The following is an excerpt from “English for Theologians,” a textbook published jointly by Volyn Orthodox Theological Academy, Lesya Ukrainka Eastern European National University and Theological Institute Philadelphia; New York, 2020
THE ESSENCE OF THE ORTHODOX BELIEF
Orthodoxy (from Greek ὀρθοδοξία orthodoxía “right opinion”) is adherence to correct or accepted creeds, especially in religion. In the Christian sense the term means “conforming to the Christian faith” as represented in the creeds of the early Church. In the Greek-speaking Christian world this word has traditionally been used to designate communities or individuals who preserved the true faith, as opposed to those who were declared heretical.
The Orthodox, like most Roman Catholics and Protestants, worship the triune God of the Scriptures. Orthodox prayers are offered to God the Father, Jesus, God the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. During worship assemblies, the members’ frequent making of the sign of the cross “in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” is an ongoing reminder of the Trinity.
Orthodoxy is the Church of Christ on earth. The Church of Christ is not an institution; it is a new life with Christ and in Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit. Christ, the Son of God, came to Earth, was made man, uniting His divine life with that of humanity. Although He died and rose again and ascended into Heaven, He was not separated from His humanity, but remains in it. The light of the resurrection of Christ lights the Church, and the joy of resurrection, of the triumph over death, fills it. The risen Lord lives with us and our life in the Church is a mysterious life in Christ.
The Incarnation is not only an idea or a doctrine, it is above all an event which happened once in time but which possesses all the power of eternity, and this perpetual incarnation, a perfect, indissoluble union of the two natures – divine and human – make the Church. Since the Lord did not merely approach humanity but became one with it, Himself becoming man, the Church is the Body of Christ, as a unity of life with Him, a life subordinate to Him and under His authority. The same idea is expressed when the Church is called the Bride of Christ or of the Word; the relation between bride and bridegroom, taken in its everlasting fullness, is a union of two in one, which is not dissolved by duality nor absorbed by unity.
Orthodox Christians believe that when a person dies the soul is temporarily separated from the body. Though it may linger for a short period on Earth, it is ultimately escorted either to paradise (Abraham’s bosom) or the darkness of Hades, following the Temporary Judgment. The Orthodox do not accept the doctrine of purgatory, which is held by Roman Catholicism. The soul’s experience of either of these states is only a “foretaste”– being experienced only by the soul – until the Final Judgment, when the soul and body will be reunited. The Eastern Orthodox believe that the state of the soul in Hades can be affected by the love and prayers of the righteous up until the Last Judgment. For this reason the Church offers a special prayer for the dead on the third day, ninth day, fortieth day, and the one-year anniversary after the death of an Orthodox Christian. There are also several days throughout the year that are set aside for general commemoration of the departed, sometimes including nonbelievers. These days usually fall on a Saturday, since it was on a Saturday that Christ lay in the Tomb.
The Eastern Orthodox believe that Hell, though often described in metaphor as punishment inflicted by God, is in reality the soul’s rejection of God’s infinite love which is offered freely and abundantly to everyone. The Eastern Orthodox believe that after the Final Judgment:
• All souls will be reunited with their resurrected bodies.
• All souls will fully experience their spiritual state.
• Having been perfected, the saints will forever progress towards a deeper and fuller love of God, which equates with eternal happiness.
The essence of the Orthodox Church is the divine life, revealing itself in the life of the creature; it is the deification of the creature by the power of the Incarnation and the Pentecost. That life is a supreme reality; it is evident and certain for all those who participate in it.
THE ORTHODOX CHURCH IN THE WORLD
Eastern Orthodoxy is the large body of Christians who follow the faith and practices that were defined by the first seven ecumenical councils.
Eastern Orthodoxy is one of the three major doctrinal and jurisdictional groups of Christianity. It is characterized by its continuity with the apostolic church, its liturgy, and its territorial churches.
The Eastern Orthodox Church is the second-largest Christian Church, with over 250 million members. As one of the oldest religious institutions in the world, it has played a prominent role in the history and culture of Eastern Europe, Greece (including Anatolia), the Caucasus, and the Near East. It operates as a communion of autocephalous churches (“jurisdictions”, or national churches), each typically governed by its own group of Bishops called a Holy Synod. The Church has no central doctrinal or governance authority analogous to the Roman Catholic Church’s pope; however, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is recognized by all as primus inter pares (“First among equals”) of the bishops.
The number of autocephalous churches has varied in history. In the early 21st century there were many: the Church of Constantinople (Istanbul), the Church of Alexandria (Africa), the Church of Antioch (with headquarters in Damascus, Syria), and the churches of Jerusalem, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Serbia, Romania, Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Albania, Poland, the Czech and Slovak republics, and America. Each church has a ruling bishop and a Holy Synod to administer its jurisdiction and to lead the Orthodox Church in the preservation and teaching of the apostolic and patristic traditions and church practices.
The Patriarch of Constantinople has the honor of primacy, but his title is only first among equals and has no real authority over Churches other than the Constantinopolitan. The Eastern Orthodox Church considers Jesus Christ to be the head of the Church and the Church to be His body. It is believed that authority and the grace of God is directly passed down to Orthodox bishops and clergy through the laying on of hands – a practice started by the apostles, and that this unbroken historical and physical link is an essential element of the true Church (Acts 8:17, 1 Tim 4:14, Heb 6:2). However, the Church asserts that apostolic succession also requires apostolic faith, and bishops without apostolic faith, who are in heresy, forfeit their claim to apostolic succession.