Sources of Christian Doctrine

Sources of Christian Doctrine

Sources of Christian Doctrine

by Michael Pomazansky,
Protopresbyter of Orthodox Christian Church


1. Purity of Teaching
2. Dogmas.
3. The Sources of Dogmas.
4. Sacred Scripture.
5. Sacred Tradition.
6. The Catholic Consciousness of the Church.
7. Dogmas and Canons.
8. The Works Of The Holy Fathers.
9. The Divine Services

The concern of the Church
for the purity of Christian teaching

From the first days of her existence, the Church of Christ has ceaselessly been concerned that her children, her members, should stand firm in the pure truth:

“I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth,”
writes the holy Apostle, John the Theologian (3 John 4).

“I have written briefly, exhorting and testifying that this is the true grace of God wherein ye stand,” says the holy Apostle Peter in concluding his catholic epistle (1 Peter 5:12).

The holy Apostle Paul relates concerning himself that, having preached for 14 years, he went to Jerusalem by revelation with Barnabas and Titus,

and there he offered-especially to the most renowned citizens‑ the gospel which he preached, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain” (Gal. 2:2).

Instruct us in Thy path, that we may walk in Thy Truth” — is the first petition in the priestly prayers  in the first Divine Service of the daily cycle, Vespers.

The true path of faith which has always been carefully preserved in the history of the Church, from of old was called straight, right, in Greek, orthos — that is, “orthodoxy.”

In the Psalter‑from which, as we know from the history of the Christian Divine services, the Church has been inseparable from the first moment of her existence‑

we find such phrases as the following —

my foot hath stood in uprightness” (Ps. 26:12 [LXX-25:10]);

“from before Thy face let my judgment come forth” (Ps. 17:2 [LXX-16:2]);

“praise is meet for the upright” (Ps. 33:1 [LXX-32:1]); and there are others.

The Apostle Paul instructs Timothy to present himself before God -

a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing (that is, rightly cutting with a chisel, from the Greek orthotomounta) the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).

In early Christian literature there is constant mention of the keeping of “the rule of faith,” the “rule of truth”:

The very term “orthodoxy” was widely used even in the epoch before the Ecumenical Councils, then in the terminology of the Ecumenical Councils themselves, and in the Fathers of the Church both of the East and of the West.

Side by side with the straight, or right, path of faith there have always been those who thought differently (heterodoxountes, or “heterodox,” in the expression of St. Ignatius the God-bearer), a world of greater or lesser errors among Christians, and sometimes even whole incorrect systems which attempted to burst into the midst of Orthodox Christians.

As a result of the quest for truth there occurred divisions among Christians.

Becoming acquainted with the history of the Church, and likewise observing the contemporary world, we see that the errors which war against Orthodox Truth have appeared and do appear:

a) under the influence of other religions,

b) under the influence of philosophy, and

c) through the weakness and inclin­ations of fallen human nature, which seeks the rights and justifications of these weaknesses and inclinations.

Errors take root and become obstinate most frequently because of the pride of those who defend them, because of intellectual pride.


So as to guard the right path of faith, the Church has had to forge strict forms for the expression of the truths of faith: it has had to build up the fortresses of truth for the repulsion of influences foreign to the Church.

The definitions of truth declared by the Church have been called, since the days of the Apostles, Dogmas.

In the Acts of the Apostles we read of the Apostles Paul and Timothy that:

as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees (dogmata) for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4;

here the reference is to the decrees of the Apostolic Council which is described in the 15th chapter of the Book of Acts).

Among the ancient Greeks and Romans the Greek word dogmat was used to refer

a) to philosophical conceptions, and
b) to directives which were to be precisely fulfilled.

In the Christian understand­ing, “dogmas” are the opposite of “opinions,” that is, inconstant personal conceptions.

The Sources of Dogmas


It is clear that dogmas are not founded on the rational conceptions of separate individuals, even though these might be Fathers and Teachers of the Church,

but, rather, on the teaching of Sacred Scripture and on the Apostolic Sacred Tradition.

The truths of faith which are contained in the Sacred Scripture and the Apostolic Sacred Tradition give the fullness of the teaching of faith which was called by the ancient Fathers of the Church the “catholic faith,” the “catholic teaching” of the Church.

The truths of Scripture and Tradition, harmon­iously fused together into a single whole, define the “catholic consciousness” of the Church, a consciousness that is guided by the Holy Spirit.

Sacred Scripture

BY “SACRED SCRIPTURE” are to be understood those books written by the holy Prophets and Apostles under the action of the Holy Spirit; therefore they are called “divinely inspired”:

They are divided into books of the Old Testament and the books of the New Testament.

The Church recognizes 38 books of the Old Testament:

After the example of the Old Testament Church, several of these books are joined to form a single book, bringing the number to   two books, according to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet:

These books, which were entered at some time into the Hebrew canon, are called “canonical.”

To them are joined a group of “non‑canonical” books –

that is, those which were not included in the Hebrew canon because they were written after the closing of the canon of the sacred Old Testament books.

The Church accepts these latter books also as useful and instructive and in antiquity assigned them for instruc­tive reading not only in homes but also in churches, which is why they have been called “ecclesiastical.”

The Church includes these books in a single volume of the Bible together with the canonical books. As a source of the teaching of the faith, the Church puts them in a secondary place and looks on them as an appendix to the canonical books.

Certain of them are so close in merit to the Divinely‑inspired books that, for example, in the 85th Apostolic Canon the three books of Maccabees and the book of Joshua the son of Sirach are numbered together with the canonical books, and, concerning all of them together it is said that they are “venerable and holy.”

However, this means only that they were respected in the ancient Church;

but a distinction between the canonical and non‑canonical books of the Old Testament has always been maintained in the Church.

The Church recognizes 27 canonical books of the New Testament:

Since the sacred books of the New Testament were written in various years of the apostolic era and were sent by the Apostles to various points of Europe and Asia, and certain of them did not have a definite designation to any specific place,

the gathering of them into a single collection or codex could not be an easy matter:

it was necessary to keep strict watch lest among the books of apostolic origin there might be found any of the so‑called “Apocrypha” books, which for the most part were composed in heretical circles.

Therefore, the Fathers and teachers of the Church during the first centuries of Christianity preserved a special caution in distinguishing these books, even though they might bear the name of Apostles.

The Fathers of the Church frequently entered certain books into their lists with reservations, with uncertainty or doubt, or else gave for this reason an incomplete list of the Sacred Books:

This was unavoidable and serves as a memorial to their exceptional caution in this holy matter. They did not trust themselves, but waited for the universal voice of the Church.

The local Council of Carthage in 318, in its 33rd Canon, enumerated all of the books of the New Testament without exception.

St. Athanasius the Great names all of the books of the New Testament without the least doubt or distinction, and in one of his works he concludes his list with the following words:

Behold the number and names of the canonical books of the New Testament:

These are, as it were, the beginnings, the anchors and pillars of our faith, because they were written and transmitted by the very Apostles of Christ the Savior, who were with Him and were instructed by Him” (from the Synopsis of St. Athanasius).

Likewise, St. Cyril of Jerusalem also enumerates the books of the New Testament without the slightest remark as to any kind of distinction between them in the Church.

The same complete listing is to be found among the Western ecclesiastical writers, for example in Augustine.

Thus, the complete canon of the New Testament books of Sacred Scripture was confirmed by the catholic voice of the whole Church. This Sacred Scripture, in the expression of St. John Damascene, is the “Divine Paradise.”

Sacred Tradition

In the original precise meaning of the word, Sacred Tradition is the tradition which comes from the ancient Church of Apostolic times. In the 2-4th centuries this was called “the Apostolic Tradition.

One must keep in mind that the ancient Church carefully guarded the inward life of the Church from those outside of her; her Holy Mysteries were secret, being kept from non‑Christians.

When these Mysteries were performed‑ Baptism or the Eucharist - ­those outside the Church were not present;

the order of the services was not written down, but was only transmitted orally;

and in what was preserved in secret was contained the essential side of the faith. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (4th century) presents this to us especially clearly.

In undertaking Christian instruction for those who had not yet expressed a final decision to become Christians, the hierarch precedes his teachings with the following words:

“When the catechetical teaching is pronounced, if a catechumen should ask you, 'What did the instructors say?' you are to repeat nothing to those who are without (the church): For we are giving to you the mystery and hope of the future age.

Keep the Mystery of Him Who is the Giver of rewards:

May no one say to you, 'What harm is it if I shall find out also?'

Sick people also ask for wine, but if it is given at the wrong time it produces disorder to the mind, and there are two evil conse­quences: the sick one dies, and the physician is slandered” (Prologue to the Catechetical Lectures, ch. 12).

In one of his further homilies St. Cyril again remarks:

We include the whole teaching of faith in a few lines:

And I would wish that you should remember it word for word and should repeat it among yourselves with all fervor, without writing it down on paper, but noting it by memory in the heart.

And you should beware, lest during the time of your occupation with this study none of the catechumens should hear what has been handed down to you
(Fifth Catechetical Lecture, ch. 12).

In the introductory words which he wrote down for those being “illumined” — that is, those who were already coming to Baptism, and also to those present who were baptized — he gives the following warning:

“This instruction for those who are being illumined is offered to be read by those who are coming to Baptism and by the faithful who have already received Baptism;

but by no means give it either to the catechumens or to anyone else who has not yet become a Christian, otherwise you will have to give an answer to the Lord.

And if you make a copy of these catechetical. lectures, then, as before the Lord, write this down also” (that is, this warning, End of the Prologue to the Catecheti­cal Lectures).

In the following words St. Basil the Great gives us a clear understanding of the Sacred Apostolic Tradition:

“Of the dog­mas and sermons preserved in the Church, certain ones we have from written instruction, and certain ones we have received from the Apostolic Tradition, handed down in secret:

Both the one and the other have one and the same authority for piety, and no one who is even the least informed in the decrees of the Church will contradict this.

For if we dare to overthrow the unwritten customs as if they did not have great importance, we shall thereby imperceptively do harm to the Gospel in its most important points.

And even more, we shall be left with the empty name of the Apostolic preaching without content.

For example, let us especially make note of the first and commonest thing, that those who hope in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ should sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross:

Who taught this in Scripture?
Which Scripture instructed us that we should turn to the east in prayer?

Which of the saints left us in written form the words of invocation during the transformation of the bread of the Eucharist and the Chalice of blessing?

For we are not satisfied with the words which are mentioned in the Epistles or the Gospels, but both before them and after them we pronounce others also as having great authority for the Mystery, having received them from the unwritten teaching.

By what Scripture, likewise, do we bless the water of Baptism and the oil of anointing and, indeed, the one being baptized himself - Is this not the silent and secret tradition?

And what more? What written word has taught us this anointing with oil itself?

Where is the triple immersion and all the rest that has to do with Baptism, the renunciation of Satan and his angels to be found? What Scripture are these taken from?

Is it not from this unpublished and unspoken teaching which our Fathers have preserved in a silence inaccessible to curiosity and scrutiny, because they were thoroughly instructed to preserve in silence the sanctity of the Mysteries?

For what propriety would there be to proclaim in writing a teaching concerning that which it is not allowed for the unbaptized even to behold?” (On the Holy Spirit, ch. 27).

From these words of St. Basil the Great we may conclude:

first, that the Sacred Tradition of the teaching of faith is that which may be traced back to the earliest period of the Church, and,

second, that it was carefully preserved and unanimously acknowledged among the Fathers and teachers of the Church during the epoch of the great Fathers and the beginning of the Ecumenical Councils.

Although St. Basil has given here a series of examples of the “oral” tradition, he himself in this very text has taken a step towards the “recording” of this oral word:

During the era of the freedom and triumph of the Church in the 4th century, almost all of the tradition in general received a written form and is now preserved in the literature of the Church, which comprises a supplement to the Holy Scripture.

We find this sacred ancient Tradition

1) in the most ancient record of the Church, the Canons of the Holy Apostles;

2) in the Symbols of Faith of the ancient local churches;

3) in the ancient Liturgies, in the rite of Baptism, and in other ancient prayers;

4) in the ancient Acts of the Christian martyrs:

The Acts of the martyrs did not enter into use by the faithful until they had been examined and approved by the local bishops; and they were read at the public gatherings of Christians under the supervision of the leaders of the churches:

In them we see the confession of the Most Holy Trinity, the Divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ, examples of the invocation of the saints, of belief in the conscious life of those who had reposed in Christ, and much else;

5) in the ancient records of the history of the Church, especially in the book of Eusebius Pamphilus, Bishop of Caesar­ea,

where there are gathered many ancient traditions of rite and dogma‑in particular, there is given the canon of the sacred books of the Old and New Testaments;

6) in the works of the ancient Fathers and teachers of the Church;

7) and, finally, in the very spirit of the Church's life, in the preservation of faithfulness to all her foundations which come from the Holy Apostles.

The Apostolic Tradition which has been preserved and guarded by the Church, by the very fact that it has been kept by the Church, becomes the Tradition of the Church herself, it “belongs” to her, it testifies to her; and, in parallel to Sacred Scripture it is called by her, “Sacred Tradition.”

The witness of Sacred Tradition is indispensable for our certainty that all the books of Sacred Scripture have been handed down to us from Apostolic times and are of Apostolic origin.

Sacred Tradition is necessary for the correct understand­ing of separate passages of Sacred Scripture, and for refuting heretical reinterpretations of it, and, in general, so as to avoid superficial, one‑sided, and sometimes even prejudiced and false interpretations of it.

Finally, Sacred Tradition is also necessary because some truths of the faith are expressed in a completely definite form in Scripture, while others are not entirely clear and precise and therefore demand confirmation by the Sacred Apostolic Tradition.

The Apostle commands, Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle” (2 Thess. 2:15).

Besides all this, Sacred Scripture is valuable because from it we see how the whole order of Church organization, the canons, the Divine Services and rites are rooted in and founded upon the way of life of the ancient Church.

Thus, the preservation of “Tradition” expresses the succession of the very essence of the Church.

The Catholic Consciousness of the Church

The Orthodox Church of Christ is the Body of Christ, a spiritual organism whose Head is Christ:

It has a single spirit, a single common faith, a single and common catholic consciousness, guided by the Holy Spirit; and its reasonings are based on the concrete, definite foundations of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Apostolic Tradition.

This catholic consciousness is always with the Church, but, in a more definite fashion, this consciousness is expressed in the Ecumenical Councils of the Church:

From profound Christian antiquity, local councils of separate Orthodox Churches gathered twice a year, in accordance with the 37th Canon of the Holy Apostles.

Likewise, often in the history of the Church there were councils of regional bishops representing a wider area than individual Churches and, finally, councils of bishops of the whole Orthodox Church of both East and West:

Such Ecumenical Councils the Church recognizes as 7 in number:

The Ecumenical Councils formulated precisely and confirmed a number of the fundamental truths of the Orthodox Christian Faith, defending the ancient teaching of the Church against the distortions of heretics.

The Ecumenical Councils likewise formulated numerous laws and rules governing public and private Christian church life, which are called the Church canons, and required the universal and uniform observance of them.

Finally, the Ecumenical Councils confirmed the dogmatic decrees of a number of local councils, and also the dogmatic statements composed by certain Fathers of the Church —

for example, the confession of faith of St. Gregory the Wonderwork­er, Bishop of Neo‑Caesarea, the canons of St. Basil the Great, and so forth.

When in the history of the Church it happened that councils of bishops permitted heretical views to be expressed in their decrees,

the catholic consciousness of the Church was disturbed and was not pacified until authentic Christian truth was restored and confirmed by means of another council.

One must remember that the councils of the Church made their dogmatic decrees

a) after a careful, thorough and complete examination of all those places in Sacred Scripture which touch a given question,

b) thus testifying that the Ecumenical Church has understood the cited passages of Sacred Scripture in precisely this way.

In this way the decrees of the councils concerning faith express the harmony of Sacred Scripture and the catholic Tradition of the Church.

For this reason these decrees became themselves, in their turn, an authentic, inviolable, authoritative, Ecumenical and Sacred Tradition of the Church, founded upon the facts of Sacred Scripture and Apostolic Tradition.

Of course, many truths of the Faith are so immediately clear from Sacred Scripture that they were not subjected to heretical reinterpretations; therefore, concerning them there are no specific decrees of councils. Other truths, however, were confirmed by councils.

Among all the dogmatic decrees of councils, the Ecumen­ical Councils themselves acknowledge as primary and funda­mental the Nicaea‑Constantinopolitan Symbol of Faith

and they forbade any change whatsoever in it, not only in its ideas, but also in its words, either by addition or subtraction (decree of the 3d Ecumenical Council, repeated by the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th Councils).

The decrees regarding faith which were made by a number of local councils, and also certain expositions of the Faith by the holy Fathers of the Church, are acknowledged as a guide for the Whole Church and are numbered in the 2d Canon of the 6th Ecumenical Council (in Trullo).

Dogmas and Canons

In ecclesiastical terminology dogmas are the truths of Christian teaching, the truths of faith,

and canons are the prescriptions:

relating to church order, church government, the obliga­tions of the church hierarchy and clergy and of every Christian, which flow from the moral foundations of the evangelical and Apostolic teaching.

Canon is a Greek word which literally means “a straight rod, a measure of precise direction.

The Works Of The Holy Fathers

For guidance in questions of faith, for the correct under­standing of Sacred Scripture, and in order to distinguish the authentic Tradition of the Church from false teachings,

we appeal to the works of the Holy Fathers of the Church,

acknowl­edging that the unanimous agreement of all of the Fathers and teachers of the Church in teaching of the Faith is an undoubted sign of truth. The holy Fathers stood for the truth, fearing neither threats nor persecutions nor death itself.

The Patristic explanations of the truths of the Faith

1) gave precision to the expression of the truths of Christian teaching and created a unity of dogmatic language;

2) added testimonies of these truths from Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, and also brought forth for them arguments based on reason.

In theology, attention is also given to certain private opinions of the holy Fathers or teachers of the Church on questions which have not been precisely defined and accepted by the whole Church. However, these opinions are not to be confused with dogmas, in the precise meaning of the word.

There are some private opinions of certain Fathers and teachers which are not recognized as being in agreement with the general catholic faith of the Church, and are not accepted as a guide to faith.

The Divine Services

The Catholic consciousness of the Church, where it concerns the teaching of faith, is also expressed in the Orthodox Divine Services which have been handed down to us by the Ecumenical Church.

By entering deeply into the content of the Divine service books we make ourselves firmer in the dogmatic teaching of the Orthodox Church.

The content of the Orthodox Divine services is the culminating expression of the teaching of the holy Apostles and Fathers of the Church, both in the sphere of dogma and of morals.

This is splendidly expressed in the hymn (the kontakion) which is sung on the day of the commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils:

The preaching of the Apostles and the dogmas of the Fathers have imprinted upon the Church a single faith which, bearing the garment of truth woven of the theology from above, rightly dispenses and glorifies the great mystery of piety.