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published: 3/17/04
updated: 5/6/13

Eastern Orthodoxy



What is Orthodox Christianity?

The denomination now known as Orthodox Christianity, Eastern Orthodoxy, or the Orthodox Church began as the eastern half of Christendom, the site of the former Byzantine Empire.

Today, the highest concentration of Orthodox Christians remains in the former Byzantine Empire (Greece, Turkey, and nearby countries) and in Russia. But Orthodoxy is found throughout the world, and approximately 225 million people are Orthodox Christians.

Russian Orthodox cathedral in the snow
Orthodox cathedral in Khabarovsk, Russia. Photo: Boris Bartels.


Orthodox priest in Athens
Greek Orthodox priest and companion in Athens. Photo: Rob Wallace.


Greek Orthodox
Greek Orthdox icon merchant, Zakynthos, Greece. Photo: Rob Wallace.


Georgian Orthodox Church
Orthodox cathedral in Sameba, Georgia.
Photo: Vladimer Shioshvili.

History of Orthodoxy

Eastern Orthodoxy arose as a distinct branch of Christianity after the 11th-century "Great Schism" between Eastern and Western Christendom. The separation was not sudden. For centuries there had been significant religious, cultural, and political differences between the Eastern and Western churches.





Religiously, they had different views on topics such as the use of images (icons), the nature of the Holy Spirit, and the date on which Easter should be celebrated.

Culturally, the Greek East has always tended to be more philosophical, abstract and mystical in its thinking, whereas the Latin West tends toward a more pragmatic and legal-minded approach. (According to an old saying, "the Greeks built metaphysical systems; the Romans built roads.")

The political aspects of the split date back to the Emperor Constantine, who moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople. Upon his death, the empire was divided between his two sons, one of whom ruled the western half of the empire from Rome while the other ruled the eastern region from Constantinople.

These various factors finally came to a head in 1054 AD, when Pope Leo IX excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople (the leader of the Eastern church). In response, the patriarch anathematized (condemned) the Pope, and the Christian church has been divided into West ("Roman Catholic") and East ("Greek Orthodox") ever since.

A glimmer of hope for reconciliation came at the onset of the Crusades later that century, when the West came to the aid of the East against the Turks. But especially after the Fourth Crusade (1200-1204), in which crusaders sacked and occupied Constantinople, the only result was an increase in hostility between the two churches.

However, attempts at reconciliation have been renewed in recent years. In 1964, the Second Vatican Council issued this statement praising its Eastern counterparts:

The Catholic Church values highly the institutions of the Eastern Churches, their liturgical rites, ecclesiastical traditions, and their ordering of Christian life. For in those churches, which are distinguished by their venerable antiquity, there is clearly evident the tradition which has come from the Apostles through the Fathers and which is part of the divinely revealed, undivided heritage of the Universal Church. {2}

On December 7, 1965, the mutual excommunication of 1054 was officially removed by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras.

Organization and Religious Authority

seal of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of ConstantinopleThe Orthodox Church is organized into several regional, autocephalous (governed by their own head bishops) churches. The Patriarch of Constantinople has the honor of primacy, but does not carry the same authority as the Pope does in Catholicism. Major Orthodox churches include the Greek Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the Church of Alexandria, the Church of Jerusalem, and the Orthodox Church in America.

The religious authority for Orthodox Christianity is not the Pope as in Catholicism, nor the individual Christian with his Bible as in Protestantism, but the scriptures as interpreted by the seven ecumenical councils of the church.

Orthodoxy also relies heavily on the writings of early Greek fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great. Although some Orthodox confessions of faith were produced in the 17th century as counterparts to those of the Reformation, these are regarded as having only historical significance.

Distinctive Orthodox Beliefs

As in all of Christianity, doctrine is important in Eastern Orthodoxy. Orthodox Christians attach great importance to the Bible, the conclusions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and right ("orthodox") belief. However, the Eastern Churches approach religious truth differently than the Western Churches. For Orthodox Christians, truth must be experienced personally. There is less focus on the exact definition of religious truth and more on the practical and personal experience of truth in the life of the individual and the church. Precise theological definition, when it occurs, is for the purpose of excluding error.

This emphasis on personal experience of truth flows into Orthodox theology, which has a rich heritage. Especially in the first millenium of Christian history, the Eastern Church produced significant theological and philosophical thought.

In the Western churches, both Catholic and Protestant, sin, grace, and salvation are seen primarily in legal terms. God gave humans freedom, they misused it and broke God's commandments, and now deserve punishment. God's grace results in forgiveness of the transgression and freedom from bondage and punishment.

The Eastern churches see the matter in a different way. For Orthodox theologians, humans were created in the image of God and made to participate fully in the divine life. The full communion with God that Adam and Eve enjoyed meant complete freedom and true humanity, for humans are most human when they are completely united with God.

The result of sin, then, was a blurring of the image of God and a barrier between God and man. The situation in which mankind has been ever since is an unnatural, less human state, which ends in the most unnatural aspect: death. Salvation, then, is a process not of justification or legal pardon, but of reestablishing man's communion with God. This process of repairing the unity of human and divine is sometimes called "deification." This term does not mean that humans become gods but that humans join fully with God's divine life.

The Eastern Orthodox view of the Trinity also differs somewhat from that of the Christian West. In its Christology, Orthodoxy tends to emphasize the divine, preexistent nature of Christ, whereas the West focuses more on his human nature. However, both East and West affirm Christ's full humanity and full divinity as defined by the ecumenical councils. In fact, Christ's humanity is also central to the Orthodox faith, in the doctrine that the divine became human so that humanity might be raised up to the divine life.

The process of being reunited to God, made possible by Christ, is accomplished by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit plays a central role in Orthodox worship: the liturgy usually begins with a prayer to the Spirit and invocations made prior to sacraments are addressed to the Spirit.

It is in the view of the Holy Spirit that Orthodox theology differs from Western theology, and although the difference might now seem rather techinical and abstract, it was a major contributor to the parting of East from West in the 11th century. This dispute is known as the Filioque Controversy, as it centers on the Latin word filioque ("and from the Son"), which was added to the Nicene Creed in Spain in the 6th century. The original creed proclaimed only that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father."

The purpose of the addition was to reaffirm the divinity of the Son, but Eastern theologians objected both to the unilateral editing of a creed produced by an ecumenical council and to the edit itself. For Eastern Christians, both the Spirit and the Son have their origin in the Father.

Orthodox Worship and Religious Practices

Orthodox worship is highly liturgical and is central to the history and life of the church:

By its theological richness, spiritual significance, and variety, the worship of the Orthodox Church represents one of the most significant factors in this church's continuity and identity. It helps to account for the survival of Christianity during the many centuries of Muslim rule in the Middle East and the Balkans when the liturgy was the only source of religious knowledge or experience. {1}


References and Sources

  1. "Eastern Orthodoxy."  Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004).
  2. Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches, 1964.

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