World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

You are here: Home / Resources / Documents / WCC programmes / Ecumenical movement in the 21st century / Member churches / Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement: "Orthodoxy"

Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement: "Orthodoxy"

This article by Nicholas Lossky is the entry on Orthodoxy from the revised edition of the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement published jointly by the World Council of Churches and the Wm. Eerdmans in 2002.

01 January 2002

The following article by Nicholas Lossky is the entry on Orthodoxy from the revised edition of the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement published jointly by the World Council of Churches and the Wm. Eerdmans in 2002.

"Orthodoxy" means “right opinion” or “right belief” (also “right glorification”, as in the Slavonic translation). Consequently, any human community which bases itself on an accepted system of thought, opinions or beliefs can claim “orthodoxy” for its doctrines. Within the Christian context, the term came to be associated with certain sections of Eastern Christendom: the Chalcedonian (or Eastern Orthodox) and non-Chalcedonian (or Oriental Orthodox) churches. In this narrow sense the word will be dealt with here.

Eastern Christians are not united within one communion.* The main divisions appeared in the 5th century. Some did not accept the third ecumenical council (Ephesus 431), and more rejected the fourth (Chalcedon* 451). This non-
acceptance was due both to the theological disagreements over the Christological debates and to the reluctance of some, mainly non-Greek or non-Byzantine Christians, to accept the idea that the conciliar dogmatic definitions should be imposed as imperial laws by the capital, Constantinople (see dogma). In hindsight after 15 centuries, those theological differences now appear to have been mainly due to terminological misunderstandings; furthermore, the subsequent displacements of power have suppressed all traces of political imperial domination on the part
of Byzantium-Constantinople, or New Rome. With the fall of the Russian empire in 1917, most of Orthodoxy has lost any dream of a Byzantine “symphony”. Issues blocking reunion today are indeed not so much theological as practical (see Oriental Orthodox-Orthodox dialogue).

The gradual estrangement between the Christian West and the Christian East culminated in a split between what had been the two halves of the Roman empire, which most historians label as the Latins and the Greeks. In fact, the “Latins”, though they all used Latin as their liturgical and theological language, included Germanic Franks, Celts and Anglo-Saxons; the “Greeks” or “Byzantines” incorporated the traditions not only of Constantinople but also of Asia Minor, Egypt (Alexandria), Syria (Antioch) and Palestine (Jerusalem).

The date generally recognized as that of the schism,* 1054, was that of an exchange of excommunications* between the legates of Pope Leo IX and the patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius. (These excommunications were solemnly lifted in 1964 by Pope Paul VI and Athenagoras I, the patriarch of Constantinople; see Orthodox-Roman Catholic dialogue.) But the 1054 dating is somewhat conventional, for only later did the other three patriarchates of the famous “pentarchy” (Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem) break with Rome (universally recognized as the ancient “primatial” see; see primacy). And already in the 9th century difficulties had begun (e.g., between Photius, patriarch of Constantinople, and Pope Nicholas I).

The real issues at stake in the schism were doctrinal and ecclesiological: (1) the Western addition of the filioque* (“and from the Son”) to the Nicene Creed,* concerning the procession of the Holy Spirit;* and (2) the jurisdictional claims of the papacy to a right of universal intervention. In spite of progress made, these two questions still constitute the main obstacles to reunion between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches.

One of the consequences of the Western crusades* in the East (1095-1270) was a worsening of the breach between East and West. The papal appointment at that time of “Latin” bishops who paralleled existing Orthodox bishops in such ancient sees as Antioch and Constantinople represented in fact an unchurching of long-existing Christian communities. Moreover, attempts at reunion at the councils of Lyons (1274) and of Ferrara-Florence (1438-39) not only failed but, in the eyes of the vast majority of the Orthodox, actually represented a consummation of the schism. After Florence, the two halves of Christendom largely ignored each other.

As a result of this breach and estrangement, the Orthodox world has not experienced the Western crises which resulted in the Protestant Reformation and in the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation. The Orthodox world had its own crises in the East, as it had to deal from afar with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, its isolation under Islamic rule, the fall of Christian Constantinople to the Muslims (1453), the rise of nationalisms, etc. But since these crises did not affect the essential faith* of the church, the Orthodox preserved a very strong sense of unbroken continuity with the faith of the apostles (see apostolicity) as interpreted and witnessed to by the seven great ecumenical councils* and the fathers of the church (see patristics).

Undeniably, the theology taught in Orthodox schools, particularly in the “Byzantine”, or Eastern Orthodox, world, came under Western influences, both medieval scholastic and Protestant. Beyond a few surviving vestiges of these influences, however, Orthodoxy has rediscovered its own proper identity through patristic revivals. These revivals have helped to reveal the common, authentic theological spirit of the Eastern and the Oriental Orthodox, which refuses the systematizing tendencies of various crystallizations.

The essential theological approach of Orthodoxy consists in an uncompromising adherence to the confession of Jesus Christ* as the incarnate Son of God, second person of the Holy Trinity.* In this perspective, the incarnation* is the most central event in history,* the only true revolution, because in Jesus Christ and his redemptive work, the personal, Triune God, the living God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not only manifests but gives himself fully to humanity.

The divine person of Jesus Christ assumed humanity, doing so even to the utmost limits of the human condition: unto death itself, and death upon the cross, with the agony of the dying person’s sense of being forsaken by God. Humanity thus becomes totally transformed, re-generated in him. This tasting of death by a divine person – what Gregory of Nazianzus calls “the humanity of God” which “sanctifies humanity” – could only result in victory over death, in the destruction of death. This accomplishment necessarily confers a new quality on all life. The sacrificial action of Jesus Christ re-generates, re-creates the whole of creation.* “A few drops of blood re-make the whole universe” (Gregory of Nazianzus). This humanity, which Christ assumed and sanctified, has a cosmic dimension. Christ’s victory over death grants a new life to the whole of creation. Each human being, called to “put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27), is royally, prophetically and ministerially responsible for the whole universe.

The resurrection* is therefore a cosmic and very central event, and the Orthodox accordingly place great emphasis on the passion-resurrection of Christ, the paschal character of the Christian life. This life is offered in Christ through the gift of grace,* which is the breath of the Holy Spirit – the gift of God himself. Salvation,* in the Orthodox perspective, is not restricted to redemption* in the strict sense, i.e. only freeing humanity from sin.* Salvation is viewed in terms not so much of one’s justification* as of one’s participation in the true destiny of human nature, fully realized in Christ. Salvation is offered to all as a free gift, to be freely accepted by all. The gift of the Holy Spirit enables human beings to become “participants of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).

This participation of human beings in the divine life of the Holy Trinity – their incorporation in Christ as adopted sons and daughters through the Spirit of the Son, who in their hearts cries “Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:6; cf. Rom. 8:15) – is what the Orthodox often express in the famous patristic adage “God became man that man may become God” (Irenaeus et al.). It is also the meaning of the term “deification” (theosis).

Participation in the divine life implies growth in Christ to the dimension of becoming a true person,* i.e. the dimension of cosmic humanity, members of Christ, members of one another, temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19, 12:12; Eph. 4:25). Christians are co-responsible for the recapitulation of the whole creation for union with God. In other words, the whole of history is their responsibility, and no human situation can possibly be excluded. It is a “eucharistic” view of the destiny of humanity and creation. And the eucharistic offering – the very heart of life – is “for the life of the world” (liturgy of John Chrysostom and of Basil the Great; cf. John 6:51). Consequently, the eucharist* commits all to participate in history.

The Orthodox conception of salvation leads to the understanding that the church* is not just an institution in a purely human sense but is primarily a community of persons who are built into “a spiritual house”. “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). The church is hierarchical, but hierarchy must be viewed in the larger perspective of 1 Cor. 12 and 13 – within the same Body of Christ, with a diversity of functions, bound together in love and called to witness to this love – which excludes any sense of domination or subservience.

According to the Orthodox teaching on the church, all its institutional aspects (hierarchy, discipline, organization, etc.) should be nothing but the expressions of the deep nature of the church as described above. They are all by nature charismatic (see charism(ata)), their authority is that of Christ and the Spirit, the “two hands of the Father” (Irenaeus). They are all there to serve the essential and central action of the church: the eucharistic offering for the whole creation in the unity of the one Spirit and in communion with all things visible and invisible – “the whole company of heaven” (liturgy of the Church of England). This eucharistic offering, as the Orthodox like to recall, quoting Chrysostom, does not end in the church building but is there to irrigate the whole of life through the faithful. They should go out into the world as witnesses, every one in his or her own way, according to the diversity of gifts, to the new life offered to humanity in Christ.

The foundation of Orthodox ecclesiology is the local eucharistic community: the bishop (see episcopacy), surrounded by and presiding over the presbyterate* and the community. This local church* or diocese (today often the parish, where the priest fulfills most of the bishop’s duties, i.e. preaching of the word of God* and presiding over the celebration of the sacrament*) – in so far as it is faithful to the faith of the apostles, the catholic faith of the church, and therefore is in communion* with all the local churches faithful to the same faith – is not a part of the church universal but is itself an expression of the church universal.

Consequently, the Orthodox church is, according to its ecclesiology, a fellowship of local churches, in communion of faith and sacrament. But only one local church – traditionally, the church of Rome – is entrusted with the duty to “preside in love” over all the churches. Since the split between East and West, however, the church of Constantinople presides over the Eastern Orthodox churches.

The relations of communion and unity in faith among the local churches constitute what the Orthodox mean by conciliarity.* The conciliar nature of the Orthodox church is sometimes expressed in councils, but it is not restricted to them and is not dependent on their actual meeting. According to Orthodox ecclesiology, every time the eucharist is celebrated, the conciliar nature of the church is expressed. The plurality of consecrators of a local bishop also clearly expresses conciliarity: as co-consecrators, bishops from neighbouring local churches witness to the faithfulness to the apostolic faith of the church in which the new bishop will in turn be guaranteeing this faithfulness.

Conciliar relations among local churches through the president, whose role is to be the sign of unity, are well expressed in the 34th of the so-called Apostolic Canons: “Let the bishops of each province recognize the one who is primate among them, let them accept him as their head and let them do nothing without his having expressed his opinion, even though it is incumbent on every one to look to the affairs of his diocese and the dependent territories. But he in his turn must do nothing without the accord of all. Thus concord will reign, and God will be glorified through Christ in the Holy Spirit.” The Trinitarian conclusion indicates that relations among churches are to be based upon the same principles of unity in diversity as those of persons in the church; furthermore, personhood is in the image of the unity in diversity in the Holy Trinity.

Quite naturally, many discrepancies exist between this ideal teaching and the actual historical reality of Orthodox churches. Many distortions of Orthodoxy are due to human sinfulness. For instance, Orthodoxy at the dawn of the 21st century presents many divisions, in particular those of jurisdiction which have become clearly apparent with the dispersion of Orthodox throughout the world, especially in the West. With the rise of nationalism* in the 19th century, there appeared a tendency to identify Orthodoxy with a particular culture, ethnic group or nation. This tendency was condemned as a heresy* in 1872 by a local council in Constantinople (received by all the other churches) under the name “phyletism”. In spite of this condemnation, the tendency still exists among the Orthodox to substitute in practice a nationalistic ecclesiology for the traditional territorial principle, following the apostolic definition (e.g., “the church of God that is in Corinth”, 1 Cor. 1:2) which unites all the people (Jews, Greeks, etc.) in a given place in one eucharistic community. The Orthodox who are scattered throughout the world tend to be claimed by their “mother churches” according to an ethnic, cultural or national principle, which leads to a multiplicity of jurisdictions in one place instead of one bishop in each place (see diaspora). Although some progress has recently been made, the debate continues; at issue is the purity of ecclesiology.

Another temptation for modern Orthodoxy is the crystallizing of patristic theology into a new form of scholasticism as a system of thought. Instead, there should be ever-renewed efforts to orient each generation to a living sense of union with God. This tendency simply to repeat as a rigid catechism what the fathers have said in the past may be termed repetitive orthodoxy, which often leads to a refusal to consider the challenges of history today. Some who succumb to this temptation have tended to reject ecumenism as the heresy of the 20th century, holding that the unity of Christians can be achieved only through the formal conversion of all to the historic Orthodox church.

Orthodox ecclesiology claims to be eucharistic; the church is the sacrament par excellence. All too often, however, the reality of life belies this understanding of the church. In too many cases baptism* (as well as marriage*) tends to be a purely social event, and people may partake of the eucharist only once a year, if at all. Many churches have indeed reacted against this contradiction within Orthodoxy, but there is still a long way to go. Another problem is that, in too many cases, the eucharistic prayers are said in such a way that people cannot hear them. As a result, the laity* tend to regard themselves (and are regarded) as passive members of the church who are not fully co-responsible in the unity of the one church and in the unity of the one Spirit with the presiding minister, thus obscuring the reality of 1 Cor. 12 and 13.

The vast majority of Orthodox churches are engaged in the ecumenical movement. With the exception of one or two communities (such as the Russian Church in Exile or the Greek Old-Calendarists, and two churches – Georgia and Bulgaria – which withdrew in 1997-98), they are all member churches of the WCC.Thus, in spite of all its historical sins, Orthodoxy has a vocation* in the striving towards the recovery of unity among Christians. This vocation is a very special one, since the Orthodox firmly believe that “the Orthodox church is the church of Christ on earth” (Sergius Bulgakov). This conviction, paradoxical as it may sound, can on certain conditions serve the ecumenical search for unity. Bulgakov expresses the first condition: “The church of Christ is not an institution but a new life with Christ and in Christ, moved by the Holy Spirit.” In other words, the Orthodox community can truly serve Christian unity in so far as they witness to true Orthodoxy and remember that when Orthodoxy is true to itself, it confesses that it does not know the limits of the church of Christ: the Spirit “blows where it chooses” (John 3:8). Also, the Orthodox serve Christian unity whenever they remember that one of the essential duties in being an Orthodox consists in one’s permanent conversion to Orthodoxy. 

Recommended reading:
  • A. McGuckin, Standing in God’s Holy Fire: The Byzantine Tradition, London, Darton, Longman & Todd, 2001.