The Orthodox Faith – Sources of Christian Doctrine (3)

There are some Protestant Christians who think that all Christian doctrine and practices have to be based on the Bible alone. If something is not explicitly found in scripture it should not be taught or practiced. For example, in the Orthodox Church we have several feasts based on the birth, life and death of the Mother of God. Much of the material for these feasts are not found in scriptures so Protestants do not celebrate these feasts. There are differences in practice, too.
For example, we do not find the veneration of icons in the New Testament, so many Protestants reject them. As Orthodox we accept these things because they are part of Holy Tradition.
It is true that in the Bible Jesus sometimes criticizes tradition, but this is not Holy Tradition.
You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:8)
What is tradition? Our English word tradition comes from the Latin word “tradere”, meaning to hand something over. For example
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (I Cor 11:23-26)
When St. Paul writes “received” or “delivered” he is describing the very practice of tradition. In this passage we see how St. Paul received the tradition about Holy Communion from the apostles and how he is handing it over to his followers. In the Jewish tradition, it was very important to hand over exactly what one had received, without adding to or diminishing it. This is the origin of Holy
Tradition. St. Paul tells his followers how important it is to follow tradition. He writes
“So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thes 2:15).
But it is important not to think of Scripture and tradition as two separate sources of believe and practice. Rather the Bible is the heart of tradition, although tradition includes the writings of the church Fathers, the decisions of the ecumenical councils, liturgical texts, icons, etc. All of these things form Holy Tradition and one cannot isolate any one of them. So when we read the Bible we interpret it through the writings of the Fathers, the decisions of the councils, the liturgical texts and so on.
The Bible does not exist by itself. Even Protestants who deny Holy Tradition read the Bible through ‘tradition’. There are distinctly Lutheran and Calvinist ways of reading the Bible. This is sneaking the tradition in by the back door, so to speak. However here we truly have the tradition of men as opposed to Holy Tradition. Or to put it another way, the Bible is the most important part of Holy Tradition, but the Bible never remains alone,
it is always read through the lens of Tradition. So Holy Tradition is the sum total of Christian belief and practice handed over from one generation of Christians to another.
However, it must be said that no every practice in the church forms part of Holy Tradition in the strict sense. Sometimes theologians distinguish between Tradition with a capital “T” and tradition with a lower case “t”.
For example, the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation, the very heart of Tradition. On the other hand, we have smaller traditions. For example, in the marriage ceremony the Russian Orthodox tradition is to use actual metal crowns held over the heads of the bride and groom. However, in the Greek tradition the bride and groom have crowns of flowers place on their heads. This is an example of a small “t” tradition.
There is nothing wrong with the lesser traditions of the church but we should see things for what they are.
In addition to traditions with a big “T” and a small “t” there are false traditions which sometimes exist in the church. For example, many people believe they should receive Holy Communion, perhaps only once or twice a year. This is a pseudo-tradition, which contradicts the nature of Holy Communion.
Finally, Holy Tradition is not some static body of faith and practice handed over by rote. Tradition has to be received by every generation of Christian. Tradition can develop and grow without forgetting what is gone before. Tradition will continue to grow. For example, the Fathers of the Church are not exclusively men of the past. In the 20th century we had St. Siloam the Athonite and his disciples, Archimandrite Sophrony, who transmitted what they had received while at the same time adding their own insights. The age of the Fathers is never over, not is tradition merely a relic of the past.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – Sources of Christian Doctrine (2)

As we know, God has revealed Himself to humanity most fully through the Jewish people and then through the Christian church. Nevertheless, God has left “seeds of the Word” (as St. Justin the Philosopher puts it) in pagan religions and philosophies.
In this way, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of all human striving for truth, beauty and goodness.
It is easy to see how Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Judaism. From the time of Adam and Eve God had promised that He would send a redeemer, a messiah to the Jewish people (although it must be added, God also promised that this messiah, though Jewish, would be a redeemer for all people). Through the centuries God defended the Jewish people and sent them many prophets who predicted the coming of the Messiah.
The record of this is the Old Testament. When we compare the Old Testament prophecies with the New Testament, we see that the promises made by God in the Old Testament are fulfilled by Jesus Christ.
It is easy to see how Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy because the prophets and Jesus have the same religious, cultural and linguistic background. It may be more difficult to see how Jesus fulfills pagan religions. But in fact this can be shown. Pagan religions were often polytheistic (believing in many gods). But among the pagans there were also people who instinctively knew there ultimately must be one true God who stands above and beyond the many other gods. We can see that the God of Israel, the God revealed by Jesus Christ to be the dear father of all people is the fulfillment of this human yearning for the one true God. St. Paul shows us this approach in the Acts of the Apostles, which is the history of the early days of the church, when he preaches to the pagans in Athens. In Athens he had seen an altar dedicated “to the unknown God”. This altar expressed the longing of the pagans for the one true God. St. Paul tells them that the God they sought was the God that he preached, the God of Israel who revealed Himself to the world in the person of Jesus Christ. This story can be found in Acts, Chapter 17:16-34. St. Paul says “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:23)
In addition to the search for the one true God, there are other aspects of pagan religions which Jesus Christ fulfills. For example, in the Hindu religion the concept of the avatar. An avatar is God taking on the human form to save human beings. The most popular avatar is Krishna. Love for Krishna has produced wonderful religious hymns and other devotional literature. This seems similar to Jesus Christ who also descended from heaven to save humanity. But there are differences. Krishna only appears human; his humanity is like a mask or costume. But Jesus Christ became a genuine human being, capable of thirst, hunger, tiredness and so on. Jesus Christ never loses his humanity, even after he ascends to heaven.
Beyond this, Christ is historical in a sense that Krishna is not. Jesus Christ came into the world in a particular historical setting and even non-Christians scholars recognize that Jesus is a historical figure, although of course only Christians see this historical figure as God incarnate.
The study of how Jesus Christ fulfills all genuine human religious striving is incredibly rich. We can see how Jesus Christ fulfills many aspects of many different religions.
Of course, this is a Christian point of view. Jews do not think that Jesus is the fulfillment of Judaism and pagan believers also do not believe that Jesus fulfills their religion and will be offended if we tell them this. However, by seeing Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of all that is good and true in humanity, we can open to truth wherever we fine it and see Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of this truth.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – Sources of Christian Doctrine

In ever society and every age we know of there has been religious faith. Scientists tell us that even prehistoric cave dwellers had faith, judging from their burial practices and art. Today faith exists in the most “primitive” societies and to the most modern. Widespread atheism is a modern phenomenon.
Of course, there have been and are a variety of religious beliefs. There is polytheism (believe in many gods), pantheism (belief that god and the universe are one) and monotheism (belief in one God). From a Christian perspective we can say that there are elements of truth in all these religions, although there are negative aspects, such as human sacrifice, slavery, etc.
How did people come to believe in God (or many gods)? Scripture teaches that there is a kind of natural knowledge of God, accessible to all people. In the first place, by looking at the harmony, complexity and grandeur of the universe people come to the belief that there is a creator who made the universe and governs it. Second, there is the conscience. All human beings know that there is something within them that helps them to determine what is right and wrong. This fact leads people to believe that there is a divine law-giver who gave them a conscience.
However, this kind of natural religion is rather vague and generic. People yearn for more knowledge of God. Fortunately, God has chosen to reveal himself to humanity.
Again, although there are elements of goodness and truth in all religions, God chose to reveal himself first to the Jewish people, then to the Christians. The record of God’s self-revelation to the Jews is found in the Old Testament. God revealed Himself through historical events such as the Exodus, the building and destruction of the Temple, and though the prophets, such as Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel and many others. God revealed that He is one, that there are no other gods. He is a God of justice and mercy, and he expects us to be just and merciful. He loves and guides the Jewish people.
So we can say that God’s first revelation came to the Jews. But God’s final revelation is through Christ. Jesus Christ teaches us more fully who God is. He teaches us that God loves all people and wants us to do the same. The Jews knew that God is the father of the Jewish people. Christ teaches us that God is the father of every human being. Second, Jesus Christ teaches that He is the “Son of God” in a unique sense.
Through His words and deeds, during His earthly ministry and, above all, through His resurrection, Christ taught his disciples, and us, that He is God. In addition, Christ spoke about sending the Holy Spirit. The apostles weren’t sure about His position and role until Pentecost (the descent of the Holy Spirit), when they came to recognize that the Holy Spirit is God also. So we can say that Christ taught us the doctrine of the Trinity (that God is one essence and three persons) and the Incarnation (that Jesus Christ is God and man).
It is natural that Jesus Christ was first called Rabbi (teacher) during his earthly ministry because people immediately grasped that He was a teacher. God had promised through the Old Testament prophets that when the Messiah comes all people would be “taught by God”’ (Isaiah 54:13). Christ fulfilled this prophecy through His earthly ministry. Therefore, we can say that Jesus Christ is more than a teacher, though teaching was as important part of His work. So again we can say with Isaiah, through Jesus Christ, we have been “taught by God”.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – Introduction to a New Series of Articles

For the past year we’ve been looking at the article of the Creed, the fundamental statements of the Orthodox faith. We recall that the Creed was proclaimed at the Councils of Nicea (325AD) and Constantinople (381 AD). It is recited by a person about to be baptized (and by that person’s sponsor) and at the Divine Liturgy. The series of articles can be found on our website at
Now we begin a new series of article based on the books “The Orthodox Faith” by Father (later Protopresbyter) Thomas Hopko. Father Hopko was a professor and later the dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. There are four volumes in this series, the first of which was published in 1971. The four volumes are:
1. Doctrine – the fundamental beliefs of the Orthodox Church
2. Worship – the liturgical aspect of the Orthodox faiths
3. Bible and Church History – the story of the Orthodox Church beginning in the Old Testament and carried through up to the present day
4. Spirituality – prayer, fasting and repentance

These four books are often called The Rainbow Series because each volume was a different color as originally issued. Although these books are often seen as an introduction to the beliefs and practices of the Orthodox Church, they are useful also to lifelong Orthodox, especially converts and clergy.
Since these books were originally published in the 1970s, Fr. Tom thought they could use an update in design and content, so he started to work with Dr. David Ford, professor at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary to revise the books. Fr. Tom and Dr. Ford were able to thoroughly revise Volume 3 (Church History) bringing the history of the church into the 21st century. However, due to the illness and death of Fr. Tom in March 2015, he was unable to revise the other volumes as he had planned. Nevertheless, a new edition has been published. It is available for purchase from SVS Press at In addition, the Department of Christian Education at the OCA has produced a series of questions and answers based on these books, which are useful for private study or group study of the volumes, or as a basis for meditation and reflection, as will be presented in the following articles. Just as with the series on the Creed, these articles will not simply be a list of facts but will invite the reader (and the author!) to greater reflection on what it means to profess and practice the Orthodox faith. The series may be found online at:

Fr. John

The Creed – Part 20

“…I confess one baptism for the remission of sins, I look for the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come.”

A ritual similar to Christian baptism has existed and does exist in other religions. There is a kind of natural symbolism of being cleansed with water as being cleansed from sin, ignorance etc. Christian baptism is symbolic also, but when we say symbol we must not think of meaning that it is only a symbol, that nothing actually takes place.
Rather through baptism we become participants of Christ’s death and resurrection. In the case of the baptism of an infant, when the child goes under the water three times the infant is sharing in Christ’s three days in the tomb. When the child comes up out of the water three times the child is coming out of the tomb with Christ. St. Paul expresses this in his Epistle to the Romans in this manner:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom 6:3-5)
People are not always aware that a second sacrament follows baptism. After the baptism, the person is anointed with chrism. Chrism is an oil made with fragrant herbs by the Patriarch, Archbishops and Metropolitans of each local church and then distributed to all parishes. This is the Sacrament of Chrismation. In baptism we are freed from death, in Chrismation we receive the Holy Spirit. In a sense Chrismation is our own personal Pentecost. We remember that fifty days after Christ’s resurrection the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles. This is described in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Here is an excerpt:
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:1-4)
When we are anointed with the chrism the priest says “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit”
In the Old Testament, anointing is a sign of being set apart, or made holy. Kings and prophets were anointed. For example we read of the Prophet Isaiah’s anointed with the spirit (Isaiah 61:1). Likewise, we read of the anointing of David as king in the Book of Samuel (Samuel 16:13). The Orthodox sacrament of Chrismation is equivalent to the Roman Catholic sacrament of Confirmation. However, there are two major differences. In the Roman Catholic Church (and others) Confirmation is separated from baptism by several years and performed on older children. Also, it is performed only by the bishop.
In the Orthodox Church priests administer the sacrament with chrism prepared by the head of the local church.
The Creed ends with the resurrection of the dead. The Christian hope is not simply for the soul to live in heaven after death, but rather for the resurrection of the body. Although soul and body are separated at death, this is most unnatural. Human beings were created for an embodied life, and we will be embodied souls, again at the resurrection of the dead at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ at the end of time.
Finally we arrive at the life of the world to come; this is described in the Book of Revelation:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Rev 21:1-5)

Fr. John