The Greek Orthodox Church, a branch of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, has survived many centuries of turmoil and persevered, intact, in its beliefs and practices. Because Greek Orthodoxy has such a rich and colorful history, it would be easy to digress when attempting to encapsulate it. So, to maintain conciseness and mitigate distraction, it would be best to first define both “tenet” and “orthodox.” According to Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, it is “a principle doctrine, or belief held as a truth, as by some group.” “Orthodox” means “correct believing.” The Orthodox Church, as does the Roman Catholic Church, claims lineage back to the Apostles, only it is Andrew, the “first-called” apostle rather than Peter, the “rock” upon which the Catholic Church is built. Andrew founded a church in Byzantium, Turkey, later named Constantinople after Emperor Constantine, the first emperor to officially recognize Christianity. The city is now called Istanbul and the current head of the Churches is Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who is based there. The number of adherents worldwide is a number hard to come by, but for Eastern Orthodoxy as a whole, it ranges from 202 million to 303 million.
East and West
The Orthodox Church and what has emerged as the Roman Catholic Churches were once united and called Orthodox by the 4th century, but split from one another in 1054 in an event known as the Great Schism. Before the Schism, bishops of major cities, such as Rome and Constantinople (now Istanbul), were equals. Each church believes that it is the original church, with the other breaking off.
Scripture and Tradition
The Church both guards and interprets the Bible. The Old Testament is preparatory to Christ’s arrival while the New Testament testifies about him and his church. Although the Bible is very important, it has not operated in isolation because it does not contain the fullness of revelation. In answer to Protestants who abide by sola scriptura (only scripture), the Greek Orthodox Church would remind them that the church wrote and preserved the scriptures, not the other way around. What has been handed down over the millennia includes, besides scripture, the Eucharist (one of the sacraments—of more, see below), hymns, icons, and other active elements, such as councils and creeds, of a living, breathing church.
Sacraments are means by which God becomes present to us and also prepare us to receive God via the Holy Spirit. The sacraments of the Greek Orthodox Church are as follows: Eucharist (communion), baptism, chrismation (confirmation), confession, marriage, holy orders, and anointing of the sick (holy unction). The holy liturgy centers around the Eucharist. Liturgy means people’s work, due to the communal aspect of this sacrament. It is at the core of worship and is to be experienced more than studied, as it involves all the senses as well as other people.
Jesus Christ’s Incarnation and Theosis
Most conservative churches, including the Greek Orthodox, assert that Jesus, when he walked among us, was both fully human and fully divine, a god-man who, by his incarnation, overcame nature – that is, sin and death – as well as the devil’s domain. Christ has 3 roles: prophet, priest and king. His work was the perfect exemplification of theosis, or deification by the absence of sin and unity with God.
Holy Trinity and Baptism
Like all conservative churches, Greek Orthodoxy asserts that God is three persons in one, or a trinity: God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit and they baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from infancy on up, but chrismation (defined above), for the Orthodox, occurs immediately after baptism.
Mary is given special honor and became known as Theokotos, or mother of God. She did not precede God, of course, but gave birth to God in the form of Jesus while yet a virgin. Through him she is sanctified and intercedes for Christians as they pray. One difference between Orthodox and Catholic beliefs about Mary is that, to the Orthodox, Mary did not escape original sin via “Immaculate Conception.”
Veneration of Saints
Veneration simply means respect, not worship as some would say, and this is done by viewing and kissing images of the saints, or icons, while making the sign of the cross. Saints were not holy in and of themselves, but were sanctified by God. Although all Christians are saints according to the Bible, some have been raised up as examples for us to follow. God is the ultimate saint, and, because Jesus is also God, so is he. And the list goes on. The goal of a saint has been theosis (defined above), with the help of the Holy Spirit.
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