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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part II: Faith and Worship
      • The outward forms
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The outward forms

Let us take in turn the different outward forms in which Tradition is expressed:

1. The Bible

a) The Bible and the Church. The Christian Church is a Scriptural Church: Orthodoxy believes

this just as firmly, if not more firmly than Protestantism. The Bible is the supreme expression

of God’s revelation to man, and Christians must always be ‘People of the Book.’ But if

Christians are People of the Book, the Bible is the Book of the People; it must not be regarded as

something set up over the Church, but as something that lives and is understood within the

Church (that is why one should not separate Scripture and Tradition). It is from the Church that


the Bible ultimately derives its authority, for it was the Church which originally decided which

books form a part of Holy Scripture; and it is the Church alone which can interpret Holy Scripture

with authority. There are many sayings in the Bible which by themselves are far from clear,

and the individual reader, however sincere, is in danger of error if he trusts his own personal interpretation.

Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch; and

the eunuch replied: “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30). Orthodox, when they

read the Scripture, accept the guidance of the Church. When received into the Orthodox Church,

a convert promises: ‘I will accept and understand Holy Scripture in accordance with the interpretation

which was and is held by the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church of the East, our Mother’ (On

Bible and Church, see especially Dositheus, Confession, Decree 2).

b) The Text of the Bible: Biblical Criticism. The Orthodox Church has the same New Testament

as the rest of Christendom. As its authoritative text for the Old Testament, it uses the ancient

Greek translation known as the Septuagint. When this differs from the original Hebrew

(which happens quite often), Orthodox believe that the changes in the Septuagint were made under

the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and are to be accepted as part of God’s continuing revelation.

The best known instance is Isaiah 6:14 — where the Hebrew says ‘A young woman shall

conceive and bear a son,’ which the Septuagint translates ‘A virgin shall conceive,’ etc. The New

Testament follows the Septuagint text (Matthew 1:23).

The Hebrew version of the Old Testament contains thirty-nine books. The Septuagint contains

in addition ten further books, not present in the Hebrew, which are known in the Orthodox

Church as the ‘Deutero-Canonical Books’ (3 Esdras; Tobit; Judith; 1, 2, and 3 Maccabees; Wisdom of

Solomon; Ecclesiasticus; Baruch; Letter of Jeremias. In the west these books are often called the ‘Apocrypha’).

These were declared by the Councils of Jassy (1642) and Jerusalem (1672) to be ‘genuine parts

of Scripture;’ most Orthodox scholars at the present day, however, following the opinion of

Athanasius and Jerome, consider that the Deutero-Canonical Books, although part of the Bible,

stand on a lower footing than the rest of the Old Testament.

Christianity, if true, has nothing to fear from honest inquiry. Orthodoxy, while regarding the

Church as the authoritative interpreter of Scripture, does not forbid the critical and historical

study of the Bible, although hitherto Orthodox scholars have not been prominent in this field.

c) The Bible in worship. It is sometimes thought that Orthodox attach less importance than

western Christians to the Bible. Yet in fact Holy Scripture is read constantly at Orthodox services:

during the course of Matins and Vespers the entire Psalter is recited each week, and in

Lent twice a week (Such is the rule laid down by the service books. In practice, in ordinary parish churches Matins

and Vespers are not recited daily, but only at weekends and on feasts; and even then, unfortunately, the portions

appointed from the Psalter are often abbreviated or (worse still) omitted entirely). Old Testament lessons (usually

three in number) occur at Vespers on the eves of many feasts; the reading of the Gospel

forms the climax of Matins on Sundays and feasts; at the Liturgy a special Epistle and Gospel are

assigned for each day of the year, so that the whole New Testament (except the Revelation of

Saint John) is read at the Eucharist. The Nunc Dimittis is used at Vespers; Old Testament canticles,

with the Magnifcat and Benedictus, are sung at Matins; the Lord’s Prayer is read at every

service. Besides these specific extracts from Scripture, the whole text of each service is shot

through with Biblical language, and it has been calculated that the Liturgy contains 98 quotations

from the Old Testament and 114 from the New (P. Evdokimov, LOrthodoxie, p. 241, note 96).

Orthodoxy regards the Bible as a verbal icon of Christ, the Seventh Council laying down

that the Holy Icons and the Book of the Gospels should be venerated in the same way. In every

church the Gospel Book has a place of honour on the altar; it is carried in procession at the Lit-


urgy and at Matins on Sundays and feasts; the faithful kiss it and prostrate themselves before it.

Such is the respect shown in the Orthodox Church for the Word of God.

2. The Seven Ecumenical Councils: The Creed

The doctrinal definitions of an Ecumenical Council are infallible. Thus in the eyes of the

Orthodox Church, the statements of faith put out by the Seven Councils possess, along with the

Bible, an abiding and irrevocable authority.

The most important of all the Ecumenical statements of faith is the Nicene-

Constantinopolitan Creed, which is read or sung at every celebration of the Eucharist, and

also daily at Nocturns and at Compline. The other two Creeds used by the west, the Apostles

Creed and the ‘Athanasian Creed,’ do not possess the same authority as the Nicene, because they

have not been proclaimed by an Ecumenical Council. Orthodox honour the ApostlesCreed as

an ancient statement of faith, and accept its teaching; but it is simply a local western Baptismal

Creed, never used in the services of the Eastern Patriarchates. The ‘Athanasian Creedlikewise is

not used in Orthodox worship, but it is sometimes printed (without the filioque) in the Horologion

(Book of Hours).

3. Later Councils

The formulation of Orthodox doctrine, as we have seen, did not cease with the Seventh

Ecumenical Council. Since 787 there have been two chief ways whereby the Church has expressed

its mind: a) definitions by Local Councils (that is, councils attended by members of one

or more national Churches, but not claiming to represent the Orthodox Catholic Church as a

whole) and b) letters or statements of faith put out by individual bishops. While the doctrinal decisions

of General Councils are infallible, those of a Local Council or an individual bishop are

always liable to error; but if such decisions are accepted by the rest of the Church, then they

come to acquire Ecumenical authority (i.e. a universal authority similar to that possessed by the

doctrinal statements of an Ecumenical Council). The doctrinal decisions of an Ecumenical Council

cannot be revised or corrected, but must be accepted in toto; but the Church has often been

selective in its treatment of the acts of Local Councils: in the case of the seventeenth century

Councils, for example, their statements of faith have in part been received by the whole Orthodox

Church, but in part set aside or corrected.

The following are the chief Orthodox doctrinal statements since 787:

1 The Encyclical Letter of Saint Photius (867)

2 The First Letter of Michael Cerularius to Peter of Antioch (1054)

3 The decisions of ‘the Councils of Constantinople in 1341 and 1351 on the Hesychast


4 The Encyclical Letter of Saint Mark of Ephesus (1440-1441).

5 The Confession of Faith by Gennadius, Patriarch of Constantinople (1455-1456)

6 The Replies of Jeremias the Second to the Lutherans (1573-1581)

7 The Confession of Faith by Metrophanes Kritopoulos (1625)

8 The Orthodox Confession by Peter of Moghila, in its revised form (ratified by the Council

of Jassy, 1642)

9 The Confession of Dositheus (ratified by the Council of Jerusalem, 1672)

10 The Answers of the Orthodox Patriarchs to the Non-Jurors (1718, 1723)

11 The Reply of the Orthodox Patriarchs to Pope Pius the Ninth (1848)


12 The Reply of the Synod of Constantinople to Pope Leo the Thirteenth (1895)

13 The Encyclical Letters by the Patriarchate of Constantinople on Christian unity and on

the ‘Ecumenical Movement’ (1920, 1952)

These documentsparticularly items 5-9 — are sometimes called the ‘Symbolical Books’ of

the Orthodox Church, but many Orthodox scholars today regard this title as misleading and do

not use it.

4. The Fathers

The definitions of the Councils must be studied in the wider context of the Fathers. But as

with Local Councils, so with the Fathers, the judgment of the Church is selective: individual

writers have at times fallen into error and at times contradict one another. Patristic wheat needs

to be distinguished from Patristic chaff. An Orthodox must not simply know and quote the Fathers,

he must enter into the spirit of the Fathers and acquire a ‘Patristic mind.’ He must treat the

Fathers not merely as relics from the past, but as living witnesses and contemporaries.

The Orthodox Church has never attempted to define exactly who the Fathers are, still less to

classify them in order of importance. But it has a particular reverence for the writers of the fourth

century, and especially for those whom it terms ‘the Three Great Hierarchs,’ Gregory of Nazianzus,

Basil the Great, and John Chrysostom. In the eyes of Orthodoxy the ‘Age of the Fathers

did not come to an end in the fifth century, for many later writers are also ‘Fathers’ — Maximus,

John of Damascus, Theodore of Studium, Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory Palamas, Mark

of Ephesus. Indeed, it is dangerous to look on ‘the Fathers’ as a closed cycle of writings belonging

wholly to the past, for might not our own age produce a new Basil or Athanasius? To say that

there can be no more Fathers is to suggest that the Holy Spirit has deserted the Church.

5. The Liturgy

The Orthodox Church is not as much given to making formal dogmatic definitions as is the

Roman Catholic Church. But it would be false to conclude that because some belief has never

been specifically proclaimed as a dogma by Orthodoxy, it is therefore not a part of Orthodox

Tradition, but merely a matter of private opinion. Certain doctrines, never formally defined, are

yet held by the Church with an unmistakable inner conviction, an unruffled unanimity, which is

just as binding as an explicit formulation. ‘Some things we have from written teaching,’ said

Saint Basil, ‘others we have received from the Apostolic Tradition handed down to us in a mystery;

and both these things have the same force for piety (On the Holy Spirit, 27 (66)).’

This inner Traditionhanded down to us in a mystery’ is preserved above all in the

Church’s worship. Lex orandi lex credendi: men’s faith is expressed in their prayer. Orthodoxy

has made few explicit definitions about the Eucharist and the other Sacraments, about the next

world, the Mother of God, the saints, and the faithful departed: Orthodox belief on these points is

contained mainly in the prayers and hymns used at Orthodox services. Nor is it merely the words

of the services which are a part of Tradition; the various gestures and actionsimmersion in

the waters of Baptism, the different anointings with oil, the sign of the Cross, and so on — all

have a special meaning, and all express in symbolical or dramatic form the truths of the faith.

6. Canon Law

Besides doctrinal definitions, the Ecumenical Councils drew up Canons, dealing with

Church organization and discipline; other Canons were made by Local Councils and by individ-


ual bishops. Theodore Balsamon, Zonaras, and other Byzantine writers compiled collections of

Canons, with explanations and commentaries. The standard modern Greek commentary, the

Pedalion (‘Rudder’), published in 1800, is the work of that indefatigable saint, Nicodemus of the

Holy Mountain.

The Canon Law of the Orthodox Church has been very little studied in the west, and as a

result western writers sometimes fall into the mistake of regarding Orthodoxy as an organization

with virtually no outward regulations. On the contrary, the life of Orthodoxy has many rules, often

of great strictness and rigour. It must be confessed, however, that at the present day many of

the Canons are difficult or impossible to apply, and have fallen widely into disuse. When and if a

new General Council of the Church is assembled, one of its chief tasks may well be the revision

and clarification of Canon Law.

The doctrinal definitions of the Councils possess an absolute and unalterable validity which

Canons as such cannot claim; for doctrinal definitions deal with eternal truths, Canons with the

earthly life of the Church, where conditions are constantly changing and individual situations are

infinitely various. Yet between the Canons and the dogmas of the Church there exists an essential

connexion: Canon Law is simply the attempt to apply dogma to practical situations in the

daily life of each Christian. Thus in a relative sense the Canons form a part of Holy Tradition.

7. Icons

The Tradition of the Church is expressed not only through words, not only through the actions

and gestures used in worship, but also through art — through the line and colour of the

Holy Icons. An icon is not simply a religious picture designed to arouse appropriate emotions in

the beholder; it is one of the ways whereby God is revealed to man. Through icons the Orthodox

Christian receives a vision of the spiritual world. Because the icon is a part of Tradition, the icon

painter is not free to adapt or innovate as he pleases; for his work must reflect, not his own aesthetic

sentiments, but the mind of the Church. Artistic inspiration is not excluded, but it is exercised

within certain prescribed rules. It is important that an icon painter should be a good artist,

but it is even more important that he should be a sincere Christian, living within the spirit of Tradition,

preparing himself for his work by means of Confession and Holy Communion.

Such are the primary elements which from an outward point of view make up the Tradition

of the Orthodox ChurchScripture, Councils, Fathers, Liturgy, Canons, Icons. These things are

not to be separated and contrasted, for it is the same Holy Spirit which speaks through them all,

and together they make up a single whole, each part being understood in the light of the rest.

It has sometimes been said that the underlying cause for the break-up of western Christendom

in the sixteenth century was the separation between theology and mysticism, between liturgy

and personal devotion, which existed in the later Middle Ages. Orthodoxy for its part has

always tried to avoid any such division. All true Orthodox theology is mystical; just as mysticism

divorced from theology becomes subjective and heretical, so theology, when it is not mystical,

degenerates into an arid scholasticism, ‘academic’ in the bad sense of the word.

Theology, mysticism, spirituality, moral rules, worship, art: these things must not be kept in

separate compartments. Doctrine cannot be understood unless it is prayed: a theologian, said

Evagrius, is one who knows how to pray, and he who prays in spirit and in truth is by that very

act a theologian (On Prayer, 60 (P. G. 79, 1180B)). And doctrine, if it is to be prayed, must also be

lived: theology without action, as Saint Maximus put it, is the theology of demons (Letter 20 (P.G.

91, 601C)). The Creed belongs only to those who live it. Faith and love, theology and life, are inseparable.

In the Byzantine Liturgy, the Creed is introduced with the words: ‘Let us love one an-


other, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Trinity one in essence

and undivided.’ This exactly expresses the Orthodox attitude to Tradition. If we do not love one

another, we cannot love God; and if we do not love God, we cannot make a true confession of

faith and cannot enter into the inner spirit of Tradition, for there is no other way of knowing God

than to love Him.

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