The following is excerpted from Fr. John Behr’s lecture on the Orthodox Faith, delivered in 1998 at the University of North Carolina. A link to the full text is given at the end of the article. Fr. John is now Dean of St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary.
Rather than talking about the historical or external aspects of the Churches who have identified themselves as Orthodox, “Orthodoxy” in the first sense of the term, it is primarily with the latter sense of the word, ‘Orthodoxy’ as ‘right belief’, that I am going to be concerned tonight — for it is this which the Orthodox Churches claim for themselves, though I will explore it, and some of the key and differentiating themes within the Eastern understanding of Orthodoxy, by looking at various historical developments as seen from the perspective of the Eastern Orthodox Churches.
The classical picture, as it was presented for instance by the book of Acts, and Eusebius the Church Historian in the fourth century, of an originally pure orthodoxy, manifest in exemplary Christian communities, from which various heresies developed and split off, has become increasing difficult to maintain — especially since the work of Walter Bauer: Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (1934) — and rightly so. The earliest Christian writings that we have, the letters of Paul, are addressed to Churches which are already falling away from the Gospel which he had delivered to them. However, whereas Bauer concluded that orthodoxy itself only appeared at the end of the second century, emerging victorious out of a conflict with other traditions, I would argue that the reality is there from the beginning — it is the Gospel which was delivered by Paul and the other apostles — but that it has never been perfectly manifest or realized within any community.
It is a mistake to look back to a lost golden age of theological or ecclesial purity — whether in the apostolic times as narrated in the book of Acts, or the early Church, as recorded by Eusebius, or the age of the Fathers or the Church Councils, or the Empire of Byzantium. Christians are strangers in this world — in any society of this world. As the Second Century Letter to Diognetus writes, concerning Christians:
They dwell in their own fatherlands, but as if sojourners in them; they share all things as citizens, and suffer all things as strangers. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is a foreign country.
And this is inevitably so: our citizenship is in heaven, as the Apostle Paul puts it, and its from there (ex hoy) that we wait for our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil 3.20). It is a mistake to look for this as something realized in the past, and since lost — a mistake to which Eastern Christians especially are tempted as they have been subjected to foreign or atheistic powers, and forced to dwell in other lands.
Nevertheless, the Gospel was delivered. Debates certainly raged about the correct interpretation of this Gospel — but it was nevertheless delivered once for all. In the debates about what was the orthodox position, the issue of what is authoritative for this position was paramount. And in this question of authority, two particular and inseparable aspects were fundamental: the canon of Scripture and the correct interpretation of that Scripture — expressed most clearly in the rule [canon] of faith/truth.
The earliest Christians, of course, already possessed a collection of writings which they considered authoritative — the Scriptures — the Jewish writings (what became known as the OT); and it was in accordance with these Scriptures, says Paul, that the Christ died and was raised on the third day (1 Cor 15). The Gospel, as it was originally delivered, seems to have been a particular, Christocentric, reading of what was later described as the “Old Testament.” As St Irenaeus put it, at the end of the second century:
If anyone reads the Scriptures [that is, the “Old Testament”] in this way, he will find in them the Word concerning Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling. For Christ is the ‘treasure which was hidden in the field’ (Mt 13:44), that is, in this world — for ‘the field is the world’ (Mt 13:38) — [a treasure] hidden in the Scriptures, for He was indicated by means of types and parables, which could not be understood by men prior to the consummation of those things which had been predicted, that is, the advent of Christ. … And for this reason, when at the present time the Law is read to the Jews, it is like a fable; for they do not possess the explanation (tên exêgêsin) of all things which pertain to the human advent of the Son of God, but when it is read by Christians, it is a treasure, hid in a field, but brought to light by the Cross of Christ (Against the Heresies, 4.26.1).
The Word concerning Christ, the Gospel, is a treasure hid in Scripture, brought to light by the Cross.
It is the Gospel, Scripture read in a particular fashion, through the prism of the Cross of Christ, that is salvific — if the Law itself were salvific, then Christ would have died in vain, as Paul points out (Gal 2:21).
Yet the Gospel remains intimately linked to the Scriptures — Christ is the Word of God disseminated in Scripture. It is interesting that those who appealed most to the apostolic writings during the course of the second century — such as Marcion and Gnostics such as Ptolemy — failed to appreciate the relationship between these Scriptures and the Gospel — usually heightening the contrast between the two, claiming that they were about two different Gods. It was only by the end of the second century, with St Irenaeus, that the continued preaching/kerygma of the Gospel came to be crystallized as a rule of truth, and that the writings of the apostles themselves came to be recognized as possessing Scriptural authority. As Irenaeus wrote:
We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. … These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the Law and Prophets; and one Christ the Son of God (Against the Heresies, 3.1.1-2).
The reason I am dwelling on this, is because it helps to understand the Orthodox Church’s insistence on Scripture and Tradition, and the place of creedal formula within this. The Gospel which is the foundation of the Church, has, according to Irenaeus, been preserved intact within the Church, as the tradition of the apostles. It has been maintained through a succession of bishops teaching and preaching the same Gospel — he continues a little later:
It is within the power of all, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted as bishops in the Churches, and to demonstrate the succession of these men to our own times (Against the Heresies, 3.3.1).
It is not that the bishops, instituted by the apostles (who are not thought of as the first bishops, as they would be by Cyprian), automatically preserved the tradition of the apostles — the Gospel which the apostles delivered — but that they are bishops of the Church only to the extent that they do so, for the Church is founded upon the Gospel.
More important is the fact that the content of tradition is nothing other than that which is also preserved in a written form, as Scripture — they are not two different sources. Tradition is not the accumulation of various customs, nor does it provide us with access to knowledge necessary for salvation that is not also contained in Scripture. It is the Gnostics, according to Irenaeus, who appeal to tradition for teachings not contained in Scripture.
The community founded upon the apostolic Gospel, the Church, is also the community which has recognized certain writings as apostolic and as authoritative Scripture (and will eventually speak of a canon of Scripture). As there were many writings laying claim to apostolic status, the claim to apostolicity, however, was not itself enough to justify the recognition of a particular writing as Scripture. What was essential was the conformity of the writing to the apostolic Gospel which founded the Church, which has been preserved intact, and which had since come to be phrased in terms of a rule/canon of truth/faith. This also means that the apostolic writings are accepted as Scripture within a community that lays claim to the correct interpretation of these writings. Tradition is, as Florovsky put it commenting on Irenaeus, Scripture rightly understood . In Irenaeus’ vivid image, those who interpret Scripture in a manner which does not conform to the rule of truth are like those who, seeing a beautiful mosaic of a king, dismantle the stones and reassemble them to form the picture of a dog, claiming that this was the original intention of the writer (Against the Heresies, 1.8).
Read the entire lecture here.