(Please get a printed copy from St. John of Kronstadt Press, Rt. 1 Box 171, Liberty, TN 37095).
The Bible. Councils. The Church. The Holy Tradition.
Salvation. Saints. Mary the Theotokos. Intercession of the Saints. Intercession for the Dead. Relics. Icons. Priests. Monks. The Eucharist. Baptism of Infants. Incense and Candles. Wine.
The Errors of Protestants. The Errors of the Roman-Catholic Church. About Christians who are Outside the Church. Ecumenism.
This work is the result of the labor of many persons who deserve to be mentioned. I would like to thank those who sent their comments and those who reviewed this work in detail for their invaluable suggestions and corrections, and Reader Isaac Lambertson for his editorial assistance. I also would like to thank Father Gregory Williams for all his patient help. I would particularly like to express my gratitude to my priest, Father Stephen Wallsteadt, and the parishioners of Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church who made me do it, and for all their assistance and encouragement. Most of all, I would like to thank those whose words and prayers led me to the true Church. May God grant you all many years!
After our phone conversation last night, I decided it would be easier to explain why I have become Orthodox in writing and to respond to your questions by letter. That way I can have time to think about your questions and organize my answers and you will have time to consider the answers and ask any further questions that you may have. I have decided to start our correspondence with a discussion about the foundation of our beliefs: that is, what authorities do we recognize as being final authorities on the Truth and why. Then, perhaps in the next letter, I can answer your many specific questions about the doctrines and practices of the Orthodox. Finally, I ought to write you about the Church itself, who its members are and what the Church teaches about ecumenism.
First, let us discuss the Bible. You look at Eastern Orthodoxy and see many things Orthodox Christians do and believe which are not specifically mentioned in the Bible. You then wonder how we can justify doing and believing these things. This discrepancy exists because the Orthodox accept other authorities as sources of Truth in addition to the Bible. But before I explain about these other authorities, I wish to research this belief in the Bible. When I first began to study Orthodoxy, I was bothered by the question, why should I believe that the Bible is the Word of God? Why should it contain the books that it does? Why not other books, or should all those it includes be there?
You see, I discovered that the Christians of the first several centuries had differences of opinion as to which books of Scripture were from God and which were writings of mere men (perhaps holy, wise men, or perhaps false and heretical books, but nevertheless not divinely inspired writings). For example, even in 300 A.D. there were questions about the validity of the books of James, II Peter, II and III John and a definite division of opinion about the Apocalypse (the Revelation of John). There was a book called the Gospel according to Peter in existence. There is the letter called the Didache, which is the letter from the first century sent by the Apostles after they met in council at Jerusalem (see Acts 15:1-32). There are letters from Sts. Polycarp and Ignatius, disciples of St. John the Apostle, just as Sts. Mark, Matthew and Luke were disciples of various of the Twelve Apostles-and yet those three gospels were included in the Bible but not the letters of Sts. Polycarp or Ignatius. Yet I have read their writings and do not think that they were denied admittance to Holy Scripture because they were strange or because the authorship was doubted; rather they seem very good and holy letters, yet they are not regarded as Scripture. And these are just some of the books and letters which might have been considered Holy Scripture. So who judges which books are human and which divine?
Historically, I can tell you that the reason you read and revere the collection of books known as the Bible is because of the decisions of church councils which were held to decide this issue (in addition to other issues). Local councils were held in 58-65?, 364, and 419, and councils of the whole church took place in 691 and 787 A.D. They made their decisions which together with the Churchís confirmation and emendation became the established Word of God. Much later, when the Protestants rebelled against and separated from the Roman Catholics (1400 A.D. on) they kept most of the doctrine about Scripture even though they discarded many other doctrines. Thus you were taught that these books are the Bible, Godís communication to mankind. This is historically why you believe the Bible to be Godís Word.
So it was these councils which decided with the Churchís approval what constituted Holy Scripture. What criteria did they use? Basically, there were two criteria: (1) who wrote the book (and how certain it was that the alleged authorship was valid), and (2) whether or not the teachings of the book agreed with apostolic tradition (also called Holy Tradition). I do not imagine that you would object to the first criterion. As for the second, in the early Church the canon of Scripture was not completely set-heresies were rampant and the Church was often in turmoil. Some people invented strange new doctrines and terrible heresies and started their own "churches," seeking to deceive if possible even the elect (Matt. 24:24). These heretics would sometimes write their own pseudo-apostolic books to try to lure the faithful away from the true Church. Therefore, Christians had to judge the correct way to believe and act by the oral as well as by the written teachings of the apostles as they were passed from one generation to another. For the apostles taught that Christians were to obey all that they taught whether by word or letter. St. Paul writes, Therefore brethren, stand fast and hold to the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or our letter (II Thess. 2:15); Now I praise you, brethren,... that you keep the traditions as I delivered them to you (I Cor. 11:2); and, The things you have learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, practice these things (Phil. 4:9). Some would argue that these oral traditions were ultimately included in one or more of the writings of the New Testament. If this were so, then why would God leave us these purposeless instructions in Holy Scripture? These three verses would then be totally superfluous. No, these verses must refer to teachings of the apostles given in unrecorded sermons, as well as to the lessons taught by their manner of living. It is in accordance with these traditions that the validity of the books was judged.
These were the criteria used. Now what about the method used to determine the contents of the Bible-a council of bishops meeting to judge a doctrinal issue? This is the very method the apostles taught should be used, and the Bible itself bears witness to this.
In Acts 15:1-32, we are told there was a doctrinal dispute over whether Gentile Christians should have to follow the Jewish rites. The apostles met and decided they should not and sent a letter to all the Churches informing them of their decision. Thus a doctrinal dispute was judged by a council of the apostles. "But that council" you may say, "was composed of apostles. What entitles bishops to do this?" It is historically certain that the apostles taught that the bishops they set up in each city were to do the work that they themselves had been doing; that is, the bishop should preside over the services, appoint elders (presbyters or priests) in each church, consecrate the people chosen to be deacons, and to meet in councils to decide doctrinal and other disputes, etc. Thus when a doctrinal dispute arose, bishops would gather to decide the issue. This is-the tradition we have and follow. This is the foundation for believing that councils are an authority Christians must obey. This authority is established by Scripture and attests to the validity of the Scriptures. It is established by God to winnow the wheat from the chaff of new problems, questions and heresies.
However, a council of bishops is not necessarily infallible (although mistakes are very rare). Notice that in Acts, chapter 15, the letter to the Church did not state, "This is the truth, the final decision, the immutable law" but said that this seemed good to the Holy Spirit and the apostolic council. By this it can be inferred that the apostles were offering their decision for the Churchís confirmation and approval, i.e. "It seemed good to us, do you agree?" For if their decision was final, surely the apostles would have made some statement such as, "The Holy Spirit told us so" or "If any disagree, let him be to you as an unbeliever." Considering the number of disrupters of the Church at this time, according to St. Paulís testimony, the apostles must have made as strong and as powerful a statement as possible. Therefore, their use of the word "seemed" indicates, as the Church professes, that a councilís decision is not valid if the Church as a whole rejects it. When approved by the consensus of the Church, a councilís decisions become dogma and are to be followed by all Christians. In this way, the Church has held many councils. Some were local councils held to suppress some local heresy or to decide local matters of order and discipline. But several were councils representing the whole Church, the doctrinal decisions of which are recognized by the whole Church as true. This is the basis of the authority of the Church as a whole to judge councils.
Now let us consider the Churchís authority in matters apart from councils. It is one of the consistent teachings of the Bible that the Church is one Body, not a loose organization of free individuals trying to find the truth on their own. The Church is a unity, a collaboration, a mutual submission of each member to each other. Thus, the Church as a wholeóall members functioning togetheródiscerns good from evil by the grace of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit guides the entire Church, not each individual. If God granted individuals separate revelations, disregarding the level of their spiritual or emotional maturity, He would be giving them opportunity to fall into the sin of pride, the subtlest of sins and the most difficult to discover and purge. Thus, rather than tempt "weaker" Christians, God speaks through the consensus of the entire Church and through certain saints, fathers, and holy men and women. God chooses to speak through these individuals because they are spiritually mature and holy Christians whose lifestyle bears eloquent testimony to their faith, and again it is the Church who confirms the truth of their message. For though the gates of hell can prevail against individuals, they cannot prevail against the Church which Christ founded: for He will not allow His Body to fall into error. If this doctrine about the Church seems strange to you, I offer to you a verse that greatly affected my own conversion to Orthodoxy: The Church, the pillar and foundation of the truth (I Tim. 3:1 5). If the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth, then we ought to listen to her and obey her teaching. Christ said to the disciples that the Holy Spirit will lead you into all truth (John 16:13). In the Greek text, this "you" is plural and so must refer to the Church as a whole, or to the disciples. Either way you interpret it, it leads you to Orthodoxy. If you interpret it to mean the Church, then you follow her teachings which mandate Orthodoxy. If you interpret it to mean the disciples, then you must obey the scriptural passages I have mentioned in this letter about the church councils and the traditions, and again you come to Orthodoxy. The Holy Spirit does not lead each Christian individually and separately, for Christians can be deceived, mistaken, or immature; rather the Holy Spirit makes His will known through the consensus of the Church. For we believe in the infallibility of no man except the God-Man Christ Jesus. Whether pope, sincere Protestant, or holy saint, all are subject to error. But the Holy Spirit will present the Church to her Bridegroom without spot or wrinkle (Eph. 5:27). And if you think that sincerely believed but false doctrines are not really spots or wrinkles, just read what St. Paul says to the Galatians about the error into which they were falling (Gal. 1:6-9; 5:4, 7-10). So the Church as one Body, speaking through the experiences and advice of her holy saints and fathers, guides Christians in their beliefs and actions.
The Holy Tradition.
Thus, it is obvious that Scripture testifies to the authority of Holy Tradition, the councils and the Church. These in turn have a very important function to perform in the interpretation of the Scriptures. We all know how differently people have interpreted Scripture and how easily it can be misunderstood or twisted. Therefore, we need apostolic teachings (as St. Paul indicated, see above) to guide us in Scriptural interpretation. How can we rightly discern what Scripture is saying when we ignore the Scriptureís instructions about oral tradition, councils, and the Church? We would be ignoring the very thing we are trying to understand. The Scriptures themselves indicate that their interpretation is not to be a solitary activity; No prophesy is of private interpretation (II Pet. 1:20). Here St. Peter briefly mentions that each Christian is not supposed to be on his own, having to find the truth individually (which is the basic Protestant belief). For through the councils and Holy Tradition and through her ancient teachings, the Church holds the Truth collectively in herself, differentiating between the false interpretations and the true; not contradicting Scripture, but confirming it and guiding in its interpretation.
If the idea of having the Church or councils establish new rituals, further revelations or more complete interpretations of past teachings seems strange, then realize that God has always given progressive revelations to His people. Of course, God does not change the truth, but He often adds to and clarifies the information already known. For example, Enoch was translated, but God established His chosen people out of Abraham. Abraham was a friend of God, but did not have the later revelation of the law which God gave to Moses. And what Moses knew increased from his first experience at the burning bush through the building of the Ark of the Covenant and the revelation of the Law. Then we have a further revelation of truth through the history of the Israelites. God also gave us the teachings of the prophets and the books of wisdom, not contradicting what went before, but supplementing and enriching it. Then there is the revelation God gave through St. John the Baptist. The Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the perfect revelation of God, and you might think that there need be no further revelation. Surely after Christís ascension all the Church needed was teaching on what Jesus said and did and was. But instead, God revealed Himself to Saul on the road to Damascus, following which St. Paul spent years in the desert learning from God (although he did confer with the other apostles later to ensure he had learned correctly). And besides this, there is the testimony in Acts of prophets in the Church (Acts 11:27, 13:1, 15:32, 21:9, also Eph. 4:11 and other Epistles). There is also the verse, If any have a tongue, an interpretation, a revelation, a doctrine, let all be done unto edifying (I Cor. 14:26). So you can see from the testimony of Scripture that God continues throughout the ages to reveal His Truth to His people.
I have not covered some of the reasons that the Orthodox Church does and believes many things not specifically mentioned in the Bible. For it was the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, which determined, through what the Holy Tradition taught her, the contents of the Bible in the first place. Through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the bishops and the Church found that these books, and only these books, are Godís Word. In turn, however, the Bible testifies to the authority of the Church in doctrinal matters (I Tim. 3:15), and also testifies to the authority of Holy Tradition (I Cor. 11:2, Phil. 4:9, and II Thess. 2:15). The Scriptures and Tradition teach us about the authority and office of bishops and about the correct method of finding the answer to doctrinal questions-not each person having his own opinion, but the bishops of the Church conferring in counciló the Church testifying by the Holy Spirit to the truth or falsehood of the decision. These different authorities: the Bible, Holy Tradition, councils, bishops, and the Church are not opposed to one another. They do not contradict one another or deny each other or conflict with each other. Rather, each agrees with the other and supports the other. Actually these are much more interdependent than I have succeeded in expressing. God established each of them so that they would be interrelated and interdependent, checking and balancing each other, that we might not be deceived by the evil one "who lies in wait to deceive," but that we might be children of God in Whom there is no lie or falsehood.
That is all I am going to write about at this time. Please think and pray about what I have said here. You are in my prayers, for I know you need help to understand and deal with these ideas. I pray that God the Father, through His Son Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit might grant you to find the truth and to walk in His ways.
Much love as always,
I received your letter and think I understand the reason for your confusion and indecision. You said you agree with the first letter I wrote you, but still have unresolved questions about the validity of many of the things that we do and believe. I thought I would spend this letter answering those questions.
Let me begin by dealing very briefly with some of the Protestant doctrines of salvation. According to the teachings of Jesus Christ and the apostles, gaining salvation through Godís grace is a process which is started at the time of oneís entry into the Church and can be said to be completed only after death. The Church never has held the belief that someone can have a mystical experience that will thenceforth guarantee his entry into heaven. Jesus said, He that endures to the end shall be saved (Matt. 24:13). This teaching about salvation was handed down from the apostles. When a Christian seeks his salvation, he undertakes a process of reforming his life, motivated by his love for God. The bestowal of the Holy Spirit at Baptism and Chrismation is the beginning of his salvation, but the Christian must continue it or he is like the seed which, although planted by the hand of God and prospering for a time, is withered by the sun or choked out by the weeds (Luke 8:5-15).
Salvation is in no way a reward for a Christianís mighty deeds of righteousness, for these are as filthy rags (Is. 64:6), but rather the Christian seeks God and loves Him, and because of his love, he seeks to become like God. God, in His unfathomable love and mercy, sees the Christianís willingness and gives him the strength to do His will; and then, despite His failures, God grants him salvation.
Neither am I predestined (without choice) to heaven while others are predestining to hell, for this is an ancient heresy long discarded by the Church, which was revived during the Protestant Reformation. The fact that God could see the end from the beginning does not negate our free will, it merely testifies that God is truly Omniscient, knowing in the past what we will decide in the future. An everyday example of this is when you know someone so well that you know what he will say or do in a particular instance. He has free choice, but you know him well enough to know which way he will freely choose to act. God, being All-knowing, could foresee everything from the start. He chose to act as He did knowing what our free choices would be, and in this way "predestinating" us to live our lives as we do. But it is our free choice, not His decree or decision, that determines how we act. We are therefore without excuse for our wrong decisions.
God gives us the choice of how to live our lives. Our decision then reveals our rejection or acceptance of Him and His ways and His grace. Thus, salvation is something I decide with my entire life; it cannot be irrevocably gained during one moment of my life, neither is it something I can gain on the basis of one Sunday morning a week. Rather, it is something I must strive for throughout my life. If I desire the Pearl of Great Price, I must sell all that I have (and my most precious and only real possession is my time) in order to buy it. St. Paul describes what a life like this would be like in I Thess. 3:17, Pray without ceasing, rejoice evermore, in everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. Thus the way I spend each moment of my life determines whether I am moving towards salvation or damnation; but the decision is not final until I stand before God in judgment. And even if I do spend all my time for salvation, repenting of my sins, trusting in Godís mercy, obeying God and loving Him, I nevertheless will gain it only by Godís mercy, for I cannot earn it: the price is too high. It must be given by God Who alone loves mankind.
Now I know that you honor and respect the President of the United States. If he walked into the room, you would stand in deference to him, and might even be tongue-tied to be close to such an important person. Yet you question the honor we accord the saints. They have run a race much more difficult than an election race, and they have fought a much better and harder fight: for by Godís grace, they have triumphed over both themselves and Satan. Should we not honor them as much as, if not much more than, a temporal ruler? We cheer Olympic victors and think much of their effort and skill. Is not a holy life infinitely more worthy of honor and respect?
But do not think that we forget God when we look at these men and women. They are lights to the world and to the Church, reflections of God Who is light. At times I have been greatly inspired to praise God because I caught a glimpse of Godís grace as it shone through the life of the Virgin Mother of God or some other saint, and I marveled at His mercies and aid to that person in his life, and was encouraged that He will do the same for me if I would only allow Him. No, the saints became what they are because of Godís mercies, so praise of them is praise of God, their Maker and Helper. Also, if the saints are part of the Body of Christ, should we not see Christ more fully by looking at them, the Body as well as the Head of the Body which is Jesus Christ?
All Christians are saints, which is a word meaning "holy one." But by preceding their names with the title "saint," the Church refers to those whose lives on earth were so exemplary and outstanding that she points to them as guides to follow on the Christian walk, just as St. Paul told Christians to follow his example (I Cor. 4:16,11:1). Also, the Church witnesses that those she refers to as "saints" are with God, the righteous praising Him in heaven. For the teaching of the Church has always been that the state of a person at death is normally not known, for only God who knows the hearts of man can judge righteously. But saints have been attested to be true sons of God by miracles occurring after their death at their graves and by the fact that prayers addressed to them are answered. Thus both the Church and creation bear witness that these are true sons of God, dwelling with Him in heaven.
Mary the Theotokos.
The reasons we give so much honor to Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ, are many. First, she is a saint, and like the other saints she is worthy of honor, respect, and emulation. But she is a special saint, for of all the women in the world, God chose her to be mother to His Son. We believe that God does not choose lightly, bestowing honor for little or no reason. If He chose Mary, then she must have been very unique and holy. This alone is sufficient reason to give special honor to her, for we have sure indication of Godís approval of her. But there are more reasons. She was the first to believe that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God; she was the first "Christian." She is symbolic of the whole Church, for as Christ dwelled within her, so Christ dwells within His Church. As Christís dwelling in her womb became obvious, so we are to grow so that the Christ within us becomes obvious to those in the world. As she answered the Archangel Gabriel, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me as thou hast said (Luke 1:38), so we are to answer and so are we to submit to Godís will in all obedience and humility, As she patiently endured ridicule, taunts, and abuse because of Christ, so are we to endure them. Her command to the servants at the wedding feast of Cana is her advice to all of us: Whatsoever He (Jesus) saith to you, do it (Luke 2:5). Truly it has been said that those who look at the Virgin Mary see God instead, for she becomes virtually transparent, disclosing Him to all. Thus, she is depicted in most of her icons gesturing toward Christ, making Him the focal point.
Mary also protects the dogma of the Incarnation: that God (not a human being who later became deified) came in the flesh (not just in the spirit) and was our Savior. This is the reason for her title, "Theotokos," which means " Birthgiver of God." She is for us the epitome of all the saints, of all that we are to be, the most beloved. But it is God we worship, not the mother of His Son.
And why call her "mother of God?" We call her this in order to be explicit that Jesus whom she bore was and is God, not a mere man, and not the Messiah who later became infused with God. Repeatedly in the Churchís hymns it is clearly stated that Christ is pre-eternal, that is, that Mary is not the source of His Godhead, for He is before all eternity, before Godís creation of time. Christ is one of the Persons of the Trinity, taking on only His humanity from Mary. By such statements as these, we are safeguarded from the heresy that Mary is the cause of any Person of the Trinity. But since she was Jesusí mother, then by simple "algebraic substitution" she was Godís mother as well, that is, mother to the God-Man, Christ Jesus.
Intercession of the Saints.
It has been the teaching of the Church from the earliest times that the saints in heaven pray for those on earth and that we can ask them for their prayers. When I was considering this doctrine before I became Orthodox, I realized that a false philosophy was influencing my faith. I had not dealt with the full implications of Christís Resurrection. Death where is thy sting? Grave where is thy victory? (I Cor. 1 5:5) No longer is death the defeat and barrier that it once was, for Christ now has the keys of death and hell (Rev. 1:18). Death cannot totally separate the Body of Christ, for then there would be two bodies, not just one. Instead, we have the help of the saints in their prayers for us. Consider that the Apocalypse (Revelation) shows the martyrs praying under the altar, for the persecutions to end (Rev. 6:9-10). Also the earliest historical documents of the Church, such as the accounts of the martyrdoms of Sts. Polycarp and Ignatius dating from approximately 108 and 110 A.D.), show Christians praying to the new martyrs and rejoicing that a new saint was in heaven to intercede for them.
You ask me how the saints can hear our prayers. Since the saints are part of the Body of Christ, and Christ is omnipresent, then by Godís grace anything said to them can reach them. If you look for more details than that, you will find yourself trying to apply rules of physics and geometry to the Omnipresent, Omnipotent Creator of all, and will find that rules which work for finite things do not work for an Infinite Being. That our prayers do reach the saints is all we really need to know.
What do we pray for? Understand that the word "pray" is only an old-fashioned word meaning "ask." We ask the saints to intercede for us before God. We ask them to pray for us just as I might ask my neighbor to pray for me.
Why ask the saints to pray? St. James the Apostle wrote, The fervent effectual prayer of a righteous man availeth much (Jas. 5:16), and we have the assurance of the Church that these have been accounted by God as righteous.
Also, we know that if we ask anything according to His will... we have what we ask of Him (I John 5:14-15) and those who live before the throne of God have sure access to the knowledge of His will. Thus being free of sin and the cares of this life and knowing Godís will, they pray with great effect. Besides, much of the time there is no Christian nearby whose prayers I can ask; but the saints are always available. This by no means negates the responsibility of Christians who are yet in the world to pray for one another, for this we are obligated and privileged to do. Being able to pray to the saints in heaven merely insures that someone whose prayers will be heard can pray at any time, for our need for Godís help is great.
Intercession for the Dead.
Christians who have died have not necessarily attained instant perfection. Although those who are entitled ĎĎsaints" have attained perfection, the Church believes that most continue to grow to the fullness of the stature of Christ. For if Christ learned obedience on the earth (Heb. 5:8), how much more do we need to learn even though God may have granted us salvation? Therefore, we pray because the Body of Christ is one, and because no member of the Body should be deprived of the help of intercessory prayer. Thus we pray for the dead in Christ, joining our feeble love to Godís. Even our poor prayers may be of help to them, and we are obligated to pray for all Christians everywhere.
The first account of a miracle done through the relics of a saint is in II Kings 13:20-21, where a dead man who was laid on the bones of the Prophet Elisha is raised from the dead, We also have the account in Acts 5:15-16, and 19:11-12 of relics of St. Peter and St. Paul, i.e. St. Peterís shadow and pieces of St. Paulís apron, effecting miracles by Godís grace. How can we deny that miracles take place through the relics of holy saints when we have examples of it in Scripture? Also, the earliest accounts of Christians show them reverencing the relics of the martyrs, e.g. the accounts of the martyrdoms of Sts. Polycarp and Ignatius. Do not be mistaken, it is God who grants the miracles, but He does it through the relics of the saints. If God so honors them, how can we deny them honor?
Part of the problem of accepting the validity of relics may be our being raised in a society which teaches that the body is a thing which oneís true self or soul inhabits: that it is the inner person which matters, the body being no more than a vehicle which will be discarded. But Scripture teaches that the body is as much a part of the whole person as the soul. Were this not the case, why would God promise to raise the bodies of the righteous dead? Why would He not simply make them new bodies from some other material or dispose with bodies entirely in the resurrection? But since God has promised to raise the saintsí bodies from death and corruption, we must teach that there is a true identity between the body and the soul. Therefore, we honor the saintsí bodies, for they are a link to the saints in heaven, they have been honored by God in miracles and signs, and because we have been taught to do so from the beginning.
We venerate and honor icons (as well as the Cross and the Gospel book) believing that the honor bestowed upon these symbols is transmitted to the reality, that is, the actual person depicted. We honor the reality via the icon. As St. John of Damascus said, "Of old the incorporeal and invisible God was not depicted at all; but now, since God has appeared in flesh and dwelt among men, I make an icon of God in so far as He has become visible. I do not venerate matter, but I venerate the Creator of matter, Who for my sake has been pleased to dwell in matter and has through matter effected my salvation. I shall not cease to venerate matter, for it was through matter that my salvation came to pass" And Leontius of Cyprus (7th century) said, "So long as the two pieces of wood are joined together to form a cross, I venerate the emblem of the cross because of Christ who was crucified upon it; but if they are separated from one another, I throw them away and burn them. We do not venerate the, nature of the wood, but through wood we embrace and venerate Him who was crucified ..." For we worship the Creator, not the created. We use the created to honor the Creator. [There is some disagreement about which English words should be used to correctly distinguish between the limitless love and adoration due God and the lesser veneration of honor due icons as parts of the creation. The problem is that neither British nor American English seems to be sufficiently precise. Since most Americans exclusively associate the word "worship" with a diety, I have chosen to use the word venerate when referring to icons, saints, etc. I hope that the text makes clear what the English terminology may not.]
As testified by the Old Testament, idol worshippers believed their gods lived inside the idols or were the idols and that they therefore had power in and of themselves. Such is not our belief, for the paint and wood and other material of an icon, cross or Gospel Book have no power in themselves, they are lifeless.
It is a common saying that Christians are to be Christ in the world. Orthodoxy teaches something like this when it says that each Christian is an icon, an image of God, presented to the world so that all might come to the knowledge of the truth. And just as icons of Christ are imperfect and incomplete representations, so are most Christians. Actually, when Christ came in the flesh He was the first icon of God, a flesh and blood, material portrayal of Who God is. So we consider the people of God to be icons as well and worthy of honor.
You say that you dislike the "peculiar style" of icons. They are painted in this way in an attempt to depict the nature of the person who has been transformed by grace. This is why they are somewhat stylized and formalized. The unimportant earthly details about cleft chins and moles have been left out. Instead, they strive to show forth God, inasmuch as He has become visible, or the heavenly powers and saints reflecting God. Through their symbolism, icons portray the new creation, the transfigured world, as St. Paul says, We shall be changed... (I Cor. 15:51-53).
You ask how we can call our priests "father" when Matthew 23:9-10 teaches, Call no man your father on the earth, for you have one Father who is in heaven. And call no man lord (or master in some translations) for you have one Lord, even Christ The question is whether Christ meant this statement literally, i.e. never use this word "father" or "lord" except to refer to God, or whether He was trying to teach something else. The Apostle Paul did not understand this statement of Christís the way you do, for he called slavesí owners "masters" and "lords" in Ephesians 6:5, 9, and in Ephesians 6:2-4 he called the male parent "father." The Apostle John also addressed people as "father" in I John 2:1 3-14. But the clearest refutation of this interpretation is in I Corinthians 4:15 where St. Paul says, Though you have ten thousand teachers, yet you have not many fathers, for in Christ Jesus have I begotten you.
If you insist on a literal interpretation of this verse in Matthew, you must call your earthly father by his given name, for if you call him dad, or papa, or any other synonym, you are just playing word games for you are still conveying the thought of father although you are using different sounds to convey that thought. Christ was not teaching us to disrespect our parents or change our language. He only meant that there is one true Father, one true Lord and that we should clearly recognize Him as being exceedingly more worthy of our obedience and love than our earthly fathers and rulers.
The ministry of the priesthood is not some strange thing. They administer the Sacraments, teach, discipline, exhort and encourage the people of God. In turn, each priest is under the authority of a bishop whom he must obey. Only the bishops and priests can administer the Sacraments. This is what the apostles taught and this is the tradition we keep. You can see the wisdom with which the Holy Spirit taught the apostles and bishops since this arrangement binds the Body of Christ together, for no Christian can go off entirely on his own and be saved, for he must come to the Body to partake of the Sacraments and there he can be taught and encouraged and disciplined. Thus the interdependence of the Bodyís members is protected.
Our priests are shepherds of the flock who watch over our souls. They do not lord it over us. They are not some aristocracy, ruling over and superior to the average believer. Rather, they are people God has chosen to burden with the responsibility for the souls of His people. This is an awesome responsibility and a heartbreaking task. If we show them honor, it is because we see their struggle and toil for us and are thankful for them and attempt to show them our appreciation. We are also to be submissive to them as St. Paul taught in Hebrews 13:17. They in turn obey their bishop and follow the holy traditions passed down to them.
Elisha spent three and a half years alone in the wilderness (I Kings 17:1-5). St. Paul spent fourteen years alone in the desert learning from God (Gal. 1:16-2:1). These are Scriptural examples of monasticism. However, monasticism really blossomed forth in the fourth century, after Christianity was legalized by the emperor St. Constantine. Until then, people who became Christians had to count the cost, for it could cost them their lives. But after it was legalized, many worldly people sought to enter the Church when it became somewhat fashionable. This inundation of the world into the Church caused many Christians to flee into the desert to seek God away from the busy crowd. The tales that were told, particularly of St. Anthony the Great, one of the first desert fathers among many others, inspired many to try this life of prayer, chastity, and physical deprivation. This was the beginning of monasticismís golden age.
Monks have two primary tasks: 1) to seek their own salvation (for if they are not on the correct path, they cannot help anyone else), and 2) to pray for the whole world. Thus, monks are the Churchís warriors of prayer. Their ministry to the Church is to pray for it and for the world. They support themselves with the labor of their hands, usually quiet tasks which allow them to pray while they work without distraction, and spend the rest of their time in church services or private prayer or reading holy books in the quiet of their cells. They seek to pray at all times (I Thess. 5:16-18), to acquire the virtues, and deny all the passions of the flesh. They keep stricter fasts than the Christians in the world usually do, and may deny themselves sleep or speech with men in order to focus their minds on God alone and worship Him. Their monastic garments are designed to keep them from being concerned about what they wear, for they always wear the same thing, a quite sober or severe style of apparel. Monasteries and convents are also a great source of spirituality to the Church. Many Christians go to them for advice and many of our saints have come from them. Most of our bishops also come from monasteries, and often the monasteries have stirred the Church to repentance and to seek God. Actually monks do basically what Christians in the world are to do, except that monks have also vowed chastity and vowed to follow a monastic discipline in dress and fasting. Otherwise, we are to do what they do, i.e. pray without ceasing and seek God in holiness, doing our best to avoid the worldís distractions.
We do not "sacrifice the Son of God repeatedly" in the Eucharist, for each Liturgy is united in time with the Crucifixion and Resurrection. We partake of Him who was nailed on the Cross and rose again "and is perpetually slain, sanctifying communicants" (Canon of Preparation for Holy Communion), not a recrucified God (Rev. 13:8).
That of which we partake is truly and exactly and literally the most precious Body and Blood of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. You say you donít understand how bread and wine can be changed into flesh and blood. I donít understand either; but it is not necessary or even common to understand how things work before we use or enjoy them. I donít understand how God created the world, nor do I understand the Trinity, but I believe in them. I donít even understand electricity, but that does not stop me from turning on a lamp and enjoying the illumination it provides. It is enough for me that the same God who said, Let there be light also said, This is my Body... this is my Blood.. . (Matt. 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:19-20).
Historically, the most ancient teachings of the Church state that the Eucharist is truly Christís flesh and blood. In about 110 A.D. the bishop and martyr St. Ignatius,. who was a disciple of the Apostle John, taught the Church, "if they (heretics) believe not in the blood of Christ (they) shall incur condemnation ... they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ..." He also wrote, "I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life which is the flesh of Jesus Christ." He did not say it is a symbol of the flesh of Jesus Christ, but that it is His flesh. It is not corruptible food as a mere symbol would be, but incorruptible; the flesh of the God-Man, Christ Jesus. The early Church always understood that the Blood of Christ which cleanses from all sin (I John 1:7) refers to the Eucharist, not to some mystically applied blood. It was understood that the cleansing of Christís Blood took place through partaking of that Blood in the Eucharist.
The Passover in the Old Testament is seen as a prefigurement of our salvation. After the Hebrews slaughtered the lamb, which is a figure of Christ (I Cor. 5:7), they did not paint the lintels of their homes with wine or grape juice. They took the blood of the lamb and each applied it to the lintels of his house. In the same way, it is only by actually partaking of the true and actual Blood and Body of Christ that we can be made clean. This has always been the teaching of the Scriptures and the apostles.
Baptism of Infants.
The argument concerning the baptism of infants is one encountered only in comparatively modern times. Not until the time of the Protestants did the question arise. Now it might seem logical that since infants cannot think maturely or decide, and thus cannot have faith, they therefore should not be baptized. Where is the proof for this modern belief? It is neither a Biblical nor a scientific one. Modern psychology recognizes the fact that children can learn in the womb and that they recognize their motherís voice. The Bible states, Yet Thou art He who did bring me forth from the womb; Thou didst make me trust when upon my motherís breast (Ps. 22:9), and, For behold, when the sound of Thy greeting reached my ears, said St. Elizabeth to the Theotokos, the babe leaped in my womb for joy (Lk. 1:44). It would seem that both St. David the King and St. John the Baptist had relationships with God from the womb, so who can say that others cannot? Is not faith a relationship rather than a belief in and adherence to a system of doctrines? Since infants can have a relationship, they must also be able to have faith, which is a relationship of trusting God. What we receive from God, we receive by grace, not through the exercise of our mental abilities.
Furthermore, infants were circumcised when they were eight days old according to the Old Testament ritual law. St. Paul teaches that this was a prefigurement of baptism (Col. 2:11-12). Also, Mosesí leading of the Israelites through the Red Sea was a baptismal prefigurement according to I Corinthians 10:1-4, and there were infants among them, saved by the faith of their parents, although when they were older they would have to prove their faith in the wilderness.
In the New Testament, we read of whole households being baptized (Acts 16:15,16:33, I Cor. 1:16). In Greek, the word used for household means the entire family, from oldest adult to infant. That word can no more be used to denote only the adults of a family than our word "family" can denote only adults.
All of this would indicate that infants were baptized from the beginning. In support of this,
we find no writings opposing infant baptism until the Protestant Reformation. The question seems never to have been considered previously. If it had been an addition, surely some heretic would have exploited it in the early history of the Church; but this never happened. It seems to have been the apostolic way from the first, which is the teaching of the Church.
Simple reception of the Sacraments, however, does not guarantee salvation. As the infant grows, he or she must continue acquiring the Holy Spirit in order to gain salvation. Actually, infant baptism and chrismation is quite similar to the adoption of a child into an earthly family where the child comes into a relationship with his new family despite his age. Like the baptized child, the adopted child may later decide to reject his adopted family, but until then he is a part of that family.
Christ said, Let the little ones come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:14). How could we justify not baptizing our children, thus denying them the help of all the Sacraments and the Church in the early and most formative years?
[*For portions of this section, I would like to acknowledge the help of Jordan Bajis of East Lansing, Michigan.]
Incense and Candles.
Symbols were not discarded by Christ Who used the symbolism of the parable as one of His primary teaching methods, for symbols are an integral part of man and can be useful to him for salvation. Candles or oil lamps were used as a symbol of our prayers in Apocalypse 5:8 and in Psalm 14:2, Let my prayer be set forth in thy sight as the incense. Thus as the Scriptures use symbols, so does the Church, attempting to remind us of God at all times and by all our senses. Thus the material, in the forms of candles and incense, touch our senses in the Church and remind us of who we are, Who God is, and what we are to be doing ó that is, being lights in the world and praying without ceasing. Here again, the Church uses the material God created to help us to turn our minds towards God.
Some Protestants have tried to interpret verses in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Ephesians (5:18) to mean that Christians should not drink alcoholic beverages. But these verses only state that we should not become drunk, for that is excess, and often leads to. sin. Psalm 104:15 states that God created wine to gladden manís heart, and in Deuteronomy 14:25-26 God instructs His people that if they are unable to take their tithes to the temple, Then shalt thou turn it (you r tithe) into money and bind up the money in thine hand and shalt go unto the place which the Lord thy God shall choose and thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth, and thou shalt eat there before the Lord thy God and thou shalt rejoice, thou and thine household. If God prescribes this in lieu of paying tithe, then the other verses cannot be interpreted to forbid alcohol. This is why the Orthodox Church does not forbid its members to drink alcohol.
I hope and pray that this letter has been helpful to you and that it has answered most of your questions. I plan to write another time about some of the doctrine of the Church and answer your questions about "other denominations" but I think this letter is long enough already. I wish I could convey the depth and the richness of Orthodoxy better than I have been able to thus far, but I hope that God may minister to you despite my poverty of thought and expression. May He richly bless you in all things.
Your loving daughter,
I pray this letter finds you well. As promised, I am writing this last letter to speak about the doctrine concerning the Church itself. I thought first that I would review some of the internal contradictions of Protestantism and then, since you requested it, some of the contradictions of the Roman Catholic Church. Finally, I will speak about the Orthodox Church and the question of who are the members of the Church.
The Errors of Protestants.
As I stated in the first letter, the Protestant churches confess that only the Bible is the source of truth, but they do not obey the scriptural exhortations to follow both the written and spoken traditions which the holy apostles gave to the Church: Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold to the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or our letter (I Thess. 2:15); Now I praise you, brethren... that you keep the traditions as I delivered them to you (I Cor. 11:2); and, The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things (Phil. 4:9). Also, whereas the Apostle St. Paul speaks of the Church as a Body, fitly joined and working together (Eph. 2:19-22), we find the actual Protestant belief is that each person is on his own to discover the true interpretation of Scripture. St. Paul also exhorts the believers to be in subjection to their leaders in the Church (Heb. 13:7,17), but most Protestants are in no real subjection to their ministers. Either their ministers do not ask for obedience, or if they do, many of their people leave and go to another church with fewer requirements. You stated that you had to accept the authority of the Ecumenical Councils after reading my first letter. You therefore must accept the veneration of icons and honor the Virgin Mary as Ever-Virgin, yet most Protestant churches will hardly allow this, or even preach vehemently against it. Christ said that the Holy Spirit would lead the apostles into all truth (John 16:13), and part of that truth concerns the order of the Church. The Church was established by the apostles through the Holy Spirit, to have bishops, priests and deacons with apostolic succession, that is. the ability to trace their ordination back to the apostles. This requirement is implicit in the canons the holy apostles gave to the Church and in the writings of the early fathers. Indeed, there is no historical question that apostolic succession was required in the early Church, yet no Protestant minister can claim apostolic succession. So, according to the canons and the entire tradition of the Church, the authority and sacraments of these ministers have no validity and their doctrine is suspect. By these few signs, among others, Protestantism is shown to be in error.
In regard to apostolic succession: it was required from the first for a bishop to be able to trace his ordination back to the apostles. There are at least three important reasons for this. First, it is, and was one of the few ways to help prove a clericís Orthodoxy, that is, his correct worship and belief. If a bishop has apostolic succession, then there is some certainty that he is not some upstart heretic trying to grab attention and power, or some half-taught worldly person, but that he is indeed a legitimate (and one should hope, worthy) successor of the apostles, a person who has been taught the correct ways to live and believe by others who learned the way ultimately from the apostles who learned it from Christ. Such a man with apostolic succession could be relied upon to be a legitimate shepherd of the flock, one who had come in by the gate, not by climbing over the wall: someone who is in submission to the Church, not rebellion. Secondly, apostolic succession shows by what authority the bishop requires obedience and administers the Sacraments (including Ordination of priests). This authority was given by the apostles to holy men whom they ordained as bishops, which authority was passed down through the ages to the present Orthodox bishops. (Please note that without Orthodoxy of faith, there is no apostolic succession, for without it a bishop falls under the Churchís anathema and is no longer a bishop for he is no longer in the Church). Thirdly, apostolic succession shows the physical continuity of the Church. The Churchís lineage can be traced from generation to generation and it, the Orthodox Church, is the same Church as was founded by the Twelve Apostles, without schism or heresy or any break in that lineage. Thus doctrines, virtues, correct Christian attitudes, and the Christian way of life could be and were passed on from the apostles through their successors to the present time. For by striving to ensure that the leaders and teachers are right, the Church ensures that the flock will be taught and corrected until all can embrace the full godly life and salvation.
The Errors of the Roman-Catholic Church.
As you requested, I will now speak briefly on the Roman Catholic Church. Their departure from Orthodoxy is most clearly seen by realizing that they are anathematized by the Third Ecumenical Council for adding to the Nicene-Constantinoplean Creed. The Roman Catholics recite the Creed as saying that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, whereas the Creed actually states (as does John 15:26) that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone. This addition to the Creed was spoken against by Pope Leo in 808 A.D., who had the Creed, without the addition, inscribed on silver tablets. But the addition was later reintroduced by other popes and accepted as correct practice and defended by them for almost 1000 years.
As to their doctrine of papal infallibility, if the above example does not raise sufficient questions of that doctrineís validity, then there is the fact that the Sixth Ecumenical Council anathematized one of the popes, Pope Honorius. This council is now and always has been accepted as valid by the Roman Catholics. In addition, their doctrine of papal authority over the whole Church is proved false by one of their own popes, who is also a saint, St. Gregory the Great. He wrote in the sixth century that no bishop (which includes the pope) ought to call himself universal (as the popes now call themselves "Universal Pontiffs") because all bishops are equal in authority (parenthetical statements are the authorís). This was written at a time when the Church in Rome was still Orthodox. The pope cannot be the head of the Church, as the popes term themselves, for Christ is the Head of the Church. Neither can the pope be Christís vicar, for that would necessitate that Christ was no longer present in the world, since "vicar" means "substitute" or "representative."
The apostles ordered the Church with each bishop equal in authority, a tradition which the Orthodox Church has kept. Indeed, at the council in Jerusalem described in Acts 15, it was the Apostle James who presided, not St. Peter-clear evidence that the apostles did not interpret the words in Matt. 16:18 as later popes have interpreted them. The Holy Fathers from the beginning have always understood the passage, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church (Matt. 16:18), to mean that Christ would build His Church on Peterís confession that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. The present day Roman Catholic interpretation of that verse came much later in Church history. St. Peter in his epistles makes no claim to supremacy, and neither did any of the early popes. The supremacy of the pope, the involvement of the popes in world governments, power struggles, wars, with their own armies, and in plots for or against worldly leaders and peoples are all clearly in opposition to the practice delivered to the Church by the holy apostles, and contrary to the example of humility given to us by Christ.
The Roman Catholic doctrine of the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary (that she was conceived by her parents without "original sin") was spoken against by one of their own, much revered saints, Bernard of Clairvaux, because it was an innovation and not part of the tradition of the Church. This doctrine is an addition to the faith which was delivered to us by the apostles, and an unnecessary doctrine besides. These, together with my other statements, are some of the simplest and most fundamental faults found in the Roman Catholic Church.
About Christians who are Outside the Church. Ecumenism.
The Orthodox Church holds herself to be the continuation of the apostolic Church of the first century. The other Christians do not form part of the true Church, for they have not been baptized into the Church by true apostolic bishops. Christ and the apostles taught that these Sacraments are the way by which we enter the gate which is Christ and become part of the flock of God (Matt. 17:19, Mark 16:16, I Cor, 12:13). If anyone tries to justify another way, he is entering the fold by climbing the wall and is not truly of the flock. For only Orthodoxy is the true Church of Christ. Now if God somehow accounts others to be part of the Church who are not manifestly Orthodox, it would be something He has not told the Church in the Bible, the Ecumenical Councils, or through the Fathers. We would rejoice exceedingly in their salvation if this were to happen, but there is no indication that it will. I do not mean to sound hateful or superior; I am just trying to dispassionately describe the facts. I am sorry to have to say such offensive things, for I too was horribly shocked and offended when I first heard this. Against all my desire, however, I have come to believe that although unpleasant, it is true. The Eastern Orthodox Church is the only Church of Christ. The rest of this letter contains proofs of this statement which are intended to show that ecumenism, the doctrine that all or most who call themselves Christians are truly members of the Church, is a false doctrine.
Matthew 7:22 says, In that day many will say, "Did we not prophesy in Thy Name and in Thy Name cast out demons and in Thy Name perform many miracles?í but I will say unto them, 7 never knew you, depart from me, ye that work iniquity/ The outstanding fact to note in this quote is that there are seemingly sincere people who thought they were serving God and praying to Him, and having experiences with God, but God says He had nothing to do with them. There is also the fact that the Protestant ministers seem to have very little knowledge of what sin is, besides the obvious gross sins. There is little if any teaching about how pride, the father of all sins, is manifest in practically every thought, and how much we need to repent of, and what a godly life is really like. I am not trying to accuse them, but I am trying to explain how the last phrase of the quote, ye who work iniquity, can apply to the Protestants who outwardly in the eyes of the world have a form of godliness, but by Godís standards are quite unaware of their sin.
In the Epistles, the Church appears as one Body. Outside of her, there were no Christians. To come to believe in Christ meant uniting with the Church. There is no scriptural basis or teachings of the Fathers which would indicate that this has ever changed. Notice also that in the New Testament, with a few exceptions, the new believers did not start their own church, nor did they rebel against the Church after becoming part of it, but submitted to those in authority over them. If that was the way for the Church of the first century, and the Church continued in that doctrine, how can it suddenly be true that as long as a person says, "Lord, Lord" he will enter the kingdom of heaven? (Matt. 7:21).
Christ said, Moreover, if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault.. . if he will not hear thee, then take one or two more ... and if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it to the Church: but if he neglect to Hear the Church, let him be unto thee as a heathen and a publican... Verily I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matt. 18:15-18) The councils have been held. What shall we say of those who refuse to hear the words of the united Church? Christ said that they should be counted by the Church as heathens and publicans. Thus the Church has said, "Anathema!" in her Ecumenical Councils to those who follow heresies. However, the Church also prays (in our daily prayers) for all heretics (the non-Orthodox who call themselves Christians) to come to a full knowledge of the truth. In the meantime, what can we do except preach to those who will listen and otherwise obey this command which Christ gave the Church.
The canons written by the Twelve Apostles also have some hard things to say about the non-Orthodox. ĎThose who have been baptized or ordained by ... heretics cannot be either of the faithful or the clergy" (Apostolic canon 68). "We ordain that a bishop, or presbyter who has accepted the baptism or sacrifice (Eucharist) of heretics, be deposed. For what concord hath Christ with Belial, or what part hath a believer with an infidel?" (Apostolic canon 46) "Let a bishop or presbyter... who shall not baptize one who has been polluted by the ungodly be deposed as despising the cross and death of the Lord, and not making a distinction between the true priests and the false" (Apostolic canon 47). If this is the confession and belief of the holy apostles who were guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit (John 16:13), I cannot justify holding a different opinion.
If the allegory St. Paul used comparing the Church to a human body can be stretched a little, then let me apply it to this problem. It is easily seen that a hand cannot live apart from the body. If it separates, it dies. Neither can it give life outside of the body, for it is dead and is not capable of giving life. Neither can a hand be united to the head directly. It is true that because of our sinfulness parts of the Body sometimes bicker with each other ó as though they had become ill. This can involve individuals who are immature, willfully sinful, or who have "personality conflicts"; or whole portions of the Body may quarrel with one another. If individuals are fighting, they risk their souls, for they may be pruned off by the Husbandman who finds thorns instead of fruit. If it is sections of the body fighting, then either they will become reconciled, or the offending part(s) will be cut off. But the Body remains one.
Drawing again on the allegory of the Church as a body: if any part of a body refuse to receive blood from the rest of the body, it dies. Those who refuse the cup of the Church, therefore, soon die also, as Christ said, Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you have no life in yourselves (John 6:53). Those who have never received the Blood of Christ cannot be alive in Christ, can they? If a person has not partaken of the Body of Christ, how can he be part of Christís Body? Remember, according to the apostolic canons quoted earlier, the Eucharist of heretics has no validity. But let us go on.
Notice the subtlety of the doctrine of ecumenism. It has caused much disruption even in the true Church, and is certainly worthy of an ecumenical council. But how could an ecumenical council meet on this question? Since the question is "Who is the Church?" how could we gather the Church to decide it? If ecumenism is true, but we gather only the Orthodox, then the council was not ecumenical. If ecumenism is false and we assemble the heterodox also (those who have many beliefs and ways of worshipping), how could we arrive at the truth? It seems to be a doctrine which refuses to be directly judged by an ecumenical council. Actually, however, the ecumenical councils have already decided the issue. The Protestants and Roman Catholics have already been anathematized by the councils (see paragraphs 2 and 4 of this letter; for the basis of the authority of the ecumenical councils, see Matt. 18:15-18 and my first letter).
If the Orthodox Church is not the true Church, then one of three things must be true about Christís high priestly prayer (John 17). Either 1) Jesus was just doing some wishful thinking or vain hoping on the night He was betrayed or, 2) He prayed, but doubted God the Father, and so His prayer was not granted Him, or 3) the Trinity is not really one unity. But none of these statements is acceptable. 1) Jesus was plainly addressing the Father, so He was asking God for the Churchís unity. He was not just mentioning His desires to the disciples but was definitely asking the Father for the unity of the Church. 2) He would not have doubted in what He asked, for to doubt is to sin (Rom. 14:23), and II Corinthians 5:21 says that Christ is without sin. 3) The Trinity is united above any earthly understanding: / and the Father are One; Thou, Father, in Me and I in Thou (John 10:30, 17:21). Therefore, if Christ prayed for the unity of the Church to be as the unity of the Trinity, and if He prayed believing, then what He asked for must happen. And if the unity of the Body of Christ will only happen in heaven, why would Christ have prayed for it, for the righteous dead do not sin any longer and so must be at peace with and unified with each other. If He wanted to give His disciples an exhortation to stay united, He could have given it to them as a lesson as He gave them many lessons and parables. Is it not rather that Christ wished to assure us that the true Body of Christ would stay united, for He had prayed the Father for it? He told us there would be tares in the field and wolves in the fold (John 10:7-14, Matt. 13:24-^3), but here He assures us that the Body is and always will be one, a reflection of the unity of the Trinity itself.
When I first read the anathemas issued by the ecumenical councils and first read that the Orthodox Church is the only true Church, I thought that the people who said such things were prejudiced, uncompassionate, and blind. As you might guess, I had to change that opinion. Let me try to explain with a simple allegory. It is very hard for a doctor to tell a patient that he is dying. But when there is a chance for a cure, then he hurries to the patient and tries to explain that although the treatment is long and painful, it is the only sure chance for life. Since there is a chance for a cure, the Church is compelled to speak out to the heterodox even though many may come to hate her for her words. The Church says these unpleasant things in the hope of saving souls. If she earns the hatred of some for having said them, then she fulfills Christís prophesy that true disciples will be hated. The warning the Church gives in her anathemas and teachings, she gives out of love. For like God, the Church does not want any to perish, but wishes all to come to a knowledge of the truth (II Peter 3:9).
The world teaches self-love and egotistic isolation. The way to salvation, however, is the way of the cross, of dying to oneís own will. This cannot be done in isolation. Only in the Church can oneís will truly die. For only when there is someone else in authority to say specifically, "do this now, that later, and donít do the other thing at all," can the will truly be denied. And self-denial for love of Christ is the way to salvation.
Lest you become discouraged or distressed, let me finish by saying that the Church does not teach that God has forsaken those outside of the Church. He works in all hearts, trying to lead all to the truth. Therefore, if you believe that God touched you at any time, particularly if such an experience led to true repentance for your sins and love for God, then such an experience should not be discounted. But the purpose of all true experiences with God is to lead people to salvation, and for this purpose He has chosen the Church as the means to salvation in Christ.
Please believe that I came to this belief only after much agonizing, tears, prayers and thought. Yet I had to acknowledge that it is the truth even if I did not desire it. Having grown up in American society, I believed that beliefs were not important as long as one was a "good person" When I first sought to become a Christian, I decided that perhaps most adherents of other religions would not be saved, but at least all who called themselves Christians and who really sought to love and obey God would be saved. You see, I modified ecumenism by redefining the word "good," but I did not forsake it. I then became Orthodox, for it was the only form of Christianity which was internally consistent. Finally, in the Orthodox Church I came to the realization that I must deny Christianity or ecumenism, for they were mutually exclusive ideas. The fathers and the councils everywhere teach against ecumenism, so I had to make a choice. I decided that ecumenism had much less proof than Orthodox Christianity, and so I forsook ecumenism. I had to choose what was true over what I wished were true. I chose Orthodoxy.
Before I close, let me try to say something I fear I have not communicated very well yet. Throughout these letters, I have been using logic and facts to reveal the truth. But Orthodoxy is not a mental exercise, nor is it a philosophy or set of opinions. It is a way of life, an entirely different orientation of oneís whole being. It is not possible to communicate this way of life in writing. It must be experienced. I therefore, recommend that you go to the services of the Church, talk to the priest, ask him to recommend to you some pious Orthodox Christians with whom you can talk and whose lives you may observe. Read the lives of the saints and the writings of the Fathers. The Church is alive and so must be experienced if one is to know what the Church truly is in all its fullness and beauty.
It was with great trepidation that I have written you these letters, but I have done so out of love for you both. I have briefly stated the case for Orthodoxy (for to do so in full would take volumes). Think about what I have written, and if you have more questions, ask me or research the answers yourself, but please donít ignore what I have said. Pray God for eyes to see and ears to hear the truth. My unworthy prayers and love are with you always.
Your daughter, Marianna
For the Reader who is Curious.
The preceding "letters" were actually inspired by a letter I wrote at a friendís request to her parents. At the request and encouragement of my priest and several friends I expanded and published them and versions of them have been sent to various relatives and friends already. While I am a convert, and my parents also are not Orthodox , the material presented here does not actually deal with their position. I left the title as it stands, however, so that it might be any convertís letter to his or her parents or loved ones. Through the prayers of St. Nina, Equal-to-the-Apostles, may they be granted to find salvation.