History: Orthodoxy along the Centuries

Beyond its current problems, mostly of internal nature, and its misrepresentation by the outsiders, Orthodoxy is the inheritor and the living continuation of the Church established by our Lord Jesus Christ through the indwelling of his Holy Spirit in the first Christian community in Jerusalem.

Built upon the kerygma, or proclamation, of the apostolic faith and the participatory aspect of its liturgical life, the Orthodox Church is definitively the catholic (καθολική) manifestation of the original Church established by Christ, a truthful witness to the Spirit’s deifying presence. By catholicity we mean the fullness of the concrete ecclesial reality as manifested — in the Holy Spirit — through each local Church under a bishop and in the communion of the local Churches, whose canonical expression is the synod of bishops under their primate and ultimately under Christ.

Generation after generation, starting with the first century up until now Orthodoxy has embraced various cultures and peoples, manifesting diachronically its catholicity through a large variety of cultural expressions. This gives account as to how the one Orthodox Church, defined by one faith and life, subsists actually as a communion, or commonwealth, of local and regional Churches, distinct from the point of view of their cultural features. Characterised by this complex architecture of one and many, unity and plurality, the Orthodox Church experiences — ideally and paradoxically — a unity which does not annulate the richness of plurality and a plurality which does not destroy the blessed gift of unity.

As such, and despite the internal disagreements or incongruities which darken at times its horizon, Orthodoxy is called to reflect in a superior way — as true structured pneumatocracy (Archbishop Stylianos) — the divine paradigm of unity (one God) in plurality (three hypostases). Along with the common faith and life shared by all Orthodox Churches, the canonical and symbolic expression of Orthodoxy’s unity remains throughout history — including in our increasingly globalised world — the primacy of the Ecumenical Throne, i.e. the prerogatives of the Patriarch of Constantinople as primus inter pares (the first among the equals) in the gathering of Orthodox bishops. To the realisation of this model has contributed a long process of theological and canonical refinements.

During their first centuries of historical existence, the emerging Churches throughout the Greek-Roman world — and beyond its boundaries — have preserved their communion in spite of the geographical distances separating them and the oppression exerted by both the pagan imperial authorities and ignorant masses. This unity has been consistently expressed through the truthful and communal witness to the apostolic kerygma and the celebration of the liturgy, also by the spiritual ethos characterising Christians no matter their dwelling place and the language in which they announced the compassion of God to all people.

Last but not least, the Christian unity has been also realised at the level of the complex episcopal ministry. By their communion with both their local dioceses and each other, the bishops manifested the inner cohesion of Christendom as a new reality under Christ Jesus, the Head of the Church and supreme pontiff (bridge-maker) between God and humanity. Therefore, being centred in Christ and oriented both vertically and eschatologically, the heroically thriving Churches of the first centuries and their unbreakable communion needed no spatial point of reference. The spirit of this paradigm has been faithfully preserved by the coming generations, even if from the organisational point of view the Church has experienced a process of continuous reformation, given the various historical circumstances.

In the early centuries, the most impressive sign of Christian presence in the world, however, was undoubtedly the uncompromising proclamation of faith in the form of martyrdom. Besides being less theologically elaborated, the credal statements of the martyrs concerning the Holy Trinity, Christ as Son of God and Saviour, together with the sacramentally regenerated life in the Church, constituted unambiguous confessions of the apostolic faith none the less. Also, they represented truthful expressions of the inner life of the Church as communion and the nobility of the Christian way of living. In fact, these statements constituted one of the most efficient ways of communicating the Gospel of Christ to the world, not by relying on the apodictic tools of human logic but by the power of conviction springing from the personal example.

With the era inaugurated by Constantine the Great, the Church was no longer persecuted by the Roman authorities yet it had to face numerous internal and external challenges. Mainly, along with the effort to safeguard the inner unity of Christianity, menaced by the powers of division represented by the heretical movements, the Church had to elaborate a political platform upon which to build its complex relations with the Empire.

Throughout the history of the Christian Roman Empire, between the foundation (in 330) and the fall (in 1453) of Constantinople, there was a constant — although not always evident — struggle between the political power and the Church. With numerous occasions, the Empire attempted to impose to the Church its own policies, at times causing serious damage with painful and lasting consequences. It is of notoriety that the most distinguished Christian theologians of the period (such as St. Athanasios the Great, St. Basil the Great, St. Maximos the Confessor, St. John Damascene, St. Theodore the Studite and innumerable others), suffered persecutions from the Empire for defending Orthodoxy against the illegitimate ideological pressures exerted from time to time by the civil authorities. Perhaps the most explicit and exemplary form of resistance against the secular policies in the Byzantine era remains that of monasticism, at least up until the end of the second iconoclast crisis, in 843, and the interlude occasioned by St. Symeon the New Theologian at the crossroads of the first and second millennia. Those times, in many ways, monasticism represented a spiritual and prophetic phenomenon echoing the experience of martyrdom.

But there are also very positive aspects to be added to this picture, of dynamic and creative interactions between Church and Empire. One of the most significant is the fact that the Christian Empire offered to the Church new opportunities for its experience and mission. A long chain of pious emperors and empresses considered themselves as accountable before Christ for the well-being of God’s people, the defence of faith and the spreading of the Gospel to the barbarian nations. Characteristically, many emperors and empresses (largely imitated by numerous dignitaries) embraced the spiritual path of monasticism, consecrating for the coming centuries a cultural, social and political paradigm which may be considered one of the most impressive contributions of the Gospel to the renewal of the world. It is therefore not by chance that the Empire has become an immense Christian arena, first allowing and then actively supporting the public implementation of the very criteria that governed the early ecclesial life.

The apostolic spirit of Orthodoxy constituted the primary and underlaying factor determining the State, for example, to observe the principles of philanthropy and to support the struggle of the Church to build the first coherent and efficient system of social care in history. Also significant is the fact that the Empire, through a series of visionary rulers, has undertaken the task to assist the Church in its effort to articulate and refine the canonical form of the apostolic faith. As such, in conjunction with the Church, the emperors convened and organised the ecumenical councils (centuries 4–8), officially endorsing their decisions and proclaiming worldwide their authority. Thus, the apostolic faith and life — grounds of the ecclesial unity — have become this way the background of the Empire’s own legislation. And indeed, the Christological principle of theandricity — the true cornerstone of Orthodoxy and the ultimate criterion in all doctrinal debates — has constituted the main standpoint of the imperial doctrine of symphony.

This was already obvious during the rule of Justinian the Great — author of the famous hymn Ο μονογενής (‘Only-begotten’), celebrating the mystery of theandricity — the first emperor to elaborate on symphony. According to this doctrine, the Empire represented the earthly side of the heavenly aspect as constituted by the Church, in other words the body of a soul.

It took long time till the complete Christianisation of the Empire and the Greek-Roman world yet this effort resulted in the conversion of a whole society and culture. Along this process, symptomatically, the Church and the Empire have influenced and shaped each other within a unique and fascinating synthesis known to posterity as the Byzantine model. To note a specific feature of the Byzantine synthesis, it is a matter of historical evidence that with more than several occasions the fate of the Empire was put at risk precisely for the sake of preserving the highly spiritual exigencies of the Gospel as experienced by the Orthodox Church. The most impressive outcome of the enculturation of the Orthodox Church within the Byzantine context, however, should be undoubtedly considered its theological spirituality and art, which still shapes Orthodoxy around the world.

Along this process of historical becoming and spiritual achievements, Orthodoxy had to experience also painful moments. Among them, the most noteworthy remain without doubt the Oriental schism occurring at mid fifth century, when (for theological and non-theological reasons) the non Greek-speaking Churches of the East have chosen another faith path. Also noteworthy remains the Western schism of the Latin Church, gradually produced (centuries 9-11) by the ambitions of power of papacy and the Carolingian state. Unfortunately, the repeated attempts of both the Byzantine Church and Empire to bridge the gap between Orthodoxy and the heterodox Churches proved to be unfruitful, on the one hand because of the subsequent fall of the Orientals under pagan rule (Persian, Arab and Turk) and on the other because of the increasing arrogance of the Westerners. Actually, the Latins have manifested unfriendly ways of relating with the Orthodox East, taking advantage of the continuous pagan assaults upon Constantinople to either impose their terms (the so-called attempts of reunion) or literally to conquer (the famous fourth crusade, 1204).

To all these was added the unbreakable expansion of the Ottoman power over the traditional regions of the Orthodox Church. Long before the fall of Constantinople (1453) but mostly after, with the exception of the Russian, Romanian, Baltic and Polish Churches, the whole Orthodox world was under pagan dominion, experiencing dire situations and being compelled to adopt a strategy of survival similar to that of the early Church. Consequently, new martyrs shone upon the ecclesial firmament, manifesting the inner spiritual strength of Orthodoxy.

However, in spite of all adversities, the flame of traditional spirituality — far from becoming extinct — continued to grow within and around monasteries, in the hesychast revival which contributed to the re-launch of Orthodoxy in modern times. From an ecclesiastical point of view, even if under strict control and at times unbearable pressures, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople have continued to represent the canonical factor of communion for all Orthodox, managing to coordinate the efforts of the Churches from inside and outside the Ottoman rule. It is due to the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s ministry of unity that the emergence of autocephalous and autonomous Orthodox Churches in modernity, beyond various jurisdictional tensions, did not produce further schisms.

Modernity has arrived with new challenges for the Orthodox Church. One of the most serious was the obvious discontinuity between the traditional Orthodox mindset and the non-traditional, if not thoroughly anti-traditional, modern culture. Configured by a very different spirit, Orthodoxy was totally taken by surprise by the emergence of new cultural trends related to the emphatically secular character of society. It is perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, that in their hurried attempt to update and secure a place within the frame of the brave new world, the Orthodox Churches embraced with uncritical enthusiasm various nationalist and social ideologies.

It is precisely the nationalist propensities — in the form of the so-called, and condemned, phyletism (priority of ethnicity over ecclesial criteria) — that caused gravely to the coherence of the Orthodox Commonwealth. This represents, obviously, another modern challenge addressed to the Orthodox Church. Oblivious of the unifying spirit shared by the tradition of the first millennium, the national Churches have been endeavoured to unwisely substitute the natural category of nation, or ethnicity, for the theandric criteria which shape the ecclesial mindset. Along with, and in close connection to, the phyletist reorganisation of the Orthodox Diaspora, another sign of corruption of the ecclesial mindset has been the innovation of special feasts, dedicated by various Churches to the observance of the sum of their ‘national saints’. This aspect is highly significant, since this apparently benign innovation actually manifests just phyletist sentiments, of national arrogance, which contribute greatly to the alienation and distance between the partners (rather than sister-Churches) within the Orthodox commonwealth.

Characteristically and consequently, in recent times the Orthodox proved inability to bring one coherent message to a world spiritually disoriented. However, if the legitimate attempt to fit within the scenery of modern world actually arrived to unexpectedly negative outcomes, misguiding many Orthodox Churches to embrace phyletism (transforming the Orthodox oikoumene into a Protestant-like federation of independent Churches), Orthodoxy as an ensemble managed to address maturely the essence of the new world. Thus, parallel to the proclamation of the ‘dogma of the European man’s infallibility’ (Fr. Justin Popovitch), canonised and totalised by the Roman papacy, the Orthodox Church offered modernity a different answer. In the famous encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs of 1848, opposing, on traditional grounds, the idea of one man’s infallibility, Orthodoxy presented implicitly to the world the program of a ‘structured pneumatocracy’, where hierarchy and community constitute together a coherent witnesses to the divine-human wisdom revealed from above. Unfortunately, the message of the Orthodox commonwealth was not positively received by a delusional society, drunk with their dream of all-knowing and omnipotence. We all taste now the bitter consequences of this lack of sensibility for wisdom. Unfortunately, again, as a reaction to being ignored and despised, many Orthodox have taken the path of an uncritical rejection of modernity, barricading behind a (distorted) sense of tradition.

However, to be traditional means to remain faithful to the truth and also creatively open to new missionary contexts. Archbishop Stylianos (‘The Place of Tradition in the Christian Faith’) aptly observes that radition is not so much a treasury of structures and forms but rather a living current of life, a way of existing, thinking and feeling… Tradition is not just a way of handling matters of major or minor importance, but rather the spirit which leaves its creative traces through all possible expressions.

Today, in a pluralistic and increasingly globalised world, the Orthodox Church is called not just to give a truthful and united testimony to the apostolic faith and life, but also, and for this purpose, to recover its inner coherence. In order to arrive to coherency, the Orthodox commonwealth should overcome, however, the undermining ramifications of phyletism and learn to appreciate again our traditionally hierarchical structure of communion. St. Paul knew what the dangers of isolation and fragmentation are when he wrote:

“I, therefore, the prisoner for the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with long-suffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4:1-6).

Meekness and humility in Christ imply therefore that we are able to discern what is from God and what is against God, also what means to abandon the traditional wisdom and to be carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting (Ephesians 4:14). Meekness and humility, founded on the ecclesial wisdom, will hopefully teach the national Churches to acknowledge the necessity of a strong united Orthodox voice around the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in these uncertain times of dissolution and loss of identity. Only by healing its self-inflicted wounds, the Orthodox commonwealth could become again one polyphonic, multicultural, voice, able to truthfully give witness to our traditional values.

Father Doru Costache
Lecturer in Patristic Studies
St. Andrew’s Theological College