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Orthodox Ecclesiology

Church of the Fathers

 

Three Hierarchs

The Three Hierarchs, Basil the Great,

Gregory of Nazianzos, and Saint John Chrysostom

 

The Orthodox Church is also the church of the Fathers. By Fathers, we mean the bishops, and those who preside over the Eucharist. That is, those who serve the mystery of the body of Christ to the local churches. Not everybody serves the mystery of Christ to the local church — not everybody celebrates the divine Eucharist, or performs the Christian sacraments of initiation and growth. In the first instance, it is the bishop who does this. The presbyters are his assistants, who participate in his episcopal function through the celebration of the Eucharist and through their ministry to the congregation of the local church. The bishop is the specific focus of the life and existence of the local church. He is the eikon of Christ for the whole diocese, not in a merely symbolic way, but in a real and living way. As Saint Ignatius said: where the bishop is, there is Christ. This patristic order of the local church was instituted by the Lord Himself in the establishment of the holy apostolate, and was continued in the successors of the apostles, the bishops, and the presbyters.

Whatever the questions about the historical origins and the precise way in which this order evolved, it is clear that its root is to be found in Christ and in the apostles. In the New Testament, as in the Old Testament, the patristic dimension of the Church is a sine qua non. Hence, we must speak of the Church as the church of the Fathers, as the Church was, indeed, founded upon the foundation of the apostles, Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone. But it is in the Fathers that we have the maintenance of the apostolic heritage, as the Fathers maintain the integrity of the Church by keeping the apostolic Faith and tradition. The dogmas of the Fathers, whether their accredited writings, or in their local and ecumenical synodal decisions, have no other intention but to keep the truth which the Lord gave and the apostles preached.

Orthodox dogmatics and doctrine are thoroughly apostolic and patristic. They are not abstract ideas divorced from the persons of the Fathers, the apostles and Christ. Doctrine is the expression of this unbroken line of existence which belongs to the very being of the Church. The guarantee of this unbroken line of holy tradition and existence is none other than the Holy Paraclete given by Christ Himself to His Church, the Spirit of Life who grafts us all on to the one Body of Christ and makes us reside in the one Truth.

List of Patriarchates and Autocephalous Churches

List of remaining Patriarchates and Autocephalous Churches

In the Orthodox tradition all bishops and presbyters, and even deacons, are called Fathers, because they serve the mystery of Christ and, thus, give birth and food to all Christian existence. In other words, there is a three-fold patristic order in the local churches. As all local churches are equal, because they receive the same grace, so the three-fold local patristic dimensions is equal from one locality to another. The other titles, which relate to the order of seniority, and which normally imply certain prerogatives for the persons who bear them, are, in fact, secondary elements which relate to the Church's response to the world. Such prerogatives exist not only among bishops but also among presbyters and deacons. The supreme prerogative in the Orthodox tradition is that of the ecumenical patriarch, which was synodically and canonically given to the bishop of Constantinople, New Rome. Then the Orthodox observed a whole order of seniority which corresponded to the historic expansion of the Church in history. After the ecumenical patriarch the ancient patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, and then the modern patriarchates, such as the Russian and the Serbian, as well as all the autocephalous churches, such as the Church of Cyprus and the Church of Greece, followed. Within these boundaries there has been a further extension to the order of seniority. Generally speaking, the order of ta presbeia in the Orthodox Church, which finds its ultimate expression in the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, reveals a harmony which has a natural evolution inasmuch as it follows the chronological pattern of the Church's history. A closer look, however, indicates that the basis for this pattern is not merely historical but also spiritual. It is, in fact, the sacred history, not divorced from the secular, that has imposed its own natural pattern of order. Had it been merely an external historic principle which determined the historic evolution of the Orthodox order of seniority, this order would not have outlasted the external changes.

The order of seniority in the Orthodox Church has been kept, in spite of external changes in history, because the Church in history is like a family which grows and gives birth to new children. This is a holy family where the children do not reject the parents, the daughters do not forget the mothers, and the mothers do not neglect the distinctive charisms of their daughters. We may say then that the patristic dimension of the Church, especially in its ecumenical structure, rests on the fact that the Church is like a family which grows in history from generation to generation, and from one people to another. The Fathers who have fallen asleep are, in fact, sleepless guardians of the Church. The Church in heaven is united with the Church on earth, and that which our Fathers have established on earth is binding for us because they are still alive. To keep company with them is to keep their work in our heart and practice. It is also to keep the historic perspective which is governed by the sacred history, and is rooted in the service or diakonia of the great mystery of the Body of Christ, the mystery of the divine eikon of the Holy Trinity reflected and realized in the life of mankind. The acceptance of the historic order of seniority, established by the Fathers of the catholic Church, is the way in which Orthodox Christians make sure that merely external historic considerations do not determine the Church's response to history. The Church follows her Fathers who are not dead, but living, and who are praying for us and celebrating with us until the final consummation and renewal of all history.

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Church of the Fathers | Church of the Saints or Those Who are Called To Be Saints | Conclusion