What Are the Basic Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Churches?

Paul Tambrino, EdD, PhD
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Ask Augustine with Dr. Paul Tambrino


Ask Augustine is a weekly column where professor/author Dr. Paul Tambrino discusses various theological questions with wit, clarity and substance.

Question #22 – What Are the Basic Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Churches?

 

The Eastern Orthodox churches hold to the doctrine of apophaticism, which means that God is utterly incomprehensible.

They hold that the only thing comprehensible about Him is His incomprehensibility; He is unknowable and indefinable.

Basically they state their doctrine of God via a negative theology by describing what God is not. Instead of saying God is omnipotent, they say God is not limited in power; instead of saying God is omnipresent, they say God cannot be contained in any place.

In Eastern Orthodox theology God is inexplicable; His character is impenetrable by human reasoning.

The five senses are emphasized in Eastern Orthodox worship. Since the invisible God became visible in Jesus, icons and images of Him are essential. Seeing is superior to thinking, images are superior to ideas and liturgy is superior to sermons.“In Eastern Orthodox theology God is inexplicable; His character is impenetrable by human reasoning.”

They venerate icons but only God receives absolute worship and adoration. An icon is not an idol but a symbol so the veneration is directed to the person depicted and not to the stone or wood of which the icon is made.

They interpret the prohibition in Exodus 20:4 on images by maintaining that the prohibition was relative and not absolute.

They note that God commanded an array of artifacts to be used as aids in worshiping Him (the ark of covenant, golden cherubim, brazen, etc.)

Eastern Orthodox theology does not emphasize the forensic or legal concepts of the west on justification by faith; instead they stress the gradual “divinization” of mankind through the cooperative work of divine grace and human effort.

Although they reject the concept of “Sola Scriptura” they do embrace Scripture as religious authority. They hold the Holy Spirit speaks through apostolic tradition, the seven ecumenical councils, the church fathers, canon law and even through icons.

Eastern Orthodoxy maintains that it alone has unbroken continuity with the apostolic faith, that it is the visible true church and that salvation outside of it is questionable.“Eastern Orthodox theology does not emphasize the forensic or legal concepts of the west on justification by faith; instead they stress the gradual “divinization” of mankind through the cooperative work of divine grace and human effort.”

Scripture for them exists within “Tradition,” by which they mean the authentic interpretation of Scripture as Scripture belongs only to the church and only the church can adequately understand and interpret it.

They hold that the following seven ecumenical councils are equal to Scripture (hence the Orthodox Church often calls itself the Church of Seven Councils):

  1. Nicea in 325, which affirmed the deity of Christ in opposition to Arius and gave us the Nicene Creed.
  2. Constantinople in 381, which affirmed the full deity of the Holy Spirit, articulated the doctrine of the Trinity and reaffirmed the creed.
  3. Ephesus in 431, which condemned the Nestorian heresy (which separated the two natures of Christ). It also approved Theotokos (God-bearer) as the title for the Virgin Mary.
  4. Calcedon in 451, which gave us the “four negatives” concerning the two natures of Christ in that they are neither mixed, separated, confused, nor divided.
  5. Constantinople II in 553, which reaffirmed the prior councils.
  6. Constantinople III in 680, which affirmed that Christ had both a fully human and divine will that is united harmoniously under the leadership of the divine will. It also condemned obligatory clerical celibacy.
  7. Nicea II in 787, which stated that only God can be “worshiped,” but icons are to be “venerated” and honored.

The Eastern Orthodox churches hold to seven sacraments of which three are non-repeatable: baptism (in which one is cleaned of original and all sins), chrismation (in which one receives gifts of Holy Spirit), and ordination.“Eastern Orthodoxy maintains that it alone has unbroken continuity with the apostolic faith, that it is the visible true church and that salvation outside of it is questionable.”

The four repeatable sacraments are (1) Holy Eucharist [which is considered both a sacrament and a true Christ sacrifice, yet not as a new sacrifice but wherein the events of His sacrifice (His incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension) are not repeated but made present –  a sort of a cutting across time]; (2) repentance (which is penance for sins after baptism), (3) marriage (divorce is allowed for fornication, death, and for some other reasons – re-marriage is permitted but a fourth marriage is not permitted) and (4) holy unction (anointing the sick).

The other three sacraments are baptism, confirmation and holy orders. All seven sacraments are effective only when performed inside and by the Orthodox Church, except in extreme cases.

Mary is considered as more honorable than cherubim, more glorious than seraphim and superior to all created beings.“The Eastern Orthodox churches hold to seven sacraments of which three are non-repeatable.”

She intercedes before her Son and had no other children. Although they do not accept the Immaculate Conception (that Mary herself was from the first moment of her conception kept free from all stain of original sin), they do not admit that Mary had any individual sin.

They do not hold as the Roman Catholics do that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven, but believe that she died a natural death, was raised up by her Son and lives in a glorified body at His right hand.

Saints are considered as our intercessors and protectors in heaven. The living should pray for the dead as dead intercede for the living. They reject purgatory and insist that the departed dead do not suffer.

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Image Credit

Leaf from a Lectionary with St. Matthew, 1057-1063. Byzantium, Constantinople, 11th century. The Cleveland Museum of Art. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund. 1942.1512.

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