Church History for Orthodox | 2


1. The First Council — Nicaea (325 A.D.).

This reversal of affairs was followed by a spiritual victory over heresy.

A Council of all Christian Bishops was called by Emperor Constantine to decide officially what the Christian Faith consisted of, since a priest named Arius was teaching that Christ was not God but merely a unique man, and winning many adherents.

The Council met at Nicaea and refuted his doctrine, writing a summary of the true Faith we now know as the first part of the Creed chanted in the Liturgy.

At the same time, the Nicene Fathers agreed how Pascha (Easter Day ) would be computed; required all Christians to stand , not kneel, at Sunday worship; and settled clergy affairs.

These decisions are abided by even today by the Orthodox Christians of the East and of the West.

Just a few follow-up remarks:

First , after Nicaea the Arian Christians grew to be more numerous than the faithful, showing that it is not sheer strength of numbers that determines where the authentic Church lies.

Second , although defining the Faith in terms of human language was necessary to safeguard the Truth, it was very painful for the Fathers of Nicaea to do.

They felt keenly that Christ's Faith was something to be treasured and stored up within the human heart, not baked into a formula.

We can only become their spiritual heirs if we embrace the Faith in the actions of our lives as well as by accepting their Creed.

2. The Constantine’s era.

After Emperor Constantine legalized the Christian Faith, and it was clearly defined at the General Council of Nicaea, momentous changes swept through the Church, and not all the winds were favourable.

Christianity had not usually attracted ambitious men; now they sought to be made Priests and Bishops, with some success. There was a large influx of converts, not as fervent and sincere as converts had been.

Public churches were built, and replaced the catacombs and private homes as the site where the Sacraments, or Mysteries, were celebrated.

This new freedom allowed the cultivation and perfection of liturgical music and a flourishing of liturgical art, the groundwork for the church hymnody and iconography which so beautify and elevate our worship today.

The Constantine’s Era is the name often given to that period following Constantine's reign when the aims of Christianity and those of the secular kingdom largely overlapped, when the expertise and resources of society were expended to the glory of God.

This benefited the Church in certain ways:

For example, Bishops are not known for working well together, and it is possible that without imperial intervention no Ecumenical Council would ever have been assembled.

All 7 of the Holy Councils which upheld our Faith were convened by the summons of an Emperor or Empress. At its best, the policy of symphony between the Church and the State was advantageous for the Faith.

The drawback was that worldly influence at times crept into the Holy of Holies, and this was a concern for many sincere Christians.

In fact, whenever the secular authorities tried to interfere outright in the teachings of the Church, saintly Bishops were there to lay down their lives, if need be, to defend the Truth. The Church’s calendar of martyrs is full of their names.

3. Monasticism.

One reaction to worldliness was spearheaded in the deserts of Egypt, where once the Christ Child had fled to escape the hands of a worldly despot:

A young man named Anthony retired into the deserts to serve God in solitude and prayer. St. Anthony was eventually encompassed by large numbers of enthusiastic disciples, and organized them as Christian monks .

Monk ” comes from Greek monos , “alone ,” and at first meant a hermit or solitary. The monks foreswore secular involvement, dainty food, the married life, and personal property.

In short, their aim was to fulfil not only all the commandments of Christ, but also all His counsels given in the Holy Gospels, such as voluntary poverty, virginity, obedience, and ascetic life (asceticism is voluntary deprivation and struggle for God's sake).

St. Pachomius started the first monastery, where these religious men could dwell in mutual support under a rule of life.

These ideals, which fired the souls of many men and women whom we know today as Saints, spread from Egypt to Palestine to Syria and all the East. They were imported to the West by the great St. John Cassian , and there they shone forth as brightly as in the East.

4. "New Rome”; The Second Council (381 A.D.).

Emperor Constantine set another mighty wheel in motion when he moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium , an obscure village in Greece not far from Nicaea.

It soon became known as Constantinople or New Rome , and there it was that the Second Holy Council of the Church was held in 381 .

At the First Council , the main issue was the Divinity of Christ ; this Second Council discussed the Divinity of the Holy Spirit .

The genuine teaching that the Holy Spirit is God was enshrined by the council Fathers in statements which now form the second half of the Creed we sing every Sunday at Divine Liturgy.

Another way in which this teaching was enshrined was pioneered by St. Cyril of Jerusalem :

To the Eucharistic Liturgy he added an explicit invocation to the Holy Spirit to descend upon the Gifts and effect their transformation into the Body and Blood of Christ.

This invocation is called the epiclesis , and all the various churches adopted it into their rites.

5. Standardizations of the Liturgy.

Some time before 450 A.D ., a major transformation occurred in the way the Liturgy was celebrated at Rome :

Originally, it had been done in Greek , until Pope St. Victor began using Latin .

At some point, which no scholar has been able to discover precisely, the prayers were rearranged, and the terse, symmetrical Roman Canon was established.

After this, the changes to the Roman Rite were minor indeed, at least after St. Gregory brought the Our Father and Kyrie into place (about 600 A.D. ).

The Roman Rite was present in Spain in the 5th century and developed independently as the Mozarabic Rite. In Gaul, the Gallican Rite , a Latin rite with Eastern features, was used. At Milan a rite similar to the Roman, called the Ambrosian , developed independently.

In the East, St. Basil codified the Liturgy and from it St. John Chrysostom (5th century) produced a shortened version. These two Liturgies, together with the hours of prayer from St. Sabbas Monastery near Jerusalem, were the foundation for the Byzantine Rite .

Other important Eastern Liturgies were that of St. Mark (Coptic Rite ) and St. James (Syriac Liturgy ).

Nearly all the Eastern and Western rites named above have been used in the Orthodox Church in modern times, if only occasionally. But the Rite which is the spiritual heritage of the vast majority of Orthodox today is the Byzantine .

6. "Orthodoxy.”

Ever since the first four Councils, the term most commonly used to denote our beliefs has been “Orthodox.

It comes from Greek orthos , “correct, straight ,” and doxa , “glory, worship. ” The Orthodox, then, are those who worship God truly and rightfully , with true belief.

This word had the special meaning in those early days of “one who accepts all the Councils ” (In the East and West, the word “Catholic ” continued to be used to describe the Church, although, as we will see, “Catholic ” and “Orthodox ” nowadays connote two different faiths).

7. Four Fathers.

Four great and holy men graced the Church as the 4th century gave way to the 5th:

St. Athanasius was (almost) single-handedly responsible for the success of the Nicene Council when its popularity faded, and this earned him the title “Pillar of Orthodoxy .”

When still a Deacon, he denounced the priest Arius, and when he returned from Nicaea he was made Pope of Alexandria . Soon, however, he was exiled from his see, and travelled across East and West barely escaping the clutches of angry heretics.

Over the course of five separate exiles, he wrote letters, guided his flock from afar, and preserved an irrepressible sense of humour, one of the most effective weapons in his spiritual arsenal. St. Athanasius reposed in Christ in 373 .

St. John Chrysostom ("Golden Mouth ”) made his start as a humble hermit in Syria , earned fame as a Priest and preacher at Antioch , and then was forced to be Archbishop of the New Rome, Constantinople .

His zeal for virtue (an area in which the imperial couple were markedly deficient) attracted the imperial wrath. John was exiled from New Rome repeatedly.

When he died in exile in 407 , he left a massive legacy of letters, sermons, and commentaries. He is especially loved today for having given the Church her most commonly-used Liturgy for the Eucharist .

Another Saint of this era spanned the Eastern and Western worlds, but hailed from Yugoslavia (Sidonium): St. Jerome moved from Old Rome to Bethlehem and as a Priest and monk lived the rest of his life in the spot where Christ was born.

He translated the books of the Bible into Latin from Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, using ancient manuscripts which do not survive today.

His great opus is called the Latin Vulgate , and it is the version of Scripture on which the Douay-Rheims Bible is grounded. By the year 400 , the Church had decided what writings were to be included in the Bible, and our list has not changed since.

The great giant of the West was St. Augustine of Africa , a man who came to Christ late in life:

After many years as a wild-living Manichean heretic, Augustine was converted through the New Testament and the preaching of his friend St. Ambrose , Bishop of Milan. He became Bishop of Hippo in Africa , where he took aim at heresies of all sorts.

He is a controversial figure because his pen often outraced his God-loving heart, and his logically-produced speculations were later utilized to develop certain Roman Catholic and Protestant teachings, which will have to be discussed eventually in this book.

However, at the end of his life of service to God, Augustine wrote an entire book of retractions, deferred to the judgment of the Church everything he had ever written, and died in the odour of sanctity, bequeathing to us a legacy as massive as St. John Chrysostom's.

8. The Third Council — 431 A.D.

The year after St. Augustine fell asleep, the Church's Third Holy Council was convened at Ephesus , where the Apostle John and the Virgin Mary had lived.

Nestorius , the Patriarch of Constantinople , was drawing such a line of distinction between Christ's human side and His Divine side that he said in a Christmas sermon it was demeaning for him to worship a God in a crib!

The Holy Council defrocked him and stated that, because Christ is both God and man, the Virgin Mary is truly Theotokos , Mother of God .

Nestorius headed east, “consecrated ” many clergy, and set up many churches, all separated from the Orthodox and calling him St. Nestorius .

But the next Council occasioned an apostasy still more terrible.

9. The Fourth Council — 451 A.D.

There were those who went so far in avoiding Nestorianism that they developed another error, Monophysitism (from the Greek for “one nature ”):

These taught that Christ's human and Divine sides were so closely united that they had fused into one human/Divine nature (which would, thus, be neither truly human nor truly Divine).

The argument got fierce.

The Empress St. Pulcheria convened a General Council at Chalcedon to solve the dilemma, and, assisted by an evident miracle worked at the tomb of the early Martyr Euphemia , the Fathers ruled against the Monophysites :

The Council Fathers wrote the Orthodox teaching on one scroll & that of the Monophysites on another, then placed both in St. Euphemia’s tomb & began to fast & pray.

After 3 days, they opened the tomb to find the Orthodox scroll in the Saint’s hand & the Monophysite scroll trampled under her feet. Euphemia had spoken; the case was closed.

Sadly, for reasons both religious and political, a large dissident denomination was formed, including Egyptian Copts , Syrian Jacobites , and their followers in India. This group rejected the Fourth Council (and succeeding ones).

Orthodoxy proclaims 2 Natures in Christ - Divine and human, each distinct, neither fused together nor divisible. Recently this teaching has come under fire.

A handful of Orthodox leaders now claim that today's Monophysites do not believe in classic Monophysitism, and that the Orthodox should unite with them. The Monophysites have responded by toning down their historic platform to a large degree.

Nevertheless, traditional Orthodox were alarmed by a unity plan formulated at Chambesy, Switzerland , in 1990 , a plan signed by representatives from most Orthodox Patriarchates:

It failed to state that the Monophysite Christians ought to embrace the Fourth and all succeeding Councils. Condemnations of the Chambesy plan erupted from Mount Athos, the Georgian Patriarchate, and traditional clergy everywhere.

Orthodox feel they have more common ground with the Monophysites than with any other separated Christians, but as long as fully half of the Ecumenical Councils are rejected, there can be no real unity.

10. Rome falls.

Turned upside down by moral decay, weakened by internal conflicts, and reeling from the economic and ideological blow dealt by Constantine when he relocated the capital to Constantinople,

Old Rome shuddered in the 5th century under repeated barbarian attacks:

Finally, in 476 , Rome fell permanently to heathen invaders. Many thought the world had ended as The City , the erstwhile hub of Western learning, civilization, and order collapsed.

The repercussions for the Church of Christ were great, especially in the long term, for as public order disintegrated in Italy, the Popes of Rome were forced by sheer compassion to assume a new quasi-governmental role.

They began to oversee public charities and to mediate and even rule in public affairs. Before long, the see of Rome had become a government in its own right.

As long as holy and capable men steered the Roman church, the arrangement worked, but in later years the saying “Power corrupts ” came true:

Slowly, over the course of the next 300 years , the attitude that the Popes ruled the whole Church manifested itself and alarmed the other local Churches.

11. A godsend.

Just four years after Rome fell, St. Benedict the Great was born in Norcia, Italy. Schooled in Rome, he left it as a young man to seek Christ as a hermit living inside a cave in the wild.

He gained many disciples, and wrote a Rule to guide them in monastic life . The Holy Rule revealed Benedict as a genius of discretion and moderation.

The severity of the Eastern monks' asceticism he adapted to the Western character, insisting more on obedience and internal work than fasting or great labours.

St. Benedict is known as the Father of Western Civilization because the monasteries were for many years the only oases of stability and learning in a barbaric world:

They fed the poor, saved the books, taught people how to read them, and fostered a new ethic, teaching the world that manual labour was honourable. (Formerly, manual work was thought contemptible, only fit for paupers and slaves.).

Many people today object to Christianity on the grounds that no one is doing as the early Christians did:

sharing all possessions in common, renouncing private property, living in community, praying daily, “working with [the] hands, the thing that is just ,” and the other things mentioned in the Book of Acts in the Bible .

In monasteries of the Orthodox Church, at least, this way of life still exists — to the glory of Jesus Christ.

12. The Fifth Council — 553 A.D.

The 5th Ecumenical Council of Christendom was called because certain letters called the Three Chapters were being circulated, stretching and straining the definition of faith agreed on at Chalcedon.

In the uproar, Pope Vigilius wearied of the argument and decreed that, taken in the best sense, these letters were acceptable, adding a little hazy theologizing of his own.

The Bishops of Africa cut the Pope off from communion, ordering him to repent.

Emperor Theodosius called a Holy Council against the Pope's wishes, and the Fathers assembled at Constantinople ruled that the Three Chapters were not orthodox and implied that Pope Vigilius was heretical.

This Council condemned Origen (d. 254) , a brilliant teacher who had taught that souls lived spiritually before they are placed in bodies as a result of sin, and that all wicked angels and people would someday enter Heaven after purification.

13. The five Patriarchates.

In the 5th century, the overall structure of the Church became fixed as a Pentarchy :

Five Patriarchs , Bishops shepherding major sections of the world from the important Christian centres and holding equal communion with one another, were invested with special archpastoral care.

These Bishops were described as the “five senses ” of the Church.

We can see that the essence of the Church was still in the unanimity of faith, though, not in a command structure, for at times certain Patriarchs, such as Pope Vigilius of Rome, strayed from the faith and were cut off from the Church.

The Patriarchates were, in descending order of honour,

Rome , Constantinople , Alexandria , Antioch , and Jerusalem.

Pentarchy is still the ideal of the Church, but various defections and contentions have made it practically impossible since at least 1054 A.D ., and newer Patriarchates have developed over the centuries — those of Serbia, Moscow, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Georgian nation.