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Introduction to Orthodoxy 2: The History of the Orthodox Church

Title: Introduction to Orthodoxy 2: The History of the Orthodox Church

Subject: Church History, Ecumenical Councils, Geography, Church of Rome, Schism of 1054, The Creed and Filioque

Age: 16+ years

Prerequisites: Introduction to Orthodoxy 1: Intro and Church Tour

In opposition to the idea that Christianity is broken into many different denominations, sects, groups, and independent churches, Orthodoxy is a faith that has an unbroken history of 2000 years. It is the Church whose very roots are found in the activity of the Holy Spirit's descent upon the Apostles on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem.

Most Christians live with an incomplete sense of the unbroken history of the Church. For many today, Church history dates only as far back as their particular denomination. Their view is that Christ came, and faith in Him may have even skipped a few generations until they arrived. Others view history as irrelevant. They understand that Christ came at a particular time and place and spoke to a specific people, but this has no bearing on true faith. Faith that has no connection with history can appear to be out of nothing.

It is like owning a set of encyclopedias that contains only the first few volumes and the last. We want to get the whole set back onto our shelves. Amazing as it might seem, one can literally trace the connection between the parishes to which we belong to that of the parish found at the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. And we can trace to the church established by St. Paul in Corinth, Greece, in Thessaloniki, Greece, and down through the years in places like Moscow, Tirana, Antioch and Carthage. The bishop of Denver can trace his own ordination to the episcopacy back through the centuries to one of the 12 Apostles. This Apostolic tradition of the laying on of hands has been preserved for an incredible 2 millennia.

The first claim of the Orthodox Church is that she contains the complete deposit of faith. It is the Orthodox Church's belief and teaching that she has preserved and maintained the Christian faith in its fullness. The complete deposit is understood technically as what Jesus revealed, is what the Apostles preached, and what the Church preserved. The following passages expand on this:

  • "And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures things concerning Himself…Then He said to them, ‘These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.' And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Then He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things. Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high.'" (Luke 24.27, 24.44-49).
  • " ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age'" (Matthew 28.19-20).

We have a revelation rooted in history. We have a timeline of history that is interrupted at certain intervals and marked by God's activity, such as the Exodus. But the pivotal event for human history is the Incarnation, when a man who claimed to be God entered the world at a specific time, in a specific place, a man who knew and had relationships with specific people. Specifically, Jesus formed relationships with His Disciples and they in turn preached and taught about Jesus. Where they taught about Him, a community of believers formed around them and to this day, those communities still exist.

However, it is not solely the historical and ancient character of the Orthodox Church that makes her existence relevant today. Besides the fact that the Orthodox Church has maintained an unbroken historical continuity with the original Church founded by Jesus in Jerusalem, James the first Bishop of Jerusalem, was succeeded through the laying on of hands, and today's successor still represents the Orthodox Faith in Jerusalem.

The Orthodox Church has faithfully maintained the apostolic faith once delivered to the Saints. Jude 1.3 says, "Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints." This faith the Orthodox Church claims she has kept, neither adding to nor subtracting from it. Yet the most provocative claim of the Orthodox Church is the life of its faithful. In Hebrews 13.7 we read, "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith."

The Church has produced untold numbers of Saints throughout the centuries, persons who bear witness by their very lives of the uncreated grace of God and His abiding presence in the Church. Without the witness of the saints, Christianity runs the risk of becoming an ideology, a philosophical system and a religion instead of a way of life, a way of life that leads to holiness. Christianity is supposed to be a journey that ends in the transformation of human beings into the likeness of God, and not a philosophy, a "religion," or a set or rules. In the words of St. Paul, 2 Corinthians 3.18, "and we all with unveiled face beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into [God's] likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit."

The Church traces her beginning to the day of Pentecost recorded in the Book of Acts when the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father (John 15.26) descended upon the Apostles in tongues of fire and illumined them.

  • "When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2.1-4).

As the ancient hymn of the Church proclaims, "O Blessed are you O Christ our God who by sending down the Holy Spirit upon them, made the fishermen wise and through them, illumined the world and to you the Universe was ever drawn, all Glory to you lover of humankind." What follows is the start of Christ's Church, a Church that He promised in Matthew 16 to found upon the confession that He is the Christ, the Son of the living God. It is a Church that He promises would never cease, a Church that the very gates of Hades would never prevail against. This promise He has kept and we can witness to an unbroken history of 2000 years. In fact, the world knew only one Church for the first 1000 years, and Christian denominations or varying Christian expressions were abnormal. That is not to say that serious heresies did not arise and that many were carried off from the true faith believing doctrine that was foreign to that preached by the Apostles. St. Paul had warned the communities that he established in Jesus' name, that, ". . .the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own liking and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths" (2 Timothy 4.3-4).

Yet, the Church and Christendom stood united, it weathered strong attacks, attacks that questioned the revelation that Jesus was Lord, that He was truly God and Man; attacked that the Trinity was a unity of three persons, a community of love who shared the same essence; and questioned that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.

A basic timeline of the development of church history is as follows:

  • 33 AD: Church begins
  • 431 AD & 451 AD: Council of Chalcedon occurs, creating a definition of Christ's two natures. The Oriental Churches split off: Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, etc. This schism is considered more like a family squabble.
  • 1054 AD: Great schism between East & West

It was not until the great schism of 1054 that the Church was divided in a real sense. In that year the Bishop of Rome demanded of the other ancient centers of Christianity, Constantinople (known today as Istanbul), Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria, that they recognize the Bishop of Rome's primacy of universal jurisdiction, and that the Scriptural tradition found in Acts 15, that the Church governed itself by Synod or Council, was no longer valid according to Rome. Rome's insistence on its Primacy is based upon the confession of Peter (Matthew 16) and the interpretation that to him alone the keys of governance had been given. This idea and Rome's unyielding approach split the Church in reality for the first time. This concept was totally foreign to the Church. In her 1000-year history, no such theory had ever been imposed.

Thus in simple terms we can see a development from Pentecost to the year 1054, of one Church, and from 1054, until the present, two branches of Christianity, Orthodox and Roman Catholic. The path of western Christianity was to be further complicated when in the year 1517, Martin Luther would post his thesis and thus set off a chain of events that led to the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Church's reaction against it.

All Protestant denominations and the proliferation of "churches" trace their roots in the Protestant's cry to reform the Catholic Church in the 16th century. In this earnest desire to reform, the Catholic Church turned to the Gospel of Christ. Aside from the experience of the great schism of 1054, the Orthodox Church has maintained her unity of faith and practice inviolate to this day, and has experienced no such further schism.

A common mistake of many Christians, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, today is to identify the Orthodox Church with that of the Catholic Church, or to describe the Orthodox Church as the Catholic Church minus the pope. The reality is that many of the protests made by the Reformers of the 16th century were made almost 450 years earlier by the Orthodox Church. Nevertheless, by the time Luther posted his thesis, the Eastern half of Christendom was so cut off and to a certain degree unknown to the West that it was almost oblivious to the course of events that shook the Western Church. Moreover, the Orthodox Church was in no position to adequately respond to the Protestant Reformation. She herself was immersed in the very struggle to survive having been completely overwhelmed by the Ottoman Empire.

The Orthodox Church today is saddened to see the proliferation of denominations/expressions of Christianity and the further divisions that mark the Christian experience. In opposition to this, the Scripture points out that the Church is the undivided Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12.12), of which we are all members (Ephesians 5.30, and 1 Corinthians 12.26). She points to the great prayer of Christ in John 17, in which Christ prays for His followers to be one, as He and the Father are one. Christ "is the head of the body, the church" (Colossians 1.18), and it is impossible that Christ be divided. St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 1.13, states this in the form of a question, "is Christ divided?" The answer is of course not. Time does not allow us to go into this topic of ecclesiology at this time. Suffice it to say that we earnestly pray for the day in which all Christians will be united with one voice and one heart under the reign of our Lord Jesus, members once again of the one Body of Jesus Christ.

Presented here is a Church whose existence comes through the centuries intact. In fact, the Orthodox Church, whose inheritance all Christians share, has not joined in a universal council since the 9th century, having recognized that the division that existed after the great schism between East and West in 1054, and our recognition today of the many division that exist in Christianity. These divisions are real, and we have refrained from gathering as a universal, or catholic, Church. Rather, we point out for all Christians to the time of our unity. We believe it is the path to reconciliation between all denominations.

We affirm the first great 7 councils of the Church. These councils affirmed the Divinity and Humanity of Christ; councils that wrote and defended Orthodoxy, which is defined as right worship or right glory, against the heresies of Arianism that claimed Christ was a creature; Sabellism that denied the existence of the Trinity; against Gnosticism that put forth a belief that the revelation of Jesus Christ was not given freely to all but that mysteries were only known to a select few. The Orthodox Church formulated the Nicene Creed used by Christians the world over as a symbol of our common inheritance. Written in 325 AD, its clear pronouncement of the Christian faith still rings true today, which will be expounded upon later.

How should a modern Christian view the Orthodox Church, the Church whose inheritance all Christians share? We first must have some ability to judge Her claims and then investigate Her testimony about Jesus Christ and how She lives a "life in Christ." Therefore in this class we will focus on the first 1000 years of the Church and the theology and teachings of this time period. As to the relevance of such an approach, be reminded that theology cannot be subject to change, for, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13.8).

Part II
Shifting gears a bit, it might interest you to know that the traditional Orthodox lands are as follows, Russia, Palestine, Greece, Albania, Asia Minor, Romania, Egypt, Ethiopia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Cyprus to name a few. The Orthodox Church has also established itself in traditionally non-Orthodox or western lands, for example in America there are over 5 million Orthodox Christians and the African country of Kenya, there are over 500,000.

Governance of the Orthodox parishes throughout the world is handled through the presiding of a local bishop who sits along with other bishops on a local synod or council. These councils involve also lay people, those who are not ordained. In Orthodoxy, no one bishop has primacy over another and for that matter every believer makes up the royal priesthood of Christ (1 Peter 2.5) and is responsible for the defense of the faith.

The western development of clericalism is a foreign concept to Orthodoxy. Rather, any assembly of the Church must have both the real presence of the laity/the people, and the clergy to be valid. The tradition of private mass or singular prayer is foreign to the Church. What is primary is the communion of saints, and thus the salvation of one is always worked out in his or her relationship with the community.

Mirroring the Trinity, whose very being is a community of love, the Church and every member of it finds their true identity in relationship and community. Thus each Christian's experience must be checked against that of the Church universal, as St. Peter says in 2 Peter 1.20, "no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation." Each of us must see that our life of faith is governed by a community. For the Orthodox, individualism cuts one of from the life-giving source of the Trinity. Made in God's image and likeness, we can never be truly human as individuals.

The worship of the Orthodox Church is the true center and soul of her life. When Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman at the well he tells her that, "the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4.23-24). This statement is at the heart of Orthodox spirituality. Orthodox worship seeks to worship God in Spirit and Truth, and Orthodox services are designed to bring the participant into an experience of the Divine through the presence of the Spirit. Orthodox are called to worship God. This is done through corporate or communal prayer and private devotion.

We affirm that Christ became incarnate, took on human flesh through the God bearer, Mary, and His dwelling among us renewed all of creation. His living, giving, passion, and resurrection restored the cosmos. This sense comes out in Orthodox worship, in the proclamation that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and the real presence of God in divine services.

All divine services begin with the exclamation by the presbyter, "Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." This does not discount private prayer or devotion, but enhances it. St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11.18, "when you assemble as a church...," thus telling us that the worship of the Church begins when the faithful gather as an assembly before God. For Orthodox Christians their participation in the worship of the community informs and enriches their private prayer life. The Orthodox Christian can never view himself or herself apart from the community.

Orthodox worship is centered on the celebration of the Lord's Supper. The Liturgy, called the service of the Divine Eucharist, is celebrated every Sunday as it was by the Apostles, "on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread..." (Acts 20.7). It is also celebrated on specific days throughout the year and the tradition of daily Liturgy is not unknown in the Orthodox world. However, the worship cycle of Orthodox Christians is detailed. There is the office of morning prayers, also known as matins or orthros, there are the mid-day prayers, and there are vespers or night-song at the close of day and service of compline before sleep.

Our worship is sacramental in that we view life as being filled by the presence of the Holy Spirit and thus sanctified. Certain specific acts are given a greater sacramental significance, such as Marriage, Ordination, Confession or Holy Unction. But the western definition of 7 sacraments is also foreign to our understanding of God's revelation. In our worship, we use all of our senses: we hear the word of God, we see the icons, we smell incense, we touch one another when we exchange an embrace or the kiss of peace, and we taste the Body and Blood of Christ. We affirm that God became incarnate; there is no aversion to matter, it is never worshiped, but the vivifying grace of the Holy Spirit has enlivened all of Creation. Human beings participate in this reality by worshiping God with their minds, their souls, and their bodies.

For those in relationship with Jesus Christ, entrance into the Church is through Baptism and Repentance. One receives the Holy Spirit through Chrismation. Afterward, one must make a daily commitment to the teachings of Jesus Christ and must constantly prepare to receive and participate in the cup of Christ, the Eucharist. In the end, Christ's real presence in the world is manifested through you and me.

Now we turn to the Creed. We all have a creed, as nations ("We the people of the United States…), fraternities (Kappa Alpha Theta), groups, and people. A creed gives a summary of what a person or a group of people believe. It summarizes the basic or fundamental tenants of belief. For us, the creed puts forward the elements of faith.

What is the origin of the Nicene Creed and those creeds that preceded it? It is a reaction against heresy. It replies to the false teachings of those in the early church and against those heresies to come, who tried to distort the truths of Christ. How does that work? For example, Arianism teaches that Christ was the firstborn creature and not truly God. This is important because salvation is our goal, and salvation is a serious matter that deserves serious attention to detail. We are staking a claim. There is tendency to flatten and compress the articles of faith into easy to repeat and easy to understand formulas, especially since the faith was becoming universal.

The Creed we recite was written during the First and Second Ecumenical Councils. During the fourth century, the Church decided to compose one uniform, official creed for the whole Church. At the time, different localities were using different creeds that held similar theology. The Church leadership, however, felt that it was necessary that a creed be formed that held together all the important teachings of the Church. The Creed as we have it was written during a time in which the entire Church could gather at was is known as an Ecumenical Council. These councils bear the name of the host city. The Orthodox Church affirms seven councils. The whole Church gathers; the whole Church receives; and these councils hold a special place in history.

In order for these articles of faith to have any real meaning, they must be lived out in our lives. We must translate the Creed into deeds. The true expression of faith comes out in what we do.

  • "But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does. If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one's religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world" (James 1.22-27).

"I believe in One God, the Father, the Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible." The God, the Creator, found in Genesis, is the same God identified here. Why Jesus and the Holy Spirit? This is what was revealed. The story of Jesus' baptism found in Mark 1.9-11: "It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And immediately, coming up from the water, He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.'"

The filioque has certain significance. Conversation about the filioque between Orthodox and Catholic theologians continued in the medieval ages, yet they were not ready to answer in the eighth century. Photius was so persuasive that he convinced the Pope to retract the filioque; and thus the famous silver plates were printed. By the eleventh century, the filioque was back in the Western Creed. Palamas summarized the Orthodox position and tried to bridge the gap by saying that the Spirit proceeds from the Father to rest upon the Son eternally, the Son turns and in the Spirit loves the Father, like a bridge.

The word Christ, from Matthew 16.16, "Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.'" Do you confess Him as eternally anointed or not? He is always Christ, an identity of the temporal and the eternal. From the Apolytikion of Epiphany, what we are seeing of the Trinity was always there. If Peter really confesses Christ as the anointed one, the son of the living God, he is confessing what we sing in the Epiphany hymn. The most accurate picture of the relationship within the Trinity is a beloved Son, a Father who loves this Son, and sends forth His spirit to rest upon him.

Peter's confession that Jesus was the Christ is denied by the filioque, because Peter saw Christ as the anointed one, the one upon whom the Spirit rested upon. The filioque changes the Spirit's relationship from resting on the Son to proceeding from the Son. This brings to question, if the Spirit proceeds from the Spirit and the Son, where does it end up? John 15.26 says, "But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me."

Prepared by Fr. Evan Armatas


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