I am learning that the Eastern Christian faith approaches its worship, theology and preservation of the Apostolic faith from a particular perspective that differentiates itself from their Western counterpart. I have categorized some of these varying perspectives, in typical Aristotilian fashion!
- Orthodox Definitions
To understand the role and interplay of worship, theology and Apostolic tradition in the Orthodox faith, I’m learning that definitions are very important. The term orthodox, for example, is an important starting point. “In Eastern Christianity, orthodox is used for that which gives proper glory to God” (Payton 2007, Loc. 636). To give proper glory to God is to remain true to the practices handed down through Apostolic tradition. In the West, the term orthodoxy usually connotes doctrinal precision (Loc. 635).
- True Theology is True Worship
In the West, worship often pertains to the originating personal, or corporate act of exalting or declaring worth to God. However, in the Orthodox tradition, “the way of worship is the way of belief” (Orandi, Week 1, Video 1.2). One important distinction is that for the orthodox, thinking and feeling, or the head and heart, are not mutually exclusive categories as found predominantly in the West. Having bypassed the trappings of scholasticism, the enlightenment, the reformation, and other uniquely Western cultural experiences, the Orthodox Church has had little issue approaching worship as theology, and theology as worship. This means that when an Eastern believer approaches worship, it doesn’t segregate intellectual understanding with experiencing truth because, “True theology must be integrated with praise and contemplation” (Tibbs, Week 1, Video 1.1). Worship and Theology are therefore two sides of the same coin.
Worship for the Orthodox embodies theologia, which cannot be taught, but “comes from an encounter with God” (Tibbs). Unlike in the West, where cognitive knowledge of a subject might substitute for a relational or experiential knowledge, “Orthodoxy manifests a deep desire to know God, but in the biblical sense of what it means to know someone” (Payton 2007, Loc. 664). This pursuit of holistic knowledge, with both head and heart simultaneously engaged at all times, has shaped the Orthodox faith through the ages in its worship and theology.
While the western Christian understands theology in general as a set of knowable, and important truths about God, the Orthodox believe, “the christian tradition is not an abstract message, but a practice. It is not a body of doctrine that can be taught, but a way of life” (Louth). “True theology is really true worship” (Tibbs, Week 1, Video 1.2). For the Orthodox, there is no separation of head and heart. What someone practices is a reflection of the beliefs they hold. “Show me your worship and I will understand what you believe” (Tibbs, Week 1, Video 1.2). This demotion of intellectual trust in the DNA of Orthodox Christianity sets itself against the Western elevation of human capacity to fully understand and know something, or someone. “The emphasis for Eastern Christianity is not on explanation but on mystery-on adoration of truth rather than its clarification.” (Payton 2007, Loc. 751).
- Meditation over Intellection
While the West elevates intellectual knowledge as an essential factor in the Church’s capacity to know God, the Eastern Christian doesn’t fully discount intellection, but reframes it as only part of the human experience. “Orthodox theology values the intellect, for intellectual capacity is a gift from God, but it seeks to go beyond concepts toward the mystical reality that cannot be enclosed in the sphere of human thought” (Tibbs, Eastern Orthodoxy PDF). For eastern believers, the foundation of a relationship with God “was not the product of intellectual mastery of appropriate revelatory data” (Payton, Loc 314).
One of the reasons the Orthodox hold a lesser place for intellectual theological primacy in the Christian faith, is their “distrust in the capacities of mere human reason to understand the most profound truth” (Payton 2007, Loc 296). Unlike the west’s affinity for Aristotelian neo-platonic categories and their “fixation on definitions and static categories of analysis” (Loc. 324), the Byantian Christians “commonly affirmed that the part of the theologian was to pray, not to explain” (Loc. 301). Because Eastern faith was “nurtured in meditation rather than intellection” (Loc. 312), the leadership of the Church itself was given not to building upon systems of thought, but a life spent in faithful communion with God, “speaking out of the richness of his experienced grace and mercy; not the result of a process of academic instruction” (Loc. 314). Because of the limitations and distrust of human intellect in general, the Orthodox view talking about God as a “hazardous enterprise” (Loc. 655) and believe that “human language cannot transcend its created capacities” (Loc. 660). For this reason, “Orthodox emphasis falls not on speech about but on silence before God and his revelation” (Loc. 675).
While Orthodox believers “confess the truth” handed down through Holy Scripture and Tradition, they “do not attempt to explain it’ (Loc. 751). Through the divine liturgy, the emphasis for Eastern Christianity “is not on explanation but on mystery-on adoration of truth rather than its clarification” (Loc. 751). Through ecclesial worship, the believer moves beyond intellection as they participate in the Trinity’s inner life, “toward the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit” (Bobrinksoy 1999, 148). “Ecclesial worship is equally trinitarian in its content as in its dynamic” (p. 148), in this way we can see why mystery is embraced far and above the western comforts of limited intellection.
4. Apostolic Heritage
Western Protestants in particular claim apostolic heritage through adhering to doctrinal claims and creeds, but the Orthodox find their apostilic heritage not just in doctrine, but in the succession of practiced tradition. Through the tradition of the liturgy, the Orthodox Church “serves to protect the apostolic heritage, not to prepare for future doctrinal developments arising from it” (Payton 2007, 756). This tradition is not focused on sanctioned academic study or beliefs as much as “a life given to meditation and contemplation” (678).
The Orthodox believe that the nature of the Church is like Christ, who was both visible and invisible, temporary and eternal, and in its continuing physical existence on earth by God’s providence it continues a “historical and unbroken connection” (Tibbs, Week 2, Video 2.1) with the apostolic church. This means that being in Christ is both mystical and integrative, accomplished through the sacramental life of the church (Tibbs, Eastern Orthodoxy PDF).
The Orthodox hold that the ecumenical councils are infallible, up to the council of Nicea II, 767 AD. Participating in the seven sacraments (Hagia Mysteria) which include baptism, holy orders, matrimony, chrismation, reconciliation, Holy Eucharist and unction enable the believers to participate in Christ’s deified human nature (Tibbs, Eastern Orthodoxy PDF).
Christian Orthodox communities have continued through the ages, often within averse dominant cultures, for centuries, preserving the sacraments. The Orthodox Church believes God has ordained this ongoing succession through the infallible Church which is governed “through the bishop, and the presbyters, and the deacons, who have been appointed by the will of God the Father” (Ignatious, Epistle to the Philladelphians). The Orthodox faith claims not only historical rights through a preserved and practiced tradition, but a prophetic one as well as it shares forward the message of the gospel for creation. “Eastern Christianity offers a ringing affirmation of what that message is – namely, the apostolic message enshrined in the ancient creeds of the church, celebrated in the liturgy, defended in the tradition and proclaimed in the preaching” (Payton 2007, 49).
Pointing to early church fathers such as St. Basil the Great, the Orthodox Church claims that the traditions practiced today are none other than directly inherited Apostilic practices. Payton describes the Orthodox relationship with tradition as both “process and package” (194). To put it another way, “the church’s worship serves as the living framework for understanding Scripture” (202). As the process, the Church in its traditions, which have no intrinsic life in themselves, provide the context for the invisible Church to become visible, where heaven indeed touches earth and material conjoins immaterial. The package, being the presence of the Triune God, through the Spirit’s indwelling through the various sacraments. In this way, “Scripture and tradition work together to preserve, shape and transmit the apostolic message” (Payton 2007, Loc. 199) as “the Church interprets Scripture by way of tradition” (Loc. 202).
The Orthodox Church synthesizes worship as theology, and theology as worship with an emphasis on experiencing God’s indwelling through the received traditions of the Apostles. In this way, the Orthodox Church lives up to its name, bringing proper glory to God. Scripture is a product of the Church’s tradition. “Tradition allows the faithful of the past to speak to the contemporary church and, through it, to the world in every generation” (Loc. 203).
Ignatius, Epistle to the Philadelphians- PDF LINK
Payton, James R. 2007. Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition. IVP. Kindle & Hard Copy Editions
Tibbs – Fuller Seminary ST557 Videos and Lectures, PDF.
Bobrinskoy, Boris. 1999. The Mystery of the Trinity: Trinitarian Experience and Vision in the Biblical and Patristic Traditions. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Press.