The Orthodox Church traces its history back to the time of Jesus Christ and the Apostles. Orthodoxy believes that it has preserved the original Christian faith and Sacraments as handed down by the Apostles. The Orthodox Church is a fellowship of independent churches, united in faith and Sacraments, but administratively independent.
The Orthodox Church shares much with the other Christian churches in terms of basic doctrine, but has some distinct differences in doctrine, liturgy and organization. The Orthodox trace the origins of their Church to the Day of Pentecost with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. The Orthodox Church places great importance on the Bible and biblical teaching, but does not consider the Bible to be the only source of Christian doctrine. Orthodox teaching also relies heavily on the oral tradition of the Church and the writings of the Church Fathers.
The Orthodox Church is organized into a communion of autocephalous churches, each governed by its bishops in local synods. There are an estimated 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. In the United States, there are several Orthodox jurisdictions with close ties to ethnic communities, including Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, etc. However, all Orthodox churches remain in full communion with one another, united in faith and Sacraments.
1. The Apostolic Period and Early Church
Jesus Christ laid the foundation for the Orthodox Church by establishing the apostolic ministry. The Apostles received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in about 33 AD. From that point, they carried the message of the Gospel to different parts of the world and established churches. Some of the early centers of Christianity included Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and Rome. The early church experienced waves of persecution under various Roman emperors, but continued to grow in numbers and influence.
Early church writings show that bishops existed in the 1st century AD as successors to the Apostles. Bishops provided leadership for the local church and the earliest bishops can be traced to several prominent Apostles, such as James as Bishop of Jerusalem. The Didache, one of the earliest Christian documents outside of the New Testament, witnesses to the authority and role of the bishop in early Christianity. Clement of Rome around 96 AD referred to the leaders of the Corinthian church as episkopoi or bishops.
By the 2nd century AD, bishops led congregations in the major urban areas of the Roman Empire. Bishops supervised local churches and settled disputes. They worked to keep elements of gnosticism and other heresies out of Christian teaching. Important bishops from this period include Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus of Lyons and Cyprian of Carthage. These bishops help show the historical existence of apostolic succession and ecclesiastical structure in early Christianity.
2. The Ecumenical Councils
The Orthodox Church places great importance on the seven Ecumenical Councils held between 325 AD and 787 AD. These Councils confronted major heresies and established key elements of Orthodox doctrine and worship. The Councils were convened by Roman emperors at the request of Church leaders who saw the need to restore unity and refute error.
The First Ecumenical Council took place in Nicea in 325 AD in response to the Arian controversy. Arius, a priest from Alexandria, taught that Jesus was created by God and was not divine in the same sense as God the Father. The Council of Nicea condemned Arianism and established the divinity of Christ by using the term homoousios or “of the same substance” to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son. The Council also established the date for celebrating Pascha or Easter.
The Second Ecumenical Council met at Constantinople in 381 AD and condemned the heresies of Apollinarianism and Macedonianism. Apollinarianism denied the full human nature of Christ, while Macedonianism denied the full divinity of the Holy Spirit. The Council affirmed the Nicene Creed and expanded it to explain the divinity of the Holy Spirit as proceeding from the Father.
The Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431 AD addressed the Nestorian controversy. Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, distinguished between the divine and human natures of Jesus in a way that seemed to separate the two natures into two persons. The Council affirmed that Christ is one person with two natures wholly united and condemned Nestorius. The title Theotokos or Mother of God for the Virgin Mary was also formally approved at this council.
The Fourth Ecumenical Council met at Chalcedon in 451 AD to deal with the Eutychian or Monophysite heresy that Christ only had one divine nature. The Council affirmed that Christ has two natures – human and divine – that exist without confusion, change or division. The Council formulated the Chalcedonian Definition which became a touchstone for Orthodox Christology.
The Fifth Ecumenical Council took place at Constantinople in 553 AD and condemned certain writings known as the Three Chapters that seemed to uphold Nestorianism. The Council helped reconcile the Oriental Orthodox churches with the rest of Christianity.
The Sixth Ecumenical Council again met at Constantinople in 680-681 AD and affirmed the full humanity of Christ by condemning monothelitism – the doctrine that Christ only had one will. The Council affirmed Christ as having two wills that perfectly work together in accord with his two natures.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council met at Nicea in 787 AD to address the issue of iconoclasm or the destruction of religious images. The Emperor Leo III in the 8th century had initiated the removal and destruction of icons under the influence of Islamic prohibitions against images. The Council declared that the display of icons was permissible as a veneration of the person depicted and not a form of idolatry. The Council helped restore icons to the churches.
The Ecumenical Councils addressed significant challenges faced by the early Church in areas of doctrine, worship and organization. Orthodox Christianity believes these Councils guided the Church based on the teachings of the Apostles and early Fathers under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Ecumenical Councils helped ensure orthodox beliefs prevailed over serious distortions by various heresies.
3. Growth of the Patriarchates
As the church expanded, five major centers or patriarchates of authority emerged in the early centuries: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. These patriarchal sees were located in prominent cities of the Roman Empire. The bishops or patriarchs of these cities exercised authority over surrounding regions.
The bishop of Rome emerged as first in honor and authority due to the importance of that city as the former imperial capital. Rome held a presidency of honor, but did not have direct administrative authority over the other patriarchates. All of the patriarchates were on an equal footing administratively. Each patriarchate was autonomous but in full communion with the others. Their unity was displayed through the celebration of faith and sacraments.
The election of the patriarch in each center required approval of the other patriarchs. The patriarch worked in synod with the bishops of that region to appoint bishops and settle disputes. The system of patriarchs and synods characterized church governance. Imperial meddling in some regions was a challenge faced by the patriarchal system during this period of growth and expansion.
4. Rise of Monasticism
Monasticism emerged as an important movement in the early church beginning around the 3rd century AD in Egypt. Monasticism involved men and women leaving urban areas for a solitary life of prayer and ascetical practices in the desert. The pioneer of this monastic impulse was St. Anthony the Great who inspired many to adopt this way of life.
Early monastic figures such as Pachomius went on to establish communal forms of monastic living under a rule of life. Basilian monasticism also developed in the East with a rule focused on liturgical prayer and work. Women formed communities following prominent nuns such as Syncletica of Alexandria. Key components of eastern monasticism included withdrawal, prayer, manual labor, humility and obedience.
The monastic movement spread across the Christian East and also reached the West with figures such as John Cassian and Benedict of Nursia who established important monastic communities. By the 5th century AD, monasticism was a dominant feature of Eastern Christianity. The monks were popularly regarded as athletic servants of God because of their rigorous ascetic disciplines.
Monasticism made a major contribution to Orthodoxy through the monastic emphasis on prayer, traditions of asceticism and the cultivation of religious art linked to iconography. Monasteries became centers for scholarship and missionary work and a spiritual powerhouse behind the growth of the Orthodox Church.
5. Church Fathers and Orthodox Theology
Alongside the Ecumenical Councils, the Church Fathers are central to Orthodox theology in interpreting Scripture and distributing the faith. Prominent Church Fathers include Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius of Alexandria, John Chrysostom and Cyril of Alexandria. The Orthodox Church sees the Church Fathers as Holy Spirit-inspired teachers and witnesses to apostolic tradition.
Key elements of Orthodox theology defined by the Church Fathers include:
- Emphasis on the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ as the focus of God’s revelation and salvation of mankind
- The Bible as the revealed written source of doctrine interpreted by the Church
- Sacred Tradition which included the Bible, creeds, worship, Councils and Fathers as inspired sources of doctrine passed down faithfully
- Salvation as theosis or union with God through grace
- The Church as the ark of salvation with the Eucharist at the center of worship
- Veneration of Mary as Theotokos and intercessor
- Unity of faith evidenced in common celebration of Baptism and Eucharist
The Church Fathers expounded on these theological principles in an age of persecution and heresies. Their writings remain a vital part of Holy Tradition for the Orthodox Church today. Famous patristic texts include On the Incarnation by Athanasius and the homilies of John Chrysostom.
6. Conversion of Eastern Europe
The Christianization of the Slavs is a major event in the history and expansion of Orthodoxy. Beginning in the 9th century AD, missionary outreach culminated in the conversion of the Slavic peoples in Eastern Europe. Two Greek brothers from Thessalonica, Saints Cyril and Methodius, were pivotal in spreading Christianity among the Slavs.
Cyril and Methodius traveled to Moravia at the request of Prince Rastislav who wanted missionaries to come and teach his people in their own language. The brothers devised the Glagolitic alphabet as a written language for Slavonic peoples and translated the Bible, liturgy and other texts. They fostered Slavonic liturgy and church administration.
Other missionaries such as the Greek monk Gregory continued the work of Cyril and Methodius after their deaths. The development of Slavonic liturgy helped incorporate Slavic culture into church life. In the 10th century AD, the Slavs adopted the Cyrillic alphabet promoted by Gregory and modeled on Greek letters.
Bulgaria became officially Christian under Tsar Boris I in 865 AD following practical and diplomatic initiatives to convert the people. Russia adopted Orthodox Christianity when Prince Vladimir had baptized in 988 AD and proceeded to baptize Kiev. The conversion of the Slavs established Orthodoxy as a major branch of Christianity.
7. East-West Schism
In 1054 AD, relations between the Eastern and Western churches reached a pivotal juncture that became known as the East-West Schism. The patriarch of Constantinople and the pope excommunicated each other leading to a formal division within Christianity. However, tensions between East and West had been mounting for centuries over language, culture, theology and authority.
The East spoke Greek and the West spoke Latin as language and cultural barriers divided the two sides. Disputes emerged over whether leavened or unleavened bread should be used for the Eucharist. Issues of theology and canon law exacerbated relations. The East emphasized the Father as the source of the Trinity while the West focused more on the Son.
Authority also became a major dispute between the patriarchal structure of the East and claims of papal primacy and infallibility in the West. From the Orthodox perspective, the pope was regarded as first among equals but not in authority over the other patriarchs. The break in 1054 proved permanent up to the present day.
Attempts were made periodically over the centuries to heal the rift without success including at the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1439 and again in the 1960s. The Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches remain separated over core issues of theology, culture, canon law and authority.
8. The Crusades and the Ottoman Empire
During the Middle Ages, Orthodoxy faced new external challenges with the arrival of the Crusades and the rise of the Ottoman Empire. The Crusades were a series of military campaigns spanning the 11th to 15th centuries that pitted European armies against Muslim forces to gain control of the Holy Land. Four major crusades occurred before the loss of Jerusalem in 1187 AD.
While Orthodoxy benefited from efforts to secure pilgrimage access, the Crusades also weakened and divided the Byzantine Empire that served as a buffer for the Orthodox against Muslim expansion. Temporary Western conquests during the Crusades disrupted church life and Latin control over Orthodox sees.
The fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD marked a major turning point as the Ottoman Empire gained control over all remaining Orthodox territories. While allowed limited administrative autonomy, the Orthodox churches were relegated to second-class citizen status under Ottoman Muslim rule. Several patriarchates such as Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem declined under the new overlords.
However, the transfer of the Russian Orthodox Church from Kiev to Moscow following the Mongol invasions strengthened what became the largest Orthodox church. Leadership from Mount Athos also helped maintain Greek culture and Orthodoxy during the Ottoman centuries. Orthodoxy showed resiliency under adverse political conditions.
9. Autocephaly and National Churches
A distinctive characteristic of Orthodoxy is the concept of autocephaly whereby churches in a certain nation function independently to govern their ecclesiastical affairs. Autocephaly affirms national identity and administration. At the same time, all autocephalous churches remain united in faith, sacraments and conciliar dialogue.
The autocephalous Orthodox churches include the ancient patriarchates along with newer national churches established more recently such as Russia, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, etc. Autocephaly is granted by decision of an existing autocephalous church often with the approval of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.
For example, the Russian Orthodox Church was granted autocephaly in the 16th century by the Ecumenical Patriarch. The Orthodox Church in America was granted autocephaly in 1970 by the Russian Orthodox Church. In the United States, multiple overlapping Orthodox jurisdictions reflect immigration patterns from different homelands. There are ongoing discussions about Orthodox unity in America.
Autocephaly allows Orthodox churches direct governance and jurisdictional authority while bound together in communion. The autocephalous churches all recognize each other and share a common doctrine, with the Ecumenical Patriarch holding a position of coordination and leadership.
10. Orthodoxy in the Modern World
Orthodoxy confronted challenges from the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century and secularization trends in the 19th and 20th centuries. Orthodoxy was criticized by Western Christian scholars and writers for being unenlightened, too mystical and not socially progressive. Some Orthodox incorporated ideas from the Enlightenment which led to rifts.
Modernization pressures in places like Greece and Russia following their liberation from the Ottomans led to calls from some quarters for revisions in Orthodoxy. However, traditionalists worked to keep reforms at bay. Growing nationalism and liberal theology created significant divisions among Orthodox in regions like Russia.
However, Orthodoxy continued to grow globally with expansion in places such as Japan following the work of Nicholas of Japan in the 19th century. In the 20th century, millions of Orthodox perished under Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union including some 28,000 Russian Orthodox clergy alone.
Following the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, Orthodoxy experienced a revival in areas like Russia where churches were reopened and rebuilt. Orthodox missionary activity also increased in new settings such as sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. Increased emigration from Orthodox countries spread the faith elsewhere. As the second millennium began, Orthodoxy stood poised for a new era, confronting modern realities while holding fast ancient tradition.