In Defense of Orthodoxy

on September 13, 2014

Only Begotten Son and Immortal Word of God,

Who for our salvation didst will to be incarnate

of the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary,

Who without change didst become man and wast crucified,

O Christ our God, Trampling down death by death,

Who art one of the Holy Trinity,

Glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit,

save us!”

These are the opening words of one of the most crucial hymns in Orthodox Christianity. One of the thing which stands out in the incredible beauty of this ancient hymn, which is at once both a poem and a song of praise, is its orthodoxia (orthodoxy), its statement of theologically correct dogma regarding Christ. Often called the Hymn of Justinian after the sixth century Eastern Roman emperor who inserted it into the Divine Liturgy, it is a deliberate anthem of Orthodoxy designed to separate the non-orthodox from the orthodox faithful gathered in worship.

If one does not believe what the hymn proclaims, as its inclusion in the main Sunday service of the Orthodox Church was designed to underline, one cannot really call oneself a Christian. If one does not believe that Jesus Christ is the Only-begotten Son of the Father, if one does not believe He was born of a woman who always remained ever-virgin, one cannot call oneself a Christian. The hymn thus serves as a deliberate perimeter or boundary of what the Church understands the very word ‘Christian’ to mean. It sets the perimeter of what it means to be a Christian both socially, in the public square, and especially theologically. The ability to sing this hymn with belief in its words is thus an affirmation of one’s orthodox Christology, and thus, one’s true Christianity.

Why was this hymn inserted into the Divine Liturgy in the earliest days of Christianity? It was a deliberate move by St. Emperor Justinian, venerated as a Saint in both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, to counter several of the Christological heresies threatening the orthodox teachings about Christ at the time. Think of how long ago this was – a time when the Eastern Roman Empire still used Latin as its official administrative language, not Greek. A time before Islam existed, and a time when Christianity still thrived in the eastern Mediterranean.

One of the things which the Christian Left as a political entity constantly forget due to their secular worldview is that orthodoxy, having true and right doctrine about God manifested by true and correct worship of Him, is essentially the defining pillar of what constitutes authentic Christian faith. One can worship and praise God with a large degree of freedom, but if one does not believe what the Church continues to believe and has always believed about Him, is one really worshipping Him?

These issues were not matters of little concern to the early Christians. The history of the Church is not one seamless, completely smooth existence from the first apostolic age right up to the Great Schism of 1054. Rather, there were many schisms which rent whole nations from the unity of the early Church which remain less well known in the West. All of the seven great Ecumenical Councils recognized by both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches were held in order to settle profoundly polarizing questions of faith.

These were hugely controversial questions of Christological, and therefore, anthropological importance which struck at the very core of what it meant to be a Christian in a largely pagan society, in the extremely complex social and political order of the late Roman Empire. Indeed, it is the first two councils (Nicaea I in 325 and Constantinople I in 381) which gave us the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. More so than even the Hymn of Justinian, this Creed remains the most important ‘dividing line’ in Christianity today; all who can affirm its precepts may call themselves Christian, while all who do not fall into any number of heresies which put them outside Christendom.

The Hymn of Justinian remains one of the most beloved and treasured in the Byzantine liturgy of the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches. It naturally has its place in Anglican and Roman Catholic hymnology as well, to a lesser extent, but one of the most crucial things to remember about this hymn is that it was designed not just as a light-hearted, airy reflection on the Lord, but as an ultimate, triumphal hymn emphatically proclaiming orthodox Christology.

Its insertion into the Liturgy itself was, like the earlier insertion of the Nicene Creed, a dividing line, a statement that separated all those who affirmed its words from those who could not. If one were to deny the words of this hymn, and the doctrines they proclaim, then one would be departing from orthodox, Nicene Christianity. Those who today sing this hymn while believing its words are united to the Father by the love of Christ through the grace of the Holy Spirit. Their prayers reach the one throne of God, the altar that is both the heavenly altar and the earthly altar where Christ is truly present in the consecration of the bread and wine into His Body and Blood.

All those who partake of this cosmological and ontological unity with the Trinitarian Godhead stand united in the Faith of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. It is my hope and prayer that all will unite themselves to the Church by coming within the parameters of what it means to hold to orthodoxy, to true belief and right worship. We cannot simply discard these parameters set in the early Church for the sake of ‘niceness’ today, but rather, we should pray that ‘all may be one’ in the Faith of Christ.

  1. Comment by Andrew on September 13, 2014 at 10:02 am

    Although I consider myself an orthodox (small “o”) Christian in every way and am conservative in both dogma and ethics, the older I get, the less emphasis I put on the dogmas connected with the Trinity and the nature of Christ. The Greeks’ fascination with the “nature” and “substance” of Christ, the fussing over fully human and fully man – all that is so foreign to the New Testament, which never uses the term Trinity and never commands that Christians subscribe to some detailed creed in order to be saved. I can repeat the Nicene Creed without reservation, but the simple fact is, Justinian and Athanasius demanded much more belief than is demanded by the New Testament, and, as we all know, Christians have been killing each other over these finer points of doctrine for centuries, and that is just plain wrong.

  2. Comment by Ryan Hunter on September 13, 2014 at 11:19 am

    Hi Andrew, thanks for your comment. I agree with you that Christians naturally shouldn’t kill each other, or anyone else, since murder is an extremely grave and soul-shattering sin.
    I would argue that the New Testament must and can only be rightfully interpreted by the Church which decided which books of Scripture made it into the New Testament canon — remember, the Church existed as a historical entity for three centuries before the biblical canon was defined and authoritatively established. The Trinity is self-evident throughout the Scriptures, according to the centuries-old, collective mind of all the Fathers and Mothers (all the saints of the Church). So too is Christ’s status as the Theanthropos, the God-Man; read the Gospel of John 1, or the first Epistle of John. If you read these carefully, you will see what I mean.
    You sound like you have more years of living than I do (I’m 24), but on thing I’ve found is that all the so-called Christian communities that reject the Creed also reject a host of other basic Christian beliefs and principles. I think the ideal emphasis is one where our orthodoxy of belief, far from being some sad list of ideas we “must” subscribe to in order to be saved, instead serves as *the* animating, enlivening source of inspiration for what motivates us to live a love-filled, Christian life.
    Holding the right beliefs without taking corresponding Christian action means nothing. “Faith without works is dead”, after all — and faith is never meant to be taken in and of itself as *the* defining element of salvation. Rather, good works must naturally come out of a saving faith in Christ; they are the ornament and embodiment of one’s salvation.

  3. Comment by Andrew on September 15, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    When I was 24 I loved to discuss theology – Armininius v Calvin, the whole package. That was long ago.

    Orthodoxy is essential. Orthopraxy is too. We’ve got whole denominations teaching that abortion is acceptable (or even good), that two homosexuals constitute a “marriage,” so many things in clear violation of Christian ethics. This is the real battleground today, not the Trinity, but the fact that large groups of “Christians” claim the blessing of God on behaviors that the New Testament condemns heartily. When these people tell us that “love your neighbor” means “celebrate your neighbor’s sexual perversion,” we’ve got a problem much bigger than any doctrinal issue.

  4. Comment by Kathryn on April 22, 2016 at 1:05 pm

    Andrew we love the neighbor but abhor the sin.

  5. Comment by FW Ken on September 14, 2014 at 6:22 pm

    The New Testament “creed” seems to have been “Jesus is Lord”. Multiple schisms in the first century led to the Apostle ‘ s Creed in the second century. Of the many sects that came into being, only two have survived that have a credible claim to be successors to the apostles: Orthodoxy and the Catholic Church. I don’t think a lot about the Trinity or the two natures of Christ, either, but I stand with the Church that proclaims them, knowing that a century from now, that Church will still be proclaiming the Gospel.

  6. Comment by Namyriah on September 14, 2014 at 8:31 pm

    A lot of us stand with the Catholic church, we’re just happy to have dispensed with the “Roman” part back in 1517, sticking with Augustine’s belief that the visible institution and the invisible Catholic Church may overlap but are not the same. To be a Catholic is to believe what the apostles believed, which includes numerous saints who have been martyred by the RCs, the Orthodox, the Protestants, etc.

  7. Comment by FW Ken on September 14, 2014 at 9:37 pm

    My Episcopalian church history professor, teaching from a text written by a Baptist, taught me that to be a “Catholic” is defined by being in Communion with the Bishop of Rome. That’s thehistorical meaningof theteem.

    When I heard that, I realized that being Catholic want something intrinsically good, or rather, it wasn’t something that made me better. Certainly, I know, or know of, many Anglicans who inspire me and follow Christ with great fidelity. I think of Bp. Lawrence of South Carolina, other bishops, priests, and lay people who left the Episcopal Church. And some who stayed.

    I think of my Baptist step-father, who cared for a sick wife

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