The Orthodox Faith – Sources of Christian Doctrine (5)

It is interesting that although the whole Bible is the centerpiece of tradition, the whole Bible is not kept on the altar. Only the Gospel book containing all four Gospels is kept on the altar. This is because the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which are described in the Gospels, are the fulfillment of the whole Bible. The Old Testament points forward to Jesus Christ and the rest of the New Testament (Acts, Epistles, Revelation) takes its start from Jesus Christ.
But in what sense does Jesus Christ fulfill the Old Testament? One way is to look at Old Testament prophecy. Although the prophets were not simply ‘fortune tellers’ so to speak, but rather people who revealed the will of God to the people of Israel, nevertheless some prophesies are surprisingly detailed. For example, the Book of Micah tells us that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. The book of Isaiah tells us that the Redeemer would be a descendant of King David. The prophet Hosea tells us that the Messiah would spend time in Egypt.
But in addition to these specific prophecies there are prophecies that were only completely understood after the coming of Jesus Christ. The Prophet Isaiah mentions the “suffering servant” in several chapters of his book (Isaiah 42, 49, 50, 52 and 53). For example, in Isaiah we read:
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5)
The Jews did not understand all these prophesies about the suffering servant because for them the Messiah was victorious, even conquering. It was only after the Christian church realized that the suffering of the Messiah was an essential part of His mission did the church understand these passages referring to Jesus Christ, the Messiah.
Also, in the Gospel of Matthew we read the following:
“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (which means, God with us).” (Matthew 1:22-23)
This refers to Isaiah 7:14:
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
You will notice that St. Matthew’s Gospel says that a virgin will conceive, Isaiah says simply that a young woman will conceive. The Hebrew Bible says “young woman” but the Greek Bible which the early Christians used had virgin. The meaning of this prophecy was not understood until Christ was actually born of a virgin.
But Jesus Christ does not simply fulfill verbal prophecy. Rather, there are people and events in the Old Testament that prefigures or foreshadows, Jesus Christ. For example, when the Jewish people were preparing to flee from Egypt, God told them to sacrifice a lamb and smear its blood on their doorposts. When the Angel of the Lord came to slay the firstborn of the Egyptians the angel knew to spare the Jewish children because he saw the blood on the doorposts.
For the Lord will pass through to slay the Egyptians; and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to slay you. (Exodus 12:23)
Just as the Hebrew children were saved by the blood of the lamb we are saved by the blood of the Lamb of God, in Jesus Christ. Also, when the people of Israel were fleeing from Egypt, they went down to the bottom of the sea. They were safe, but the Egyptians perished. So, just as the people of Israel were saved by going down to the water, Christians are saved by going down into the water of Baptism.
Another example, perhaps less well-known is the following: during the Exodus, when the Jews were journeying from Egypt to the promised land they came to a place where many poisonous serpents were biting them.
And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live. So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” (Numbers 21:8-9)
The deeper meaning here may not be fully obvious, but if one makes a bronze snake, laid out lengthwise and attached to a pole it forms a cross. So, just as the Jewish people were freed from poisonous snake bites by looking at this “cross”, we are saved from the sting of sin and death by the cross of Christ.
If one studies the Old Testament there are many prophecies and events which point forward to Jesus Christ.
In addition to this we can see that Jesus Christ and Christian liturgy fulfill the liturgy of the Jewish people. At the time of Christ, Jews worshiped in two places, the synagogue and the temple. There were many synagogues but only one temple. The service of the synagogue was a reading of the Old Testament and the singing of psalms. This corresponds to the first part of the Divine Liturgy from the beginning of the Liturgy to the Great Entrance. This part of the Liturgy is called the Liturgy of the Catechumens. Catechumens were people who were preparing to become Christian and they were permitted to be present at this part of the Liturgy, which contains scripture readings and the singing of psalms. However, in the early church a catechumen was not  allowed to be present for the Great Entrance, when the priest or deacon says “The doors, the doors, in wisdom let us attend”. In the early church the catechumens had to leave the church at this point and the doors of the church were shut. We no longer do this, of course.
The next part of the Liturgy is called the Liturgy of the Faithful, which centers on Holy Communion. In the early church only baptized Christians could be in church for this. The Liturgy of the Faithful commemorates and makes present the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and fulfills the worship in the Temple when animals were sacrificed every day. In other words, the sacrifice of animals in the temple were never enough to forgive human sin and to save humanity, but the one, perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ made present at the Divine Liturgy does what the daily sacrifice of the temple could never do. So in summary, the Liturgy of the Catechumens fulfills the synagogue worship and the Liturgy of the Faithful fulfills the temple worship.
In addition, we can say that Pascha (Easter) fulfills the Passover of the Jews. Just as the Jewish people were freed from slavery to the Egyptians through the Passover, Christians are freed from bondage to sin and death through Christ’s death and resurrection, the New Testament Passover. Also, the Jews kept the feast of Shavuot, fifth days after Passover. This commemorates the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. In Christianity, we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles on Pentecost when the preaching of the Christian law began.
So we can see that Jesus Christ fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament and the foreshadowing of the Old Testament Christian liturgy completes and fulfills the liturgy and worship of the Old Testament. What was hoped for and prayed for in the Old Testament finally becomes real for all humanity through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as made present in the Liturgy of the Church.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – Sources of Christian Doctrine (4)

As mentioned earlier, the Bible takes first place among the sources of tradition. The Bible is God’s message to human beings. It is inspired by God and written in the words of human beings. The Bible has two main parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The word testament is also translated as covenant and is an agreement or pact of God with humanity. Basically God promises to protect and guide first the Jewish people (in the Old Testament) and then the Christian church (in the New Testament).
The Jewish people and then the church agree to follow God’s teaching and live as God wants us to live.
The Old Testament contains four kinds of books. They are:
1. Books of the Law
2. Historical Books
3. Books of prophecies
4. Books of Wisdom
The book of the law, the first five books of the Old Testament, go from the creation of the world and human beings, Adam’s sin, the escape of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and their entrance to the Promised Land. For Christians, the Law given in these books is basically the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai. For Jews, this law consists of over 600 commandments. These laws no longer apply to Christians, so the church does not emphasize them.
The historical books tell of the entrance of the Jewish people into the Holy Land and the growth of the Jewish nation. The people of Israel are attacked and led into captivity several times. But God always remains faithful to them.
The books of wisdom are collections of wise saying and prayers. They give much insight into human life and how it should be lead.
The fourth kind of books are books of prophesy. On a popular level there is an often misunderstanding of the role of the prophets. On television programs for example, one often finds people trying to get a detailed vision of the future with precise names, dates and times of what the future holds. Of course, the books of prophesy contain many prophesies pointing to Jesus Christ. Some are quite detailed, some are more general.
The basic role of the prophets was to proclaim holy will to the Jewish people. Sometimes the prophets criticized the Jews. For example, sometimes the people of Israel were tempted to worship false gods. When they did, God sent prophets to condemn this. Sometimes the people of Israel let the poor be downtrodden and oppressed. When this happened God sent prophets to tell them to see that justice and compassion are shown to the poor.
The New Testament also contains four kinds of books. First there are the four Gospels by Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The word Gospel means “Good News” in English, which is translated from the Greek word “evangelium”. These books describe the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They do contain Jesus’ teaching, very often given in parables, which are short stories that make a point. In the Gospels we find many of our Lord’s miracles described.
The New Testament also contains one historical book. This is the Book of Acts, written by St. Luke, the author of the third Gospel. It begins with Christ’s Ascension into heaven forty days after the resurrection. It describes Pentecost, fifty days after Easter, when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples in Jerusalem, immediately followed by the preaching of the Gospel. At first the “Good News” of Christ was preached to the Jews and then to the non-Jews. In the earlier parts of the book St. Peter is given prominence and in the later parts St. Paul is given prominence. This book is the history of the early church. The Book of Acts is followed by the Epistles. Epistle simply means letter.
Several of the apostles wrote epistles and they are responses to questions or problems arising in the churches founded by the apostles. They were written to respond to the needs of a particular place and time. They are not theological treaties, but they do tell us what the apostles believed and taught.
Finally, the last book of the Bible is the Book of Revelation. Sometimes this book is taken as a detailed blueprint of the future. It does not talk about the future but much like the Old Testament prophets, the Book of Revelation is written to comfort Christians suffering persecution and their final salvation. It applied first to the early Christians persecuted by the Roman governors. It is a message of hope and comfort, telling us that God will never abandon His people and that no matter how bad things are God will rescue His people. In that sense, the book of Revelation has always been a book of comfort for Christians suffering persecution.
The Bible is the record of God’s relationship with His people first the Jews, then the Christians. It teaches us about God and how He wants us to live. The Bible is the source of the Church’s theology but also the foundation of the Liturgy and iconography of the church. The services of the church are filled with quotations and references to the Bible and in fact, we cannot really understand the Liturgy without knowledge of the Bible. Therefore, Orthodox Christians should be regular readers of the Bible, beginning with the Gospels, the other New Testament books and the Old Testament. No matter how many times we read the Bible, it always has a message for us.

Fr. John

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