Why am I Orthodox? Why Russian Orthodox? What is this stuff, anyway?
OK, first of all, relax. I’m not trying to convert anyone. Much, anyway. Mostly this is just some background so people can understand why some of my positions are so different from what you might suspect. Fair warning. Some of the positions are gonna make a lot of people mad.
Let’s start with some ground rules: I’m not going to debate whether God is or not. As far as I am concerned, He is. Nextly, Christ wasn’t a good man. He wasn’t a prophet. Either He was the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, as He claimed or He was a nutcase. No in between. Not going to argue that one either. So we will start with the assumptions that there is a God, and that the Christ was also that God.
I was born and raised in the Episcopal Church. Now in the 1950s we were decidedly the minority in the South. Socially, in the Old South, the masses were Baptist, the middles were mostly Methodist, and the elites were Episcopalians. I really didn’t comprehend the protestants that surrounded us. The Episcopal Church was really big on the branch theory. That theory states that the Church is one only in some mystical sense. The East and the West split into separate trunks, and the Church of England (Episcopalians) split off from the Western trunk, and so on. The Episcopal Church is now firmly protestant. But back in the ‘50s they still thought they were half protestant and half Catholic. The great compromise. We start with Henry. Now history has been a bit unkind. Henry is remembered as a fat guy with six wives who was the eighth Henry. There was a bit more to him than that. Henry was an extremely talented man who composed some very nice music and also won an award for excellence in theological writing from the Pope. He was good and he knew his stuff. So when Henry decided to break from Rome and establish himself as head of the local church, he knew enough to convince the local church hierarchy. It also helped that he had the army behind him. Later, the Americans were mostly all Church of England. Yeah, I know they fed you all that stuff about the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower. But really, most colonists were Church of England. After the Revolution, there were many problems. The Americans had no Bishops, and Episcopal means ruled by bishops. Most of the priests had either gone back to England or up to Canada with the loyalists. Eventually Samuel Seabury from New England was able to convince some Scottish Bishops to consecrate him bishop. Thus was born the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America. What a mouthful. Thus just Episcopalians or sometimes the organization was called PECUSA. This was called the thinking man’s church in the 1950s and was growing like crazy. Missions all over the place for the baby boomers. As the church got more and more liberal and protestant in the ‘60s and ‘70s the inevitable started happening. People began leaving in droves, and splinter churches formed that were throwbacks to the 1950s or to the Anglo-Catholic movement. BTW – Post revolution, most of the South was still Church of England. But — they had no priests. The protestants grew like wildfire during this period. It was a whole lot easier to self-ordain and then start having revivals and such. The Episcopalians insisted on a seminary education and then they had to be ordained by a bishop. These bishops were in sort supply, remember?
Meanwhile, I started studying for the Episcopal Priesthood. Remember that. We’ll come back to it later.
My wife and I tried going to one of these splinter churches and it just didn’t get it. We felt bereft. We called a dear friend who had been an Episcopal priest and asked him about the situation. His advice: look into Orthodoxy.
Now this was some interesting advice, given what I had seen in pre-the. (Preparatory theological). One of the things that I had studied was Greek. Very interesting language, works a lot different than English. One of the nice things is that you get to read the Bible as it was written. Now the King James was/is that which the Southern protestants loved to bang on and quote. And truthfully, it’s not too bad in the New Testament. Translated straight from the New Testament Greek. A few bobbles, but good on the whole. But the Old Testament — oh, brother! To start with, the King James was done using the Hebrew Old Testament. Sounds good. But — there are problems. To wit: the Jews and the early church did not use the Hebrew Old Testament. They used the Greek Septuagint. The Jews of the time didn’t speak Hebrew. They spoke Greek, the international trade language. They also spoke Aramaic. This had been the official language of the Achmenid Empire (read Persian = Iranian, Cyrus & all that). Ever notice that when Jesus or the boys are quoting scripture that it is close, but not dead-on? If you use the Septuagint it is correct. Secondly. There was a movement in Judaism that was called the Masoretes. The Christians had been converting Jews left and right using their own text. The Jews, naturally, did not like this. The Masoretes were kind of like the Gideons of their day. They distributed corrected copies of their text (with the passages the Christians used carefully massaged) all over the world to the various Jewish communities. They also very carefully destroyed the old, “corrupt” text they replaced. The only text that the early Church ever used or blessed was the Septuagint. When the Church adopted Athanasius’ list as the accepted Bible, the Septuagint was what was used. There are several books in the Septuagint that did not make it into Jeromes’s translation or the Vulgate. They also did not make it into the King James since that was from the Masoretic Text, not the Septuagint. The only bunch that still uses the whole Bible as declared by the Church is the Orthodox.
The next thing that bothered me was a book by an Anglican monk: The Shape of the Liturgy by Dom Gregory Dix. This traced the development of the Liturgy from apostolic times to the present. The major thing that kept popping up to me was Dom Gregory would be rattling along about this or that element and would say something like “the Western practice changed in such and such year. But the original practice was such and such, as the Orthodox still do.” I started figuring that if the first Christians did something, we should still be doing it, unless there was a real good reason to change.
The third leg goes something like this: The Episcopalians make a real big deal about Apostolic Succession. This means that they think that the Bishops of today can trace an unbroken line back to the Apostles by consecration, or laying on of hands. I thought about it and came to the conclusion that the original church had to be out there somewhere. I didn’t buy the argument that it had split into all these branches. I wanted the trunk. We all agree (I think) that the Church was founded on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles and Disciples in the upper room. We can probably agree that the Church was one for at least the first century into the second. Most people will agree that there was only one Church at the time of the conversion of Constantine. So far, so good. It is a historical fact that the Coptic Church in Egypt and Ethiopia broke away from the main Church at the 4th Ecumenical Council — 451. We need not go into the Monophysite Controversy here. The next split was when East and West finally split in 1054. Now who left who depends on which pew you occupy. Rome had been diddling around with things for quite a while. They changed the Nicene Creed to include the filioque (and the Son) in the 6th century without passing it through a council with the rest of the Church. The Romans were also centralizing power into the single Bishop of Rome – the Pope (means father). In the Orthodox tradition, all Bishops are equal, they all have one vote in the council, and the council is the final authority when acting in accord. The Romans were claiming that Christ gave Peter primary power — “upon this rock” and so forth. There was also a claim that Peter was the first Pope. Not so, the first Bishop of Rome was Clement. Wonderful writer — good stuff. Look it up. The very first Church council is not in the list of Ecumenical Councils. It was the 1st Apostolic Council recorded in Acts. Now when you read that, notice that Peter does not get his way in the Apostolic Council. James pins his ears back and Peter loses the vote on Judeization. Next, notice that every single Church mentioned in the New Testament, except Rome, is still Orthodox. So – does the majority leave the minority or the other way around?
So, if we want the original Church, we’ve got 4 choices at the most. The Orthodox, The Roman Catholics, The Coptics, or the Church of India. Huh? Where’d they come from? Well, it’s like this. The Christian Church in India goes slap back to Thomas. You know. The doubter. That’s where he wound up. They are great people. But they were off on their own hook and crook for centuries and never took part in the Ecumenical Councils. They also kinda’ developed a few strange beliefs on the way. But they do have some nifty prayers and services. It is also interesting to compare the practices that they have to the other three. Now you bare bones protestants, here it comes: All these churches have very similar formal liturgies. Check it out. From the beginning, the worship of the Church was all that fancy stuff you hate.
OK, so we have a beginning and a middle church, what about now? My rational: if Christ is God and if the Church is the spotless bride of Christ and His body on earth, then any discontinuity, even for 5 minutes, means that the gates of Hell prevailed for a while. And if that’s true, you are wasting your time. There is no surety of Salvation. You might as well get some more sleep on Sunday. Whew. Sit back and think about that one. If there is no continuity in the Bride of Christ, then this cannot be the Bride. You may get a warm, fuzzy, religious feeling. You may get some good from studying the scriptures. But — you are NOT in the mechanism that was set up by the Holy Spirit to be the vehicle for our relation to Christ and our salvation. The oldest protestant churches go back maybe 500 years or so. Most protestants seem to think the Church was ok up until the time of Constantine and then fell apart until their founder (fill in the blank), somewhere around year (fill in the blank), stumbles out of the woods with the unvarnished truth from reading a King James Bible and receiving the True Word straight from God (or rolled their own — Joe Smith). Sorry. Don’t buy it. The other bull that you get is that the “real” church went underground for x number of years. OK. That’s fine. Show me the historical continuity. How’d it get here?
In America, we know that a new denomination pops up every 5 minutes. We also know that no two protestants can agree on theology. I love the non-denominational guys. Who do they think they are fooling? They are just their very own denomination with no one to ride herd over them. I can’t buy that any of these “roll your owns” are the true and original Church. The protestant myths about the “Catacomb Church” seem to be just that. Yes, the Catacombs were used by Christians, but probably not for services. The layout of the traditional Orthodox Church is exactly that of the standard Roman noble’s house, which looks to be the place most services took place.
Lastly, there is no central authority in Orthodoxy. The Patriarch of Constantinople does not hold any special power. He swings the gavel at a Conference, but he is merely first among equals. Yet — there is absolutely no disagreement among the Orthodox about the services. There is no disagreement about Theology. None. Now the Greeks, Russians, Arabs, Serbs, Japanese, etc. are a contentious bunch. Yet they do not disagree about matters of the Church — for two thousand years. Remarkable. Could only be the Holy Spirit in action. In the South we have an old saying: If there are two Baptists in town, then there are three churches. The one I go to, the one he goes to, and the one neither of us can stand. Now this does not mean that the Orthodox always get along. They don’t. But they don’t disagree about the faith. Amazing.
Now if we decide to check out Orthodoxy, there are some choices to make. There is going to be the investigation to find out what kind of Orthodox there are in the neighborhood. In Atlanta, we have a pretty wide choice. There may be a limited selection in your neck of the woods.
So here’s my rundown at the time:
Greeks. Lovely people. But in Atlanta in the 1970s they were very clannish and did not really like converts coming into their club. This is NOT the case everywhere, and not there anymore. Also, while I like Greek music, I like it in small quantities. That’s just me, others really dig it. Also the services were in Greek at the time. I could read it — slowly and badly, but I never did speak it. My Greek teacher used to despair — “I never heard Greek with such a thick Southern accent!”
Antiocheans. Read Lebanese, mostly. Same comments as above, though their services were in English. But the Eastern melodies grated on my ear.
Russians. Well, here in the South, mostly ROC means Redneck Orthodox Church about as much as Russian. The services are mostly in English. The people are mostly converts. The music is really good stuff. You will think you are in heaven. Think Tchaikovsky, think Rimsky-Korsakov. Think choirs of Angels. They are all there. (The Angels are occasionally off-key). By Russians I mean Russians. ROCOR. Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. Also known as Synod sometimes.
There is also the OCA. This came from the Russian Church and was granted autocephaly, or self ruling status in the 1970s. There are many fine people here. The services are all English. But these guys have become a bit too Americanized. They think like protestants, not traditional Orthodox in many ways.
The others, Serbian and all the rest, were not in Atlanta at the time. They are now and may be in a neighborhood near you. Investigate for yourself if you are interested. Some of the ethnic churches may be really clannish and unwelcoming. Others will be wonderful. You just have to check each one out for yourself. Fair warning. If it is a real, traditional Orthodox Church there will be no pews and no organ. If you see those, it is a church that has been Americanized and will probably not hold to the traditional faith.
Now. You say to yourself: Self! Other than all that fancy Liturgy stuff and all that incense. What is the real difference with these people?
I’m glad you asked. Orthodoxy is a totally different world view. The Theological bones of Orthodoxy are from a really different animal.
Quick historical rehash. Christ. Birth, Death, Resurrection, Ascension. Day of Pentecost. Peter, Paul, all the rest. Church Spreads and prospers. Church is persecuted. Constantine converts. Empire becomes Christian. Now the next link in the chain is a fella’ named Alaric. You know the one, sacked Rome, split the Empire. Note that it is about this time of confusion, death, and all the rest that the West (Rome) starts twiddling with the Symbol of Faith (The Nicene Creed) and other goodies. The communication network of the West goes into the toilet. The spread of knowledge halts.
A few years before Alaric a real rip-roaring reprobate named Aurelius Augustinus has a conversion experience and spends the rest of his life teaching and writing and repenting. He is usually called St. Augustine in the west. The Orthodox do not regard him as a saint. He is sometimes called Blessed Augustine because of his writings on spirituality. Now Augustine was one of the early proponents of the Filioque (‘and the Son’) that was added into the Creed in the west. He was also one of the guiltiest people on record. The guy felt so guilty it was unreal. He decided that the whole human race was useless and doomed to hell and that Adam’s sin was literally inherited by all. Gloom and doom kind of guy. Only by baptism could the damning stain of Adam’s sin be erased. All are evil. And so on. Now the Orthodox have always thought that Augustine was full of beans. St. John Cassian of Lyon, France corresponded extensively with Augustine. It is instructive to read St. John’s dressing down of Augustine. Basically he tells Augustine that he loves him, and that he appreciate his dedication, but that Augustine is full of beans and goes too far. Western theology is completely based on Augustinian theology. (‘Bout all they had during the dark ages). This gives rise to all sorts of strange doctrine. How about Limbo? Here’s the chain. All humans are evil, and have inherited Adam’s sin. Therefore no human can go to Heaven unless he is baptized. But wait — what about an innocent stillborn baby? This baby has had no chance to be baptized. Therefore it must not go to Heaven. But — God is merciful and would not send this innocent to Hell. Would He? OK, I know, I know! We’ll invent a place in the middle where the innocent go! We’ll call this Limbo, neither Heaven nor Hell. Great, guys. Good use of logic. It works! It holds together! Only problem: This cannot be justified in Scripture, nor in Tradition. It comes out of thin air. Thin air is not sufficient when we are talking about salvation and all that. Now the West was in a hard way for centuries. Another minor problem. According to Augustine, God is so good and Man is so evil that there cannot possibly be any direct interaction. Therefore Augustine postulated little intermediate “energies” that God used to interact with Man. Later logicians realized that this presented some problems. God became Man. Christ is fully God and fully Man. But – God cannot directly interface with this evil creature, so how could God be born of woman? This tied up the western theologians for a while. They finally resolved it with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. This was first proposed in 1476 and finally became dogma in 1854. Immaculate Conception has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus. It states that Mary was born without stain of original sin. Got them out of one corner into another. Now Mary is a goddess.
There wasn’t much education, and literacy didn’t exist outside monasteries and all that. All Western theology comes from Augustine. Thomas Aquinas later summed it all up in the Summa Theologica.
Now the kicker. No matter whether directly or indirectly: All protestant churches come from Rome. All protestant theology is Roman in origin. But wait! Not MY church. Guys, guys, check the chain. I stand by my premise: All western churches come from Rome. Either directly, as the Anglicans (Episcopalians) or Lutherans. Or indirectly, as the Methodists or Salvation Army. These both are second generation and came out of the Anglican Church. Others may come from third, fourth, or whatever generations. But theology of all western churches comes from Rome. It may be a protest in reaction to some of the bad theology, but it comes from Rome.
OK, so how is the Orthodox East different? The basic premise of Orthodoxy is that sin, sorrow, suffering and death came into the world as a consequence of Adam’s sin. He did not destroy God’s creation. Adam’s sin corrupted it, but did not destroy it. God had created the earth and said that it was good. While we inherit the consequences of Adam’s sin, we do not directly inherit the sin itself. Man is basically good. God’s creation is still good under our corruptions. We do not view Adam as the fully mature Lord of the Earth who fell to the depths of Hell that the west sees. We view him as a rather immature adolescent who foolishly corrupted himself and dirtied creation. From this different perception of the cosmos comes a whole different world view. We are not born with Adam’s original sin. We are born with a taste for sin. We are also revolted by sin. This makes for an interesting time growing up.
BTW — the other bunch that views the fall pretty much the same as the Orthodox are the Jews. Amazing coincidence. We come from the Jews. As another side note: our services are also totally understandable to the Orthodox Jews. Especially Vespers. They know what we are doing. It freaks them out.
The Orthodox view the Incarnation, Birth, Death, and Resurrection of Christ as one continuous action that fully rebuilds creation without disturbing the gift of freewill. We can choose to participate in the recreated cosmos and work on our salvation. We can also choose to stay in the fallen and corrupt world. Our choice.
Other things that flow from these differences of perception. If we look at other people and other cultures, a westerner (Roman or protestant) has a hard time explaining how so many of these people can be good and how so much of the other’s philosophy can be good morality. “Man is evil. These people never heard of Christ. How can there be any good here?” The Orthodox have no problem. “Man is basically good. He yearns for God. He will dimly perceive types and shadows. But only in the Church is the fullness revealed.”
Now we come to one that protestants hate. Growing up in the South, we had a lot of Bible thumpers. OK. You ask them where their church gets its authority. The answer is always “from the Bible.” So, uh, guys, where did the Bible come from? Usually you get the “it is the Word of God!”, rather indignantly. OK, yes. That’s true. But — how did God get it here? There’s usually some mumbling and fumbling about at this point. Sometime you get a mumble about the “St. James Bible”. This is usually from someone without a whole lot of education.
OK, time to be blunt. The fact is: the current Bible came from St. Athanasius list of what was suitable for reading in Church. There were a boatload of books and letters floating about, some of them pretty good, and some just crazy. People were being mislead by some of the nuttier writings. These discarded books and letters are what the west (particularly Americans) are always getting wrapped around the axle about. You know: “lost books of the Bible! Suppressed books of the Bible!”, and so on. Fact is, we Orthodox still know about them. We consider most of them junk and don’t pay any attention to them. But we’ve still got them. Anyway, back to Egypt and Athanasius. His list of “right-on” books was finally adopted more or less intact by the Church. Now, looky here: if the Church was founded on the Day of Pentecost then it did NOT take its authority from the Bible. The Bible did not yet exist. The Septuagint Old Testament existed, but the New Testament had not yet been written or ratified. So, while your Church may think it derives its authority from Scripture, we Orthodox know that Scripture derives its authority from us.
Now, the above should give a thinking human pause. The first reaction protestants usually have to the formal services of Orthodoxy is “that’s not in the Bible!” Of course not, we didn’t put it in the Bible, we put it in the service books where it belongs. Your drab and paltry services are not in the Bible either. That’s because they didn’t exist until recently.
The next thing that drives protestants nuts is the icons. Icon is a Greek word that means image. These are very stylized representations of the Saints, and of Christ. “Thou shalt not make any graven image!” OK — we don’t. You don’t see any statues, do you? The traditional style of the icon came from the Egyptian death paintings popular throughout the time of the Ptolemaic Empire. Check old icons against some of the recently excavated sarcophagi from the 1st century. Same style. The first icon was painted by St. Luke. You know, the guy that wrote the third Gospel. Yes, he was a physician and an artist. Yes, he was trained in Egypt. Other people have noted that portraiture was very popular in the Roman Empire at the time. We even know what that icon looked like. It was of the Mother of God and Christ as a child. It is called the sweet kissing. It looked like this:
It is ironic that most of the people who have a hissy fit about icons in the Church have drawers full of photos and their hall wall, and living room walls, mantle, and so on are covered with photos of loved ones. Some of them dead. So, where’s the difference? We love and revere these Saints, who are examples for us to emulate in the life of the Christian. Now the image of Christ. It is true that it is not proper to represent the Father, we don’t know what He looks like, he was never incarnate, so does not have a physical presence. But — God became Man in the person of our Beloved Jesus. We can portray Him — as a human. So — get over it. This is a different custom than you are used to, but it goes back to the first practices of the Church. Eusibeus (2nd century), in his History of the Church, comments that he has seen many portraits of the Savior and the Apostles.
Oh, My God — you people worship the Virgin Mary. No, we don’t. Man — you rednecks are inconsistent. If someone even starts off “Yo mama!” you boys are ready to fight. Now the Scripture says “honor father and mother”. Mary, who we call Theotokos — carrier or bearer of God — is the mother of Jesus. If you love and honor your mother, does He? Second, we don’t worship here. We venerate — as in honor. We ask her to intercede with her Son that our prayer may be granted. Don’t you do what your mother asks? Third, Our Lord was walking down the street. His robe was touched by a sick woman. He knew it and stopped. His followers thought He was nuts. Turned out the woman was healed of her sickness — just by touching His robe. Now then. If someone can be healed by touching a robe — what would it do to carry God in your body for 9 months and nurse Him for a year or two? We Orthodox love the Mother of God, we also love the Saints. Do you not revere the heroes of the past? So do we. Don’t you ask a friend to pray for you? So do we. For the dead are alive in Christ! Therefore the Saints may pray for us.
Modern Americans — don’t let your narrow preconceptions blind you to 2,000 years of tradition! Check out the original and traditional and true Church! The Faith of our Fathers means more than what your daddy did!