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The Fundamental Principles and main Characteristics of the Orthodox Church

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Uniatism: A Problem in the Dialogue Between
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The reply of saint photios to the structure and logical dynamics of the filioque

The Fundamental Principles and main Characteristics of the Orthodox Church

Panagiotis I. Bratsiotis, The Orthodox Ethos,
Studies in Orthodoxy, vol. I,
ed. Philippou-Holywell Press, Oxford 1964, p. 24-31


The question of the fundamental principles and main characteristics of the Orthodox Church was first raised not by Orthodox but by Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians. Attempts to answer it have given rise to many misunderstandings and adverse comments on both sides. Adolf Harnack's particularly sharp, negative criticism of Orthodoxy is well known. Opinions like Harnack's evoked strong reactions on behalf of Orthodox theology, and led it to seek a deeper understanding of its own nature and task. This question has been and still is, as difficult as it is important, not only for self-knowledge within the Orthodox Church, but also for promoting debate and understanding with other Churches within the framework of the ecumenical movement. This explains why the question was placed first on the agenda of the first pan-Orthodox conference on Orthodox theology held at Athens in 1936, and why it is now one of the main subjects of our small meeting on Faith and Order.


We must first examine whether there exists in the Orthodox Church any fundamental principle or essential characteristic or central idea from which the essence of Orthodoxy springs.

Many attempts to discover a synthesis have been made by both Orthodox and non-Orthodox theologians; others have considered all such attempts hopeless. The common idea that Orthodoxy lies halfway between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism may perhaps be accepted. But although this idea is in general correct, it touches only on the form of the Orthodox Church. The question remains: what is the essence of Orthodoxy, quite apart from Roman Catholicism and Protestantism? What would remain of Orthodoxy if there were no antithesis between these Churches, as Glubokowsky and Zankov rightly ask?

The same consideration applies to the idea that the main characteristic of Orthodoxy is the principle of balance : the balance which it maintains between the human element (stressed in Roman Catholicism) and the divine element (which predominates in Protestantism). Other scholars, such as Professor Androutsos, regard the concept of 'freedom with authority' ( eleutheria met' authentlas ) as the dominating principle in Orthodoxy. This phrase does indeed express the spirit of the Orthodox Church, but it also is only a description of form; it does not provide the key to an understanding of the principles and characteristics, in fact the whole nature, of that Church.

Still more concerned with form is the view that Orthodoxy constitutes the 'all-embracing plenitude', which some other scholars ( Glubokovsky, Florensky, Sjenkovsky, etc.) regard as its main characteristic.

In our view, the fundamental principle of Orthodoxy is rather - the idea that the Orthodox Church adheres to the principles and piety of the early, undivided Catholic Church.

This fundamental idea is (in our opinion) the most prominent feature of Orthodoxy, and contains the norm and criterion of its truth, its claim to be the early Catholic Church itself.

Therefore, as well as attempting to ascertain the fundamental principles and main features of the Orthodox Church, I shall endeavour to indicate its points of agreement with the fundamental principles and essential characteristics of the early undivided Church, in order to show whether our Church's claim to be the direct and true continuation of the early Church is justified, and therefore whether the facts justify its being called 'Orthodox'.


The first fundamental and essential characteristic of the Orthodox Church is its steady adherence to the Holy Tradition which it inherits from the early Catholic Church. The Orthodox Church is indeed a Church of tradition, and this is its highest honor, although this very fact has caused many non-Orthodox theologians to call it a 'petrified mummy'. It is not surprising that liberal Protestant theologians held, and still hold, this view about a Church which adheres to tradition (1). But it is surprising, if not inexplicable, that our Church's adherence to tradition should be regarded as ' petrification ' by representatives of that great Church (i.e. the Roman Catholic) which, like the Orthodox, recognizes tradition as a source of the Christian faith, though at the same time it admits the principle of development and progress more than Orthodoxy. This principle, it is true, enables the Roman Catholic Church to adapt itself flexibly to current conditions. Nevertheless, a misapplication of the principle might cause many injudicious innovations, often affecting the very essence of the Christian faith.

But if Holy Tradition is accepted as a source of faith, its immutability must be recognized, just as the Bible (the other source of faith) is recognized as immutable. Moreover, in the Orthodox Church tradition is not regarded as a static factor-as many non-Orthodox people think-but as a dynamic one. Loyalty to tradition does not simply mean slavish attachment to the past and to external authority, but a living connexion with the entire past experience of the Church (2). Like the Bible, Holy Tradition is regarded in the Orthodox Church as the 'Word of God', as 'water springing up into everlasting life' (John iv, 14), as it was in the early Church, and has been proved to be by the inexhaustible and almost miraculous vitality of the Orthodox Church, manifested throughout three centuries of Frankish and Venetian rule and four centuries of Moslem domination, and more recently under the Bolshevik tyranny in Russia and the countries of the eastern bloc. A certain stagnation observable in our Church is due to historical, not organic, reasons and not to its strong adherence to Holy Tradition. Although the Orthodox Church has remained somewhat static, it has not become petrified, but continues to be alive and life-giving. A Church which only produces learned theologians and good Christians in peace time is less entitled to be called living than is a Church which nurtures and inspires martyrs and other saints and great clouds of witnesses, as the Orthodox Church has done.

Orthodoxy is often criticized by non-Orthodox people for its alleged traditionalism, but they overlook the fact that adherence to tradition has been a fundamental principle and an essential characteristic of the Church of Christ ever since it was founded. We know that "Christianity took over the idea of tradition from Judaism, and that the Church is based on tradition. The Message was delivered orally by our Lord to the apostles and was handed on orally by them to their successors (I Clement xlii). Two of the gospels were written by eye-witnesses; the other two are based on indirect tradition. St. Luke expressly states, ‘even as they delivered them (the things most surely believed) unto us, which from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the word' (Luke i, 2). The 'teaching' of all nations commanded by our Lord (Matthew xxviii, 19) was mainly carried out by verbal preaching. The importance attached to tradition by the apostles is also well known: 'Stand fast and hold the traditions' (II Thessalonians ii, 15) 'keep the ordinances as I delivered them to you' (I Corinthians xi, 2). 'I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you' (I Corinthians xi, 23). 'If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed' (Galatians i, 9); 'and the things that thou has heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men who shall be able to teach others also' (II Timothy ii, 2); 'but continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them' (II Timothy iii, 14), St. Paul repeatedly asserts.

As is well known, Holy Tradition, the verbal tradition, has since early times been handed down from generation to generation in the Church, parallel to the written Word and revered equally with it. This tradition, the apostolic tradition, has grown in strength, especially since the appearance of sects; for it is on this tradition, and on the canon of the Scriptures, that the defenders of sound Church doctrine take their stand. Irenaeus, who is known as the man of tradition ka t ' exochen, may be mentioned as a notable example. Another fundamental principle of the Orthodox Church, which concerns its form, is its harmonious blending of authority and freedom, which are equally balanced, as they were in the early Church (3).

As for content, the emphasis given to the incarnation of the Logos, and especially to the divinity of Christ, may be regarded as a fundamental principle of Orthodoxy, to which is correlated the deification ( theosis ) of man-another important feature of our Church. This correlation has been common in the Orthodox Church since the time of St. Athanasius and owes much to his influence. This explains, I think, why Easter, the pasche of the Lord, 'the feast of feasts and the festival of festivals', through which 'Christ our God has raised us from death to life and from earth to heaven', and 'has clothed out mortal nature with incorruptible dignity through his passion', is the greatest and most brilliant festival of the Orthodox Church.

The strong emphasis laid on the incarnation and on the divinity of Christ is still sometimes regarded as a shortcoming in the Orthodox Church. It is probably forgotten that this emphasis (which is fortunately now supported by dialectical theology) is derived directly from the early Church, even from the apostles, who worshipped Jesus as their Lord and God (4). Not only in the East but throughout the whole early Catholic Church, especially from the time of the Arian controversy, the divinity of Christ has been emphasized. But this does not mean that the Orthodox Church has failed to appreciate the human nature of Christ, as many Catholic theologians (e.g. Jungmann and Adam) have maintained, under the influence of Protestant scholars who have misinterpreted the relevant passages in the early Fathers and the liturgical texts (5).

Moreover, the strong emphasis laid on the deification of man through the incarnate Logos, which in Orthodoxy is closely related to our faith in the divinity of our Lord, has constituted a valuable heritage from the early Catholic Church, at least since the time of Irenaeus, who taught that 'God the Logos became what we are, so that He might make us what He is ( Adversus Haereses, praefatio ). This was also a favourite doctrine of St. Athanasius : 'He became man that we might become gods' {De lncarnatione 54; cf. Contra Arianos I, 38, 39; II, 47, 70; III, 34 etc.). The doctrine is also corroborated by Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, John Damascene, Nicholas of Methoni, and by many Greek Orthodox hymns (6).

Another of the main characteristics of the Orthodox Church is its strong emphasis on the transitoriness of the things of this world in face of eternity, and its vital preservation of the original eschatological hope of the early Christians. This, together with its emphasis on the deification of man in Christ, imparts an ascetic and mystical colour to its piety (7). But this indisputable fact provides no justification for regarding this feature of Orthodoxy as tantamount to an apathetic, quietistic indifference to the affairs of this world, including science and culture, as many non-Orthodox people do, nor for misinterpreting it as the main reason for the Orthodox Church's lack of active social concern (von Harnack, Kattenbusch, Beth, Steffes, etc.).

All this reveals a gross misunderstanding of the facts, if not ignorance of the history of our Church. The strong emphasis which it lays on the beyond and on eternity, and its supra-mundane, eschatological character, are also features of the early, even the original, Christian Church. To prove this, we need only quote certain verses from the New Testament and from early Christian literature, such as, 'Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth... but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven... for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also' (Matthew vi, 19-21); 'For our conversation is in heaven' (Philippians iii, 20); 'Here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come' (Hebrew xiii, 14), and the classical passage in the epistle to Diognetus, 'The Christians live in their own home as sojourners; they take part in all things as citizens, and endure all things as strangers; to them every strange country is a home, and every home a strange country' (v, 5).

It is hardly necessary to mention the eschatological character of original Christianity. I confine myself to quoting Adolf Harnack's words: 'The early Christians lived in the expectation of the imminent return of Christ; this was a strong incentive to despise the things of this world and early joy and sorrow' (8). Also connected with this was the ascetic and mystical character of the Church, which prevailed throughout its early history and is firmly rooted in the New Testament. Let us recall the words of our Lord, 'There be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake' (Matthew xix, 12); St. Paul's words, 'But I keep under my body and bring it into subjection (I Corinthians ix, 27); the preference for celibacy shown by the Apostle (I Corinthians vii f.); the early Church's disapproval of second marriage; the early appearance of the practice of fasting, etc. Harnack admits that the extremely austere attitude of Christianity goes back as far as the second century (9).

As far the mysticism which the Orthodox Church shares with the early Church, one need only refer to St. Paul 's Epistle to the Philippians. But there is a mystical thread running all through the New Testament (10).

Moreover, its ascetic and mystical character by no means prevented the early Church from carrying out its social activities or from keeping its mind open to science and culture; nor has it prevented the Orthodox Church from rendering social, cultural and national services so invaluable that the people to whom such services have been rendered call the Church their 'mother'. As regards home and foreign missions, it is true that our Church falls behind the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches. This, however, is due to historical factors rather than to any inherent characteristic, and these may in time be eliminated, as is shown by the development of the Orthodox Churches between the two world wars. Moreover the efforts made by the western Churches in face of the present world situation are also very inadequate, as their own sincerest members fully admit.

Another basic principle and main characteristic of the Orthodox Church is its recognition of the special rights of the laity in the whole life of the Church, in a way which avoids the extremes of Roman Catholicism and of Protestantism, without overlooking the superior position of the clergy, especially that of bishops, in the Church, and without affecting the hierarchical character which the Church has had ever since the first century. Here it should be noted that the Orthodox people as a whole, the body of the Church, are regarded as the guardians of Orthodoxy. The 1848 Encyclical expresses this as follows: 'the guardian of Orthodoxy is the body of the Church, i.e. the members themselves'. The people as a whole constitute the body of the Church, whose voice and instrument is the hierarchy.

It is maintained by many Russian and other Slavonic theologians under the influence of Khomiakov that the highest authority in Orthodoxy is the Church as a whole; this view is certainly not mistaken, since the whole body of the Church is considered in Orthodoxy to be infallible. But to avoid confusion or misunderstanding it should be said that the supreme authority in the Orthodox Church lies in the Ecumenical Councils, whose ecumenicity must be recognized and witnessed by the conscience of the whole Church. In other words, the decisive criterion of an Ecumenical Council is the recognition of its decrees by the whole Church, which is therefore in fact the sole authority in Orthodoxy.

The Orthodox view that the laity constitutes an essential part of the body of the Church is supported by their place in worship; neither the holy liturgy nor the sacraments may be performed in the absence of laymen. Furthermore, in accordance with the principles and the ancient tradition of Orthodoxy, the lay element plays an important part in the appointment of the clergy and in the administration of the Church, as it did in the early Church. Where these rights of the laity are not recognized, there has been a departure from the established and genuine custom of Orthodoxy in the direction of clericalism; but this trend is bound to disappear as the Orthodox people gradually become more enlightened. For since the very foundation of the early Church the laity has played an important part in every aspect of church life and in church administration. This lay participation began at the consultation among the apostles described in Acts xv, 2; it was continued in the first Ecumenical Council and was subsequently maintained (11). It is still customary in the Orthodox Church for the congregation to hail a new clergyman at his ordination with the word axios (= he is worthy); this survival is evidence of the participation of the laity in the appointment of the clergy.

Another fundamental principle and essential characteristic of the Orthodox Church is its use of the synodal system, in both its local and its central administration. This system has been handed down to us from the early Church and we must on no account depart from it. The Ecumenical Council continues to be the supreme administrative authority in the Orthodox Church, but until it becomes possible for such a Council to assemble, the Church as a whole may and should be administered by extra, periodical general councils in which the whole Orthodox Church is represented-not by councils like the 'Pan-Orthodox Conference' held at Constantinople in 1923. May the divine Founder and Lord of the Church grant that circumstances will soon permit the functioning of this venerable and most valuable institution!

The last characteristic of the Orthodox Church which I should like to enumerate here is its renunciation of authority and political power. In this it obeys the commandment of our Lord to 'render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's' (Matthew xxii, 21), for 'My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom mere of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence' (John xviii, 36).

These are, in my opinion, the fundamental principles and essential characteristics of the Orthodox Church. Among them I have not included either nationalism or ritualism, which are only aberrations from the genuine spirit of Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, many non-Orthodox accuse the Orthodox Church of both.

As for nationalism, although it was not totally unknown to the early Church, it did not affect its nature. This one may clearly perceive from the fact that nationalism led into heresy the Churches which were affected by it, such as the Armenian, Syrian, Coptic, Abyssinian and other Churches. In asserting this, we do not mean that Christianity is foreign or hostile to the idea of 'nation', for our Lord commanded his apostles to 'go and teach all nations' (Matthew xxviii, 19).

It is true, however, that from the many nations that believed there was 'called forth' and assembled a new people chosen by God, a new 'holy nation', a new 'royal priesthood', the one 'Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church', as the early Church believed (Galatians iii, 6 ff.; iii, 16; Romans iv, 1 ff.; Colossians iii, 11; I Peter ii, 9; Barnabas v, 7; Aristides, Apologia ii; Basil, ep. 161, P.G . xxxii, 929; ep. 24, ibid., 304, etc.). Thus the main characteristic of the early Church was its 'ecumenicity' and its 'catholicity', which were completely opposed to all forms of chauvinism or racialism. Racialism was officially condemned in the Orthodox Church by the great Council of Constantinople in 1872. We, the people of the Balkans, know too well what harm chauvinism has done to the Churches, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox. As for excessive attachment to rites (which non-Orthodox usually call ritualism), such a tendency is only an incidental feature of the Orthodox Church, not inherent in its nature. This ritualism is due to certain historical reasons which we cannot examine here. In time it will certainly disappear as serious official and individual efforts are made to propagate the word of God, to deepen religious piety and godliness, to bring up young people to understand the real meaning of Orthodoxy, and generally to develop an active home mission. Ritualism is not an inherent characteristic of our church, as many non-Orthodox seem to think, but is unessential and incidental to it, a jewel added to its magnificent garment during the course of its long and chequered history. In saying this I do not mean to dispute the fact that the Orthodox Church is a community of worship. But I emphatically deny that it is solely and exclusively 'a quietistic gathering for the cult' (as Harnack and his supporters would have it). If the Orthodox Church is a community of worship, so are the Roman Catholic, the Anglican and the most notable of the Protestant Churches, and so in a certain sense is every living Church which does not wish to remain merely a 'religion of professors'. For no Church or religious community is conceivable without worship. Worship is the very heart of every Church and religious community; it is through worship that the faithful come into direct fellowship and mystical union with God. From the day of its foundation the Church has been a community of worship, as we see from the first pages of the Acts of the Apostles. For already, before the miracle of Pentecost, the apostles 'continued with one accord in prayer and supplication' (Acts i, 14; cf. Acts ii, 1 and ii, 46, 47, etc.).

I do not think one need say more about the necessity for worship and liturgical rites at a time like the present, when there is a strong liturgical movement in both the Protestant and the Roman Catholic Church.

In conclusion we may safely assert that although the Orthodox Church has not remained unaffected by the vicissitudes of its long history, nevertheless it has kept intact in its bosom the fundamental principles and the main characteristics, as well as the great and priceless treasure of Holy Tradition, of the early Church.


(1) From the Orthodox point of view, it is pleasing that in the last few years not only do distinguished Protestant theologians speak about tradition ( Barth, Brunner and especially Cullmann ) but the theme of tradition is introduced into the agenda of ecumenical meetings, as during the recent meetings in Rhodes.

(2) G. Florovsky, S. Bulgakov.

(3) P. Bratsiotis, Authority and Liberty in Orthodox Theology (in Greek), Athens, 1931.

(4) A. Seeberg, Die Anbetung des Herrn bei Paulus, 1891. E. von der Goltz, Das Gebet in der altesten Christenheit, 1901. A. von Harnack, Das Wesen des Christentums, 1900, p. 96.

5) See S. Zankov, Das Orthodoxe Christentum, 1928, p. 57.

(6) K. Bornhäuser, Die Vergottungdehre des Athanasius und ]oh. Damascenus , 1903. M. Lot Borodine, La doctrine de la deification dans I'Eglise grecque. (Revue d'Histoire des Religions, 1932-33). P. Bratsiotis, Mystik in der Orthodoxen Kirche. Die Orthodoxe Kirche in griechischer Sicht, I. Teil. 1959 ( Evang. Verlagswerk, Stuttgart).

(7) See S. Zankov, Das Orthodoxe Christentum, p. 111. A. Kartaschov in The Church of God, e d. E. L. Mascall, 1934, p. 197 ff.

(8) "Das Wesen des Christentums, p. 108, also H. Lietzmann, Geschichte der Alten Kirche, 11, 1936, p. 42.

(9) Von Harnack, Wesen des Christentums, p. 133.

(10) A. Diessmann, Paulus, 1925. E. Weber, Esckatologie und Mystik im N. Testament, 1930. M. Dibelius, Glaube und Mystik bei Paulus, 1956. A. Schweitzer, Die Mystik des Apostel Paulus, 1954. A. Wikenhauser, Die Kirche als mysticher Lieb nach dem Apostel Paulus, 1940.

(11) Eusebius, De vita Constantini iii, 8; Sozomen, Historia Ecclesiastica, i, 17.

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