Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Orthodox Church?
"The Eastern Orthodox Church is organically the same congregation or ecclesia which was born at the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem on Pentecost. In many places already mentioned in the New Testament, this congregation has remained the same throughout history. The Orthodox Church...is simply the direct continuation of the Church of the Apostolic Age." (The Faith We Hold, Archbishop Paul of Finland, p.15)
Is the Orthodox Church more like Protestants or Catholics?
Orthodox Christians have some things in common with both Protestants and Catholics: We believe in one God in three Persons (i.e. the Trinity); in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who became incarnate as fully God and fully man, lived a perfect life, died on a cross, was buried and rose again on the third day; We believe, as Christ said, that no one comes to the Father but through Him; We believe that the Bible is the inspired inerrant written word of God.
However, we would say that the Roman Catholic Church added to the Faith—things
like indulgences, purgatory, papal infallibility—and that Protestants subtracted
from the faith—sacraments, liturgy, Mary and the saints. Orthodox Christians
believe that their Church has maintained unchanged the "Faith once for all
delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). The Orthodox Christian Faith is the fullness of the
Faith with nothing added and nothing removed. The Orthodox Church teaches and
believes exactly as the Apostles did two-thousand years ago.
Which do you believe in, the Bible or Tradition?
The short answer is "Yes." In fact, the Orthodox Church does not place Scripture and Tradition at odds, as many Christian believers do. The key, of course, is understanding what is meant by "tradition."
The Greek word that is often translated as "tradition" is also translated as "teaching."* This Greek word—paradosis—means "that which is handed down," and can refer either to the teachings of Christ and the Apostles—which includes the Scriptures and a proper understanding of them—or it can refer to "traditions of men." To keep the two straight we often use a capital "T" when referring to sacred Tradition, that is, the teachings of Christ and the Apostles.
The New Testament carefully distinguishes between "traditions of men" and The Tradition, which is the Faith handed over to us by Christ in the Holy Spirit. That same Faith was believed and practiced several decades before the New Testament Scriptures were set down in writing and given canonical (i.e., official) status. We experience the Tradition as timeless and ever timely, ancient and ever new.
The New Testament Scriptures are the primary written witness to Christ's teaching. Orthodox Christians therefore believe the Bible, as the inspired written Word of God, is the heart of sacred Tradition. In the New Testament all basic Orthodox doctrine and sacramental practice is either specifically set forth, or alluded to as already a practice of the Church in the first century A.D.
Sacred Tradition is witnessed to also by the decisions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Nicene Creed, the writings of the Fathers of the Church, by the liturgical worship and iconography of the Church, and in the lives of the Saints. These items aren't sources of Sacred Tradition, rather witnesses to it.
Orthodox Holy Tradition, Orthodox theology and the Holy Scriptures are intertwined. They all speak of the same Orthodox Christian life and faith. They come from the same apostolic and patristic sources of the early Church. Frankly, it is barely possible to fully understand the Bible without understanding the historic, ecclesiastic, liturgical and theological context of the early Church. For example it was on the basis of a common knowledge of “authentic” Church Tradition that the church fathers of the pre-Reformation Church were able to agree on the content that became the New Testament biblical canon we have today. The canon was compiled from myriad ancient text sources, many of which were spurious or even heretical. As we affirm, the Bible was given to the historic Church.
*(see: Mt 15.2, 3, 6; Mk 7.3, 5, 8, 9, 13; 1Co 11.2; Ga 1.14; Col 2.8; 2Th 2.15, 3.6)
Do you believe that we are saved by faith or by works?
Orthodox Christianity teaches that belief in Jesus must be combined with putting that belief into action—feeding the hungry, ministering to others, etc. Both essential.
We read in the epistles: “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:14-26)
One can indeed “believe” in Christ and yet lead a life that betrays that belief. Hence belief alone is not sufficient. “Not all who say ‘Lord, Lord’ will have a place in my Kingdom.”
It also important to point out that the only place the phrase "faith alone" appears in the Bible is in James 2:24, which tells us that "a person is justified by works and not by faith alone."
Is it true that the Orthodox Church teaches "works righteousness"?
The Orthodox Church does not teach "works righteousness." The Orthodox Church teaches—as does the Bible—that faith is more than intellectual assent or verbal expression. It must me demonstrated through action, proved by the way we live, otherwise it isn't real (Jam 2.14-26). Christ told us to be perfect (Mt 5.48), so this is what we strive for (Rom 12.2; 2Cor 4.16-17; Eph 4.21-24; 1Thess 4.1-8). This takes work.
Yes, we believe that good works are necessary because they 1) demonstrate that faith is genuine, and 2) are a means by which we continue to deny ourselves and grow more and more in the likeness of God.
Works are NOT 1) an attempt to earn salvation, 2) a reparation for sin, 3) a way to appease God's anger.
Read the following verses and consider whether they support the notion that our salvation requires no effort whatsoever on our part: Mt 7.21-6; Mt 10.40-2; Mt 19.17; Mt 25.31-46; Lk 6.46; Jn 13.17; Rom 2.6-8, 13; 1 Cor 4:4; 1 Cor 9.27; Gal 5.6; Php 2.12-3; 1 Ti 5.8; Heb 10.26-8; Jas 2.14-26.
What is Orthodox Christian hope based on?
Our entire hope is Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul says: “…by the commandment
of God our Savior, and the Lord Jesus Christ, our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1). We receive
and will receive everything through him. Our Lord Himself teaches: “And whatever
you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son”
(John 14:13). Our hope is based on the sovereign grace of God, since it was given
through Christ, as Scripture says: “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and
truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
But we also have our part to play! First, there is the following of God’s will, that is, the commandments. Christ himself tells us: “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him” (John 14: 21). Second, through the communion of the holy mysteries of the body and blood of Christ, through which Christ the Lord abides. “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (John 6:56); and “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (John 6: 53). And third, through persevering prayer, as the Apostle Paul teaches: “But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (Jude: 20-21).
How does the Orthodox Church understand “salvation”?
Eastern Orthodox theologians contend that Western Christian doctrines of sin and salvation have been overly dominated by legal, juridical and forensic language and categories. By this they mean the West’s almost exclusive use of terms of divine law and justice to describe salvation; ideas that are perhaps taken from the context of Roman civil law. While we affirm the use of legal metaphors by Saint Paul, the eastern church fathers contend legal concepts should not dominate (as they have in the West), but should be balanced among the many other biblical metaphors used to describe the redemptive work of Christ.
An example of how far removed the Christian East and West are in this area is the fact that the doctrine of justification by faith (how guilty people can stand before a just God or Judge), which is so prevalent in the West, is almost entirely absent in the East! Eastern theology does not focus so much on guilt, as on mortality (i.e. death!) as the main problem of humanity. We tend to see the work of Christ more in therapeutic, healing, renewal, or rescue terms than on exclusively or primarily juridical, legal, forensic terms.
Psalm 82:6 says, “I say, ‘You are gods’; you are all sons of the Most High’.” 2 Peter 1:4: “Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” Saint Cyril of Alexandria commenting on this passage tells us that we are all called to participate in divinity, not just a few “saints”. Although Christ alone is God by nature, all people are called to become God – like, “to participate in the divine nature” (without of course becoming what God is by nature!). To “participate in the divine nature” is how Orthodox Christians understand the full meaning of salvation. Salvation is more than simply saying a “sinner’s prayer”, or belief in or adherence to a set of doctrinal or moral premises. A person becomes the perfect image of God by discovering his or her likeness to God, which is the perfection of the nature common to all human beings. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes, salvation is understood as direct union with the living God, the total transformation of the human person by divine grace and glory – what the Greek fathers termed “deification” or “divinization”.
Orthodox Christians use repetitive prayer, but doesn't the Matthew 6:7 condemn repetitive prayer as "vain repetition"?
It's unfortunate that people have the mistaken idea that, when it comes to prayer, any repetition must be vain, or in vain. Repetition does not make a prayer vain; what makes a prayer vain is the heart of the person saying the prayer, which of course is not something we can judge. What Matthew 6:7 condemns is vanity, not repetition.
Is it vain to call on the Lord for mercy? Is it vain to repeat "Holy, Holy, Holy"?
Why is it acceptable to reprise the chorus of a "praise song" a dozen or more times, and yet reciting the Lord's Prayer might be "vain repetition"?
Read Psalm 136 and consider whether that qualifies as "vain repetition."
Is your elaborate worship biblical?
The Christian Church learned to worship in the Jewish Temple and in the
Synagogues. Again and again the New Testament tells us that Jesus, Paul and
the others worshipped regularly in Jewish houses of worship. (See for instance
Luke 4:16; Acts 3:1; Acts 17:1-2.) We know from archaeology, and from modern
Jewish practice, that Synagogue worship was and is highly liturgical, i.e.,
communal, organized, ceremonial, and done decently and in order
(I Corinthians 14:40).
The French Protestant biblical scholar Oscar Cullman demonstrates very convincingly in his little book Early Christian Worship that when John describes heavenly worship in the book of Revelation, he is following the Hebrew custom of portraying Heaven's worship in terms of earthly liturgy. The writers of the Bible thought of earthly worship as a "shadow" or "type" of Heaven's liturgy. (See Isaiah 6, Hebrews 8:4-6.) In other words, a biblical passage such as the fourth and fifth chapters of the Book of Revelation gives us an accurate picture of a very early Christian worship service. That service very much resembles modern Orthodox worship.
Orthodox worship is also very Scriptural in the sense that it is a kaleidoscopic mosaic of Scriptural quotations, paraphrases, references, and allusions. It is, quite literally, "to pray the Bible!"
Apart from the fact that we worship in English, and use modern harmonies with our ancient melodies, our services are basically identical to those of the early Christian Church. For that reason our worship sometimes seems a bit "strange" to Protestant and Roman Catholic visitors. We often hear, "Your services are just beautiful, and the music is outstanding, but they feel somewhat different."
Why do you have all those pictures in your church?
Icons are not pictures in the sense of naturalistic representations. They are rather stylized and symbolic expressions of divinized humanity. (See II Peter 1:4; I John 3:2.) Icons for the Orthodox are sacramental signs of God's Cloud of Witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). We do not worship icons. Rather, we experience icons as Windows into Heaven. Like the Bible, icons are earthly points of contact with transcendent Reality.
In the original Greek of the New Testament Christ is called several times the icon (image) of God the Father. (See II Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3.) Man himself was originally created to be the icon of God (Genesis 1:27).
Do you pray to icons?
Christians pray in the presence of Icons (just as Israelites prayed in the presence of Icons in the Temple), but we do not pray to the image.
Do icons work miracles?
To put this question in proper perspective, let's consider a few other questions: Did the Ark of the Covenant work miracles (e.g. Joshua 3:15ff; 1st Samuel 4-6; 2nd Samuel 11-12)? Did the Bronze Serpent heal those bitten by snakes (Numbers 21:9)? Did the Prophet Elisha's bones raise a man from the dead (2nd Kings 13:21)? Did St. Peter's shadow heal the sick (Acts 5:15)? Did aprons and handkerchiefs that had touched St. Paul heal the sick and caste out evil spirits (Acts 19:12)?
he answer to these questions are, Yes, in a manner of speaking. Nevertheless, to be precise, it was God who chose to work miracles through these things. In the case of the Ark and the Bronze serpent, we have images used to work miracles. God worked a miracle through the relics of the Prophet Elisha, through the shadow of a Saint, and through things that had merely touched a Saint. Why? Because God honors those who honor Him (1st Samuel 2:30), and thus takes delight in working miracles through his Saints, even by these indirect means. The fact that God can sanctify material things should come as no surprise to those familiar with Scripture. For example, not only was the Altar of the Temple holy, but anything that touched it was holy as well (Exodus 29:37). To reject the truth that God works through material things is to fall into Gnosticism.
So yes, loosely speaking, Icons can work miracles—but to be precise, it is God who works miracles through Icons, because He honors those who have honored Him.
Do Orthodox Christians Worship Icons? What's the difference between "worship" and "veneration"?
Orthodox Christians do not worship Icons in the sense that the word "worship" is commonly used in modern English. In older translations (and in some more recent translations in which the translators insist on using this word in its original sense), one finds the word "worship" used to translate the Greek word proskyneo (literally, "to bow"). Nevertheless, one must understand that the older use of "worship" in English was much broader than it is generally used today, and was often used to refer simply to the act of honoring, venerating, or reverencing. For example, in the old book of common prayer, one of the wedding vows was "with my body I thee worship," but this was never intended to imply that the bride would worship her husband in the sense in which "worship" is commonly used now.
Orthodox Christians do venerate Icons, which is to say, we pay respect to them because they are holy objects, and because we reverence what the Icons depict. We do not worship Icons any more than Americans worship the American flag. Saluting the flag is not exactly the same type of veneration as we pay to Icons, but it is indeed a type of veneration. And just as we do not venerate wood and paint, but rather the persons depicted in the Icon, patriotic Americans do not venerate cloth and dye, but rather the country which the flag represents.
This was the reasoning of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which decreed in its Oros the following:
"Since this is the case, following the royal path and the teaching divinely inspired by our holy Fathers and the Tradition of the catholic Church—for we know that it is inspired by the Holy Spirit who lives in it—we decide in all correctness and after a thorough examination that, just as the holy and vivifying Cross, similarly the holy and precious Icons painted with colors, made with little stones or with any other matter serving this purpose (epitedeios), should be placed in the holy churches of God, on vases and sacred vestments, on walls and boards, in houses and on roads, whether these are Icons of our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ, or of our spotless Sovereign Lady, the holy Mother of God, or of the holy angels and of holy and venerable men. For each time that we see their representation in an image, each time, while gazing upon them, we are made to remember the prototypes, we grow to love them more, and we are more induced to worship them by kissing them and by witnessing our veneration (proskenesin), not the true adoration (latreian) which, according to our faith, is proper only to the one divine nature, but in the same way as we venerate the image of the precious and vivifying cross, the holy Gospel and other sacred objects which we honor with incense and candles according to the pious custom of our forefathers. For the honor rendered to the image goes to its prototype, and the person who venerates an Icon venerates the person represented in it. Indeed, such is the teaching of our holy Fathers and the Tradition of the holy catholic Church which propagated the Gospel from one end of the earth to the other."
The Jews understand the difference between veneration and worship (adoration). A pious Jew kisses the Mezuza on his door post, he kisses his prayer shawl before putting it on, he kisses the tefillin, before he binds them to his forehead, and arm. He kisses the Torah before he reads it in the Synagogue. No doubt, Christ did likewise, when reading the Scriptures in the Synagogue.
The Early Christians also understood this distinction as well. In the Martyrdom of Polycarp (who was St. John the Apostle's disciple, and whose Martyrdom was recorded by the faithful of his Church, who were eyewitnesses of all that it recounts), we are told of how some sought to have the Roman magistrate keep the Christians from retrieving the body of the Holy Martyr
"'lest,' so it was said, 'they should abandon the crucified one and begin to worship this man'—this being done at the instigation and urgent entreaty of the Jews, who also watched when we were about to take it from the fire, not knowing that it will be impossible for us either to forsake at any time the Christ who suffered for the salvation of the whole world of those that are saved—suffered though faultless for sinners—nor to worship any other. For Him, being the Son of God, we adore, but the martyrs as disciples and imitators of the Lord we cherish as they deserve for their matchless affection towards their own King and Teacher.... The centurion therefore, seeing the opposition raised on the part of the Jews, set him in the midst and burnt him after their custom. And so we afterwards took up his bones which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place; where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birth-day [i.e. the anniversary] of his martyrdom for the commemoration of those that have already fought in the contest, and for the training and preparation of those that shall do so hereafter" (The Martyrdom of Polycarp 17:2-3; 18:1-3).
Doesn't the 2nd Commandment forbid Icons?
The issue with respect to the 2nd commandment is what does the word translated "graven images" mean? If it simply means carved images, then the images in the temple would be in violation of this Commandment. Our best guide, however, to what Hebrew words mean, is what they meant to Hebrews—and when the Hebrews translated the Bible into Greek, they translated this word simply as "eidoloi", i.e. "idols." Furthermore the Hebrew word pesel is never used in reference to any of the images in the temple. So clearly the reference here is to pagan images rather than images in general.
Let's look at the Scriptural passage in question more closely:
"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image (i.e. idol), or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor shalt thou serve (worship) them..." (Exodus 20:4-5a).
Now, if we take this as a reference to images of any kind, then clearly the cherubim in the Temple violate this command. If we limit this as applying only to idols, no contradiction exists.
Furthermore, if this applies to all images—then even the picture on a driver's license violates it, and is an idol. So either every Protestant with a driver's license is an idolater, or Icons are not idols.
Leaving aside, for the moment, the meaning of "graven images" lets simply look at what this text actually says about them. You shall not make x, you shall not bow to x, you shall not worship x. If x = image, then the Temple itself violates this Commandment. If x = idol and not all images, then this verse contradicts neither the Icons in the Temple, nor Orthodox Icons.
Doesn't Deuteronomy 4:14-19 forbid any images of God? How then can you have Icons of Christ?
This passage instructs the Jews not to make a (false) image of God, because they had not seen God, however, as Christians, we believe that God became Incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, and so we may depict that "which we have seen with our eyes" (1st John 1:1). As St. John of Damascus said:
"Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God. How could God be born out of lifeless things? And if God's body is God by union, it is immutable. The nature of God remains the same as before, the flesh created in time is quickened by, a logical and reasoning soul."