The Eastern Orthodox Church was the first Christian Church, formed in 33AD on the Day of Pentecost. Like the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church claims to be part of an unbroken line of succession from the Apostles which is achieved through the ordination of bishops. Hence they say their teachings today are in harmony with those of the first Apostles and their Church is how the Apostles would have willed it. Roman Catholics do not deny the Apostolic succession of the Eastern Orthodox Church (unlike the Anglican Church's, which Pope Leo XIII denied via papal bull in 1896). The Eastern Orthodox Church considers the Roman Catholic Church to be a part of it but the Roman Catholic Church does not consider itself affiliated with the Eastern Orthodox Church after the first Great Schism. Hence the Orthodox Church recognises no full General Council of the Church since the Schism.
History and the development of Orthodox doctrine
The early Church was subject to great persecution in the Roman Empire but it flourished despite this, and in 311 the persecution was stopped by the Edict of Milan, issued by Constantine I. After the Roman Empire had accepted Christianity they called Ecumenical Councils (General Councils) to try and maintain unity within the Church, and ultimately within the Empire. The Emperors of the Byzantine Empire followed suit. Constantine was very keen to aid his goal of a universal Empire through uniform faith, which started the early Church's obssession with heresy and combatting it. The first heresy to emerge was Arianism, originated by an Alexandrian poet named Arius whom denied that Jesus Christ and God were one, seeing them as unique divine entities (which is contrary to the traditional view of the Holy Trinity). Arius taught that the Son was begotten by the Father, ie. he was not eternal in the way the Father was. The Council could not accept that "there was a time when Jesus Christ was not", and so Arius was banished from the Empire and his books ordered burnt. The Council also accepted an early version of the Nicene Creed, which is a statement of belief (see end of write-up).
The next heresy to be battled was Nestorianism, which held that Christ was two separate beings: a divine and a human. In 431 a Council found this to be a heresy and banished its chief proponent, Nestorius, to a monastery in the Libyan desert. Eastern Orthodoxy hence affirmed its belief that Christ is one being with two natures. They called the Virgin Mary "Theotokos" (and still do), meaning "Mother of God". This was adopted to place emphasis on the divine nature of Jesus Christ, as opposed to Nestorius' plan which placed emphasis on the human nature. So Christ was as fully divine as he was fully human, the two natures having come together seamlessly. But Nestorianism nearly caused a Schism between East and West over a century later when some elements (at first supported by Emperor Justinian I) called for the writings and persons of three theologians who were all already dead to be declared heretical because they were tainted with Nestorianism. This wasn't easily accepted in the West, who denied that the dead could be anathematised. Justinian intervened and prevented a permanent rupture. The nature of Jesus Christ as both man and divine was also affirmed again at the Council.
Next was Monothelitism, which held that Christ had one will as he had only one person: the Sixth Ecumenical Council (the third at Constantine) declared that
"Christ had two natures with two activities: as God working miracles, rising from the dead and ascending into heaven; as Man, performing the ordinary acts of daily life. Each nature exercises its own free will".
The two wills had been combined in the person of Jesus Christ, but each normally worked with each other without being subject to change or working against each other. Monothelitism was condemned as a heresy as were its adherents, and breakaway Churches such as the Armenian were rejected. This was another attempt to keep Orthodoxy for the sake of preserving both Church and State.
For over a century before the Seventh Ecumenical Council the issues of icons and images in worship was an important one, was it would be to Protestants following the teachings of Martin Luther and John Calvin during the Reformation. Some people began to revere images and ascribe miracle-workings to them in a way which was only suitable to God. So an Imperial edict had been passed by Leo III (confirmed in synod by his son Constantine V) which suppressed the use of images in worship altogether within the Byzantine Empire. Men who were the first Iconoclasts had taken images out of liturgical worship altogether, whereas they were opposed by Iconophiles who believed images were important in preserving doctrinal teachings. The Council decided that images should be venerated but not worshipped, as worship was due only to the Divine Being itself. The purpose of images was to move people to memory of their "prototypes": and so what was due to them was a sort of respect for what they represented. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the "Triumph of Orthodoxy" by this Council in the first Sunday of Lent.
It was Muslims who had first opposed the use of icons in Christian worship, for in the seventh century the Churches of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem were controlled by Muslim temporal sovereigns, and Christians were second-class citizens. In the ninth and tenth centuries Orthodoxy moved into Russia and the lands of the Slavic peoples after Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius translated the Bible into Slavic. People from the Roman diocese went to the Slavic lands as well to preach in Latin, but the Slavic preachers were in general much more preferred: translating the Word into vernacular was the great inroad made by Protestants many centuries later, which spread Christ's teaching to the general populace of Western Europe for the first time. The first Great Schism in the eleventh century left Western Europe under the juristiction of the Roman Catholic Church. The Schism came around for many reasons, one being the Filioque clause in the Nicene Creed (see end). Other issues included juristiction in the Balkans. The exchange of excommunications between Pope Leo IX and the Patriarch of Constantinople (head of the Eastern Orthodox Church) took place in 1054, and the rift has never been healed. After the fall of the Byzantine Empire Moscow became the center of Eastern Orthodoxy, and despite persecution by the Soviet Union Orthodoxy remains strong in Eastern Europe. The Patriarch had controlled the Russian Church since the conversation of Prince Vladimir in 989.
The Orthodox Church's theology is based on what Christ taught the Apostles with as little innovation as possible. If something is radically different to what the Church has traditionally taught, it was is probably heretical, whereas if someone expands and explains a principle already well-known, it can be accepted. There was not being major innovation since before the fall of Constantinople in 1453. God is seen as a synergy of three beings (Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, God) which is known as the Holy Trinity. They share unity as a single divine essence, and sin separates one from this essence. Through repentence one can then be restored to the relationship with the Divine Being. This is as opposed to Roman Catholicism, which sees sin more as a legal transgression which can be recanted: salvation is forgiveness for "illegal" sins. In Eastern Orthodoxy, one should work towards becoming one with God ("theosis") who will then provide salvation. Salvation comes from the grace of God, but grace produces a change in behavior.
Repentence was originally practiced by Christians meeting together in public places, where they would confess to one another and pronounce forgiveness on one another. Eventually pronouncing forgiveness became the reserve of priests and elders. This is essential in preparation for the Eucharist, which the Eastern Church sees as essentially a mystery. While Catholics and Protestants have argued over the doctrines of transubstantiation and consubstantiation, the Eastern Church says merely that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, but have neither affirmed nor denied any theory of how this takes place. Believers are required to engage in the Eucharist at least once a year, but are encouraged to do so at every Divine Liturgy. Another Orthodox duty is fasting, which means the abstention from meat, dairy, wine and oil products. There are quite a lot of fasting dates (see the ecclesiastical calendar below), and it is connected to almsgiving because by giving up meat money is freed up to give to the poor.
The structure of the Church
The leader of a Church in a particular region was a Bishop, and they ordained priests and deacons. Priests and deacons were allowed to be married providing they were married before being ordained. There is a position of deaconness, but they are not ordained: they exist to help women in the Orthodox community. Divorce is allowed, but priests and deacons cannot remarry if they are divorced or widowed (unless they give up their position). The Church juristictions are organised along national lines with no over-riding office like the Roman Catholic Papacy (and Orthodox Christians reject Papal infallibility). Today there are about fifteen Churchs in communion with Constantinople (being in communion means accepting the doctrines of and having equivelent ones). Russian missionaries travelled to Alaska in the eighteenth century and spread Orthodox Christianity into North America, but there is currently no over-riding patriarch in North America. This is a goal the Churches in America are working towards slowly.
Orthodox Churches in communion with one another:
The Orthodox calendar is characterised by alternating fasts and feasts.
Nativity of Mary (September 8) -- birth of the Virgin Mary to Joakim and Anne.
Elevation of the Cross (September 14) -- commemorates the rediscovery of the original Christian Cross.
Entrance of Mary into the Temple (November 21) -- commemorates the Virgin Mary's first entry into the Temple at about the age of 3.
Nativity of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (December 25) -- birth of Jesus Christ.
Theophany (January 6) -- The baptism of Jesus Christ, Christ's blessing of the water, and the revealing of Christ as God.
Presentation of our Lord in the Temple (February 2) -- Christ's presentation as an infant in the Temple.
Annunciation of Mary (March 25) -- Gabriel's announcement to Mary that she will conceive the Christ, and her "Yes".
Entry into Jerusalem (Sunday before Pascha) -- known in the West as Palm Sunday.
Ascension (40 days after Pascha) -- Christ's ascension into Heaven following his resurrection.
Pentecost (50 days after Pascha) -- The Holy Spirit comes and indwells the apostles and other Christians.
Transfiguration of our Lord (August 6) -- Christ's Transfiguration is witnessed by Peter, James and John.
Dormition of Mary (August 15) -- The falling asleep of the Virgin Mary.
Great Lent takes place over forty days before Easter, and ends on Lazarus Sunday, the sunday before Palm Sunday.
Winter Lent is forty days leading up the Feast of the Nativity or Christmas.
Fifteen days before the Dormition of the Mary (August 1 - 15).
Apostle's Fast leading up to Feast of the Saints.
There are fasts from midnight Saturday to when the Eucharist is received on Sunday, and on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout most of the year. The Wednesday fasts are to remember Judas Iscariot's betrayal and the prostitute who annointed Jesus' feet (Matthew 26:6-13). The Friday fasts are to remember Jesus' crucifixion and death.
The Nicene Creed
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered, died, and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven and is seated on the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father (and the Son).
With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen
The clause "and the Son" was eventually adopted by Roman Catholics at the first Great Schism after a dispute dating back to the 5th Century. It is known as the Filioque Clause and the Orthodox Church considers it to lead to heresy. The first Ecumenical Council ended the text after the words "We believe in the Holy Spirit", and the rest was added at the second Ecumenical Council. The third Council had banned any future change to the Creed, but this didn't stop the Roman Catholics.
The creed was later put into the first person ("I believe") and adopted throughout the entire Orthodox Church. Similar to later Christian confessions, it is to be recited before baptism by either the person being baptised or the godparent if it is pedobaptism. It is also recited at every Divine Liturgy.