Eastern Orthodox history & theology
The Eastern Orthodox Church, officially the Orthodox Catholic Church, is the second-largest Christian church with approximately 200–260 million members. As one of the oldest religious institutions in the world, the Eastern Orthodox Church has played a prominent role in the history and culture of Eastern and Southeastern Europe, the Caucasus, and the Near East. It operates as a communion of autocephalous churches, each governed by its bishops in local synods. The church has no central doctrinal or governmental authority analogous to the Pope of Rome, but the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is recognized by all as primus inter pares ("first among equals") of the bishops.
Eastern Orthodox theology is based on the Nicene Creed, and the church teaches that it is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church established by Jesus Christ in his Great Commission, and that its bishops are the successors of Christ's apostles. It maintains that it practices the original Christian faith, passed down by holy tradition. Its patriarchates, reminiscent of the pentarchy, and autocephalous and autonomous churches reflect a variety of hierarchical organization. Of its innumerable sacred mysteries, it recognizes seven "major sacraments", of which the Eucharist is the principal one, celebrated liturgically in synaxis. The church teaches that through consecration invoked by a priest the sacrificial bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. The Virgin Mary is venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church as the Mother of God, honored in devotions.
The Eastern Orthodox Church shared communion with the Roman Catholic Church until the East–West Schism in 1054, triggered by disputes over doctrine, especially the authority of the Pope. Before the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451, the Oriental Orthodox churches also shared in this communion, separating primarily over differences in Christology.
The majority of Eastern Orthodox Christians live in Eastern Europe, Greece, and the Caucasus, with smaller communities in the former Byzantine regions of the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa, and to a decreasing degree also in the Middle East due to persecution. There are also many in other parts of the world, formed through diaspora, conversions, and missionary activity.
Orthodox Christians believe in the Trinity, three distinct, divine persons (hypostases), without overlap or modality among them, who each have one divine essence (ousia Greek οὐσία)—uncreated, immaterial and eternal. These three persons are typically distinguished by their relation to each other. The Father is eternal and not begotten and does not proceed from any, the Son is eternal and begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit is eternal and proceeds from the Father. Orthodox doctrine regarding the Trinity is summarized in the Nicene Creed.
In discussing God's relationship to his creation, Orthodox theology distinguishes between God's eternal essence, which is totally transcendent, and his uncreated energies, which is how he reaches humanity. The God who is transcendent and the God who touches mankind are one and the same. That is, these energies are not something that proceed from God or that God produces, but rather they are God himself: distinct, yet inseparable from God's inner being.
In understanding the Trinity as "one God in three persons", "three persons" is not to be emphasized more than "one God", and vice versa. While the three persons are distinct, they are united in one divine essence, and their oneness is expressed in community and action so completely that they cannot be considered separately. For example, their salvation of mankind is an activity engaged in common: "Christ became man by the good will of the Father and by the cooperation of the Holy Spirit. Christ sends the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father, and the Holy Spirit forms Christ in our hearts, and thus God the Father is glorified." Their "communion of essence" is "indivisible". Trinitarian terminology—essence, hypostasis, etc.—are used "philosophically", "to answer the ideas of the heretics", and "to place the terms where they separate error and truth." The words do what they can do, but the nature of the Trinity in its fullness is believed to remain beyond man's comprehension and expression, a holy mystery that can only be experienced.
Sin, salvation, and the incarnation
According to the Eastern Orthodox faith, at some point in the beginnings of human existence, humanity was faced with a choice: to learn the difference between good and evil through observation or through participation. The biblical story of Adam and Eve relates this choice by mankind to participate in evil, accomplished through disobedience to God's command. Both the intent and the action were separate from God's will; it is that separation that defines and marks any operation as sin. The separation from God caused the loss of (fall from) his grace, a severing of mankind from his creator and the source of his life. The result was the diminishment of human nature and its subjection to death and corruption, an event commonly referred to as the "fall of man".
When Orthodox Christians refer to fallen nature, they are not saying that human nature has become evil in itself. Human nature is still formed in the image of God; humans are still God's creation, and God has never created anything evil, but fallen nature remains open to evil intents and actions. It is sometimes said among Orthodox that humans are "inclined to sin"; that is, people find some sinful things attractive. It is the nature of temptation to make sinful things seem the more attractive, and it is the fallen nature of humans that seeks or succumbs to the attraction. Orthodox Christians reject the Augustinian position that the descendants of Adam and Eve are guilty of the original sin of their ancestors. But just as any species begets its own kind, so fallen humans beget fallen humans, and from the beginning of humanity's existence people lie open to sinning by their own choice.
Since the fall of man, then, it has been mankind's dilemma that no human can restore his nature to union with God's grace; it was necessary for God to effect another change in human nature. Orthodox Christians believe that Christ Jesus was both God and Man absolutely and completely, having two natures indivisibly: eternally begotten of the Father in his divinity, he was born in his humanity of a woman, Mary, by her consent, through descent of the Holy Spirit. He lived on earth, in time and history, as a man. As a man he also died, and went to the place of the dead, which is Hades. But being God, neither death nor Hades could contain him, and he rose to life again, in his humanity, by the power of the Holy Spirit, thus destroying the power of Hades and of death itself. Through God's participation in humanity, Christ's human nature, perfected and unified with his divine nature, ascended into heaven, there to reign in communion with the Father and Holy Spirit.
By these acts of salvation, Christ provided fallen mankind with the path to escape its fallen nature. The Eastern Orthodox Church teaches that through baptism into Christ's death, and a person's death unto sin in repentance, with God's help mankind can also rise with Christ into heaven, healed of the breach of man's fallen nature and restored to God's grace. To Orthodox Christians, this process is what is meant by "salvation," which consists of the Christian life. The ultimate goal is theosis an even closer union with God and closer likeness to God than existed in the Garden of Eden. This process is called Deification or "God became man that man might become 'god'". However, it must be emphasized that Orthodox Christians do not believe that man becomes God in his essence, or a god in his own nature. More accurately, Christ's salvific work enables man in his human nature to become "partakers of the Divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4); that is to say, man is united to God in Christ.
Through Christ's destruction of Hades' power to hold humanity hostage, he made the path to salvation effective for all the righteous who had died from the beginning of time—saving many, including Adam and Eve, who are remembered in the Church as saints.
The Eastern Orthodox reject the idea that Christ died to give God "satisfaction" as taught by Anselm, or as a punitive substitute as taught by the Reformers. Sin (separation from God, who is the source of all life) is its own punishment, capable of imprisoning the soul in an existence without life, without anything good, and without hope: hell by any measure. Life on earth is God's gift, to give humankind opportunity to make their choice real: separation or union.
Resurrection of Christ
The Eastern Orthodox Church understands the death and resurrection of Jesus to be real historical events, as described in the gospels of the New Testament. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is believed to, according to Orthodox teaching, in his humanity be (that is, in history) crucified, and died, descending into Hades (Sheol), the place of the dead, as all humans do. But he, alone among humans, has two natures, one human, one divine, which are indivisible and inseparable from each other through the mystery of the incarnation. Hades could not restrain the infinite God. Christ in his divine nature captured the keys of Hades and broke the bonds which had imprisoned the human souls who had been held there through their separation from God.
Neither could death contain the Son of God, the Fountain of Life, who arose from death even in his human nature. Not only this, but he opened the gates of Hades to all the righteous dead of past ages, rescuing them from their fallen human nature and restoring them to a nature of grace with God, bringing them back to life, this time in God's heavenly kingdom. And this path he opened to all who choose to follow him in time yet to come, thus saving the human race. Thus the Eastern Orthodox proclaim each year at the time of Pascha (Easter), that Christ "trampled down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowed life."
The celebration of the Resurrection of Christ at Pascha is the central event in the liturgical year of the Eastern Orthodox Church. According to Orthodox tradition, each human being may partake of this immortality, which would have been impossible without the Resurrection; it is the main promise held out by God in the New Testament. Every holy day of the Eastern Orthodox liturgical year relates to the Resurrection directly or indirectly. Every Sunday is especially dedicated to celebrating the Resurrection and the triune God, representing a mini-Pascha. In the liturgical commemorations of the Passion of Christ during Holy Week there are frequent allusions to the ultimate victory at its completion.
Church teaching is that Orthodox Christians, through baptism, enter a new life of salvation through repentance whose purpose is to share in the life of God through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Eastern Orthodox Christian life is a spiritual pilgrimage in which each person, through the imitation of Christ and hesychasm, cultivates the practice of unceasing prayer. Each life occurs within the life of the church as a member of the body of Christ. It is then through the fire of God's love in the action of the Holy Spirit that each member becomes more holy, more wholly unified with Christ, starting in this life and continuing in the next. The church teaches that everyone, being born in God's image, is called to theosis, fulfillment of the image in likeness to God. God the creator, having divinity by nature, offers each person participation in divinity by cooperatively accepting His gift of grace.
The Eastern Orthodox Church, in understanding itself to be the Body of Christ, and similarly in understanding the Christian life to lead to the unification in Christ of all members of his body, views the church as embracing all Christ's members, those now living on earth, and also all those through the ages who have passed on to the heavenly life. The church includes the Christian saints from all times, and also judges, prophets and righteous Jews of the first covenant, Adam and Eve, even the angels and heavenly hosts. In Orthodox services, the earthly members together with the heavenly members worship God as one community in Christ, in a union that transcends time and space and joins heaven to earth. This unity of the Church is sometimes called the communion of the saints.
[Theotokos] and other saints
The Eastern Orthodox Church believes death and the separation of body and soul to be unnatural—a result of the Fall of Man. They also hold that the congregation of the church comprises both the living and the dead. All persons currently in heaven are considered to be saints, whether their names are known or not. There are, however, those saints of distinction whom God has revealed as particularly good examples. When a saint is revealed and ultimately recognized by a large portion of the church a service of official recognition (canonization) is celebrated.
This does not "make" the person a saint; it merely recognizes the fact and announces it to the rest of the church. A day is prescribed for the saint's celebration, hymns composed, and icons created. Numerous saints are celebrated on each day of the year. They are venerated (shown great respect and love) but not worshiped, for worship is due God alone. In showing the saints this love and requesting their prayers, the Eastern Orthodox manifest their belief that the saints thus assist in the process of salvation for others.
Pre-eminent among the saints is the Virgin Mary (commonly referred to as Theotokos or Bogorodica) ("Mother of God"). In Orthodox theology, the Mother of God is the fulfillment of the Old Testament archetypes revealed in the Ark of the Covenant (because she carried the New Covenant in the person of Christ) and the burning bush that appeared before Moses (symbolizing the Mother of God's carrying of God without being consumed). Accordingly, the Eastern Orthodox consider Mary to be the Ark of the New Covenant and give her the respect and reverence as such. The Theotokos, in Orthodox teaching, was chosen by God and she freely co-operated in that choice to be the Mother of Jesus Christ, the God-man.
The Eastern Orthodox believe that Christ, from the moment of his conception, was both fully God and fully human. Mary is thus called the Theotokos or Bogoroditsa as an affirmation of the divinity of the one to whom she gave birth. It is also believed that her virginity was not compromised in conceiving God-incarnate, that she was not harmed and that she remained forever a virgin. Scriptural references to "brothers" of Christ are interpreted as kin, given that the word "brother" was used in multiple ways, as was the term "father". Due to her unique place in salvation history, Mary is honored above all other saints and especially venerated for the great work that God accomplished through her.
The Eastern Orthodox Church regards the bodies of all saints as holy, made such by participation in the holy mysteries, especially the communion of Christ's holy body and blood, and by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within the church. Indeed, that persons and physical things can be made holy is a cornerstone of the doctrine of the Incarnation, made manifest also directly by God in Old Testament times through his dwelling in the Ark of the Covenant. Thus, physical items connected with saints are also regarded as holy, through their participation in the earthly works of those saints. According to church teaching and tradition, God himself bears witness to this holiness of saints' relics through the many miracles connected with them that have been reported throughout history since Biblical times, often including healing from disease and injury.
Informational Source: Wikipedia