Basic Teachings and Frequently Asked Questions
Basic Teachings of the Orthodox Faith
The Orthodox Church throughout the ages has maintained a continuity of faith and love with the apostolic community which was founded by Christ and sustained by the Holy Spirit. Orthodoxy believes that she has preserved and taught the historic Christian Faith, free from error and distortion, from the time of the Apostles. She also believes that there is nothing in the body of her teachings which is contrary to truth or which inhibits real union with God. The air of antiquity and timelessness which often characterizes Eastern Christianity is an expression of her desire to remain loyal to the authentic Christian Faith.
Orthodoxy believes that the Christian Faith and the Church are inseparable. It is impossible to know Christ, to share in the life of the Holy Trinity, or to be considered a Christian apart from the Church. It is in the Church that the Christian Faith is proclaimed and maintained. It is through the Church that an individual is nurtured in the Faith.
God is the source of faith in the Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy believes that God has revealed Himself to us, most especially in the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom we know as the Son of God. This Revelation of God, His love, and His purpose, is constantly made manifest and contemporary in the life of the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Orthodox Faith does not begin with mankind's religious speculations, nor with the so-called "proofs" for the existence of God, nor with a human quest for the Divine. The origin of the Orthodox Christian Faith is the Self-disclosure of God. Each day, the Church's Morning Prayer affirms and reminds us of this by declaring, "God is the Lord and He has revealed Himself to us.” While the inner Being of God always remains unknown and unapproachable, God has manifested Himself to us; and the Church has experienced Him as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity, which is central to the Orthodox Faith, is not a result of pious speculation, but of the overwhelming experience of God. The doctrine affirms that there is only One God, in whom there are three distinct Persons. In other words, when we encounter the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit, we are truly experiencing contact with God. While the Holy Trinity is a mystery which can never be fully comprehended, Orthodoxy believes that we can truly participate in the Trinity through the life of the Church, especially through our celebration of the Eucharist and the Sacraments, as well as the non-sacramental services.
INCARNATION OF JESUS CHRIST
Together with the belief in the Holy Trinity, the doctrine of the Incarnation occupies a central position in the teaching of the Orthodox Church. According to Orthodox Faith, Jesus is much more than a pious man or a profound teacher of morality. He is the "Son of God who became the Son of Man.” The doctrine of the Incarnation is an expression of the Church's experience of Christ. In Him, divinity is united with humanity without the destruction of either reality. Jesus Christ is truly God who shares in the same reality as the Father and the Spirit. Moreover, He is truly man who shares with us all that is human. The Church believes that, as the unique God-man, Jesus Christ has restored humanity to fellowship with God.
By manifesting the Holy Trinity, by teaching the meaning of authentic human life, and by conquering the powers of sin and death through His Resurrection, Christ is the supreme expression of the love of God the Father, for His people, made present in every age and in every place by the Holy Spirit through the life of the Church. The great Fathers of the Church summarized the ministry of Christ in the bold affirmation, "God became what we are so that we may become what He is.”
The Holy Scriptures are highly regarded by the Orthodox Church. Their importance is expressed in the fact that a portion of the Bible is read at every service of Worship. The Orthodox Church, which sees itself as the guardian and interpreter of the Scriptures, believes that the books of the Bible are a valuable witness to God's revelation. The Old Testament is a collection of forty-nine books of various literary styles which expresses God's revelation to the ancient Israelites. The Orthodox Church regards the Old Testament as a preparation for the coming of Christ and believes that it should be read in light of His revelation.
The New Testament is centered upon the person and work of Jesus Christ and the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit in the early Church. The four Gospels are an account of Christ's life and teaching, centering upon His Death and Resurrection. The twenty-one epistles and the Acts of the Apostles are devoted to the Christian life and the development of the early Church. The Book of Revelation is a very symbolic text which looks to the return of Christ. The New Testament, especially the Gospels, is very important to Orthodoxy because here is found a written witness to the perfect revelation of God in the Incarnation of the Son of God, in the person of Jesus Christ.
While the Bible is treasured as a valuable written record of God's revelation, it does not contain wholly that revelation. The Bible is viewed as only one expression of God's revelation in the on-going life of His people. Scripture is part of the treasure of Faith which is known as Tradition. Tradition means that which is "handed on" from one generation to another. In addition to the witness of Faith in the Scripture, the Orthodox Christian Faith is celebrated in the Eucharist; taught by the Fathers; glorified by the Saints; expressed in prayers, hymns, and icons; defended by the seven Ecumenical Councils; embodied in the Nicene Creed; manifested in social concern; and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, it is lived in every local Orthodox parish. The life of the Holy Trinity is manifested in every aspect of the Church's life. Finally, the Church, as a whole, is the guardian of the authentic Christian Faith which bears witness to that Revelation.
COUNCILS AND CREED
As Orthodoxy has avoided any tendency to restrict the vision of God's revelation to only one avenue of its life, the Church has also avoided the systematic or extensive definition of its Faith. Orthodoxy affirms that the Christian Faith expresses and points to the gracious and mysterious relationship between God and humanity. God became man in the person of Jesus Christ not to institute a new philosophy or code of conduct, but primarily to bestow upon us "new life" in the Holy Trinity. This reality, which is manifest in the Church, cannot be wholly captured in language, formulas, or definitions. The content of the Faith is not opposed to reason, but is often beyond the bounds of reason, as are many of the important realities of life. Orthodoxy recognizes the supreme majesty of God, as well as the limitations of the human mind. The Church is content to accept the element of mystery in its approach to God.
Only when the fundamental truths of the Faith are seriously threatened by false teachings does the Church act to define dogmatically an article of faith. For this reason, the decisions of the seven Ecumenical Councils of the ancient undivided Church are highly respected. The Councils were synods to which bishops from throughout the Christian world gathered to determine the true faith. The Ecumenical Councils did not create new doctrines but proclaimed, in a particular place and a particular time, what the Church has always believed and taught.
The Nicene Creed, which was formulated at the Councils of Nicaea in 325 and of Constantinople in 381, has been recognized since then as the authoritative expression of the fundamental beliefs of the Orthodox Church. The Creed is often referred to as the "Symbol of Faith." This description indicates that the Creed is not an analytical statement, but that it points to a reality greater than itself and to which it bears witness. For generations, the Creed has been the criterion of authentic Faith and the basis of Christian education. The Creed is recited at the time of Baptism and during every Divine Liturgy.
"I believe in One God, Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.
And in One Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages.
Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not created, of one essence with the Father, through whom all things were made.
For us and for our salvation He came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became Man.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and He suffered and was buried.
On the third day He rose according to the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead. His kingdom will have no end.
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who spoke through the prophets.
In one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
I acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
I expect the resurrection of the dead; and the life of the age to come.
Article Authored By Fr. Thomas Fitzgerald
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do the Orthodox Worship as they do, not changing it with the times as other churches have?
It’s because this is how worship was conducted in the first century Church and how history records Christians continued to worship for centuries afterward. Orthodoxy holds fast to what it has received throughout its existence as something received from Christ through the Apostles. At its heart is the very life of the faith. The idea that the Church should fundamentally change its worship according to the tastes and culture of the world is foreign to us.
Why do you pray to saints?
To be accurate, we pray with the saints, not to them. Much the same as you would ask your friends, family or other Christians to pray for you, we ask the saints to intercede on our behalf. We don’t pray to the saints “instead” of to God, just as any Christian does not ask his fellow Christians to pray for him instead of going directly to God with his concerns. Rather, we enlist Saints, along with the rest of the Church, to pray to God to hear us and have mercy on us. No saint would ever get between anyone and God. Rather, they always pray for us to God so that we can become one with Him just as they did.
Why are there icons everywhere?
Icons are in some sense our "family album". In the same way that many people keep photo albums to help them remember people and events, we keep the icons to remind us of people and events. They adorn the walls of our worship spaces. Most Orthodox Christians also have an icon corner in their home.
Why do you mention Mary so much?
As the one who gave birth to God Himself in the flesh, we hold her in high reverence and respect. It only makes sense that we should love someone who literally held God inside her for nine months. She also shows us the way to become one with her divine Son—humility, love and obedience to Him. Why is she so important? Mary stands witness that Jesus Christ is fully human, even while being fully God. The early Christians made a point of inserting into the Nicene Creed (AD 325) the statement that Christ was “incarnate… of the Virgin Mary” to ensure there was no confusion on this matter.
Why do you pray to Mary?
As for prayers, we pray with Mary, and ask her to intercede on our behalf, as we do with all our Saints. It’s no different than asking your own mother to pray for you. And in this case, we’re asking Jesus’ mother to pray for us.
Why do you cross yourselves?
Jesus calls us to “take up [our] cross,” and this is a visible identification with that command of our Lord. We make the sign of the cross to remind us of Christ’s conquest of death on the cross. Making the sign of the cross is not unique to Orthodoxy—Roman Catholics also make the sign of the cross, as do many Protestants, including Anglicans/Episcopalians and some Lutherans (including Martin Luther himself). But, the Orthodox cross themselves right to left, signifying the Eastern direction of the crucifixion, resurrection, and the awaited second coming of Christ.
Don’t you get tired of singing the same hymns or praying the same prayers every week?
Our hymns and prayers change every day. Yes, there are some hymns we sing regularly, but each day different hymns are sung to celebrate a feast, the life of a saint or some other event in the life of the Church. Like most churches, we have a large and varied hymnbook, and some of the hymns and prayers are used more than others. But because the Orthodox liturgical tradition is so vast, full immersion in it provides an almost endless variety of exploration and possibility.
Why do you use incense?
Our worship is not merely mental—we use all our senses, sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. Incense wafting upwards symbolizes our prayer rising to God in heaven. The Scriptures always depict incense when they describe worship in Heaven (Is. 6:4; Rev. 8:3-5), and incense is mentioned in the worship of God on Earth well over 100 times in the Bible. The Prophet Malachi even predicted that incense would be characteristic of Christian worship (Mal. 1:11).
Do you have to be Orthodox to be saved?
In a word, no. However, we believe that Orthodoxy represents the fullness of the faith—that is, the most complete and accurate expression possible by man. God honors truthful belief and proper faith anywhere it is found. Then why become Orthodox? The fullness of the faith is found here, the fullness of the truth is found here, and the fullness of worship is found here. Simply put, why want only a sandwich when they could have a banquet? While it may be possible to be saved outside the normal boundaries of the historic Church Jesus Christ founded—the Orthodox Church—it is not something that should be counted on. Christ never explicitly revealed any alternate paths to salvation except in His one Church.
Why do you fast so much?
To clarify, fasting doesn't mean giving up all food and water. Orthodox fasting practice, when followed strictly, means that not partaking of any animal products (i.e., no meat, dairy, eggs, etc.), nor of olive oil or wine. Fasting is one of many tools that we use to bring our bodies “under subjection” as St. Paul said (I Cor. 9:27), so that we might be pure and holy. Jesus said that when He had gone, His followers would fast. Like the early Christians, we fast so that we may learn to control our appetite for all things that are not good and holy. It is not about earning salvation, it is a tool to help us work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12), enabling us to train and strengthen our wills so that they can be turned toward Christ. Specifically, we fast each Wednesday to commemorate the day when Jesus was betrayed and each Friday to commemorate His death on the cross. In addition, we fast during the entire Lenten period and the entire Advent period, as well as during other times during the year.
Do you believe the Eucharist is REALLY the body and blood of Christ?
The Eucharist is truly the body and blood of our Lord. But this can be apprehended only by spiritual sight, what the early Christians called the nous—the eyes of the soul. Without this spiritual insight, we could not understand the mystery of the Eucharist.
What do the Orthodox think about the Bible? What about Sola Scriptura?
Much of the content of Orthodox worship services consists of readings from the Scriptures, especially the Psalms. Readings from the Gospel occur at most services, along with regular readings from the Epistles. There are not now, nor have there ever been, any restrictions on the laity with regard to reading the Scriptures—they are, and always have been, encouraged to read them. As for Sola Scriptura, we believe that the Scriptures are the “canon”—the measuring stick—which must be applied to all doctrine, but it is not the only source doctrine. In other words, not all doctrine is found in the Scriptures, but no Orthodox doctrine contradicts the Scriptures.
Why is this so?
It’s because the Orthodox Church actually produced the Bible. The Church also lived Christian life to the fullest for centuries before the canon of the New Testament was even recognizable (AD 367). As such, the Bible is always understood within the life of the Church, not above or apart from it. The Bible is the Church’s book.
How do Orthodox Christians view other Christian churches?
As Orthodox Christians we believe that the Holy Orthodox Church preserves the fullness and completeness of the teaching of Jesus Christ and His Apostles. Western Christian churches, Protestant and Roman Catholic, have departed from some of the fullness of the truth. This does not mean that they have ceased to be Christian, but it does mean that they have lost some of the Apostolic teaching of the Church. We hope that our witness to the completeness of the ancient teachings of Christianity will help others to discover what they have lost and to seek it again.
Aren’t all Christians really part of the same invisible church?
Why do the Orthodox believe their church is “the Church” which preserves the fullness of the Christian Faith? The Orthodox Church was established by the Apostles, vanquished the early heresies of Gnosticism and Arianism, proclaimed the canon of Scripture (i.e., defined what books belong in the Bible), and defined the great Christian doctrines relating to the Trinity and the divine and human natures of Christ. Orthodox Church history can be traced from Jesus Himself, directly to modern times without interruption. It is impossible to claim that the Church is invisible. Were the churches established by the Apostles invisible? Did the formation of the Bible take place outside of history? Were not the ancient heresies defeated in history by the historical Church? The truth is, then, that the Church is visible, it has a history, and that history is identical to the Orthodox Church as it has existed down through the centuries.
What do Orthodox Christians believe is the purpose of life?
Simply put, we believe the purpose of life is for men and women to be united to God, now, and for all ages to come. We believe that through our union with God, we are enabled to grow into true humanity. Jesus Christ shows us what that true humanity is: a humanity freed of its self-centeredness and self-seeking, and thereby enabled to truly love God and all that He created (including the crown of His creation- all human beings). We believe it is our destiny to cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and the grace of God bestowed through the Sacraments (Mysteries), to attain the true humanity that we lost through our fall into sin.
Are non-Orthodox Christians welcome to attend an Orthodox Church service?
Absolutely! We are overjoyed when someone joins us for worship and experiences the beauty of the Orthodox Tradition. Because the services are somewhat different than Protestant or Roman Catholic service, it is probably a good idea to contact the priest of the parish you wish to visit and tell him you intend to join them for worship. He will see that someone from the parish greets you and helps you find your way through the Service Book.
Can a non-Orthodox Christian receive Communion in the Orthodox Church?
Unfortunately, No. The Holy Orthodox Church, in keeping with the ancient Tradition of Christianity, believes that Holy Communion is a family meal, shared between those who are under the supervision of the same Bishop, or another Bishop with whom he is in Communion. Simply put, this means that Orthodox Christians practice inter-Communion with other Orthodox Christians (as all Orthodox Bishops are in Communion with one another), but not with Protestants or Roman Catholics whose church leaders are not in Communion with Orthodox Bishops.
More Questions and Answers
25 Questions on Orthodoxy By Fr. Thomas Hopko
Process for Becoming An Orthodox Christian
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