By Aristeides Papadakis, Ph.D.

The true orthodox way of thought has always been historical, has always included the past, but has never been enslaved by it. . . [for] the strength of the Church is not in the past, present, or future, but in Christ. -Fr. Alexander Schmemann Introduction Christianity has always been unusually sensitive to the past; its enduring relevance has, in fact, never been in doubt. The basic reason for this sensibility is that Christian biblical revelation takes place in a historical context and is, quite simply, a revelation of historical data, of God’s activity in history. It is in time and human space that man’s salvation unfolds-God’s chosen way to redeem us. That Christian Scripture takes the form, more often than not, of a richly detailed historical narrative should come as no surprise. These considerations, taken together, explain the powerful appeal history has always had for Orthodox Christianity. Orthodox worship, for example, is invariably also a witness to history; it recalls, in its rich diversity, particular historical events not only from the earthly life of the Lord, but from the life of the Church, its saints, ascetics, martyrs, and theologians. Every liturgy, every feast, is at once a celebration of time and of the eschatological reality; an anticipation of the “world to come” – of what is beyond history – as well as a remembrance of a concrete historical past. But history likewise lies at the root of Orthodoxy’s conviction that it is the true Church of Christ on earth. It is actually because of its possession of an uninterrupted historical and theological continuity that it is able to make this claim at all. The Church, as we should expect of any historical phenomenon, has changed and developed through the centuries. True enough. Still, the Church in its essential identity – in its organic and spiritual continuity – remains substantially coextensive with the Church of the Apostles. It is, in effect, the living continuation in time and space of the primitive Church in Jerusalem. In a full theological sense it is the one Orthodox Catholic Church in all its fullness and plenitude.


The Apostolic Era This said, our brief survey of the long evolution of Orthodox Christianity begins with the first Pentecost in Jerusalem and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Christ’s small circle of disciples. It is then that the Orthodox Church was born – today the second largest organized body of Christians in the world. The Apostles, it is true, had been historic witnesses to Christ’s messianic ministry and resurrection before the Spirit of God descended on them. Still, it was with this event that they felt authorized to preach the Gospel to the world. Only then were they able to fully understand the mystery of Easter, that God had raised Jesus from the dead, and begin their mission. The expansion of the early Christian movement, however, was not without problems, nor was it spontaneous. Persecution and martyrdom awaited most of its initial members. The aggressive new missionary community, nevertheless, was destined to survive and grow in numbers. By the third century it had become a “mass phenomenon.” Though unevenly scattered, it constituted possibly as much as ten percent of the total population of the Roman Empire. As such, it was sufficiently strong to compel the Roman emperors to end the persecutions. The Church, arguably, could no longer be ignored – numerically or ideologically; hence the legal recognition of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century (312), and its subsequent recognition as the official religion of the empire by the end, under Theodosius (392). Persecution and Success The causes of this success are understandably complex. The disciplined close-knit structure of the Church, its social solidarity and internal cohesion, its care for the poor and the deprived did not go unnoticed. Both the hostile critic and the ordinary pagan observer were aware of these advantages. Furthermore, the persecution and martyrdom of Christians – despite the streak of cruelty in some who observed these punishments – could not but raise doubts and questions for many individuals. Nor did Christianity’s message of equality before God fail to make its impression on the stratified urban population of the ancient world. Finally, Christianity’s exclusiveness, the intimate sense of belonging, as well as its universality attracted new adherents. Ultimately and at a deeper level, however, it was the saving message of the Gospel that was the principal cause of Christian expansion. This message promised not only reconciliation and forgiveness of sin, but liberation from the bondage of death and corruption. “Christians were Christians,” as one scholar has put it, “only because Christianity brought to them liberation from death.” Above all, through Christ’s own resurrection, man’s own incorruptibility, his own future physical resurrection and deification was assured. To be in Christ, as St. Paul says, is to be a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is to the simple appeal of the primitive proclamation of the Gospel, in sum, that we must turn for the more probable cause of Christian expansion. The Impact of Christian Victory In a very real sense, the first four centuries of the Christian era were among the most creative. The Christian victory was undeniably revolutionary both for the Roman Empire and the European civilization that followed. From the perspective of the Church itself the period was even more significant. It is then that the Church achieved a certain self-identity, even self-awareness, which has since remained normative for Orthodoxy. Two developments which affected its self-understanding — one institutional and the other doctrinal — will suffice to illustrate this truism. The Church was initially without a New Testament. “Scripture” invariably simply meant the Old Testament. Increasingly, however, the Church saw the need to bring together all the writings of apostolic origin or inspiration into a single canon. This collection of twenty-seven books still constitutes the total apostolic witness for the Church and is identical with our present New Testament. In sum, one of the most significant events in the history of Christianity during this period was its transformation, to borrow Harnack’s phrase, into a religion of two Testaments. These writings, it is worth pointing out, were received and acknowledged by the community of the Church because they coincided with its own Tradition and the witness of the Holy Spirit indwelling in its midst since Pentecost. Strictly speaking, Christians lived solely by this Tradition decades before the content of the New Testament was determined. In the circumstances, Scripture in the Orthodox Church is routinely interpreted within the context of Tradition. As Father Georges Florovsky famously argued, it is within this larger setting of the Church’s living memory (Tradition) that Scripture discloses its authentic message. Early Administrative Structure Equally crucial for the life of the Church was the formation of its administrative structure. As a rule, the ministry of the Apostles was itinerant, not stationary. After founding a community the Apostles would depart for another mission, leaving behind others to administer the new congregation and preside over the Eucharist and Baptism. In effect, a local hierarchy developed whose functions were stationary, administrative, and sacramental in contrast with the mobile authority of the Apostles. The presiding officer of each community, especially at each Sunday eucharistic meal, was the episcopos, or bishop, who was assisted by priests and deacons. By the early second century, this settled system with its threefold pattern of bishop, priest, deacon was already in place in many areas. There was nothing unusual in this development. After all, the Last Supper — the first liturgy — could not have taken place without the Lord’s presiding presence. Indeed, from the beginning, the existence of a presiding head was taken for granted by the Church. This establishment of a local “monarchical” episcopate is still at the very center of Orthodox ecclesiology.


The Medieval Period If the early fourth century marks the end of the period of persecutions and the Church’s formative age, it also marks the dawn of the medieval period. With the fourth century we are standing on the threshold of a new civilization — the Christian empire of medieval Byzantium. Clearly, Constantine’s recognition of Christianity was decisive. Equally momentous doubtless was his decision to transfer the imperial residence — the center of Roman government — to Constantinople in 330. The importance of this event in the history of Eastern Christianity can hardly be exaggerated. This capital situated in the old Greek city of Byzantium, soon became the focus of the new emerging Orthodox civilization. Historical opinion remains divided on the question of Byzantium’s contribution to civilization. Still, its lasting legacy lies arguably in the area of religion and art; it is these which give Byzantine culture much of its unity and cohesion. The new cultural synthesis that developed was at any rate clearly Christian, dominated by the Christian vision of life, rather than the pagan. We need only turn to Justinian’s (532) “Great Church” of the Holy Wisdom — the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople — to understand this. But if Constantinople, the “New Rome” became the setting for this new civilization, it also became the unrivaled center of Orthodox Christianity. It is during this pivotal period in the history of the Church that the city’s bishop assumed the title of “ecumenical patriarch.” Heresies and Ecumenical Councils Space does not permit us to elaborate on this period in detail. It is, as it turns out, the single longest chapter in the history of the Church. The Byzantine Empire was characterized by a remarkable endurance: it survived for over a millennium until its fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. We will therefore limit ourselves to an outline of this age, to the events and developments which exercised the greatest influence on the life of the Church. The seven ecumenical councils with their doctrinal formulations are of particular importance. Specifically, these assemblies were responsible for the formulation of Christian doctrine. As such, they constitute a permanent standard for an Orthodox understanding of the Trinity, the persons of Christ, the incarnation. The mystery of the divine reality was evidently not exhausted by these verbal definitions. All the same, they constitute an authoritative norm against which all subsequent speculative theology is measured. Their decisions remain binding for the whole Church; non-acceptance constitutes exclusion from the communion of the Church. This explains the separation from the body of the Church of such groups as the Jacobites, Armenians, Copts, and Nestorians. Ultimately, acceptance of these councils by the entire community of the Church is what gave them validity and authority. By and large, however, their reception was also due to the great theologians of the age; their literary defense of the theology of these councils was decisive. As we should expect, the writings of such Fathers and saints as Basil, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus, Cyril, and Gregory of Nyssa, still constitute an inexhaustible theological source for the contemporary Orthodox Christian. But the seven ecumenical councils are significant for another reason. The visible threefold ministerial structure of the Church was already a reality in many communities by the post-apostolic period, as we have had occasion to observe. Each of these self-contained local churches, with its own independent hierarchical structure, was a self-governing unit. However, precise standards governing the relations of these churches with each other had not been defined. Still, a certain “power structure” modeled in the main upon the organization of the Roman Empire eventually emerged; even before the fourth century a provincial system had developed in which churches were grouped in provinces. In such cases it was customary to give greater honor to the “metropolitan” or bishop of the capital city (metropolis) of each province. Similarly, given the importance of certain cities in the Roman administration, special precedence was accorded the presiding bishop of the three largest cities in the empire: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch. All the same, such developments in which a church was ranked according to its civil importance in the administrative divisions of the Roman state, had evolved by common consensus without any ecclesiastical legislation to support it. This problem was eventually addressed by the ecumenical councils. For example, the Fathers of the first council (325) formally recognized the status of the three dioceses of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. With the emergence of Constantinople as the new capital of the empire, this patriarchal system was further modified. After all, the change wrought in the civil administration by Constantinople’s new status could not but affect ecclesiastical structure. A rearrangement of the existing pattern was obviously necessary. At the council of 381, Constantinople, as the “New Rome,” was accordingly given second place after the old Rome, while Alexandria was assigned third place. This legislation received further confirmation at the fourth council of Chalcedon (451), when Constantinople, along with Jerusalem, was granted patriarchal status. The Pentarchy To sum up, by the fifth century, a “pentarchy” or system of five sees (patriarchates), with a settled order of precedence, had been established. Rome, as the ancient center and largest city of the empire, was understandably given the presidency or primacy of honor within the pentarchy into which Christendom was now divided. Plainly, this system of patriarchs and metropolitans was exclusively the result of ecclesiastical legislation; there was nothing inherently divine in its origin. None of the five sees, in short, possessed its authority by divine right. Had this been so, Alexandria could not have been demoted to third rank in order to have Constantinople exalted to second place. The determining factor was simply their secular status as the most important cities in the empire. Typically, each of the five patriarchs was totally sovereign within his sphere of jurisdiction. The primacy of Rome, as such, did not entail universal jurisdictional power over the others. On the contrary, all bishops, whether patriarchs or not, were equal. No one bishop, however exalted his see or diocese, could claim supremacy over the others. The bishop of Rome was simply vested with the presidency, as the senior bishop – the first among equals. The Iconclastic Crisis In view of the prominent part played by the visual arts in Orthodox piety and liturgical life, a brief explanation is necessary of Byzantine iconoclasm and the seventh ecumenical council (787) which condemned it. It is a commonplace, but one worth repeating, that Byzantine religious art is among the empire’s most enduring legacies. An iconoclast victory arguably decisively would have altered the course of Byzantine painting. Overall, iconoclasm is often viewed apart from the christological debates with which the earlier ecumenical councils were concerned. Be that as it may; the issue, to an unusual degree, was christological in nature. To illustrate this point we need to begin with the fundamental iconoclast objection to images. How could the divinity of Christ — suggested the iconoclasts — be depicted or represented without lapsing into idolatry? Plainly, the veneration of the Lord’s icon was nothing less than idolatrous worship of inanimate wood and paint; and that expressly was forbidden by Scripture to the Christian. This seemingly cogent argument, however, did not convince the Fathers of the Seventh Council. A material image, it is true, is made of wood and paint, but it is only a symbol. More to the point, it is not an object of absolute veneration or worship. On the contrary, icons are only relatively venerated since the true object of veneration is ultimately the person imaged or depicted in the icon, not the image itself. A clear distinction must indeed be drawn between veneration (proskynesis timetike) by which an icon should be honored, and worship (latreia) which belongs alone to God. In sum, it is altogether unlawful to worship icons, for God alone is worshipped and adored; they could and should be venerated, however. This insistence that icons should be honored brings us to the Church’s second crucial argument — the christological. This argument maintains that a representation of the Lord or of the saints is entirely permissible and in fact necessary because of the incarnation. That is to say, in other words, the Son of God, the image of the Father, can be depicted pictorially precisely because he became visible and describable by assuming human nature and by becoming man. Any repudiation of the Lord’s image is tantamount to a denial of the mystery of the incarnation. Fittingly enough, the defeat of iconoclasm is celebrated annually by the Orthodox Church on the first Sunday of Lent. This “Feast of Orthodoxy” commemorates the final restoration of images (11 March 843). The Byzantinization But if Orthodox devotional art received its definitive form during the Byzantine period, so did the liturgical life of the Church. That the see of Constantinople should have played the crucial and determining role in this “process of Byzantinization” is not surprising. Historically, before its rise to political prominence in the fourth century, Constantinople was only a minor bishopric without any liturgical tradition of its own. Its liturgical life was gradually formed from other local liturgical elements and traditions. Older centers such as Antioch and Jerusalem made major contributions to this process. Also involved in the building up of this “Byzantine rite” was the city’s resident imperial court with its own elaborate ceremonial. By the ninth century, given Constantinople’s growing importance in the Church, this new liturgical synthesis became the standard and eventually replaced all other local rites within the Church. The liturgy and the whole cycle of services, such as compline, vespers, etc., used today in the Orthodox world, is substantially identical with the original Byzantine rite of Constantinople. Copyright:  © 2004 Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America