Orthodoxy is a major branch of Christianity, represented by the Eastern Orthodox Church, with an unbroken continuity to the apostolic tradition and a claim to be the depositor of the authentic Christian faith and practice. Today, the Orthodox Church consists of the ancient patriarchates (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antiochia, Jerusalem) and various national autocephalous churches. The Patriarchate of Constantinople, also called Ecumenical, enjoys the primacy of honor among all the other patriarchates and the rest of the Orthodox autocephalous churches without having any administrative or other jurisdiction over them whatsoever. The churches of Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Georgia carry patriarchal status – being led by a patriarch. The churches of Greece, Cyprus, and Albania are led by archbishops. There are also the smaller, autonomous Orthodox churches of Poland, Fin land and former Czechoslovakia. The Greek diaspora, with full church organization (dioceses, parishes, etc.) in America, Europe, and Australia, is under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Russian diaspora is under the Patriarchate of Moscow. In all, the Orthodox populations (practicing in the broad sense) in the world today are estimated between 170-180 million. According to Ware (1963: 15): ”The Orthodox Church, thus, is a family of self governing Churches. It is held together … by the double bond of unity in the faith and communion in the sacraments.”
Historical Profile of Orthodoxy
The connection of Orthodoxy to the original ”undistorted” Christian faith is claimed on the fact that the early Christian communities of the Eastern Church were established by the apostles. The Apostolic synod (49 CE) decided that Christianity should go outside the confines of Judaism and be spread to the Gentiles. This and St. Paul’s Hellenic education and the fact that the books of the New Testament (with the exception of the Gospel of St. Matthew) were written in Greek gave the Eastern Church a distinctly Greek cultural character. The early Christian communities around the Mediterranean – including the community of Rome -were mostly Greek speaking and the theology and practice of the Eastern Church gradually developed a different ethos and character to that of the Western Church, which was largely Latin based.
The terms Orthodox and Orthodoxy, however, developed later after Emperor Constantine had transferred the capital of the Empire from Rome to Byzantium (330). The term Orthodoxy (from the Greek or the doxa), meaning both right faith and right worship, developed and came to usage during the fourth and fifth centuries in order to distinguish and protect the faith of the church from a variety of heretical movements, Nestorianism and Arianism in particular. During this period, with the protection of the state, the church acquired the Troeltschian characteristics of the Ecclesia. It thus became an essential institution of the emerging Byzantine Empire.
The early ecumenical councils produced the formal creeds of the church and consolidated the notion of Orthodoxy, but the Nestorians rejected the decisions of the council of Ephesus (431) and the Monophysites those of the council of Chalcedon (451). Out of these quarrels, which produced the first splits in the Eastern Church, derive today’s Armenian Orthodox Church and the Coptic Church of Ethiopia.
The Greek Fathers, especially the Cappadocians, wove into Christian theology platonic and neoplatonic ideas. Parsons (1979), in fact, saw in this synthesis the seeds of the subsequent development of religious and economic symbolism in Europe and the western world at large. Along with such basic theological components, the development of hermetic monasticism in Egypt, Asia Minor, and the Middle East during this early period left an indelible mark on Orthodoxy.
The model of church-state relations established by Constantine, who made Christianity not just religiolicita (permitted religion) but official state religion, persists in modified form in Greece and Cyprus to the present day. The model involved a special fusion of religion and politics, which became the hallmark of Byzantine civilization. In Byzantium there was a total overlap between religion and society and Orthodoxy was synonymous with culture (Nicol 1979). The emperors had power over and direct involvement in ecclesiastical affairs and had the last word in the appointment of the patriarchs. Yet, this model, which has been characterized as Caesaropapism, did not mean arbitrary power of the state over the church. As this was a theocratic empire, the clergy and the monks could exercise essential direct and indirect pressure on the polity. Indeed, many emperors were deposed or killed because of their religious politics.
Evidence of this fusion of religion and politics, based on the fusion of religion and society, is also forthcoming from the quarrels over icons, which shook the empire to its foundations between 726 and 843. Icons in the Orthodox tradition are not just religious symbols or religious art, but material forms of deep spiritual and theological communication (Kokosalakis 1995). Icons are also indicative of the different theological and cultural conception of Christian faith in Orthodoxy compared to the other major branches of Christianity – Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. It was in fact such different appreciation along with major political and cultural differences between the Eastern and the Western Churches which brought about their schism and anathema to each other in 1054. Since then, because of historical and political circumstances (the crusades, etc.), the gulf between the two churches was consolidated and widened. Also, the threat from Islam and the gradual weakening of the empire gave Orthodoxy a more circumscribed and defensive outlook. On the other hand, the claims for supremacy of the pope were not accepted by the Orthodox and led to the failure of attempts for reunification of the two churches in the councils of Lyon (1274) and Florence (1439).
The Byzantine Church was essentially Greek but also ecumenical. Christian elements had existed in the peoples of the Balkans (Illyrians, southern Slavs) and around the Black Sea (Georgia) since apostolic times, but it was the Byzantine mission which transmitted and con solidated Christianity to these people. The missionaries Cyril and Methodios translated the Bible and Orthodox liturgical texts into Slavonic and are considered the founders of the church in the ninth century in contemporary Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia. In Russia, Orthodoxy was also transmitted from Byzantium and the church was officially established there after the massive baptism of the Ros. Queen Olga was baptized in Constantinople (957) and her grandson Vladimir married the Byzantine Princess Anna (988). Orthodoxy in Russia took deep roots and was further strengthened after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire with the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans (1453). The marriage of Princess Sophia, niece of the last Emperor of Byzantium, to the Tsar Ivan III was seen as the establishment of Moscow as the Third Rome. The Russian Church, however, became hopelessly entangled with the power and the political whims of the tsars, till its near total elimination by the Bolsheviks after 1917.
For the Patriarchate of Constantinople the end of the empire and its conquest by the Otto mans during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries meant, paradoxically, the strengthening of both its ecumenical and ethnic character. It was Islamic practice going back to the Prophet that conquered people be allowed to practice their faith in return for obedience to Islamic authorities and the payment of taxes. The Ecumenical Patriarch was recognized by the Sultan as leader of the Orthodox people (Milet Bashi) on condition of guaranteeing their obedience and collecting taxes. A definite administrative structure thus developed between the High Porte and the Patriarchate. This gave the latter not only special privileges but also a special authority over the Orthodox believers, who now had not only their spiritual but also their civic affairs administered by the church. For the Greeks as for other Orthodox ethnic groups in the Balkans this meant that Orthodoxy was closely interwoven with their national ethnic identities and this at a time when nation state societies were being formed and consolidated in the rest of Europe. Especially for the Greeks, the church during that period was not just the depositor of the Orthodox faith, but also the main carrier and preserver of the Greek language and identity. Thus, Orthodoxy did not just survive the Ottoman rule, but during the nineteenth century reemerged as a strong ideological and cultural force in the pursuit of independence for Greeks, Romanians, Serbians, and Bulgarians.
The French Revolution deeply affected the revolutionary movements in the Balkans in the nineteenth century. Unlike France and later Russia, however, where religion and the revolution were in conflict, in the Balkans religion became intertwined with nationalism and fostered the revolutionary spirit. One consequence of this was that Orthodoxy acquired a strong ethnic character in the region and the organization of the Orthodox Church was completely transformed with the establishment of national independent churches, severed unilaterally from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which eventually recognized their autocephalous status as a fait accompli. So the church of the new born Greece was established in 1833 and recognized by the Patriarchate in 1852. The Church of Serbia became autonomous in 1831 and autocephalous in 1879, but the incorporation of Serbia to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia along with Catholic Croatia and Slovenia after World War I created new ethnic conflicts which became violent after the collapse of the socialist bloc in the early 1990s. The Church of Bulgaria declared its independence in 1870, when the country was still under Turkish rule, but the Patriarchate recognized it only in 1945, after much controversy. The Church of Romania, established in 1862, was recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1885.
There were cultural and political anomalies in the establishment and administration of these churches in that the monarchs of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Romania were initially Catholic, who were heads of church and state in countries with predominantly Orthodox populations. This and the fusion of Orthodoxy and nationalism along with the problems of modernization and secularization in these states created great tensions and politicization in these churches throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The Church of Russia after 1917 and the churches in the Balkans after World War II -with the exception of the Church of Greece and Cyprus – were either in severe persecution or mere toleration by the socialist state. The degree of oppression and/or persecution of Orthodoxy, and religion generally, differed from one communist country to another and the church as an institution was forced to compromise variously in each case. It is noteworthy that, especially in Russia, religion in popular form managed to survive over 70 years and even show signs of revival after the collapse of the socialist bloc in 1989-90. This can be partly explained by the cultural anthropological specificity of Orthodoxy and its relation to modernity.
Cultural-Anthropological Specificity of Orthodoxy
Within the Christian religion generally a distinction must be made between the church as an organized institution and the faith and practice of the people. Although this applies to the Orthodox tradition as well, the relation in it between popular and official faith is very vague and blurred. The basic doctrines were formalized by the theologians and the councils of the church during the fourth and fifth centuries and became deeply ingrained in the faith and practice of the Christian communities – above all in the liturgy. Thus, what came to be known as ecclesiastical consciousness expresses the authentic Orthodox ethos, which derives directly from the faith and practice of the community within the church. The bishops are central to the continuity and interpretation of the apostolic faith, but the authority of the church does not rest with the clergy in any legalistic sense but derives from the communion of faith in the homoousian,the undivided trinitarian God.
As an ideal this ethos is deeply democratic and is translated in practice into a fusion of official and popular religion. One of the remark able features of the Orthodox Church, throughout its history everywhere, has been its capacity to absorb in its own lifestyle popular religious culture and even what to outsiders must appear to be the magical and superstitious practices of peasant communities. Basic features of the Orthodox ethos are ambiguity, flexibility, and openness: even Canon Law is subject to popular faith. One reason for this is that early in the life of the church there entered the principle and practice of oikonomia. This practice meant that the church compromises in the face of transgression by individual believers. Thus, as a compromise, bishops and priests, who were forced to eat pagan sacrificial meals during the persecutions by the Emperors Decius and Diocletian, were not excommunicated. Also, the second ecumenical council accepted the baptism of heretics as valid, compromising with Apostolic Canon 46 which rejected it. The principle of oikonomia continues to be practiced by the Orthodox Church to the present day concerning ethical problems emerging from social change, such as divorce, birth control, bioethical issues, etc.
Another specific cultural feature of Orthodoxy involving official theology and popular faith is the process by which holiness emerges and is recognized. Saints (Aghioi) in the Orthodox Church are formally declared as such by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, but only if and long after they are so recognized by the community at the grassroots. Holiness thus enters the liturgical life of the church and becomes publicly recognized from below.
At a deeper and more central theological level the christological, trinitarian, and eschatological doctrines are directly related to a specific anthropological conception of salvation. In Orthodox theology there is a deep phenomenological entanglement of the human and the divine. The sacred permeates nature and human nature as a matter of the divine plan and act of salvation not as a conception of pantheistic fusion, but as a matter of conscious divine and human personal choice. Thus, in the life of the Orthodox believer, salvation and theosis become inextricably linked. The prototype to strive toward is the person of Christ, whose image is potentially present in any other human being.
There is a central eschatological vision in Orthodox theology where the past, the present, and the future are intertwined in a projected final dimension of salvation. On the part of the person, this entails struggle and constant askesis against the powers of this world (often personified in the devil) and, above all, the outrageous self, but the final outcome is victory due to the risen Christ.
These soteriological dimensions are ecumenical, universal in character, and according to St. Paul (Galatians 3: 28) transcend sociocultural boundaries of any kind, but in the actual life of the Orthodox Church they are in tension and often in conflict because of its embodiment in various ethnic groups and local and national societies.
Orthodoxy and Modernity
Orthodoxy is a premodern culture in the special sense that it was not disrupted directly by the foundational movements of modernity: the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. Modernity also has been exogenous to societies where Orthodoxy has been the dominant religion because capitalist development and industrialization in these societies came late during the second half of the twentieth century. During the nineteenth century Orthodoxy was in tension with modernity not in the context of possession and transmission of power from clerical to secular hands, but in the context of its connections to ethnic identities and nationalism and the politicization and secularization of the church itself. Secularization thus had a specific and different development in Orthodoxy to that experienced in western Christianity. During the twentieth century, despite the opposition to religion in the communist bloc, Orthodoxy at the popular level survived well and the Orthodox churches in these countries have revived.
During modern and late modern times religion generally has disengaged itself from the social structure and has become a fluid and diffused cultural force and resource. This process seems to be conducive to the revival of the Orthodox cultural ethos, described earlier, at a time when the ideological dimensions of modernity have become attenuated and globalization has further relativized all cultural certainties (Gianoulatos 2001). Although Orthodoxy is undergoing severe tension in late modernity, at the same time it shows renewed vitality and cultural resilience. Both have to do with its salvationist message. In the context of risk society and a world of great uncertainty, a deep Weberian analysis of Orthodoxy would show that its crucial sociological significance lies in its eschatological, optimistic character and its general soteriological message. Weber insisted that the world always was and always will be in need of salvation. Indeed, salvation according to him constitutes the essence of religion. His own severe pessimism about the fate of modernity is well known and the tone of most analyses of global developments in the early twenty first century seems to share such pessimism. Certainly, the initial optimism characteristic of early modernity at the age of the Enlightenment turned into its polar opposite by the late twentieth century.
In the midst of this general despondency Orthodox theology and the Orthodox culture generally remain optimistic. In Orthodox theological, eschatological terms, the negative forces which militate against salvation, and death itself, are ultimately conquerable through God’s plan for the salvation of the world and the power of the risen Christ. Death and renewal as a recurrent historical drama are at the heart of Orthodox theology and culture.
- Gianoulatos, A. (2001) Globalization and Orthodoxy. Akritas, Athens.
- Kokosalakis, N. (1993) The Historical Continuity and Cultural Specificity of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. In: Cipriani, R. (Ed.), Religions Sans Frontieres: Atti della Conferenza Internazionalle promossa dall’ universita degli Studi di Roma ”La Sapienza” 12 16 Juglio 1993. Presidenza del Consiglio dei Ministri, Dipartmento per l’infromazione e l’editoria, Rome.
- Kokosalakis, N. (1995) Icons and non-Verbal Religion in the Orthodox Tradition. Social Compass 42(4): 433 49.
- Nicol, D. (1979) Church and State in the Last Centuries of Byzantium. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Parsons, T. (1979) Religion and Economic Symbolism in the Western World. In: Johnson, M. (Ed.), Religious Change and Continuity. Josey Bass, Washington, DC.
- Ware, K. (1963) The Orthodox Curch. Penguin, London.
Back to Sociology of Religion