The Church in Greece: Greek Orthodox Church
My favorite TV Program is “Rick Steve’s Europe” on New Hampshire PBS. In this program, I can take a trip to every corner of Europe and learn some interesting history. Gorgeous landscapes, venerable buildings, and appetite-stimulating local food entice me into the stories of cities and people in the past and present.
Yet, the indirect, virtual experience cannot be compared to the breathtaking awe and the impression of physically standing in actual sites and seeing real arts and architecture up close. That is why I love history and travel. Traveling is the best teacher and the most powerful nutrition for my soul.
Again . . . My trip to Greece was an eye opening, transforming experience. Through exploring the tracks of the apostle Paul’s footsteps and searching for the debris of the first century people, I was finally able to find some distinct clues as to what and why he said particular things in his letters. But this moment of awakening was just the beginning to the puzzle. A long way to go and learn lies in front of me.
When my airplane was taking off from the land of Greece, one curious question hovered around my head: What different faith does the Greek Orthodox Church believe? Like many other humanistic questions, this one is too big and complicated to present simple conclusions with a succinct summary. Because our goal is not academic debate, I would like to introduce a brief history of the Eastern Church.
The Greek (or Eastern) Orthodox Church began its history with the Emperor Constantine’s decision to move the seat of the empire from Rome to Constantinople, today known as Istanbul. (It is interesting that there exist rare historical documents of Church history from after Paul’s mission to Constantine’s establishment of Constantinople in 325.)
On November 8, 324, Constantine increased the size of the city, built new western walls and constructed new buildings and churches within old Byzantium. That was a momentous historical event, for the new Roman power in Constantinople evolved a new religious domain influenced by Greek language, by Greek intellectual and temperamental dispositions.
The Orthodox historian and bishop Timothy Ware articulated how Greeks were different from Romans. In order to easily compare the two intellects, I directly quote his explanation.
“From the start Greeks and Latins had each approached the Christian Mystery in their own way. . . The Latin approach was more practical, the Greek more speculative; Latin thought was influenced by juridical ideas, by the concepts of Roman law, while the Greeks understood theology in the context of worship and in the light of the Holy Liturgy. When thinking about the Trinity, Latins started with the unity of the Godhead, Greeks with the threeness of the persons; when reflecting on the Crucifixion, Latins talked more of redemption, Greeks of deification. . . These two distinctive approaches were not in themselves contradictory; each served to supplement the other. . .” (The Orthodox Church, 48-49)
Over the course of time, those concrete intellectual and theological differences separated the East from the West. Above all, Greek Orthodox Church would not accept Papal Supremacy at all. Instead, they adhered to keep the tradition of Icons. To them, Icons were not drawings or symbols or products of imagination. It was the real incarnation of the Word of God, of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints.
Their awe and adoration of Icons was the remarkable decision of seven ecumenical councils from the early Christian centuries. The seven were the First Council of Nicaea (325), the First Council of Constantinople (381), the Council of Ephesus (431), the Council of Chalcedon (451), the Second Council of Constantinople (553), the Third Council of Constantinople (680), and the Second Council of Nicaea (787).
The enmity between the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church reached its climax in 1054, when the papal legation, Humbert, entered the great church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) and placed on the altar a bull excommunicating Byzantine Patriarch Cerularius. Cerularius soon after excommunicated the papal legation. Traditionally, these events have been called the Great Schism between the Orthodox and Catholic churches.
A long time had passed after that. The first top-level communication between the two churches resumed in the early 1960s. The first efforts to heal came in a joint statement from Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I, dated December 7, 1965.
It took 1011 (!) years to overcome the separation that had resulted from different theologies and emotional fights.
Today we are living in a time when division seems to be a natural and normal phenomenon of human society. The Christian church is no exception. As the early Christians fought over the divinity and humanity of Christ, we are fighting over Jesus’ message of love.
Where is the remedy for reconciliation?
I don’t know the right answer. Yet, at least I can say one lesson from Church history: Accepting differences is the beginning of reconciliation, because God created humans differently and all humans can only partially know God.
Greece revealed many treasures to me. She opened a new door to the ancient world of culture, history and theology. Although my 10 day trips ended already, my intellectual pursuit has just begun. But I should not forget to say this word of gratitude: Adieu Greece!
Your Pastor, Kyu