you the mystery and hope of the future age . Keep the Mystery of Him Who is the Giver of rewards . May no one say to you,   ‘What harm is it if I shall find out also?’ Sick people also ask for wine , but if it is given at the wrong time it produces disorder to the mind , and there are two evil consequences ; the sick one dies , and the physician is slandered ” ( Prologue to the Catechetical Lectures , ch . 12 ). In one of his further homilies St . Cyril again remarks : “We include the whole teaching of faith in a few lines . And I would wish that you should remember it word for word and should repeat it among yourselves with all fervor , without writing it down on paper , but noting it by memory in the heart . And you should beware , lest during the time of your occupation with this study none of the catechumens should hear what has been handed down to you” ( Fifth Catechetical Lecture , ch . 12 ). In the introductory words which he wrote down for those being “ illumined ” — that is, those who were already coming to Baptism , and also to those present who were baptized — he gives the following warning : “This instruction for those who are being illumined is offered to be read by those who are coming to Baptism and by the faithful who have already received Baptism ; but by no means give it either to the catechumens or to anyone else who has not yet become a Christian , otherwise you will have to give an answer to the Lord . And if you make a copy of these catechetical . lectures , then, as before the Lord , write this down also” (that is, this warning ) (End of the Prologue to the Catechetical Lectures ). (These three citations may be found in St . Cyril , Catetechical Lectures , Eerdmans ed . pp . 4 , 32 , 5 . This strictness with regard to the revelation of the Christian Mysteries ( Sacraments ) to outsiders is no longer preserved to such a degree in the Orthodox Church . The exclamation , “ Catechumens depart !” before the Liturgy of the Faithful is still proclaimed , it is true , but hardly anywhere in the Orthodox world are catechumens or the non-Orthodox actually told to leave the church at this time . (In some churches they are only asked to stand in the back part of the church , in the narthex , but can still observe the service ). The full point of such an action is lost in our times , when all the “ secrets ” of the Christian Mysteries are readily available to anyone who can read , and the text of St . Cyril ‘s Catechetical Lectures has been published in many languages and editions . However, the great reverence which the ancient Church showed for the Christian Mysteries , carefully preserving them from the gaze of those who were merely curious , or those who, being outside the Church and uncommitted to Christianity , might easily misunderstand or mistrust them — is still kept by Orthodox Christians today who are serious about their faith . Even today we are not to “ cast our pearls before swine ” — to speak much of the Mysteries of the Orthodox Faith to those who are merely curious about them but do not to seek to join themselves to the Church .) In the following words St . Basil the Great gives us a clear understanding of the Sacred Apostolic Tradition : “Of the dogmas and sermons preserved in the Church , certain ones we have from written instruction , and certain ones we have received from the Apostolic Tradition , handed down in secret . Both the one and the other have one and the same authority for piety , and no one who is even the least informed in the decrees of the Church will contradict this. For if we dare to overthrow the unwritten customs as if they did not have great importance , we shall thereby imperceptively do harm to the Gospel in its most important points . And even more, we shall be left with the empty name of the Apostolic preaching without content . For example , let us especially make note of the first and commonest thing : that those who hope in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ should sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross . Who taught this in Scripture ? Which Scripture instructed us that we should turn to the east in prayer ? Which of the saints left us in written form the words of invocation during the transformation of the bread of the Eucharist and the Chalice of blessing ? For we are not satisfied with the words which are mentioned in the Epistles or the Gospels , but both before them and after them we pronounce others also as having great authority for the Mystery , having received them from the unwritten teaching . By what Scripture , likewise , do we bless the water of Baptism and the oil of anointing and, indeed, the one being baptized himself. Is this not the silent and secret tradition ? And what more? What written word has taught us this anointing with oil itself? (That is, anointing of those being baptized ; the anointing of the   Sacrament of Unction , on the other hand , is clearly indicated in Scripture ( James 5 : 14 ).) Where is the triple immersion and all the rest that has to do with Baptism , the renunciation of Satan and his angels to be found? What Scripture are these taken from? Is it not from this unpublished and unspoken teaching which our Fathers have preserved in a silence inaccessible to curiosity and scrutiny , because they were thoroughly instructed to preserve in silence the sanctity of the Mysteries ? For what propriety would there be to proclaim in writing a teaching concerning that which it is not allowed for the unbaptized even to behold ?” (On the Holy Spirit , ch . 27 ). From these words of St . Basil the Great we may conclude : first, that the Sacred Tradition of the teaching of faith is that which may be traced back to the earliest period of the Church , and, second , that it was carefully preserved and unanimously acknowledged among the Fathers and teachers of the Church during the epoch of the great Fathers and the beginning of the Ecumenical Councils . Although St . Basil has given here a series of examples of the “ oral tradition ,” he himself in this very text has taken a step towards the “ recording ” of this oral word . During the era of the freedom and triumph of the Church in the fourth century , almost all of the tradition in general received a written form and is now preserved in the literature of the Church , which comprises a supplement to the Holy Scripture . We find this sacred ancient Tradition • in the most ancient record of the Church , the Canons of the Holy Apostles ; ( See above note on the Canons of the Holy Apostles ) • in the Symbols of Faith of the ancient local churches ; • in the ancient Liturgies , in the rite of Baptism , and in other ancient prayers ; • in the ancient Acts of the Christian martyrs . The Acts of the martyrs did not enter into use by the faithful until they had been examined and approved by the local bishops ; and they were read at the public gatherings of Christians under the supervision of the leaders of the churches . In them we see the confession of the Most Holy Trinity , the Divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ , examples of the invocation of the saints , of belief in the conscious life of those who had reposed in Christ , and much else; • in the ancient records of the history of the Church , especially in the book of Eusebius Pamphilus , Bishop of Caesarea , ( English translation : Eusebius : The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine , tr . by G.A. Williamson , Penguin Books , Baltimore , 1965 ) where there are gathered many ancient traditions of rite and dogma — in particular , there is given the canon of the sacred books of the Old and New Testaments ; • in the works of the ancient Fathers and teachers of the Church ; • and, finally , in the very spirit of the Church ‘s life , in the preservation of faithfulness to all her foundations which come from the Holy Apostles . The Apostolic Tradition which has been preserved and guarded by the Church , by the very fact that it has been kept by the Church , becomes the Tradition of the Church herself, it “ belongs ” to her, it testifies to her; and, in parallel to Sacred Scripture it is called by her, “ Sacred Tradition .” The witness of Sacred Tradition is indispensable for our certainty that all the books of Sacred Scripture have been handed down to us from Apostolic times and are of Apostolic origin . Sacred Tradition is necessary for the correct understanding of separate passages of Sacred Scrip-   ture , and for refuting heretical reinterpretations of it, and, in general , so as to avoid superficial , one-sided , and sometimes even prejudiced and false interpretations of it. Finally , Sacred Tradition is also necessary because some truths of the faith are expressed in a completely definite form in Scripture , while others are not entirely clear and precise and therefore demand confirmation by the Sacred Apostolic Tradition . The Apostle commands , “Therefore, brethren , stand fast , and bold the traditions which ye have been taught , whether by word , or our epistle ” ( 2 Thess . 2 : 15 ). Besides all this, Sacred Scripture is valuable because from it we see how the whole order of Church organization , the canons , the Divine Services and rites are rooted in and founded upon the way of life of the ancient Church . Thus, the preservation of “ Tradition ” expresses the succession of the very essence of the Church .

The catholic consciousness of the Church

The orthodox church of Christ is the Body of Christ , a spiritual organism whose Head is Christ It has a single spirit , a single common faith , a single and common catholic consciousness , guided by the Holy Spirit ; and its reasonings are based on the concrete , definite foundations of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Apostolic Tradition . This catholic consciousness is always with the Church , but, in a more definite fashion , this consciousness is expressed in the Ecumenical Councils of the Church . From profound Christian antiquity , local councils of separate Orthodox Churches gathered twice a year , in accordance with the 37th Canon of the Holy Apostles . Likewise , often in the history of the Church there were councils of regional bishops representing a wider area than individual Churches and, finally , councils of bishops of the whole Orthodox Church of both East and West . Such Ecumenical Councils the Church recognizes as seven in number . The Ecumenical Councils formulated precisely and confirmed a number of the fundamental truths of the Orthodox Christian Faith , defending the ancient teaching of the Church against the distortions of heretics . The Ecumenical Councils likewise formulated numerous laws and rules governing public and private Christian church life , which are called the Church canons , and required the universal and uniform observance of them. Finally , the Ecumenical Councils confirmed the dogmatic decrees of a number of local councils , and also the dogmatic statements composed by certain Fathers of the Church — for example , the confession of faith of St . Gregory the Wonderworker , Bishop of Neo-Caesarea (For the text of St . Gregory ‘s “ Canonical Epistle ,” see the Eerdmans Seven Ecumenical Councils , p . 602 .), the canons of St . Basil the Great (The text of St . Basil ‘s canons may be found in the Eerdmans Seven Ecumenical Councils , pp . 604 – 611 .), and so forth . When in the history of the Church it happened that councils of bishops permitted heretical views to be expressed in their decrees , the catholic consciousness of the Church was disturbed and was not pacified until authentic Christian truth was restored and confirmed by means of another council . ( True councils — those which express Orthodox truth — are accepted by the Church ‘s catholic consciousness ; false councils — those which teach heresy or reject some aspect of the Church ‘s Tradition — are rejected by the same catholic consciousness . The Orthodox Church is the Church , not of “ councils ” as such, but only of the true councils , inspired by the Holy Spirit , which conform to the Church ‘s catholic consciousness .) One must remember that the councils of the Church made their dogmatic decrees a) after a careful , thorough and complete examination of all those places in Sacred Scripture which touch a given question , b ) thus testifying that the Ecumenical Church has understood the cited passages of Sacred Scripture in precisely this way . In this way the decrees of the councils concerning faith express the harmony of Sacred Scripture and the catholic Tradition of the Church . For this reason these   decrees became themselves, in their turn , an authentic , inviolable , authoritative , Ecumenical and Sacred Tradition of the Church , founded upon the facts of Sacred Scripture and Apostolic Tradition . Of course , many truths of the Faith are so immediately clear from Sacred Scripture that they were not subjected to heretical reinterpretations ; therefore, concerning them there are no specific decrees of councils . Other truths , however, were confirmed by councils . Among all the dogmatic decrees of councils , the Ecumenical Councils themselves acknowledge as primary and fundamental the Nicaeo-Constantinopolitan Symbol of Faith (This is the “ Creed ” (“I believe in One God …”) which is sung at every Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church and read at several other places in the daily Divine services .) and they forbade any change whatsoever in it, not only in its ideas , but also in its words , either by addition or subtraction ( decree of the Third Ecumenical Council , repeated by the Fourth , Fifth , Sixth , and Seventh Councils ). The decrees regarding faith which were made by a number of local councils , and also certain expositions of the Faith by the holy Fathers of the Church , are acknowledged as a guide for the Whole Church and are numbered in the second Canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Council (in Trullo ). (The “ Quinsext ” Council in Trullo ( 692 ) was actually held eleven years after the Sixth Ecumenical Council , but its decrees are accepted in the Orthodox Church as a continuation of those of the Sixth Council . The text of this Canon may be read in the Eerdmans Seven Ecumenical Councils , p . 361 , and the canons of the local councils and Holy Fathers which were approved in this Canon are printed elsewhere in the same volume ( pp . 409 – 519 , 589 – 615 ).)

Dogmas and canons

In ecclesiastical terminology dogmas are the truths of Christian teaching , the truths of faith , and canons are the prescriptions : relating to church order , church government , the obligations of the church hierarchy and clergy and of every Christian , which flow from the moral foundations of the evangelical and Apostolic teaching . Canon is a Greek word which literally means “a straight rod , a measure of precise direction .”

The works of the Holy Fathers

For guidance in questions of faith , for the correct understanding of Sacred Scripture , and in order to distinguish the authentic Tradition of the Church from false teachings , we appeal to the works of the holy Fathers of the Church , acknowledging that the unanimous agreement of all of the Fathers and teachers of the Church in teaching of the Faith is an undoubted sign of truth . The holy Fathers stood for the truth , fearing neither threats nor persecutions nor death itself. The Patristic explanations of the truths of the Faith 1 ) gave precision to the expression of the truths of Christian teaching and created a unity of dogmatic language ; 2 ) added testimonies of these truths from Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition , and also brought forth for them arguments based on reason . In theology , attention is also given to certain private opinions (In Greek : theologoumena ) of the holy Fathers or teachers of the Church on questions which have not been precisely defined and accepted by the whole Church . However, these opinions are not to be confused with dogmas , in the precise meaning of the word . There are some private opinions of certain Fathers and teachers which are not recognized as being in agreement with the general catholic faith of the Church , and are not accepted as a guide to faith . (As an example of such “ private opinions ,” one may take the mistaken opinion of St . Gregory of Nyssa that hell is not everlasting and that all — including the demons — are to be saved in the end. This opinion was rejected decisively at the Fifth Ecumenical Council as contradicting the Church ‘s “ catholic consciousness ,” but St . Gregory himself is still accepted as a saint and as a Holy Father in the OrthodoxChurch and his other teachings are not questioned . On the Orthodox attitude toward such mistaken “ private opinions ” of the Fathers , and specifically , concerning the teaching on this subject of such Fathers as St . Photius the Great and St . Mark of Ephesus , see the article “The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church ” in The Orthodox Word , 1978 , nos . 79 and 80 , printed also as a separate booklet , St . Herman of Alaska Brotherhood , 1983 .)

The truths of faith in the Divine services

The Catholic consciousness of the Church , where it concerns the teaching of faith , is also expressed in the Orthodox Divine Services which have been handed down to us by the Ecumenical Church . By entering deeply into the content of the Divine service books we make ourselves firmer in the dogmatic teaching of the Orthodox Church . (It should be noted that the composers and compilers of the Divine services were often great theologians in their own right . For example , the Octoechos or book of daily services in the Eight Tones , is essentially the work of St . John Damascene , the 8th century Holy Father who summed up the Orthodox theology of the great patristic age .) The content of the Orthodox Divine services is the culminating expression of the teaching of the holy Apostles and Fathers of the Church , both in the sphere of dogma and of morals . This is splendidly expressed in the hymn (the kontakion ) which is sung on the day of the commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils : “The preaching of the Apostles and the dogmas of the Fathers have imprinted upon the Church a single faith which, bearing the garment of truth woven of the theology from above, rightly dispenseth and glorifieth the great mystery of piety .”


B.  Expositions of Christian teaching

The symbolical books

The interpretations of the Symbol of Faith , or the “ Symbolic Guides ” (from the Greek symballo , meaning “to unite ;” symbolon , a uniting or conditional sign ) of the Orthodox Faith , in the common meaning of this term , are those expositions of Christian faith which are given in the Book of Canons of the Holy Apostles , the Holy Local and Ecumenical Councils , and the Holy Fathers . The theology of the Russian Church also makes use , as symbolical books , of those two expositions of the Faith which in more recent times were evoked by the need to present the Orthodox Christian teaching against the teaching of the unorthodox confessions of the second millennium . These books are: The Confession of the Orthodox Faith compiled by the Patriarch of Jerusalem , Dositheus , which was read and approved at the Council of Jerusalem in 1672 and, fifty years later, in answer to the inquiry received from the Anglican Church , was sent to that church in the name of all the Eastern Patriarchs and is therefore more widely known under the name of “The Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs on the Orthodox Faith .” Also included in this category is The Orthodox Confession of Peter Mogila , Metropolitan of Kiev , which was examined and corrected at two local councils , that of Kiev in 1640 and Jassy in 1643 , and then approved by four Ecumenical Patriarchs and the Russian Patriarchs Joachim and Adrian . The Orthodox Christian Catechism of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow enjoys a similar importance in the Russian Church , particularly the part which contains an exposition of the Symbol of Faith . This Catechism was “ examined and approved by the Holy Synod and published for instruction in schools and for the use of all Orthodox Christians .”

Dogmatic systems

The attempt at a comprehensive exposition of the whole Christian teaching we call a “ system of dogmatic theology .” A complete dogmatic system , very valuable for Orthodox theology , was compiled in the eighth century by St . John Damascene under the title Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith . In this work , one may say , St . Damascene summed up the whole of the theological thought of the Eastern Fathers and teachers of the Church up to the eighth century . Among Russian theologians , the most complete works of dogmatic theology were written in the nineteenth century by Metropolitan Macarius of Moscow ( Orthodox Dogmatic Theology , two volumes ), by Philaret , Archbishop of Chernigov ( Orthodox Dogmatic Theology , in two parts ), by Bishop Sylvester , rector of the Kiev Theological Academy ( Essay in Orthodox Dogmatic Theology , With an Historical Exposition of the Dogmas , five volumes ), by Archpriest N . Malinovsky ( Orthodox Dogmatic Theology , four volumes , and A Sketch of Orthodox Dogmatic Theology in two parts ), and by Archpriest P . Svietlov (The Christian Teaching of Faith , an Apologetic Exposition ). (These 19th century Russian “ systems ” of theology have been out of fashion among Orthodox academic theologians in recent years , and some have criticized them for supposed “ Western influences ” which they show . This criticism , while to a certain extent justified , has for the most part been one-sided and unfair , and has led some to a blind trust in today ‘s Orthodox theologians as being untainted by “ Western influence .” The truth of the matter is that the division of theology into “ categories ,” its “ systematization ” (which the present book itself follows ) is a rather modern device borrowed from the West , but as a solely external organization of the subject-matter of theology . Father Michael himself has elsewhere defended these systems of theology for their usefulness in teaching theology in the schools against accusations of “ scholasticism ” which are totally unfair . In intent , these systems are only a 19th century attempt to do what St . John Damascene did in the 8th century , and no one can deny that the basic content of these works is Orthodox .)


C.  Dogmatic Theology

The dogmatic labor of the Church has always been directed towards the confirmation in the consciousness of the faithful of the truths of the Faith , which have been confessed by the Church from the beginning. This labor consists of indicating which way of thinking is the one that follows the Ecumenical Tradition . The Church ’s labor of instructing in the Faith has been, in battling against heresies : to find a precise form for the expression of the truths of the Faith as handed down from antiquity , and to confirm the correctness of the Church ‘s teaching , founding it on Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition . In the teaching of the Faith , it is the thinking of the holy Apostles that was and remains the standard of the fullness and wholeness of the Christian world view . A Christian of the twentieth century cannot develop more completely or go deeper into the truths of the Faith than the Apostles . Therefore, any attempt that is made — whether by individuals or in the name of dogmatic theology itself — to reveal new Christian truths , or new aspects of the dogmas handed down to us, or a new understanding of them, is completely out of place . The aim of dogmatic theology as a branch of learning is to set forth , with firm foundation and proof , the Orthodox Christian teaching which has been handed down. Certain complete works of dogmatic theology set forth the thinking of the Fathers of the Church in an historical sequence . Thus, for example , the above-mentioned Essay in Orthodox Dogmatic Theology by Bishop Sylvester is arranged in this way . One must understand that such a method of exposition in Orthodox theology does not have the aim of investigating the “ gradual development of Christian teaching ”; its aim is a different one: it is to show that the complete set-ting forth , in historical sequence , of the ideas of the holy Fathers of the Church on every subject confirms most clearly that the Holy Fathers in all ages thought the same about the truths of the Faith . But, since some of them viewed the subject from one side , and others from another side , and since some of them brought forth arguments of one kind , and others of another kind , therefore the historical sequence of the teaching of the Fathers gives a complete view of the dogmas of the Faith and the fullness of the proofs of their truth . This does not mean that the theological exposition of dogmas must take an unalterable form . Each epoch puts forth its own views , ways of understanding , questions , heresies and protests against Christian truth , or else repeats ancient ones which had been forgotten . Theology naturally takes into consideration the inquiries of each age , answers them, and sets forth the dogmatic truths accordingly . In this sense , one may speak about the development of dogmatic theology as a branch of learning . But there are no sufficient grounds for speaking about the development of the Christian teaching of faith itself.

Dogmatics and faith

Dogmatic theology is for the believing Christian . In itself it does not inspire faith , but presupposes that faith already exists in the heart . “I believed , wherefore I spake ,” says a righteous man of the Old Testament ( Ps . 115 : 1 ). And the Lord Jesus Christ revealed the mysteries of the Kingdom of God to His disciples after they had believed in Him: “ Lord , to whom shall we go ? Thou hast the words of eternal life . And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ , the Son of the living God ” ( John 6 : 68 – 69 ). Faith , and more precisely faith in the Son of God Who has come into the world , is the cornerstone of Sacred Scripture ; it is the cornerstone of one’s personal salvation ; and it is the cornerstone of theology . “But these are written , that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ , the Son of God- and that believing ye might have life through His Name ” ( John 20 : 31 ), writes the Apostle John at the end of his Gospel , and he repeats the same thought many times in his epistles ; and these words of his express the chief idea of all of the writings of the holy Apostles : I believe . All Christian theologizing must begin with this confession . Under this condition theologizing is not an abstract mental exercise , not an intellectual dialectics , but a dwelling of one’s thought in Divine truths , a directing of the mind and heart towards God , and a recognition of Gods love . For an unbeliever theologizing is without effect , because Christ Himself, for unbelievers , is “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense ” ( 1 Peter 2 : 7 – 8 ; see Matt . 21 : 44 ).

Theology , Science and Philosophy

The difference between theology and the natural sciences , which are founded upon observation or experiment , is made clear by the fact that dogmatic theology is founded upon living and holy faith . Here the starting point is faith , and there, experience . However, the manners and methods of study are one and the same in both spheres ; the study of facts , and deductions drawn from them. Only, with natural science the deductions are derived from facts collected through the observation of nature , the study of the life of peoples , and human creativity ; while in theology the deductions come from the study of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition . The natural sciences are empirical and technical , while our study is theological . This clarifies the difference also between theology and philosophy . Philosophy is erected upon purely rational foundations and upon the deductions of the experimental sciences , to the- extent that the latter are capable of being used for the higher questions of life ; while theology isfounded upon Divine Revelation . They must not be confused ; theology is not philosophy even when it plunges our thinking into profound or elevated subjects of Christian faith which are difficult to understand . Theology does not deny either the experimental sciences or philosophy . St . Gregory the Theologian considered it the merit of St . Basil the Great that he mastered dialectic to perfection , with the help of which he overthrew the philosophical constructs of the enemies of Christianity . In general , St . Gregory did not sympathize with those who expressed a lack of respect for outward learning . However, in his renowned homilies on the Holy Trinity , after setting forth the profoundly contemplative teaching of Triunity , he thus remarks of himself “Thus, as briefly as possible I have set forth for you our love of wisdom , which is dogmatical and not dialectical , in the manner of the fishermen and not of Aristotle , spiritually and not cleverly woven , according to the rules of the Church and not of the marketplace ” ( Homily 22 ). The course of dogmatic theology is divided into two basic parts : into the teaching 1 ) about God in Himself and 2 ) about God in His manifestation of Himself as Creator , Providence , Savior of the world , and Perfector of the destiny of the world .


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