When we approach Orthodox Christian Doctrine we should be fully aware that we are speaking about the true Christian Doctrine before the tragic split in 1054 A. D. All later amendments, modifications or direct changes to original Christian Doctrine the Orthodox cannot accept as Doctrine for the full Church did not participate in its formulation.
The word Doctrine is originally a Latin word and is to be understood as "teaching, mastering or convincing". In our case we understand it as Divine Teaching. Doctrine in itself is not a theological subject but a concentration of various Christian subjects including: Revelation, Tradition, the Bible, Liturgy, Ecumenical Councils, Holy Fathers, Saints, Canons and finally Church Art.
At any Orthodox Thanksgiving Service and at Matins we proclaim "God is the Lord and has revealed Himself unto us; blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord." (Ps 118:26-27). The principal foundation of Christian Doctrine is knowledge that "God has revealed Himself to us." He has revealed Himself to His creation. But it is evident that He has revealed only what man could see and understand of His Divine Nature and Will. The full perfection of God's revelation could be found in His Son Jesus Christ in accordance with the Old Testament; yet in the New Testament. Jesus Christ, is one fully "blessed ... who comes in the Name of the Lord. " According to Old Testament sources Jesus came exclusively as a Teacher sent from God. Therefore He was often addressed as " Rabbi-Teacher" or in English "'Master". Jesus' followers were called disciples, that is students or pupils. Jesus is called Christ as well; it is a Greek word translated from the Hebrew "Messiah" which means "anointed by God" relating to "taught by God" as foretold by the prophets Isaiah (54:13) and John (6:45). Christ emphasises often that His words are those of God, that is "One having authority", not as an ordinary Jewish teacher. He said clearly; "He who believes in me, believes not in me but in Him who sent me."
Apart from words He taught by action as well, not only speaking or acting by Himself, for He was the Living Word of God in human flesh, the "Logos" who is eternal, uncreated, but who has become man as Jesus. Being God in flesh He was inspired by God's Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth (Jn 15:26), to "Make disciples of all nations."
The Doctrine of Jesus became the apostle's Doctrine and thus became the Doctrine of the Church. If we desire to hear God's voice and to see His actions, we must purity our minds and hearts from everything wicked and false.
Tradition is in fact the on-going life of God's People. The Old Testament and its tradition are fulfilled, completed and transcended in the person of the Messiah and in the Christian Church. New Testament Tradition is also called Apostolic Tradition. Therefore this Tradition is called Holy Tradition which is passed on within the Church from the time of Christ and His Apostles right down to present days. Some Traditions are written but many are not. It must be noted that not everything in the Church belongs to Holy Tradition because many "traditional" things were not done by the Holy Spirit. Some things in the Church are of temporal nature and have no everlasting value. They are not sinful or wrong, they might be helpful to the life of the Church as long as they are not taken to be what they are not.
The Church in its human form as an earthly institution is not immune to the sins of its unholy members. Such so-called 'traditions' are sinful and stand under condemnation of authentic Holy Tradition.
First place in Holy tradition is taken by the Bible followed by liturgical life, prayers, dogmatic decisions and acts approved by Church Councils, lives of Saints, Canon law and iconography. They are all integrally linked with Holy Tradition in our life.
The word "Bible" comes from Greek and means "book." This name shows that holy books, as coming from God Himself, surpass all other books.
The books of the Holy Scripture, written by various people at different times, are divided into two parts, the books of the Old Testament, and those of the New Testament.
The books of the Old Testament were written prior to the birth of Christ. The books of the New Testament were written after the birth of Christ. All of these holy books are known by the Biblical word "testament," further suggests the agreement or a covenant of God with people.
The contents of the Old Testament deal mainly with God's promise to give mankind a Saviour and to prepare them to accept Him. This was accomplished by gradual revelation through holy commandments, prophesies, prefigurations, prayers and divine services,
The main theme of the New Testament is the fulfillment of God's promise to send a Saviour, His Only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who gave mankind the New Testament, the new covenant.
The Old Testament books, if each one is counted separately, number thirty-eight. Sometimes several books are combined into one, and in this form, they number twenty-two books, according to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet.
The Old Testament books are divided into four sections, the law, history, wisdom literature, and the prophets.
1) The books of the law, which constitute the main foundation of the Old Testament, are as follows:
1 . Genesis
These five books were written by the Prophet Moses. They describe the creation of the world and man, the fall into sin, God's promise of a Saviour of the world, and the life of people in the first times. The majority of their contents is an account of the law given by God through Moses. Jesus Christ Himself calls them the laws of Moses (cf. Luke 24:44).
2) The books of history, which primarily contain the history of the religion and life of the Hebrew people, preserving faith in the true God, are the following:
7. Judges, and as a supplement, the book of Ruth
8. First and Second Kings, as two parts of the same book
9. Third and Fourth Kings
10. First and Second Chronicles (additional)
11. First and Second Books of Ezra and Nehemiah
3) The books of wisdom, which are composed mainly of teachings about faith and spiritual life, are the following:
14.The Psalter, composed of 150 Psalms or sacred songs, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. A majority of the Psalms were written by King David. The Psalter is used for almost every Orthodox service of worship.
15. Proverbs of Solomon
16. Ecclesiastes (Church teachings)
17. Song of Solomon
4) The books of the prophets, which contain prophecies or predictions about the future, and their visions of the Saviour, Jesus Christ, are the following:
22. Books of the Twelve Prophets, also known as the lesser Prophets: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.
These are the canonical books of the Old Testament, meaning that they are undoubtedly true, judging by their origin and by their content. The word "canonica" comes from Greek and means "model, true, correct."
Besides the canonical books, a part of the Old Testament is composed of non-canonical books, sometimes called the Apocrypha among non-Orthodox. These are the books which the Jews lost and which are not, in the contemporary Hebrew text of the Old Testament, made by the 70 translators of the Septuagint three centuries before the birth of Christ (271 BC). These books have been included in the Bible from ancient times and are considered by the Church to be sacred Scripture. The translation of the Septuagint is accorded special respect in the Orthodox Church. The Slavonic translation of the Bible was made from it.
To the non-canonical books of the Old Testament belong:
3. The Wisdom of Solomon
4. Ecclesiastes, or the Wisdom of Sirach
6. Three books of Maccabees
7. The Second and Third book of Esdras
8.The additions to the (Book of Esther,) 11 Chronicles (The Prayer of Manasseh) and Daniel (The Song of the Three Youths, Susanna and Bel and the Dragon).
There are twenty-seven sacred books of the New Testament, and all of them are canonical. In content, they, like the Old Testament, may be subdivided into four groups, the law, history, the epistles, and prophesy,
1) Books of the Law which serve as the foundation of the New Testament are:
1. The Gospel of Matthew
2. The Gospel of Mark
3. The Gospel of Luke
4. The Gospel of John
The word "gospel," or in Greek, Evangelion, means "good news." It is the good news about the arrival in the world of the Saviour of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ, promised by God. The Gospels relate the account of His life on earth, death on the Cross, resurrection from the dead, and ascension into heaven. They also set forth His Divine teachings and miracles. The Gospels were written by holy apostles, disciples of Jesus Christ.
2) Books of History
5. The Acts of the Apostles, written by the Evangelist Luke, tells of the descent of the Holy Spirit on
the Apostles and about the spread of the Christian Church through them.
3) The Epistles
6-12. Seven general epistles to the churches, or, letters to all Christians: one of the Apostle James, two of the Apostle Peter, three of the Apostle and Evangelist John, and one of the Apostle Jude.
13-26. Fourteen epistles of the Apostle Paul: one to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, one to the Galatians, one to the Ephesians, one to the Philippians, one to the Colossians, two to the Thessalonians, two to Timothy, the bishop of Ephesus, one to Titus, the bishop of Crete, one to Philemon, and one to the Hebrews.
4) Books of Prophecy
27. The Apocalypse, or Revelation to John, written by the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John, contains a vision of the future destiny of the Church of Christ and of the whole world.
The sacred books of the New Testament were first written in Greek, which at that time was in common usage. Only the Gospel of Matthew and the Epistle of St Paul to the Hebrews were first written in Hebrew. The Gospel of Matthew, however, was translated into Greek in the first century, most likely by the Apostle Matthew himself.
The books of both the New Testament and the Old Testament appeared by God's revelation, were written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and are therefore called divinely inspired. Apostle Paul says, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness." (II Tim. 3:16).
It may be interesting to know that an Orthodox Altar has permanently placed upon it the Gospels (4 books of the New Testament bound in one book) but not a full Bible. It is so because everything in the Bible is fulfilled in Christ, that is the Gospel.
Liturgy means common work or action by a group of people, or alternately, a "public feast". In the Old Testament according to Mosaic Law the Liturgy was solemnised in the Jerusalem Temple only - the synagogues were only places of public gatherings for prayer and religious instruction or teaching. So according to Judaism only one Temple existed. They concentrated on God only during their services.
New Testament Liturgy is Christ-centred (that is, in God). The sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ replaced Old Testament sacrifices. So Sunday replaces Saturday as Sabbath in memory of Christ's Resurrection day.
There are many Old Testament liturgical symbols and prayers in the New Testament Liturgy, which certifies the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesies.
Throughout its history, the Church was faced with many difficult decisions. To preserve the full holiness of the Christian Church, condemning earthly reflections and decisions of various heretical personalities was found essential. For this task, among others, the Church through its bishops formed Ecumenical or universal Councils. The bishops with the guidance of the Holy Spirit condemned wrong teachings entering the Church. There were seven such Councils and their decisions were called 'dogmas' or undisputable, unchangeable truths. In fact, dogma means official teaching. Besides the general Ecumenical Councils there were local councils whose decisions were approved by the Church.
The writings of the Holy Fathers, who often became Church saints, are called patristic teachings, Some Holy Fathers were apologists because they defended pure Christian teachings from various heretical teachings. Their contribution to the Church had enormous value Particularly in the early Church. Other Holy Fathers were engaged in writing about their individual spiritual life which contributed clear understanding of Christian life. One such collection of Christian Writings is called the "Philokalia".
The Saints in the Christian Church are considered those men and women who in one way or another incarnate Church Doctrine. Proclaimed saints include evangelists, prophets, confessors, martyrs, "holy Ones" and "righteous".
Canon means rule, measure or judgement. These are canons of he Ecumenical Councils, and of provincial councils and individual church Fathers. The Church firstly distinguished between those of dogmatic and doctrinal nature (dogmatic canons are in fact defini of Christian Faith such as the nature and person of Christ) and those of a moral-ethical character. The canons of Church dogma, doctrine and Morality cannot be changed. But there are canons of practical nature which could be changed in the course of the life of the Church. The canons are 'of the Church' and cannot be understood as "positive laws" in the judicial sense.
The rich tradition, Of iconography and the other Church arts such as music, architecture, Poetry, needlework etc, contributed enormously to the life of the Church. All these reveal God's love for man and earthly creation. Of all forms iconography and music (vocal in the Orthodox Church) comprise the highest artistic achievement in Orthodoxy. Particularly in iconography we can see an expression of a deeper 'realism, than "that which would be shown in simple reproduction Of the physical attributes of an historical person."
from a paper presented to a National Serbian
Youth Conference in Australia
by V. Rev Father George Djonlic