In our last post, we wrote about how we came to learn about and join the Orthodox Church. Today, we’re writing to explain what the Orthodox Church shares in common with other Christian churches, as well as unique aspects of the Orthodox Church that tend to stand out. Again, this is written from the perspective of our unique context, and written for our friends, family, and other potential supporters.
C.S. Lewis, in the preface to his book Mere Christianity, describes how he wrote this book “to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” However, later in the preface he goes on to express his concern that readers might misconstrue this effort and “suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions – as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else.” He goes on to describe a hall containing doors that open into a number of rooms. “Mere” Christianity can be found in the hall, which is “a place to wait in, . . . not a place to live in.” The rooms are the various Christian traditions and churches (where “there are fires and chairs and meals”), of which one must ultimately choose, if one is serious about following Christ.
Rooms may be chosen for a number of reasons – some good, some bad. Our reason for choosing the Orthodox Church, as we stated in last week’s post, was because we had become convinced that it offered the fullest, most thorough, most accurate means by which we might come to know, follow, and be united to Jesus Christ, eternally. Note that we do not say it offers the only way. We don’t dare make that presumption.
Here we will do our best to explain the hallway: the mere Christianity that Lewis describes in that fantastic book, from our perspective as relatively recent (~seven years) Orthodox Christians. If you’re really interested, we highly recommend that you peruse Mere Christianity itself (or read it again if it’s been a while).
We are firmly convinced that the most important question that Christians must be able to answer is that one that Jesus asks his disciples in the Gospels: “Who do you say that I am?” Understanding who Jesus is, is a necessary prerequisite to understanding what he has done, and what we are to do in response. The answer to this question is the foundation of “mere” Christianity.
This question predominated the first few centuries of Christian history, and was most significantly addressed in what are known as ecumenical councils. In these councils, bishops (and others) met to discuss debates about who Jesus is, as well as any number of other issues. Essentially all Christians agree with the fundamental conclusions of the first three ecumenical councils, which were held between 325 and 431 A.D. The most significant statement to come from those councils was the Nicene Creed (which we highly suggest you take the time to read, if you’re not familiar with it).
The fourth council, held in Chalcedon in 451, produced the first split of lasting significance in Christianity. The Chalcedonian Definition (another good read) contained the statement that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, that he was one person in two natures (i.e., human and divine), and that this occurs “without confusion, change, division, or separation.” What is commonly known as the Oriental Orthodox Church disagreed with this statement, believing that the concept of two natures was unacceptable (however, recent dialogue has indicated that this may be largely an issue of wording, rather than actual Christology). Essentially all Protestants, Roman Catholics, as well as Eastern Orthodox Christians, hold to the Chalcedonian Definition.
Thus, mere Christianity agrees that God has revealed himself as Trinity: three Persons, one in essence, and undivided; that Jesus is the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity; and that Jesus is one in essence with us according to his humanity, and one in essence with God according to his divinity. In addition, we agree that the Son became human “for us men and for our salvation.” Salvation is a purpose and result of God becoming human, often referred to as the Incarnation.
Unique Aspects of the Orthodox Tradition
This section will be brief (there are much better treatments of all these topics in the resources listed in last week’s post). Our goal here is to address some of the most common questions people have about the Orthodox Church. Most of these arise because of differences in Catholic and Protestant thought – issues that have only come up as the Orthodox Church has had to interact with the debates of Western Christianity.
Scripture in Tradition
While Protestants hold to the doctrine that the authority of the Bible outranks tradition (Sola Scriptura; the Bible is the spring, and traditions are rivers that stream from it), and Catholics speak of two sources of authority in Scripture and Tradition (two rivers that weave together), Orthodox Christians tend to speak of Scripture in Tradition. Here, Tradition is the river, and the Scriptures are the current that drives the river.
For the Orthodox Church, authority comes from Jesus, and from what he taught his disciples, which they handed down to us. The Scriptures are the primary source for these teachings, but not the only source. One Orthodox bishop produced a helpful list (pp. 205-08) for prioritizing sources of apostolic teachings, such as councils, hymns, and the writings of the Church Fathers. Note that no teaching will contradict Scripture, but that these teachings are the means by which we correctly interpret Scripture.
Salvation as typically presented by the Orthodox Church has two emphases: rescue, and theosis, or deification. The idea of rescue is manifested by the hymn we sing over and over at Easter: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”
Theosis is the idea that as we become increasingly more like Jesus, we become increasingly more like God (since Jesus is God). Thus salvation is being rescued from death by Christ’s death and resurrection, and subsequently becoming increasingly like him for eternity, because he became like us first. It is not becoming God; just as we cannot become Jesus by becoming more and more like him (or anyone else, for that matter), we cannot become God by becoming more and more like him.
This is one of my favorite Orthodox prayers, asking God to save us.
The Sanctification of Matter
The sanctification of matter is the fundamental explanation for a number of unique teachings and practices in the Orthodox Church. When the immaterial God became a human being (i.e., matter), it changed what it means to be matter. Matter became a vehicle that God uses to bless us, and we can experience his grace through material things. This includes the matter that comprises the sacraments (e.g., water, oil, bread, wine, etc.), visual depictions of Christ and his saints (typically called icons), even the bodies of devout believers who have died (called relics).
It also ties into why we honor the saints in the Orthodox Church. What we’re doing when we honor the saints is drawing attention to the myriad ways that individuals throughout history have allowed Christ to shine through them. The golden circle that surrounds a saint (their halo) in an icon is meant to represent the uncreated light of Christ shining through that person.
We realize that this is barely skimming the surface of this immense topic. Please feel free to contact us if you have questions or concerns; we’re glad to talk, and aren’t easily offended. I (John) plan to discuss the concept of the sanctification of matter, along with humanity’s role in creation (especially as that pertains to veterinarians and their patients), in future posts.