The Dogmas of the Church
by Fr. Tom Fitzgerald
The beliefs, doctrine and dogma of the Orthodox Church are in direct continuity with the doctrine of the Bible and the uninterrupted tradition of the Church of which the Bible is the authoritative exponent. The Orthodox Church may rightly glory in its history, as being a “historical” Church, of which the history has no innovations to present, but rather an absolute faithfulness to the basic Christian message as preserved in the Bible.
All the dogmas of the Church are “Biblical,” i.e. based on the Bible. The dogmas of the Church are nothing else but an authoritative presentation of the revealed doctrine, both for didactic and also apologetical purposes. Heresy was one of the reasons why the Church established and enunciated its doctrine in a very clear and unequivocal way. However, the dogmas decreed by the Councils that opposed heresy are not the only ones promulgated and taught by the Church. The doctrinal system of the Church contains both these dogmas and all the other doctrines that the Church always proclaimed as being part of the message of salvation that she addresses to the world.
The Triune God, the doctrine of creation of angels and man, man’s fall, the divine plan of salvation, Christ’s person and work, the Church, the Virgin Mary, the Saints, the Sacraments, and Orthodox eschatology (the “last things”) are some of the points of doctrine that will be presented here, in a very synoptic manner.
a) Triune God
In the estimation of the spiritual fathers of the Orthodox Church, knowing God is not just another kind of knowledge: it is a matter of life and death. For there is no third choice between the Holy Trinity and hell.
Also, knowing God is not just another intellectual exercise. It is the kind of Knowledge that commits your entire existence, it is an existential, experiential, apophatic, and doxological Knowledge. We know God when we experience His presence as filling and overtaking us, when we feel completely dependent on him, “as infants feel dependent upon their mothers” (St. Basil). We know God not through our concepts and ideas only, but beyond and above them: for our entire existence is united with Him. We know God when we are familiar with Him as “the cattle are familiar with their manger.” We know God when “we breath Him,” when we feel His presence any place we are or go; we know God when we constantly depend on Him, when our lives belong to Him, when our lives become a constant praise of His Holy Name.
We know God as transcendent, as far away; one of the feelings of truly authentic experience of God is that of awe, that of feeling annihilated in His awesome and distant Presence. However, it is also true that the opposite feeling is also part of true and authentic religious experience: that is to feel God as immanent, and intimately close and nearby and present.
The theological explanation of the Orthodox tradition regarding both God’s immanence and transcendence is simple: God is present to us through His energies (operations, activity) which “descend toward us,” whereas He is completely transcendent, far away, unapproachable in His essence (St. Basil, expanded upon by St. Gregory Palamas).
Our Christian God, then, is not the “God of Philosophers.” He is not a “Supreme Being” similar to other beings, another “essence” among many essences. The Christian God is “super-essential” and “super-existent” only in the sense that He is totally different from created existence. “If everything else is being, God is not a being,” said St. Gregory Palamas.
Our Christian God is not a “God exiled in heaven,” according to the theology of “The Secular City” (Harvey Cox). Our Christian God is very much involved with us and the world, for we are His creation and continue to depend on Him.
Our God is also a personal God, a trinity of persons, a fellowship of three sharing the one essence and energies of the one divinity.
The divinity existing in the way of a fountainhead is the Person (Hypostasis) of the Father. The divinity existing in the way of Generation from the Father is the person of the Only-Begotten Son of God, the Word (Logos) of God. The divinity existing in the way of Procession from the Father (only), is the Person of the Holy Spirit of God.
Each one of the three Persons (hypostases) of the Holy Trinity is the entire divinity. On this basis, the three divine persons dwell in one another (perichoresis) inter-dwelling, co-inherence. Each one of the three acts together with the other two; however, each of them relates to the creation in a personal way: the Father conceives the plan of creation (and of restoration of Creation in His Christ); the Son of God makes the Father’s plan of creation (and the salvation of creation) a reality; the Holy Spirit leads God’s (the Father’s) plan of creation (and restoration of creation in Christ, the incarnate Logos of God) to its perfection.
The Creed of the faith speaks of “God the Father All-Governing,” as “creator of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” First of all, it is understood that, according to St. Irenaeos, God the Father creates by using “His two hands, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” St. Basil is more specific when he says that God the Father is the “Primordial Cause” of Creation; the Son of God is the “Creative Cause” of God’s creation (see St. John 1:3: “all things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made”); and the Holy Spirit is the “Perfecting Cause” of creation.
Creation is a Christian concept. It comes from direct revelation (Genesis). No philosopher could have ever discovered the concept of creation as a “call to existence out of nothingness.” Time and space are created also by God, for they exist as categories that are connected with creation. The goal and purpose of God’s creation is the participation of this creation in God’s blessedness: St. John of Damascus speaks of “God’s glory and man’s theosis”; however, God’s glory is man’s theosis, for God creates to communicate Himself, His blessedness and glory to the creatures He creates – the entire creation, and in this creation, man in particular.
Creation is possible in Christianity only, for only Christianity makes the distinction between the essence and energies of God. God creates through His energies, without communicating His essence.
1) Creation of the World
God is the creator of heaven and earth. God creates the world out of goodness. He is interested in His creation, and involved with it. Unlike philosophical systems (deism, secularism) that want God disinvolved, our Christian god is a caring and loving God, the Father in heaven. He creates, keeps things into being, and provides for them as well. Even if His creation turns against Him and rejects Him – that is, the mystery of God the Father’s kenosis, self-emptying – God continues to love it and care for it.
Man’s example confirms this attitude of the Creator: In spite of man’s revolt, God continues to love him, and finds a way of bringing him back to Him, “from death to life,” for God is Life and the absence of this Life is death. Evil in the world can only be understood as man’s invention. The world is affected by man’s evil. It can also be redeemed, and participate in man’s salvation and glory. This is what the Greek Fathers, on the basis of St. Maximos’ theology, refer to as “the cosmic aspects” of salvation in Christ.
God is not only the creator of heaven and earth; but also of everything both visible and invisible. Our Christian Church believes in the existence of spiritual beings, likewise personal, for they are also created “like man” in the image of God, who preceded the creation of the world itself. They are sexless, their number is great, however not infinite. They are “liturgical ministering spirits, sent forth to serve for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation” (Heb. 1:14).
The name given to angels in the Old Testament is that of a messenger, or a minister, a servant of God. The New Testament retains the same meaning for the word “angel.” The three names that we know from the canonical books of the Holy Scripture are: Gabriel (man of God), Michael (Who is as God?), and Rafael (God heals).
The main purpose of angels is to be God’s servants in His creation, and especially man’s helpers. Each man is assigned a special guardian angel by God (see Matt. 18:10). The ultimate purpose of the creation of angels is the glorification and praise of God’s Holy Name.
At this point mention should also be made of the “fallen angels,” Lucifer and his companions. It is also the doctrine of the Church that some of the angels, created as good angels by God, revolted against God because of pride, trying to be “gods without God.” The result of their revolt is their fall from God’s good graces and God’s life. They live an inauthentic life away from God, counteracting God and His plan of theosis for man and the world.
3) Man’s creation
Among the visible things that God created is the crown of His creation, man. In Genesis we read the story of God’s creation. We cannot interpret this story to the letter; however, its message is loud and clear: God is the creator of everything that exists; there is order in God’s creation, and a development (even “evolution”) from lower forms to higher forms of life; God created everything good; man, created in God’s image and likeness, has a very special place in God’s creation, called to be God’s proxy toward His creation.
Man is created as a psycho-physical unity: God “uses his hands” to create man, to show special care about man’s creation. God takes dust from the earth, fashions man, and breathes into man’s nostrils the “breath of life,” man’s soul, of a spiritual nature. Man becomes the link between the spiritual creation of God – (angels) and the material one (earth), for he partakes of both. This is why “man’s mission will be to bring the creation into communion with God” (St. Maximos the Confessor).
Man is created in the image of God, with the specific call to become God-like. The Fathers of the Church elaborate on this doctrine of Genesis. Man’s being in the image of God means that man has a spiritual soul reflecting God (the Father) as a person. Man is capable of knowing God and being in communion with God. Man belongs to God, for being God’s child and image makes him God’s relative. Man’s soul is endowed with God’s energies and life; one of these energies is love. Love, coming from God, is also directed toward God, creating union and bringing communion with God.
The Fathers also make a distinction between the image of God in man, and his likeness to God: image is the potential given to man, through which he can obtain the life of theosis (communion with God). Likeness with God is the actualization of this potential; it is becoming more and more what one already is: becoming more and more God’s image, more and more God-like. The distinction between image and likeness is, in other words, the distinction between being and becoming.
Being in the image of God and called to likeness with God also means for man that God’s immortality is reflected in man, insofar as man continues to be in communion with God through God’s image in him, and that man is assigned God’s creation, to be God’s proxy in it, to have dominion over it and keep it in touch with the Creator.
St. Maximos the Confessor gives this noble mission to man (to Adam, the first man): man has to overcome all kinds of distinctions within God’s creation, before man brings God’s creation back to God: man was called to overcome the distinction between male and female, inhabited earth and paradise, heaven and earth, visible and invisible creation, and, finally, the division between created and uncreated, thus unifying God’s creation with the Creator. Since man failed to achieve this union (theosis), the “New Adam,” Christ, took it upon Himself to fulfill this original call of the first man (Adam).
4) Man’s Fall and its Consequence
Unlike St. Augustine’s doctrine of “original justice,” which attributes to the first man several excessive perfections, perfect knowledge of God and God’s creation, for example, that make the fall impossible, the doctrine of the Greek Fathers of the image of God in man as a potential to be actualized, allows the possibility of a deterioration, as well. St. Irenaeos speaks of the first man (Adam) as an infant (nepios), who had to grow up to adulthood. Instead, man failed himself, by not “passing the test” of maturity given to him by God.
In spite of God’s prohibition, man chose to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis). Being “good by nature” man had to also become “good by choice.” Unfortunately, it did not happen that way. Following the “snake’s” advice (the devil’s, that is), man also tried to do what the fallen angels did: to “become a god without God.” Man’s imperfection and innocence, or, better, naiveté, and his relative pride, cultivated by the “accuser,” became the cause of man’s fall from God’s communion, due to his disobedience and rejection of God. Man put his purpose in himself, instead of putting it in God. Man’s free will is responsible for his own decline.
The consequences of this revolt against God, which the West calls “original” and the East “ancestral” (propatorikon) sin, are that man lost his original innocence; the image of God in him was tarnished, and even became distorted; man’s reason was obscured, his will weakened, the desires and passions of the flesh grew wild; man suffered separation from God, the author and source of life. He put himself in an inauthentic kind of existence, close to death. The Fathers speak of “spiritual death” which is the cause of the physical one, and which may lead to the “eschatological,” eternal death: for “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6: 23).
This state of fall, of inauthentic life close to death, this status of “spiritual death” continues to be transmitted to all of man’s progeny, even those who are born of Christian parents. The personal guilt of the first man belongs to him exclusively. However, the results of his sin are transmitted to the entire human race. A personal commitment through an engagement of one’s personal free will is required, in order for things to turn around. Christ, who requires this personal commitment, made this change possible through His coming and His work upon earth.
5) The case of Mary, the Mother of God
Does the Mother of God, Virgin Mary, participate in the “ancestral sin?” The question does not make much sense for the Orthodox, for it is obvious that Mary, being part of the common human race issued of the first man (Adam), automatically participates in the fallen status and in the “spiritual death” introduced by the sin of the first man.
The Fathers of the Church speculate on Luke 1:35, concluding that Mary was purified by the Holy Spirit the day of Annunciation, in order for her to become the “worthy Mother of God.” However, even after she gave birth to the Son of God, Mary was not exempted of less serious (“venial”) sins. St. John Chrysostom attributes to Mary the sin of vanity, in the context of the first miracle of Christ in Cana of Galilee.
Mary was also saved by her Son, for God is her Savior (Luke 1: 47) as well. It is unfortunate that the Roman Catholic Church promulgated the doctrine of the so-called “Immaculate Conception” in 1854, which contradicts the traditional doctrine of the Church concerning Mary.
May 27, 2016