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[Published in The Greek Australian Vema (September 2008) 8-9]

ORTHODOXY THROUGH THE CENTURIES


A Brief History of Who We Are – A Promise of
What We Might Become
By Revd Dr Doru Costache

Beyond its current problems, Orthodoxy is the living continuation of the


Church established by our Lord Jesus Christ through the indwelling of his Holy
Spirit within the first Christian community in Jerusalem. Built upon the
proclamation of the apostolic faith and the experiential aspect of its liturgical
life, Orthodoxy is the catholic (καθολική) manifestation of the original Church
established by Christ, a truthful witness to the Spirit’s deifying presence. By
catholicity we mean here the fullness of the ecclesial reality as constituted –
in Christ and the Holy Spirit – in and through each local Church around a
bishop, and in the communion of the local Churches.

Generation after generation, starting with the first century up until now,
Orthodoxy has embraced various nations, manifesting diachronically its
catholicity through a large diversity of cultural expressions. This gives
account as to how the one Orthodox Church, defined by one faith and life, is
constituted as a communion of local Churches, distinct in regards to their
cultural features. As such, and despite the internal disagreements which
darken at times its horizon, Orthodoxy is called to reflect in a superior way –
as a true structured pneumatocracy (Archbishop Stylianos) – the divine
paradigm of unity (one God) in plurality (three persons or 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 had
preserved their communion in spite of the geographical distances separating
them and the oppression exerted by pagans. This unity has been consistently
expressed through the 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, Christian unity has
also been realised at the level of the complex episcopal ministry. In
communion with both their local dioceses and each other, the bishops
manifested the inner cohesion of Christendom as a new reality in Christ Jesus,
the Head of the Church and sole pontiff (bridge-maker) between God and
humanity. Therefore, being centred in Christ and oriented both vertically and
eschatologically, the early Churches needed no geographical point of
reference. The spirit of this paradigm has been faithfully preserved by the
subsequent 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 the uncompromising proclamation of faith in the form of
martyrdom. Less theologically elaborated the creedal statements of the
martyrs concerning the Holy Trinity, Christ as Son of God and Saviour, and the
sacramentally regenerated life in the Church, constituted unambiguous
confessions of the apostolic faith. Furthermore, 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,
relying on the power of conviction springing from personal example.

With the Constantinian era, 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
Christendom, 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 unfolded a constant – although mostly just
tacit – struggle between the State and the Church. With numerous occasions,
the Empire attempted to impose upon the Church its own policies, often
causing serious damage with painful and lasting consequences. It is well
known that the most distinguished Christian theologians of the period (such
as St Athanasius the Great, St Basil the Great, St Maximus the Confessor, St
John Damascene, St Theodore the Studite and others), suffered persecutions
for defending Orthodoxy against the illegitimate ideological pressures exerted
from time to time by the civil authorities. Perhaps the most 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. In many ways, monasticism
constituted throughout the Byzantine era a spiritual and prophetic
phenomenon echoing the experience of martyrdom.

But there are also bright colours to be added to this picture, of dynamic and
creative interactions between Church and Empire. One of the most significant
is 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
barbarians. 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 that 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 underlying factor causing 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 that the Empire, through a series of visionary rulers, had
undertaken the task of assisting 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 in this way the background of the Byzantine mindset
and the Empire’s own legislation. And indeed, the Christological principle of
theandricity or divine-humanity – the decisive criterion in all aspects of
ecclesial experience –, articulated by the author known as St Dionysius the
Areopagite (early sixth century), had inspired the imperial doctrine of
symphony. This was already obvious during the rule of Justinian the Great –
author of the famous hymn ‘Only-begotten’, celebrating the mystery of
theandricity –, the first emperor to elaborate, in the mid sixth century, 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 a long time until the complete Christianisation of the Empire and the
Greek-Roman world yet this effort resulted in the deep conversion of a whole
society and culture. Along this process, symptomatically, Church and 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 this synthesis, it is evident that on 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 and proclaimed by
the Orthodox Church. The most impressive outcome of the inculturation of
the Orthodox Church within the Byzantine context, however, should be
undoubtedly considered its theological spirituality and art, still defining
Orthodoxy around the world.

Along this process of historical becoming, Orthodoxy had to experience a


series of misfortunes. Among them, noteworthy remains the Oriental schism
occurring in the mid fifth century, when (for theological and non-theological
reasons) the non Greek-speaking Churches of the East had chosen a separate
faith path. Also noteworthy remains the schism of the Latin Church, gradually
produced (centuries 9-11) by the 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, because of the subsequent fall of the Orientals under
pagan rule (Persian, Arab and Turk) and the increasing arrogance of the
Westerners. In fact, the Westerners had 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 expansion of the Ottoman power over the
areas where the Orthodox Church was active. 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, with the hesychast revival that literally contributed
to the relaunch of Orthodoxy in modern times.

From an ecclesiastical viewpoint, even if under strict control and at times


unbearable pressures, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople had
continued to represent the canonical factor of communion for all Orthodox,
managing to coordinate the efforts of the Churches from both 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 on a different spirit, Orthodoxy was taken by
surprise with the emergence of new cultural trends related to the secular
character of societies. It is perhaps not unexpectedly, therefore, that in their
hurried attempt to secure a place within the framework of the brave new
world, the Orthodox Churches embraced with uncritical enthusiasm various
nationalist and social ideologies. In turn, the nationalist propensities – in the
form of the condemned phyletism (priority of ethnicity over ecclesial criteria)
– caused to the coherence of the Orthodox commonwealth. Oblivious to the
unifying spirit shared by the tradition of the first millennium, the national
Churches have substituted unwisely the natural category of ethnicity for the
theandric criteria that shape the ecclesial mindset.

Along with, and in close connection to, phyletism, another corruption of the
ecclesial mindset is the innovation of special feasts, dedicated by various
Churches to the observance of the sum of their ‘national saints’. The 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 unable to bring with one
voice a coherent message to a world spiritually disoriented.
However, if the legitimate attempt to fit within the modern context turned in
the end negatively (with phyletism), Orthodoxy as an ensemble managed to
address maturely the essence of the new world. Thus, by contrast with the
proclamation of the ‘dogma of the European man’s infallibility’ (St Justin
Popovitch), canonised 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 the program of its ‘structured
pneumatocracy’, where hierarchy and community constitute together a
united witness to the divine-human wisdom. Unfortunately, the message of
the Orthodox Church was not positively received by a delusional society,
deceived by its dream of omniscience 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 taken in anachronistic terms. To be traditional,
however, means not to entertain the nostalgia of past glories; it is instead to
remain both faithful to the truth and creatively open to new missionary
contexts. Archbishop Stylianos (‘The Place of Tradition in the Christian Faith’)
observes that

…tradition 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. Or, in
order to reach coherence, the Orthodox commonwealth should overcome the
undermining ramifications of phyletism and learn to appreciate again our
hierarchical structure of communion. St Paul knew what the dangers of
fragmentation might be, when he wrote (Ephesians 4:1-6):

I, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling
to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness,
with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the
unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one
Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your
call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all,
who is above all and through all and in all.

Meekness and humility in Christ imply that we are able to discern what is
from God and what is against God, also what it means to abandon the
traditional wisdom and to be “carried about with every wind of doctrine, by
the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles” (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. However, only by healing its self-inflicted
wounds could the Orthodox commonwealth become again one polyphonic,
multicultural, voice, able to truthfully give witness to our traditional values,
actualising again and again the foundational paradigm of Pentecost.