Orthodoxy is “The Way” of worshiping God and living in community with our fellow Christians and the created world more than it is a set of dogmatic axioms. Nonetheless, there are certain things Orthodox Christians believe about God, the Church, and the creation that we all believe and which we would never change. We remain faithful to these definitions because the experience of the Church has shown us that getting these things ‘wrong’ isn’t just a matter of words. Getting these things ‘wrong’ affects how we live and how we treat each other. These definitions are expressed in the Creed and in the definitions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils.
The Nicene/Constantinopolitan Creed:
First and Second Councils, AD 325 and 381
The Creed was a response to those teaching that the Son of God and the Holy Spirit were not Divine Persons but created beings. Some other people taught that the material world was evil and that the God of the Old Testament was its creator but that the Father of Jesus was the creator of spiritual things. Orthodox Christians believe in one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is no God other than the Holy Trinity. The Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the same God who created the physical and angelic worlds. Our Lord Jesus Christ is His Son who receives the fullness of uncreated divinity from His Father. The Holy Spirit also receives the fullness of uncreated divinity from the Father. However, He receives this by ‘proceeding’ (John 15:26) from the Father rather than by being ‘begotten’ (John 1:14). We do not completely understand what the words ‘begotten’ and ‘proceeds’ mean in relation to the Holy Trinity but these are the words St John has given us and we do not wish to go beyond them especially as they are so hard to understand. These things, ‘begetting’ and ‘proceeding’ occur outside of time and outside of creation and we are inside of time and part of creation. We believe in God. We have faith in Him because we have experienced His love and not because we understand precisely how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to each other.
God’s love is most perfectly expressed by the saving acts of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. For our sake, the Son of God became a man through the power of the Holy Spirit and by the consent and with the flesh of the Virgin Mary. He was crucified at a particular time and place during the rule of Pontius Pilate in Judea. Although He is God, He really felt the pain of this sacrifice. Although He is God, He experienced death. Although He is God, He was really buried and descended into the realm of the dead. As was foretold in the Old Testament, He rose from the dead. He ascended into the spiritual realm in a human body to prepare a place for us. He rules now alongside His Father in the spiritual realm. He is, however, returning to the material world and when He does so we will all see His power and glory. He will then judge the living and the dead and establish the never ending reign of God.
We also believe that the Holy Spirit gives both spiritual and mortal life and that He deserves the same honor and worship that we give to the Father and the Son.We believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament Church. We believe that Christ’s Body is holy just as He is holy; that it cannot be divided; that it exists throughout the world; that it was formed by the ministry of Christ’s Apostles; and that it continues that ministry. We believe in an unrepeatable baptism into the Body of Christ which grants us forgiveness of sins and hope of never ending life.
These Councils were concerned with the personhood of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. Because the incarnation is the model of divine and human interaction in Christianity, these Councils are very important in explaining what it means to be ‘in Christ’ or to be ‘born again’. The scriptures show us Jesus acting as a completely human being and Jesus acting as God but every action of Jesus Christ is an action of an undividable person. Just as we believe that there is no God above the divine persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we believe there is no way for Divinity and humanity to be reconciled outside of the person of Jesus Christ. That is why we talk about being baptized into Christ and being born again. Being in Christ then does not make us something less than human without feelings, thoughts, or will. It makes us fully human beings capable of responding to the love of the Holy Trinity. This capacity makes us ‘like’ God in His love and goodness and so we talk about the Christian life as a process of theosis or becoming God-like.
The Third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus, AD 431) defined the Virgin Mary as Theotokos or Birth Giver of God because Motherhood and Fatherhood are personal relationships and our Lord is a divine and human person. Christ is the Son of His divine Father “begotten by His Father before all ages”. He is also the human son of His human mother who was born in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. The Son of the Virgin really is the Son of the Father.
The Fourth Ecumenical Council (Chalcedon, AD 451) stressed again that divinity and humanity were united by the incarnation of the undividable person of our Lord, Jesus Christ. By taking on human nature, however, Christ did not destroy divinity or humanity or make them into something else. The Father did not become a human being and neither did the Holy Spirit. It was the eternal Son of God who became a human being by taking on the “flesh” of the Theotokos. Although the incarnation gave God the Word human qualities like the ability to be seen and to suffer pain, it did not make Him into another person or alienate Him from His Father.
The Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople, AD 583) clarified the decisions of Ephesus and Chalcedon and insisted again on the indivisible personhood of our Savior. The Sixth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople, AD 680) was a defense of the freedom of our Lord and Savior and so by extension of our freedom as human beings made in the image and likeness of God. There were those who taught that Christ lost the qualities of a fully functioning human being by obeying His Father. As a consequence these people argued that obedience meant losing the ability to use our wills and also the capacity to use our natural human powers to follow God. The Fathers of the Sixth Council, however, asserted that Christ was not an unthinking, unfeeling ‘tool’ of the Father but rather a courageous and loving Son who chose the Father’s plan for our salvation rather than following His own natural human instincts to avoid suffering and death. Obedience to God therefore is an act of love undertaken freely and the Christian life requires a full use of human capabilities.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicaea, AD 787) was concerned with the very physical fact of Christ’s incarnation. Christ’s divine powers were revealed in His miracles and the beauty of His teachings. The Gospels show us the effects of Christ’s divine power but we cannot see that power in itself. We know that Christ’s words change people but we cannot see exactly how He accomplishes these things. We see some things with our eyes but other things by faith alone. Christ’s human powers were revealed in His tears, hunger, sleep, suffering, and death. In other words Christ’s humanity could be seen and touched. Things which can be seen and touched can be reproduced in colors and icons have often been called theology in colors. Icons are demonstrations of our belief in the Incarnation. We depict Jesus Christ in icons but not the Father and the Holy Spirit because only God the Word became a human being. We also depict the Theotokos and other holy human beings shining with divine grace because the apostles were able to see the transfigured bodies of Moses and Elijah. We show respect towards icons for the same reason that we show respect to the American flag. We show affection towards icons for the same reason that people show affection towards family photographs. They are pictures of people we love.
Other Conciliar Definitions
Although the decisions of the seven Great Councils have pride of place in Orthodox Christian belief, there are other conciliar decisions that are universally held by Orthodox Christians. The first of these is the Fourth Council of Constantinople presided over by St Photios the Great in AD 879. This council, which was approved by papal legates, determined that the Nicene/Constantinopolitan creed ought never to be changed confirming the decree of the Fifth Council.
The so-called Palamite Councils addressed our ability to know God. Palamite refers to St Gregory Palamas (AD 1296-1359) and his defense of Orthodox spirituality. While these debates were very complicated, it is possible to simplify them somewhat. The Orthodox Church differentiates between knowing things about God and knowing God experientially. Knowing true things about God is a good thing but knowing God is a much better thing.
There is a private core in every human person that is unknowable; nonetheless, we can really know other human beings through their words and actions. For that reason our knowledge of people we love is different from our knowledge of people we have only heard about. Similarly, God communicates with us directly and we can have real knowledge of Him through that communication but we cannot know Him as He knows Himself.
Communing with God through prayer and the sacraments changes us. This is a real change that affects not only our minds and emotions but our body as well. As we are changed we also change the world around us. Other people, animals, and even the natural world can participate in our transformation (Rom 8: 19-21). This is the priesthood of all believers which offers all of creation to God. These changes can be seen. The light which shown from Christ in His transfiguration has also shown from the saints throughout the history of the Church. St Stephen’s face shown like an angel’s when he was martyred (Acts 6:15) and other Christians like St Paul, St Thekla, and St Seraphim of Sarov have also been physically transfigured by the glory of God.