Orthodox America


Sacred Tradition - III


(Continued from Issue 111)

The Church's Dogmatic Teaching and Its Teaching concerning Heresies

From a correct understanding of the texts of Scripture proceed naturally the dogmatic teaching of the Church, i.e., the correct, true understanding about God, about man, the Church. From an erroneous understanding of Scripture are naturally born erroneous ideas about God, i.e., the erroneous dogmas of heretics-heresies. From this it is clear that we must take care to have the correct understanding of Scripture in order not to go astray. Falling into heresy separates us from God, it severs us from His Holy Church, and if we remain stubborn and unrepentant, it will deprive us of eternal salvation. Why? Because God is Truth (John 14:6) and one must worship Him in spirit and in Truth (John 4:23-24). Every falsehood is contrary to truth, just as darkness is contrary to light, and evil is contrary to goodness. The acceptance of falsehood unnoticeably leads us into subjection to the devil, who is falsehood and the father of lies (John 8:44); a stubborn persistence in falsehood ultimately makes one its slave.

Then, in order to enter into communion with God, in order to love Him, and to attain salvation, one must come to know Him in some measure. This is life eternal, that they might know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, Whom Thou hast sent (John 17:3). How can one say of a person who has a wrong understanding about God, that he knows God? Besides, the acceptance of a false teaching about God deprives us of oneness of mind with other Christians; it causes a spiritual separation from them.

Stubbornness and lack of repentance are outright disobedience to the Church, which requires that we hold to true dogmas, like her other members. Such disobedience leads us finally to separation from the Church and from Christ Himself, Who is her Head. He Himself said, If a man neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as an heathen and a publican (Matt. 18:17).

In questions of dogma, the importance of holding to the correct teachings of the Church, and the danger of accepting false dogmas of heretics are so great that we have countless examples of true Christians who preferred to die rather than accept some kind of false teaching. During the time of the persecution of Christians by Arians, monophysites, iconoclasts, the faithful were under pressure to accept heretical teachings. But they preferred to endure exile, torture and death itself, rather than renounce the Church's truth.

The dogmatic teaching of the Church was composed and ratified by the Ecumenical Councils, which, representing the voice of the whole Church, represent the voice of truth, since the Church as a whole cannot err. She is the pillar and ground of the truth (I Tim. 3:15). If the whole Church were to fall into error, it would mean that the gates of hell had prevailed against her, but this is contrary to Christ's promise (Matt. 16:18). The dogmatic teaching, which the Ecumenical Councils gave to the faithful to observe, can also be looked upon as a part of Sacred Tradition.

GENERAL CHURCH CANONS AND DECREES OF LOCAL CHURCHES

Each well-ordered government has its constitution and its laws. These determine what authorities ought to exist in the center and in outlying areas, and what should be their functions. These support order in the country, punish crimes and reward virtue. The Church likewise has its laws. These laws are called church canons. For the most part they have been drawn up by the Ecumenical Councils. True, there are many canons drawn up by Local Councils and even by individual saints, but they, too, were approved and ratified by the Ecumenical Councils.

These general church canons determine what authorities should be in the Church; how these authorities-patriarchs, bishops and priests-should shepherd the flocks entrusted to them and save their souls; how to punish for transgressing God's commandments; how they must conduct themselves in their private and public life in order to be a good example for the faithful; how lay people should behave if they wish to be members of Christ's Church. There are also canons regarding fasts, church services, etc. All these canons have been drawn up in order to support the well-ordering of church life and to guide men's souls to salvation. Inasmuch as each Local Church is self-governed, or autocephalous, there also exist decrees of the Local Church, which provide the norm for the given Church.

All these canons and decrees also belong to the realm of Sacred Tradition, whose roots reach back to the first centuries of Christianity. It is evident how necessary they are. Without them there would be no order in the Church, just as in the government and public life of any country there would be no order if there didn't exist specific laws that were enforced. Every religion, not only Christian but also pagan, has its laws and decrees which provide a standard for the life of the followers of that particular religion.

CHURCH SERVICES

With the knowledge of the true God there came also a need to pray to this God, there came private and common prayers. At first, written prayers were few. Each person prayed in his own words, as he was able and as he wished. But later some Christians, enlightened by God, composed prayers both for themselves and for general use. This was necessary because many, especially those on the lower levels of spiritual development, simply didn't know what to pray for, how to pray: we know not what we should pray for as we ought (Rom. 8:26). In our times, too, many offer to God prayers unworthy of His greatness: one prays for success in his business, another for a successful harvest in his fields and gardens. There are even those who pray God to take revenge on their enemies. All such prayers are displeasing to the Lord. We have been told to seek first of all the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and not to concern ourselves with the rest, with what is earthly (Matt. 6:33). And so, the Holy Fathers composed prayers for us, through which they teach us what we should pray for, putting, as it were, the words of prayers in our mouth. A majority of prayers were composed in the fourth century by St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom. These prayers likewise belong to the realm of Sacred Tradition.

Besides private prayer, prayer at home, we also have common prayer-church services. In the beginning these church services had no established rite. Apostle Paul writes, When you come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying (I Cor. 14:26). Later, however, there developed an established rite and order. Already in the first centuries of Christianity several liturgies were composed; the best know of these is the Liturgy of St. James, the brother of the Lord. In the fourth century the Liturgy of St. Basil was composed. Shortened later by St. John Chrysostom, it is in general use to this day. Gradually there appeared other established rites: matins, vigil, the hours, etc. There appeared church service books. Church hymnographers-St. John Damascene, Cosma Maiyumsky, Joseph and others adorned the services with their immortal compositions. All this entered the treasury of the Church's Sacred Tradition, which spiritually nourishes us to this day. If we want to discard church tradition in the field of church services, we would have to leave behind all the great and majestic creations of the Holy Fathers and compose our own services. But why deprive ourselves of this ancient beauty? Monk Anthony

(Translated from Vechnoe, August 1963, Paris.)

(To be continued)

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