V. Rev. Michael A. Meerson
All Christians believe (or at least suppose to believe) in one God the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity in Jesus Christ, both God and Man. But for the Orthodox Church this belief is the foundation and unquestionable meaning of its very existence, the Trinity constituting the heart of its liturgy and the model for its structure.
The first impression that the Orthodox Church creates is that of overwhelming cult; the main manifestation of Orthodoxy is liturgical worship. In the Orthodox perspective, we are first of all liturgical creatures and find our fulfillment in glorifying God – the Trinity. Even the church’s doctrine is understood in the concept of divine worship, as based on the liturgical approach that characterizes much of the Bible. The liturgical emphasis in such bedrock portions of the New Testament as the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation perfectly corresponds with the findings of modern Orthodox theologians, from Fr. Pavel Florensky, who argued that the human being is a cultic creature, homo liturgus, to Fr. Georges Florovsky, who stated that “Christianity is a liturgical religion and the Church is first of all a worshiping community.”
The Orthodox church believes itself to be the Temple, the same Temple that was revealed to Moses and was built and consecrated by King Solomon and was twice physically destroyed, but was restored spiritually by the Son of God for spiritual sacrifice to be continued always and everywhere until the last day of the world (John 2: 18-22; 4:21-24). The following prayer in the Orthodox service at the consecration of a new church makes it clear: “God, without beginning and eternal… who didst give a law and pattern unto Moses, and didst inspire Bezaleel with the spirit of wisdom, and didst enable them to complete the perfect building of the Tabernacle of Thy Covenant, wherein ordinances of divine worship were instituted, which were the images and types of the true; who didst bestow upon Solomon breadth and greatness of heart, and thereby didst rear of old the Temple; and upon thy holy Apostles didst renew the service in the Spirit; and the grace of the true Tabernacle, and through the same didst plant Thy churches and Thy altars in all the earth.” Thus Orthodox worship has inherited the Old Testament liturgical structure, but since the new Temple is “the Body of Christ,” the cult becomes henceforward a Christocentric one.
This biblical background is well manifested in the Orthodox office, which is composed of readings from the Old Testament: the Psalms (a permanent part of all services), the Pentateuch, the prophets, and the historical books, and from all the books of the New Testament (Revelation excepted). Furthermore, the text of every Orthodox service is permeated with biblical language and imagery. Thus the Orthodox office is sometimes called a meditation on Scripture by means of worship.
The daily cycle of the office includes Eucharistic celebration, called the Divine Liturgy, and other services such as vespers, compline, vigil, matins, “the hours.” The origin of this office is monastic. Its rules are determined by the special rubrics of the “typicon,” which is an amalgamation of two ancient rituals: the ritual of the Monastery of St. Sava of Jerusalem and that of St. Theodore the Studite of Byzantium. But as a whole the Orthodox office is an extremely complex historical conglomerate. Its fundamental feature is Christocentrism. As the Temple of the Old Testament was the heart of the very existence of ancient Israel, and her priesthood, prophetism, and kingship were centered upon it, so the God-man Jesus Christ, as the ultimate priest, prophet, and king, is at the heart of Orthodox worship, theology, and ecclesiastical structure.
One enters the Orthodox faith through the sacrament of baptism, which is understood as spiritual birth. In putting on Christ in this sacrament the natural man dies, together with the original sin innate in him. A new man is engendered, as Jesus stated in His conversation with Nicodemus in the Gospel of John (3:3-8). The Orthodox Church accepts any baptism performed by a Christian in the name of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Even a layman can perform the sacrament of baptism in absence of a priest. The Orthodox baptize by threefold immersion into blessed water in the name of the Holy Trinity.
The Orthodox Church confesses the Triune God who possesses one essence (ousia) in three persons (hypostases). The Holy Trinity is a mystery of unity in diversity: each of the persons is distinct. The Father is the origin, source, and cause of Godhead, born from none and proceeding from none. In the language of the Eastern Fathers, He is the principle of unity. The Son is born of the Father from all eternity; the Spirit proceeds from the Father and rests upon the Son from all eternity. The knowledge of God in three Persons and the way to Him was revealed by the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, who thus remains “the apostle and the high priest of our religion” (Heb. 3:1).
According to the Orthodox belief so perfectly set forth in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the center of the Christian cult is Jesus Christ, who is the sacrifice and the sacrificer. Thus at every Divine Liturgy an Orthodox priest, before bringing the offering to the altar, during the Cherubic hymn for the consecration invokes the name of Jesus Christ as “our High Priest who did commit to us the ministry of this liturgical and bloodless sacrifice. . . , [as] the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received.” The importance of the theology of the Epistle to the Hebrews for Orthodox doctrine is further illustrated by the fact that the Epistle is read in church twice during the liturgical year: during the Great Lent, while the church prepares the faithful for the celebration of Pascha, the feast of the Resurrection of the Lord; and during Advent, while the church meditates on the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God.
According to the Orthodox understanding of the Epistle, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, being “the radiant light of God’s glory and the perfect copy of His nature,” who “took to Himself descent from Abraham . . . and became completely like His brothers” (2:16-17), and who “experienced death for all mankind” (2:9), “was raised from death by God” (13 :20) and “entered into the very heaven” (9:24) as “a forerunner for us” (Hebrews, 6:20), so that He could “intercede for us in the actual presence of God” (Hebrews 9:24). Thus He “has opened for us a living opening through the curtain, that is to say, His body” (Hebrews 10:19), a new way “to approach the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16), in order that we “through the blood of Jesus have the right to enter the sanctuary” (Hebrews 10:19). For Christ, “who offers Himself only once to take the faults of many on Himself” (Hebrews 9:28), “by virtue of that one single offering has achieved the eternal perfection of all whom He is sanctifying” (Hebrews 10:1).
Through His sacrifice the Son of God “became a high priest for ever” (Hebrews 6:20), “an ideal high priest, holy, innocent and uncontaminated, beyond the influence of sinners, raised above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26), and He became “the mediator of the new and better covenant founded on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6;9:15), “the Leader of our salvation” (Hebrews 2:10), “the one who sanctifies His brothers” (Hebrews 2:11), “the apostle and the high priest of our religion” (Hebrews 3:1), “the great Shepherd of the sheep by the blood that sealed an eternal covenant” (Hebrews 13:20).
According to the Epistle, the cult of the Old Covenant knew innumerable sacrifices; the cult of the New Covenant knows only one: the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. That is the scriptural theological ground for the Orthodox liturgy, at the very heart of which stands the Eucharist. The church teaches that in the Eucharist the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. The Eucharist, or the reception by the faithful of heavenly food in the Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, as it was instituted by the Lord Himself, is also called the Lord’s Supper. As one Orthodox theologian put it, “all the holy suppers of the Church are nothing else than one eternal and unique Supper, that of Christ in the Upper Room. The same divine act both takes place at a specific moment in history and is offered always in the sacrament.”
This sacrament of the breaking of bread held from the outset the most important place in the church; its central significance is attested by the New Testament and by Christian writers of the first and second centuries. Believing that in the Holy Communion the faithful receive the true Body and Blood of Christ, the Orthodox Church understands the Eucharist in the light of the high-priesthood of Jesus. Since Jesus Christ brought His humanity into heavenly sanctuary, introduced it into eternity, His glorified humanity does not belong to this world with its laws and limitations any more. But it has preserved its connection with this world and the ability to manifest itself through the matter of this world. Jesus’ power of eternal sacrifice is manifested in the visible world as the freedom from the limitations of time and space. The Lord risen and glorified can manifest Himself through matter, but not in matter. Such is the mode of His new presence in the world, according to the modern Orthodox theologian Fr. Sergei Bulgakov. Bulgakov maintained that the Eucharist could be understood only on christological grounds rather than through the Latin doctrine of transubstantiation that distinguishes the substance, which changes, from the accidents, which do not change. By virtue of His divinity Jesus is able to expand his corporeality by transforming bread and wine into His Body without actually consuming them. “Being changed spiritually (by the power of the Holy Spirit, as invoked by the priest at the consecration of the Holy Gifts) into the Body and Blood of Christ, they remain bread and wine in this world, where they do not undergo any “transubstantiation.” The mystery is that they belong now to both levels of existence: as bread and wine on earth and Body and Blood in the heavenly sanctuary. Such is the traditional Orthodox view of the Eucharist, expressed by Eastern Fathers from St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. John of Damascus to the Eastern Orthodox patriarchs of the nineteenth century.
The sanctification of the Holy Gifts occurs throughout the Divine Liturgy, whose essential part consists in the invocation of the Holy Spirit and the blessing of the elements. All the faithful, laity and clergy alike, partake of both Body and Blood. The Orthodox do not practice the adoration of the Holy Gifts outside the liturgy; they are used only for Communion. The Eucharist constitutes the Body of Christ. Through communion with the Body and Blood of Christ, the faithful become members of His Body. The Orthodox church embodies all three New Testament images of the church: that of St. Matthew as congregation; that of St. Paul as Body of Christ; and that of St. John as vine and branches.
The communal character of the Eucharist reflects the image of St. Matthew that of gathering in Christ’s name: “Where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them” (Matt. 18:20). The Orthodox priest cannot celebrate Eucharist alone, unlike the Roman Catholic priest who customarily says his mass alone. The Orthodox liturgy is always a deed of a congregation, at least of two or three members of it. Hence the name for the Orthodox Eucharistic service is “liturgy,” which means “common work” in Greek. Orthodoxy understands St. Paul’s analogy of the body, given in 1 Corinthians (12:12-27), in a Eucharistic sense. Since the faithful partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, they become members of His Body. And finally, for the Orthodox, St. John’s image of vine and branches reflects the same Eucharistic dependence of the faithful on Christ: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in Me, with Me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
In terms of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Christ “shared in flesh and blood” (2:14) in order that we may “share in Christ” (3:1) and thus may “share in the heavenly call” (3:1) of Jesus, who “entered into heaven itself “(9:25). Jesus calls “brothers” those who believe in His name (2:12). He “delivers them from the power of death, that is the devil, from the lifelong bondage of the fear of death” (2:14-15) because He Himself “tasted death” (2:9), but overcame it by His “power of an indestructible life”(7:16). Thus He delivers His people from death and brings them into “His rest,” that is “the unshakeable kingdom” (12:28). By following Jesus, who is “the firstborn of this kingdom” (1:6), through His sanctifying blood (9:12,14), His people enter His kingdom and become “the church of first-born who are enrolled in heaven” (12:23).
That is the foundation of the Orthodox teaching on salvation. In the Eucharist the matter of the world is sanctified by becoming the Body and Blood of Christ, which are given to the faithful to bring them into communion with Him. By partaking of the holy substance they become sanctified themselves. Through the humanity of the incarnate Son of God, divine nature redresses human nature without destroying it. The Orthodox Church understands the salvation of all mankind as the deification of human nature. But it is not a physical or magical act; it is the appropriation of the holy gift by human effort with the help of divine grace. Man is called to become god by grace. Although the divine essence is inaccessible for creatures, man can find unity with God through divine energies. In order to express this notion of salvation through deification, Russian theologians of modern times introduced the term “God-manhood” or “God’s humanity.” The humanity of Christ after His resurrection is the state of deification all humans are called to.
The example of deified humanity is given in the person of the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary. In adoring the humanity of Christ the church venerates His Mother, from whom He received that humanity. As many Orthodox theologians have pointed out, Mariology is simply an extension of Christology. The Virgin Mary is the supreme example of cooperation between the will of God and will of the human person. In our age with its emphasis on the right of woman to decide if she does or does not wish to give birth, one can easily understand to what extent the power of God to send a new human being into the world, and even to become incarnate, depends on the cooperation and willingness of the human person. Hence Mary is not merely the instrument but the very condition of the Incarnation. Christ could not have been incarnated without her consent, violating human nature. Therefore she represents the human aspect of the Incarnation. Since all the holiness accessible to humanity is attained in the Virgin Mary, she represents the whole of humanity. The Orthodox believe that, after dying a natural death, she was not subject to corruption but ascended into heaven in the flesh and entered the realm of divinity remaining totally human. She lives in her glorified body at the right hand of Christ.
The Epistle to the Hebrews says also that “we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” (12:1) — the saints of former times. For the Orthodox, the high-priesthood of Christ helps in understanding the nature of the church. The church is comprehensible only in the light of and in communion with the transfigured and risen humanity of Jesus. “The human race, first in the person of the Holy Virgin and then as the whole church, follows the God-man after His ascension,” Fr. Sergei Bulgakov writes.
The cult of the saints is an important part of the Orthodox faith. The saints are our intercessors and our protectors in heaven, just as the Virgin Mary remains the mother of the human race and intercedes for it. The church addresses its supplications to the Mother of God and to the saints, invoking their help. This “cloud of witnesses” neither separates us from Christ nor mediates between God and man. The saints are members of the same Body of Christ, who have already ascended into His heavenly sanctuary. Without this concept of deified humanity, the Incarnation becomes simply a voluntary self-humiliation of God devoid of power to confer on us the means of sanctification. But the members of the Body of Christ become deified in Him. Since the saints become “gods by virtue of grace,” the church venerates them. But venerating them, we worship non other than God in His overwhelming power and glory, the God of victory who completely overcame sin in His saints by sanctifying them. We worship the Holy Spirit, the mysterious Third Person of the Trinity, who shines through God’s saints.
Icons in the Orthodox Church are the expression of this veneration of sanctified, deified humanity. They are not images of God, who remains indescribable; they are images of God-manhood, of the humanity that entered heaven, in fact they are personified images of God’s glory. As Timothy Ware puts it, “the icons which fill the church serve as a point of meeting between heaven and earth. As each local congregation prays at the liturgy, surrounded by figures of Christ, Mother of God, saints, angels, these visible images remind the faithful unceasingly of the invisible presence of the whole company of heaven at the liturgy. The faithful can feel that the walls of the church open out upon eternity, and they are helped to realize that their Liturgy on earth is one and the same with the great Liturgy of heaven. The multitudinous icons express visibly the sense of ‘heaven on earth.’ ”
The church inwardly possesses the power of sanctification. It is holy because it has the perfect High Priest. Holiness is the end to which Jesus, “the apostle of our religion” (Heb. 3:1), calls everyone in the church. Orthodox theology speaks of the deification of man by means of acquisition of the Holy Spirit as the aim of Christian life. Before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the community of faithful established by Jesus was barren. The Holy Spirit, which was poured unto them at Pentecost, has created from them the church, and the Holy Spirit lives forever in it.
The presence of the Holy Spirit in the church is explained by another supreme ministry of Jesus, that of the prophet. Jesus, “the high priest of our religion” (Heb. 3:1), fulfills His ministry to the church by sending the Holy Spirit, which is the fulfillment of the church. In the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which is sung at every celebration of the Eucharist, the Orthodox also profess their faith in the Holy Spirit who spoke through the prophets. If in the past God spoke by the Holy Spirit “through the prophets,” as the Epistle to the Hebrews states, “in our own time . . . He has spoken to us through His Son” (Heb. 1:2). The Holy Spirit ultimately descends on the Son to the extent that the Son becomes the source of the Holy Spirit for the church. “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name . . . will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). “I will send him to you. . . When the Spirit of truth comes he will guide you into all truth … he will declare to you the things that are to come . . . for He will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:7, 13-14). So Jesus promised His apostles.
Since the Holy Spirit abides in the Son in fullness and through Him is given to the church, the latter possesses the inalienable gift of prophecy. This is reflected in the Orthodox teaching on the prophetic call of all the faithful. The prophecy of Joel: “Their sons and daughters shall prophesy” (Joel 2:23-32), which is read at the Orthodox celebration of Pentecost, was interpreted by the apostle Peter as the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church (Acts 2:14-21). The tongues of fire that descended upon the apostles formed the treasure of the gifts of the Holy Spirit who resides in the church. The apostles conferred this gift of the Holy Spirit on believers after baptism (Acts 19:1-7). Likewise the corresponding gift, “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit,” is accorded in the sacrament of Chrismation, which the Orthodox church administers immediately after baptism. Since in the primitive church only the apostles or their appointees conferred the gift of the Holy Spirit on the faithful through the laying on of hands, Chrismation is an episcopal sacrament. The holy chrism used for it is blessed by the assembly of bishops of a local church. It can be administered only by a bishop or by a priest as his delegate. Therefore all converts to Orthodoxy from confessions deprived of the apostolic succession of priesthood are received into the church through the sacrament of Chrismation. Only after that can they participate in the Holy Eucharist and other sacraments. Chrismation is an individual Pentecost in the life of each Orthodox Christian. The church believes that St. John referred to this personal Pentecost in his First Epistle, by saying: “But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and have all received the knowledge. It is not because you do not know the truth that I am writing to you, but rather because you know it already” (1 John 2:20-21).
Through Chrismation every member of the church becomes a prophet and is called to act as a conscientious witness to the truth. Jesus calls everyone to bear witness to His name (Matt. 10:32-33; Luke 18:9). From the beginning not only the apostles but all believers preached the word. At the feast of the Myrrh-bearing Women the church glorifies the faithful women as apostles to the apostles themselves. The church canonized several women as equal to the apostles because of their missionary activity.
As the word of the Gospel is entrusted to the whole church, so the fullness of faith, the truth, belongs to the church as a whole. When the apostle Paul said, “We have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16), he meant the church. The conscience of the church is super-personal. The fullness of faith is too vast to be held in the mind of an isolated believer; it is guarded by the whole church and transmitted from generation to generation as tradition. The unity and continuity of tradition follow from the fact that the church is always identical with itself, is headed by the same high priest Christ Jesus, and is guided by the same Holy Spirit. The historical forms of the church’s existence change, but the unity of its life remains unchanged. This tradition binds together the communities of Paul and the local churches of today.
Many Orthodox writers point to the loyalty to tradition and the awareness of living continuity with the church of the apostles as the distinctive characteristic of the Orthodox Church. Orthodox tradition includes the faith that Jesus imparted to the apostles, the Bible, the creed, the decrees of the ecumenical councils, the theology developed by the church fathers, the liturgy, and also such liturgical arts as choral music and iconography. However, since tradition is not a static deposit but the life of the Holy Spirit in the church, it constantly assumes new forms, “which supplement the old without superseding them.” “Thus,” Fr. Bulgakov maintains, “Church tradition is the life of the Church in the past which is also the present. It is a divine truth revealed in human words, deeds, and decisions. It is the divine-human body of the Church, living in space and time. Least of all is it an eternal obligatory law, which is only a small part of tradition. It is rather an inner law of the Church, arising from its unity.”
To ensure the continuity of the tradition of faith, the Lord established the structure of apostolic succession in the church. The assembly of the apostles was the hieratic receptacle of the Holy Spirit. For the transmission of the gifts of the Holy Spirit along the line of faithfulness to the teaching of Christ, the charismatic succession of the apostles became necessary. The Book of Acts tells that the first believers “remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42). We can find nowhere in the New Testament any evidence of a spontaneous, unorganized administration of the sacraments. This function belonged either to the apostles or to their appointees. The Orthodox Church maintains that at first the Eucharist was celebrated by the apostles and charismatics instituted by them, later by bishops and presbyters whom bishops appointed. According to the testimony of such Apostolic Fathers as St. Ignatius the Theophore who belonged to the generation that still remembered the apostles, the bishop is one who celebrates the Eucharist, and only the Eucharist celebrated by a bishop is valid. Also for such early Christian writers as St. Ireneus of Lyon, Tertullian, and St. Cyprian, the church centers on the bishop legitimated by the apostolic succession established by the Lord.
Since in the memory of the church the celebration of the Eucharist was always the prerogative of the bishop, or a presbyter who acted as the bishop’s deputy, it is logical to admit that after the apostles the authority for administering the sacraments came to the hierarchy in episcopal form, with presbyters and deacons dependent on it. Thus the hierarchy bears in itself the mysterious power received by the direct and uninterrupted succession from the apostles.
But this power is not mysterious in itself. It derives from the Eucharist, because the Orthodox theology of the church and of the ecclesiastical hierarchy is above all else the theology of the communion of the faithful with the eternal Hierarch Christ Jesus. Orthodox ecclesiology is Christocentric and anthropocentric at the same time. The sacraments do not exist by themselves; they are meaningless outside of man. “The most general definition of sacrament is the action of the church manifested in man. Man is a temple, an altar, a priest who brings forth an offering and who receives it,” like Christ who is sacrificer and sacrifice. Thus the church, a divine race born into the human race through the Eucharist, is the “invisible” which exists in the visible. Being a mysterious reality expressed in concrete forms of human and earthly life, the church is knowable by faith alone. We profess this faith in the following words of the creed: “I believe … in one Holy Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” Thus the reality of the church is revealed only to the eyes of faith, that is, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb.11:1). But as such, the Orthodox Church can be knowable only through the Orthodox experience of the church life. The invisible life of the church is indefinable because life is indefinable. Therefore the church itself is an overall sacrament and for this reason can be further developed in sacraments.
Besides the sacraments of Baptism, Chrismation, and Eucharist, the Orthodox church practices the sacrament of penitence that is the forgiveness of sins; the sacrament of holy orders that is the ordination to the three hieratic degrees: the bishopric, the priesthood, and the deaconate, always performed by bishops; the sacrament of marriage; and the sacrament of unction of the sick. The church also performs numerous acts of sanctification and rites that possess sacramental power. By their means the church blesses all aspects of human life, confers the Holy Spirit through material things, and thus transfigures all creation, paving the way for “the new heaven and the new earth” (Rev.21:1).
To be sure, the supreme high priest Jesus confers the Holy Spirit in the sacraments of the church always and invariably by means of the hierarchy. But the church is not just an institution that merely preserves what Jesus left to it before His ascension; it is rather His Body, of which He remains the head (Col. 1:18). Therefore the church has authority to produce sacraments from itself and to set up its own hierarchy for the celebration of these sacraments. For the Orthodox, the church is first, the hierarchy second. The church as the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, is the fullness from which the hierarchical ministry radiates. As Fr. Bulgakov puts it, in Roman ecclesiology Christ begins the line of succession of priests just as God in the Old Testament instituted the successive line of priests “after the order of Aaron” (Heb. 7:11). Before Jesus ascended to heaven, He appointed the apostle Peter as His locum tenens on earth. Thus through Peter as vicarium Christi Jesus initiated the hierarchical line of pontiffs. Such was the official statement of the Roman church. Orthodox ecclesiology remained faithful to the New Testament point in the Epistle to the Hebrews, according to which Christ as “the high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec” (6:20) can have no substitute or vicar on earth. He is not the first priest in the line of successive priests. He is ever present “in the midst of the congregation of the children God has given Him” (Heb. 2:12-13). By virtue of His eternal Eucharistic sacrifice, celebrated on all altars, Christ fashions His church which has power to produce all other sacraments and to raise hierarchy for their celebration. In spite of the fact that the priesthood of the New Covenant was established by Christ in the form of apostolic succession, the hierarchy is not successive from Christ as its first high priest “according to the order of Aaron” (Heb. 7:11). The eternal high priest abolishes that order once and for all. On the contrary, the priesthood of the New Covenant exists through the identification with Christ by virtue of His divine humanity; it proceeds from His eternal priesthood. Thus the Orthodox believe that the Orthodox ecclesiological schema: Christ-Eucharist-church-sacraments-hierarchy in the Roman ecclesiology and practice became subjected to the following inversion: Christ-hierarchy-sacraments-church.
These two ecclesiologies express themselves differently in their respective understanding of the “catholicity” of the church. In Orthodox perception catholicity means that the church is identical with itself in its every part. The church is “catholic” because the sacrifice of its High Priest is one, indivisible and identical; it transcends time and space and embraces eternity. In the Orthodox liturgy the priest prepares the Holy Bread for communion with the prayer: “Divided and distributed is the Lamb of God: who is divided, yet not disunited; who is ever eaten, yet never consumed; but sanctifying those who partake thereof.” Orthodoxy understands the catholicity of the church in terms of the Epistle to the Hebrews: “But what you have come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where the millions of angels have gathered for the festival, with the whole Church in which everyone is a ‘first-born son’ and a citizen of heaven. You have come to God himself, the supreme Judge, and been placed with the spirits of the saints who have been made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator who brings a new covenant and a blood for purification” (12:22-25). The universal church embraces the human race together with the whole assembly of angels. Thus catholicity means that every Orthodox is united with the wholeness of this invisible church that is the foundation and the substance of the church visible. Every Orthodox is “catholic” as long as he/she is in communion with this invisible church in truth. On the other hand the Roman church understands catholicity extraterritorially as a universal expansion among all peoples.
The belief that all faithful irrespective of their position in the church body receive the gift of the same Holy Spirit and are in communion with the same Christ is the foundation of the Orthodox teaching on “sobornost.” “Sobornost,” the Russian translation of the notion of catholicity, renders the substance of the church (the Greek word ecclesia means “gathering,” “assembly,” “sobor” in Slavonic) as a unity expressed in plurality, as the plenitude that is manifested in its every part. Sobornost means the unity of all church members within the organic fellowship of the church as the Body of Christ, each person maintaining his/her full freedom and personal responsibility for the life of the church and the purity of its teaching. It also means the unity of all members of the church in time and space, the unity, which embraces every Orthodox communicant of the past and present. Thus where the faithful are gathered together for the Eucharistic celebration, which is a participation in the one sacrifice of Christ, there the church is given in its “catholicity,” that is, in its “sobornost.” That is why each communicant belongs to this “chosen race, a royal priesthood” according to the expression of St. Peter (1 Peter 2:9).
But this “royal priesthood” of all faithful in no way contradicts the existence of a specially ordained hierarchy. On the contrary, the priesthood of the people of God is the very condition for the functioning of the hierarchy. For the latter cannot come into being and function in a society deprived of grace, or one that refuses to accept it. Under such circumstances the hierarchy loses its power, as is the case with heretical or schismatic groups, or as it happened at one time in Soviet Russia, when the government refused to recognize the hierarchy of the Orthodox church making its legal functioning impossible. Therefore in the Orthodox Church the priesthood of the faithful and the functional ordained hierarchy are conditions for each other.
The fullness of truth and fullness of the magisterium are present in every local community having a bishop at its head, “the successor of Peter and the other apostles.” The consecration of a bishop-elect by an assembly of bishops (two or three at least) in the Orthodox church expresses the Orthodox belief that the bishop is not a successor of any particular apostle but of all of them. For the Orthodox, it is Christ Himself, the supreme High Priest, who ordains His new hierarch through the hands of other bishops. Thus bishops pray at the office of the consecration, invoking the name of Jesus Christ as the one who performs this ordination: “Do Thou, the same Lord of all, who also graciously enabled this chosen person to come under the yoke of the Gospel and the dignity of a bishop through the laying-on [of ] hands of us, his fellow bishops here present, strengthen him by the inspiration and power and grace of Thy Holy Spirit, as Thou did strengthen Thy holy Apostles and Prophets, as Thou has consecrated bishops and make his bishopric to be blameless; that he may be worthy to ask those things which are for the salvation of the people, and that Thou may give ear unto him.”
The consecration of a new bishop by the assembly of other bishops at the liturgy also manifests the unity of local churches, of which the bishops are the heads. These local churches are not separate as if they were provinces of a state. They are united by one faith, and this unity is expressed by the concelebration of their bishops. Therefore, in practical ecclesiastical terms, sobornost or catholicity means also conciliarity, expressed in the regular convening of church councils (or bishops’ synod at least) where the whole church is represented, its officers are elected and give accounts of their activity, and where the truth is spoken from the floor.
Here we come to the third ministry of Jesus as the supreme king, which is the basis of the government of the Orthodox Church. In the prayer during the cherubic hymn the priest invokes Jesus as the “King of Israel, who rulest over those in heaven and on earth.” Jesus is the universal king, but His kingship is acknowledged only in the society of those who accept it, in the church. He is the invisible head of the church, who governs it through the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox teaching on the royal priesthood of all believers and on sobornost, that is conciliarity, is founded on this firm belief in the kingship of Christ.
As members of the body of Christ, all believers belong to this “royal priesthood”; but as a skeleton supports the structure of the living body, so the church hierarchy holds together the body of the faithful. Also the flock groups naturally around the shepherds, who assume the leadership in the church. Thus the hierarchy, without losing its charisma, becomes an institution. Institutionalism being introduced, the church is composed of hieratically organized congregations. The church canon law governs their relations. The numerous canons that regulate church organization and discipline form the corpus of Orthodox canon law, which outlines the structure of the church as institution. These canons, formulated by ecumenical and local councils, reflect Orthodox ecclesiology.
Since each local church is constituted by the community of the faithful, gathered around their bishop for Eucharistic celebration, no power can exist by divine right outside and above the local Eucharistic community. Throughout the history of the Orthodox Church, this local community has corresponded to the diocese, the smallest of the institutional units of which the church is composed. The bishop being first of all the one who presides at the Eucharistic celebration, the episcopal authority is a spiritual one. Being a servant of the church (Luke 22:26), the bishop governs the church in agreement with it. He is not above the church. Sobornost on the diocesan level is ensured in two ways: by apostolic succession (which is the expression of the dependence of a bishop on his fellow bishops), and election by the people. In the early church all the people of the diocese, clergy and laity together, elected their bishop. This tradition was practiced by the church in Novgorod republic. Even for the churches which do not practice this tradition anymore, its trace is preserved in the office of the ordination of a bishop when the people at a certain moment must announce their agreement by saying the word “worthy” (aksios in Greek) referring to the elect. The Moscow local council of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1917-1918 restored the procedure of the election of bishops by the clergy and laity. This ruling of the Moscow council, which became void under the Communist regime in the Soviet Union and is not yet restored in the post-Communist Russia, is followed in some measure in the Orthodox Church in America.
As Fr. Bulgakov has pointed out, election by communal choice, while a preliminary condition, is perfectly compatible with the decisive value of ordination through the laying on of hands. Human choice cannot replace the divine act of imposition of hands, but together they constitute the condition of Orthodox catholicity. Bishops being elected and duly ordained, canon law defines the rights of the bishops and the relations among them. All bishops, notwithstanding canonical differences due to historical or political circumstances, are entirely equal from the charismatic viewpoint: there is no superior bishop among them.
If there is no superior bishop, or pope, in the Orthodox Church, what then holds it together? The attachment to the heavenly King, the act of communion in sacraments does. The universal Orthodox Church is constituted by the communion of the heads of the local churches. Unity is manifested through the con-celebration of the Eucharist by bishops, representing their churches. “The church is not monarchical in structure, centered round a single hierarch; it is collegial, formed by the communion of many hierarchs with one another, and of each hierarch with the members of his flock. The act of communion therefore forms the criterion for membership of the church. An individual ceases to be a member of the church if he severs communion with his bishop; a bishop ceases to be a member of the church if he severs communion with his fellow bishops.”
Thus the Orthodox unity is realized not as unity under a single authority but as unity of faith and tradition, ensured by the apostolic succession of the hierarchy. Orthodox communities around the world recognize reciprocally their hierarchy and their sacraments. We find the same form of unity in the primitive church, even in apostolic times. In the course of history local churches headed by bishops formed parts of a composite canonical unity with the council of bishops and a primate at the head. Thus archbishoprics, metropolitanates, and patriarchates came into being. Their primates, often heads of autocephalous churches, sometimes enjoyed substantial administrative authority but were never considered chief guardians of Orthodox faith, or possessors of special charisma that elevated them over other bishops.
The local autocephalous churches that developed in the course of history are branches of Orthodox communion. As it has been observed, “while the hierarchy of each autocephalous church is entirely independent in the exercise of its ministry, it is joined by this mutual recognition with, and finds itself under the silent observation of, the hierarchy of the entire Orthodox world. This does not often appear when ecclesiastical life is normal, but becomes evident in the case of any violation. Then the hierarchy of an autocephalous church lifts its voice to defend Orthodoxy which has been transgressed by another church. Different churches intervene.”
Orthodox theology nevertheless acknowledges the need for a special hieratic agency that expresses the unity of the church. Before the separation of Eastern and Western churches in the eleventh century, the bishop of Rome filled the function of such an agency. After the separation, the primacy devolved upon the patriarchate of Constantinople. But nowadays this primacy is purely symbolic. The relations of autocephalous churches with each other are determined by a kind of hierarchy of honor headed by the “ecumenical” patriarch of Constantinople as primus inter pares. The order of precedence among the three other Oriental patriarchates (Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem) was fixed in the fifth century. The patriarchate of Moscow, established in 1589, is accorded fifth place in this hierarchy. Other autocephalous churches are assigned a place in accordance with the date when they became ecclesiastically independent. As Fr. John Meyendorff comments, this system, which is theoretically nothing more than an adaptation of ancient canon law to modern conditions, undoubtedly has the great advantage of being very elastic. It permits autocephalous churches to be founded, abolished, re-established again in the course of history without affecting the entire organization of the Church. It also leaves intact the cultural pluralism which corresponds to the ethnic diversity of the autocephalous churches.
But the Orthodox also are well aware of the disadvantages of the church’s decentralization, particularly during the long period in which the church has failed to convene ecumenical councils. From the first church council of Jerusalem, described in the Book of Acts (ch.15), the church was governed by councils, local as well as ecumenical. Diocesan bishops as representatives of their dioceses regularly assembled to discuss matters of doctrine and discipline. For resolving problems of universal ecclesiastical importance, ecumenical councils were convened. After the seventh ecumenical council in the eighth century, the practice of assembling for ecumenical councils fell into oblivion. Besides that, the fall of ancient patriarchates and of some of the younger Orthodox churches under Turkish captivity led to the alienation of local churches from each other and to inevitable provincialism. Fr. Meyendorff indicates that as a consequence of this development, “independent by right and in fact, the autocephalous churches are too inclined to live in isolation from each other, they are unable to take any common action effectively, and they lack a common system for training of the clergy. The effect of nationalism, the disease that ravaged Eastern Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, can be overcome in the ecclesiastical sphere only with great difficulty. The church often comes to be regarded as nothing more than a mere adjunct of the nation, a mere instrument useful in helping to preserve the language and customs of the people.”
But nowadays with our civilization tending toward unification, the Orthodox churches are becoming more aware of the principles of universal ecumenicity. The general democratization of life, being a late product of Christian civilization, has influenced retroactively the domain of religion. Liberty becomes a necessary condition for advancement of the Gospel. And the decentralized organization of Orthodoxy, autonomous but united, perfectly suits the religious needs of the modern world accustomed to freedom but weary of its spiritual rootlessness. Also, as Fr. Meyendorff points out, “the absence of any binding centralized authority permits the various hierarchies of the church today to adopt different political attitudes without rupturing the doctrinal and sacramental bonds of unity.”
Now the question arises as to the Orthodox attitude toward temporal power, the state. This attitude from the outset was colored by the general eschatological orientation of the church, expressed in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “There is no eternal city for us in this life, but we look for one in the life to come” (Heb. 13:14). Therefore Orthodoxy failed to develop its own political philosophy. For the primitive church, the pagan state was “the beast who mouthed its blasphemies against God . . . and made war against the saints” (Rev. 13:1-8).
When the Roman Empire converted to Christian ideology, the church entered into very close relations with it, which both parties called “symphony.” This pattern of relationship remained intact for many centuries, until the Russian Empire introduced in the eighteenth century the Lutheran notion of the supremacy of the monarch in the church and eventually reduced the Russian Orthodox church to the status of “the department of the Orthodox confession.” As far as Greek and other oriental Orthodox churches are concerned, they developed after the fall of Byzantium and under Turkish rule a rather strong inner autonomy, but paid a heavy price in their attachment to nationalistic movements.
The fall of the Byzantine Empire for Greek-speaking churches and the fall of the Russian Empire for Slavic churches put an end to the established political order and to a pattern of relationship between church and state that was considered immovable. But as Fr. Bulgakov has stated, the connection of Orthodoxy with the monarchical system “was never of exclusive importance”. The Orthodox Church has existed in various countries under different political regimes: in the republics of Novgorod and Pskov, as well as under the despotism of Ivan the Terrible and of Joseph Stalin, and also under heterodox governments; and never has it lost its fullness and its power. “There is no interior and immovable connection between Orthodoxy and this or that system of government; the Orthodox may have different opinions and different political sympathies. This is a matter of their conscience as citizens and of their intelligence.”
As Fr. Bulgakov rightly observed, the separation of church and state, at first imposed by force, has finally been accepted with gratitude by the Orthodox churches. Liberty better corresponds to the church’s dignity and vocation than the alliance with a political regime. But delivered from the temptations of clericalism, the church retains its ambition to influence the society in a democratic way. In democratic society the Orthodox church is becoming more itself. It is regaining its inner liberty and mobility, is restoring its catholic, conciliatory character. The Orthodox Church does not change inwardly for it believes that it always possesses the same “unshakable kingdom” (Heb. 12:28) and always depends on its eternal King, Jesus Christ, who “is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Heb.13:8).
Michael Aksionov Meerson ©
This is the reworked version of the article Doctrinal Foundation of Orthodoxy, published by Fr. Michael A. Meerson in Eastern Christianity and Politics in the Twentieth Century, ed. Pedro Ramet, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1988. We publish it in our website without footnotes. Those who want to see references should look at the above mentioned publication.