What do we mean by Orthodox?

We must ask what we mean by the word Orthodox. Of course we now that it is made up of the Greek words ortho – having a sense of right, and doxa – having the sense of both glory and worship. But as a word in Greek it has the sense of being a correct opinion or teaching. It is first used, and probably coined, by Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics, where he uses it in this sense. In Book 7, Chapter 8 of the Ethics, he says,

Virtue either natural or produced by habituation is what teaches right opinion.

The word translated here as right opinion is orqhodoxein, which indicates to us that from the beginning, centuries before its use in a Christian context, it had the sense of being a right opinion, or teaching or doctrine.

Eusebius, the Church Historian, who wrote in the early 4th century, when speaking of St John the Apostle in Book 3, Chapter 23 of his History, says,

At that time the apostle and evangelist John, the one whom Jesus loved, was still living in Asia, and governing the churches of that region, having returned after the death of Domitian from his exile on the island. And that he was still alive at that time may be established by the testimony of two witnesses. They should be trustworthy who have maintained the orthodoxy of the Church; and such indeed were Irenæus and Clement of Alexandria.

Here he speaks of St Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria as two of those from the earlier period in the life of the Church who had maintained the orthodoxy of the Church, have preserved the Church in the right doctrine. There is also the sense that these Fathers are among those who are trustworthy. Orthodoxy therefore stands for that doctrine which has been maintained in a trustworthy manner in the Church.

At the First Council of Ephesus, and in the first canon, we find the same word used in relation to bishops of the Church.

Whereas it is needful that they who were detained from the holy Synod and remained in their own district or city, for any reason, ecclesiastical or personal, should not be ignorant of the matters which were thereby decreed; we, therefore, notify your holiness and charity that if any Metropolitan of a Province, forsaking the holy and Ecumenical Synod, has joined the assembly of the apostates, or shall join the same hereafter; or, if he has adopted, or shall hereafter adopt, the doctrines of Celestius, he has no power in any way to do anything in opposition to the bishops of the province, since he is already cast forth from all ecclesiastical communion and made incapable of exercising his ministry; but he shall himself be subject in all things to those very bishops of the province and to the neighbouring orthodox metropolitans, and shall be degraded from his episcopal rank.

Here we find that Orthodoxy stands for the unity of bishops in the Church who have the same faith, and who recognise this faith in each other as the basis of their unity. If a bishop turns away from the Orthodox teaching of the Church, from the right doctrine, then he is no longer a bishop at all, as this canon indicates. We do not have, in the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, that understanding of the episcopate which means that having been consecrated a bishop, a man must always be a bishop whatever he does and whatever he believes. This has led, in the past century or so, to a multiplication of men, and women now, who claim to be bishops simply because certain prayers have been prayed over them by others in a merely tactile succession. That may be fine as far as a non-Orthodox community wishes to manage its own affairs, but in regard to the Apostolic Church of Christ, to be a bishop, an Orthodox bishop, requires a commitment to both the substance of the Orthodox faith, and to unity with other Orthodox bishops.

According to this canon, the bishop who accepts error and teaches it has already lost all authority, and has already deposed himself from the episcopal rank. To be Orthodox therefore means, much more than membership in the visible organisation of the Church, to be one who holds fast to the Orthodox, to the right and true, teaching of the Church.

St Basil the Great, the contemporary of St Athanasius, and bishop of Caesarea, uses the word Orthodox in a variety of contexts in some of his letters. In Letter 69, written to St Athanasius himself he says,

I have therefore determined to send to your reverence our brother Dorotheus the deacon, of the Church under the right honourable bishop Meletius, being one who at once is an energetic supporter of the orthodox faith, and is earnestly desirous of seeing the peace of the Churches.

This was written during the controversy of the teaching of Arius which was dividing the Church. We see here that St Basil is sending a Deacon Dorotheus to St Athanasius, and he is especially pointed out as one who supports the Orthodox Faith. This letter was written in about 370 AD, after he had become bishop and before the death of St Athanasius.

In another such epistle, Letter 92, he writes to the Christians in Rome and Gaul, now modern France, saying,

In addition to the open attack of the heretics, the Churches are reduced to utter helplessness by the war raging among those who are supposed to be orthodox. For all these reasons we do indeed desire your help, that, for the future all who confess the apostolic faith may put an end to the schisms which they have unhappily devised, and be reduced for the future to the authority of the Church; that so, once more, the body of Christ may be complete, restored to integrity with all its members. Thus we shall not only praise the blessings of others, which is all we can do now, but see our own Churches once more restored to their pristine boast of orthodoxy.

This is an interesting passage. We see that being orthodox is contrasted to the fact that there is conflict among Christians. Being Orthodox therefore has something to do with Christian unity. It also has something to do with the Apostolic Faith, since those who are supposed to be Orthodox are also those who confess this Faith. But more than that, this idea of the Church being Orthodox and holding to an Orthodox Faith is also connected with the idea of the pristine, or original state of the Church. It has not become Orthodox over the centuries, as if that meant something other than preserving the Apostolic Faith, rather the state of being Orthodox is the same as that original and Apostolic Faith which was established in the first century.

In his Letter 251, written to the congregation of one of the Churches in his care, he is writing to try and deal with a situation where bishops who had been deposed by the Church were ordaining others, and then trying to gain recognition in a manner that was confusing for the ordinary Christian. St Basil describes some of this confusion here in relation to Orthodoxy, saying,

If Euippius was orthodox, how can Eustathius, whom he deposed, be other than a layman? If Euippius was a heretic, how can anyone ordained by him be in communion with Eustathius now? But all this conduct, this trying to accuse men and set them up again, is child’s play, got up against the Churches of God, for their own gain.

It is not necessary to go into any detail of this particular situation, but what is clear is that St Basil is saying that it is not possible to have things both ways. If someone is deposed because they are not Orthodox, then everything they do afterwards is not Orthodox and is devoid of authority. And if those who claim to be Orthodox have deposed someone themselves who is recognised as Orthodox then how can both be Orthodox? A little later in this letter he relates this controversy to the issue of what is actually believed and confesses his own Orthodoxy saying,

I, however, brethren beloved, small and insignificant as I am, but remaining ever by God’s grace the same, have never changed with the changes of the world. My creed has not varied at Seleucia, at Constantinople, at Zela, at Lampsacus, and at Rome. My present creed is not different from the former; it has remained ever one and the same. As we received from the Lord, so are we baptized; as we are baptized, so we make profession of our faith; as we make profession of our faith, so do we offer our doxology, not separating the Holy Ghost from Father and Son, nor preferring Him in honour to the Father, or asserting Him to be prior to the Son, as blasphemers’ tongues invent.

We can see here, in St Basil’s description of his own faith, that he considers that the Orthodoxy he preserves is not liable to changing with the ways of the world, though it is equally not rigidly archaic. Nor does this Orthodoxy vary from place to place, so that there is a different creed in different cities and countries. Importantly, it seems to me, he links the faith he confesses, his Orthodoxy, to what he received at baptism, where he made a confession of that same faith. This baptismal confession is more than mere words, rather the confession of Faith at baptism is a confession of the life and grace which is received in baptism, uniting in St Basil’s mind the confession of faith and the offering of worship.

Then in Letter 265, addressed to the Egyptian bishops, Alexander and Harpocration, who had been exiled in Palestine, he says,

By God’s grace, I have heard of the correctness of your faith, and of your zeal for the brethren and that it is in no careless or perfunctory spirit that you provide what is profitable and necessary for salvation, and that you support all that conduces to the edification of the Churches….  I have been specially moved to desire union with you by the report of the zeal of your reverences in the cause of orthodoxy. The constancy of your hearts has been stirred neither by multiplicity of books nor by variety of ingenious arguments. You have on the contrary, recognised those who endeavoured to introduce innovations in opposition to the apostolic doctrines, and you have refused to keep silence concerning the mischief which they are causing…. Put boldly before him [Apollinarius of Laodicea] the doctrines of orthodoxy, in order that his amendment may be published abroad, and his repentance made known to his brethren.

Here we see that these bishops are commended for the correctness of their faith, for providing what is necessary for salvation, and for the edification of the Churches. And these are all an expression of their zeal in the cause of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is certainly to do with the correctness of faith, but even at this early point in the history of the Church, Orthodoxy is not a sterile and academic acceptance of decrees and doctrines, but is what is necessary for salvation, for life in Christ, and for the edification, the building up, of the Church. St Basil recognises that this experience of Orthodoxy is not a matter of having a multiplicity of books, or engaging in lots of clever arguments.

More than that, when he comes to discussing those who are teaching error in his own time, these are not considered neutrally, as simply those with interesting ideas, but are those who are causing mischief because what is being taught, if not Orthodox, is contrary to the Apostolic Faith itself. In particular, he has in mind Apollinarius of Laodicea. St Basil does not presume that his views are as valid as everyone else’s. But he requires him to accept the doctrines of Orthodoxy as being those which are true and necessary.

And then, finally, in his Letter 305, written to the monks of a monastery on behalf of one of the monks, he describes how the community are spoken of, saying,

In remembering the Orthodox, in hospitality shown to ascetics, in every virtue the man holds you first… if one names champions of religion, and men capable of refuting the persuasive sophistry of heresy, he would not choose to enumerate another before you.

This last excerpt shows us that to be Orthodox represents a community who hold to the Orthodox Faith, but it also, it seems to me, to have some reference to the life which is lived. Hospitality and Virtue are also aspects of authentic Orthodoxy, but there is also, in this controversial period, perhaps no less controversial than our own, a strong sense that Orthodoxy necessarily resists the teachings of heresy.

And in one last, early reference to the idea of Orthodoxy, there is the Letter sent from the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD to the Church in Alexandria, which says,

To the Church of Alexandria, by the grace of God, holy and great; and to our well-beloved brethren, the orthodox clergy and laity throughout Egypt, and Pentapolis, and Lybia, and every nation under heaven, the holy and great synod, the bishops assembled at Nicaea, wish health in the Lord.

Being sent as a communication from the Council itself, gathered to express the Orthodox Faith, as the truth and the right belief, it is written to the Church of Alexandria as those clergy and people who are also Orthodox, and who also hold to this same right Faith. And not only those in Alexandria, but in all of Egypt and Pentapolis and Libya, those places under the jurisdiction of Alexandria who also hold to the same truth and right belief. And then even beyond those places, to those in every nation and place, this Holy Council recognises as Orthodox, as right believers, those who hold to this same Faith in unity with the bishops gathered together at Nicaea.

The idea of Orthodoxy is therefore bound up in holding to a certain substance of dogmatic and theological ideas, and rejecting those which are contrary as error and heresy. It is also filled with some sense of being expressed as the life of the Church lived together in unity and service, and not only as ideas and principles. And it is a community, a unity, of those who hold these teachings, not only a unity in any place, but a unity in all places, and through the centuries with all those who have held these teachings as the right faith since the Apostles.

One final reference is from Origen, the rather controversial teacher from Alexandria. In his work against the heretic, Celsus, in Book 2, Chapter 71, he says,

Jesus taught us who it was that sent Him, in the words, “None knows the Father but the Son;” and in these, “No man has seen God at any time; the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” He, treating of Deity, stated to His true disciples the doctrine regarding God; and we, discovering traces of such teaching in the Scripture narratives, take occasion from such to aid our theological conceptions.

This translation rather covers up the words that we are interested in. Not Orthodoxy, but once more the idea of theology. In the sentence that begins, He, treating of Deity, the Greek says theology, in his theology about God. And then when Origen speaks of Scripture aiding our theological conceptions, the same idea is already more clearly present. When our Lord spoke he was doing theology, though speaking about himself and the Consubstantial Trinity. And we also, when we study the Scriptures in which the teachings of Christ are found, also find material for our own theologising. We will look in more detail at the sources of our Orthodox Dogmatic Theology in due course, but it is necessary, it seems to me, for us to be clear our Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, the fruit of prayer, is also based significantly on the words of Scripture. It is not cut adrift from the written account of God’s dealings in love with man, as if any idea we might have could be valid simply by considering it. On the contrary, we will discover that so many of the theological controversies in the life and history of the Church were caused by one teacher or another pressing some idea beyond what could be borne by the words of Scripture.

A brief consideration of the first chapter of St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation illustrates what this means in the writings of the Fathers. In the course of 8 paragraphs, and while hardly having begun his theme, he quotes directly from the Scriptures 10 times, and makes many more allusions. And later on this work, in Chapter 27, in a short passage of less than 500 words he quotes directly from the Scripture on 8 occasions. Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, as far as our Fathers understood it, was always rooted in Scripture. Indeed, one modern feature of theology, understood in the widest sense, is that it is often the case that what is studied is the reflections of other writers, often reflecting on the Fathers, who themselves reflected on the Scripture.

It must surely be insisted that our study of St Athanasius, for instance, is of limited value if we are not seeking the same spiritual experience in prayer with which he was blessed, but equally of study of his writings, and those of any Father, are also of limited value if we do not come to understand and appreciate the importance of the Scripture as they did.

Of course if there is a study of Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, as the right and true Faith preserved from the Apostolic period, then it is necessary to note that the idea of an Orthodox Theology only really has meaning when held in tension with the idea that there can be a non-Orthodox Theology which is neither true nor Apostolic. If we insist that we have preserved and teach the true Faith, it is because there really is a false belief, indeed many false belief, which are being taught and which deceive even the faithful.

We use several words to describe these false teachers and false teachings, many of which we will consider throughout this study. The word heretic is found in the New Testament. In St Paul’s Letter to Titus, Chapter 3, verse 10, he writes, as translated in the King James version,

A man that is a heretic after the first and second admonition reject.

The word used here is αἱρετικός, and it means a divisive person, an opionated person. Someone who insists on their own views being given prominence and precedence. Other translations of the New Testament make this idea clear, such as the New King James, which says,

Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition.

Perhaps we are used to the idea in modern times that every opinion is equally valid. It might certainly be the case that in contemporary society a person has the right to express any views they choose, but we are certainly not entitled to insist that our views represent authentic Orthodox Dogmatic Theology unless they really are consistent with what has been taught from the beginning as the Orthodox Faith. A modern day heretic has the civil right to teach his opinion, but he has no right to claim it is representative of Orthodoxy.

The New Testament also uses the word heresy. There are 9 occurrences, which can be summarised by saying that 6 of them are translated as sect, both in regard to the sect of the Jews, and the accusation that the earliest Christian community was a sect. While 3 of them are translated as heresies or factions. In regard to the idea of a sect, and a faction, it has the sense of a body of people gathered together to follow their own ideas and separating themselves from others. In this sense the Pharisees were a sect, not so much in that they believed any error, but their particular ideas about the Jewish religion caused them to separate themselves from the wider Jewish community.

In regard to the idea of a faction, translated by the King James Version as a heresy, and by the New King James as a faction, there is a wholly negative connotation. When St Paul, writing to the Corinthians in his first Letter, Chapter 11 verse 19, says,

For there must also be factions, or heresies, among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you.

This has indeed been the experience of the Church, since the Apostolic times. It is the presence of heresies that has required that the Orthodox Faith be more clearly explained and interpreted, so that those who hold the true Faith are more easily manifested. In Galatians Chapter 5, verse 20, St Paul is found describing the works of the flesh, in distinction to the works of the Spirit. He lists them, saying,

Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

The obvious personal sins are listed, and even the gross sin of murder, but St Paul also includes those who are envious of others among those who will not inherit the Kingdom of God, and in the same list includes those causing dissension, and those who are heretics and want to insist on their own opinions. This is the essence of heresy in the New Testament. It is not simply holding an interesting, but erroneous, opinion about God, it is introducing dissension and division into the Church because of the insistence on an opinion.

One final New Testament passage is found in the Second Letter of St Peter, Chapter 2, verse 1, where he writes,

But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction.

Perhaps this passage hasn’t always been taken seriously, especially in our own times. Indeed, with the privileging of personal opinion and a relativistic attitude to any established teachings, there are those who would find this verse an unwarranted encroachment on the exercise of theological free speech. Orthodoxy is perhaps the last Christian community which still has some sense of false teaching being heresy, and of false teaching being both personally destructive and destructive of the Church. There is of course a difference between teaching opinion as heresy, and introducing a false doctrine, and either being born into a non-Orthodox community, or even, within our own Orthodox Churches, never being given a comprehensive experience of discipleship in the spiritual and theological riches of our Apostolic Faith. Many are accidental heretics, by birth and ignorance. Others are not Orthodox heretics at all, if we can speak in such a way. They are simply people who are convinced that their non-Orthodox views are worth holding, and they usually have no interest in, or desire to cause, dissension within the Orthodox Churches.

But this doesn’t mean that false teachings are neutral, and when they gain an influence over members of the Orthodox Church, through ignorance or wilfulness, then it is a serious matter, not least for those who have a responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the members of the Church. We may wish to respond to those who teach error, both within and without the Church, with generosity and patience, especially if it is through a lack of understanding. But false teachings are never neutral, and produce spiritual consequences of the gravest degree.

In St Pauls’ Letter to the Galatians, Chapter 1, verses 6 – 9, he writes to them saying,

I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.

Our Orthodox Dogma is not just a collection of interesting ideas that we are determined to preserve for their own sake. They are a description and an explanation of Good News, they are the Gospel. And so we are committing ourselves in this study of Orthodox Dogmatic Theology to the study of the Gospel, as it has been expressed in our Orthodox and Apostolic Theological Tradition. If some other teachings are presented, those which are not consistent with this Apostolic Faith, then it is another Gospel that is being preached, which is no Gospel at all. St Paul calls on the one who preaches those things that are not of the Apostolic Faith, those things which are not encompassed within our Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, to be accursed. Could there be any stronger words applied? The word translated as accursed is anathema, which means to separate someone or something, and in this case to separate someone or something from the Church. Throughout the ages, in response to false teachings and teachers leading the faithful members of the Church astray, the Church has been required to separate those who teach such error from the life of the Church.

It is for the sake of the authenticity and coherence of the Gospel, and for the sake of the Church and the World, that we find ourselves called to understand, experience ourselves, and share this Gospel of the Grace of Christ. It is for the sake of the salvation of our own souls, and those in our care, that we are called to separate truth from error in the teaching of our Orthodox Faith by a comprehensive study of our Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, and this we will seek to do as we continue this course of instruction.

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