Sunday, February 8, 2015

When Did They Become Orthodox?

"I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" nearly all Christians who claim any sort of apostolic origin recite on Sundays. Among them are the various kinds of Orthodox Christians of the Eastern Churches. One friend, a Russian Jew born in Orthodoxy who left after falling victim to ethnocentrism, could not quite understand why they said that they believe in the "catholic" Church while not being Catholic. But they do believe they are the Catholic Church, and Orthodox, too.

The birth of "Orthodoxy" and the "Orthodox Church" is one of the minor mysteries in religious linguistics probably worthy of some level of study. The Church of Constantinople—as the Church of Rome, and the Church of Alexandria, and the Church of Aberdeen—believed itself to possess those four marks of the Church and hence to be a part of the Church Christ founded. That Church has gone by a few different names in its two thousand year history, but only a few. St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote in his letter to the Smyrnaeans 
"Where ever the bishop is let the multitude of the people be, as where there is Jesus Christ there is the Catholic Church." 
That phrase, Catholic Church, went on the shelf for the better part of the next few centuries, only coming off when the concept of "Christian" was no longer sufficient to distinguish the true Church from the odd sects engendered by heterodox thinkers or gnostic divines. "Christian," meaning "little Christs"—itself meaning "little anointed ones," a strong indication of Confirmation—by the fourth century had the same general meaning it has today. Anyone who professes Jesus Christ in some meaningful way is a Christian. Those who professed the true faith claimed membership in the "Catholic Church."

"Catholic" lived on in the Creed of Nicaea in the condemnation at the end:
"But those who say 'There was once when he was not,' and 'Before his generation he was not,' and 'He was made out of nothing,' or pretend that the Song of God is of another subsistence or substance, or created or alterable or mutable, the Catholic Church anathematizes."
Christians called the Church Catholic yet they did not always refer to themselves as Catholics. I can recall one occasion when St. Athanasius used the word Catholic substantially to describe individual believers. Most believers contented themselves with the label of Christian except for in the city of Constantinople, which, as the gateway to the east from the west and to west from the east, was the bottleneck of nearly every Christological controversy of the first millennium. Christians there described themselves as "orthodox" or "right worshippers" in contrast to the "heretic," the one who "chooses" to worship God according to his own will. The dialogues of the Greek Fathers crystallized this term in literary style and by the time of St. Theodore the Studite it was an accepted means of self-identification for the Christians of the Byzantine city. As an aside, the Roman Canon does pray for "omnibus orthodoxis.... cultoribus."

"Orthodox" signified an aesthetic, a type of Christian, a Christian who worshipped according to the rites of the Byzantine Church, who bore the scars of the heresies and the scabs of the triumphs that passed through Constantinople, and who adhered uniquely to the theology of the Greek Fathers. John Senior wrote that if philosophy is footnotes on Plato, theology is footnotes on St. Augustine. This phrase holds true only in the West. In the Greek tradition, theology is footnotes on the Cappodocian Fathers. Greek Christians prayed in the Great Entrance "May the Lord Our God remember all you orthodox Christians in His kingdom at all times...." and during the Litany of Fervent Supplication for "our orthodox fathers who here and elsewhere lie asleep in the Lord." While "orthodox" they certainly believed themselves part of the Catholic Church if not the Catholic Church. Then came the fall of Byzantium.

As political as the Roman Church was during the Middle Ages and Baroque era and as institutional as the Roman Church has been since Trent, the Constantinopolitan Church was before 1453 and more. The emperor was God's living representative on earth and the living icon of God the Father before whose image the citizens of Byzantium were to bow in reverence. He could call Councils, kidnap popes, replace the patriarch of his city, and—when he met little resistance—create Church laws that would mold the religious practice of his empire and beyond. Byzantium's triumph in Slavic lands buffered the empire from the west. The disaster of the fourth crusade and the decline of the Byzantine empire polarized Constantinople from "the West" when, hitherto, Constantinople had been more western than any eastern church. In the Palaiologian empire the Greek Church further distanced itself from "the West" during the Hesychast years of St. Gregory Palamas. Theology and liturgy became less communal and more mystical under the influence of Palamas and monastic patriarchs. Symbolism replaced realism in icons which now sat on the curtain around the Holy Place of the Hagia Sophia. Monastic patriarches replaced the organ, choral music, and the old Office with their own chants and psalter. The fall of Constantinople ossified the synthesis of the first millennium Constantinopolitan tradition with the Hesychast monastic movement, the last expression of "orthodox" Christianity.

In the midst of the newfangled Islamic city and without the institutional structures and imperial support the Greek Church previously enjoyed, Christians of Constantinople ceased to identify themselves as the Catholic Church. More troublesome to Greek Christians might have been Rome's unique hold over the title "Catholic Church." All that was left was the way of being Christian that they knew, orthodox. "Holy Orthodoxy" was born. 

One potential pitfall to this argument is that some non-Byzantine Churches of the East that accept the Councils until and excluding Chalcedon are now called "Orthodox." Coptic Christians in my experience are very fervent about the denomination "Orthodox" while Armenians accept the title, but are more content for their church to be known as the "Armenian Apostolic Church." Perhaps the solution to this flaw in my argument lies in the popularity of the term "Orthodox" itself. Could the term have been spread by the Ottoman empire to denote Christians who had nothing to do with the Pope in Rome?

The question is an interesting one and worthy of further study.


  1. Interesting. Mehmet II continued to call himself the Qayser-i-Rum after the conquest of 1453. It didn't last very long, however, amongst subsequent Ottoman rulers. The Byzantines never called themselves "Byzantine" or "Greek" but "Romans." The Western Church united to the pope referred to itself as the "Roman Church," even in official binding documents.

    It's ironic that the Palamites fought against Dominican-influenced Byzantines. St. Mark of Ephesus argued his points at Florence from a Scotistic-Palamite foundation against the anti-Franciscan followers of Aquinas. To this, I highly recommend the works of Fr. Christiaan Kappes.

    1. Interesting also that at the point when "Orthodoxy" was created, partially (but certainly not primarily) in reaction to Roman theology, Rome had not yet settled on or come to grips with its own medieval traditions (Franciscanism.... ugh).

    2. I second the question. What, exactly is Fransiscanism?

  2. It's a little heartbreaking to see the photoshop of Hagia Sophia restored as a cathedral. May it one day become the reality.

  3. "Free Constantinople. 500 years of occupation is enough!” - Robert Spencer

  4. Nice theory that could work with regard to the name "Orthodox(y)." Then, of course, there is the theory that it was divine providence that preserved the name Catholic for the true Church of Christ (those in union with the Roman See), and everything else simply fell into place after that. Not even the Arians could take the name Catholic from the Catholic Church.

    Here is an introduction (by Adrian Fortescue) to a book from 1911 on the "Patriarchs of Constantinople." Fortescue has a very interesting (and very accurate) theory as to the birth and development of the See of Constantinople (some of which matches what you have mentioned in your article).

    Of course, similar things repeated in connection to the birth and development of the Patriarchate in Russia ... difficult to say which of the two is the most avid disciple of erastianism!

    1. Fascinating reading (as Fortescue usually is). Thanks for linking that.

    2. I've never heard of a "theory" that divine Providence preserved the name 'catholic' for those united to Rome. 'Orthodox Catholic Church' is usually considered the "official" title of the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Churches also profess "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." So, I don't know what your point is.

      Having read the Fortescue piece, I couldn't help but notice the references to the Bishop of Rome lamenting the place of Constantinople among the patriarchates. Leo and Gregory realized that the patriarchal system, even if it was only the three Petrine sees (Rome, Alexandria, Antioch), actually meant something. Rome was and is the first among the patriarchs... but this has absolutely not meaning today for the pope of Rome.

    3. I think the theory is just common sense. The Orthies wouldn't claim the title if they did not think the same thing!

      The Patriarchal sees were balances of powers and traditions, not things special unto themselves. There is no definition of a patriarch from a Council nor could there be; a patriarch is a father of a theological and liturgical tradition, and whose expression historically varied from patriarchate to patriarchate. Antioch was once a very strong patriarchate until the Byzantines made it subservient to Constantinople in the 4th century, took away their liturgy in the 11th, and the Turks forced the Uniate church (Antiochian Orthodox who left the Melkites) to be puppets of the bishop of Constantinople.

      The Pope today has no sight beyond his the frames of his own glasses. What of it? Are there any other genuine patriarchs today? It is a serious question. I have advocated for a revival of patriarchates, but if we are honest new ones would have to be erected. The historical sees of honor are dead and meaningless.

    4. I hear what you're saying and I don't necessarily disagree with you. I think the original three patriarchates (Rome, Alexandria, Antioch) were things special unto themselves. Not de jure divino, but I don't even think Rome qua Rome was de jure divino either. There is no definition of patriarchs from a council, true; likewise, there was no definition of papal authority before Vatican I (though we can throw in Florence and some of its predecessors for good measure).

      I agree with you that new patriarchates need to be erected; however, I think we need, as in everything, to understand that we are not the end of history, we are in the middle of it. Amongst the Orthodox, the following have been established as patriarchates: Moscow, Georgia, Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria. If the Orthodox in North and South America could get it together, prove they can become independent Churches, there could easily be new patriarchates erected for the U.S., Canada, Central America, South America, etc. Time will tell. Look how long it took for Jerusalem to become its own patriarchate.

      I think Constantinople's pseudo-primacy among the East will some day be corrected. With Meletius II came an end to the Antiochian patriarchs being Greeks. But are there even enough Chalcedonian Orthodox left in Alexandria and Jerusalem from which to call out a native son as patriarch? Perhaps in the future.

      I think these are good discussions, Rad Trad, and I'm thankful for your blog that so many level-headed, reasonable people are able to openly banter about. All I ask is that you don't plug Adam DeVille's book. ;-)

  5. I think Constantinople's pseudo-primacy among the East will some day be corrected.

    Given the paucity of priests in the wake of the forced closure of the Orthodox Theological School of Halki, and the requirement of Turkish law that the Patriarch be a Turkish citizen, the Ecumenical Patriarchate at this point is facing a much bigger question than its primacy: survival.

    Its extinction is a development I would deplore, notwithstanding the frictions we have had. But there is a sort of logic to it: its very existence (to say nothing of its elevation) is owed entirely to a political development; and its decline and possible extinction are owed equally to political developments. If anyone is in the driver's seat, it's Moscow; but Moscow does not always have control of the steering wheel.

  6. Athelstane, I agree with your view.

    The existence and influence of the Patriarchate of Constantinople is solely due to political developments. It was bound to end as it started -- I was actually surprised that it sort of survived the fall of Constantinople.

    Moscow has been in the driver's seat for a very long time, so much so that it has more influence/power than the Patriarch of Constantinople. Nevertheless, the Patriarchs of Moscow have not been better men than the ones at Constantinople when it comes to political developments and influence. The Holy Governing Synod has is more powerful than the Patriarch, and the government has the final say over what the Holy Governing Synod decides ...

    (It is actually a bit scary that there have been talks recently that the Catholic Church, under the current pontificate, might consider having similar synods, rather than episcopal conferences, as a way to decentralize Rome).

    1. I don't have a problem with decentralizing Rome... in theory. A grand collegial synod is not the way to go. Breaking up the Western Church into - say - four patriarchates is a much better idea in my opinion. Having synods of local bishops to discuss and handle local matters would also be a positive development. For instance, the bishops of Texas could meet periodically to discuss local matters and the Archbishop of Houston/Galveston would head it. This would cause more Texas Catholics to pay more attention to their local bishop and his neighbors instead of what Papa Roma had for lunch today.

      One problem is that SSPX-types shout "Collegialist Heretic!" if you so much as mention the idea of a synod of any sort.

    2. 1983,

      I was actually surprised that it sort of survived the fall of Constantinople.

      Chalk it up to the shrewdness of Mehmed II. Who knew he had it in him?

      Nevertheless, the Patriarchs of Moscow have not been better men than the ones at Constantinople...

      This is, alas, also true.

      Such are the risks of caesaro-papism. Certainly, they paid for it after 1917.

    3. To be fair now... St. Tikhon was an incredibly good and courageous patriarch who stared down the Red terror and laughed in its face.

      "The balm accords with the relics." - St. Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow